Monday, May 27, 2013

Revolution of a cyclist: I'm assuming someday I'll graduate from new rider to experienced rider, but not with moves like this

It's been yucky here. Not Minnesota yucky with freezing temperatures or snow, but there has been lots of rain and it is decidedly cool. Some (OK, Italians) might even say cold. Scarves are not merely decorative right now, they're necessary. Umbrellas are routinely carried "just in case." For heavens sake, I've taken to wearing long pants again. This is just wrong.

So when we got up this morning we watched the sky with a certain amount of distrust. It looked nice enough but we could see clouds near the hills doing their best to become organized and make rain. Around 3pm we decided that if it was going to rain it would have already happened so we headed out for a ride to beautiful pastry. Where else would we ride to?

Beautiful pastry to the west involves riding all the way across town, mostly through traffic that would make my mother faint. (I promise you there are times I actually hear her voice "Look out for that car!" and "Don't get so close!") I usually arrive on the other side feeling like I should cross myself and say a Hail Mary or two or maybe throw out a loud and Evangelical "Praise Jesus!" but I stick with the very Lutheran "It could have been worse," and keep moving.

Aside from the usual cars trying to turn right in front of me, back into me or generally force me to react to their inferior driving I had one experience that I feel I must share. I mean, this is a classic new rider mistake. I think. I find it hard to believe that I could come up with something completely new.

Hydration is important when exercising. Ask anyone. So we have spiffy water bottles that sit in wire holders attached to the bike so there's absolutely no excuse for becoming dehydrated. Unless of course you're as uncoordinated as I am. Because, and here's the kicker, you don't stop the bike and drink. Oh drink on the move.

Oh sure, I hear you all saying "How hard can it be?" That's a good question. Imagine you're sitting on the edge of a bar stool (I think this is a universal experience) with one leg just a little shorter than the others (not your leg, the stool's.) Instead of keeping your drink on the bar you have a cup holder on the stool between your ankles. In fact, the bar is gone and the stool is on wheels. You have to balance on your stool, steering to avoid all the other stools weaving around the bar and keep moving so the stools behind you don't rear end you but of course and most importantly you must continue to drink. Holding the glass is prohibited and quite frankly dangerous. Steering with one hand is difficult, shifting is impossible, braking is a nightmare and all the other people in the bar will make fun of you. (trust me, they will)

This was me today. At first I thought I was golden. No traffic on a tiny road in the middle of by God nowhere. So I cautiously felt for the bottle somewhere around my ankles. Looking down is dangerous because then you miss important stuff like potholes and cars and such that throw themselves in front of you. Which is exactly what happened. I was in the middle of taking a drink on what was mere seconds ago an empty road when suddenly there were cars parked on one side and a car coming at us on the other side and Leif threading the needle between them. I guess I was supposed to follow.

About five different solutions occurred to me in the two seconds I had before I hit something. Because threading the needle is something I do poorly.

1. Scream and hope that everything moves so I live to ride another day.
2. Scream and drop the water bottle, allowing me to use both hands.
3. Scream, hold the water bottle and attempt to brake with one hand.
4. Scream, drop water bottle and try to get my feet out of the clips so I can do a Fred Flintstone stop.
5. Scream and stab at the bottle holder with the bottle, hoping to get it in before crashing into the rear of the parked car.

I chose number five. I don't know why. Dropping the bottle so I could safely brake makes the most sense, but if I've learned anything about myself during this lifetime it's that I lack a fully developed sensibility and it completely abandons me in times of stress. On a good day what makes sense to you and what makes sense to me are probably worlds apart. When I'm stressed the distance stretches into infinity.

I guess the only good news in this is that I grew up in a time when everyone learned how to control a spin, whether it was on ice or on the school parking lot. Granted a car and a bike are two completely different vehicles, but I was certainly hoping that the results would be the same.  Instinct kicked in as I braked wayyyyyyy too hard and the rear end started to come around. I assume (the whole things is a fuzzy blur in my memory) that I steered into the skid and missed the bumper of the parked car by milometers. I mean, I know I missed it because I have no bruises and the bike appears to be whole. Leif just told me he doesn't even remember this happening. Apparently my blood-curdling scream was more of a whimper. In fact the whole episode lasted only a few seconds and I never actually stopped, I just veered around the parked car, quickly straightened out to miss the moving car and tried not to ride up Leif's back tire.

I spent the next couple of minutes talking myself out of a heart attack. I rode with one eye on my chest, convinced that I could actually see my heart pounding. Once I could breathe normally again I started feeling pretty pleased with myself for not only missing the car but safely stowing the water bottle before all hell broke loose. Yup, I was thinking I rocked. Then I realized that chances are this is going to happen again. Probably more than once, and maybe I should have a plan. Or at least practice getting that darn bottle in and out of the holder while blind.

Of course I could always try using a really long crazy straw instead of lifting the bottle all the time, but I'm sure that idea will be met with the same enthusiasm as my hope that I could have streamers on my bike. Or the helmet with the bunny ears. Cyclists (the ones with a capital "C") don't have much of a sense of humor about things like that.

Friday, May 24, 2013

I went to a garden party

It's becoming obvious to me that I need to schedule time to write if I'm going to be working as much as I have been. So much happens, some of it is even quite interesting, and by the time I get around to writing about it well...some of the excitement is gone. I hate that. I think my plan will be to get a nap in every day so that I can stay awake later at night and get some writing done. As with all plans, I'm sure this will change but for now I'm going to try it.

I really wanted to talk about last Saturday, because it was one of those days that started one direction and then ended up completely different. And completely wonderful.

Originally I had planned to ride a tour with Leif that day.  Another group of Swedes were visiting Florence and we were going to take them up the mountain for food and wine at Torre A Cona. I accidentally took a babysitting job that day. I blame this on the fact that I don't have a smart phone with access to my calendar at all times, and I get requests in SMS at weird times like grocery shopping and such. I suppose another part of the blame could be placed squarely on my aging memory, but let's not go there. Leif was disappointed but understood. It was a small group so he could handle it, it's just more fun with me. His words, not mine.

Friday evening Leif got an e-mail from someone  who wanted to ride with the team on Saturday (who wasn't a team member) but didn't know where they were meeting. He was wondering if he could ride with Leif to the meeting point. Well, obviously Leif wasn't riding with the team, but I said since I wasn't working till later I could get him to the meeting point and just come back to town. This, my friends, is that thing called Minnesota Nice. We go out of our way for complete strangers because we've been taught that it's the right thing to do. A concept unknown and completely baffling to Italians. But anyway, that's what the plan was as of breakfast on Saturday morning.

So I met this complete stranger whose name is Feargal and we rode to the meeting point. I'm not sure when, but at some point I got a text from the mom I was working for that day that she didn't need me and if I could still go with Leif that I should. I thanked her kindly and put it out off my mind. I mean, what were the chances that I'd get this guy out to the meeting point (a 40 minute ride away) and back before Leif left with his tour?

Apparently the chances were pretty good. I got back to town a half hour before he was scheduled to leave, so I met him and the group at the bike shop and we rode up the mountain together. It was another group of 18 year olds from the cooking/hotel school. I have to say the teacher has really loosened up since last year and she can ride better up hill and actually picks up some speed going down hill. I wasn't as patient as I could have been with the girl who had trouble climbing because of her asthma. The pack of cigarettes tucked into her bra didn't do much to help her cause with me.

I did find out one interesting thing. One of the girls had chewing tobacco. I have to assume it's becoming cool again. Tragic. Anyway, I heard her talking about it in Swedish and just had to ask her about it after lunch. I asked what it was called in Swedish and she said it was snus. How funny is that? Every old farmer in Minnesota (regardless of their country of origin) calls it snus. I am always surprised by how certain words or customs permeate midwestern culture. I also learned a new way to make lasagna with bread and some of my favorite cheeses here. Tuscans will put bread in anything. Wasting nothing, they've created tons of recipes that include old bread. And it tastes good, not at all like old bread.

We got home in time to shower and get ready for a party. A garden party thrown by one of my moms who I guess felt very progressive inviting her babysitter to a social event. I didn't really care though. Great wine and food on a beautiful Italian evening sounded perfect to me. And it was. OK, too much prosecco but honestly it's pretty hard to gauge how much I'm drinking when there are a dozen bottles on ice and random men keep filling my glass for me. We were probably the only people who arrived on bicycle. I'm sure the rest took taxis so they wouldn't have to walk too far in their 4 inch stilettos or ruin their hair.

Speaking of hair, I actually spent some time curling mine for the evening. I don't know why, just one of those things that I decided I should do once while I'm here. I mean, someone gave me a curling iron so I had that here and there was time. I felt very glamorous, even after the bike ride (with helmet) to the party.

Ready to head out to the party.

I was devastated to learn that this 30-something mom had no idea what I was talking about when I told her that I'd had the song "Garden Party" stuck in my head all week. How is it even possible that she doesn't know Ricky Nelson or that song? Am I seriously that old? On second thought, don't answer that.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Revolution of a cyclist: How much excitement is too much?

It was quite a ride today. Not far, few climbs and not even really fast. What made it quite a ride was all the excitement en route.

We left under a gray, but not threatening sky (in my opinion) and headed for Rufina. As we headed out of town a car overtook us, only to make a quick right turn directly in front of Leif. Let's just say his Italian hand gestures are coming along nicely.

As we sped along we rode over a small section of the road that had been repaired and as we did a truck went by and kind of blew me to the side of the road, where my wheels caught the edge of the repair and skidded along for what felt like miles and was probably less than a meter. I spent the next couple of kilometers nervously checking my tires every five seconds to be sure I didn't have a flat.

A little farther along, a sharp report, much like a shot, rang out as a truck passed us. First I thought it was one of my tires, then my imagination went nuts and I thought what if we both got a flat tire....just how many spare tubes do we have between us? Then, since neither of us spun madly out of control I thought someone shot at us. Those who know some of my history can understand my mistake there. Anyway, then Leif yelled back at me that it was just a backfire. It took several minutes for my heart to stop pounding.

As we approached San Francesco it started to sprinkle. After a brief while-in-motion discussion we decided to head home to avoid getting really wet. Naturally a kilometer down the road the rain stopped but we kept heading home anyway. Can't trust the weather here.

We took a different road home. I guess he figured if we couldn't ride as far as we wanted to we could at least get some climbing in. (yay.....?) A crew was doing some ditch work and one of the brighter guys there was using a weed whip....on gravel. I moved out into the middle of the road, hoping that would get me far enough away to avoid getting hit by anything. Suddenly I heard a metallic ping followed almost instantly by a sharp pain on the inside of my right knee. I may have also let out a very loud and high pitched yelp. What are the odds of one stone missing me on the way through, then hitting one of the pipes on my bike and bouncing perfectly to hit my knee? Apparently pretty darn good. Leif wanted to stop and talk to the crew about basic safety, probably in a very loud voice. I just wanted to get home before I got seriously hurt.

We were just a few kilometers from home and I was feeling pretty confident when yet another car accelerated like hell to pass us just so he could do a quick stop and turn right. Seriously, this is a problem here. A problem no one seems to think is worth changing. Leif took it well. I was impressed. We then managed to get home with no further incidents and no more rain.

I would like to point out that I did all this during the allergy season. One that has me firmly in it's grip and attacks at the most inopportune times. Sneezing so hard and so much that I can hardly stand up; eyes so sensitive I can hardly open them. Riding on  a day when nothing exciting happens is still an adventure. Today was almost more excitement than I could take.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Working for a living

It was tough coming up with a title for this. What the hell is wrong with people? sounds too angry even if that's how I felt when I started this. I was confused and hurt and all things I shouldn't feel, so writing it all down seemed like a good way to work through my feelings.

As  you all know, or maybe you don't, I've spent the last year or so babysitting to earn money. Not a ton of money, mind you. Just a little bit of money. After all, this is work any self-respecting twelve year old in Minnesota does and I'd wager for probably more money than I make. In other words, enough to keep a girl in iTunes and nail polish and not much more. Here in Florence many of the babysitters are American girls with college degrees but interestingly enough, the money's still at the same iTunes and nail polish level. They're collecting experiences, not out to make a lot of money.

I've once again been asked to work for a family. Again they want to guarantee a certain number of hours every week. Also again, they want to pay me less because I'll have a steady income. It's the weirdest logic I've ever heard but I hear it a lot here, so they must not find it strange. I do find it strange, especially since the mother is American and completely familiar with how business is or at least should be conducted. However here in Italy a euro saved is one euro closer to those shoes or that car or whatever it is they think they must have besides quality care for their child. And everyone else is doing it, they're just following local customs. Whatever.

Deep breath. Sorry.

I'm a little upset not only about the money but about the final stipulation she put on my accepting the position. I have to give her priority over my other families because her schedule is always changing and so my schedule would have to change accordingly. Sometimes with less than 24 hours notice. "But," she said with a big smile, "you could work any evening you wanted for someone else!" Slight pause. "Unless I were to ask you to watch our son."

Yeah, go ahead. Think about that one for a little while. I did. I'll wait...

So if I'm understanding her correctly, and I think I am, in exchange for guaranteeing me 25 hours a week they want to hold my remaining hours hostage, just in case they need them. Oh.....and if I don't work all the hours in one week they'll just get pushed to the next. I think, but I'm not sure, that I'd have my weekends free but then again I can't assume anything. Once they've gotten me to agree to work they'll doubtless expand the definition of priority and mostly weekdays to the point where I won't be able to work  for anyone else unless I wanted to work late into the night.

But they've thrown that carrot out there...the idea of a steady income. Something to count on. It's the thing that my generation was brought up to understand as successful. People work crap hours in substandard conditions with co-workers from hell to be able to say they have a steady income. It's the stuff the modern American Dream is made of. I used to think it was the only way to live a responsible life.

But that's the thing about a steady job. For all it's security (and that's really up for debate as well, ask anyone who lost their job in the last recession) it robs me of any opportunity to become something more. It confines me to one set of circumstance.....this many hours, this much money, these certain benefits...and offers me little chance to improve my position.

No chance to keep my growing relationships with other families, relationships I've worked hard to foster and truly enjoy. My bike rides and drawing excursions would be limited by someone else's schedule. And then there's the biggest problem for me, no chance to work with Leif and grow our own business together.

I started writing this a day ago. The first part, relatively unedited, was written a few days after being offered this position and minutes after a power struggle between my two top clients which ended with me losing both jobs instead of landing one. I was angry and feeling used and pushed around, which is ridiculous because I'm the oldest one in the equation.

For anyone out there who knows me and has had reservations about Leif, you can put them away right now. He is my rock. He let me talk, rant and imagine my way into understanding that we were fine without my work last year and that no work is worth handing over my life tied up nicely with a bow for someone else to live for me. Work as much as I want to, sure, but keep my right to chose this thing or that thing. Never forget who I am and why I came here. Be complimented that so many people want my help in raising their children but don't let their pretty words blind me to the opportunities I'd be missing.

Hmm. guess I know what I'll be telling this mom and if the universe decides to punish me for refusing it's gift then so be it. I have millions of opportunities to try yet.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Revolution of a cyclist: When it rains you get wet

I haven't written about riding lately and don't want you to think that I'm not riding.....I'm just doing the same old route mostly by myself and I don't think even at my most creative  I can make it sound exciting and interesting. I haven't embarrassed myself, crashed into anything or gotten lost. Nothing has broken (I'm madly trying to find some wood to knock on...don't want to anger the irony gods). Let's not forget my mad dashes across town for work, they are also riding, but there again, they aren't really news-worthy.

I had the sincerest of plans to ride this weekend and make it something worth writing about. But things got in the way. Like rain. Like Leif working and he is my own personal Garmin. Like the Giro D'Italia finishing in Florence on Sunday. (I don't want to brag, but the finish is a block from my house.) Besides, my midwestern work ethic went into panic mode yesterday. Here I am with two whole days off and what am I going to do? Ride a bike?

Without going into details let's just say I didn't ride on Saturday and I was reasonably productive.

This morning I got up and looked out the window and thought "Drat, it looks nice out there. I should go for a ride." Leif was meeting his team and they were all riding up some impossible mountain (Consuma) to see this stage of the Giro outside of Florence. This was not my kind of ride. I kissed him and waved good-bye, then headed to the grocery store after putting the linens in the washing machine. I got back from shopping and put the sheets on the line to dry, because the sun was shining and it was quite beautiful.

I thought, since it was so nice out, that I should ride my city bike to the outdoor market at the big park on the other side of town. I found a place to lock my bike up close to the start of the market (sometimes this can be quite difficult) and started walking the stalls, which stretch for over a kilometer.

I looked at shoes and used clothes and new clothes. I considered handbags and pet supplies and rugs. I looked at lots more used clothes. You find the strangest and greatest things there.

Today I found a pair of winter cycling tights for Leif (his are  worn through in several places) at one stall. I was so amazed that I decided to spend some time there picking up every single piece of clothing to make sure I wasn't missing something else "cycling" that could be useful to me or Leif. Because these just aren't the kind of clothes you usually find for a couple of euro at the market.

All that looking netted me another pair of cycling shorts for Leif to wear for day tours. Sadly, even though I found a few pair women's shorts, they were far too small even when taking into consideration spandex's ability to stretch beyond the possible. Seriously, they looked too small for an eight year old girl, which I'm definitely not.

While I was there I got him a jean jacket to replace the one that he refuses to give up but is more holes than jacket anymore. It was pretty awesome.

So for the bargain price of 7 euro I got two pair of cycling pants and a jacket. It took several hours but I probably saved us a couple of hundred euro for things that had to be replaced anyway.

While I was looking through several hundred assorted sweat pants, jerseys, hoodies and other sports clothing the weather took a turn for the worse. Which usually isn't a problem here. I mean that it threatens rain often but doesn't always deliver actual rain. Today was an exception. As I finished paying for my great finds it started to rain and thunder started to rumble a bit. The closer I got to my bike the harder it came down, till I finally had to huddle under an awning pretending to be fascinated and on the brink of purchasing the ugliest plastic purse on the planet. I did this for the length of the market alternately showing great interest in belts, doggie beds, bras and men's underwear, and shoes.

Eventually I reached the end of the market. I could see my bike from the last stall with an awning, owned by a man who didn't even care if I looked at anything. He just wanted me to be dry....which would happen if only I'd buy an umbrella from his friend. Ha. Not this farm girl.

I put on the jacket I bought for Leif, put my purse into the plastic bag with the cycling pants, buckled my helmet under my chin and pushed my sunglasses firmly on my nose. I mean really, it wasn't raining that hard, we hadn't lost any visibility or anything like that. The lightening wasn't that close.

I rode past bicyclists huddled under trees, under awnings, in doorways and under loggias. People waiting for the bus crammed into storefronts turned their heads as one as I rode by. They all gave me the same look and their thoughts were pretty evident. What the hell are you doing? It's raining. Just pull over and wait for it to stop. It has to stop sometime. Crazy foreigner. It occurs to me now that they might have been less concerned about how wet I was than with how much they thought I was wearing. I had shorts on and the jacket covered them completely. Oh my. Nope, I'll stick with they think I'm nuts, not that they think I'm a nudist.

I'll admit that it might have made more sense to wait, but then again I was already soaked and waiting it out would just make me colder than I already was. So I just kept going, trying to time my approach to signal lights so that I didn't have to stop because I have to get off the seat (the bike is just a tad too big for me) and I didn't want to get my butt wet. Which is retrospect is pretty dumb, when the rest of you is wet they can't tell that your butt is wet too.

I felt something strange on my feet and when I looked I realized that my front tire had a wake and it was spraying my feet. The jacket is thick and incredibly absorbent denim that slowly became heavier and heavier as it gathered rainwater. My helmet didn't stop the water from running down my times I could feel the drops running over my eyeballs. I was kind of afraid of losing a contact so every once in awhile I'd whip the glasses off and gently wipe the soaked sleeve of the jacket across my eyes. It kind of helped.

Taxis passed me filled with dry passengers who either looked at me with great pity or great laughter; ditto for the buses although the bus passengers weren't all dry. I managed to get home without incident and squished up the stairs. I walked into the kitchen silently praying that the sheets I put on the line were dry. If the giant puddle in the middle of the floor was any indication then the answer was no. A thousand times, no.

I looked out the patio doors and watched the water running off the bottom of the sheets. I considered just running them through the centrifugal cycle and hanging them back up, but then realized that the rain had come down so fast and so hard that the gutter above our terrace overflowed and a century's worth of pigeon poop and other assorted city grime had washed all the clean water out of the sheets. So into the washer they went, with a double shot of detergent and boiling hot water. Of course once they come out of the washer they won't get dry anyway. It's still raining.