Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Revolution of a cyclist: Why ride?

Some people think it’s great that I started riding a road bike at the tender age of 52. Probably a lot more are wondering why. It’s a reasonable question. It’s not easy to ride in the rolling hills of Tuscany. If I really, really get into it it could become expensive. It’s time consuming. It’s not convenient.

I could give you reasons that you’d believe but that would be lies. For instance, I could tell you that I do it because it’s healthy and will keep me younger and stronger longer than sitting around doing nothing. Those facts are true, but that’s not the reason I started. I could tell you that I started so that I could spend more time with my husband (the Cyclist) and have a better understanding of this sport that he is so passionate about. This would be only half true. I understand passion and don’t really need to participate to understand. We spend a little more time together riding, but not every ride so the total gain isn’t that big. I could tell you that I enjoy the thrill of competition and pushing my body to it’s limits. Baldfaced lie. I may be the only person on the road who rides just for fun…and the coffee and pastry. Personal bests, Queen of the hill, these things don’t matter to me. In fact, I barely keep track of how much I ride. My only goal is to arrive.

The absolute, honest to gosh truth is that for me riding represents freedom.

Imagine you didn’t have a car. Don’t panic! I said imagine. Your car is safely parked wherever you left it, just waiting for you climb in and go anywhere your little heart desires. But what if you didn’t have it? Your life would change significantly, even in a place where buses and trains were abundant.

Everything you do would be determined by how far you can walk. How much you can carry. How long it takes to walk there. If you take a bus, the schedule and the driver’s ability to actually maintain the schedule determine just how much you can do in a day. Your view of your surroundings is always seen through a cloud of dirty windows or your own sweaty brow and obscured by tall buildings.

Now imagine getting on a bike and riding out of town, something you’ve only been able to do on a train or bus, and those times are few and far between. Do you know what’s out there?

Every vista is like a National Geographic spread. Tiny roads through little villages. Quaint churches clinging to the sides of mountains. Water coming out of fountains dating from last week or last century, or even older. The heart of wine country, where vines strectch out in every direction and olive trees dot the mountainsides all the way to the horizon. Sheep with actual bells around their necks. And you truly see all this because you’re not zooming along at 70 km/hr on your way to stop #3 of 5 for the day.

It’s not just the spectacular views though. It’s also the joy of feeling, just for a little bit, like flying. The absolute joy of flying along the road (at the astonishing rate of 15 km/hr) with the wind in your face is nothing short of spectacular. If there is such a thing as reincarnation, I was a dog in the back of a pick up or a greyhound. You know, one of those dogs that runs just for the sheer joy of running. But it's more than this too.

The country is filled with aromas. Not just the ones we usually associate with country living. You don't just see the lavender along the road, you smell it. The smell of fresh cut grass or hay, the humidity of the river as it winds next to the road, the heavy aroma of roses along the walls, the scent of fresh cut wood (and the accompanying smell of the chain saw which always makes me think of a boat on a lake), the smoke from someones burning brush pile, the sweet/sour smell of coffee and pastry wafting out the door of a cafe bar, the smell of grilling meat just as your body decides it's not just hungry, it's hungry. 

A ride in the country is experienced with all my senses. I'm already amazed and inspired by the place I live in, but when I ride I feel alive to the very tips of my fingers and toes and to the deepest part of my soul. All I have to do is get on the bike and pedal. This is why I ride.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Haves and have-nots

I know I recently proclaimed for all to hear that I was officially retired from babysitting when the Zurek family left for the States. I had plans to make other plans for life after the Zureks. I can't be trusted.

I got a random phone call one day last week. It was a hotel that I didn't recognize and the woman calling said that they'd gone through most of their list of babysitters but it was August (which if you live here you know that everyone who can flee the city for the beach or the mountains does so) and I was the only one left on the list. A little disheartening to know that I was the rock bottom of a list. On the other hand, I had no idea how I even made the list to begin with. I later discovered that I had met the manager over a year ago. He cycles with my husband. (Doesn't everyone?)

We started our own business last year and as new start ups tend to be, business was a little slow this year. I quoted an outrageous price kind of hoping they'd decide it wasn't worth it, but they said price was no issue. So I caved and agreed to babysit an eight year old boy who spoke English for two days. I got off the phone and kind of kicked myself a bit for doing something I said I wouldn't, then remembered how much I enjoy eating and decided a few more days of babysitting wouldn't ruin my eventual plans to become a grown up. Besides, it was a five star hotel.....I had high hopes for a swimming pool and good food.

I packed my bag (without having any clue what he liked to do or what would be available to me) with a swimsuit (wishful thinking), colored pencils and chewing gum. I knew where the closest playgrounds were. I wore clothes appropriate for running, climbing and generally getting dirty in. I was totally prepared.

I got to the hotel and had the desk ring the room. She said they were coming down to meet me in the lobby. Hmmm. OK. The elevator opened and out stepped a young girl and boy. They introduced themselves and said that they were supposed to wait with me for their mom.

We waited. And waited some more. The girl got a phone call, turned to me and said "Now we are going shopping," and started walking out the gate.

Hmmm, again. But she had the boy I was supposed to be watching with her so I followed and tried to find out from her exactly what it was I was supposed to be doing here.

Turns out I wasn't babysitting your typical rough and tumble eight year old boy but a boy who can shop better than most of the women I know. And his sister is better than he is. Add to this a credit card with (apparently) no limit and the only thing that slowed them down was how much I could carry.

I was their camel. Interpreter (ha jokes on them, I still don't understand much, and no one understands me). Guide to the stores they wanted to buy from. Someone to make sure they didn't get lost or have to carry their own stuff or find their own taxi.

"Now Michele, we will go to Prada." (Is now the right time to point out that I was slightly under-dressed for this kind of shopping?)

In between statements like the above I did manage to get  some information out of her. She's fourteen and goes to an English school in the country she's from, which has a lot of sand and oil. Probably in equal amounts. Her brother goes to the same school and loves soccer. Her home town is too traditional. Most of her friends spend the summers in England so she's been bored this summer.

Prices seemed to mean little to them, as long as they had the cash in her purse to buy it. If not we found the nearest ATM. Why not just use the credit card? I have a theory that using cash meant she could buy things that her parents might not approve of.

Halfway through the day we finally met up with the mother and their aunt, who co-opted me to be their shopping companion as well. Thankfully they had an Italian man hired to carry packages so I could focus on running after whichever child she wanted me to follow into a store, or to force the clerks at a store to help her faster.

Speedy service seemed to be the priority for the whole group. They wanted to order as soon as they sat down in a restaurant (of course they always ordered the same thing so they didn't need to look at a menu), couldn't understand why the food didn't arrive within 3 minutes of ordering, and made me ask for the check before we finished eating our food. They asked clerks to look for different sizes or colors, then didn't understand why they were walking away from them. Once they had assembled a pile of things to buy they would approve each item before it was rung up discarding about half the pile as no longer desirable.

It was a clash of cultures. My Midwestern need to be nice and helpful. The Italian need to make this moment absolutely perfect,  no matter how long that might take. And I'm going to call it the family's culture of wealth (and not necessarily where they were from) that made them expect that everything would appear before them as they thought about it. They seemed annoyed by having to actually put their thoughts into words.

At one point the girl turned to me and said, "She (her Auntie) says to take us to the statue of the man standing."

Pause for what felt like 5 minutes of absolute silence while I tried to construct an appropriate response to a ridiculous request. It was probably only 5 seconds. I'm pretty quick on my feet.

Florence is a treasure trove of outdoor statuary. As we would say in Minnesota, you can't swing a dead cat without hitting a statue in Florence. A male statue, probably 75% of the time. I could take them to any one of a dozen statues, but chances are it wouldn't be the right one.

I tried to ask a few questions, you know, to narrow the search down a little bit. After two questions she interrupted me and said to just take them to the Savoy, our unofficial base of operations for the two days I was with them. Unofficial in that we never once set foot in the lobby and they weren't staying there. We just ended up using that as a point of reference and luckily everything is walking distance from the Savoy.

I wish I could describe better just how surreal those two days were. I couldn't understand how these children could have so much freedom to spend. There was no filter whatsoever. I want, therefore I buy. She wanted to go to a pet shop, a visit I managed to avoid the entire trip. She wanted to bring a puppy home and thought it was a reasonable idea. At one point he absolutely had to have dumbbells so they bought them. They are taking sand-filled dumbbells back to a country made entirely of sand. How's that for irony? Of course I'm the one who had to carry 6 kilos of sand around Florence for half a day, not any of them. I was also amazed that their mother had no trouble sending them off with me into a strange city without even meeting me (I met her twice and spent no real time with her, I held as much interest for her as a chair. Less actually, she could buy a chair. I was rented.)

When I saw the tags on their luggage I understood a little better. The mother isn't a Mrs or a Ms, she's a princess. Whether she's a Princess or only a minor princess I don't know. I'm sure to her it doesn't matter. Royalty will always be royalty. But it does explain (but doesn't excuse) their attitude and behavior. It also explains her eye roll and statement (when there were throngs of tourists camped outside the Savoy waiting for someone important to arrive) that they were only "Malaysian royalty, not Madonna or anyone important."

As my Grandpa used to say...it takes all kinds.