Thursday, November 6, 2014

Whaddya mean, I can't buy wine today?

This morning we got up and over breakfast (which thankfully we never have to make a decision about, it's always the same) we got to talking about lunch. We decided to make chicken noodle soup so I made my grocery list and headed off in the pouring rain for the store.

I wandered through the produce section picking up a variety of veggies for the soup, then headed around the corner for the dairy and sale wine section.

GASP!! For some as yet unknown reason there was caution tape crisscrossing the section of shelving that had the sale wines on it. I stared in frustration at a note (in Italian naturally, which increased the time it took to read it from 10 seconds to 5 minutes) stating that the city of Florence had decreed that today only they were unable to sell drinks (read alcoholic drinks) in glass or cans. Store employees avoided looking directly at me as I tried to process this tragic unexpected information. Already at 8:30 in the morning they must have had  to explain the logic of this city decision with mixed results....or perhaps not so mixed. Outrage. Frustration. But never acceptance. No....never.

Thinking that perhaps I misread the note (happens frequently) I rushed walked calmly to the real wine/beer/serious alcohol/salty snacks (cuz what's happy hour without snacks?) section where I found the same tape and notes. By the way, this is an entire aisle (both sides). I stood at the beginning of the aisle, speechless. Red and white tape stretched the length of the aisle, from top to bottom, occasionally punctuated by a bright white sheet of paper clearly stating that the city wouldn't allow them to sell drinks in glass or cans today.

I stood there, possibly with my mouth hanging open as I tried to understand at the unGodly hour of 8:30 am just why the city of Florence didn't want me to have wine. What had I done wrong? Better did they even know I'd done anything wrong enough to have my wine privileges removed? (Because of course the world revolves around me, right?)

Then I remembered that there is a concert tonight at the stadium. Which shouldn't matter but apparently does. So on the way home (it's a 20 minute walk) I tried to figure out what exactly the city of Florence thought they were preventing when they stopped sale of wine at 8:30 in the morning?

Did they think everyone with a ticket to the concert woke up this morning and thought "Holy cow! The concert is today! I better get out there and buy something to sneak into the concert!" like they haven't been thinking about this day for weeks....even an Italian plans ahead  when it comes to alcohol.

Then I started to wonder why exactly they specified "glass or cans". Could I have brought in a goat skin to have filled up? If I bought a bottle and and emptied it into a massive American insulated "go cup" leaving the bottle at the store would that fulfill the letter of this insane law? Only later (sadly, much later, and Leif had to explain it) I realized that they do sell wine in boxes, sort of adult juice boxes. Not good wine. Not the wine I wanted, which is slightly bubbly, not too sweet not too dry and perfect for chicken noodle soup. But apparently the non-breakable, semi-biodegradable properties of the Tetrapak make it easier to pick up than glass or cans. I sort of get that. No, on second thought, I don't get it.

All anyone has to do is walk across the train tracks to buy drinks in any kind of container they please. Which I didn't because I have an attitude problem and discovered that the spumanti we already had in the fridge was a more than adequate substitute for the wine I wanted to buy. So I got wine with my lunch and no one had to die. Win-win.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Too many rather unexciting things to write about...

Wow. Time flies. Not too original a beginning, but truth is truth.

All kinds of things happen to me and I think "I have to write about this!" and then I get distracted (easier than you might think) and suddenly it's a week or more later and then it doesn't seem relevant and get the picture.

So I'm slowly going to catch up with all the things I had the must write thought about. Starting with our trip on Tuesday to Livorno (the seaside) with our friend Simone.

Simone is the husband of one of Leif's Swedish friends here in Florence. He travels for his work and sometimes when he's going somewhere interesting he invites us along. We don't have a car and so the opportunity to go places is really exciting. He drops us off somewhere central, goes off to do his thing and then picks us up again for lunch. He always takes us to the Italian version of the truck stop because he says they're more authentic. He's right. These are restaurants that cater to working people and the food is typical to the region and plentiful.

He took us to one of these on Tuesday after our very windy tour of downtown Livorno, which features a fortress turned into a city park, numerous statuary attempting to look dignified while covered in pigeons and seagulls, and the harbor itself with water stretching into infinity.

The restaurant is sort of the Cheers of suburban Livorno. Every time someone walked in the waiters threw up their hands and exclaimed loudly "insert name here! Welcome back!" Well, not for us of course, but Simone and everyone else totally got that kind of welcome.

The room was set up with long tables that everyone shared. We managed to snag one of the few tables for 4. The decibel level was pretty high, the waiters were sweating as they ran (really) back and forth while shouting questions at the customers and orders at the kitchen. The menu was posted on a chalkboard on the wall. One flat price for a first dish, second dish, side and dolce. Extra for house wine.

They specialized in seafood so that's what we had. Pasta with seafood and for a second mixed fried things. It's always an adventure to order something al mare or misto because not only is there a great variety of seafood put into these dishes, but the degree to which they are cleaned is often far less than I'm comfortable with. Remember, I grew up in Minnesota where shrimp are little pink crescents that come hermetically sealed in plastic from the freezer. I don't believe an octopus crossed the state line until a few years ago.

The shrimp were slightly breaded and fried but still wearing their skins, legs, antennae and eyes. Wow. The little fishes were simply gutted, then fried so they had a lot of extra stuff like fins and yes, eyes. One was a pretty reddish gold color. Simone looked at it and said that they were very good, that they come from aquariums. I looked at Leif (I'm sure my eyes were as big as the plate) and said "I just ate a goldfish?" Once I was over the shock of it all I had to agree it was pretty good, but still. A goldfish. Bleh. I won't even go into how ugly the baby octopus are once they've been fried. The calamari was the least shocking part of the whole fritto misto experience. It was also the least tasty. Nuff said.

While the chaotic dining room was a fantastic dip into the experience that is Italian family style dining, the relative calm of the cafe bar at the front was just as exciting for me. The barista, whose name was Barbara, was making these very interesting coffees and I couldn't stop watching her make them. And it seems that the other customers (regulars, I'm thinking) couldn't stop watching me watch her. I was mesmerized. One of the men sitting behind us asked if I wanted one, that I should have one. In fact, he'd have one with me if it would make me feel better. So of course I said yes.

Barbara carefully showed me each step in making this drink (because naturally I have a big ol' espresso maker at home) and explained as she went along. First the sugar in the bottom of the shot glass. Lots of sugar, like a packet and a half. Then a small slice of lemon peel. Yes, peel. Then fill the glass halfway with with the Ponce alla Livornese which is a pretty strong liqueur then she steamed that a little bit (to 40C. Leif actually asked) before adding espresso to the whole lovely mixture.

It's a drink that packs a bit of a punch (pun intended) and definitely should be had only when there's an opportunity for a nap or at least a little quiet time while you pull yourself back together. But according to everyone in the bar this was an experience I should have, totally unique to their region, and they were right. Our trip would have been outstanding without the punch, but it became unforgettable once I enjoyed my Ponce alla Livornese with the guys at the bar.

The name of the restaurant? I don't know if I should share this little gem with the world, then again, you'd have to know your way around town to find it. I could never find it again. It's called Il Deserto and it's on a one way road heading out of town. Whether that town is actually Livorno or a suburb I don't really know.

I actually went online and found the place. Here's a link to their Facebook page. Enjoy!

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Happy anniversary to us!

Ok, it may very well be true that we celebrate too many milestones. But we don't want to forget just how wonderful this life is. So we celebrate the big and the little. Although, to be honest, those are in fact very subjective terms. What's big to you may seem small to me, and vice versa.

But today, by just about anyone's standards, is a day to celebrate. It's the day I arrived in Italy, two stuffed suitcases in tow, and handed my heart to the handsome man wearing his best suit who met me at the airport. Every doubt and fear I had imagined during the (eternal) flight here disappeared when I looked in his eyes.

He has cared for my heart better than even I can do, certainly better than any other man has. He feels the same as I do, that this day wasn't an end to waiting but a beginning of living.

It is truly a day to celebrate. So today, take a moment to thank the universe for being kind; for allowing kindred souls to find each other regardless of distance, language or culture; for nurturing love wherever it grows. Then ask the universe for your hearts desire. It works.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Finding my tribe

I'd like to tell you that all kinds of exciting things have happened to me lately. Exotic, vacation-like happenings under sunny skies in idyllic locations accompanied by a string quartet and photographed by a professional.

The truth is a little less exciting. I cycle most days, which I know for many people is in fact an activity reserved for weekends and vacations, but for me is just another day. Yesterday I rode in the rain. The setting was quite pretty, but when the cold wind is blowing rainwater into places that prefer to be warm and/or dry it's hard to truly appreciate the scenery. When alone I sing to myself, which probably sounds like a string quartet being tortured. My phone takes crappy pictures, which doesn't stop me from taking them or sharing them but they aren't really frame worthy and National Geographic won't be calling me anytime soon begging me to do a feature on Tuscany. Too bad for them.

But that doesn't mean life isn't exciting. Along with all the cycling, eating and wine drinking I've been doing there was a momentous occasion.

Last week I met a new friend.

Yes, that last statement required it's own paragraph, because friendships are hard to come by. I live in a city divided. There are The Italians, who are a tight-knit group of people staunchly trying to maintain a lifestyle while being completely over-run by The Tourists, who race around town taking pictures of laundry and food in their quest to "really experience Tuscany" and are being mocked by The Ex-pats, who are in Italy anywhere from a semester to an eternity and are too intellectual or cool to show how absolutely floored they are to be here.

I've never been cool. I'm not Italian. I'm not a tourist. I kind of orbit around all these groups connecting when I can. The rest of the time I amuse myself with things that don't require others. Reading, writing, drawing, walking around town or cycling around the countryside. Trying to figure out what I want to be when I grow up. If growing up is a given or merely an alternative. But that's a story for another day.

So, meeting a woman who doesn't fit neatly into these categories, is close to my own age and has many of the same likes and dislikes as I do was surprising and refreshing and serendipitous. Lately I've been thinking about the fact that when I left Minnesota I left behind my tribe. My apologies to the people who hate that term. That small group of women who I had instant access to and shared many of my same thoughts and feelings and desires, or if they didn't share them tried honestly to appreciate and understand my viewpoint, were suddenly thousands of miles and seven hours behind me. Since they were a relatively new addition to my life, I didn't think I'd miss that experience too much, but I was wrong. In part because after four years here I'm still kind of in a state of becoming.

Here, as an American, I spend a lot of time explaining other Americans or American culture or (yikes) politics to other people. I never just get to be American. When I am it's like I'm some kind of entertaining sideshow. So I'm a little of myself, and a little Italian and a little Swedish. But not so much of any one culture as to offend the others. Believe me when I say that no matter how much another culture might idolize the American dream, when you're sitting at their kitchen table they prefer you to be a little less American even as they ask you a million questions about being American.

Other Americans want to know why I came here, mostly so they can tell me why their position, ideas and inspirations are more lofty than mine. (one woman had the audacity to ask me why I came here, then told me my answer was wrong. "Can't you come up with a better way to phrase it?" Um, no.) We're so different we might as well come from different countries. But always, with everyone, I am first an American and then any other attributes they feel comfortable with.

So to meet someone who didn't immediately try to make me feel pitiful or angry or quaint was very nice. Someone who views me as another woman, not a specific nationality. I'm looking forward to a friendship unhampered by reciprocal invitations and hostess gifts and polite conversation, and instead fueled by shared passions for cycling, men who cycle, food and wine and living in the moment, wherever that moment might be. My tribe is shaping up nicely.

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 takes all kinds.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Writing again

The other day I got a lovely e-mail from a friend who (quite rightly) asked, "Did you stop writing your blog, or am I just not being notified?"

Excellent question. My not-so-excellent answer is that I still have my blog, but I haven't been writing in it lately.

There are reasons why. Laziness doesn't top the list, but definitely makes the top ten. Possibly the top five. To be absolutely honest (and why not? I'm not likely to see most of you on the street where you can publicly and profoundly snub me) I started to think that my life wasn't as exotic as it once was and could in no way compete with the lives I see on Facebook.

My food never looks as yummy as yours, my selfies make me look like Alfred Hitchcock except I have like ten more chins than he had, my friends aren't outrageously outgoing when a camera comes out, and while I live in a beautiful setting often one hill looks much like another. I  felt like I didn't have anything of real substance to share. But it is on my mind. I frequently write blog posts (in my head) while riding. They're lyrical compositions on important topics and when I get home I can't even remember what they were supposed to be about, much less reconstruct even one beautiful sentence. Totally frustrating.

Then came the e-mail asking if I still wrote my blog and I realized that every life looks kind of boring from the inside; even the most exotic and romantic life, when repeated day after day, begins to feel commonplace. I also realized that if I was using Facebook as a benchmark for how great my life was I was pitting my actual life against everyone's fantasy life. Tilting at windmills is something I gave up several decades ago.

So I'm re-entering the blogosphere today because last week my life here changed significantly. The family I had been babysitting for for the last almost two years returned to the United States. It was difficult for me. I've watched the kids grow up. I was trusted to participate in raising them. It was hard to see them go.

But that's not even what I want to write about today. Eventually I'll get to the point. This family had lived in a space large enough for them to accumulate stuff and when the time came to leave they had to get rid of some things because to take it all back would have been expensive. Also anything that plugged into the wall would be useless in the States. So they began gifting their friends with everything that didn't make the cut to be boxed up and sent to the US.

One day the Mom came up to me and said "I know you guys like to be nomadic and all, but there are a few things I think you really should have." I hadn't actually thought of myself as nomadic, but kind of like the description. I do lack a camel, which in my mind is part and parcel of a nomadic life, but we try to be very discerning in what things we bring into our small space. She had been very thoughtful in what she offered and I really will enjoy using the things she sent home with me.

One of the last days (and this is the point of this very long story) she said that she had put together a bag for me to take home. Just a bag with a few useful little things in it and one thing I didn't need but absolutely wanted. We spent the morning rescuing the bag from the clutches of the movers and putting it somewhere else so it wouldn't end up securely taped into box #289 (of over 400) to send to the States.

It was bound to happen. I lost the bag somewhere in this huge apartment that was filled with boxes and bubble-wrapped furniture and I got mad. I was furious at the movers for taking MY bag, not respecting MY things, and I mourned the loss of a beautiful but unnecessary thing that I had owned for all of an hour. I hadn't even hit full anger before I realized what was happening and my anger disappeared.

I felt ashamed. Embarrassed. Ridiculous. I felt about two years old. I have spent the last almost four years living with less. It's been a very liberating experience to live as well as we do on so little. I admit to being just a little proud of the fact that we can be happy living simply, and getting so mad about such a trivial object felt like such a failure. I'm trying to set an example by living simply and sharing that experience with others and when the chips are down I totally cave. Even though I was alone I felt like there were a thousand eyes watching me while I tried to deal with my feelings.

But it can be hard sometimes to see others with so much and not want just a little for myself. It would be impossible to avoid the influence of the media and friends. But having survived living with a hoarder I know how senseless, useless and unfulfilling having more for the sake of having more can be. It's taken me a few days to work this through in my mind. I've come to the conclusion that the occasional I want thought is OK. I don't have to fulfill the want, that's my choice. Having that I want thought helps me to always know the difference between I want and I need. And the occasional I want solely because I want, as long as it doesn't break the bank, is OK too.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Revolution of a cyclist: A letter to my daughter

Dear Daughter,

There are a few things you should know if you're going to be involved with a Cyclist. Some of these are obvious and others will sneak up on you.

He will love it that you want to ride with him. He will do and buy anything necessary to get you out there on the bike.

Once you've gotten used to it he'll start to introduce fun things like climbs that feel like Mount Everest. But he'll say supportive stuff like "you're totally ready for this, I've been watching you" and then you feel like a heel for accusing him of trying to kill you.

You will eat massive amounts of everything, enjoy every last bite and still lose weight. Insist on a coffee and pastry or ice cream stop somewhere in the middle of the ride. You've earned it.

You will have more water bottles than water glasses in your kitchen cupboard...and in fact will sometimes have difficulty drinking from a regular glass. Guests might be a little alarmed when you pull a bottle out of the fridge and squirt water into their glass, but just explain calmly that you wash them carefully.

If you don't have a garage there will be bikes in the house, because you can't just leave those things outside! (this is usually said with a shocked look) It will take some time, but eventually you'll figure out just how much you can hang or place on which bike without bringing down the wrath of the Cyclist. (hint: drying cycle clothing ON the bikes is tolerated) There will be extra tires and tubes hanging on door knobs and tools close by. No doubt there will be a few extra front wheels because those clever companies only sell them in sets, knowing full well that the rear wheels die months if not years before the front. A clever girl (and I know you are) might find a way to create some kind of wall art with them. It keeps them off the floor.

There will be as many kits and accessory gear (they cringe when you call it spandex or even worse...outfits) in your house as regular clothes. No doubt there will be a dedicated closet or dresser for cycling gear. Insist on your own drawer.

In fact (I can say this because this was my experience on Sunday) you'll suddenly find yourself thrilled to have found a pair of Pearl Izumi 3/4 length pants for super cheap and an even better deal on a Pissei jersey and consider it money well spent, even though your street clothes are wearing and washing away at an alarming rate. I would pass up a great pair of boots for a really well made (and good looking) jersey and shorts. I'm shocked at this change in attitude.

There are several signs to let you know when your transformation from regular person (ie cyclist) to Cyclist is complete. For instance when you start planning your schedule around your rides instead of the other way around. Or when you discover that the majority of your friends ride as well.

Suddenly you'll find yourself looking at the world a little differently. A prime example would be Sunday when I was surrounded by incredibly fit men wearing Lycra and what was I looking at? Their bikes. (this still makes me shake my head in disbelief)

And so pumpkin, it's OK to be seduced by the awesome downhill, just remember that to get to it there's probably a killer climb. But it's totally worth it.


PS I've included a picture of my cycling guardian angel. Yes, I have more than one. My regular angel didn't feel up to the challenge. You're related to me, so I expect that you'll require the same kind of help. I say that with great love....


Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Revolution of a cyclist: Death by bicycle

Here we are at last, riding again. I took some time off; a month in Sweden and then lollygagging around Florence trying to get rid of a persistent cough. I've been slowly getting back on the bike.

On Sunday Leif said it was "my day" because on Saturday, International Womens Day, we were busy volunteering at a children's carnival. I suggested a ride to Greve, because the weather was supposed to be beautiful and I haven't been there since the New Year. And (this is important to note) it's pretty much a flat ride, with only a couple of manageable hills. My body may be willing but my lungs are still a little weak.

Leif suggested a more scenic route than the one we usually do. You'd think I'd learn, I've been with him long enough to distrust this sort of statement casually thrown out with a come-hither smile and sideways glance. He oozes charm when planning a ride that will push me a bit.

He sort of has his own language. One that tends to gloss over the less desirable parts and sugar coats everything so that every ride sounds like a spin around the park complete with balloons and cotton candy and little cartoon birds chirping merrily. Sunday's argument was reinforced by the fact that the usual route has a section of road riddled with potholes that even mountain bikes struggle to manage, along with traffic that would make my mother's hair stand on end. (hope she's not reading this) Taking that into consideration I agreed to ride the scenic route. And lived to tell the story.

I didn't help my cause much I guess when I mentioned that I'd like to take some pictures to show friends and to promote our business. Those kind of pictures, the ones that inspire people to want to ride here, don't happen at the bottom of the mountain.

But I didn't think of that when we started out. He waited till we were close to the start of the major climb before saying (again casually, as if he hardly need mention it) that we would be climbing for quite a while so take a drink and get in the right gear. Quite awhile translates into about 40 minutes of climbing. For the first little bit I actually did notice the scenery. He's right, it's quite beautiful. But then gravity doubled and my lung capacity felt like it was cut in half and I couldn't tell you what any part of the climb looked like after that.

Sometimes singing helps me to get a rhythm so I tried to remember a song, any song, to sing inside my head. Singing out loud would be impossible as I was saving all my breath to keep from passing out. The only song I could think of was Funiculi, Funicula (which was originally an advertising song for a hillside tram in Naples) so over and over again, whether ironically or in prayer to a higher power to make one appear, the song played inside my head.

Somewhere after gravity started working overtime and the final "last hill" I decided that maybe he was trying to kill me. I know, we're sooooo in love, but don't all those women in movies think their man loves them too much to hurt them, and then hurts them bad? I'm sure the lack of oxygen (both from my exertion and the fact that we were getting into thin air territory) didn't help. It wasn't too hard to convince myself that it was possible, and that it was a totally brilliant plan. Death by bicycle. Impossible to pin on him. I got on the bike of my own free will. There wouldn't be a mark on my body except for the bruises to be expected from the inevitable fall when I lost consciousness. See? Diabolically brilliant.

Then we were at the top, surrounded by views that most people only see in pictures. And he let me stop to take some of those pictures. Once I got my breath back I became rational again. I mentally apologized to him. Then said it out loud as well, just in case I accidentally spoke those thoughts out loud during the climb, although to be honest I can't imagine that I'd had enough breath to speak and ride at the same time.

The rest of the ride seems kind of anti-climactic compared to the beginning. The glorious downhill, the coffee and pastry (because I totally ran out of fuel early) and the mostly flat ride back were very enjoyable. And I think it's important to acknowledge at this point that Leif never suggests a ride that is beyond my capabilities, it's just that sometimes they're beyond where I'm comfortable but probably just what I need to become a better rider. I hate it when he's right.

It was too good to last, however. After narrowly escaping death by bicycle I was a little too relaxed. As we rode along a narrow road enclosed by high stone walls I had to swerve suddenly to avoid being hit by two large and heavy trash bags being pushed out a narrow doorway in the wall. Just my luck I would have lived through one attempt on my life only to be knocked off my bike into oncoming traffic by garbage. Thank goodness the man holding the trash bags saw me and pulled the bags back as I saw them out of the corner of my eye and swerved to avoid them. Another crisis averted. Thank God, because the headline Cyclist Critically Injured In Clash With Trash is not how I want to be remembered.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Remember me?

Remember me? Probably not. I  barely remember me some days. I'll forgive you if you'll forgive me.

It's been a strange winter. What should have been our off-season (down time, time to relax, etc) has turned into a planning frenzy for the coming year. I'm not complaining, mind you, it's just that the break in past years has been kind of nice. That moment to take a deep breath, let it all out, and comment that life certainly is good and where's the wine?

So quick recap.

We returned to Italy early in January just in time for Leif to head up to the Dolomites for a cross country ski event. I stayed home with the cold of the century. Luckily, an angel of a friend gave me a bottle of Nyquil out of her stash (it's not available here) and I've been using it sparingly hoping to make it last forever. Or at least till the cold of the century decides to release it's iron-like grip on my body. Because the cough remains. Annoying.

Leif left again in early February to attend a travel fair in Sweden. I stayed home nursing the cough, courtesy of the cold of the century. I think it rained the entire time he was gone. I didn't get bored though, because even though it was hard to go anywhere I had entertainment. I joined an online art project and kept myself busy doodling and painting and thinking creative thoughts. And coughing.

My son turned 29 in February. Funny, it didn't bother me at all to turn any of the milestone ages, but when your children start hitting those milestones it does make you stop and think about the time that's gone by. I've come to the conclusion that it's been a good life, and will continue to be fantastic. I'm lucky.

In late Februarty we headed up into the mountains north of Florence for another thrilling 10 days of watching dogs and cats. This time the weather was poor to awful the whole time. The electricity went out one day. The heat failed to reset after getting the electric back, but by the time we figured it out the 17th century stone farmhouse had cooled to the temperature of a dank cave and took two days to warm up again. Truth is, it never really warmed up. The owners had lowered the temperature in the boiler before they left assuming warmer weather was on the way so it really couldn't catch up. On the upside, my conversations with the housekeeper have gone beyond "Good morning" and "thank you". We can now discuss the weather! I also answered the phone a couple of times. I've had phone conversations entirely in Italian and we understood each other. At least I think so.....

One of the perks of staying at another persons house is that you have access to their books. Eight walls of books on every topic possible. Like a buffet of words. Granted, some of the words were Italian and some were Swedish, but there were also a lot of English books. I was in heaven. I read The Piano Tuner by Daniel Mason, A Man Without a Country by Kurt Vonnegut, The Hundred Secret Sensesi by Amy Tan, Nellie Taft by Carl Sferrazza Anthony, Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut, Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden and The City of Falling Angels by John Berendt. My head probably weighs more, I've put so many words into it lately. I actually would have read more, but it took me a couple of days to realize that I had all those books waiting for me. What a waste.

I've managed to get a few rides in. Well insulated from the cold and rain, and when that wasn't possible I did the grown up thing and stayed inside. The weather is improving steadily now, so I'm hoping to have more regular rides coming up. That 100k ride in June is fast approaching (for all you saying, what? That's months away! Time flies, you know) and I need to get in shape.

I think that brings us up to date. On Saturday the Swedes in Florence will be at the annual children's carnival event for Fat Tuesday (rescheduled  because of rain). We dress up like fierce Vikings and terrorize the crowd. It should be fun.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Three years later....

It's been awhile, hasn't it? No, I didn't fall off the face of the earth, all my fingers aren't broken and we have at least one working computer. I have no excuses except that I was too busy living to write. This takes time, you know.

I got an e-mail from a dear friend recently and she asked me a very pertinent and thoughtful question. She does that a lot. She asked me how we are managing this time when "the romance of geography wears off and eventually the romance of union gives way to the hard work of making your way in the world together." You can't get much more to the point and thoughtful than that.

There's just no short answer for this question. To say everything's fine or peachy or great just doesn't say enough.

She's every relationship (marriage or friendship or working, whatever) there is that honeymoon period. It's hard to remember that no matter how all-encompassing and deep that period may feel, it's really just dipping your toes into the pool. Everything is new and endearing and special. Add to that a geographical location that's pretty much eye candy and it's like being on a year long first date or like being on a never-ending vacation.

I can never forget that I'm in Italy. I'm here because my heart chose this place; not for a job or because I was born here...not even for a lover. Because this place called to me before I fell in love with a man. The romance of geography will recede a bit but I doubt it can ever go away completely. I can never be blase about it. Leif has the same respect for the country we live in. After all, he moved here years before I did simply because it called to him too.

That doesn't mean it doesn't drive us crazy sometimes, that we don't wish Italians could, just once in awhile, be more American or Swedish about some things. But after a short moment of complaining we shrug and agree that if they were any other way Italy wouldn't be the same. We cheerfully (eventually) accept standing in line for hours, seemingly random and over-the-top bureaucracy and that deja vu feeling that happens daily when one lives in a country that's twenty years behind everyone else in many areas.

It's also true that after a long distance courtship being in the same physical space is pretty heady stuff. We spend enormous amounts of time together, much more than most couples do because neither of us has a Job. We have work that we take on and now we are starting our own company so we have a little more control over the work we choose to do, but much of our work happens together.

I think our strength lies in the fact that we also play together. He's teaching me to ride a bike. You'd think once I mastered the concept of balance the lessons would be over, but road cyclists are interesting (to use a Minnesota term) people with a complex code of ethics and even more complex equipment that can't be learned in twelve easy lessons. We eat together. Every meal is an occasion. We aren't consuming calories and nutrition, we're sharing aromas and tastes and conversation and creating an experience together. We rarely rush through the meal to get to something else. Something else will surely wait till we get there, and if not there are plenty of other something elses to do.

Maybe the semi-short answer to her question would be that we wake up every day and know deep in our bones that this is the place and the person we want to be with. Period.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

An Italian homecoming

Well, we made it home. Nearly twelve hours of buses, trains and planes, but we made it without missing a connection. It was quite a relief to open the door to our apartment and relax. We wandered around turning on the heat (we turn it off when we leave for extended periods) and the hot water heater (ditto for this) and generally looking around to see how things looked. Turned on the water taps to make sure they worked and looked under the sinks to be sure they weren't leaking.

You might think this sounds a little much can happen in an apartment that isn't used for 3 1/2 weeks? Well, a lot it seems, when the apartment is in Italy (ie, where things are never really as they seem).

First Leif came in from the bedroom and said that the radiator in there must have leaked when we turned off the heat. I asked if he was wet. He said not too much. The problem seems to have corrected itself as soon as the metal heated up. I'm hoping that it wasn't so much water that it migrated downstairs. I didn't actually go and look. I figured if he wasn't too worried then there was no reason for me to get all excited about it.

As I was making some food before our trip to the grocery store (we don't shop hungry, even when we're too exhausted to crave anything) I noticed a big rust stain on the floor next to the chimney for our downstairs neighbors wood heater (yes, it runs inside our kitchen) and a much bigger area on the ceiling where plaster is loose. I pointed it out to Leif, who said that we would wait till someone lower complained since they have pooh-poohed out concerns in the past. Eventually all that rust will end up on their ceiling and they'll ask us what's up.

After Leif took a shower he said (at this point a little confused and tiredly) that the shower hose doesn't seem to get the water all the way to the shower head.(we have a hand-held shower) and I'm sure the look I gave him was also a little confused as I had used it earlier and noticed nothing wrong. Apparently the sudden demands we made on it after weeks of disuse caused the connection at the shower head to break inside. It looks perfect from the outside. It's only a couple of years old as it's the first (if I'm remembering correctly) thing we replaced in the first week of moving here.

There was some difficulty getting the stove to light. I randomly wiggled the tops of the burners (yes, we turn the gas off when we leave, some people here do it after every use) and viola! it worked. I have no idea why.

It's the next day and so far nothing else has broken. On the other hand our doorbell, which stopped working before we left, now works. This is part of the allure that Italy has for us. You just never really know what's going to happen, or not happen, next. We live in a constant state of anticipation.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Hello!!!!! Hej!!! Ciao!!!

I've been gone for awhile. Not just physically from this blog, but pretty much in every way possible in my whole life. Just one decision made in September threw my life completely out of balance, and I have only myself to blame.

I have always been something of a workaholic, and while working half-time for less than minimum wage might not seem to be workaholic material the effect on my life, on our lives, was devastating. I bought into the idea that a steady job (ie. A steady income) was worth sacrificing my freedom.

I allowed another person to place a value on my time. Then, for that amount of money I gave her access to all my hours with as little notice as she cared to give. This affected my friendships, my eating habits and my riding habits. My home life revolved around someone else's needs. I didn't really recognize what was happening until I noticed that all these things were starting to affect me physically as well.

That's when I put a stop to everything. It helped that we had a trip to Sweden planned, which allowed me to walk away completely without second guessing myself. I consider it my Christmas present to myself.

Getting the balance back will probably be a journey much longer than the one that brought me to the point of physical collapse but it will be a pleasurable journey. After fourteen days here in Sweden I'm finally feeling healthy again. Nothing hurts and the “cold of the century” has been downgraded to the sniffles. I no longer spend every waking moment feeling anxious and unsure about where I should be and what I should be doing. With this post I'm reclaiming my creative life. I'm excited to start riding again when we get home.

I have so much to look forward to in the coming year, which I promise to share as things fall into place. There are a couple of things you can count on:

I will be in Italy.
There will be wine and amazing food.
Riding isn't something I'm trying out anymore. It's something I do. Expect to hear about it.
I will feed the creative side of my soul regularly.
I will be with Leif, whose smile still gives me butterflies and makes my heart beat faster.
I will write about all these things and more.

And because this post is so very serious you might think I've become a terrible bore, I will take this moment to summarize my time in Sweden up to this point.

People are starting to recognize me on the street. Well, not that they know who I am, but they know they've seen me quite often lately walking around their little town. They hesitate slightly before sending out a tentative “Hej”, probably hoping I won't answer. Or mug them. Then again, hesitating before speaking is common among friends here so maybe I'm reading more into this than I should?

I've had enough Swedish coffee to float a decently sized sailboat. I've had maybe two cups of really good coffee. You'd think in a country where the average person drinks 10 kilos of coffee a year and they spend 60 hours a year on coffee breaks (Östgöta Correspondent, 28 December 2013, pg A4) that the standards would be a little, um, different. On the other hand, their sweets are outstanding so maybe this is their way of finding balance. Great sweets, ho-hum coffee.

I've eaten more meat during our visit than during the last six months in Italy. I think I've eaten the equivalent of a small elephant or at least a full grown Clydesdale.  Ditto for potatoes. Now of course I'm picturing a Clydesdale made out of mashed potatoes with lingon berries for eyes. The mystery to me is how I can eat all this food and still be hungry for every meal.

The only snow I've seen is when watching skiing on TV. I've seen a lot of snow. (reminder: we've been battling colds and don't get out as much as we'd like.) I still wake up every morning and look out the window with hope. I've got seven more could happen.

Happy 2014 people. Let's make it a great one.

You guessed it, at a coffee shop.