Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The Rest Of The Story

I have not tired from telling you this story. Unfortunately I am being squeezed from all sides, a bit like a cow udder in the hands of a strong dairy farmer. OK, I know cows get milked by machines now; I just wanted to create an illusion of being squeezed. I have no time to continue this story. I’m telling you the truth. My ‘earn a living work’ is taking away much of my fun time. I have also been asked to contribute to a book that will be published in February of 2008. The publisher has requested my portion be complete in 9.5 weeks! And of course, the holidays and family obligations are on top of us all.

So, I’m going to give you an executive summary of the remainder of the trip and adjourn from this site, most likely until February of 2008. For a little while, the chair will be empty. But, I will be back.

The Rest of the Story

I continued to call the airlines from pay phone booths, dialing the 21 consecutive numbers to locations all over the world. The problem I was having was having everyone push me off to another number and location that was guaranteed to solve my problem. One day, and I am not exaggerating, I stood in a noisy phone booth for 3 hours dialing and talking and being put on hold. I'm talking about 3 consecutive hours! I finally called a teammate in Houston and asked for help. The friends, a wonderful couple named Jerri and Mark Hastings, turned Houston Continental Airlines upside down on my behalf. The luggage was found in a Houston storage warehouse belonging to Continental Airlines. It wasn’t funny then and it remains unfunny to me today. BEG’s luggage arrived 10 days after we arrived. My luggage came the next day on Day 11.

Our wonderful friend Stephanie Collins continued to loan BEG clothes. She was and is kind and sweet beyond measure. After day six or so I started buying BEG new clothes, but out of absolute stubbornness, which is a character flaw of mine, I continued to wash and wear my same clothes for 11 days. A lot of the time I was actually at the track wearing competition clothes so that was a break for those that had to continue to look at me.

My ears and lips developed a case of fungus. That’s right; there was a fungus among us. My ears got all scaly, causing me to look as if I might be headed for a ‘circus freak’ audition. Step right up folks and see the “Scaly Man.” When I finally stood in front of the pharmacist and presented, he said something to this effect. “Oh yes, this is common for first time visitors to Italy. It is a bacterium that rides around in the public buses and other places. Italians are immune to it. You should have come in when it first started itching.”

Thanks a lot pal.

He gave me a fungal cream that was literally a miracle cure. OK, thanks for real this time.

In hindsight I am now aware that the enormous toll of the early days, lack of sleep and lack of food presented conditions ripe for a lowered performance on the track and opened the door for the sneaky Italian bus dwelling bacterium. The 200 meter races did not go particularly well. I made it to the final sixteen, but I was just too ‘off-track’ to haul my tired hiney and scaly ears around the track at my normal speeds.

The good news is that after an additional week I was given the opportunity to run on the USA 4x100 relay team and I had recovered some energy and my ears were nearing a normal status. The heralded British team ended up running a new World Record in the race, smashing the old record by a significant margin. We finished 3 or 4 strides behind the British capturing an easy second. I took a silver medal home and it is now engraved and proudly displayed in my home.

The even better news is that the remainder of the trip, spent in sight seeing, was truly wonderful and the gods and sun smiled on both BEG and myself. We visited Venice, Florence, Ferrara and Bolgna. Actually we went to Venice twice. BEG took over one thousand photos on the trip! The days were filled with glorious weather, wide smiles and were coated thick with treasured memories.

And a story I wanted to tell you; we damn near missed the flight from Paris to Houston. Again it was through no fault of our own. The connecting flight from Bologna was delayed and we ended up running through Charles DeGaulle Airport just as we ran through Houston Intercontinental 17 days before. I arrived at the gate breathless once again with BEG running up from behind. As Yogi Berra is famous for saying, “It was deja-vu all over again”…..except we MADE IT! Try this on for believability. They lost our bags again on the way home! True.

And for my faithful readers Kid Bratcher and Silver Lovely I want to acknowledge you and thank you for support in helping me relive the story. It was fun knowing you were reading with interest. For Kid, I am including a photo of Christine. The photo was taken by BEG on the day I finally got my luggage. Christine was so happy for me she kissed me! Maybe she was just really happy she was through dealing with me?

I wanted to develop some characters for you. Not in the way a fictional write might, but more to paint a picture of the real and wonderful people that surrounded me in Riccione. I wanted to paint a portrait of Charlie, a genuine prince of a man from whom I learned many lessons about competing in international competition. He wrote BEG and I a beautiful note the morning he left and we enjoyed rooming with Charlie and Jackie immensely. Charlie won a World Championship and a silver medal before sustaining an injury that put him on the sidelines.

I could have told you so much more about Bill, my coach and world champion sprinter. More important to know is I consider him a world champion friend. He is like a big brother, always with an eye cast my way to safeguard and make my track experience as good as it can become.

I would have told you about Stephanie’s always present smile, laughter and kindness. If you read this Stephanie, understand you are considered a treasure.

I could have gone on at length about our Aussie teammate Bob Cozens. He is a live wire at age 70, a man truly alive, refusing to succumb to what so many men his age might succumb to. He is 30 years old in my mind. That’s a gift to be observed and incorporated as I move along in age. Thanks Bob.

And most importantly I should remind you all of the golden treasure BEG brings to my life every day. In a trip filled with potholes and cold rain early on, she kept smiling and holding my hand. She even told me she loved me several times. Go figure.

I must go now and help write a book, but I’ll return next year.

Good Thoughts to you all,


Thursday, November 08, 2007

A Texan in Italy - 17 Curious Days - Day 6

Over the next several days I will be telling you about my recent challenging, weird and wonderful 17 days in Italy. However, in the peculiar world of blogging that means the first story is on the bottom! So, if you want to begin at the first, go to the bottom. This is Day 6.

Day 6 - September 7, 2007

My sixth day in Italy was a gloriously beautiful day for weather. I strode out of the apartment into a bright and clear day of 72 degrees. The birds were singing. Cyclists rode past and smiled, then spoke as if I were their longtime friend. I was on my way to the Hotel Fedora, confident day 6 would be bring my luggage to my possession. BEG was wearing Stephanie’s clothes. Bob Cozens has loaned me a fresh shirt for today. We learned how giving and kind our friends can be and Stephanie and Bob definitely stepped up to the plate when it was really needed. It was odd to see BEG in clothes that didn’t quite fit. She didn’t have a hair dryer. She didn’t have make-up. We bought her a comb just the day before. And despite it all she kept smiling.

Christina saw me walk through the door of the Fedora. She smiled as if she had a secret. I knew my luggage surely had arrived. Nope. Apparently Christina was merely happy to see me. I would have loved for that to have been enough to please me but I was beginning to feel as if the gods had aligned themselves against me. I dug down deep to find a philosophical thread to hang on to. It was still a beautiful day on the Adriatic coast. Hard times can bring perspective. I wasn’t on the streets in a near hurricane trying to shelter BEG and find a place get out of the elements. No. The sun was shining and I had a place to sleep, so I wandered about the philosophical nooks and crannies of my brain searching for the optimistic thought or two that remained employed and on the job of keeping me sane. Those thoughts seemed to go out of their way to raise their hands to get my attention and let me know I had reasons to be happy. I headed for the too noisy phone booth whilst scratching away at my itchy ears. A call to the US, specifically to Continental Airlines, was my mission. My intuition told me they were sitting in the daddy chair at the table of my luggage troubles. I talked to Maurice at Continental. He was helpful in a hopeless fashion, meaning he tried hard but worked the policy line of Continental Airlines, a script certain to kill my every optimistic thought previously described. He told me the luggage was still in Houston. Yep. My image of the bags circling the carousel n Houston was remarkably near the truth. His explanation was as follows. “Mr. Seven the problem is that KLM Airlines was your last carrier and I see you have given them all the required information, but they have not requested that we send the bags.” I of course asked why not just go ahead and send them since the owner of the bags is on the phone with you requesting them? Nothing doing was the message I received, but it was delivered in corporate apologetic language. Gotta do things like the airlines do them. Can’t send them until KLM asks for them.

So, I hung up and I called KLM in Bologna. No answer. Again.

I walked back to the Hotel Fedora. Christina decided now was the time to deliver unfortunate news. She told me the Bologna Airport had been under siege for the past two days by students unhappy about something completely unrelated to airport functions. At least that is what I surmised from her valiant efforts to communicate in my sole language. She told me they had been calling about my luggage for 3 days but no one would answer because the police had closed the entire airport. I told her it was no concern anyway because I had been told my bags are in Houston, safe from unhappy students. She asked me “What is a Houston?” Never mind. My ears felt like they were on fire. The itching had stopped! Now they just felt hot and a little bit scaly. My lips burned in the same way.

I went back to the phone and called KLM airlines in Amsterdam. I was transferred to Maurice’s corporate evil twin who told me “Mr. Seven, we are waiting for Continental to send us the bags. We can get them to Bologna when order is restored to the airport, but they must of course send the bags to us first.” Catch 22, long dead in literary circles had been resurrected and had reached into my life and doomed me to wear my blue shirt and green slacks a while longer.

Much more conversation took place on the phone. Let it be enough to know I ended up pounding the sides of the booth and screaming at the evil, corporate line reciting KLM employee while simultaneously worrying about what the devil was wrong with my ears and lips as if I could not decide which current affliction to focus upon. Like all unscheduled temper tantrums by an alleged adult I can safely assume I did not advance my case.

I had to abandon my tantrum to run down the avenue and catch a bus with BEG and other US athletes and spouses. Today was an off day for the track meet officials. No events were scheduled. Our group, and others from the US contingent, were headed for San Marino, described as an ancient walled city of northern Italy. We didn’t have tickets for the trip. The tourist office where tickets are purchased was closed. We were woefully short on planning. It a phenomena that always develops when large groups try to travel together. There are simply too many talking heads and concerns about everyone’s needs and desires to create a smooth ride. I have always thought large travel groups should elect a king. The closest we had was a dynamo named Sydney Howard. Syd is in his mid 60’s and calls the northeastern seaboard of the US his home. He competes in the 1500 meters. My guess is he is every bit of 5’-4” tall if standing on his toes. What he lacks in stature he more than makes up for in energy, total number of words used in a day and genuine good heartedness merged artfully with a sprinkle of kooky, all of which renders him immensely likeable. Due to our failures in planning and lack of tickets we are herded onto a completely occupied bus and left to stand in the aisle. Syd occupies a place between Bill and me. Syd makes friends easily. He speaks loudly to a large man from Czechoslovakia seated directly beside him. The Czech, an enormous man that could squash Syd in a singular sweep of his hand smiles broadly but it is clear he has no idea what has happened or what was said. Syd informs his new Czech friend it is alright because according to ‘The Secret’ everyone has to be in their exactly correct place and all things are good. The Czech grins broadly again as if he has also read ‘The Secret’. Syd moves on to a taciturn couple from Scotland seated directly behind the Czech. They speak English in the Scottish manner and Syd tries to turn them into new friends on the spot. The Scottish husband seems to be very uneasy as Syd launches into a quiz with his somewhat shy but pleasant wife about Scottish history. Her brogue is thick, but she is sweet in nature and deals with Syd in a polite way. Syd is a bona-fide history buff and it soon becomes apparent that he knows more about Scottish history than the native couple. The husband never warms up, looking at Syd as though he is a snake oil salesman from the Wild West. Just as quickly as it began, the history lecture ends, and Syd asks me about my luggage. According to Syd my luggage is still in Houston because that is where I need it to be. He says ‘The Secret’ taught him that. I’m wishing the secret would teach the airlines how to move luggage between cities more responsibly, but I remain quiet. Syd surrenders to my inexplicable quiet and moves on to a couple from Belgium. They are polite but appear to want none of the boisterous US contingent, though I must say we were more spirited and happy to be going to San Marino than the rest of the buses human content. San Marino is no more than 20 miles from Riccione. As billed, it is an impressive ancient walled city of stone, the path to the top fortress lined with tourist shops of every type. I would learn later that San Marino is in fact a country unto itself, existing now by the grace of Italy. It sustains itself with the proceeds from the hundreds of tourist shops within the walls.

The bus rolled to a stop. Syd was in full gear asking the bus driver a dozen questions in non-stop fashion while not waiting to hear an answer, seeming to disappear from the bus in a fog of words and action. I reached up and felt of my ears. They were definitely scaly. My lips burned as if they were smeared with jalapeno juice. I stepped off the bus and gazed at the fortress tower. It would take a long winding walk of 1.5 hours to reach the top. I could see Syd already walking up the road, his arm around a new friend. I wondered if the new friend spoke any English.

Photo 1 - Bill and the Syd 'The Secret' on board the San Marino bound bus.

Photo 2 - Inside the tourist shop filled walls of the fortress at San Marino.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

A Texan in Italy - 17 Curious Days - Day 5

Over the next several days I will be telling you about my recent challenging, weird and wonderful 17 days in Italy. However, in the peculiar world of blogging that means the first story is on the bottom! So, if you want to begin at the first, go to the bottom. This is Day 5.

Day 5 - September 7, 2007
The initial mission of day five is to compete in the semi-finals of the 100 meters. Sixteen runners remain from the initial field of forty eight. The race is scheduled at 10:30 am. For the first time since I left Texas I slept soundly through an entire night. In fact it was one of those extraordinary sleeps filled with dreaming. Not the traditional semi-haywire, separated from reality, subconscious bubbling over where you wake up and think; “what the heck was that all about?” Not that kind. These were the dreams I have learned to enjoy. They are the soft and pleasant type dream where good abounds. Often they are erotic in content. They had been mostly erotic last night and it always leaves me with a slightly embarrassed feeling as if I want to tell someone, “you’ll never believe what I was doing last night, and who was there!” Yes, I want to tell someone even though I know it didn’t actually happen. The bonus is I’m not likely to develop any STD's having sex this way.

I had agreed to meet Charlie and Bill at 8:15 to walk to the buses. There was never a question of Charlie or Bill advancing to the final rounds. Bill is a multi-world record holder and Charlie is the world record holder at 400 meters in age group M55-59. Both are many times world champions and both have been selected to the USATF Hall of Fame. I was surrounded by the best in masters track. It can be humbling to walk around a world track meet with either one of them since they are recognized and constantly stopped by other athletes. The humbling part occurs when I have to continually introduce myself to their fans. Next time I will describe to Bill and Charlie’s admirers the content of the erotic dreams. Maybe they will remember me that way? I felt good in the warm-up. I wasn’t feeling 100% but was appreciably better for having slept. The partial smile I wore was merely left over from the dreams and not illustrative of my true mood.

As I stared down the track moments before the race I felt I would be able to uncork a good run and advance to the final that would be run later in the day. The warm-up was thorough and I felt more alive than I had in the previous more troublesome days. I had drawn lane 2. On my right in lane 3 was none other than Alasdair Ross. He was beginning to feel a little like a shadow; an aloof shadow at that. On my left in lane 1 was a Polish runner with a determined and unsmiling countenance. When the gun sounded I drove low and hard from the blocks. Throughout the summer I had been using a personalized visual image to remain low and drive through the important start portion of the race. Staying low and driving through is a concept required for the best time you can run and I had taught myself to imagine I am pushing a stalled car with my head. Odd as it sounds, it had done wonders for my start and in fact it had helped me run very fast times in the early part of the summer. I had come to Riccione with the second fastest time in the world for 2006 at 100 meters. There is danger in this preoccupation with driving low. It is possible to slightly hang a spike or lose your balance in this precarious execution of technique. My drive out was excellent and the video shows I cleared the blocks earlier than the competition. Then as if I had not been doused with enough disaster for one trip, fate intervened once again. On the fifth step I drug a spike ever so slightly across the top of the track. It produced a stumble that sent one hand out before I quickly regrouped and maintained balance. It was over. Racing against the 16 fastest in the world allows no margin of error. Interestingly my time was actually faster than the day before but well below my ability. I ran the race through but I couldn’t make up the ground required to advance to the final. I watched from the infield as my friend Bill blew away the field in heat two with ease. I remain in awe of his amazing consistency in big meets.

Bill and Charlie would both race in the 100 finals at 3 pm. For me the interim time period was filled with eating lunch, conversation and luggage tracking. I made some progress with KLM by email. Our luggage was now showing on the KLM lost luggage section of their website as being in process. They have the proper bag tag numbers and the address of the Hotel Fedora is correct. Even if my race was a miserable failure, at least there is some hope on the luggage side of things.

For the 100 finals it is necessary to get a seat early. The final of the fastest race of the meet brings large crowds. At race time the stands are packed with athletes and fans, often dressed in the colors of their country, or wearing the track warm-ups with the countries name embroidered across the back. BEG busies herself with trying to get a photo of every different uniform she can see. The crowd is gearing up, giving off enough energy to power a couple of generators. As the various age groups begin racing an odd cultural collision occurs in the stands. I am the first victim. One of my training partners Cindy Steenbergen is racing in the W50-54 final. As the race develops I stand up to get a better view over the plexiglass barrier since I can’t see her at all. Once the race is over I am told a couple of guys behind me want my attention. The message the two young Italians, located one row up and several seats down have for me is to ‘remain seated.’ In painful English one tells me to stay seated in an openly hostile tone. It’s really not good timing to be messing with me, but his tone toward an elder is more the issue than his message. I tell him “#**%*&$^%&&” he can stand up as easy as I can stay seated. Hostility develops quickly. I wonder what that particular hand sign he just used means in Italian. This particular scene is repeated several times afterward between Italian fans and other American athletes in that area of the stands. I am witnessing and even participating in a bizarre clash of cultures. Italians apparently expect everyone to remain seated during an intensely exciting 100 meter race. Americans stand and cheer for their teammates without even thinking about the cultural implications. Each time there is spoken displeasure from the Italians and a return of fire from the American athletes. Each side needs a timeout. Maybe a separate set of stands separated by a plexiglass barrier? And of course maybe the need for plexiglass barriers at this particular stadium speaks volumes about true Italian comportment at sporting events?

Bill races to yet another World Championship in the finals roaring down the track in full control of the race from the gun. Charlie runs second to a fellow American. Both are happy and I am happy for them. It’s been a long day at the track and at around 6pm we all climb aboard the buses for the trip back to the apartment. My ears are itching. Not just that littly ‘itchy itchy what is that’ kind of feeling but more of an ‘I can’t stop scratching my ears, dang it’ kind of constant itching. I’m riding along with a bus load of people from all over the world. They stink quite honestly, but I assume I am also doing my part to flavor the buses ambiance. I’m standing up and holding the overhead rail with one hand while the other hand paws manically at both ears. It never occurred to me what small pesky infections might be crawling around on a buses hand railings. Unfortunately I was destined to find out.

Photo - Bill runs away from a world class group. Again.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

A Texan in Italy - 17 Curious Days - Day 4 Part 3

Over the next several days I will be telling you about my recent challenging, weird and wonderful 17 days in Italy. However, in the peculiar world of blogging that means the first story is on the bottom! So, if you want to begin at the first, go to the bottom. This is Day 4 - Part 3.

Day 4 - September 6, 2007; Part 3

“Seven, my God! You’re getting blood all over the pillow and sheets. Get up so I can get that stuff in the washing machine.” BEG is a stickler for taking care of things like linens, still I wondered why she wasn’t interested in what happened. Dutifully, I got up out of the bed. I stared at the small clock on the nightstand. I had been asleep about 2 hours. “Why didn’t you put a band-aid on that cut before you went to sleep? I sure hope all this comes out”, she added in exasperation. I silently wondered where the hell I was supposed to get a band-aid without any luggage, not to mention I was afraid I was fainting again while wearing only a towel. I kept my distance amid the flurry of BEG’s elbows and the popping corners of sheets as they flew off my bed. “By the way, I came in here to tell you Stephanie, Jackie and I are going down to the beach. You need to be more careful with your razor, that’s an ugly cut. Did it hurt? It makes my knees weak to look at that. Anyway, I’ll see you later, Stephanie and Bob are cooking dinner in their apartment tonight.” She smacked my butt playfully as if all was quickly forgiven. The last thing I saw was the corner of a sheet get hung in the door as it closed. Just as quickly the door opened a crack, the corner was extracted, the door slammed, and I stood in the room alone staring at a bed that was as naked as I was. We matched. The bed and Seven were both starkers. I was marked with dried blood but the mattress had escaped that fate. I got dressed in a stupor, vaguely understanding I had been scolded and left alone in the room like a bad puppy. I couldn’t blame her. Less dramatic company probably seemed more palatable to brown eyed girl after the last 4 days with me.

The apartment was quiet. I guessed correctly that Charlie was asleep in his bedroom. I decided to pursue our luggage. BEG had begun wearing Stephanie’s clothes on loan. We expected our luggage issue would be handled in 2-3 days since that seemed to be the norm for everyone at the meet. Just for the record, lots of luggage was misplaced by airlines on the way to Bologna. Nearly all of it arrived the next day. I believed I would end up belonging to the majority. We were in day 4 without luggage and I wanted to check with the Fedora fully believing I would find our luggage had been delivered. I dressed in the same blue shirt and green Dockers I had been wearing for 4 days. I walked out into a gorgeous afternoon to collect my luggage. When I arrived the lovely Christina was not working at the desk. The front desk attendant was an Italian woman around 45 years of age. She had sharp features that resembled the hard chiseled look of Renaissance sculptures. She owned dark black hair and was adorned with large hoop earrings made from bright red ceramic. She made an elegant appearance until she talked, revealing a mouth of jagged teeth separated by black voids where other teeth had once been located. She stared solemnly at a man that wore too tired eyes and wrinkled clothes; a man that had a fresh cut on the front crown of his shaved head. We were not made for one another.

“Hi, I was here talking to Christina about my luggage yesterday, and I was just wondering,” I began before I was cut off.

“Attenda un minuto che non posso parlare affatto inglese,” she answered.

I raised my hands in the palms up traditional signal of ‘I don’t understand.’

“Il sir I vi ha detto appena che non parlassi inglese.”

She raised her hand in the stop signal before I could speak louder English. She motioned with her finger in the ‘come with me’ signal. I followed her across the lobby while I reflected on how early man developed language. I assume they began with the same simple gestures that were occurring between the lady with the red hoops and the tired traveler. For example, one caveman holding his finger to his lips for quiet during a critical part of the football game. It surely was cavewoman that started talking first, necessitating the fingers to the lips to begin with. The men were probably fine with hand gestures that meant ‘give me the remote’ or ‘where is this or that?’ which is all we usually need to communicate. The red hooped lady was taking me to a man of about 35 years of age that seemed to be the general manager. He spoke English. Kind of.

“Hi, I was here talking to Christina about my luggage yesterday, and I was just wondering…” I began before I was cut off.

“Ah, si, yes senor, si, I have seen you on day before this day now. Your bagaglio did come maybe?”

It did! My luggage is here? I asked. This brought a very sad expression to his face reminding me of the power of non-verbal signals. I would become accustomed to the sad face and slow negative shake of his head. He resembled a sad clown with no make-up when he was confirming ‘no luggage’ for me.

"No, no senor. We will make call for Bologna Airport to see for your…ummm how you say bagaglio?" His face lit up like a halogen lamp when he quickly remembered the word for bagaglio was luggage. “Luggage!” he shouted out happily.

“Will you call now?” I asked.

"Ah, si, we will make by telephony a time for your luggage to be sent on a time they are aperto” he reported back with a broad smile. He didn’t move. He seemed satisfied our mission had been accomplished. I shrugged and headed off to a phone booth to call KLM Airlines.

I had discovered that a phone booth stood along the main avenue between the apartment and the Hotel Fedora. The booth did not have a door so I was destined to talk on the phone with a finger crammed deep into my ear as a never ending flow of traffic moved down the avenue. I had bought time on an international phone card before leaving home. This caused the need to dial the 10 digit ‘password’ number for the card, followed by the country code then the actual phone number of the party I was trying to reach. That meant a string of 21 numbers each time I made a call. I couldn’t really memorize all 21 numbers which meant trying to hold a piece of paper plus the phone receiver in my left hand since my right hand index finger was stuck in my ear as if to signal a suicide was imminent. I clumsily called the Bolgona Airport number for lost KLM luggage. No answer. I tried 3 times thinking I might have incorrectly dialed the number. Never an answer. I decided I would try later.

I left the booth and headed back to the apartment. Tomorrow would bring a semi-final race in the 100 meters. I craved rest and food and desperately needed to wash my clothes. On the way to the apartment I was intercepted by the ladies returning from the beach. BEG was beaming from ear to ear and telling me about the photos she had taken and the people she had seen. She asked sweetly if the hotel had our luggage. I stared vacantly toward the ocean. I was beginning to have a very bad feeling about the luggage. I had developed a recurring vision inside my head. In the vision our luggage is riding around and around a carousel in Houston. Thousands of travelers come and go, extracting bags and going on their way while an olive green and black suitcase move in an endless circle like unwanted orphans.

The vision was near clairvoyant. I just didn't know it as I stared at the ocean.

Photo 1 - The Riccione Beach by Brown Eyed Girl.
Photo 2 - Left to Right - Charles Allie, Jackie Allie, Bill Collins, Stephanie Collins, Bob Cozens, Seven

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

A Texan in Italy - 17 Curious Days - Day 4 Part 2

Over the next several days I will be telling you about my recent challenging, weird and wonderful 17 days in Italy. However, in the peculiar world of blogging that means the first story is on the bottom! So, if you want to begin at the first, go to the bottom. This is Day 4 - Part 2.

Day 4 - September 6, 2007; Part 2
The gun sounds. Eight runners move down the track. For the first 20 meters the field is more or less even, a normal set of circumstances at a world competition level. It’s 3 or 4 seconds later that we will begin to separate ourselves from one another. Track sprinters speak a language of their own. They talk about the ‘drive phase’ and the ‘acceleration phase’ and they hope to ‘close out’ in good order. It is those phases that will make the difference in this field of 8. Contrary to what many believe, the 100 meter sprint has technical components. Mastering each while possessing world class speed is the prescription for victory.

At 50 meters I had what appeared to be a slight lead on Alasdair Ross of Great Britain. I couldn’t sense any pressure from the other lanes. As we moved through the last 50 meters I would feel the fatigue of the last several days. I could tell the customary break away speed simply wasn’t in my legs. At 75 meters I was aware Ross had moved even. He sprinted forcefully into a slight lead. I took a quick look left and right at the lanes surrounding me. The field was vanquished with the exception of Ross. Knowing that the first 2 from each heat would advance to the semi-finals I employed a strategy that is common. I pulled off the effort and cruised to the finish line in second place saving energy for the semi-finals the next day. It was only when I looked at the finish board and times that I felt I was in real trouble. The time I had run was the slowest time I had run in 4 years. Ross had run a time normal for him, but my effort to run a slow time relative to my ability told the tale of my fatigue and lack of sleep. I changed into my warm-ups on the infield after the race while a thousand thoughts raced through my brain. Would I be able to recover by tomorrow? Was I simply past my competition peak and this was the best I would run in Riccione?

I returned on the bus to the apartment with BEG. Rather than go with the group to a nearby produce store I wanted to take a shower and rest. I was already concerned about tomorrow and wanted to try to catch a nap. The fatigue had become overwhelming.

The shower in the bathroom of the apartment consisted of a square of white colored terrazzo set into a ceramic tile floor positioned in the corner of the bathroom. Surrounding the open 2 sides was a plastic shower curtain. A small curb around the terrazzo base, in conjunction with the curtain kept most of the water in the surround. The hot water could be scalding hot. This was common in the northern part of Italy wherever we went. A small slip of the faucets or a bump with an elbow and you had better be ready to run from the shower or make a trip to the emergency room for burn treatments. I stood in the tiny shower with the water balanced to a comfortable temperature. I had begun the process of trying to shave my head with the throw-away Bic razor I had bought at the pharmacia. The normal thing is for me to shave my noggin with what is known as the ‘Head Blade.’ The ‘Head Blade’ is a cool tool of a razor specifically designed to fit in one hand and race across your noggin, removing stubble quick as Jeff Gordon tours the Talladega race track. My Head Blade was in my lost luggage, the luggage I was expecting to arrive at any moment. Shaving with the cheap razor was an arduous task. I had about one half of my head taken care of when I began to feel light headed. I pressed on. A little woozy is nothing I thought to myself. Bad move. I don’t remember going down.

I came to consciousness lying on the cold wet terrazzo base, one my legs splayed out over the curb sticking out below the curtain. If you had entered the bathroom at that moment you would have certainly wondered why one of my legs was sticking out of the shower confines. I had no idea how fainting feels. It had never happened in my 56 years. I assumed that if I awake on the floor with my razor five feet away and my butt hurting as if I were hit by a speeding Tahoe, then I must have fainted.

I stood up holding myself against the slick tile walls. I rinsed my battered body. I dried off and looked in the mirror. Cozens had been right. I did look like ‘bloody hell.’ My eyes had dark circles. My ears had begun to grow an itchy scale on the surface of the lobes. A razor cut on my scalp was bleeding, apparently the last stroke as I fainted and went to the ground. Approximately half of my head was shaved. The other half had 80 plus hours of stubble. I looked like a rabid football fan in an odd ‘gothic sort of Halloween mimicry’ maybe headed for an Oakland Raiders game.

I was embarrassed about the fainting. I had resisted resting and acknowledging my fatigue until the body finally demanded its way. I moved quickly and silently to the bedroom, passing a collection of visitors to our apartment that occupied the dining area. Someone called out a retort about my wearing only a towel. I didn’t hear or understand all of what was said to me. I was feeling lightheaded again. I went directly to my small bed and covered up. The cut trickled warm blood down my head, tickling as it dripped off the edge of my ear to the pillows surface. I didn't care. I couldn’t keep my eyes open. I’m not certain if I fainted again or if I simply fell asleep. My body and brain were in full rebellion, they were taking themselves out of the game for a rest on the sidelines.

Friday, October 26, 2007

A Texan in Italy - 17 Curious Days - Day 4 Part 1

Over the next several days I will be telling you about my recent challenging, weird and wonderful 17 days in Italy. However, in the peculiar world of blogging that means the first story is on the bottom! So, if you want to begin at the first, go to the bottom. This is Day 4 - Part 1.

Day 4 - September 6, 2007; Part 1
On day four I am awake at 6am as intended. The only complication to the simplicity of that statement is that I have been awake earlier that morning on more than one occasion. The source of my sleeplessness is a suddenly stuffy nose. I have no idea what to blame the situation on. Is it a totally different climate in Italy? Is it the presence of some tree to which I have never been exposed? Am I getting sick as result of the fatigue and strain of the previous 72 hours? Allergies are rare for me, maybe an episode once every 3 years, but when it happens it is dreadful. My nose reaches the point of what feels like impossible clogging combined with the fantasy that an unimaginable explosion of my entire face might occur at any moment, resembling the reaction of a propane tank filled far beyond its structural capacity. I feel I should walk around with a warning sign around my neck reading “This man’s head may explode at any moment, observe safety clearances of 30 feet.” Off and on through the night I have been awake struggling to breath through my nose, yet failing and ending up as a completely unattractive ‘mouth breather’ which is an impossible way to sleep. Thank goodness it has been dark and BEG is in her own single bed across the room.

I dress in my competition clothes. Today is the day racing begins for me. The running tights are an artful combination of red, baby blue and navy blue, the words “USA” imprinted vertically up the sides of the tights. The top is the same color combinations with the USATF (USA Track and Field) official emblem and logo stenciled on the front and back respectively. I should feel excited to pull the USATF mandated gear on for the first time. Instead I try to blow my nose and I worry about how I will feel at 10:30, the scheduled time for my quarterfinal heat of the 100 meters. I am coming into the meet having run the second fastest time in the world for my age group in 2006. Only my coach and friend Bill, the current world record holder, has gone faster. This should leave me with confidence. Instead it now seems a burden. The swift time was run in June. I had run slower in the USA national championships in August. Now it is September and the burden of carrying such a high seed has become a source for anxiety. Exacerbating the anxiety are my fatigue and inability to breathe. I walk into the living area of the apartment where Charlie and Bill are waiting. Its time to head for the bus and the trip to the stadium “How are you Seven?” Bill asks. My reply sounds like a TV ad for a decongestant. “Nime nus fair, I nan’t breathe so nood right now” is what I squeeze out.

The warm-up area at the main stadium is filled with athletes. The 100 meters is the glamour event of track and field and as such it draws the biggest fields of competition. I watch as the colorful assembly of men stretch and jog while checking out one another with quick glances. Many athletes from outside Europe are not known to each other on sight, but instead are known by their names and rankings. Bill draws the most attention since he is the star of all stars in masters sprinting. He is a multi national and world champion and holds several sprint age group world records. He and I warm up together and I can feel the stares and see the pointing. Several athletes stop to ask if I am who they think I am. I acknowledge they are correct in their assumptions. They have now associated a face and body with a name and I can imagine them preparing to slay the world’s no.2 guy since Bill is out of their reach. What all of us know is running quick times in the early season may mean little here today. In the odd world of track training and ‘peaking’ for important races, what will matter is which of the top ten in the world is truly ready to run their best in Riccione. I scan the crowd. I can spot the well-known Italian and British sprinters; all the top names I see in European results throughout the year.

My warm-up is sluggish. I feel slow and tired. Sadly it is becoming increasingly obvious to me that the toll of the previous difficult hours will extract its due, but I am failing to truly deal with the fact. At 10:05 am, the appointed time to enter the call tent, Bill and I head for the stadium. The race officials check us in one by one into the small holding area on one side of a large white tent. The tent sits just outside an entrance portal to the stadium. Later an official will lead us single file into the stadium, arranged in order according to our lane assignments. I am told I have been assigned lane3 for the quarterfinal race. There will be 2 top seeds placed in each of six heats for a total of 48 runners. Only 16 of the 48 will advance to the semi-finals race the next day. I am the top seed in the second heat of the day for my age group. I have affixed my lane assignment sticker reading “3” to my left hip. To my right, in lane 7, will be Alasdair Ross of Great Britain, the no. 2 seed in the heat and a formidable competitor with times very near mine. The rest of the field is composed of men from Croatia, Italy, Germany, France and Mexico, though I don’t recognize any of the names. The officials have us seated across from one another in the tent, sitting on benches while we wait for the official to escort us to the track. The Croatian appears to be very anxious, constantly scanning the tent and tapping his hands on his knees in no discernible rhythm. The Italian is solemn, staring at the ground in front of him, his spikes clutched tightly in his hands. It appears he is talking to himself, his lips moving slightly though emitting no sound. Perhaps it is a form of prayer. Alasdair Ross is directly opposite me. He resembles a rock star. He is dressed in the familiar thin blue and red stripes imprinted over white that is characteristic of British track uniforms. We are all between the ages of 55 and 59 so I am tempted to use the phrase ‘aging rock star’ regarding Ross except for the fact that he seems very youthful. His physique is that of a 20 year old in top shape. He has long blonde hair in the fashion of a reformed older musician and owns an aloof personal manner, gazing around the tent but consciously avoiding eye contact with me. The German is smiling like a man that has won the lottery but isn’t quite ready to tell me about it. I like the aura around him. He seems to be enjoying every moment of the experience.

I am wondering if my head does explode will I be allowed to reassemble the pieces and not be disqualified. I am worried. The warm-up was telling in a negative way. My energy level is noticeably down. The fact that having had 7 hours of fitful sleep in the past 76 hours might be a problem has not been formally acknowledged by my brain, though my biology feels completely conversant with its reality. Normally I would be a little fidgety and excited sitting in the tent at this point, but I find that my mind is wandering and unfocused. The official calls us to go to the track. She commands us in Italian which only the Italian runner understands. He recognizes the fact the he is the host in our group of eight and uses hand motions to let us know it is time. The official calls out names and places us in order by lane assignment. It is a curious protocol. It seems terribly formal as if we are all in kindergarten again. Nevertheless we obey, marching single file into the stadium under a picturesque blue sky, temperatures in the high 70’s. Once in the stadium the official calls our names again to place us in our correct lanes.

We elder kindergartners have begun to ignore her because it is apparent we are far more experienced at our task than she is. We are on familiar turf in this environment. We are in our workplace and home. Aluminum starting blocks glisten under the bright sun. They are firmly anchored behind the start line of the brilliant blue surface of the track. Each athlete begins to set his blocks and do the last bit of warm up as the track announcer begins to announce athlete names and countries. I stare down to the finish camera to establish the point of the finish line in my mind. I look into the stands as the Italian announcer struggles with the Croatian’s name. I know BEG is in the stands by now. She has come with Stephanie a couple of hours behind us. I’m hoping she found a good spot because the stands are full. Unlike in the US, the Europeans take track very seriously.

Once the introductions are complete the starter stares across the field to determine that each athlete is ready to participate. Satisfied with his observation he will repeat the commands that are second nature to his task. He begins with “runners stand behind your blocks,” announced in English to my great surprise. I stand behind my starting blocks in lane 3 though I remain unfocused and it confuses me and bothers me. Nervous energy radiates up and down the line of competitors. The starter lifts the microphone up to his mouth to begin the race. “Runners, take your marks.” I look into the stands again. The capacity crowd is buzzing up there, the race is about to begin.

The photo was taken by BEG at the exact moment described in the text where the starter calls us to our marks. If you click on the pic and look at in a larger format you can see the starter at the far right. I am in lane 3.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

A Texan in Italy - 17 Curious Days - Day 3 Part 2

Over the next several days I will be telling you about my recent challenging, weird and wonderful 17 days in Italy. However, in the peculiar world of blogging that means the first story is on the bottom! So, if you want to begin at the first, go to the bottom. This is Day 3 - Part 2.

Day 3 - September 5, 2007; Part 2

The day in Riccione is as beautiful as the night before was awful. There are branches of trees and other debris strewn around the roads as a result of the storm, but the sun is shining out of a clear blue sky and the sun warmed temperature is around 75 degrees. We have gathered at the pizza restaurant on a corner of the main avenue, midpoint between our apartment and the Hotel Fedora. A menu has been distributed to everyone. It does little good for any of us since it is all in Italian. Charlie and Jackie Allie are at the end of the large table that was placed together for our group. The Aussie, Bob Cozens is at the opposite end. BEG and I sit across from Bill and Stephanie Collins. We have a language barrier with the waiter and more importantly we lack any sort of rapport with him as well.

Over the course of the 17 days in Italy I will not see ice in a glass in a restaurant. Water is served in 1 liter bottles, the bottle placed on the table lightly chilled, yet not cold. You can choose from sparkling water or natural water. This will hold true as far as my travels take me, stretching from Venice to Florence, or as the Italians say, from Venezia to Firenze. The one and only time I had ice in a glass was at a McDonalds in Venezia, but only after I accepted it as an available option.

“If I had a bloody beer I’d drink it,” Cozens informs the group. That thought is replaced by his next thought, which is also expressed out loud to the group, “Wow, look at the knockers on that gal would ya,” as his head swivels to follow a fashion plate olive skinned Italian girl in a tight sweater walking by the open air seating; though I don’t think he noticed her complexion. None of the other guys say anything with wives present, but we do look immediately. At her complexion I mean.

The women in Italy are different from American women in many ways. They are thinner and generally speaking they dress as if they care about their appearance a great deal. It is also somewhat rare to see chubby Italian women. They do exist, but as I said they are rare. For the most part they are rather sleek. All ages.

Stephanie and Jackie decide that the lady with the cool knockers has really cute shoes. “Just what I was thinking” is what I said. Everyone stares at me. “I’m too sleepy and brain dead to be witty,” is what I was about to say to the stares, but it never got out because the pizza had arrived at the same time. For some reason I am expecting something special from an Italian pizza restaurant. I guess my level of expectation is produced from the Travel Channel. Remember where the too happy host sticks the pizza in her mouth and goes “ummmm, so special” as she mugs into the camera and adds “Italy is famous for its amazing pizza!”

This pizza in front of me is a vegetable pizza according to the menu. (The menu had pictures for the slow and sleepy) Have these people never trained at Pizza Hut or Pizza Inn? There are four vegetables on the pizza in front of me. There is one slice of tomato on one of the four quadrants. Not diced or chopped, mind you, just a singular slice of tomato sitting on thin cheese over a hard baked flat bread crust. On another quadrant is a slice of eggplant. It too is sitting there in solitary confinement on its designated quadrant. The third quadrant is decorated with 3 black olive slices. Just three thin slices though, no need to get carried away. The fourth glamorous quadrant is naked except for its thin coating of white cheese. Staring down at the pizza I am reminded of a Salvador Dali painting. I guess its because his paintings always seemed so sad to me. Remember the odd paintings with droopy ears supported by a crutch while a clock is melting off the wall in the background and such nonsense? This pizza is sad that way, with its three little vegetables scattered around, sort of droopy themselves. This is a poverty stricken pizza, though it will cost E15 to eat it.

After lunch I mosied over to the Hotel Fedora. Mosieing is an acquired art. My friend Bill is a master at mosieing. Its a distinctive manner of walking. Its also hard to spell. More about mosieing later. This is the day I met Christina, a front desk clerk at the Fedora. Christina spoke a wee bit of English; just enough to make her fun and very cute in a charming way. What was most important to me was she seemed to genuinely care about my situation. Later in the trip I will show you a photo of Christine kissing my cheek. I gave her all the info I had to create a delivery of the luggage to the Fedora. She determinedly picked up the telephone and called the Bologna Airport to give them the delivery information. They didn’t answer the phone in Bologna resulting in a shrug of her shoulders, a sweet smile and apology. Then her index finger jabbed the air with a new idea. Using my KLM Airlines papers she faxed the info to Bologna. The fact that the lost luggage department did not answer their phone was significant though I didn’t realize it at that moment. I thanked her and said goodbye. I went down the streets near the apartment looking for a razor to erase my 52 hours of stubble. I found one in a pharmacia which I would learn many many days later was a prudent move according to my sweet and loyal friend Kathi Bratcher. For those of you wondering about toothbrushes and such, BEG and I each had a minor toiletry kit in our carry-on packs. Our teeth had been brushed many times during the travels.

The day went on without sleep. BEG and I discussed that there was no need to buy a lot of clothes this day since the luggage would probably arrive in a day or two. Our friends affirmed this decision.

We went to dinner that night at around 6pm only to be turned away at the door of every restaurant we approached. Here’s the thing. They don’t open for dinner until 8 or 9pm in Italy, as if I wasn’t sleepy and tired enough without waiting for a late dinner. The opening round of the 100 meters was set for 10am the next morning. In order to make the walk to the bus, get to the stadium and properly prepare, a 6am wake-up would be required. When dinner ended at 11:30 pm we headed for the apartment and the only real sleep in our last 58 hours of existence. That sleep would last about 5.5 hours. Yes there are details as to why I was in a restaurant until 11:30 pm, but let it be enough understanding on your part to know that circumstance continued to wind its way around us in a fatefully menacing way despite my best intentions. I had choices to make. Race the next day on no food and adequate sleep, or try for both. I managed the food part only. Day 3 was over.

The next morning would bring the first experiences on the track at the 2007 World Championships!

Photo 1 - The Pizza Restaurant on the corner

Photo 2 - Bill and I visit the Fedora Hotel to deal with lost luggage

Monday, October 22, 2007

A Texan in Italy - 17 Curious Days - Day 3 Part 1

Over the next several days I will be telling you about my recent challenging, weird and wonderful 17 days in Italy. However, in the peculiar world of blogging that means the first story is on the bottom! So, if you want to begin at the first, go to the bottom. This is Day 3 - Part 1.

Day 3 - September 5, 2007; Part 1

Loud music reverberated around the walls of the apartment. I sat straight up in the tiny one person bed. I stared the short length of the small bedroom toward the bed where brown eyed girl had fallen in a heap. Her eyes opened for a second but they blinked shut again as if she had willed the music would not defeat her need to sleep more. The loud bass thump of the music owned the walls. I looked at my watch on the nightstand. It was 9:30 am. We had been asleep for about 2 hours. I had a pillow in my hands; a pillow that resembled a poor woman’s pancakes, as if they were made as flat as possible to feed a family of 10 on a hard times budget. When I first put my head down it seemed as if I would feel the texture of the sheets on my ears through the pillow’s thinness, still its lack of comfort was no match for my fatigue. The music however was an obstacle. I folded the pillow around my head hoping to cover my ears. The ends of the old cotton case covered pillow reached around the back of my head just far enough to get my ears barely covered. I soon realized having my arms flexed to hold the pillow in that position did not create an ideal sleeping position. The music I identified as ‘Yeah’ by Usher. A few seconds passed as I thought about the rudeness of the situation, then I heard a female voice singing, a voice belonging not to the television, but a live voice singing for all it was worth in harmony with Usher. That is how I came to know that our roommate Jackie Allie loves to sing. I had never met Jackie and at that moment I could only assume it was Jackie, but then I heard my teammate Charlie Allie talking to her. His voice is a voice I know. I couldn’t believe it. Why would they behave in this way with BEG and I trying to sleep? I moved to our door and cracked it open. I peeked outside, my mission being to connect a visual image with the rude behavior. Jackie Allie was not only singing, she was dancing as well! Charlie was sitting in a chair at the dining table reading. I gently shut the door and went back to my bed. I covered up in the thin blankets and tried to ignore the music.

Around 10 am the music stopped abruptly and I heard Bill’s voice inside the apartment. He knocked on our door. I looked at BEG to make sure she was covered and answered “come in.” Bill was laughing when he opened the door and simultaneously telling me that the Allie’s had no idea we were even in the apartment. Charlie, a few inches shorter than Bill stood on his tiptoes and looked over Bill’s shoulder into the room. I could see the top of his head and his eyes, nothing more. He said ‘hello’ and ‘sorry’ in virtually the same breath. After BEG and I were dressed and standing in the main part of the apartment, Jackie let us know she was sorry but just as relieved that she was not dancing in her underwear. They had not heard a sound when we entered earlier and had no clue anyone was in the apartment with them. The music was coming from the Italian version of MTV. American music was more the rule than the exception we discovered after several days of MTV dancing and singing, presented by Jackie Allie, who as a matter of fact had a terrific singing voice. Bill had come to our room on a mission. He had been to the stadium to declare for the 100 meters race. Bill had attempted to declare for me, but the officials were not going for it. In most meets this would be acceptable, but these were the World Championships and the official in charge of declarations had seen I was seeded fourth overall and had a fast and competitive set of marks. He was not taking a chance on a protest from other athletes. It was a limb too thin for his liking. He told Bill he would accept the proxy declaration temporarily, but I would have to appear in person to sign in before 2pm or be disqualified. The extension to 2pm was a rules infraction on his part and he told Bill it made him very nervous. He made Bill swear he would return with me.

Bill suggested we change clothes and head to the stadium. Very funny. I reminded him we had no other clothes. My blue button up shirt and olive green Docker slacks will adorn me for many consecutive days to come although I have no understanding of this as I stand in the apartment accompanied by my whole 2 hours of sleep. As an alternative I changed into my track clothes, the set of warmup and competition clothes that had been riding around on my back.

We walked up the street to catch the bus to the stadium. The small streets we would walk to catch athlete buses day after day were lined with vendors, selling everything from clothes to produce to jewelry. There were also pizza restaurants and bars. There was a singular Gelato stand that we would visit regularly. Gelato is nothing more than ice cream, but it is extremely popular in Italy. There are more flavors than the old Baskin Robbins chain even dared dream about. The bus dropped us at the main stadium after a five minute ride. Three stadiums in the area would be used to accommodate the over 9,000 athletes from around the world. The declarations tent and main administration offices were inside the area where the main stadium was located. We went quickly to the declaration tent and found the official that had granted the extension. He met Bill with a look of relief and asked if he had brought the ‘other guy’ to declare. He was quite serious. Bill pointed at me. The young man was overjoyed to know his criminal generosity was going to get covered. I signed the sheet he thrust in front of me and showed him my identification. He spoke decent English. It was the broken yet understandable sort that we would become accustomed to. Two weeks later my own English had picked up the odd pauses and Italian inflections in a sort of reverse type of language immersion. I mentioned this to BEG who quickly pointed out that I always talk oddly and not to make too much of it since no one was likely to notice in my case. I love you too sweetie.

After taking care of all my official ‘declaring’ for the 100 meters the official made a dramatic collapse onto his desk to illustrate his mock relief that Bill had actually brought me back in person. (photo attached) I realized that all the decisions I had made to arrive in Riccione as soon as possible had allowed me to compete in the 100 meters. Another handful of hours and I would have been shut out by the very strict declaration process. I wandered around the tent with Bill and we looked at the race seeding for our M55-59 100 meters as well as other races in other age groups. As I look around at the athletes from other nations I am struck by the amazing diversity in ages and cultures. Masters track arranges the athletes in 5 year age groups beginning at age 35 and going all the way into the 90 year olds. There are athletes that competed in the last Olympics or open World Championships and athletes that appear they may need a walker to reach the start line. Many are sleek and athletic and give off the aura of the world class athletes they are while others appear to be attending to merely compete and have a good time. We walked over to the stadium and I went inside for the first time to see the track where I will be competing. It had been freshly resurfaced for this World Championships; no competition of any kind had taken place on the new surface. The track is blue, not rare, but still a little uncommon. The track is separated from the spectator stands by an unbreakable plexi-glass barrier. The barrier is a solution to the rowdiness and violence of European soccer fans, but it will be a visual interference for the track spectator.

I’m still sleepy and tired and I know brown eyed girl is also, but the group wants to go eat lunch at one of the pizza restaurants nearby the apartment. We say “Yes, we will go too.” Everyone heads for the bus. It’s crowded aboard the bus since it’s a busy day for declaring. In fact its standing room only with many patrons holding the overhead bracing bars, arms extended and armpits exposed. It is apparent bathing is optional in many parts of the world. Racing begins tomorrow morning. I’m not sure if I am more hungry or more sleepy. I need both things. I also need my luggage.

Bill says we can have the luggage sent to the Hotel Fedora just a few blocks from our apartment. That instruction had come from the leasing agent for the apartment. Having it sent to the hotel is necessary because there is a very good chance no one will be at the apartment to accept the luggage when it arrives. The walking route from the apartment to the Hotel Fedora will become a common routine for me. Today will be my first visit there. I will be unshaven and my eyes and brain will be sleepless. I will make more choices about my luggage, eating and sleeping as the days go by. All the choices will seem so rational at the time.

(Photo 1 - Bill and I make an appearance to 'declare' for the next day's racing)

(Photo 2 - The official expresses his relief that Bill actually brought me with him)

(Photo 3 - The main stadium track)

Thursday, October 18, 2007

A Texan in Italy - 17 Curious Days - Day 2 Part 6

Over the next several days I will be telling you about my recent challenging, weird and wonderful 17 days in Italy. However, in the peculiar world of blogging that means the first story is on the bottom! So, if you want to begin at the first, go to the bottom. This is Day 2 - Part 6.

Day 2 - September 4, 2007; Part 6

I fetched my brown eyed girl and we headed back to the bar, no more than 3 or 4 blocks away. Once inside we picked a table and sat down, weary as two well diggers working double shifts with one arm. The same girl I believed to be a hostess served as the only waitress and she brought us a menu. She had a small diamond piercing midway up one of her nostrils, popular with 20 something females in Italy. She had a lovely face set off by a ready smile. Her English was barely intelligible and labored, filled with long pauses and silent hand gestures while she tried to think of possible words to use.

The music was loud in the bar so we yelled out the things that neither of us understood increasing the absurdity factor. We might not understand one another, but we were certainly going to talk loud enough to prove it. We ordered food from the menu by pointing. We had a small clue that we were ordering sandwiches based on the waitress pointing to a sandwich on a plate across the room and then pointing back to the menu.

Over the course of the next 2 hours I continued to order various things, including tea, coffee, pizza and sandwiches. It was my trade with the lovely girl and her boss for letting us sit there so long. She continued to try out her English on training wheels, accompanying it each time with her smile, good natured shoulder shrugs and long “ummmms”. Between food and drink orders I would run back to the apartment and pound on the front door hoping for a response that never came. I would then run back thru the cold to the bar to deliver my bad news. I finally laid my head down on the table. I don’t think the bar’s owner or our friendly waitress really understood our predicament. We had tried to explain, but the divide of language left us to remain a mystery in their bar. The bar owner was cleaning the bar and clearly approaching the time he would ask us to leave at 6:30 am. It was 6:15 am when he told us, by hand motions, we had to leave. No one else was in the bar. My sleepless marathon had reached 43 hours.

We walked out into a morning that was dark. Sunrise would come each day to Riccione around 7:30 am. However, a calming surprise awaited us. The storm had passed. It was cool, but not cold. Just as the cold rainy storm had come quickly, it also vanished quickly. The temperature outside was tolerable, the wind and rain had moved on to the weather cemetery, its miserable fleeting task accomplished. Later we learned the storm had been as bad as our experience told us it had been. Below is a reprint of text that appeared in various publications carrying the story of the track meet as written by track and field writer Ken Stone.

“But that night and the next morning, hurricane-force winds attacked -- uprooting trees and forcing a delay in cross country races. The weather turned gentle after that.”

BEG and I had lived out this nightmare in the midst of a near hurricane. No wonder the locals were a little testy with us! All this Texan has to say is “Bunch of cry-babies.” And as Forrest Gump famously said, “That’s about all I have to say about that.”

We were headed back to the apartment at 6:30 am in the gentle weather described in the news account. When we arrived I decided on a new tactic. I went to the side of the apartment and stood below a second floor balcony. At the top of my voice I yelled out one of my teammates names. It went like this “Bill. Bill Collins. Are you in there? Bill. Bill Collins.” It was yelled loudly. I stared up at the balcony, my concentration focused on the sliding door. I had no idea what to expect. Perhaps another angry janitor with a mop? Within seconds none other than the requested Bill Collins emerged from behind the sliding door. He would tell me later that he had opened the door for fresh air no more than a few seconds before I yelled. He looked at me as though he were puzzled, as if I might be merely the ghost of Seven. We were saved. The apartment did indeed contain my teammates, and best of all we were discovered, urchins riding the streets in the midst of a near hurricane, saved. Finally.

Bill hustled downstairs and wanted to know how we got there so soon. He believed we would have to wait for the next day’s flight to Paris and would arrive in Riccione the next morning. BEG poured out the story in a tumble of disjointed sentences, followed by eventual paragraphs of information about Amsterdam and freezing nights and closed bus stations and bastards in Houston and on and on. She told him about the lost luggage. I listened. I even smiled. I could tell that BEG now had stories to tell for a lifetime. Not good stories, but stories all the same. Bill listened with amazement. We were soon standing inside his apartment. Waiting there were his wife Stephanie and a fellow Houston Elite teammate that was competing for Australia, a fellow named Bob Cozens. Bob stared at me and said in simple Aussie fashion, “Where ya been mate, ya look like bloody hell.” Beg started the story all over with Bill interjecting the parts he had just learned. Cozens broke in with "So that was you a-bangin on the door all bloody night eh? You kept me awake all the night you little bugger, I thought it was drunks having a party in the storm!" I stared like a zombie, dropping into a trance induced by finally seeing that my work might be over and that after 43.5 hours I might actually be able to sleep.

At the conclusion of the harrowing tales dispensed by BEG in a tumble of words resembling a confused cliff notes account, we were taken upstairs. We wanted a bed. We were sharing an upstairs apartment with another teammate Charles Allie and his wife Jackie. They were still asleep in their bedroom when we entered the apartment using the key Bill had saved for us. Bill showed us our bedroom. There were two single beds. Fine. Anything. He said, “Get a little rest, but remember you have to go the stadium and declare for your races sometime this morning.”
I barely responded. After he closed the door we dropped every stitch of clothing we were wearing (43.5 consecutive hours worth) and fell into the beds. Our rest would be short-lived, and the clothes would be worn again, but day 2 was mercifully over and we were horizontal.
Day 3 was peering at us over the horizon, its crooked fingers of fate pulling the sun gleefully up behind. The sun broke through the window at the head of my bed. I fell asleep with total disregard for the time of day.
(Photo 1 - Seven standing in the door of the infamous beige apartment building and its glass door )
(Photo 2 - My roommate/teammate, M55-59 400 meter World Record holder Charles Allie)

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

A Texan in Italy - 17 Curious Days - Day 2 Part 5

Over the next several days I will be telling you about my recent challenging, weird and wonderful 17 days in Italy. However, in the peculiar world of blogging that means the first story is on the bottom! So, if you want to begin at the first, go to the bottom. This is Day 2 - Part 5.

Day 2 - September 4, 2007; Part 5

The rain had slowed to a light sprinkle and shortly afterward the wind began to slow as well. In its wake however, the temperature had continued to drop. We shivered as we moved up the main beachfront avenue of a darkened Riccione. We had gone about 10 city blocks when in the distance in front of us a pair of headlights emerged. The light from the car glistened across the puddles, the rapid speed of the car given away by the sound of the same puddles being disrupted by the car’s wheels. At virtually the same instant we both realized it was a taxi. BEG raised her hand. I took a more drastic action stepping in to the road and holding my hand in the classic ‘stop’ position. The car slid to a stop.

I asked the cabbie if he spoke English. He did. Was our luck changing? I pulled the address out of my pocket. The paper had grown a little tattered, but it was legible. I thrust the paper inside the cab and asked if he knew where the address was and if so, would he please take us there? Without hesitation he told me yes he knew where the street was located, but this late at night he had no choice but to charge 15 Euro for the ride, after all as he put it “it’s an awful night out here really”. The immediate rejoinder that came to my mind was ‘No shit, Sherlock’ but I simply smiled and told him I would be happy to pay E15 for the delivery. Little did he know that at that point in time I would have given him E200 for the ride as I was beginning to worry over BEG’s welfare and was feeling guilty for leading her into such a travel mess. The cabbie believing he had won the fee arrangement, hopped out and opened the door for BEG. The cab was practically new, though tiny. It was a strange sight for US citizens accustomed to riding in the filthy old cabs of the US. There was no meter. It felt as if a friend had picked us up in his new compact car. The car's heater was cranked to high, a beautiful relief for us both. The cabbie made a 180 turn in the deserted road. He drove 2 blocks and turned left. I saw that the sign on the street read ‘Via Petrarca’. We had walked to within 2 small city blocks of the street where the apartment was located. I found it ironic to the point of funny, but also supposed the apartment could easily be miles away down this street. Wrong again. The address Via Petrarca 11 was no more than 50 meters after the turn. Little wonder the cabbie had hopped out so quickly. I didn’t mind. I was overjoyed we had reached the apartment, the goal of the long travel odyssey. The cabbie pointed at the sign on the building. It read No.11. He asked if that was correct. I looked at the paper again. It read ‘Via Petrarca 11’ in black ink. I handed the cab driver the 15 euro. He thanked us in English and drove away. We walked happily toward the door of building No.11. The building was the typical type found throughout Italy, beige color plaster from head to toe. It was 4 stories tall and had projecting balconies with frosted glass balcony railings. At the front door were buzzers for the individual apartments.

The front door was locked. That’s right, locked tight as a Wells Fargo bank vault at night. I studied the buzzers without a clue which apartment would bring my teammates to the front door. I decided that the safest way would be to start at the top and work my way down buzzing each apartment and waiting for a reasonable time, after all the occupants would have to get out of bed, get dressed (I suppose) and make their way to the door. BEG had begun to tremble from the cold. After ringing three bells without any result I took a look at BEG’s condition and decided to simply bang the hell out of the glass door with my fist. BEG protested that I was going to wake everyone up. The phrase “No shit, Sherlock” returned to my mind. I pounded away like a man with a cause.

We waited. I pounded again. We waited. I pounded again. We waited. Fifteen minutes had passed. My fatigue in conjunction with the cold had become both physically and mentally numbing. BEG shivered in the cold and laid her forehead on my shoulder. I interpreted it as a simple prayerful imploring for anyone to answer the door. I would have welcomed Hannibal Lecter had he appeared.

There was a sign on the wall that contained the phone number for the apartment rental agency. I took BEG’s already often used airline blanket and wrapped it around her. I jotted down the phone numbers and told her to sit in the corner out of the wind where she could respond if and when anyone came down to the door. I was going to find a phone booth in the vain attempt to rouse someone at the leasing office that could let us in the building. I knew that was unlikely at 3:25 am, but I also hoped to discover any business that might be open, a place to take BEG out of the cold until someone was awake in the apartment. BEG huddled in the dark corner, I sat out in a jog into the cold night, still without a jacket since it was in my lost luggage. I splashed my way through the puddled streets in search of life of any kind. I looked back at BEG. For all the world she looked like a homeless lost soul huddled in the corner of the building. I reflected on my choices and how it had led us to this point. I wasn’t pleased with myself. I didn’t reflect too long. It was too damned cold for introspection. I turned the corner the cab had turned a few minutes before, jogging at a quick clip, looking for light, sound, any life. Maybe I could find a phone booth or a police officer. The water from the puddles splashed onto my shoes and made its way through the shoes, soaking my feet in the icy water. Down the street I could see a very large restaurant with its lights on. I picked up the pace. Arriving at the lights I saw that the building was a gigantic pizza ristorante. It was closed. The lights were on because the janitor was inside cleaning. He was holding a standard issue mop in his hands, making the familiar mopping motion, a white apron stretched across an enormous stomach. He was an older man. From outside I guessed him to be in his seventies. He was large, in the vicinity of 6-3 or 6-4 and easily weighed 250 pounds. As unbelievable as it might seem, a large cigar was jammed into his mouth as he mopped, creating a virtual caricature of any janitor our mind would might conjure with its first conjugation. I imagined if I could communicate with him that I would arrange for us to sit in the warmth of the building until my teammates were awake. I walked to the front door and knocked loudly. The janitor was startled, jerking his head around so forcefully that the centrifugal force brought the ample stomach half way round with his head. I had clearly scared him. The reality of my presence registered with him in a second or two. He charged the door, mop in hand. His big meaty hand was shaking the mop like a weapon. From his mouth came a loud tirade of what I can only imagine was a colorful stream of Italian profanity. He brought his face as near the door as he could without bending the big cigar and shook the mop with enough vigor to knock it against the glass. He resembled an angry Tony Soprano with an additional twenty five years on his resume. I had been in Riccione approximately 2 hours. I had now been scammed by a cabbie and colorfully screamed at in Italian profanity for the crime of knocking on the door. Having dealt with many an angry scene in law enforcement I stood my ground. I asked in hand gestures for him to open the door. This only set him off all the more. After a brief session of additional screaming he turned abruptly and marched back to his mop bucket.

I hit the street at a jog again, looking left and right as I passed side streets. On a side street to my left I recognized a familiar Texas sight. It was a lighted beer sign. Not just any beer, but an honest to goodness Mexican Corona beer sign. I could hear music down the street. It was muffled but contained obvious American lyrics. I jogged toward the sign and spotted two men entering a car at the side walk. I moved farther up the street to discover a small bar with lights on and patrons inside. I went to the door to find out if it was open all night. The girl at the hostess station spoke minimal labored English. I asked about the hours in Spanish. It got through. She took me to the door and pointed to the open/close sign on the door. They were open until 6:30 am! I wanted to kiss her, and she was pretty enough to make it a pleasure rather than a chore. I had no way to tell her I would be back, so I smiled like a chimp with a banana and set off toward the apartment to get BEG. I had found a refuge. Damned teammates, why couldn’t they just answer the door! Damned crazed old janitor. Screw him! It was 3:47 am.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

A Texan in Italy - 17 Curious Days

Over the next several days I will be telling you about my recent challenging, weird and wonderful 17 days in Italy. However, in the peculiar world of blogging that means the first story is on the bottom! So, if you want to begin at the first, go to the bottom. This is Day 2 - Part 4.

Day 2 - September 4, 2007; Part 4

I remembered my handheld compass was stowed in my backpack. It’s a small orienteering style compass that I take on trips to cities I’ve never been in before. I dug it out of the backpack and held it in my left hand, the darkness causing me to strain to see its indicator. The red north needle pointed to my right. I was riding reverse in the train car facing the rear of the train which meant the train was traveling due east. That was a good thing since Riccione lies east of Bologna. I felt comforted, but continued to watch the signs at the stations. One after another the station names whizzed by in the night, the train giving no indication it intended to stop at any of them. The names of the towns went by quicker than I could make them out in the dark.

It began to rain. The rain pelted the outside of the car in a steady rhythm. The floor of the car was growing damp. The wind had picked up appreciably and was rocking the sides of the train car as it rattled down the tracks at 60 miles per hour. The wind had grown even colder, cold enough to force BEG and I into a differnt car where the window was just as broken, but broken in the closed position at least, little more than a ½ inch crack showing at the top. An English speaking train ticket attendant came down the corridor peering into the individual cars. When he discovered us he entered and took a look at our ticket. He told us the train would not be stopping in Riccione this late at night. He told us to get off in Rimini, approximately 7 miles away and take a city bus the rest of the way. With a matter of fact manner he informed us Rimini would be the next stop.

I was grateful to know that we were at least going in the correct direction. I smiled at BEG knowing we were moving ever closer to being able to sleep and rest with a roof over our heads. The train rolled to a stop at the brightly lit Rimini train station. There was little activity, but the area was bright and a cluster of heavily rain coated Italian police officers stood at the main entrance to the building. I noticed as soon as I left the train that the temperature had dropped considerably, the rain was heavier, and the wind was on the edge of scary for an area that neighbored the ocean. I hustled through the rain, BEG’S hand in mine and asked one of the Italian officers if he spoke English. He affirmed that he did. I asked where to catch the bus to Riccione. He pointed through the building to a bus idling at the front curb. He said “This is the last bus to Riccione tonight. The storm is here. Hurry, go pronto, don’t miss it!” He followed the two of us through the station waving his arms at the bus driver to wait. We boarded the bus, wiping the rain water from our head and clothes in the process. We were both freezing. The bus seats were empty. The bus driver spoke no English. It was obvious he had been waiting for the train from Bologna in order to take the last passengers to Riccione. I asked about bus tickets. He waved me into the bus amid a swarm of Italian words that meant nothing to me. I stuck out a wad of Euros toward his hand thinking he would take the bus fare and return change. He looked at me with exasperation and laid his head down onto the oversized bus steering wheel in a demonstrable display of frustration with an American that had no Italian skills. He pointed again to the bus seats and refused the money. We obeyed this time, moving to the mid portion of the bus, sitting down in bright yellow plastic seats. Rain streaked the windows in a way that made looking outside difficult, the train station lights merged with the water droplets into a Jackson Pollock style rendering, though I don’t think Pollock ever actually painted an Italian ocean front resort.

The bus driver started the bus forward as soon as we were seated. It was a large city bus with two patrons and a clearly agitated driver, headed for Riccione. I smiled. A bed was waiting. My watch read 2:17 am.

My smile underwent a reversal as the bus rolled along Rimini’s main beachfront avenue. I noticed there was absolutely nothing open on this cold rainy night, save an occasional small bar or two. Large trees swayed in the stiff wind. It was later that BEG and I learned we were traveling in a storm that disturbed the locals and made regional news throughout Italy. We were traveling in conditions this coast had not seen in a long time, explaining the bus driver’s exasperation with loons like the two of us. The storm had not caught those wiser than we by surprise. The hotels had warned the guests and each hotel had closed it doors and set the window storm shutters in place. The power of the storm had shut down every business along a normally thriving corridor of beach front. A lone holdout of a bar here and there had lights burning. Presenting evidence that alcohol knows no inhibition, the bus came to a halt where seven youth in their early twenties stood below a bus stop sign. They spoke French rather than Italian and were filled with the bravado of drink. Our somber bus, even in the middle of a cold rain storm grew loud with their swagger and youth. Two girls accompanied five boys. One couple held hands, the others arranged themselves in separate seats apparently being only friends. Time would show us they were leaving one bar in search of another along the length of the bus route. The five friends talked and laughed excitedly though I understood none of it. The couple nestled in a seat together. The young girl was making the cliché ‘get a room’ come to life. She aggressively made out with her boyfriend, tongues in mouths, under the bright fluorescent glare of the bus interior. Her hand casually slid from his chest down to his fly where it massaged as he squirmed. She began unzipping his fly causing the other five to roar in approval. She had the fly half way down before the boy shot a glance down the length of the bus at us and shooed her hand away, all seven tipsy kids dissolving in giggles. A few seconds later the group had spotted another open bar and were furiously pulling on the bus stop chord. They clambered off and into the selected bar.

The somberness and quietness of the bus returned. I spotted a small poorly lit sign out the window. It read ‘Riccione’. I smiled. We had made it. Finally. It was a testament to resolve, persistence and a degree of stubbornness. We were in Riccione. It was now 38.5 hours and counting since I had slept, but I smiled any damn way. We would get to the Riccione bus station, go inside to its warmth, and call a cab.

The bus pulled alongside and stopped at a dark building. We sat patiently. The bus driver turned and stared. He opened the doors. He stared us again. Finally he tried his Italian on us and I made out the phrase ‘Riccione bus station’. He was telling us we were as far as he was going. He waved his arms aggressively. We stepped off the bus into the rain and wind. The bus station was dark. It was closed. There were no overhangs to stand underneath. Before I could turn back to the bus and re-board hoping to make a different arrangement he had quickly shut the doors. I looked inside the bus door at a man that clearly was headed home and felt no remorse about our predicament. He studiously avoided eye contact. He drove away. We were in Riccione, but as I looked up and down the streets there were no signs of life. No humans. No open businesses. The hotel signs were lighted, but the interiors were dark. I looked for a phone in order to call a cab. I would learn later that public ‘street side’ phones in Riccione are a rarity. There were none in sight, not even at the closed bus station. BEG remembered there had been an open bar back down the road toward Rimini. She suggested we walk that direction. If we found an open hotel or phone along the way, she said, then all the better. We turned into a stiff wind. As if on cue to our needs the rain stopped, a small prize in this odd roulette wheel of travel chance we were spinning around. We trudged down the dark streets of Riccione, backpacks secured, eyes attentive for any sign of life. I had the apartment address in my pocket, but no clue which way it lay. My compass, were it human, would have laughed at me. It was 2:47 am.