Saturday, September 29, 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 Part 2 of Day One

Day One Continued - September 3, 2007
We were finally airborne again after over 3 hours on the ground. We landed in Houston a scant 20 minutes later. I looked at my watch. The time for the Paris flight, 6:45 pm, had passed. My watch read 6:47. Our rain related trouble continued. Because there had been so many flights into Houston grounded all the available gates were occupied by other aircraft. We were destined to sit on the ground in Houston for another 30 minutes as we waited for a clear gate to let us exit into the airport.

Hoping that the airport shutdown had also delayed the Paris flight we hit the jetway in a fast walk. Once inside Houston Intercontinental we found a departures electronic board as quickly as possible. Scanning the board, the flight to Paris was no longer listed. Our luggage, which had been checked only to Houston, would be rotating around the baggage carousel shortly. We walked over to a Continental Airlines information rep to ask about our alternatives for getting to Paris, though with reasonable intuition I believed there was only one flight per day to Paris. Amazingly, the rep told us the flight had not left. She said she would call the agents at Gate 39 and tell them to wait for us. I told her about the luggage. She said “Don’t worry, just tell them at the gate, and now hurry! Run if you can!”This development touched off a series of decisions and choices that would define the course of events for the next several days. We were unsuspecting insects, and the heavy shoe of fate was about to roll down on top of us.

As instructed, we ran off down the corridors of the airport. Scanning the overhead gate direction signs at jog pace we scurried like folks with a time problem to the amusement of other airport patrons. I guess those that were amused have some sort of idea that if a person is in time duress then it is jolly well funny; that it is my problem and not theirs? One ass yelled out the threadbare cliché “Run Forrest Run.” They remain fortunate that I was in an authentic hurry and had no time to insensitively address their need for sensitivity training. I reached the gate agent completely out of breath. BEG trailed by the margin appropriate for an untrained runner chasing a trained sprinter. I had not intentionally left her behind, but I felt if I got there ahead they would surely wait for us both. I asked if the Paris flight was still boarding, though it was asked with about 4 to 5 breaths between words, words that were garbled and yet hopeful. Without looking up a gate agent, later nicknamed ‘Miss Sunshine’, intoned that the flight to Paris was gone. She said it just like that. “Paris is gone.” Three words of finality that meant nothing to her. I noticed there were other agitated passengers standing at the counter. I tried to ask her what alternatives I might have. She remained fixated on her keyboard, completely disinterested in my plight. The other patrons at the desk glanced at me to see what my reaction would be. I explained we were told the flight would be held for us and the lady back down at the other end of the airport had called them to say we were coming. One of the men standing at the desk replied, “yeah, me too.” I looked at him. He pointed out several people that shared our predicament. The stone faced Continental lady was clearly agitated with the entire circumstance. Behind the desk a very calm young man whose name tag read “Raul” looked at the bitch, then at me. With a kind voice he said the problem could be solved. “It’s best not to wait for the Paris flight tomorrow, he said. It’s full and space is going to be hard to come by. There is a flight leaving for Amsterdam tonight. I can put you on it with these other folks.” My response was one of confusion, but I still managed a reasonable question. “How will I get to Bologna from Amsterdam?”

He answered, “That’s no big deal, there is a flight at 2:30 pm that you can be a stand-by for and I can confirm you on the 8 pm to Bologna from Amsterdam right now.”

BEG came jogging up behind me at this point. As it turned out all the other folks at the counter had been left behind also. A total of 14 passengers grounded as BEG and I were. They also ran to the gate. We were all left standing there with Amsterdam as our alternative.

I had decisions to make. There were teammates in Houston not going to Paris that would put us up for the night, but remember I had just been told I had a minimum chance of getting aboard the next days flight. If I missed that one I would also miss the opening days of racing, the entire reason I was going to Italy!

My track competition clothes and spikes were on my back in a backpack. That lesson had been learned by nearly all the athletes over the years. Do not take a chance on lost or delayed luggage! Our checked luggage was by now circling the luggage carousel in some distant part of the airport. I told Raul about our luggage. I told him if it was not tagged to Paris it was certainly not tagged to Amsterdam. He said in the most amazingly calm voice for a man rapidly changing fourteen tickets, “No worries, we will tag it through to Bologna, pick it up when you get there.”

I turned to BEG. She was totally bewildered having arrived later than much of the ongoing conversation. I asked Raul what gate the Amsterdam flight was leaving from and what time it would leave. He calmly pointed across the corridor to a gate in plain view. He said “It leaves in 5 minutes, all the passengers are on board, and you need to decide.”

Standing at my newly arranged Amsterdam departure counter I tried to explain to the gate agents that my luggage was not checked to Bologna. Truth be told, they probably never heard what I was saying. They were incensed with their fellow agents across the corridor for booking 14 people onto their flight at the last minute. Ugly talk and frayed nerves radiated between the employees. They took our 1 minute old boarding passes and shooed BEG and I down the jet ramp as if we were stray cats being shooed out of the airport. I explained again to the agent walking us down the jetway about the luggage. Anxiety had taken control of my senses. Too much was unfolding in too short a time. I had a carefully planned itinerary designed to drop me in Bologna in time to catch a train. The train was timed time to allow one nights rest before the opening quarterfinal heats of the 100 meters in Riccione. I could see my carefully laid plans dissolving in the confusion of a long walk down a jetway to an aircraft bound for Amsterdam. I was doing a new itinerary clock in my head as I talked with the agent. Complicating the task is the fact that Italy is seven hours ahead of Houston. The last thing the agent said was “Don’t worry, the luggage will get to Bologna.”

We walked on board a huge Boeing 777 and even the flight attendant picked up the baton on herding us to our seat and treating us as if as if we were the main reason for the airline’s continuing loss of revenue.

Seated on the plane, which was huge and freezing cold, I turned to look at BEG. She was ashen faced. The run through the airport and the anxiety had caused her asthma to flare. It had all happened so fast she understood little of the details apart from the fact we were going to Amsterdam. She looked scared and concerned. I’m not sure if my face was reassuring. From the plane’s intercom not more than one minute later, the pilot’s voice resonated through the aircraft. “Well, we finally have everyone on board. We are going to be pushed back shortly for our non-stop flight to Amsterdam. If you did not intend to go to Amsterdam, well it’s too late now.” This brought laughter from the majority of seated passengers. The comment made my stomach do a flip. I was committed. We were headed to Amsterdam on a 9 hour flight. Once there we faced an 8 hour layover at Amsterdam’s Schipol Airport. Counting the time since we left our door that morning we would be looking at travel and airport time of 24 consecutive hours to arrive in Amsterdam. The flight to Bologna was expected to be 3.5 hours. The trip to Bologna central train station would take 30 minutes. The train ride to Riccione takes 1.5 hours, leading to a grand total of 29.5 hours travel time.

We sat back and settled in. The plane flew down the runway. The wheels below made that familiar sound as they folded back into the aircraft body. Eddie Murphy appeared on the monitor in front of me. Oh good, I really like Eddie Murphy!

(Continued Later)

Wednesday, September 26, 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.

Day One - September 3, 2007

The first leg of the trip is flying from Dallas to Houston. In Houston we are scheduled to take a Continental flight to Paris. From Paris we will fly to Bologna. From Bologna we will take a train to the track meet site in Riccione, Italy. The entire trip is approximately 16 hours of combined flight and train rides combined.

The flight from Dallas to Houston is one of the small regional jets that perform commuter duty. It’s the type plane in which a tall man has to stoop over to move down the aisle. There are 2 seats on one side, a single seat on the other side. (the photo above is the actual plane) BEG is bubbling with energy and excitement knowing she will be in Italy in a matter of hours.

Little did she know that fate would intervene in a cruel way. Have you ever done something awful like squish an ant or insect, then realize you held its fate in your hands and knew what would happen, while they understood nothing of your power or what was about to happen? Looking in hindsight at the morning we took the Continental flight to Houston, I am left wondering if the power behind the phenomena of human fate felt bad for us. I hope so.

Mid-flight we were told a rain storm had developed in Houston. The pilot said we did not have enough fuel to amble around the skies so we would land and spend the duration of the storm in College Station, Texas. That’s about 150 miles or so from Houston and the home of Texas A&M University. Fortunately our flight to Paris doesn’t leave Houston for 4 more hours so I feel comfortable time is not an issue. Like other unscheduled landings I have been part of over the years, we dropped in a free-fall into the College Station airport like a rock to earth. The weather was Texas hot, 90 degrees or so and the sky was a brilliant blue, no sign of a storm in view.

What is it with people farting on airplanes? Now, don’t get me figured for being all righteous, I’ve been known to fart some now and then, but I dang sure don’t fart on a little airplane! That’s just plain nasty and rude!

Now we’re grounded in College Station and according to FAA regulations we cannot leave the plane until the pilot says we can. It’s an FAA cruel version of Simon Says. She tells us the airport does not have enough personnel to put us through security again so we will just sit on board until the Houston airport re-opens. So let me think about this. If we get off the plane we have to go through security again? This is in case a terrorist is lurking in the College Station airport, waiting for their big chance to board an unexpectedly grounded airplane? Or maybe the person that was already on board and had just been thinking about terrorism, but now that we are grounded realizes it is their big chance to go into the airport and buy guns and bombs to bring it down once we resume? No guns or bombs for sale in the airport? I’ll explain that to the FAA.

After an hour BEG breaks out a lunch she had prepared for eating at the Houston airport between flights. Its grapes, sandwiches and power bars, though I feel a little guilty eating and not sharing with my fellow grounded travelers. Except for the mystery farter. All I really want to share with him or her is the business end of a stun gun. After eating I decide to walk back to the lavatory. Just for fun I decide to check all the women to see how many are wearing earrings. Don’t ask me why, I am merely a keen observer of human culture. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it. What I learned on my passage to the back is that there is not one, nope, not even one lady on board this grounded aircraft that is not wearing earrings. Don’t know what this means, but all the women are wondering what my problem is since I stared at each ones ears on my way to the back. They probably think I’m some shaved head horny bastard looking to make the best of my ground time. I’m not quite sure where a person would perform the deed in this situation even if they did get lucky, but that’s never stopped a woman from thinking the worst of me.

I estimate half of the flyers are speaking a language other than English, including a giant of a man directly behind me speaking a loud and excited Polish into his cell phone. His too large left leg is sticking into the plane’s tiny aisle. It’s not his fault really since he is too large for the space assigned a normal size passenger. Oddly the big Polish fellow is wearing a Texas Rangers baseball jersey.

The wait turns into 2 hours; two hours on a small regional jet with a mystery farter that seems to have no control of his or her overly active sphincter. I’m looking around for a cork just in case I can trace a sound to a source. It’s been two hours with angry and tired travelers speaking loudly into cellphones. I’m looking at my watch. The Paris flight is becoming iffy as the hands move around the watch. The pilot is no longer on board. I guess she never heard of the golden rule. This isn’t good.

The pilot returns. Instead of speaking directly to the small assemblage of 38 persons in a regular voice, she makes her way to the cockpit and uses the intercom to tell us that the airport in Houston is open again, but the storm is headed our way and we can’t be airborne until the storm passes our location. True to her prediction about 30 minutes later an authentic Texas tail twisting black rainy nasty storm emerges over the horizon. The rain pelts the sides of the airplane as the flight attendant hurriedly closes the main door. The wind rocks the small plane back and forth on the runway, the wings visibly tipping up, then back down as each gust runs below the plane. I’m glad we are on the ground as I see the magnitude of the storm, but I look at my watch and begin to think about alternatives. I try to call my teammates scheduled to fly with me to Paris. No one answers. I surmise this is because they are all on board Continental Flight 11 bound for Paris. I’m on the ground 150 miles away.

(Continued later)

The photo is the ACTUAL PHOTO from aboard the small plane, taken by BEG who has a Canon Rebel digital camera surgically implanted in her left hand.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Adriatic Dance

Written September 9, Riccione, Italy

A cool ocean breeze blows through a louvered glass balcony door. From the chair where I am sitting I can see the city lights outside the door, hotel signs blinking in neon reds, pharmacy symbols in green. Blue fluorescent tube lights from a hotel façade announce that the Hotel Fedora is open for travelers. All these lights are being filtered through the leaves of trees adjacent to the balcony, the leaves doing their own slow Adriatic dance as the sea breeze moves through them. It’s a picture perfect September evening on the Adriatic coast of Riccione, Italy.

Across the room I watch BEG in the small apartment kitchen. She’s busy preparing dinner for our roommate and other teammates in the apartment below. I am reflecting on how many years she has been taking care of me and caring for others as she is doing on this gorgeous night. She loves travel. She loves to cook. Tonight she is happy. She’s smiling and talkative, exchanging sweet words with all that cross her path.

While I have been writing our friends and teammates have returned to our apartment where the food smell has attracted them like the nearby sea attracts vacationers.

It’s loud and chaotic again, the sweetness and quiet of my earlier reflections broken, but I continue to watch BEG and observe her undiminished happiness. Now, for all the right reasons my own happiness is lighting up my interior like the hotel laden strip of beach that glitters outside the window.

The voices grow louder. The plates clatter. The silverware rattles and the food disappears. She smiles at me from across the room. Days like these stamp their imprint in my memory and lay their blessings at my feet.


Thursday, September 20, 2007

Short Message from Italy

I am writing from my hotel in Bologna. We have been in northern Italy since September 6th. We will visit Venice for the second time tomorrow then come home via Paris and Houston on Saturday. So much to tell you. Words fail, especially english words when used in Italy to non-english speakers. My feet are tired. At night after walking all over the danged country my feet smell. Of course I wash them each night in the bidet.
I came to maybe set a record or two in track and failed. We came within .28 seconds of breaking the World Record in the 4x100 relay. Alas, my USA team finshed second to an incredible British team that destroyed the old WR some 3 or 4 strides in front of us. I did set a dubious record of sorts, at least among the friends I traveled with. I went 11 days with zero luggage, wearing one shirt, one pair of pants, etc. Not kidding. Wait until you hear the incredible misery of this story of lost luggage. Not to mention gross incompetence on the part of KLM Airlines in Bologna.
Arrivederci for now.
Much much more when I get home and can use a true American keyboard. Ever try to decipher the Google Blogger control panel in Italian? Sheeesh!

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Spiral Notebooks

BEG and I leave tomorrow morning for Italy. We will be on the Adriatic Coast in the tourist beach cities of Rimini. The track meet is in Riccione. I will be staying in an apartment with other Team USA members and I'm told that its very nice and spacious, yet has no landline telephone. The reason? Apparently Europeans take their holidays very seriously. The coastal towns we are in are a major beach/vacation destination for holiday making Europeans. A telephone is considered a bad thing! I'm also told it is a young, tanned and fashion savvy beach and night crowd. Figure I'll fit right in......
Obviously there is no internet connection. The wifi's are in the hotels down the road, so I am going sans laptop. I will be keeping notes and thoughts the old fashioned way, in my spiral notebook. I will try to re-create the days when I return. Until then, stay safe and cheer for Team USA!
Yo Frien, Seven

This is Rimini on the Adriatic Sea

Saturday, September 01, 2007

I Love Your Nails

I’m staring at her grocery cart. It’s filled with garbage. Not the type of garbage that goes in a dumpster and smells bad in a handful of hours, but garbage that no one should put inside themselves. I am standing in a grocery line at Wal Mart. I buy groceries there for the most important reason I can think of, they are less expensive than anywhere else. Roaming the aisles of Wal Mart can create an overwhelming cultural mental meandering on my part. I start feeling sorry for some of the folk I see there, then of course I snap into reality that I am a member of the collective presence on that day and imagine they might be feeling sorry for me too, and if not I don’t have any business feeling sorry for them anyway. Maybe they are all millionaires saving a little money.
The lady with the cart of garbage is wearing a Baylor University t-shirt. She looks like the college educated type. Her hair is a curious blend of red and blonde, but obviously professionally colored, cut and styled, not the hair color box type gone terribly awry. That type hair dye belongs to the cashier, bored to the ninth heavens, dragging grocery bar codes across the scanner.
I notice the garbage cart lady also has professionally manicured nails on her hands and a lovely pink polish pedicure on her toes, little yellow sunflowers painted on each toe, all evident through her sandals. What is most obvious is she is the size of 3 women, rolls of fat spilling out from under her arms and around her legs. Now my head has gone into overdrive, imagining our friend Robert Shapiro is standing alongside me teaching me (once again) to discern, not judge. As far as discerning goes I am can easily assess her lifestyle is not for me. The grocery cart is filled with bags of Fritos, Lay’s potato chips, Chocolate Chip cookies, a gallon tub of Blue Bell Ice Cream…well you get the picture and there was nothing I could spot that could be considered nutritious, not even to a bored, disinterested and drunk dietitian.
So of course it is perfectly obvious to me why great rolls of fat are spilling out of her clothes. Nevertheless her nails and hair have been professionally accommodated.
What I learned is that I can feed myself for approximately two weeks for $78. After dumping judgment for discernment, (Robert will be proud of his stubborn, yet slow student) I went back through the grocery aisles (i have no real life) putting my groceries back. The Fig Newtons went back. The 10 containers of sugar-filled yogurt went back to the shelves.
I was now on a new personal cultural mission. I built a mental menu of 28 meals. I only eat two meals a day so it wasn’t too brain cell damaging. I recollected food based on my reformist thinking. When I checked out it came to $78.16.
I would have been able to make it through two weeks with only what I bought. I promise I could have, except BEG sort of needed to eat too……..
Anyway since then my eyes have been seriously observant of the extreme waste of food in our culture. I am ever more observant of the obesity epidemic, men, women and even their children walking about with fat rolling along with them, grocery carts filled with nothing but expensive garbage that I imagine a wild animal might turn its nose up to and simply walk away preferring to be hungry.
Something good came from this. In the month of August I have lost 8 lbs of body weight and I began the crusade with only 10.2% body fat as a start point.
I did it by not drinking Diet Coke, by not snacking between meals, by eating only when I was actually hungry and then only the amount that made me not hungry any longer.
It took discipline. I’m 8.9% body fat today, shipping out on Monday to race in Italy. I have a little more pop and zip on the track, something track athletes refer to as “lift”….only thing is I need to have my nails done before I leave, maybe a little hair coloring. Wait, I don’t have hair. Maybe I’ll spray paint a racing stripe down the middle ‘mohawk style’.
Seventy eight dollars for two weeks. Not kidding. Think about it.
By the way, practicing anorexia is cheating.

Yes, earlier I did mean to say ‘stubborn yet slow.’ It reminds of a consulting firm I used to work with whose slogan was “We may be slow, but we’re not any good.” It kind of reminds me of the airlines these days.