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.

Wednesday, October 10, 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 3.

Day 2 - September 4, 2007; Part 3

The Bologna Aerobus is a 24 hour bus system that takes airport passengers to the train station every 15 minutes round the clock. I handed the bus driver 5 euros each for the two of us. He took it without a word and we settled into a hard plastic seat. In the back of the bus were two other passengers. Each one of the gentlemen bore a resemblance to a wanted poster and my police instincts noted that neither man carried luggage of any sort. Maybe the airlines lost their luggage too?

Various dilapidated buildings passed the open bus windows on what was an unusually chilly night. I knew it was chilly beyond the norm only because I had been told so by an English speaking fellow as we waited for the bus back at the airport.

As advertised the Aerobus pulled up to the train station about 30 minutes later and dumped us and the ‘wanted poster’ boys at the curb. The Bologna Centrale train station is a central rail hub in northern Italy and it is big and imposing on first sight. (see photo) It is also somewhat dingy and gives off a strong aura of urban life. I would learn later in the trip that it is a beehive of activity in the daytime. However at half past midnight it is more or less abandoned. We walked into the main ticketing area in total bewilderment as to how to board a train to Riccione. I assumed there would be someone there to help us sort it out. For example, someone at a window selling tickets. Someone that could tell us what it cost and from which track the train would leave. There are 16 tracks running through the station, each flanked by a loading platform. There were plenty of ticket windows and information kiosks. No one was present in any of them. We glanced around the area. There was not a single sign in English. All signs and instructions were in Italian.

I don’t happen to speak or read Italian which presented considerable complexity as far as getting to Riccione. There were zero trains in the station. We stared around blankly feeling overwhelmed by our ignorance of the language and our general fatigue and mental stupor. An assortment of drunken homeless lay against the walls, regarding us with zombie like stares. A handful of experienced train travelers busied themselves at the self-service ticket kiosks. I sifted a clue from this and walked up to one of the self service ticketing machines. Simultaneously we were approached by a man that BEG would later refer to as the ‘man with three teeth’. He appeared to be late 60ish, and in fact had a mere three teeth in his head so far as casual observation could glean. He smiled broadly and spoke to us in Italian, removing his grungy fedora from his head in the process. In a friendly sort of manner he managed to communicate that he knew very little English. Using two word phrases such as ‘where go?’ he discerned we wanted to go to Riccione. He took command of the ticket machine. He punched up several screens, all in Italian. He asked for 20 euros. Reluctantly I handed the 20 euro bill to him. With dramatic flair he fed it into the machine. In a couple of seconds a single train ticket emerged. He pulled it clear of the vending slot and happily pointed to the words Riccione and the time of 1:06 am stamped in the upper right hand corner. He bowed at the waist with his fedora sweeping below as if he had performed a veritable feat of magic. In my eyes, he had done just such a thing. I of course realized he was working for tips and gave him 5 euro from the change that returned from the machine. He smiled broadly again showing all three teeth and replaced the fedora atop his head. He then glanced around for new customers. We asked him where to catch the train. He pointed outside toward the tracks as if it was all we needed to know. When we exited the building is the time we realized there were 16 tracks. The individual tracks are referred to as ‘bins’ in Italian. We had no clue where to catch our train or even which direction it was to run. We decided to go down stairs below the tracks and have a look at the information screens. Going below the tracks was the only way to make ones way to the individual tracks so it seemed a natural progression, not to mention that the wind was picking up and combined with the cold night it was becoming unpleasantly cold. Though a little warmer, it got scarier down below. The drunken and addicted homeless had staked out a haven down in the warm corridors below the tracks. They gave us defiant looks as though we were trespassers on their property. A man passed out against the wall had issued a fresh stream of urine running from where he lay to across the corridor. We hustled back upstairs into the cold to look for any English speakers. As we were befriended by the man with three teeth, we were similarly guided by a young man from India. No older than our son he explained in precise English that we needed to board the train at Bin 6. He was riding the same train, but taking a longer journey, some 300 more miles beyond our stop. We decided to trust him in the same blind and helpless way we had trusted the ‘3 toothed man’ of ticket machine magic. We were cold now. The wind was whipping through the station as we waited. BEG stood behind me using me as a shield. At the appointed time a train made its way up to Bin 6 where we waited with 10 to 15 others for the train headed to Riccione. It stopped and we got on board, our full trust invested in the word of a young man from India, the only person we could find in our thirty minute search of the station that spoke a word of English.

The train car is best described as the type you might imagine from a 1930’s movie scene with Humphrey Bogart. Maybe the imaginary movie would be titled “The Something or Other Express’. It contained a corridor on one side of the train car which gave entrance to individual riding cars of 6 seats each. It was old and dilapidated, reeking of a long history and thousands of miles. We sat down in one of the compartments alone, a fateful minor luxury since the train was practically deserted. In a few minutes it began to roll down the tracks, a distinctive clikety clakety sound emanating from below the steel wheels. The cold wind rushed into the open window above our heads. I got up and tried to close the window. It was broken in place, the victim of too many miles and too many tugs. I sat back down, mired deep in a pool of fatigue. BEG stared back from the seat opposite mine, a look of odd ‘nothingness’ in her expression. I wanted to lie down on the seat and go to sleep for the1.5 hours it would take to reach Riccione. I didn’t. I wasn’t fully convinced we were even on the correct train. I was destined to watch for depot signs with equal doses of vigilance and anxiety at each stop. Still, I imagined our long nightmarish journey would soon be over. My sleepless string had reached 36 hours. I hoped and even prayed Riccione truly existed an hour and a half in front of us. I concentrated on a soft bed located at Via Petrarca 11, the apartment address which was still riding in my pocket. The cold wind knifed through the car. BEG huddled below her airline blanket. She had moved to my side of the car and propped herself against my shoulder. I closed my eyes and prayed again. The clickety clack of the steel wheels sang counterpoint to my prayers.

Monday, October 08, 2007

A Texas 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 2.

Day 2 - September 4, 2007; Part 2

The eight hours waiting for the KLM flight to Bologna was spent in a fatefully benign way. I use the word benign in the sense that no other immediate troubles emerged on our already darkened horizons. That new trouble would come later, hiding behind the corner, measuring its prey and waiting to pounce.

We took the full measure of the Amsterdam airport on foot, looking at flower shops and duty free shopping areas. I shopped for a razor since my emerging face and head stubble had left me looking a little rough. There wasn’t a single disposable razor to be found. Odd for an airport. I did find several non-disposable razors at 2x the regular cost. Thanks, but I guess I’ll remain stubbly for a while.

We ate at one of the internal restaurants, sharing a salmon on piadina bread sandwich.

For the most part we wandered around feeling sleepy and tired. Near time for the flight I laid my head down on a snack bar table while BEG had a conversation with a woman on her way from Brazil to Germany to see her grandchildren. I nearly fell asleep, but not quite. Since I am a fitful sleeper to begin with the top of a plastic laminate table and a hard bar stool were not exactly pampering.

With a degree of mercy combined with mental and physical fatigue on our part it was finally 8:30 pm and time to board the flight to Bologna. Eight additional hours had passed and I had not slept for 33 hours. Boarding the smaller flights in Europe is accomplished by boarding a bus with your fellow travelers and being transported to the edge of the plane. From there you ascend portable stairs and board the plane. We stood outside the jet and I gazed into the dark Netherlands sky. It was a pleasant evening and despite my fatigue I was now relieved that Bologna and the train ride to Riccione were on our immediate horizon. I think I even managed a smile and a joke for BEG as we waited. I kept telling her we were getting closer by the minute to reaching our goal. She didn’t seem impressed with my enthusiasm.

The flight took us over the French Alps, which we couldn’t see in the dark, and into the Bologna airport in about 2 hours. Naturally, we had to climb down the stairs hooked up to the plane and board a bus for transport to the terminal. A strange thing happened when the bus was fully loaded. The bus sputtered up and belched out the typical bus emissions, took a right turn and drove approximately 30 feet, across a pair of yellow lines and stopped adjacent to the door of the terminal. I’m not kidding. We could have walked the 30 feet twenty minutes sooner than he bus delivered us. The bus content of humans broke out in laughter. I was too tired to consider it funny. To me it merely seemed stupid.

We walked into the dingy bowels of the luggage carousel area. It was depressing and dark, yet filled with travelers and activity. I remained in a fog that had been induced by sleep deprivation. We went to the desk labeled ‘lost baggage’, a small grime laden desk with 2 attendants. The girl available when we walked up spoke very limited English. I’m not really complaining. After all we were a guest and we were the ones that spoke only one language. With broken English from her, hand gestures from us and a little patience we presented our bag tags and told the story of the bags being in Houston. She asked us where the airport should send the bags. We filled out the forms. She handed us a KLM sheave of papers that included all the phone contact information for the Bologna airport.

Now we needed to make a key decision. It was midnight in Bologna. The bus ride or cab ride to the Bologna train station would take about 30 minutes. The train ride to Riccione would be 1.5 hours. We would arrive in Riccione at approximately 2am. My no sleep marathon would have reached 38 hours. The alternative was to wait in the Bologna airport until daylight, approximately 7 hours away. I knew I wouldn’t be able to sleep in the airport. I could see in BEG’s face the weariness of the past 30 plus hours. She had slept soundly on the flight to Paris but showed the fatigue of our ordeal.

I knew from my research on Riccione that it was a popular European tourist area. I knew it was layered in hotels, bars and restaurants virtually nonstop for miles of beachfront. I decided, as any self-respecting urban creature would do, that all the above would be open when we arrived in Riccione. Did I mention yet that we didn’t know where our apartment was in Riccione? In my pocket was the apartment address; Via Petrarca 11. I never could get Google Earth to resolve the address and my coach Bill Collins told me there was no worry since the apartment rep was planning to meet us at the train station and lead us there. Of course I ended up not traveling with my teammates and at this point they had no clue where I might be. No one was carrying cell phones because none of us actually owned a GSM capable phone. We had all decided on international phone cards to make any calls back home. The apartment did not have a land line telephone. Communication with my teammates, even in the year 2007, was impossible. All laptops were left at home because the apartment also had no internet connections. Hard to believe. Its a cruel thing to have become so pampered in the age of communication and then have it jerked fully out of your grasp.

So my plan was as follows. Catch the Aerobus to the train station. Catch the train to Riccione. Walk into a hotel or bar and request a cab to deliver us to Via Petrarca 11. My teammates would be there and our long ugly travel plight would be over in about 2.5 hours. I would finally be able to sleep after 38 hours and prepare for my race the following day. Things were looking up.

Dark Fate smiled behind his veil, delighted with my decision, mirthful at my simple ignorance.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

A Texas 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 1.

Day 2 - September 4, 2007; Part 1

Once in the Amsterdam airport I made a straight course for a Continental agent. Good fortune placed him in my view almost immediately. Actually it was more likely good airport planning since he was just outside Continental’s only two gates. The line to talk with the agent was 7 deep. Twenty four hours into my trip we no longer had a quarrel with waiting; it had become the norm for us. I remain impressed with the Continental agent and simultaneously furious with the constraints he operated underneath. Impressed, because in the time I stood in line he conversed with passengers in Dutch, French, German, Spanish and ultimately spoke English with me. That’s very impressive indeed in a Jackie Kennedy sort of way. I remain furious right up to today because I had a simple request of him. It went like this, “Sir, I am almost certain our luggage is still in Houston. It was only checked to Houston you see, and then I was put on this flight as a secondary measure, and I could tell the agents in Houston weren’t listening to me……so, anyway, I am wondering if you could give a ring to Houston and have our luggage sent to Bologna? With a small smile that indicated he had heard such a story a million times he told me “No can do. The luggage will be the responsibility of KLM Airlines since your next and final flight will be with them.” I stalled hoping for common sense to take effect using the following logic. “But the bags are in Houston. I’m sure of it. KLM doesn’t operate out of Houston, which means Continental has to fly the bags somewhere for KLM. It gets back charged to KLM either way, so why not just send them to Bologna?” The agent began to repeat himself instead of dealing with my straightforward logic which upset me a great deal since I had heard him the first time. Additionally he told me that if he ordered the bags from Houston they would end up in Amsterdam. I innocently asked why, since it seemed easy enough to tell them to send them to Bologna. After all, language barriers seemed non-existent to him. Apparently common sense was not as universal a talent for him. He went on and on about the rules and he said with finality, “That’s just the way it is in the airline world. Tell the folks in the lost baggage office in Bologna to have KLM order them from Houston. I surrendered. The line behind us was growing restless in three or four different languages.

I walked to a TravelEx currency exchange window. I handed the young girl 500 US dollars. She gave me back 335 Euros. Bad deal in my mind, but I was growing passive to injury at that point.

I was really tired and I could tell I was operating at a mental disadvantage. Nevertheless as it turned out my now 25 hour day was actually quite young at that point. More work awaited. My next task was to find out if we could go stand-by on the 2:30 pm flight, now approximately 3 hours away from its scheduled departure. Overhead the intercom system was a beehive of verbal activity, every message read in Dutch and then in English. I searched for a KLM logo and any symbol of KLM ticketing to make the inquiry about the 2:30 flight. Finally, after inquiring at an information booth I was directed to the other end of the very big airport. At one point BEG and I walked through a food court where we were met face on by a gray cloud of cigarette smoke. Unlike the US, cigarettes are still in vogue in the Netherlands and smoking them is permissible in designated areas in the Airport. Not small out of the way places mind you, but places you have no choice but to trespass. We both coughed and put our hands over our noses. It has been only a few years of smoke-free environments in the US but the recognition that this was not a healthy area was immediate for us both. So the Netherlands has smokers that will tax the health system with lung diseases and America has obesity with similar negative effects on the health system and health care costs. Pick your poison. Smoke yourself to death or eat yourself to death. Either way, those healthy by choice will pay the unfair tax generated by the addicted.

We found the KLM ticketing area, but not until we took a long walk through the very modern and perhaps even elegant airport. (Some photos provided herein) The KLM ticket area operated on a ‘take a number’ basis’, so I did just that, sat down on a provided waiting bench and closed my eyes. I was so very weary and sleepy. I prayed. I prayed for the 2:30 flight to have 2 seats. When my number popped up on the overhead board I went and stood in front of a 20 something KLM agent that was wearing a yellow blazer just like the one worn by the other 12 female agents. Not a male agent in sight. Maybe they don’t like yellow blazers. Atop her head perched a baby blue beret nestled in a head of dark brown hair. Her lips were painted up with a dark red lipstick. She smiled and said ‘whasssup’ in Dutch. I guess that is what she said…..I told her English please and she smiled the same smile again and said “how can I help you sir?” I asked about the flight. She turned to her keyboard and worked it with professional ease. She smiled (wrong reaction) and told me I had as much chance as an ice cube in Houston in July. Actually what she really said was “I’m sorry sir the flight is overbooked. There is a standby list of 11 persons in front of you, and I can promise you that you won’t be able to get on. But I can put you on the list if you want,” she added brightly at the end. I turned and looked at BEG. She could tell from the expression on my face. I asked the ticketing agent to confirm that we were booked on the 9pm flight to Bologna. She worked the keyboard expertly again and rendered an affirmative answer this time. I explained I had not slept in a while and asked her if there was anywhere to sleep while we waited the 8 hours. She advised not only was there no place to sleep, but the police commonly remove people from the airport if they are caught sleeping in a horizontal position. Well, damn it to hell, that just happens to be the ONLY way I CAN sleep!

I turned to BEG. She picked up her camera backpack and purse and trudged behind me. I had no idea where we were going from there. The flight to Bologna was 8 hours away. It appeared the Amsterdam airport would be our home for awhile. I thought about Tom Hanks in the movie ‘Terminal’. However, as I recall, Tom did have his bags in the movie.

(To Be Continued)

Tuesday, October 02, 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 3 of Day One.

Day One Continued - September 3, 2007
Continental Flight 11 is flying a route that parallels the east coast of the United States. The aircraft is making its way directly over Bangor, Maine before turning east to cross the Atlantic. BEG and I are both freezing. Covered in an airline blanket, BEG is sleeping. I am not. The seat headrest is just a slight bit too far back for my head to rest comfortably. I tried resting my head to the side but my neck begins to ache. I am shivering under my blue Continental blanket. My ass aches from a too-hard seat, not to mention having sat on the previous flight for 7 hours. I can see a man in the center row with his head hanging down awkwardly, his chin is resting virtually on his chest. However his chin isn’t actually touching his chest which must place a horrid stress on the man’s neck. His head bobs to and fro as the planes rocks in turbulent air. I once worked a crime scene where a man sat dead in a leather recliner in exactly the same position. His head didn't bob, but then again perhaps it might have in an airliner, sans the rigor mortis period. Overhead a monitor shows the course, altitude, headwind and other details about the flight. It’s a sort of ‘follow along while we fly’ techno-thing, a gizmo that would make old Mitch Miller proud. I am growing very tired, the day becoming taxing while we have traveled and battled with airline schedules and airline seating. I woke at 5am this morning. Right now, somewhere over Bangor or thereabouts we are about one third of the way to Amsterdam. It’s 11:30 pm on my biologic clock.

When we reach Amsterdam it will magically become 11:40 am. The warping of time is messing with my brain as I try to work out the details of getting to Riccione and how much time I will have to rest before competing on the track. I’m told Einstein often felt frustrated in his work with the physics of time. I grant him my total respect and admiration since I have become clumsily confused to the point of mild retardation with a seven hour time difference. Where is Albert when I need him most? Though it will be 11:40 am in Amsterdam it will be 5:40 am on my biologic clock. Because of my inability to sleep on the plane I will have been awake over 24 hours when the flight is complete.

It turns out Eddie Murphy was doing a promo for Shrek, one of the in-flight movies. I’m watching with my cherished Sony earphones plugged into my ears, laughing like I always do at ‘Donkey’ and his lines. Even when Eddie is a donkey he makes me laugh. An hour and a half later, somewhere near Iceland according to the ‘follow along’ monitor, I make my way to the lavatories in the center of the plane. Oh My God, what are people doing in there? The smell around the lavatory area is atrocious. When I come out I give the passengers seated adjacent to the small smelly rooms my best look of “I am so sorry you have to sit here.” They just gaze sleepily back at me seeming to be anesthetized. I presume their noses have gone on strike and shut down their work in protest.

Time has passed in the ice cold cabin and London shows to be underneath our wings now. BEG has blinked her eyes open a couple of times, long enough to complain about the temperature and scrunch herself into a tinier ball. I’ve passed the sleepy and tired stage into some other odd world of observation and numbness. The man that resembles the murder victim is still comatose and I worry about his neck. I imagine him spending the rest of his life stuck in this unimaginable pose, attending business meetings with his chin near to his chest, his vertebra forever welded into the unfortunate pose. I imagine him looking at great works of art by lying down on the floor in front of the painting. Rationality and purposeful thinking are evasive in my fatigue.

Mercifully the first 24 hours of our trip ends with a normal descent and landing in Amsterdam. We are welcomed in Dutch and English, though I don’t understand a word of the Dutch. It is a West German derivative and it sounds very peculiar and harsh as if it would be a monumental task to speak correctly. I cross learning Dutch off my list.

I am wrapping up my headphones now and preparing to deplane into Amsterdam’s Schipol Airport. BEG stirs and begins folding her blanket. I’m anxious about what will happen next and I am sleepy and tired. Thoughts of our luggage will not exit my brain and I really do fear the worst. I’m relieved I have my competition clothes and spikes in my carry-on backpack. I applaud myself for outwitting the system on that detail. I keep thinking, although the thinking is accomplished through a sleepy jet lag stupor, that its day two now, and maybe things will begin to brighten up. Maybe we can go standby on the 2:30 flight to Bologna. That will mean only 3 hours in Amsterdam. I cross my fingers, say a prayer, and head up the jetway to the Netherlands. I’m headed into day 2!