Friday, December 18, 2009

Goodbye Europe, Hello Minnesota

Now that we're back in freezing Minnesota, Phil and I have spent a lot of time doing the following after our whirlwind Cycling season and Fulbright awards coming to an end, simultaneously:

1) Dinking around on our Apple laptops (yes, I had to salute Apple because they're the best). We look for cool job opportunities, signed up for Google Wave and Google Voice, talk to old friends in multiple chat windows while conversing with each other and my parents, and bathe ourselves the ease of a stable high-speed internet connection. Ya gotta love tech savvy societies like ours, right?

2) Mexican food. Thai stir fry. Spicy homemade salsa. Anything spicy, we will eat. (Italians and Spaniards did not exactly provide us with many ethnic food choices.)

3) Playing with the foster mother cat and her six kittens. So far, they don't have names, so in the meantime, we identify them with nicknames like: "the austistic one", "doc/the smart one", "the asymmetrical blaze", or "the tiger twins". Oh, and my parents never named the mother cat, so her name to Phil and I is now "Momzies"or "Mumma".

As many of you know, we attempted to save the seventh kitty - "Lil Runty" - but the vet said she had a congenital heart problem or a liver problem that prevented her tiny body from receiving adequate nourishment. We were even feeding her by hand. Sadly, she was taken from us earlier this week. While at the humane society with her, Phil fell in love with a black lab pup named Cyrus who apparently was surrendered due to a chewing problem. We're hopeful that my parents will change their mind... they told us exchanging sweet Lil Runty in for a wild, unpotty-trained dog was not an even trade.

4) Playing far too much Wii Monopoly and a little Wii Sport. I know, it should be the other way around since we're cooped up inside and playing Wii Sport would likely be more beneficial to our health, but there is a major problem. Due to the difference in skill level (aka: Phil's topspin vs. My non-topspin frustration) and the health of his body, I feel that it might be detrimental to our overall health since I'd chuck the Wii controller at his shin bone if he defeats me more than a couple times a day.

5) Baking christmas foods for my mom while she's at work. Today I made the peanut butter with the chocolate star ones. Hopefully this can relieve some of the must-make-christmas-food-like-crazy pressure from her, since I'll have stocked our freezer with goodies all the way til the family gets home on the 23rd.

6) Taking a couple trips to Minneapolis to hang with the twin sister in her sauna apartment. I mean, 1 bedroom apartment. (I think hit 90 degrees. Not fun when you walk out the front door and feel nauseous in the winter's -15F weather.)

That's all for now - I'll be posting more often if I can think of interesting topics of discussion amidst the holiday season bustling around our much-needed, slowed lifestyle back in the States!

But until then, Happy Holidays everyone!

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Faulty Spain 2

How could I forget to mention another experience that shines a little light on our lack of trust in basic things here in Spain? On Sunday night, Kris, Amin, Phil, and I decided to hit up Rafa's crazy little sangria and tapas restaurant in the Barri Gotic. We've been diehard fans since the first time that our friend Antonio (a Medieval History Fulbright researcher) introduced us to this hole in the wall spot. It's partly due to Rafa, and partly due to this amazing sangria.

Rafa, or Rafael, is a man in his mid-50s from Malaga. He has half of his teeth, a long stringy gray pony tail, a collection of strangely printed t-shirts that wreak of days old sweat grime, not to mention his vibrancy that alone beats out any other establishment with sheer character. Because in "Rafa's house", you are treated like family. He talks to us about how we remind him of his children who aren't nearby, he dances for us and sings merrily to tunes that play in his head, and he pours up a mad "De Puta Madre" pitcher of sangria, as he calls it (excuse the language).

Now, in honor of our three months in Spain coming to a close - with FC Barcelona's win over Real Madrid earlier that Sunday night WOOHOOOOO! - we knew our real closure would come at Rafa's place. He welcomed us by pointing with a toilet paper wrapped pointer finger, to a table against the far wall and and began on a pitcher of sangria and his house spicy potatoes. We looked at the menu and picked out various items to sample. Since we'd never had more than the potatoes, we thought a sampling was in order: Amin ordered some mussels, Kris ordered a "bomba"(mashed potatoes and meat in a ball that is deep fried and served with spicy sauce), and we ordered the stuffed red peppers and chicken croquettes. It was going to be the perfect cap to the perfect soccer match that ended the perfect autumn of 2009.

But soon, that lovely idea was gone. Kris' bomb was frozen solid in the middle. Our chicken croquettes were too, and the stringy chicken meat looked raw. Amin scored big on his mussels, but he had a stomach ache so he didn't indulge in any sangria. Feeling bad about the frozen food, Rafa offered us fried calamari. Phil is allergic to shellfish and seafood in general, so he couldn't have any. We ordered another potatoes to tide us all over. Kris was brought a strange tuna pizza pie. As Rafa sat and explained how sorry he was about the food after describing how scrumptious the other items were, Kris noticed a colorful design on his placemat. Upon looking up and seeing Rafa's toilet paper finger blood-drenched, he realized it was blood dripping off of his hand. He freaked, Rafa turned, embarrassed, and ran to re-bandage. We were laughing hysterically now. Well, all of us except Kris, whose face said it all...he was over it. But after a minute or two of calming him down, he decided it would be fine if he tried the tuna pie since he was still famished. A bite or two in, he looked down at the napkin that had wrapped his fork and knife. It was sitting on his lap. Dropping his utensils, he shrieked. Holding up his napkin, there were blood smears. Just then, Rafa came back with our original chicken croquettes that had been half-chewed and were now little balls of deep fried nastiness (he just threw them back into the fryer even though we'd bitten off parts - GROSS). We were over it now, so we asked for the check, and assured Rafa it was okay, since he seemed mortified.

It was an epic frozen and bloody tapa adventure into a cuisine that we already despised, and that, along with our elevator adventure, has us yearning for the comforts of being in a land where that food would have been comped and the elevator would have been the size of a suburban.

Faulty Spain

Yesterday afternoon, Phil and I went up to the rooftop of our apartment building for the first time. The surface area of slanted bricks is expansive and is much bigger than we thought. With stairs that bring you to a second level of rooftop, it'd be the perfect place to host a miniature gathering, if I trusted anything in Spain that "seemed" sturdy (read on for more on this...)

We looked to the east and saw all the way to the sea. Turning around, we saw the Mt. Tibidabo cathedral and its famous carousel in the western hills, along with various height-happy spectacles of Barcelona as we spun in a slow circle. It's too bad we didn't climb up here during the summer since the winter wind is comparable to that of San Francisco here. And if any of you know those rain-drenched wind speed warning days which occur often in that foggy Bay Area city, then you know it's no sweet watering. In SF, you must beware of flying objects during rainstorms. Once, I had a large, heavy canvas mountaineering-type hat that hit my stomach like a bull while crossing Grant and Pine. Feeling sorry for the poor person who had lost their hardcore rain hat and immediately reacting to the shock of being pelted by it, I remember lifting my head and umbrella up enough to look through the shower and shriek "WHOOOSSSE HAAATTTT??!!" A few office workers in the Financial District scurried past me in their wellies without so much as looking up and acknowledging my Minnesotan gesture of trying to help even when it was of no use. Now, although I say Barcelona's wind is similar, I must retract that statement a wee bit after remembering the number of broken umbrellas in a violent cactus shape poking out of the heavy green garbage cans around the city. Here in Spain, the wind does get strong enough to pull off building antennas and satellite dishes (we have heard them crash in the night) but normally, it's just a cold, humid breeze that whips around the narrow alleys and has us preferring the drafty indoors.

When we left the roof, Phil pretended to get us stuck between floors to challenge my claustrophobic tendencies. He does this by opening the inner doors of the rickety elevator, causing the tiny 3' x 3' pod to come to a stop between floors. But since he's done this before - in fact, I think he does it every time we ride in the elevator, which reminds me of something big brother Ty might do to me to "make me stronger in the long run" - I don't overreact at all. I just sit there and wait for my 6 year old to become 27 years old again and shut the doors so we can get on with our day. But this time, after we started up again and were inching down from floor 5 to floor 0, the elevator came off of it's pulley (we think). This caused it to lunge past floor two very quickly and come to an abrupt stop about 2 feet below the floor. Phil opened the interior doors that slide to each side, and tried pushing on the outer door leading to the second floor. Nothing.

We were stuck there, between floors, in an elevator the size of my pinky finger. Just as we realized we were actually locked inside, we see our former roommate Kris walking up the stairs. Before we know it, he's dialing the elevator maintenance folks with the cell phone I left in our bedroom - and Amin, our current roommate, has joined him outside of the door staring in and laughing.

I was beyond angry, since I felt it was all somehow Phil's fault. I mean, it had to be. Why would you challenge a crotchety old contraption? Especially when you know for a fact that the one person affected by this would be your claustrophobic girlfriend. Subconsciously, the elevator stopping seemed intentional. I mean, he'd smile when he'd see me get annoyed and flustered before when we'd be stuck between floors for 20 seconds in that god-forsaken capsule. And boy did I ever let him have it this time, because he definitely was to blame for this.

Twenty minutes passed. I was sitting on the floor with my head tilted up. But my butt was numb. It was better than standing up though. He tried to console me and I could tell he felt horrible, but I was not having it because I'd rather scream and break the entire door down than tell him it was all okay when we had no idea how long it would take to get someone there to help us. And we all know that I won't back down easily...especially in situations like these!

Thirty minutes later, at around 2:30 pm, we were rescued by the elevator folks. My resentment turned into relief, and life continued on as we walked through the cold wind to nourish ourselves with a warm little lunch.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Thanksgiving 2009

I am pretty sure Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. There's practically no pressure - unless you include my refusing to use 8 sticks of butter in the apple pie crust for health reasons last year - and there's no need for good weather since we all know the sky will be cloudy and the trees leafless.

Now, it's been three years since I've been able to enjoy this holiday in Minnesota with my family. So that's been a little tough. But I had my uncles and friends in San Francisco to make it feel as traditional as possible. I now miss even the SF Thanksgiving ritual.

The more I travel, the more I miss everywhere. That may not make much sense, but it's true. I think I can do better to explain this, though: The more I live in very different places, the more I miss the things that make each place special. Traveling for me has taken on a completely different meaning after 9 months living in places that I don't consider home. Without trying, my suitcase is always in plain vision - whether it be in Flers, Lucca, Minneapolis, Campbellton, or Barcelona. Sometimes my life stays inside of it's zippered walls. Sometimes my life escapes onto a temporary shelf...but it's always there looming over me, reminding me that I am nothing but a world citizen who has taken to living on the road, and separating the meaning of travel from living.

I think about my little French pony often from my post back in April 2009. His disappearance still haunts me. It makes me feel a loss of control - that the people and beings we care about can still leave us even if we're able to uproot at any given moment.

Thankgiving has a lot to do with traveling, with living, and with the meaning of home. It's giving thanks for all of the above, and not separating experiences and emotions. I've realized over the past 9 months that it is okay to feel sad when something or someone leaves. It's natural. And it will happen again and again. So instead of drowning in the nostalgia of moving around, I choose to give thanks for the opportunities I've had to share time with those who've taught us valuable lessons. So I give thanks to all my amazing and kind family members, my hilarious and beautiful friends, the acquaintances and random experiences that have taught me something, my boyfriend Phil who has been an inspiration in countless ways, and especially to my heart and soul - the animals I have loved and lost - Sophie, Fluffy, Theo, Aisha, Dollie, Buddy, Copper, Mickey, Max, Cotton, Elsa, Kimmy, Penelope, Tonto, Lupe, Meggie, Tinker, and Cloudy - I wish you happiness wherever you are.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Don't follow the locals!

Today I went for an aimless run. It ended up taking me through the backside of Parc Güell on a dirt trail, that was quite hilly with a human to toy dog ratio of 1:6. I noticed a few other runners while back there, which helped kick up the motivation to stride it out as I leapt over yorkies.

The first runner I saw was a man about 55 years old with some very ripped legs. He must be a tri-athlete, I thought. Too thick to be a hardcore marathoner, and he was actually running, which meant he couldn't be a cyclist or anything. I tried to run behind him, but he spun around at one point, like a collie rounding up cattle, and started back down the hill we had just slaved up. Since obviously an about-face on my part would unveil my lemming-style running mode of the day, and because I wanted to appreciate having just crested a large hill with a view of Tibidabo, I pretended to change the song on my iPod as he passed me. After that, I continued up the steep grade, looking for my next local to pace behind.

There he was, just a few dusty moments later. I spotted him, a white-haired fellow wearing an electric blue t-shirt and sky blue running shorts, as he was speed walking. But I could tell he was a runner, he just had that look about him. Since he seemed to be a local as well, and in great condition almost like the herding dude, I expected nothing less than the discovery of the fountain of Gaudi youth.

In no time, I saw him darting off the wide, dirt trail and between a couple of trees at a quickened pace. He was showing me the runner's mecca of Barcelona! I just knew it! Wait, where'd he go? Where's the blue? I leaned, looking...running, running...hmm... crunching rocks made a startling noice under my feet as the trail wound down to the left and I spilled off straight ahead, away from the beaten path....running, running...

Um...Whoops! Sonja, look at your iPod again. Pretend you didn't see the path curve. About-face. NOW...and FAST. Pretend you didn't see old man's backside as he took a mid-run pee.

(I'm sorry!!! I was sick of stepping over poodles and pomeranians, and I thought, well, I thought you'd lead me down some paths that were different. But no, you took me to pee. I hope you did not suffer cardiac arrest right there. I made a point to run around below your pee spot before returning up the hill and checking to make sure you and your blue were not laying there... well... blue.)

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Fraudulent inflexibility

You know how you wake up some days and within in minutes, your day sort of starts off on the wrong foot? Today was one of them, and to relieve the anxiety and stress that has blanketed my morning, I think I'd like to write about it... because who knows, maybe you've had a really great morning and it will feel even better when you become grateful that it didn't start this way...

So, it actually begins last night at around midnight. I was looking online to see that my checking account could pay back my last little bit of student loans before I come back to the states, when I noticed that I was -$533. Sweet. Fraudulent charges nearing $1,000 from a purchase and some china house purchase in california have brought me to nothing but overdraft fees. So I called in, and they cancelled my card. I felt a little better, and decided to just go to sleep.

Today, I awoke at 7 am to go to the bathroom. Now, I was planning on going running at 8:30 am to jump start my workout, but out of nowhere, I have a horrible sore throat and stuffy nose. So there went that.

The next thing I knew, I woke up at 12:05 pm. Our room is in the middle of our apartment, so we never wake up "naturally". It really seems to do nothing but suck the life out of us when we sleep til mid-day. At least for me it does, someone who values my mornings.

I went to take a really hot, long shower, thinking maybe my room just dried out my throat or something. After that, I came back into my room and checked my email on my phone. I had a message from my mom, and she seemed disappointed that I wasn't coming home for all of December. I had planned on being home for all of that month and trying to find a job or something, but since no one had responded to my applications sent out yet, I decided that it would be equally as beneficial to work alongside Phil's team down at the Vuelta de Costa Rica, where I'll have free room and board for two weeks. That way, I still come home from Dec 5-10, and then I'll be back on Dec 25, to spend time with everyone.

Something I feel that I have not yet learned in life is how to balance what I want with what others expect of me, especially when it involves more than one person. Because I have been traveling a lot, living out of a suitcase, and dealing with the difficulties of having no one constant variable in this world, I am used to finding the good and the calm in the simplest of things. I think the struggle that I have in all of this, and other ridiculous situations I've dealt with recently, is that I don't understand how people can be anything but flexible in a world that is uncontrollable.

That said, I feel better having gotten the financial, familial/relationship, and health conundrum out in the open (and because I just made fun of Phil's allergy sneezes since he sounds like a cartoon when he does them, saying "A-CHOO!" each time).

I think I'll celebrate by going out to buy a new stick of fresh-scented deodorant.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Autumn food and winter play

Last night at 9 pm, Amin (fellow Fulbright scholar, and recently moved in roommate), Phil (my cyclist boyfriend-turned-computer skilled madman), and I were sitting in the living room. Thinking about dinner. Jenn, the keeper of the flat we all share, was to throw a big "fall dinner", yet there was no start to the frenzied kitchen madness. In fact, the quiet in our big apartment was almost as loud as our grumbling bodies.

"Are you sure she said tonight?" I was asking in 10 minute intervals, as the clock ticked to about 9:45pm. Finally, with the city nightlife fervor beginning to stir, Jenn wisks into the kitchen with Gigi at her side and takes to the stovetop and the oven, making (Sara's famous) pistachio pasta, banana cake, roasted chestnuts, cooked wine, and an avocado apple salad. Kris arrives about 8 beers deep, as he said, and livens up the living room scene with his bellowing voice and hilarious opinions. (One of my favorites from last night was his argument with Amin about Spanish people not getting lung cancer from smoking as much as American people because they eat better food.) Then Kelly and Marc came over, two friends of Jenn's, with a large kettle to make squash soup. After 5 minutes of chatting with the men about electrical engineering, cycling, and research in Barcelona, Phil, Marc, Kris, and Amin had almost forgotten about the food that was being cooked for all of us. Marc is originally from Barcelona, so he had a lot of insight about the city and the culture that Amin, Phil, and I found fascinating. Meanwhile, Kris was walking from the living room to the kitchen, dancing with Gigi to Brazilian ballads she was playing on her computer, and returning without the glass of cooked wine that he had intended to grab each trip. And with that, the clocked chimed 11:25pm, and the table was full of people and our stomachs quieted. It almost felt like an early Thanksgiving, to be honest. In fact, if we don't do something similar towards the end of the month, that's what it will have been :)

Today, Phil and I have been dinking around on our computers, and are planning to get going to the Snow Show soon, which is the Snowboarding World Cup held near Montjuic at the Olympic Stadium. I can't wait. Not only have I never seen talented snowboarders, I've also never been to a competition of anything that takes place in the snow. Not sure if I need to wear a winter parka, or my usual fall jacket, since the current temperature here is like 55 degrees!

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Spain: mullets, casinos, and 2010 preparation

After about 2.5 weeks with some of my favorite people visiting, and then with Phil arriving, the last bit of my free time here was sopped up by relaxing nights in Barcelona and getting food poisoning that lasted 4 days while in Valencia. But that's a story unto itself, and I realized that specific vomiting stories are only earth-shattering and fascinating when it happens to you, not when you hear about the multiple train bathroom visits or the fact that we had to stop the cab driver during a roundabout on the way to the Valencia hotel so I spill out of the vehicle and puke in a bush next to a bunch of happy couples in a city park. So that's all you get for details... besides my advocating you do not eat a spinach/egg torte that is sitting in a showcase window.

But this week, in the quiet that follows the post-friends-on-vacation lifestyle, Phil and I plug away on our computers in the shared apartment living room. Periodically, we stare out of the large french doors that lead to our Barcelona balcony and to the bohemian streets below, but we never stray far from our inboxes and status updates. Right now it is critical for us to figure out how to best kick off 2010 in our own, very different (and thus complementary) ways: Phil is designing his 2010 season 24/7 - phone calls, sponsorship talks, excel spreadsheets graphing profit margins, etc. - with his people in the cycling world. Yes, it's confidential, or you know I'd be sharing that information with you all. In fact, I don't know everything either! This is the life of being a pro cyclist's girlfriend, they say.

And as for me, I've been simultaneously working on my Fulbright research by setting up interviews with a few different architecture firms who focus on sustainable design, here in Barcelona. Something I didn't think I'd be finding after speaking to my host institution, Actar Publishing, about their thoughts on my project earlier on... they had said, in so many words, that sustainable architecture is not happening in Europe right now, because of the horrible economy (and Spain has the worst unemployment rate in Europe, at 17.4%). After getting over this discouragement and having my proposal to extend my grant into 2010 rejected twice which would have allowed me to go to Madrid, since there are huge multi-unit housing projects that were recently built down there, I figured I'd dig a bit deeper into Catalunya before throwing in the towel. And voila! Before I knew it, a smattering of impressive architects have responded to my request for information that will begin tomorrow, with an interview I have with Habitan Architects.

Onto other, very important matters... I have started to realize a couple things about Spain that I will share with you now.

(1) Spanish people - both men and women - think that the uglier the haircut, the better it looks. It reminds me of people who thought of themselves as "alternative" growing up - the kids who thought they would buck the system and be different. It doesn't work when lots of people are doing it - I mean, you're not seen as being daring. You're seen as another person with the worst haircut in the entire world.

EXAMPLE 1: a woman will shave her head except for the back - from the top, down to the bottom, so that it resembles a man's coat tail*. Usually this part of the hair is left only about 3-5 inches long so it looks fluffy, not mullet-like... see next.

EXAMPLE 2: the Spanish men claim the mullet. they cut the hair short on their head all over and grow the back down to their mid-back. sometimes they wind that hair into one, long, inspirational * they usually drape over a shoulder like a snake, or if their hair is thicker in back, then multiple dreads.

* I will be taking to the streets with my camera to find them for your viewing pleasure.

(2) While checking out the blackjack tables last night at the Gran Casino de Barcelona, I noticed a plethora of Asian people gambling with 100 Euro chips. Not just one or two, but tons of them. Throwing 500 Euro bills and even a 1,000 Euro chip onto the table every 10 minutes or so. Women especially. Young ones, like 25-35 years old. They aren't dressed to the nines either. Now, it's not that this sight was shocking, I mean, I was not amazed that women gamble, nor that Asian folks gamble, in fact, my experience in casinos generally is minimal. But the ratio of them in this casino was something I did not expect at all. Oh yeah, and we didn't win, but it was fun watching pretending to be one of those Las Vegas girlfriends standing in support behind their player's chair. I got him water, I held his chips when he was up, and I held his hand walking back to the metro when we walked out empty-handed... haha. It is "the nature of the game", they say.

That's all for now - I'll be home in one month for Meghan and Zack's wedding - and then to stay with Liana and hopefully find some fun gigs to earn cash while our "in limbo" situation gets sorted out. Phil will be heading to the Vuelta de Costa Rica from mid-December into January. I am sad that I won't be able to go along, but a girl's gotta pay back student loans and be responsible too...right? Plus, being with a nomadic boyfriend, I have realized that there is never going to be a lack of adventure. December will just be a time to relax in the snowy wonderland with my family and friends back home. And although it's not the Costa Rican waterfalls, volcanoes, and thrilling races I'll be surrounded by, I am happy and grateful for wherever life takes me.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

The past week, at a glance...

Phil, Hilliary, and I playing jenga at Le Journal.

Mercat St. Josep, the largest, most touristy market in Barcelona.

Hilliary and I shared a Magadalena and sipped down our cafe amb llets before undergoing hours of exhausting Picasso Museum carousing.

Ian and Louie pose for a muzzle shot.

Kris explains something in detail with the same arm that was used to take out a poor British woman moments earlier, after diving in for a pinxto at Sagradi.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The one who cares for others. Being a Soigneur.

I was editing my resume today and decided to google the term "soigneur" (swah-nee-ehr) to see that I was spelling it correctly, since I was a soigneur, in many respects, for a number of races this year in both Italy (for Amore & Vita) and Canada (for the Garneau team at the Tour de Beauce and for Phil at the Canadian Nationals).

When I saw this article posted today that had been published in USA Today back in 2005, entitled, The 10 Worst Jobs in Sports, I burst out laughing and had to read it top to bottom. Although I did not act as the massage therapist, as most soigneurs do, I had the task of filling 75 water bottles each evening before bed and making thirty jelly buns folded in specially-crafted aluminum paper shells - that were easy for cold fingered cyclists to open - each morning before and in a frantic rush during breakfast. I was also the one rushing with Lorek, the actual soigneur/massage therapist of Amore & Vita, from start line to feed zone in a top-heavy camper, zipping through the backroads of the Italian, Slovenian, and French countryside based on a weathered old European atlas. And after feeding the riders, we would shoot through the fields of cows and mustard to the finish lines where we'd feed again during the circuit as the intensity either faded out completely or was amplified by the finish line, depending on who stayed in the front. After each race, our job continued, just as you'll read in the article I've copied below. Needless to say, being an assistant soigneur was like nursing people whose day jobs work their muscles, lung and heart strength, and mental endurance until there's literally nothing left to give...

#9: Soigneur for a professional cycling team

Long, hard, tough ... 'and wonderful'

By Sal Ruibal, USA TODAY

Soigneur is a French word that means "one who cares for others." In the case of a soigneur who toils for a professional cycling team, caring for others includes responsibilities that would make even the most doting mother cringe.

"The worst job in sports? That sounds about right," jokes Shelley Verses, a brassy blonde who became the first female soigneur on the elite European racing circuit in 1985. "There's so much more than giving a massage after the race. We're valets, cooks, washers, drivers, wound cleaners, psychiatrists and confessors. It is long hours, hard days, tough conditions and a wonderful way of life."

Dave Bolch, who worked as a soigneur for the Saturn women's team and the U.S. Postal Service squad, likens the work to "being a roadie for a heavy-metal band."

A typical European circuit professional cycling team employs a handful of soigneurs, with each aide caring for three or four riders. Star riders may have a personal soigneur, but he or she is paid by the rider instead of the team.

"For me, it is a lot like being a road mom for the boys," says Alyssa Morahan, soigneur for the TIAA-CREF/5280 cycling team. In her case, they are boys because her team is a mostly under-23 developmental squad. "Other than the team photographer, I'm the only female they might talk to for three or more weeks."

Long, busy days

A typical soigneur's day begins before sunrise, preparing breakfast for the riders, making sure the team cars are loaded with dozens of bottles of energy drinks and water, race snacks and spare clothing.

Then comes the application of special lotions and potions called embrocations, which warm up a rider's muscles.

In cold or rainy weather, a layer of petroleum jelly is applied over exposed leg for warmth and waterproofing.

During the previous night, riders' clothing has been washed and dried. Their personal gear must be packed and readied for transfer to the next stop in a multiday stage race or for travel back to the team's home base.

Post-race sandwiches and drinks must be prepared and packed, as well as extensive emergency medical kits. The ability to perform roadside first aid is mandatory.

Dede Barry, a recently retired pro rider and wife of pro racer Michael Barry, will never forget how U.S. Postal soigneur Elvio Barcella took care of her husband after a horrific crash.

"Michael crashed in the Vuelta a Espana in 2002 and was then dragged by a motorbike which screeched to a halt and landed on his chest," she recalls.

"He was covered in road rash head to toe and was bleeding everywhere. He managed to remount his bike and pedal to the finish where Elvio began to clean his wounds. It took an hour and a half and they had to clean out road grit from every wound in his body while he was squirming in pain, sweating profusely and biting a pillow."

Before the start of the race, a few of the team soigneurs must rush to the designated "feed zones" where they are permitted to pass musettes, cloth bags filled with energy bars, cookies, fruit and drinks. It takes courage to stand inches away from zooming bikes as riders snatch the musettes from the soigneurs' outstretched arms.

Other soigneurs then drive a team van to the next hotel, where they check in and move the riders' luggage to their rooms.

At the end of the race, they meet the exhausted riders with cold drinks and clean towels to wipe away the grime. In the team bus, they break out sandwiches and snacks the soigneurs prepared that morning.

After dinner, the riders relax and get massages. It is during those intimate moments that many riders bare their souls to the soigneurs, who often know more about a riders' psyche than the team director.

And boys being naughty boys, sometimes they bare more than their souls.

"Another soigneur gave me a big ol' pair of bamboo toaster tongs," says Verses, who has soothed the sore muscles of such renowned riders as Lance Armstrong, Greg LeMond and Davis Phinney. "If they got frisky, I'd just bang those tongs on the table and things would settle down quickly."

Soigneurs also are the first line of defense against a rider's worst enemy: saddle sores.

"They're riding six, seven hours a day in the grand tours," Verses says. "A lot of damage can occur."

That means keeping tender parts clean and dry in a bacteria-laden environment of sweat, friction and pressure.

"I look at it as teaching boys how to care for their bodies," Morahan says.

Close contact

In some cases, soigneurs have also become enmeshed in the doping scandals that have plagued professional cycling.

The infamous 1998 Tour de France doping disaster began when Willy Voet, a soigneur with the French Festina team, was arrested at the Belgian border with a trunk-load of illegal doping products.

Former U.S. Postal team soigneur Emma O'Reilly made headlines last year when she alleged in the book L.A. Confidential that Armstrong used the banned drug EPO in 1998 and 1999. Armstrong has denied ever using any doping products and has aggressively pursued a libel suit against the book's authors.

Verses and Morahan say that while there is an informal understanding that what is heard or seen in the massage room stays there, the use of doping products is highly unethical and betrays their mission of caring for the athlete.

"Most of the riders are really good guys," Verses says. "I've given massages to Lance, and I can assure you that I've never seen any sign of doping."

The bond between riders and their soigneur is a strong one. Verses, 41, has retired from the pro circuit but still attends to her former charges when they visit the Santa Barbara, Calif., area.

Morahan says the offseason separation is difficult. "I missed it," she says. "Not being with the team is the hardest."

And the riders share that closeness. When Bolch left the Saturn women's team for a job with U.S. Postal, four-time U.S. national champion Barry says, the riders saluted him when they stole his camera for a few minutes and posed for a team "moon" photo.

"Needless to say, he had a little explaining to do to his wife upon returning home," Barry says.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Cheers to time, and a little aggression.

A quick recap before I get into my post for the day: After a week spent clearing my mind, having multiple day-long conversations with Phil, and encountering quality architectural firm contacts who focus on sustainable design here in Barcelona for my Fulbright, I am back on track. All I have to say is, thank goodness. Two nights ago, one of my roommates, Sara, and our fellow Fulbrighter and friend Amin were over. I was exhausted and it was midday. We sat down in the living room, and Sara mentioned how both her and Amin were feeling the same way as my last blogpost described my current state. I guess voicing stuff like this, whether it be in a blogpost or to friends, is vital to getting past it.

Five days ago, while in the thick of feeling like crap, I decided that a gym membership would be the perfect solution. Having gone to the gym closest to our place during my banking marathon that day about a month ago, I knew it was the one I wanted to sign up for even though it was a bit too expensive for my liking (64 euro/month). So in my dark little bedroom on that late evening, I went online to the DIR website. I found that you can sign up online for a special discount! Excitedly, I went through the steps necessary, and it quoted me at 41 euro/month. It even pro-rated the month of October since it had already started. I know, I know, I sound like a weirdo getting excited about a gym, but this is no ordinary gym. In Barcelona, its rare to see people running around or biking to stay happy and healthy. People walk around to shop and they will maybe bike to work on a cruiser. That's it. I wanted to feel like part of some community I could relate to, while also giving my daily schedule with a little structure.

So I signed up, and went in the very next day after work, at 3 pm or so. The fellow who helped me at the front desk was very friendly. I think he was new too, because he was asking the others a ton of questions. But eventually, he got a card made for me, and I was set. When I tried to slide my plastic card into the slot that resembles a subway entrance with the metal fan that rotates when you push on it, it didn't work. So I looked back at my new gym worker friend man, and he pushed a button that opened it for me, and said "mañana funcionará, ok?" I nodded.

The next day, same time, I walk in, wave, and try my card. Again, it doesn't work. I turn around, he pushes button, I walk in. You get the deal. This happened for the first 4 days. I guess I sort of wondered why my card was still not activated. I mean, I had paid and everything. On the 5th day, I was feeling ultra motivated, and got there around 2 pm. I tried my card, it didn't work, so I went up to a new fellow at the desk and asked if he could let me in or get my card to work. He was not a very friendly person from the get-go. Seemed a little too angry inside to be working at a happy-go-lucky place, so I was being extra nice to see if maybe he's just having a bad day or something. Well, he scans my card, and tells me I have to pay still. Here is the conversation:

Crankypantalones: Tienes que pagar todavia. You have to pay still.

Me: No, ya pagué hace cinco días y he venido cada dia desde allí... No, I already paid five days ago and have come each day since then.

Crankpantalones: No, has escogido la opción por internet, no? Requiere que cada vez que vienes, despues de la una, tienes que pagar 2.30 Euro. Si vienes antes de la una, sólo pagas 0.50 Euro... No, you have selected the internet option, right? It requires that each time you come after 1 pm, you have to pay 2.30 Euro (like 3.75 dollars). If you come before 1 pm, you only pay 0.50 Euro.

Me: So why did it not say this to me online, then? It had not given me this information, therefore, I will not pay for it each day. It's too stupid a system. What kind of a place makes a member pay every time? (Poor guy!) It's not right. Tell me how much it will cost me to be an actual member of this gym, one without limitations. Please, Mister.

So basically, this went on for awhile. I am just sick of being screwed over by these weird systems. The banking system, the gym system, the RyanAir flight system (that got me hard when I was coming back from Pisa to BCN), etc. So from now on, I will make a stink about stuff when they try to pass me off as a tourist with no clue. Ha. I feel bad about attacking people specifically, so I'm usually calm and nice, but if they're jerks, I will dish it right back. what happened at the gym...

He went and got his four other gym desk people, and they all tried to tell me how the system works when you sign up online - aka: they tried to calm down the aggravated American girl who was ready to shove the protein powder jug in their hard bellies.

Needless to say, I had to pay 15 euro more, and I have a membership now that is only for the evenings. So 55 euro/month for an evening-only membership... unless I feel like paying the extra 2.30 euro after 1 pm or the 0.50 in the morning. Grrrr.

Since that altercation, I went in yesterday. I first saw my friendly gym desk fellow there. He smiled and waved. Then I noticed my rude crabby gym desk guy next to him. He saw me and looked away instantly, trying to avoid eye contact. But when he looked away, he looked right at the nice guy who was now asking how I was that day. I noticed the confusion between them - one having seen me as my Minnesota nice, and one, the evil Cruela Gym Deville. I snickered to myself, and tried my card.

It didn't work.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Blahbitty brown grass

I've been in much more of a visual mood lately, wanting to take pictures nonstop and trying so hard to get the courage to open my sketch book and draw portraits of the beautiful old spanish men and women who sit next to me at cafes. I guess this is one of those things - you want what you can't have. If I had received a grant to do nothing but capture images, I'd probably desire the expression of words.

When I look a little deeper however, it's not as simple as that dumb grass is greener expression that we sometimes say just before shrugging our shoulders and dead end-ing any conversation. The thing is, I know what it's like to be content even within my world of constant, intuitive decision-making that regularly tips me off my rocker. So how is it that now, when I have a nice apartment situation, an income for a few months, food on the table, an ever-so-slowly increasing number of nice friends, and a boyfriend who I am so very grateful for, do I feel that I can do nothing. I am becoming a very reactive person. Not to the point of apathy, but definitely stunned when I see someone who exudes the same positive energy I had only very recently. And those people, the reactive type that I feel myself becoming, are obnoxiously boring. So that's not an aspiration. I must dig with my fingernails to get out of this rut before my awesome opportunity passes me by here in Barcelona.

In the next few days, I'm going to do all I can to motivate myself back into the hyped up, proactive arena where plain goose droppings and cultural differences are fascinating and not frustrating. Where love is something to cherish and hold dear. And where I can hopefully find a state of true relaxation. Something I've not felt in awhile with all of these dramatic life changes that will perpetuate into 2010, without a doubt.

Oh, and as much as I hate to admit this since I enjoy knowing I am perhaps too independent, I think a lot of these feelings come from being in a temporary (thank GOODNESS) distance relationship with Phil. I can't move forward here, because he isn't here with me. We've actually discussed this before. It doesn't make it any easier, but it's out there, and we know that both of us are dealing with the stagnancy in different ways.

But let's just pretend that it could be a bit more than the simple distance relationship thing. For goodness' sake, people do that successfully all the time. And a month is not that long. But for the sake of finishing this blogpost and not deleting it all having come to this pseudo-conclusion... I will pretend its a personal dilemma and tackle it head on in the coming days with some major couch time. Just me, myself, and I...and maybe a sketchbook if I'm really bold.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Little Louie

Here's the two and a half year old boy who lives here in our Barcelona apartment. He's the cutest gosh darn little guy on the planet (that was a little Minnesotan, yes).

Monday, September 14, 2009

All hail the Spanish banking system

Last week at orientation, they said it would be fine to get my savings account set up without a visa or any European identification. Today, I tried. And failed not once, but five times. The first bank told me to go to the branch closer to my house (it was not closer, mind you) and they could help me there. I looked for it, but the nice man gave me very bad directions. While searching for it, I headed into another bank. They had me wait for about 30 minutes before saying I would have to pay 35 euro upfront. At this rate, I thought it might be a good idea to walk into any bank I see and ask, since this was already getting to be a much bigger chore than necessary.

So, the third bank had a woman behind the counter. This time in my increasingly shorter and shorter summary of what I am trying to do in Spain and why I need this account opened to transfer my Fulbright money into it, I mentioned the fact that it may only be for 3 months. Not a good idea. I got lectured about what a bank account in Spain was, and how perhaps in the States we can open them for three months, but Spain takes bank a bit more seriously. I fought back the tears in my eyes... was I a scam artist? Did this Fulbright thing really happen or am I trying to lie myself into having a bank account for some illegal business I am doing over here?? For goodness' sake! I kept having to convince myself that no matter what looks they are giving me, or how many times I have to lock up my "metal objects" - which was my keys and my camera - that restrict me from entering the little sliding door, glass pod before you get into the bank (BIZARRE), I actually am just a Fulbright researcher looking for a nice, safe little home for a couple of checks that I can use for rent and groceries.

The fourth bank was after a cup of delicious cafe amb latte (this is Catalan for coffee with milk, as you probably gathered) so I worked up a bit more courage. Now, I know I said 5 banks, but this one was actually the same as the first. I thought I'd go in there and demand to open an account. He was, I remind you, adament in my being closer to my apartment with the same bank. But I can honestly say there was no Santander bank within a stone's throw that was any closer than this one, at only three blocks away itself. Doofus. I know my area. I've lived here a whole week now... geez.

So anyway, I waltzed back in there and headed straight up to his desk where I sat down while he was on the phone, pretending to be very important on his 1990s computer with the neon green font on a black screen. As soon as he hung up, he looked over at me much less enthusiastically than our initial encounter. I said, frankly, that I wanted to open an account at this very bank. I have a check in my hand that I want to put into a savings account.

Doofus: "Listen, I may have given you false information about the location of that bank. But the closest bank to your house still isn't this one."

Me: "Thank you for that. I would like to open an account here. At this bank. It is quite convenient for me at only 3 blocks away."

Doofus: "You don't understand, I am required to send you to the closest bank. Here, go to Via Augusta and up one block, there you will find the closest branch to your house."

Me: "No thanks, here is good." I get out my passport. I am fed up with banking politics.

Doofus: "Nope. Sorry. Can't help you. Good luck."

So there I was. Pissed, and jetting to the so-called "closer branch". Upon getting there, a woman said I needed a non-resident card, called the NIE tarjeta. She gave me the address to the Delegación Gobierno de Extranjeros, thankfully, and wasn't half as difficult to deal with as the few sour apples prior.

So I worked up the energy to sail all the way across the city, near Barceloneta/ the beach, to find this office. I got out, walked to the location and looked up at the large building. Yep, #2 on Calle Marques de Argentera. It's undergoing massive renovations equipped with a massive 6 foot iron wall surrounding every square inch. Believe me, I checked the alleys, there was no door anywhere except one that had a camera and was labeled for trucks only.

Freak out session... or... sigh. I chose to sigh. As soon as I calmed myself down, I started walking toward the subway and looked up at the darkening sky. Hmm...weird, I've never seen the sky so... CRACKKKK BANGGGG (thunder)... heavy raindrops start to fall and the crowds scurry. "Perhaps Barceloneta is like San Francisco," I thought. "It probably rains around here all the time. Thank goodness I am up in Gracia where I haven't seen it rain before." I jump into the metro and make my transfers all the way back to the stop before mine, where I very stupidly decided I'd get out and walk the last 5 blocks for some fresh air.

Pouring, pouring rain. Sheets of heavy, heavy drops plopping down at super speed. I saw a couple young guys scurry into it, up the steps of the metro, and onto the street, and I decided I too didn't mind it that much. I was only wearing a t-shirt and light shorts with sandals anyway. Much to my dismay, the rain turned to hail one block out of the metro. Rivers of iced pea water swirled around my ankles at every stoplight, but I kept awalkin'. I smiled too.

Sometimes I think that God has a way with teaching us things when we least expect them. Only if we're paying attention can we see the beauty in this. And today, I learned all about perseverance... and the importance of obtaining an NIE card to open a Spanish bank account to go back and deal with more stupidheads.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Last night was my first night back in Barcelona after a great orientation session in Madrid. There are some folks in Spain who've got incredible research projects planned. I'm the only one on a 3 month grant, since I am the only Scholar Award winner for journalism, but I think after 6 months abroad prior to Spain both Phil and I will be content finding a place we can call home (fingers crossed). But let me also add that we both need travel and change of scenery, so we are not taking these great European opportunities for granted! Not for one minute, which is why I need to be brief, since there is a huge parade going on that I wanted to go see.

Today I decided to get back into the running routine with a bit more vigor than I have the past few weeks. I got up, planned out an all-clad running route of 7.5 miles, and tied up my sneakers. It was perfectly warm, and people are out in full force since it's the Catalunyan independence day today and all shops are closed. Needless to say, I ran down Passeig de Gracia, turned on Avenida Diagonal and then I skipped onto San Joan for a long straight stretch down past the Parque Ciutadella and onto the boardwalk. By that time I needed a stop and stretch under a nice big tree. After doing some ab stuff and stretching my sore too-much-walking-in-Madrid-and-Barcelona legs, I rolled over to do some push-ups. Just as I got up from them, I noticed something to the right side of my hand. A very large knife. A sharp one. I leaped onto my feet and grabbed my sunglasses, ipod, and keys and looked all around me. I thought maybe it was some weird tourist trap trick... but no one was there. How on earth did I not see a silver blade lying next to me on the grass??? Still feeling quite baffled by this. I didn't touch it, thinking it could be major evidence in some case going on right now - imagination is a powerful thing - and then I thought it was probably just a little kid's meat cutting knife. He probably made his 8 year old crush a bocadillo and brought his mom's best knife to impress her. Who knows, maybe that is what little Spaniards do in their free time...

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Day 1. Barcelona.

I felt ill all day yesterday, and I think Phil felt the same. We force fed ourselves and watched as the time passed slowly during the last minutes I packed my two, strictly-enforced 10 and 15 kilo suitcases according to RyanAir, and drove to the Pisa airport. On the way, we "checked in" (not the airport check in, but the relationship kind), as we had done each day over the past few weeks, making we were communicating everything, given the distance that was soon to separate us.

What's a month, right? We kept saying that. Throughout the entire check-process, the time we spent on our macchiatos before I got into the massive security line, and right up to the time when we hugged, I was totally fine. I felt strong. Then, when I saw the way his eyes tugged at me to stay, to not leave, to get back in the Amore & Vita McDonalds van we drove and pretend it was all just one big nightmare that we'd even consider this month apart, I couldn't help but let a few heavy drops slide down my face. Why is it so hard even when you both know you love one another? Why should it be at all painful? Can physical proximity come remotely close to a strong, mutual intention to make it work in the long run??

Once I got through security, the hour and ten minute flight was a breeze. So was getting my luggage and purchasing a bus ticket to Barcelona, which was located directly outside of the exit. Everything was a blur, and was easy. The entire busride to Barcelona, I felt numb but content just listening to conversations in italian and in spanish that surrounded me in the plush, coach vehicle. By 11:30pm, we got to the bus station in central Barcelona and without a hitch, I got into a nice little taxi that took me to the Calle Asturies, within the Grácia district of Barcelona, and from there, I met Jennifer, the new flatmate, and her chunky little 2 year old son, Louie. He has very volumnous hair and bright blue eyes. His nanny, a Brazilian woman named something that sounded like 'Edesmana' - though I couldn't quite catch it when she spoke in brazilian-portuguese while hugging and kissing each of my cheeks - was delightful too. The apartment is small and stylish, but very functional, with high-speed internet and nifty little lamps in two corners of my small, comfortable bedroom.

After rummaging around on the web til 2 am, I hit the sack. At about 9 am, I awoke and got back online to see if anyone in the US would be on after a Saturday night out or something. It was the perfect way to start my Sunday. Phil and I texted back and forth as he sat in the villa kitchen eating our beloved yogurt/granola combo. I, on the other hand, had not eaten anything since lunch on Saturday, so as soon as I showered up and hit the road. I found the nearest cafe and stopped for a pastry and cappuccino, which I proceeded to order in italian, without thinking twice until after I had sat down. Miraculously, the looks they gave me from the cash didn't phase me at the time. I will avoid this cafe for as long as it takes for them to forget this- as they must think I am quite the blond (since I don't even speak italian like and Italian!).

And now, after 4 hours of walking around, I am back in my precious room, online, and once again, famished. Time to finish my chatting with Phil by giving him undivided attention as he fills me in about everything that I've missed in the past 24 hours...

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Austria's MTB Worlds and the future of Barcelona!

Last week Phil and I were in Northern Italy for a couple of his team's races, and after that, we trekked up to Austria for his Worlds Mountain Bike race in a tiny town north of Graz. It was a beautiful area, with huge, lush mountains, people willing to help you regardless of the language barrier, and with the worst city planning experience of our lives. Honestly, they have no restaurants in that entire Graz Metropolitan area that are not tiny bars serving only wiener schnitzel or ultra fancy spots in the "Zentrum" of the city. We did manage to get great service at a last resort - Hooters, where the waitresses were quite pleasant and not-so-well-endowed - and then at a small Italian restaurant where they spoke no italian whatsoever (he couldn't understand what Phil was saying when he ordered the "Gnocchi Pomodoro". Quite funny, given that it's on the menu written that very same way...

We stayed at a tiny little B&B in a suburb of the tiny city where the race was held. And by tiny, we mean one street with my estimation of about 43 people living there. It was adorable, we thought, until we realized there was no front desk, and quite frankly, no one anyone who could tell us how the tv and internet might work, after they let us in the room. Speaking in complete Austrian-German. I ended up knocking on random houses around the neighborhood to find the old woman who had initially spotted our car drive up and had given us the keys to our room.

All in all, it was an awesome adventure. The mountain bike race was going so well for Phil until his handlebars became loose, mid-climb, and flipped around so that he couldn't brake well. After waiting for a fellow Canadian's allen key and fixing it himself, he got back in the game.... only to flat his front wheel after about 50 km. Sadly, the race was over then, so we jetted onward to the other feed zones and helped out the other Canadian rider, Tim Carlton, as he came through. After the race ended, the Austrian mountain biking community livens up even more with fresh beer on tap and music. This culture is much different than that of the road biking community. Both have their perks, but we both find the mountain folks to be in such great spirits regardless of the outcome, that it has become a new group of people that I feel right at home with.

As for my Fulbright plans, I'm in the thick of finalizing our apartment situation. Phil will stay in Italy through the end of September, while I move there and dive into my research. The tricky thing with the two apartment finalists are that they are so unbelievably different! I can't even describe them (probably because I'm judging off of emailed photos and words from the owners in text form), but also because one is outside the city about 15 minutes, and it's a little more expensive, while the other is in Barcelona, a bit cheaper, and has wifi internet (but may be a bit more crowded). Sigh. I have faith that without worrying, I'll be able to truly enjoy my last few days with Lucca and Phil than if I take even one more minute to stress about not knowing where I'll put my minimal "stuff" once I'm there.

Off to go for a run now, as the temperature seems to be cooling a bit (from 90F to 87F or so)!

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Femminamorta, I was.

Three days ago I went for a 4 hour+ group ride with 9 others.

This was one day after a very heated relationship discussion that resulted in us deciding that riding together was perhaps not the best for us... but I went along anyway, figuring there would be enough diffusion for us to focus on the fun of riding a bike instead of riding the line of significant other/coach.

The day was hot, but it the ride started at 4:00pm from Lucca. We took off down Via Pesciatina toward the little city of Montecatini. There were two women, and seven men total (and I am going to assume they've each been riding for upwards of 20 years). Rides like this are fun for me even when I don't catch 10% of what they're saying while riding. I've come to realize they're probably discussing points that I'd find very useful - like where we are going, how far, what the climbs are like, where you can stop for water, etc. - but instead, I focus my energy on not crashing into vehicles and others' back tires and stuff. I feel like I can relate to someone who is deaf actually. I silently ride along until someone (normally Cristiano) says "Sonja, questo é una salita di quindici kilometri... vai piano ora, ok? ´E molto lungha." (In english: "Sonja, this is a climb of 15 kilometers (10 miles or so) ... go easy now, ok? It's very long.") It's at that point that I have to readjust my mental spedometer and calculate how hard I can afford to go. But because I enjoy being organized and prepared for things, this tiny factor of not knowing until I'm in something typically brings some unnecessary anxiety to my pedaling.

After 6 km of climbing the 15km climb, I got there 4th. Two people had departed already, and another couple were taking the climb at a very, very slow pace. I don't know why exactly, since it was moderately flat in some parts, and very shaded. They were even in seemingly great condition. Once we waited for another couple of people to arrive at the T in the road, we continued onward. This climb was very, very long in the last 5 km. In fact, the 15km of climbing turned out to be around 18.5 km, finishing near a tiny mountain village that was seriously called Femminamorta (Dead Female). I saw that sign and took a very deep breath... although I was proud that I'd climbed the entire mountain, and proud as can be, I rarely claimed last position (I always pretend I'm racing. It's slightly stupid - and a bit overcompetitive during a training ride, I admit - but hey, so is climbing a mountain inch by inch on a bike, right?)

The descent back down towards Lucca was on a very thin, shaded road that wound down the opposite side of the mountain. It was a bit too easy to go really fast and at one point, I was keeping on the tails of Phil and Cristiano to see how fast I could go when all of a sudden, my back wheel jumped twice and skidded on some sand, right before a curve. Keep in mind, there were rarely guard rails, and I have no idea how far down that fall would've been, but I kept her under tighter rein after that scare. I have a problem though: I am addicted to descending. Fast. Really fast, if possible. I don't know why it doesn't scare me very much. I mean, it should. I can get going up to 65 km, like 40mph and I'm not in a steel box or with padding (other than on my bum, which is barely functional as it is). But I can't stop myself from wanting to get really good at the science of descending with the angles and the braking/not braking when you're all crouched down next to the handlebars sucking in the fresh air.

Next week Phil has a race in Northern Italy after which we'll continue Northward to Austria for his Worlds Mountain bike race in a small mountain area called Stattegg, just outside of the large city of Graz. I put my former executive assistant skills to use and booked the coolest, family-run mountain lodge called Pension Lindenhof. They have internet access and a "generous breakfast buffet" that sealed the deal. I've never been to Austria, but I really look forward to the trip. Then at the end of August, I will have to leave our beautiful Lucca life for the big city of Barcelona in order to find us a little apartment for Sept, Oct, and Nov. It's been such a pain trying to figure out where to start, since our situation is limited to 3 months (it's not enough to sign a lease, but not small enough to splurge on a vacation rental).

Time to go out for my own little ride, or run, or yoga session on this beautiful Saturday morning within the farming country of west-central Italia.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Whit, Luci, Lucca

Here's my friend Whitney and I, outside of Lucca's city centre: the walled fortress. She's awesome. The wife of Phil's team director, Roberto Gaggioli, and originally from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. We normally find time to ride and run when the team goes out of town, while taking along her adorable little son, Luciano wherever we roam.

Whitney's son, Luciano, working on his cell phone promo skills. He's been training very hard for this shot. The monstrous choocha-in-mouth effect brought in the ironic element he was describing earlier that day over coffee in the plaza.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

The cafe on Via Pesciatina has closed.

Today is Tuesday. It's 11:47 a.m. Phil is on a bike ride with Flavia. And although I hopped on my bike at the same time, I did so in my street clothes since I was simply heading down to the nearest cafe to nourish my morning hunger. But instead of it working out nicely, I find myself sitting in the cafe's parking lot with no food or coffee. The cafe has been permanently closed. Cleared out. Finito. And it sort of throws a wrench in my multi-tasking morning of internet + food... but I will deal with it.

Last night we went to our good friend Carla's house for gelato. Since we don't have a car to use these days, we embarked down the winding hill at 9:30pm - Phil, with a beaming, miner's light on his head, and me, with a tiny blinking light attached to my handlebars. I've noticed before that when Phil talks while riding, he looks at the person to whom he speaks every so often. Last night, it was like the kiss of death each time his violent white light shone directly into my peripheral vision and momentarily blinded my overly-concentrated gaze at the ground ahead of my front wheel. Thankfully, after a long conversation on Carla's front porch, she opted to drive us back.

Tomorrow, Phil will leave for the north of Italy for a one-day race somewhere. The race takes place on Thursday, actually, but of course they leave a day early since they normally begin pretty early in the afternoon. He will also race on Saturday, near Lucca, in a place that I know quite well (since it's one of the only longer rides I go on alone around here): Camaiore. All in all, the week should shake out to be a pretty interesting one.

I am now going to search for another little bakery/espresso spot to quiet my digestive organs once and for all.

Monday, August 3, 2009

My computer tree friend

We've been back in Lucca since July 23rd and it feels more like home here since I found a new friend. She is a tree.

Let me explain...

About 5 days ago, it was blistering hot and Phil had a dental appointment in the middle of the day next to the walled fortress we call Lucca's city centre. While he went in for major tooth rehab, I had an hour to kill. So I stole his blackberry phone from him and went on a modern-day beachcombing expedition. Except instead of using a metal detector to encounter nothing on the beach but pennies and trash, I used a blackberry with a wi-fi scanning mechanism that allows one to find free internet. For the next 45 minutes, I walked throughout the most populated, tourist-ridden area in all of Lucca to find a sign(al) that would make my life complete. Winding through the cobblestone pathways, over the nasty stream that passes between walls of ancient apartment buildings smelling of euro sewer, my hope was lost. All wi-fi signals that I found required the personal password to access them. Just as I almost completed my large swoop, clicking the "Scan for wifi" button on the phone every 2 minutes or so, I finally walked up into a park on my way out. Just for fun, I thought, I'd try it again.

Sure enough, under the shade of a huge tree and next to a low sitting dark green park bench I received the fastest internet I've seen in Lucca since I sat outside of that hotel, illegally squeezing wi-fi about 2 months or so ago. I must've been quite the sight when I realized what a treasure this tree was. Instantly I plopped myself down, sweating and tired, and whipped out my laptop from the shoulder bag that left semi-permanent creases along my back and arm from carrying it in 95 degree humidity.

My new spot next to the wall, the bench, and under the satellite tree. My new leafy and computer-savvy best friend.
I won't ask you how you came to be so 21st century at your ripe old age, and quite frankly, I don't care.

It's funny. When we awoke today, I asked Phil what his plans for the day were. He told me all of his errands and riding that he had on his mental to do list. Afterwards, he asked me if I was going to go visit my tree during my ride today. Naturally, I said yes :)

Sunday, July 12, 2009

So today is Sunday, and it's the day of the Hopkins Raspberry Criterium, at 4pm. Phil's been diligently getting onto his bike and riding the rectangular routes around the greater St. Cloud area for one week in anticipation of future racing back in Italy when we return.

I loved this picture (it was taken while he was on his trainer before the Canadian Nationals Time Trial race on June 28, 2009) and I think it really encapsulates the zone that anyone who has ever raced gets into while warming up to compete.

Now, we're in Minneapolis and it's a gorgeous sunny morning in Liana's Uptown apartment. We're going to grab a bagel and coffee soon, and then we'll part ways to get a run/ride in before the race begins later this afternoon, then onto Superweek races near Milwaukee, WI later this week!

Friday, July 10, 2009


Hair chopped off? Check.
Hair dyed a nice blonder than the box's yellow shade? FINALLY. Longest 4 days and worst version of Sonja, ever.

Outside opinions of the forever-sporting-long-hair-turned-modern bob girl are appreciated (but not believed, sorry).

Feelin' like a brand new woman, which is vital before embarking into the exhilarating races that are SUPERWEEK in Wisconsin and Illinois.

A quick recap: we've had a week full of meeting my family on both sides and it's been the most condensed and completely enjoyable MN summer week I've ever experienced. Not too busy, not too boring, perfect weather, chill family time, and late night fast internet hours and hours of unnecessary internet cruising. Having Phil here to feel the fortune of wonderful family has been priceless (I tried deleting this line to maintain my cool vs. corny balance, but I couldn't leave it out. I may have to side with corny today.)

Onto the next phase of 2009 in just a few days - we're pre-planning for my Fulbright Scholar Award in Barcelona starting in September, and Phil's off-season of cycling throughout Northern Spain. Looking for an apartment for those three months that is accessible to the mountains (for Phil) and to the city (for me).

More Tour de France watching now, from earlier today, at 1:23 am. Or maybe I'll decide to get some sleep...

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Sweet Campbellton

After spending time over the past few weeks in Beauce, Moncton, and Campbellton, I can honestly say I am a fan of that tiny town by the raging St. Lawrence river. The people are friendly, the fast food tastes almost as good as the nightly 5pm dinners cooked by Grandma and Grandpa Smollett, and based on 6 hours straight of playing Rock Band, their pseudo-instrumental skills are unbeatable. Hats off to Phil singing "Roxanne" by The Police in the 4th hour. If you think it's easy for a baritone voice squelching out the same falsetto word 50 times in one song you're wrong, my friends. Don't try that at home.

Tonight we're in the Bangor airport. It's in Maine, and it's the nearest large airport to Campbellton at a bitty 5 hours away. We rode with his Aunt June in his mom's lovely grape mini-van, packed with two overweight suitcases and a bike bag. We stopped about 5 times in 5 hours because I have a small bladder. No, not a small bladder problem, just a very small bladder. Yes, there's a difference (I think?). Oh yeah, and we got stopped at the border and questioned by the immigration control because I got too friendly with the lad outside. For some reason I decided for myself that we were having a real conversation about Phil and my life, so I told him more, rather than less. This meant 20 minutes of questioning in the office that was concluded with a massive search of the grapemobile. Poor little suitcases. They were tidy before the land monster lady went through them, as Phil called her. He's normally an overly P-C person, but in this case, because she wasn't extremely cordial, I set aside my MN-nice attitude and will call her that too. In any case, I got a thorough lecturing from Phil about information and privacy and borders with an entire line-up of anecdotes and "what ifs"... the whole shebang. Needless to say, I am a newbie to the system that many Canadians are more than used to. Stupid borders.

Anyway, onward ho to the land of 10,000 lakes, the common loons and ladyslippers, the mammoth-sized mosquitoes, and my wonderful family!

Oh, and the hair - I tried dying it myself. It turned fluourescent yellow. Tomorrow I am banking on a fun visit to a hair stylist for minor color correction and a massive chop. Pictures coming soon!

Thursday, June 25, 2009

In Quebec for Canadian Nationals

It is so unbelievably muggy and hot in St Georges de Beauce, Quebec right now. We're in the same location as we were two weeks ago for the Tour de Beauce, except this time, Phil is racing the Canadian National Championships here (Friday is the Time Trial race and Sunday is the 180km road race). If the weather stays like this I'll have to protect his feed zone water bottles with my life so that the others whipping by don't swipe them. Seriously. They do this. And I would too if I were a crazy cyclist swimming through these 100 degree days...

Now, on a sidenote, I'll update the haircut status from my last post since I know you're all dying to hear. I've done the research and have picked out the perfect style and possible color - this is all very thrilling news, I realize this, but just hang on because I can't spoil the fun by telling you what it looks like - now, I must find the best person to chop the mane.

In just a week and a day (on the eve of July 4th) we'll be back in good old Minnesota for some homegrown, lakeside, St.Cloud/Minneapolis fun.

Now, it's time to get some sleep before another big hot one tomorrow.

Friday, June 12, 2009


When you have a bad hair day every single day for a week, you know it's about that time. Haircut, hair color, hair revamp - time. Lately, the weather hasn't been horrible. In fact, it's been everything from hot and humid to cloudy and comfortable. (Pretty much the only thing consistent is the drabness atop my head, reflecting back to me in the mirror.)

The world of pro cycling has officially enveloped me. Yes, I am done for... all the way. Addicted to the sport, the strategy, and the spirit of my very own cyclist, I am. I can't hardly find time to think about haircuts. And God forbid I actually find a hair salon... that would require way more work than I'm willing to put in.

This must be part of being in a relationship. Not that you forget about getting a haircut, about your general appearance, or about anything at all, but you just learn to roll with things. Your partner's highs become yours, and the lows become relationship bickering. It's a fun ride to be on, but it's super important to think of petty things that are independent of the other person. Things such as haircuts.

I'm considering a below the chin chop that slightly angles up in the back, though I haven't really decided. Something drastic though, I feel. Time to feel liberated from the long locks of 25 years!

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Tour de Beauce: Stage 2 photos

Phil wins 2nd place in Stage 2 of the Tour de Beauce today!!!

For the play-by-play of the day's race, check out this link to the Canadian Cyclist website:

But for now, here's a quick recap (GO PHIL!!!!):

june 10th 2009

A long breakaway wins !

Saint-Georges, June 10, 2009 - The second stage Thetford Mines / Thetford Mines, was new this year, and worried most of the riders not so much by its newness but by the light rain that was falling in the stadium parking lot this morning.

It was Darren Lapthorne (AUS – Rapha Condor), Phil Cortes (CAN – Garneau-Club Chaussure) and Peter Stetina (USA Felt Holowesko Parners-Garmin U23) who ascended to the podium this time. They completed this 160.6 km stage in 4 hours 1 minute and 22 seconds.

The yellow jersey and the white jersey for the points leader remained with Danilo Wyss (SUI – BMC Racing), the red jersey for the best young rider and the polka dot jersey for the best climber also stayed in the hands of Chad Beyer (USA - BMC Racing).

A more complete version will be posted on the Tour de Beauce website around 6 PM.

By Daniel Fertin. Translated by Christine Monson.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Tis the racing season: Granfondo #2, Slovenia, Marco Pantani, and Beauce

The photo I've posted is from the Memorial Marco Pantani race in Cesanatico, Italy this past Saturday. Just 24 hours after this photo was snapped by a nice old man named Gino, who drove the camper around from start to feed zone/halfway and back to the finish, Phil and I were on a plane heading back from Pisa to Montreal.

Now, we're in Beauce, Quebec for the grandiose Tour de Beauce. I am staying with one of the race VIPs since the team has room for only the riders, team director, and mechanic in the rooms provided by the organizers. The family I'm staying with is really well-known in the area, as they own a bunch of car dealerships in the area. Sadly, I can barely converse with them since they speak broken english (primarily french).

More stories to come - for now, I'm super jetlagged and in need of some rest before my 6am wake up call tomorrow. The forecast calls for heavy rainfalls and very, very cold winds. It's 160km tomorrow too. A rough one indeed.

(Apologies for the lack of character in this informative post. The story of my Granfondo experience #2 is coming soon to a Cycling Nutella blog (coughit'stheonlyonecough) near you!)

Thursday, May 28, 2009

The infamous Lucca Granfondo

I raced my first Granfondo, in and around Lucca, on Sunday, May 17th. Well, it was the shorter version, called the Mediofondo, at 105km. The Granfondo was 130km.

Granfondos are races around Italy that anyone can participate in. You sign up and pay a bit of money to get a number and a Real Time chip to tie around your ankle that tracks your time. Sort of like marathons, or any public races. But some of us just hop into the race for the training. It's nice because they block off the streets and provide you with water and refueling stations equipped with orange slices, half bananas, gatorade-like drink, and miniature apricot pies, etc. Since this would be my seventh time ever riding my road bike so I was scared to death. Phil, his Ukrainian teammate, Starchyk, and I rode from the villa to the city of Lucca at 7:00am.

When we arrived, there were about 2,000 people preparing for the start. Unlike running races, bike starts can be very dangerous. You are locked into your pedals at a virtual standstill, and other people are riding into you and stopping in front of you. As to not tip over and get trampled on, Phil cautiously led me to a curb about 50 meters in front of the start line. That way, I started when they did, and the group would be diffused by the time the lead guys were zipping past my front wheel. It worked out well. Phil was kind enough to ride nice and easy next to me for the first couple of minutes to make sure I was okay, but I could tell he was itching to ride up in front with the big boys, so I sent him along - assuring him I'd be fine back there if I let everyone around me make the hasty decisions to pass or not pass.

I must admit, from the moment we began, I felt out of my league. My legs weren't warmed up at all, but I swear, almost all 2,000 people passed me at superhuman speeds. Didn't they know there were mountains and over 100km (80 miles or so) of racing left?!?! Seriously. Big, small, old, young, fit, very unfit, everyone passed me... except for Carla. She is one of Phil's friends who knew I'd be racing for the first time. She is the girlfriend of Cristiano, the owner of the bike shop "Fast and Furious" here in Lucca. I struggled to keep her pace against the wind (and demotivation after having been smoked by everyone else). After about 30 km, we arrived at the first climb.
Instantly, I realized that my legs can climb easier than they ride long, straight flats. Hmm. "Perhaps I am a climber", I thought to myself. You see, in the sport of cycling, there are different categories. Some are sprinters, some climbers, and some are attack specialists, and some are descenders, etc. There are probably many other names that I don't know yet. At first, I didn't understand this since everyone races the same distance, does the same climbs, the same flats, etc. Like in track, I would never have raced against the 2 milers. They were distance. I was a 400 and 800 meter runner. They were different events altogether. But in cycling, the strategy is so vastly different than running. I had no idea at first, and the revelations continue to reveal themselves each time I hop into my pedals.

But back to the race... I start climbing and felt a burst of energy from having passed some people. It was a gradual climb but everyone was moving at slow, slothy pace. I didn't understand it. Why were the going so fast in the beginning and now they were hardly moving? "I guess I'll have to make up the time I gained by climbing faster than them on each climb" I thought. Hesitating at first, since Carla had waited for me, I huffed and puffed ahead. I thought we could reconvene when she catches me on the flats since apparently, I am pretty weak at them. I passed at least a hundred people going up that hill. Maybe two or three hundred, actually. I heard old Italian men shout "Dai ragazza! Ale!" (Go girl!). After about 15-20 minutes of climbing, we got to the top and began the first descent. Right when I switched into my big ring, my chain came off of the rings. I sat there for a couple of minutes as many of the people I had sweated to pass up soared by me. Sigh. All of that for nothing!

After descending, there was a long, straight flat along a highway. I tried to catch the back of a couple groups that came past me, but to no avail. I was left alone, riding against the mighty Tuscan wind that kept the tears in my eyes from swelling. Feeling defeated and wishing I could turn around, I continued on for the sole fact that if I stopped or tried to go back, I'd have to climb that same mountain, and that wasn't appealing at all.

An older man at the end of one of the groups hung back next to me and started speaking to me in Italian. I told him I didn't really understand, but that this was my first Granfondo so whatever advice he was trying to give me, I really needed. He motioned that I needed to change to an easier gear, and that I should get right behind him, and hang onto his backwheel. AKA: I needed to learn how to draft, especially with the gusting headwind. He was so kind to help me, that naturally I did my best to stay with him. But his body odor was so pungent, and although riding behind him made taking the wind a bit easier, it made it hard for me to breathe deeply (or at all). After about 8km of riding with him, and gaining a bit of energy back in my legs, I couldn't handle not being able to breathe well so I told him I was going to slow down. After all, I wasn't trying to win this race at this point. I would have been shocked to cross the finish line as they were breaking it down at the rate I was going.

After I ditched the kind, stinky fellow I took the next couple of climbs by myself. It felt about 90 degrees outside. The rare shade cast on the winding road was ineffective against the heat. As was the water in my two bottles that became so boiling hot that it was almost better to swallow my own spit for hydration. At one of the rest stops, they had run out of individual bottles of water, so they were pouring water out of big bottles in our mouths. I needed to refill my water after the dreadful third climb, before trekking the last 35 km to the finish line, but I figured I'd just wait. And as for eating during the ride, I thought that would make my stomach hurt as it would if I started gnoshing on food mid-run or something. Boy was I ever wrong about that.

With about 20 km left, one of the arrows was flipped in the wrong direction. It led me into highway tunnel through the base of a mountain that had no shoulder. It was dark and dangerous in there, with cars zipping past us left and right. I turned back without being hit, but it was a point of frustration that I could barely bounce back from since I had been ready to finish this race when it started! On the home stretch, I was suffering. For someone who doesn't get headaches, mine was pounding against my helmet. I loosened it, but it still managed to thump. I had been fully out of my boiling water for some time now.

My thoughts at the time: "Phil is insane for wanting to do this for a living", "Grandfondo? Try Grand NOT fond o cycling", "This is probably what hell feels like", "I hate cycling. I hate cycling. I hate cycling."

When a 40-something Italian man, also cycling alone, slowly passed by me with about 10 km left, he said something like "Che forte, ragazza. Molto bene." (You're strong, girl. Very good.) My delayed reaction to his comment came as a shock to me: I burst into tears. I couldn't believe he would say I was strong as he passed by me. That's when I knew there was something wrong. Why would I cry when someone offers me support during a training race?!

When I finished, Phil greeted me and asked how it was. I lied, saying it was fine. I didn't want to spew out my hatred for the race, the sport, and his passion - even though I felt like I could vomit, pass out, and cry at the same time.

Turns out I had heat stroke. I wanted to sleep, and drinking water hit the bottom of my stomach and wanted to bounce back out. Phil and Carla force fed me oranges and orzo. I laid down on this super comfortable gravel in the shade of the Fast and Furious bike shop tent. People walked by and stared, but I didn't care. I had rocks imprinted all over my whole body and when I opened my eyes, I saw ants crawling all over me and the rocks that cradled my head.

I vowed to never do another Granfondo again. It was probably the worst 5 hours of my life.
Little did I know that one week later, I would try it again.