Welcome to my little blog that will document my adventure throughout Italy, and Europe. It's going to be a good time. Here is the first post, copied from the mass email I sent to many of you last week upon my first impression of the big villa and my new life in Lucca with Phil.
"Good afternoon friends and family!
I apologize for sending you all this lengthy mass email; it's not my normal style. But since arriving to my new home yesterday - a 16th century villa - I'm not quite sure that "normal" will be a word in my vocabulary for what may be a very long time.
Let me explain...
Rain pours down on us as we skid into Tuscany. Phil has just picked me up from the Milan/ Malpensa airport in his little silver team car. It's deceiving, this little Mercedes. It resembles a Smartcar, but is taller and rides like a "refrigerator box on wheels," says Phil. (For those of you who know cars, the suspension is shot making it difficult to keep both wheels grounded on the turns. Especially when the hail starts upon getting into Florence.)
After an almost 4 hour drive, we approach the thick iron gate. It opens with ease, aka: an automatic remote. Looking back, I now realize that this would be about my last taste of the 21st century. We drive up a gravel driveway through a grassy, tree-lined yard about the size of a football field and park by the side door. It's painted jungle green, matching the shutters on three floors of windows. We enter the house through the side door using the largest, heaviest, iron key I've ever seen. It's about six inches long, and seems to be straight out of the Smithsonian Museum or a Harry Potter book.
Dragging my two huge bags down a few steps, Phil turns to me and says, "I will start right here with the tour. This used to be the servant's kitchen." It now houses the Amore & Vita team's water and a semi-broken washer/dryer set rattling in the corner. Straight ahead, I see a long, dark corridor. Phil brings me here later, showing me they used to make wine here - it was a huge operation. There are about 10-15 of those huge, wooden barrels that haven't been used for at least a hundred years, I assume. It's damp and musty smelling. I'd imagine old castles, or ancient tombs, to smell this way. We walk up the stone stairwell to the first floor. I quickly realize that the entire villa has remained as it was left. There are faded rugs on tiled floors with ornate, tapered candleholders under mysterious, massive portraits on the walls. And it's really freaking cold. Like really, really cold. I'd guess it's about 50 degrees. We walk into Phil's room. It's the only bedroom used on this first floor. The rest of this floor is off limits to the team as it is rented out to the traditional Tuscan families for their weddings and other events. Phil walks me through each of them through their connecting doorways. Each room has high ceilings with original wall and ceiling painting and embellished dressers here and there. For the most part however, there is no real furniture.
Phil's room also has about 20 foot ceilings. It also has floor-to-ceiling mauve-colored drapes cinched to the walls, a sink on the wall, and an armoire with hideous, muted floral arrangements painted on the heavy doors. He rolls his eyes and seems embarrassed when I comment on the flower decor that I now see as a general theme throughout. I embrace it though. It's going to be my home, you know? But I can't help but feel like I'm a character in Beauty and the Beast, or something - relegated to my room and the couple of team spaces on the second floor - and prohibited from entering "the forbidden wings" that are the rest of the first and third floors.
After hiking two more flights of stairs to the second floor, I can hear muffled, heavily- accented voices coming from behind a crooked door. We walk in. "Guys, this is Sonja," Phil says to four of his teammates that are huddled around a square dining table in their kitchen, "Sonja, this is Christian (a critical, yet hilarious, experienced German rider), Aleksei (a tall, lanky Russian who speaks little English, I later find out), Matt (a quiet, fellow Midwestern chap, from Wisconsin), and "Talansky" (another rookie from California)." Phil points to the wall behind the television that was showing Italian MTV and says that back there it is the shower. We all share it. He adds, "there really isn't any hot water most of the time". I shiver at the thought, or maybe I was already shivering, I can't tell anymore.
So there are nine riders who live in the villa - Chad (a Sacramento-born, post-rehab rider who starred on the reality show "Intervention" a year or two ago) was running errands and the other Russians (Borisov, Vladimir, and Sergei) are racing in a neighboring city for the next few days. Four of them reside in one large room adjacent to the little kitchen and three of them in another room across from the kitchen. Thankfully, Christian and Phil have separate bedrooms since they've have served their time. But those poor younger guy. Their room is fillled with huge protein jugs and vitamin bottles, jerseys draped over a few wooden chairs and over each bedpost, random piles of empty water bottles, and an assortment of dirty dishes. The set up looks like an old-fashioned orphanage. The beds line the two sides with no partitions, and there is no space of storage, so most of their items remain in suitcases stored under the beds. Honestly, it was shocking. But this is now their life. They do nothing but ride, eat from an old gas stove that you light with a flame, and keep warm using huge propane heaters that haven’t supplied heat for many days now as they’ve run out of fuel.
The third floor is much like the first floor in that it's been preserved for showing off what it looked like four hundred years ago. The one difference: it's all bedrooms. Huge bedrooms, with balconies that look out onto the neighboring vineyards. And natural light pours in, unlike every other room. The German rider, Christian, said he refused to stay in his 2nd floor room when he first got here. He thought they deserved sunlight. So going against team orders, he chose the nicest room on the 3rd floor: the corner room with the great view of the bed and breakfast next door and the mossy bodice statue, on the balcony. When the team/villa owner, Ivano Fanini, found out, Christian was immediately removed and lectured. No one may use that floor. Ever. Unless you need to pee. The third floor has the nice toilet, I find out. It's the one Phil says I should use, since the one connected to his room stopped working the other. According to the villa's gardener, it will be repaired soon. That was about 5 days ago. My fingers are crossed.
After the tour, we take off into the fortified city of Lucca for some thin crust, wood fired pizza. It's about 4 pm now, and the only thing I'd had to eat was an airplane danish at about 6:30am that morning. Needless to say, I was beyond hungry. And also feeling extremely jetlagged, and wanted to sleep so badly, but Phil refused to let me nap since he said I'd remain jetlagged for an entire week if I did that. We get an espresso after pizza, and go to his friends' bike shop. I meet Fabrizio and Cristiano and attempt to understand their quickening conversations in Italian. They laugh a lot. I hear certain words and understand the basics, but I can’t help but feel like my face hardens with focus when it should be laughing at their stories. Already, I find that the Spanish really helps me listen, but confuses me when I try to speak. Can't wait to get better at that.
After the bike shop, Phil insists on my staying awake by taking Flaveia, a female rider from the women's team, out to yet another espresso. It's cultural, he says. They do espresso all the time here. I have a sleep headache so I opt for the "cafe decaffeinato". She talks the whole time, and it was nice. I just had to keep my eyes open and nod. The women riders live in a situation similar to that of the villa, only they're cramped into an apartment, and there's five of them. After meeting her and hearing of their issues, I'm grateful to be with a group of international dudes who speak the same universal language: no-drama.
Soon after returning the villa with too much espresso in my body, I realize that this whole toilet hike thing is a main contender with the frigid indoor temperature for the title of "the worst part about living in a medieval villa."
And like clockwork, at 4:10 am, it definitely took the trophy.
(I wanted to hold a candle for the effect, but Phil didn't find that very funny. He's sick of this way of life after 4 years on this team, living here for 6+ months/year.)
Although I may sound whiny, this entire experience of my first 24 hours here is exhilarating. Those of you who know me best already realize how much I value challenges, and I feel very fortunate to be staying here. Right now, I think I'll hike the 12km into Lucca in search of a mug for my morning french press coffee, and perhaps an electric blanket. What did the people who stayed in this place do to generate heat in rooms without fireplaces? The time for me to be resourceful is today. Tomorrow, I think I'll opt for scrubbing the kitchen clean to stay warm. Either that, or I'll ask the gardener if he needs help trimming the hedges. I may even ask if I could plant a small vegetable garden.
Sending warm tuscan thoughts to you all,