Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Spreading the Murphy Love

Elemental to our daily happiness - like the air we breathe - Murphy was our water for the past five months. He provided us with a constant fountain of adventures, and he lived for the water itself. He drank it by the gallon, jumped from high cliffs to swim in it despite our efforts and every single day he refreshed our daily routines by completely throwing them off.

Silky thick locks of golden fur coating his soft physique, Murphy first entered my world while I was in Italy during the late summer of 2010. I'd heard mention of his arrival in an email from my mom where she wrote of their recent visit to the Tri-County Humane Society. I couldn't get home soon enough.

Since our perfect childhood dog, Sophie, had passed a couple of years before, we all secretly wished my parents would get another dog. Finally, he had come. A whole lot of him. Much bigger than a puppy (but with the same maturity level) Murphy's long, smiling head was the size of a small horse. He had deep set, dark brown eyes and an ever-expressive brow.

Soon after arriving home, we were relaxed downstairs for a movie with Murphy at our feet. My parents said he experienced a seizure prior to my return home that may have been caused by overexercising, but no one knew for sure. That night, he had another one. We calmly surrounded his jolting limbs and protected his head from the hard surface of the media center. It was hard to watch. After a couple of minutes it was over. The twinkle in his eyes was gone briefly, and for the next fifteen minutes he paid no attention to people as he panted and shifted from one room to the next.

Murphy liked jewelry. He chomped up six or more pairs of my earrings, a necklace, and a ring, spitting them into pieces. Once he was trying to get the earrings I hid on a table and he knocked over a commemorative shot glass that shattered as it fell. My mom and ran over to him just as he started trying to ingest a huge piece of glass that she carefully yanked out.

Another time, he found a couple packs of Sport Beans and a strawberry powder drink mix from the Interbike show. After breaking in, he smeared the crystallized chunks all over our carpet. Minutes later, he found the chunks that had sunk between the carpet threads, and proceeded to eat the carpet itself.

As much as he was difficult at times, little Murph made up for by never whining, growling, and rarely a bark. He could care less about other dogs. While at the dog park, he'd spring to the far end and try to get down to the water to play alone. He never even jumped up onto anything. In fact, he was only beginning to learn how to go around glass doors to get inside, and how to jump into cars.

Typically, I'd wake up in the morning after my parents had gone to work. I would plug away at blogging for Designer Pages and anxiously await my late afternoons spent with Murphy. Running shoes laced, we galloped the two miles down Beaver Island Trail to St Cloud State. Smurphy would stop and grab random sticks - some far too big for his body - and carry them for miles. Sometimes he ate leaves that had fallen. He'd dart in front of me in pursuit of them and purposely make me trip over him as people passed. I'd let out a playful shriek, blush, and reach down to apologize for my knee to his ribs, but it always seemed like he relished those moments, examining my face to make sure I wasn't angry with him for demanding love. Of course I wasn't. Sometimes I'd just sit there with him for awhile. Even lay down on random grassy lawns and roll around on our backs together.

One night at dusk Murphy and I made our way back home from a walk. There was something happening in my mom's vegetable garden behind the house. Three deer eating all of her beans and herbs? NOT okay. This was his chance to shine! I knelt down next to Murphy and gave him a pep talk before asking our bundle of love to do the unthinkable: chase them away. From 100 meters back, we began to sprint. "Get them, Murphy! Run like the wind!!" I yelled.

Just as the twinge of what it might be like to realize you're the owner of a hopeless "hunting dog" set in, our dog spotted the deer and magically began after them. I cheered. Shouting from behind, I realized something: His soft golden body wasn't chasing them at all. He was imitating them, trying for that same spring in his step, and would look back at me every couple seconds to make I was saw him doing it. After zig-zagging, he got to the water after they'd ascended into the island brush. I called to him. No response. Once I got to the river bank, I noticed he had waded in and was literally squatting in the shallow water's mud about 10 feet away. Fifteen minutes and a shattered sense of companionship for not getting him out myself, my mom and I stood there together. Waving sticks and throwing tennis balls, he watched us act like idiots. Eventually, we waded in knee-deep to pull him out.

This was a dog who more than loved the water. He lived for it. But in the weeks to follow, Murphy's seizures continued, and got worse.

Epilepsy, we thought.

Since acupuncture didn't seem to work, we opted for the heavy duty, two-a-day phenobarbitol meds. They made him tired. Constantly hungry too, eating more carpeting, gnawing on countertops, t-shirts, more earrings, and even added a USB key that contained my Fulbright documents.

After being in Minneapolis for a week, I returned on Sunday night to St. Cloud. Yesterday, on Monday afternoon, Murphy had 3 seizures in 5 hours. Each seemed worse than the one before. It's a horrible thing to witness. During the final seizure yesterday, his entire body spun in circles around the room. I jumped between him and the bed frame, dresser, and closet with a pillow in my hands to cushion his fall, but at this point I knew it was more than epilepsy.

A brain tumor, we reasoned. All of his symptoms matched.

Twenty minutes after the third seizure, he jumped into the car without help, and took his final trip to the vet.

Murphy is gone now.
And there's something about the unconditional love he had offered me in such a short time that felt like a solid, unwavering force. As if I could no wrong. It cannot be compared to human friends, as wonderful as they may be. In my life, Murphy has been much more than a sweet dog... he was my gale wind showing us all how to live a new, beautiful day each morning.

I'll never forget Murphy. He's probably watching us from a little river somewhere, wading in water with jewelry and rawhide aplenty.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

5 lb Gone, til November

I just bought really cool plates at anthropologie yesterday that look like a tree stump's annual rings that measure it's age. I got an oven mitt and matching potholder too. They're pretty sharp looking in a lime green, cream, and blue pattern. They're very anthropologie, with that modern, sugary sweet country flavor to them that looks good in modern or vintage spaces alike.

I'm not really a spender, I do not hoard anything at all (I'm what my mom would call a "thrower") and I definitely don't have my own place to use them in.

Today I started my day off writing my usual Designer Pages blogpost piece after having almost finished it last evening. This morning a major internet mishap took place right when I was almost finished, so I jetted to the Caribou near downtown St. Cloud with what some might consider an "artsy, disheveled" look - which was actually just the outward appearance of my stress balling up inside - with mismatched cropped khakis and a pair of adidas sandals with windy t-shirt and cycling sunglasses on. Needless to say, I got it done and apologized for the tardiness.

It's weird. Sometimes I feel like my entire life comes together. It feels like it's one big design - all orderly, thought out and fluid from one minute to the next - even when it throws me off track and puts me on a new one. It just constantly exudes this grounded feel to me and other around me, even when the truth is - there's nothing secure about it.

Life has permission to take me from one place to another, leading me from one job into the next, and allows insightful words of people, both random and beloved, to affect my path as they weave in and out of my daily life.

Other times, like now, I feel like I just buy cute designed oven mitts for an oven I don't have... and go even further to convince myself that eight tree plates are practical. There's no design to that. In fact, it makes little to no sense. Doesn't even fit into what feels like my lifelong suitcase.

But I had a moment yesterday where I wanted to feel something special just for myself. I didn't want everyone telling me that my life is incredible because I've lived abroad. Because I work from home. Because I have been able to ride a bike, road trip all over, etc. Although I do not take anything for granted and I feel so grateful that my "lose control of your path to pave a new one" mentality has proved itself positive, I crave the kind of life where I can keep things that I like. Where I can feel something about the world I choose to surround myself with. Where I have some sense of control, even if it's only perceived control, for a moment in time.

I had to invest in my sanity, even if it means I forfeit 5 lbs of my 55 lb life.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

The 2010 Cycling Nutella Playlist

Somedays I just want to live vicariously through the thoughts of others, but don't want anything to do with it requiring spelling, edits, tab spacing, or commentary.

If your job requires you to read and write on a computer pretty much non-stop like mine, the senses that are lacking in your daily balance need some tending to.

I've got you covered.

Procrastinating this morning was quite productive. I downloaded a wild, raging meadow of new songs - everything from my Italian pop and French hip hop to the tunes I couldn't do without from the USA that made top lists or sunk well into the depths of iTunes.

Since music is meant to be shared, here's what I craved during long climbs on the bike up Cipollaio, Balbano, and Matraia, or while on the road from Italy to France to Switzerland and Germany. They kept me going...wanting more... and because of it, they represent my 25th and 26th years of life on this earth that have been full of adventure and adversity.

1. We No Speak Americano - Yolanda Be Cool and Dcup

2. All the Lovers - Kylie Minogue

3. LaLa Song - Bob Sinclar

4. Alors on Danse - Stromae

5. Dentro Ad Ogni Brivido - Marco Carta

6. Waving Flag ft. David Bisbal - K'naan (the Spanish/English version is a must)

7. You're Not Alone - Mads Langer

8. Se Fosse per Sempre - Biagio Antonacci

9. Better Than Love - Hurts

10. Airplanes ft. Hayley Williams - B.O.B.

11. Fight for this Love - Cheryl Cole

12. Each Tear - Mary J. Blige and Tiziano Ferro

13. Mondo - Cesare Cremonini

14. Relax, Take it Easy - Mika

15. Pack Up - Eliza Doolittle (one of my favorites!)

16. I Like It - Enrique Iglesias

17. Neutron Star Collision (Love is Forever) - Muse

18. Domani - Artisit per l'Abruzzo

19. Amores Extraños - Laura Pausini

20. Wonderful Life - Hurts

21. Indietro - Tiziano Ferro

22. Kick Ass - Mika

If anyone wants a burned disc, let me know - - and I'll make sure you get one.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Frumpy Flight Financials

Shopping is sort of a crazy love/hate thing for people like me and inner dialogues just make it that much more confusing. Yes, I want something new because my stuff is old. No, I don't need it. Yes, I know clothing doesn't have to be about "need", it can be a desire and that's okay. No, I don't want to accumulate stuff. Yes, I definitely have a too-much-stuff phobia. No, I still want it - even after all of this. Yes, I'll usually turn around and walk away instead of splurge.

But here's the catch - have you ever convinced yourself to purchase something like a shirt at regular price and then spilled something all over it a week later? The beautiful idea then becomes a rag, and the wrath of consumerism wins again.

Just to make it sting a bit more, I usually calculate out how much I paid each time I wore it. It's as if I were making a conscious decision to rent the stupid thing for $15 a day or something. Does no good, you're right, but I feel like maybe I'll be able to rationalize it all by then saying to myself "yeah, I'd pay that money each day all over again" or the more typical "that was such a waste of money for a new rag".

When I consider hideous airplane lines, packaged food, and the air pressure tightening my jeans and making me wish I were anywhere else, I usually try to think about the good deal I got on a flight. Similar to expensive clothing you wear two times however, it's usually the flights that, an hour before booking, catapult themselves into the "no WAY would I spend that on pretzels, security controls, and dry air ... except crap, I waited too long before purchasing" zone.

Inversely, clothing gets cheaper over time. The trend dies down. It's a luxury, I suppose...whereas flights just decide to hike up further and further for no apparent reason until you're calculating about $100 for your soda and snack. I'm in a "no WAY would I spend" zone right now with booking this flight to Interbike next week in Las Vegas. I sort of need to go, and I want to, but between yesterday and today the price for my ticket has not only shot up once, it's shot up three times. And besides that, the times are getting worse, and there are more connections, so it's taking me longer to sift through the already bad flights only to find even nastier flights. Hooray for obscene transportation! I may need some retail therapy...

Let the cycle perpetuate.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Cease Fire, September!

...I've got to catch my breath!

Eurobike in Friedrichshafen was only one week ago, yet it feels like eons ago already. This is what the month of September does to a person, and we forget about it til it lands between the eyes after the comparatively blah 11 months of the year.

Last Tuesday we arrived at 7 am to our tiny hotel in a small town called Stokach outside of Friedrichshafen, Germany (I just like typing that city name for some reason). We were exhausted after our 9 hour road trip turned into a 16 hour or so (we lost track) trip when the Swiss border patrol stopped us for not having correct commercial documentation from the Italian government for transporting 6 bikes up to the land of wiener schnitzel and hefeweizen. I guess they thought we'd be selling the bikes in Switzerland. Just to spite them, we should have cut a deal with the Italian border patrol - who were of course drooling over the Parlees and trying to help us as much as possible - and handed them each a bike to make the Swiss piddle their pants with envy. But the one positive about arriving was that we were greeted by Michelle, Phil's best college friend, since she'd hiked by way of train system from Geneva, Switzerland to see us. Needless to say, none of us had slept - so we cat napped til noonish and then got on with our day as if nothing had happened.

In any case, we got to Germany after pulling an all-nighter of driving through the Austrian mountain passes during a massive rainstorm and stopping three times to sleep for 20-45 minutes along the way. Keep in mind that all of this came after we spent the entire weekend building the bikes until 3 am or so each night, while waking up at 9 to start up again. I guess this is the life of trade shows from the opposite side of where I'm used to being: in the press tours, where they put you up, pay for everything, and make sure you're writing diligently each day while seated in the lap of marketing dollar luxury.

Well the actual show went very smoothly. We had a corner spot at the snazzy Shocker Distribution booth and our Z1, Z5 SL LTD, and CX bikes shone in their "ghost" matte black glory. It was rad to watch people walk past glancing about and to see more double-takes in front of me than in romantic comedies. Men and their bikes, I swear. Some would whip out the knock system - where you gently use your knuckles to listen to the sound the frame makes when you knock on it. Others would grab their little cameras and take pictures of tiny, carbon clamps and outer cable systems, zooming in and snapping 10 shots from different angles. You could tell they were just biting at their bits to not steal the bike away for a test drive. Every time Phil or Tom would remove the bike from the stand and explain something to the daring few who could handle its tempting presence on the ground, an entire mob of people would gravitate towards them, oohing and ahhing even when the language spoken may not be one they understood. The ultimate realization I made at this European show with throngs of people from around the globe is that all of them speak, you guessed it, cycling.

The last day there I realized my flight back to the US was going to be on Saturday instead of Friday. So I went along to the show for another fun day of carbon talk. Upon arriving, the key to the truck just disappeared. I searched everywhere for it to refill our stock of catalogs, but to no avail. The little key was MIA. The rest of the day was full of stress and scanning the ground. In the end, it was officially not in our hands, though it seemed it could just reappear any given second. It's sort of like a worst case scenario situation too, since I was to catch a 6 am train the very next morning leaving from Friedrichshafen up to Frankfurt in order to get back in time for the remainder of Chelsea and Noah's rehearsal dinner in Portland, Maine on Saturday night. (If you think that was a mouthful to read in one breath, try digesting that thought while French people are asking you questions that you answer in a mixture of Spanish and Italian!)

After a bit of help from the Scandinavian Parlee Rep, Alex, and his friends from Norway, Phil was able to drive me to the train station while Tom slept in the driver's seat before the last big day of the show. And with what seemed like a ton of bricks in my suitcase, a traversed the planes, trains, and automobiles into a rental car by 8 pm in Portland's airport and made it safely to the DeLorme farm of Freeport, Maine just in time for the little slideshow and a massive culture shock of english-speaking happiness :)

The very next day I awoke to a library of philosophical books at Noah's parents' house, and snuck out and over to Chelsea and Noah's new pad to join them for breakfast and a quick chat with Phil, who would be stuck in Germany for the coming week. Later, Suzanne and I went to work gathering wildflowers for the wedding and getting on the St. Croix boat headed over to the island at 1:30pm. The wedding took place and was out of a perfect fairy tale. Every friend was interesting, the DJ hilarious, the setting picturesque, and the happy couple basking in the glow of an east coast sunset with fresh lobster and hula hooping.

On Tuesday, about a day and a half after the wedding, I arrived home in Minnesota and was greeted by my two sisters and a beautiful dinner of fresh vegetables cooked with potatoes and seasoning. After so many airport pretzel and peanut packages atop wine from the wedding, my body came back to life out of its post-travel abuse coma. Mia and I went on a long walk around the lakes the next day and chatted about life and love and law. It was perfect, just as Calhoun always is. Later that night, my mom came to town and we all visitied Mia at work before she brought me back to St. Cloud where a brand new man would enter my life. Murphy. Or Smurphy, as I like to call him.

And that's where I am now. I walk with him, he kisses my hands and politely pulls me along the path. I talk to him - he listens intently before he plays, rolling around for belly rubs. We visited Saint Cloud State University's bustling beginning to a fall semester where he's surrounded by people who coddle and pet him as they recognize the change their lives are going through from the relaxation of summer to solid homework and little animal time. With Murphy around - even after the Vikings lost to the Saints 9-14 last night - life has become simple, lovely, and renewed with a dog in the house to start with our darling Sophie left off a couple years ago.

Friday, August 27, 2010

The Eve of Five Parlees

Last night I witnessed my boyfriend sneaking onto his iPad to check out the latest updates as we tried to fall asleep. Although he denied it being anthing fanatical - saying it's "more about the business of it" now - a girl's got to wonder: is cycling sort of like an addiction? Or does a bike get more beautiful knowing the price, weight, and company history of ceramic bearings and brake pads? It's now 1:04 am. I'm seated in the Fast and Furious bike shop in Lucca keeping a certain someone company as he builds up his precious five Parlee bicycles for the big trip up to Germany on Monday. I've been known to pull all-nighters on behalf of thesis papers and last-minute suitcase packing (holding my breath for Sunday), but I never in my life have I sat in a messy, tire-trodden bike shop on a broken stool.

At the same time as I continue to have my "identity crisis" with the sport and the bicycles that captivate my boyfriend's attention, there is something humbling about being in the presence of a bike that was designed by the master of carbon fiber, Bob Parlee, and his company.

Bringing them to Eurobike will be like seeing children off to their first day of school - knowing they'll see a lot of amazing things, and hopefully they won't get too beat up along the way (I am fully aware that this is a horrible analogy).

May the Border Patrol Angels Have Mercy

I spoke to my parents yesterday while they drove from the North Shore to Walker, MN. They were realizing how beautiful the iron range really is in late August while I, on the other hand, suddenly realized that simplicity of my life here in Lucca was going to vanish with a vengeance very soon.

First of all, Phil and I are head up to Fredrichshafen, Germany on Monday for the EuroBike show. As someone who has attended furniture and interior design trade shows as both press (Coverings, Cersaie, ICFF) and PR at a booth (Royal Botania at ICFF), I know how chaotic they can be. It's like you almost need to expect a handful of things to go wrong or you'll be thrown off your game when the potential clients show up.

Five action-packed days of bottom bracket, fork stiffness, and carbon fork talk later I'll get on a plane to jet back to Portland, Maine for the wedding of my dear San Francisco friend Chelsea Holden Baker. I am pretty sure I love going to weddings. Some people complain about attending loads of weddings, but seriously, I could name the number of weddings I've been to on less than two hands. Wait...that would be one hand then...but you know what I mean. The truth is though, I'm not a sappy marriage girl. I just think any excuse to gather a ton of old and new friends together and enjoy one of the biggest days in someone's life is pretty freakin' awesome. I'd go as far as saying it's an honor to be chosen as one of the select few people that they meet in their lives who get to witness such a day.

Moving on... Tuesday, the 7th of September, I head back to good old Minnesota for a few weeks while the leaves - and my age - turn color. I'm pretty stoked that for the first time in my life I can buy a plane ticket with my accrued miles on Delta. Just a small detail, but a great one at that.

After I return it's all gets a little fuzzy. InterBike in Vegas? Visa stuff in Chicago?? Ironman in Hawaii??? To be honest, my main goal in going home is to get my game plan ready for our bike tour company and other freelance gigs. After that, I have been chosen to do a Cannondale/SUGOI photo shoot for their 2011 catalog! It's going to be very exciting, and is sometime in October.

On another front, Phil signed for our sweet little apartment yesterday that we'll begin renting on Oct 1, 2010. It will not be sad to stuff away our dilapidated suitcases and put 20 months of living under 9 roofs behind us! (This doesn't even count all of the hotels, hostels, and friend's houses we've stayed with briefly.) Although it's just wishful thinking, I am writing about an awesome Lago bed called the called the Col-letto bed today for Designer Pages. Not sure I could handle the sides standing up like that since I'm a touch claustrophobic, but definitely flipped over.

The cool thing about other people opening their home up to you is that you feel happy to do the same for them, anytime they need it. That overwhelming appreciation for those who have been so kind makes me want to usher everyone one and make sure they enjoy it here as much as we do. That said, I encourage any and all folks to make themselves welcome, even if we haven't crashed your pad. Lucca has vineyards, cycling everywhere, beautiful views of the tuscan hills, and the beach only 20 minutes by car from our future doorstep.

Did I forget to mention the La Voglia Mata pizza, the Bruton brewery, and Il Rey di Cappuccino's coffee drinks? Shame on me. (I'll leave it at that to make you salivate.)

Monday, August 23, 2010

Pushing Restart

I'm considering starting the new trend here in Tuscany: screens for doors and windows. Apparently, they don't think it's necessary to use them, even though the night breeze feels great without the 30 bites we wake up to in the mornings. Somehow, large wooden shutters do block airflow along with sunlight and mosquitoes. Who would have thought?!

Nah, I'm just playing. I love dripping in sweat at 11:17 pm as I'm seated at one end of the large sofa at Cristiano's apartment.... He loves this sofa and falls asleep on it a few times a week with the Italian infomercials or MTV Cribs blaring. It's got this upholstery that screams 'modern hotel wall art circa 1992'. You know the kind. It was all over Days Inns I bet, with the squares and circles in gradients of blue, gray, and green like a dulled out Paul Klee painting, only much less cool, with no purpose.

The arm rests on either side are a glossy, powder-coated aluminum too, which totally fits. It's like the slicked back gelled hair thing that never goes out of fashion here, and it honestly couldn't be less attractive even after he decides to mend the two massive rips in it.

Oddly enough, however, he's got an absolutely incredible Ligne Roset coffee table at center of the room with the matching dining room table and an Artemide Tolomeo lamp (see image) that shifts around between rooms. If you're not familiar with the brands, together they're Italian for "don't put me next to that hideous beast of a divano".

If you can't tell, today is Monday and I didn't really do much except for some laundry, grocery shopping, and a hang out session over coffee and dinner with Alison. It was awesome. So nice to kick off a week zoned out a little, with some solid conversation in English - even though I'm still in the process of learning Italian and probably should be tackling that every chance I get.

Meh, what to do. Sometimes your mind needs a mental reboot. Sort of like a computer. A mobile phone even. Yesterday a lot of stuff happened that tuckered me out - long bike ride, tired afternoon, etc. and it was really obvious by the end of the day that I was in desperate need of a break. Plus, I've been getting these weird, dull headaches that have come slowly each day at about 3 or 4 pm. Per usual, I refuse to rely on modern meds to ail my pains unless it's a special case, so I thought about my life and have prescribed myself more water intake.

I figure if that doesn't work, the back up plan may result in a new pair of shoes or a trip to the beach for a day.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

A Love/Hate Cipollaio Day

This view from the "Cipollaio" climb (Stazzema, Tuscany) is why I got up and rode today. It wasn't the pressure I felt from the guys to get out, or to feel absolute pain, it wasn't me trying to prove something to myself... okay maybe it was that... but, I'd like to think that it really is the fact that I get to witness such natural wonders. Maybe that's the balance in more serious cyclists too. For those of us without major ego trips, a person can only read their spedometer and heart rate, or exchange a few body parts for new carbon bike parts before it just starts to feel like you're losing out on the really marvels that cycling can bring you.

Hanging out with a marbled mountain that provides the very posh Forti dei Marmi (Fort of Marble) with all of its wealth is pretty cool. So was doing this crazy "salita" (climb) last Sunday that brought us into a thick forest amidst hundreds of Italians camping in tents. Later, I learned they hunt for mushrooms there and store them all year or sell them for a cheap buck, er... euro.

So the climb we did today was not super steep, but the 13km I was told that it was ended up being 18km if you count the first false flat that we whipped around.

That's something I get annoyed with on these group rides: Why do we always speed up right before a climb? I mean, I understand if we knew there was like a really short, steep hill in front of us that we might want to go fast to catapult our bicycles up and chug less. That's human nature. But what about a long, pretty level climb? Is it absolutely necessary to be pushing up an obnoxious false flat just to slow down right when it gets steeper? I think not. I pulled back a bit from our group today and ended up sucked right into the middle of a group of leather. They were nice, but had inconsistent speed setters, so I eventually let them pass too, in order to get some physical - and mental - space from the strange mentalities of others who blow up before the climb starts or those who decide that leap frog is equally as efficient.

This tunnel is right at the top of the climb, and its actually another false flat. Today Phil said there was a line of six cars coming from the opposite direction, and that one of the cars didn't seem him coming with Krillo, so they tried passing in their lane. If you'll notice, it's pretty narrow... and I guess they had to leap onto the small walkway lining the lanes. I guess it doesn't surprise me. Sort of like it didn't surprise me today when two different cars hit their horns.

They must think we can't hear their bellowing engines coming from behind or in the opposite lane, so a loud honk makes them feel more safe. Who knows about the weird Italian driving mannerisms though. I have officially stopped caring to know why, and have moved onto figuring out the best way to deflect the irrational behaviors and laugh at them. So far, it's worked quite well. Except for the time I laughed at a guy's Pinarello curvy bike design (since I think they're ridiculous no matter how expensive they are). He didn't like that much. Oops. I guess I'm just obnoxious as they are, in my own way...

Time to go rest before an evening with Cristiano, Simona, and Phil in Pietrasanta. This week will be getting plans set for my travels home to the US the beginning of September, following the EuroBike show of course. I look forward to a lot this fall, and I'll keep my dear blog dialed into everything going on, so check back for more posts...

Ciao a tutti!

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Bruton, Bike, or Maybe Just Bust

So tonight was our fourth night in two weeks eating at the Bruton Restaurant and Birreria located on the fringe of our dear little city of Lucca.

Now, let's get something straight here: I'm no fan of becoming a regular at bars or restaurants. Not even department stores if I can help it. What's funny is that the young crew that runs this awesome spot feel much more like professional friends than they do like the lady behind the diner counter who knows how you like your eggs every time or how you take your coffee.

Certainly we all know a place like The Bruton in Italy would not offer eggs, but they do serve a mean caffé post-meal if you do the whole caffeinated digestion thing. Their menu, however, does everything from Italian fare of tortellini and thin, wood fire pizzas, to incredible burgers. To top it off, their beer is made in house - artisan-style - to make even the finest Chianti and Limoncello palettes salivate. (We brought our Italian-to-the-CORE roommate there the other night and he sampled our Momus and Lilith glasses with hesitation - since the only beer they get to know is a malty Moretti - but ultimately, he gulped that thing with great pleasure.

Speaking of which, I just gotta say that my favorite of their brews is the Lilith. Since I'm no beer girl normally, I'll give you my best description without it feeling loaded in random adjectives I've heard. It's a light, crisp amber beer that's got a little fruity zest and is semi-sweet. Without much knowledge in beer flavors (since I typically just tax Phil on his glasses of choice when he's mid-cycling lingo) I'm not qualified enough to compare it to what we've got back in the states, or to other wonderous Belgians, but I can say that it's divine. And that's really all I carea bout.

Okay, okay, you've had enough piddly talk about caloric consumption so I think it's caloric extraction time...

I've been riding a ton lately. Today I got a splitting headache halfway up the 3rd of 4 climbs we were doing in 88F humidity. By the time I reached the top, Alison and Phil were there patiently waiting. You know, you never want to be the one complaining when you reach the crest of a climb as the last one up. It's uncomfortable for everyone if you blab on or shake your head - unless of course you can show that you were maybe side-swiped by a vehicle or chased down by a hungry Brittany Spaniel. If you do opt for the mouthful of begrudged moans and pithy information about your legs, you'll just look that much weaker than you normally would.

Fully aware of my predicament, but barely feeling functional enough to make out sentences - I'm not lying, my jaw was sore and my eyes burned to keep open since my head was pounding so hard! - I just said that "I didn't like that one very much. I think I may be dehydrated...let's keep going, nice and easy." Or something to that effect. So, shortly after grabbing fresh water for our bottles, we went along our way. Neck sore, shoulders tight, head heavy, we just about passed Balbano on our left when Phil whips a turn and says "last climb!" with a big smile. I let out a little murmur... Well, not exactly a murmur. I blurted out some angry words that basically meant I wondered why we were choosing to climb so much on a day that was supposed to be steady. I kept thinking about that the entire ride actually - what is the difference between a hard, climbing day and a steady day that includes 3 big climbs and 1 small one that totals 90km after it's all said and done?!?! I mean seriously. The girlfriend's got a bit of a dehydration thing going on here! Thankfully Alison was there or I probably would have tackled Phil to the ground with my crank set ripped out.

Moving on...tomorrow is Sunday.

Sundays here mean we have the opportunity to do a group ride with the Fast and Furious crew. Yet somehow it is the one absolute, no-excuses-accepted obligation that seems to thunder into every weekend like a bull with up to 140km horns.

Once, I felt sort of tired and ill earlier this summer, and I refused the "option". For the next 20 minutes as I sauntered to the kitchen and made coffee, my phone vibrated on silent with different people calling me to say the entire group would be passing right by the apartment to get me. Pretty soon I found it and succombed to the peer pressure even though I was pretty bitter about my relaxing Sunday morning becoming a beat-up-your-body session on some pretty rugged climbs near Montecatini.

For now, let's just say I'll keep you posted whether or not I forge up the infamous Cipollaio mountain for a 13km climb after a 60 km to and from journey....

Monday, August 16, 2010

Weather Reports

Before we left to go on the Fast and Furious group ride yesterday morning, I heard Phil say to Cristiano (in italian), "It looks like it might rain". A very accurate statement, considering the clouds were a dark gray in the distance, it had rained off and on for the last two days, and the wind was blowing hard. Cristiano said while grabbing a clean kit from his wardrobe, "NO. It won't rain. There will be sun all day." Skeptically, we changed into our kits and in the big "furgone" truck we bellowed into town down the narrow roads of Lucca ten minutes later.

There were 20+ people on the ride. The plan was to do 110 km with a 12 km climb at the halfway point and an easy 3 km climb on the way back. Fine. Dandy. Whatever. It still looked like rain.

I was still thinking about the way he responded to the weather comment this morning. Where I come from, unless there was no dark clouds in the sky, you'd at least acknowledge Mother Earth's tendency to throw a curveball by saying "hope not" or "it might".

While riding, it hit me: Since I don't see Cristiano with a doppler radar channel plugged into his TV (I don't think they exist as channels in Italy) and I know that he doesn't have a laptop - or even internet on his blackberry - I wondered if his definitive answer to Phil's earlier question was just to be funny... to convince the skies... or if he actually had proof that water wouldn't drop from the nimbostratus clouds above. Focusing on the busy road on the way to Pietrasanta, I got distracted from my conundrum to focus on Angelo, the old Italian dude cyclist, whose incessant cussing at screaming cars and deep potholes next to me was beginning to make me feel awkward.

Fifteen minutes later, we diverted from the busy road and were starting to climb. I stopped to pee (two strong italian coffees are not a good idea before riding) and the group chugged ahead. Catching up, I passed a couple of people and found a good speed next to the mesmerizing Brazilian woman named Elika. I say that because most Brazilian people I've met exude this vigor for living life. She definitely possesses it. But anyway, she was nice and we chatted in Portuguese-flavored and English-accented Italian between steep sections of breathing. There was one point towards the top of this climb where it felt like we entered into the thick cloud I'd seen in the distance before. I was reminded of Cristiano's statement again from earlier, so I thought I'd see how a Brazilian - who has lived in Italy for 8 years - would respond.

"Hey Elika, it looks like it could rain, doesn't it?" Taking my sunglasses off since it was so dark and stormy looking.

"No," she shakes her head, "There will be no rain."

At this point, I wanted rain more than ever just to prove that the dark, hanging clouds speak louder than word-of-mouth Italian weather reports. Actually, I take that back. Most Italians have voice boxes unlike any I've ever heard (which is probably why operas originated here).

Now, at 11am on Monday morning, Cri is out on his bike. Although I didn't ask him for the weather today, it just began to drizzle.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Racing Gran Fondo #3 in Trento, Italy

"OCCHIO!!! CENTRO!" pointing to the median.
"DESTRA!" heads pop up, arms above heads flagging right.
"DAI! BRAVA!!!" spectators scream.

These are common shouts you'll hear at the start of a 2,300-person Gran Fondo race in Italy. (You may recall my post last year about the poignant first Gran Fondo in Lucca or my much nicer, second Gran Fondo Novecolli.)

Well, yesterday, was my first Gran Fondo race of 2010 in Trento. It typically consists of ex-pros, diehard 70 year old groups of men, and a sprinkling of women.

In the beginning, it is complete chaos (as expected from any large group of primarily Italians). My goal is not move up horizontally to the front of the pack or to stick on the guys wheel in front of me... it's to stay vertical and not crash into those squeezing where there was no space to begin with. It's vicious, it's loud, and it's completely natural to be a bit anxious for the start alone.

Back to my goal of staying in one piece... I landed hard on the chain rings of teammate Grillo in a fast, downward slip to the cobblestone just before the race began. Oh well, there's nothing like some blood and bruises to intimidate the rest with my beastly grimace, right?

Our Medio Fondo (109km) consisted of:
- a false flat for ~40km
- a 3 km climb that was stand-up-in-your-saddle-the-entire-way steep
- another false flat with rolling hills for another ~40 km
- then Monte Bondone ~20km climb that finished the race at its top

*Grillo's long 149km Gran Fondo rerouted at about 60 km and did Monte Bondone twice.

I realized a few things yesterday that I'd like to share with all cycling and non-cycling enthusiasts, since I find myself a person constantly battling an appreciation for the sport that is definitely not one like any other I've been good at.

1) I hate the flats.

I feel like you have to be really good at being consistently one speed more than you have to be fast. Trained at a young age in our 'hood to sprint well in capture the flag, I appreciate the art of blowing yourself up, resting, and repeating over and over again until your body fails. I do not like keeping my upper body motionless to where your hands fall asleep and your butt gets sore just to stay at one speed that isn't sprinting and isn't slow.

2) I like to climb... if I know how long it is.

If I'm riding with someone and we turn to go uphill, I want to know immediately how far it is so I can turn myself inside out in a timely fashion. None of this set-one-pace-and-die-a-slow-death thing if it ends up being longer than you anticipated. Seriously. Maybe all mid-distance runners, sprinters, basketball and soccer players struggle with this transition?

3) The coolest thing about being a runner on a bike...

Is that you rarely breathe hard on the climbs. You're so used to a rhythmic, deep breathing that biking up hills feels easy, especially when you stand up in the saddle even if just briefly. Anytime I felt sick of that nasty 20 km climb I stood up, let me abs and hip flexors carry some of the load, and before you know it, you sit back down feeling totally refreshed. This is my theory on it. When I shared this with Phil, he told me it's a proven fact that a cyclist is much less efficient standing. I said I didn't care. I wasn't the girl gulping for air like all of the non-runner cyclists around me!

4) Gauge your success at the point when you see leather.

Once I notice that the skin of the legs in front of me go from toned and tight to toned and loose, I can measure how well I'm doing at the race. If the legs go from toned and loose to not toned and loose, that's when you've really got to amp it up (this happened to me last year). Also, a ponch doesn't matter. A man with a double spare tire can roll past you at any given point and you must totally understand the rule of km under your belt (no pun intended) in order to let this one not affect the ego.

5) All civilian rules go out of the window in a race.

Crowds of us passed by a crash involving 6-8 cyclists, one of which was a 60-70 yr old man with a face full of blood. No one stops, you just gaze and keep going. Later there was a 30-something fashionable guy that I had just passed on a straightaway of the climb. Me and an older dude were plugging away at the stretch, and we heard him scream "ayyyy ayyyy ayyyy ayyyy!!!" I wanted to ask him if he was okay, but clearly he was not as he grabbed his left quad grimacing in pain. It's an odd feeling, but you just have to hope they'll survive til they get swept up by the ambulance if they cannot continue on.

To conclude, I got a kick with about 6km left of the climb, and started buzzing past people left and right. I think it was this nasty tropical flavored gel that shot to the back of my throat at the 13 km mark, but it could have simply been the little crowds of people shouting "Dai! Brava ragazza!" at me - to which i made sure I always responded to with a smile and a "Grazie!" as they clapped even louder.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

A Big First Month: June 2010 in Europe

Last year at this time I was back in the states, sharing the good and the bad of living in Lucca, Italy and Flers, France with my people after my three months abroad.

This year, after living in the states for seven months (from Dec 5, 2009 - June 6, 2010) I had the structure I had so longed for last year - with two jobs to get back on my feet, my awesome family and friends to plan gatherings with and walk with around the lakes, a car (thanks parental unit!) and a dependable gym membership.

But the longer I spent away from Europe, the more I wanted another shot at it. Last year was chalk full of crazy experiences that were all new and exciting. Some erupted in our faces (ie: the colossal argument over a flat tire on Via Pesciatina) and other adventures were out of a dreamland (ie: weekend in Rome, Tour of Slovenia's city of Bled, etc.)

Needless to say, it's been just over one month of being back in Europe. Phil and I have spent the first three weeks in Lucca, but with very different experiences. I think the nine months or so have shown us that we have many common interests, but that our differences must be embraced and appreciated more than the things that bring us together. That said, I've spent the majority of my time balancing minimal work (design writing for Designer Pages) with running and riding a bike. When not working or bumming around outside, I clean and cook for the two busy men (Cristiano and Phil) that I live with.

This brings me to Phil's experience this year. Every day is filled with French, Italian, and English on his cell phone and on skype. He often lays down to sleep and falls asleep in less than 2 minutes. Although I wish I had a big job to relieve the stress of loan repayments, I am happy tShow allo support him. It's a very exciting time for him and cycling, and a very unique position that I'm put in, acting as a sounding board, an accountant for expenses, a chef, and a sponge for the cultural differences abound.

Now, we're in Flers, France with the beautiful Beucherie family. It's been so great. I think the fact that I understand more of the language and that I know them so much better has helped immensely. We have been here just over a week, and will depart tomorrow for Italy again. This week of pseudo-vacation followed two days in Luzerne, Switzerland and three days in Bensheim Germany. Each were for work, so not all fun and games, but they have opened my eyes up so much to all that surrounds us in this great continent.

1) An evening trip to Sienna to see Mark and Trish, friends in Italy who are from New Sweden, Maine
2) July 3, 2010 - Léa Guesdon and I on our first day in Flers at Franck Beucherie's 40th birthday celebration
3) Sunset over the Swiss Alps while driving to Luzerne, Switzerland
4) A view of the Luzerne waterfront - BEAUTIFUL city!
5) The Beucheries: Steph, Franck, Simon, & Romaine
6) Walking around Bensheim, I ate a salt herring sandwich called Matjes. It was...interesting.