Friday, July 31, 2009

Champagne Dreams



A student from the last retreat I did in Bali offered us her Paris flat for the week. Martina’s beautiful home was the most amazing gift! To have an apartment in the city, complete with kitchen, lift and satellite feed of Le Tour, was beyond anything we could have asked for. From Martina’s flat we set out daily to explore Paris’ sights and gastronomical delights.

Kristin only had one full day in the city before her return flight to Denver. On that day we must have covered ten miles of landmarks, the Lovre, Notre Dame, Sangre de Criste, Eiffel Tower, the Champs, on and on. The next morning at an ungodly early hour I hugged my dear friend goodbye, put her in a cab and went promptly back to bed. Two hours later I got a text.

- U won’t believe this. Don’t have a seat on the flight – Expedia f-ed up. Next is not until Fri, so might as well stay 2 Sun. B back in 30.”

Well as Kristin’s wise uncle once told us “when life gives you lemons… throw them out and buy a bottle of champagne.” So we did.

The next day we hired a car and headed off for the Champagne region. The car was not available until 2pm, but no worry our first stop was to be a small town with Champagne in its name, just a short two-hour drive from the city, so we would be toasting by 4:30 at the latest.

We arrived only to find no champagne, no grapes, no bottles, nada, only yet another cathedral which we obligingly explored. After about an hour we found our way to the tourist info office and learned that we needed to go 40 minutes back the way we had come to a town called Epernay, the home of Avenue de Champagne.

When we arrived on Champagne Avenue it was already close to 7pm and all the Champagne houses were closed. Signs announcing Moet and Dom Perignon mocked us from above sealed doors. The only open bar we could find boasted Heineken umbrellas and dozens of beers on tap.

Parched we found a wine store and bought a split to wet our whistles. We walked into the center of town and popped the cork. I went to lift the bottle to my lips when I spied a man staring at me with a look of absolute horror. He came over and told us that it was unacceptable to drink like this and told us to stay put for a moment.

Unsure if I was about to be arrested for public consumption I waited. Henri returned with two champagne glasses from his flat. He gave them to us to keep as a souvenir and made us promise to never again defile his country’s nectar of the gods in such a hedonistic manner. We promised.

The ensuing hours we my absolute favorite in France. Our car plodded on back to Paris and along the way we visited a local winemaker's house bought three bottles and kept going. At the most beautiful part of the evening we stopped at a solitary church and cemetery where we took hundreds of soft-lighted photos of ancient headstones backed by vineyards of champagne grapes. The past and the future intrinsically entertained. Those who originally planted the vines, now resting among them for eternity.

It was a truly amazing day and one I will not soon forget.

Over the course of the next few days we visited Versaille, the Grande Palace, the Petit Palace, more cathedrals, more landmarks, retail stores we could not afford, bistros we barely could and then we took a whole day to stay indoors, watch the Tour and an entire HBO series. That day was fantastic too. While it may seem wasteful to while away a whole Parisian day indoors, the truth was we were beat.

Saturday we moved to Roberto’s hotel to await his arrival. A nightcap with him and a quick sleep and it was time for Kristin to leave me for real.


KR – Best. Vacation. Ever. Love you and I will celebrate with you anywhere, every year.

TDF


I had never even heard of road biking or the Tour until maybe ten years ago. By that time though, I was already good friends with Roberto. And so my path to Paris had already begun to unfold. We were friends for probably an entire year before I really figured out who he was to cycling fans. I remember that day vividly. Roberto and I were walking down Main Street in Durango, Colorado on our way to lunch when a nice, sane-enough-looking man in his thirties came running across the road to us, he fell to his knees and started prostrating to Roberto, all the while yelling “Bobke, Bobke you’re the man!”

I stood there a bit on the bewildered side. Once prostrating man had paid his cycling penance, Roberto resumed our forward progression. I stopped and asked him to please explain.

That is how I learned that my friend, neighbor and standing Thursday dinner date was kind of famous. This revelation did little to alter our friendship, as I was not into cycling at the time and already regarded Roberto as part of the fabric of my life, pauper or prince made no matter to me. Then a year later he started commentating for the network that covers the Tour and so obligingly as one good friend wanting to support another, I upped my Comcast Cable plan to include the obscure sports channel he was working for and so began what was once a fleeting fascination and is now bordering on fanaticism.

Since then, there was only one year where Roberto did not go to France to announce the race for the entire US, that year he sat on my couch in Durango and commentated the Tour, right there in my living room, for the benefit of just myself and my father who happed to be in town. I remember marveling at how he could possibly know that the white and red polka-dotted speck hundreds of feet below the helicopter camera was a cyclist much less some Eastern European man with a multi-multi-syllabic last name who was killing it up the mountains.

From that day I dare say I was hooked on le Tour and even more enamored of my dear friend. Not because of ‘who’ he is to Tour fans, but because I got to see him in person doing something he is really, really good at.

About five years ago Roberto started inviting me to tag along with him to France. At the time I was subjected to a woefully inadequate two weeks of vacation time per year and really couldn’t envision myself here. But that all changed in 2008. I came here last year for a week and now I am sitting on a rooftop in Paris, watching the minutes tick by before my guest pass allows me access to the Champs where I will watch the final stage of the 2009 Tour.

For the last three weeks I have used the, ‘but I am going there!” card to overrule the television choices of my parents, strangers in sports bars, and those hosting me in their homes. This last week in France I subjected poor Kristin to my audible rantings at the live BBC radio feed’s inability to perfectly sync up with Eruo Sports TV programming and the official Tour site’s live blogging.

In an attempt to help her gain interest and thereby assuage my guilt from keeping her indoors, I would commentate for her. I’d tell her why being number one or 21 or 51 was important, what the different jerseys signified, what category climbs were and so on. From the helicopter shots I would say things like, third one back in white… that’s Hincapie he’s only worn the yellow jersey once before, so he is going to give it all he’s got… there he goes, or “Schleck’s going to go again… See told you

Basically, now I acknowledge that I am a fan in the truest sense. I love this event, I honestly think it is the most amazing sporting event we have going. And my absolutely favorite part of le Tour de France happens in a few short hours. When the race is over.

After the awards are doled out, each team does ‘victory’ laps around the Champs. Can you imagine what that must be like? Twenty-one days, something like 80 hours in the saddle, countless hours of preparation, strategizing, abject suffering and then whe it’s all over, to be riding with your teammates, knowing what you just accomplished, cheered on by thousands… whether you are wearing the Maillot Jaune (overall winner) or the Lanterne Rouge (last place), you are a bad ass who has accomplished something only the most select few can ever dream of. And I applaud you all.

As I sit for hours in different corners of the world meditating, trying to obtain single-minded focus I often think about all the other paths to Samadhi. For many, and I dare say for all of these riders, exercise, physical endurance is their path,. I can’t imagine that when you are climbing up a beyond category mountain stage there is much room for the monkey mind to intrude. I can see the yoga in it, I see the Tapas the meditation and maybe that is why I so love this sport!

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Eat. Drink. Busker.

The Biagetti family reunion took place in a small region of Italy about two hours south of Bologna and twenty minutes from the coast. It was like stepping back into a simpler time where families ate together every night, meals lasted three hours and no one was in any hurry to move on.

The Biagetti family is large in numbers and mammoth in heart. For four days we ate, we laughed and we lounged poolside at a ridiculously gorgeous villa that slept the 17 of us Americans who had come to Italy and hosted the 30 others who would stop by throughout each day. On the mornings that I was not weighed down too much by pasta, pizza or Rose, I awoke to do my practice on a patio overlooking sunflower fields and lavender bushes. It was a dream.

Kristen and I have birthdays one day apart (which is a big part of why I am here at all), also her cousin Libby and I share our birthday, so with three people turning older during the week we had plenty of cause to celebrate. The villa we all stayed in is owned by a man named Ercole (Italian for Hercules) who along with being an Italian Innkeeper is a famous florist – he does the flowers for Vanity Fair’s annual Oscar party among others.

So on this birthday, my 36th , Libby’s 17th and Kristin’s (let’s call it) 29th, Ercole the florist to the stars decorated a heavenly confection for us girls and then he graciously provided most of the entertainment for the night. As Kristin’s Aunt Lisa perhaps put it best, "Ercole is such fun you find yourself wanting to make sure he like you.”

Kristin and I asked to be his floral assistants at next year’s Oscars. I’m afraid we might not have conveyed this desire strongly enough, but you never know where the two of us might turn up.

The four days that I spent with the Biagettis were so filled with love that I can barely convey how overwhelmed I was to be with them all. Italy has always been special to me, I am a chunk Italian myself and each time I arrive in this country I feel instantly happy and grounded. This time I realized part of why that is, Italy is love, it is all heart and passion and comfort. Ciao Bella Italiano.

Then we were on the move again, off to Spain, likely the only new country for me on this leg of my travels. Neither Kristin nor I had ever been to Barcelona before and what better reason to visit.

Leading up to this trip Kristin was deep in planning for her time in Africa and I was moving my base from Colorado to Ohio. Because we were both so tied up with other tasks we never really did any planning beyond Italy – other than buying plane tickets. This has proven to be really fun, in that we have no expectations so when we stumble on Cathedral Sagrada Familia four blocks from our barely-researched-yet-perfect-for-us hotel, we smile and think of ourselves as leading charmed lives. Then some days we get hopelessly lost, spend a small fortune we could have avoided if we had invested in a guidebook and generally make international arses of ourselves.

While in Spain we followed in the footsteps of architect Antoni Gaudi whose macabre textural style compelled us from one building to the next and finally to the surrounding the home where he lived for twenty years.


Each day in Spain we would get up at some very civilized late-morning hour and then pretty much just randomly head out, blissfully unknowing of what we might stumble upon. Of course this method of travel comes with mixed levels of success. The stumbling approach led us to a market where to “save money” we decided to eat at a stall, which we assumed would be cheaper than a sit-down restaurant. That lunch ran us about $60, which was decidedly more than the previous day’s sit-down lunch.

But all-in-all the stumble approach treated us well. When you don’t know what to expect… you have no expectations so you are often pleasantly surprised.

One night we stumbled out way past dark. We had a beer here, a glass of vino there until finally we tripped right into a very short man who looked like he was impersonating Prince, assuming Prince ever wore red sequins and rode a flower-covered bike. Prince Jr. led us to our final bar of the night where two very drunk Irishmen bought our drinks because, exactly a year before, I had visited their home town of Letterkenny (thanks cousin Shannon for that one).

High off free booze we stumbled home past street performers of every shape and size. Kristin calls them Buskers, a new term for me but one she says is widely used. Men and women laden with latex paints, oil-based makeup and non-breathing fabrics mime, mimic and dance their way to Euros from the passersby.

Earlier in the day on La Ramba, a.k.a. Busker Row, I saw a man wearing just a black Speedo walking down the street, odd because there is no beach there. People were staring at him gape-mouthed and upon further review I realized his Speedo was actually a tattoo. Some quick deduction and I screamed “Kristin! Look at that man!” upon which we began chasing after him cameras at the ready.

The crowd in front began parting, women gasped, men looked dejected and once we rounded the bend we saw why. He was HUGE. I mean like… good luck finding a woman who would think that was a good time HUGE! And not only that but he was entirely tattooed – entirely!

Not really sure how to segue smoothly here so I will move on to a topic not related to size but rather to eyes. I fell deeply in love with Spain, yes because it is beautiful and because Barcelona is so cosmopolitan and historic at the same time, but mainly I fell in love with Spanish men. (Elephant man mentioned above, notwithstanding.)

If I love Italy because of its people’s hearts, I love Spain because of its people’s eyes. Tall, thin, mocha-complexioned men with hazel eyes are everywhere. I was actually uncomfortable in the presence of so many truly beautiful men. And sadly, not since the Gay Pride Parade in Chicago have I been so attracted to so many men I stand zero chance with before. At least, the memory of all of those beautiful creatures will fill my dreams for a while.

To rebound from the night out with mini-Prince we boarded a train to the beach. Forty-five minutes from Barcelona we got off along with about 5000 other people and crowded onto the mile of sandy beach dotted with rental chairs, topless women and gay men. It was a perfect day of rest and recovery. Tanned and detoxed we left ready to continue our journey.

And just like that another four days had gone by. Kristin and I took advantage of my last visit to a Red Carpet Club (before my card expires, and I am regulated back to general seating), in the Barcelona and then the Madrid airports on our way to our final destination together… Paris.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Roma

My dear, dear friend Kristin invited me almost a year ago to come along for her family reunion in Le Marche, Italy. I accepted immediately as I am prone to do at invitations that include dear friends, fine food and free lodging. The week-long reunion quickly ballooned into a full on European vacation, which will culminate in four countries, more bottles of sparkling rose than I care to count and about 10lbs more of me to love.

After six weeks stateside, I may never have been more excited for a flight than I was this time. Not to knock my homeland, but I was ready to get out of the U.S. and to get back to my 'normal' routine of sherpa-ing my load and moving every few days. Go figure, last post I was saying how worn out I was from this pattern and now I long, LONG for it.

Upon landing in Rome I found my way to my perfect shoebox of a hotel room three blocks from the Termani train station and engaged in that loveliest of European traditions, the afternoon nap. I woke up, raring to go, at 3:30 p.m. and started speed touring my way through the city. Fountains, Basilicas, Piazzas and then… THE Coliseum.

Wow – until you see it in person you cannot imagine the power of that place. During my travels, I stop frequently to marvel at the steps that led me to be somewhere at a particular time, but when those moments happen at the foot of history, it is especially powerful.
I have been ridiculously fortunate to see some of the true wonders of this world, Angkor Wat in Camobdia, calfing glaciers in Alaska, orangutans in the wilds of Borneo and the magnificent Grand Canyon to name just a few, but there is nothing that for me could compare with seeing Rome.
I took three years of Latin in high school and really the only thing that stuck was the word for Roman road: iter. This has actually proved very useful in solving the occasional crossword puzzle, but other than iter (and the ability to identify root words in a myriad of Latin-based languages), I’m afraid my teacher Mrs. Uhl would be sorely disappointed in my retention. But on this day, to walk along an iter in front of the Colusieum affected me greatly.
Back in New Zealand my camera took about ten nasty falls, which finally resulted in its demise. Over the last year I have been traveling with a Sony Cybershot – that’s it, just a pocket snapshot camera for the 15,000+ photos I took. I did this on purpose, I did not want the weight or stress of an SLR and I knew I could take good enough photos even with a point and shoot, but with the death of the Sony came the overwhelming urge to buy a full kit. And that is exactly what I did.

As I strolled through the Forum at dusk, greedily snapping photos with my new big shot camera, I fell back in love with photography. No detail escaped my lens, hundreds of frames ticked by until the twilight was gone and it was time to move on.

Among the ruins of the Forum, passing ancient columns and headless sculptures, I began to sense just exactly how shiny and new I am; a particularly nice feeling to have three days before my 36th birthday. It was an amazing day and I capped it off by eating at a street side café near my hotel, where I unabashedly stared at passersby.

The art of dining alone is a fine one. Most solo diners opt for distraction tactics, a book or magazine, nowadays many can be seen dissolving into their Blackberrys or iPhones, but none of these can hold a candle to the real joy of solo dining – gawking. I now gawk openly, sure I may bring a journal and I might even pick up its accompanying pen from time to time, but staring is what really tops off a good meal.

I watched the waiters yell something I could not understand with words, but their amazing repertoire of hand gestures and tonal inflections made it look like a scene straight out of Goodfellas. I can only assume one must have said something negative about the other’s Mama, something nearing a capital offense, but just tasteful enough to spare his life.

I watch young beautiful couples too in love to keep their hands to themselves, middle-aged women cracking themselves up from within the walls of some long-forgotten private joke, walking fashion models and faux paus, a parade of sensible shoes, fanny packs and ball caps peering up only momentarily from their Lonely Planets to check a street sign and then plod onward. I loved them all equally.

Weeks before Kristin and I had arranged to meet at the small hotel near the main Termani train station. In the interim she had been in Africa with a group called Heart for Africa, which provides aid to women and children in Kenya among other places. Due to the remote nature of her trip we would not be able to confirm that either of us had arrived in Rome according to plan until she showed up at the hotel.

It always amazes me, in this day and age of cell phones, emails, Tweets and so on, when a date set weeks before and not confirmed 48-, 24-, 12- and 2-hours prior actually pans out, but sure enough around 10 am July 12, 2009 Kristin arrived just as we had planned.