Tuesday, November 3, 2015

I Don't Ask for Much, Just to be Italian

A trip to Italy is not unlike shooting heroin. It’s pretty intense while it lasts, but once over, you are in a world of stomach-twisting and sweat-inducing hurt.  This revelation came to me – along with a mild panic attack – after having accidently found myself in the frozen foods section of the local grocer. I had only returned the U.S. a few days prior so the fresh aromas of street markets had not yet completely faded from memory. While trying to find a respectable substitute for true Italian gelato with all those sublime Mediterranean flavors, I wondered into the section of the store filled with products targeting the perpetually tasteless and lazy. There, in front of me, was a broad assortment of frozen garlic-parmesan bread, rosemary olive-oil loaves and basil-asiago dinner rolls. Innovative examples of manufactured foods: two words that should never – ever – go together. I like my car manufactured. My dishwasher manufactured. My bicycle manufactured – ideally by the loving hands of a master welder named Giuseppe in a Northern Italian workshop. Bread, I don’t like manufactured.

What a far cry from the previous week: The smell of freshly ground espresso beans wafting up through the flat’s window at dawn, luring me to the street below. Just next to our building was the café. And next to it the bakery. Then the wine shop. After that the cheese store. And finally the butcher’s, that, through some form of alchemy, turned even the most horrifyingly disgusting parts of a pig into mouth-watering salamis, sopressatas and capicolas. Quite the contrast to the acreage of undoubtedly flavorless, boxed food in which I presently found myself. Even more painful was that many of the products were – in what was clearly a sarcastic gesture by a junior marketing executive –prominently labeled Italian. Perhaps, I thought, this misguided belief that ingesting sodium-filled and fat-laden corporate chemistry experiments is acceptable, much less palatable, may, in some way, explain America’s futile battle against expanding waistlines and other ailments that send the nation’s cardiologists grimacing all the way to the bank –  or BMW dealership. The average Italian, by comparison, devours the equivalent to an entire hog per annum, yet even their fifty-year olds look like supermodels.

Apologies. I do not intend this missive to have the sole aim of bashing degenerate, twenty-first century American culture. Wait, who am I kidding? Yes. Yes, I do intend it to be that. So if you consider Thomas Kinkade a legitimate artist, football – the brain-rattling American variety –a legitimate sport, Kanye a legitimate performer and Donald Trump a legitimate politician, stop reading, now.

I was a bit surprised it took nearly a week for the culture shock to punch me square in the jaw. It easily could have occurred on the drive back from the airport as I passed vacant strip malls, antiseptic office parks and subprime-financed subdivisions, some of which were ironically named after quaint Tuscan hamlets in a feeble attempt to muddle the fact that they were one rung up from a trailer park. This was not the scenery I had experienced only the day before on a predawn run through the center of Rome. Pacing myself along cobblestone lanes, traversing hidden piazzas with the morning sun radiating off the ochre facades of centuries-old palaces, onto the banks of the Tiber up to where the grand cupola of St. Peter’s stands sentinel above the river’s western bank, I could only think, every day should begin like this. Well that, and damn, I’m tired. The only sound at that early hour was water cascading from the city’s ubiquitous fountains, some still supplied by ancient aqueducts. At home, any noise echoing through the twilight would likely be gunfire, being that this is ‘Merica and we like our guns, and judging by the headlines, using them with sickening frequency.

Rome is renowned for the seven hills upon which an empire was built. It was only by accident that I climbed every one of them on my morning jaunts, a mistake attributed to my inability to read Italian street signs. The views down toward a sea of terra cotta rooftops and renaissance domes, however, made the Advil-popping ascents worth it, as did scuttling past the ageless Pantheon in shadowy solitude and, later, joining other runners along the Via del Corso striding toward the ornate Piazza del Popolo, all of which were free from the notoriously nihilistic Roman drivers at that hour. Venturing into the sixth mile of one such run, I came to realize why I had never been able to jog more than an hour during my four-year exile in the U.S.: I didn’t want to. Running through nondescript neighborhoods bereft of character and past parking lots more expansive than an ancient hippodrome is not quite as motivating. There is always trail running in the foothills west of town, but I prefer to think that, in aggregate, my life amounts to something more than an afternoon snack for a mountain lion. 

The average Italian’s day begins not with a run, but a stop at the neighborhood café for the first of many espressos. The green-emblem, paper-cup variety this is not. Italians, after all, invented espresso, and over the past century they have perfected it. Practically every city block has its own café, providing patrons with just enough counter space to place their cup and pastry while they glance at the morning paper or catch up with neighbors. Any visit to such an establishment puts the tragic concept of Starbucks into perspective, if any were needed. More than once that company’s self-assured yet clearly delusional CEO has stated that his mission was to bring the Italian coffee culture to the U.S. Well, if that was the goal, Howie, you missed the mark by 1.61 kilometers. If the plan all along was to serve up industrialized, warm brown liquid, often mixed with a sugary syrup that no self-respecting citizen of Rome would ever put in his coffee, all within a soulless atmosphere, then you’ve duly earned your billions.

There are two categories of people in Italy: citizens and poor bastards like me who are only there on holiday. At least while the former heads into work, I could commence with my main order of business, which was absorbing the intoxicating splendor that two-plus millennia of history and culture have bequeathed the city.

While the hulking ruins of the city’s imperial past may garner top billing, the structures that largely dominate modern Rome’s piazzas, lanes and hilltops are ecclesiastical in nature. The city, after all, has been the center of Christiandom for much of the faith’s history, a fact that undoubtedly makes the celebrity preachers of suburban megachurches sick with envy. From gilded Byzantine basilicas to renaissance cathedrals and evocative baroque chapels, Rome’s churches trace an interrupted path from the Empire’s final days, through the tumult of medieval Europe, up to the present, where modernity seems to have little place for such trifling matters as understanding the essence of man, despite the city brimming with monuments aimed at exploring such mysteries.

Those more well-versed in the arts and architecture can point out how the resplendent domes, vivid frescos and haunting mosaics that capture a much earlier time, were meant to create a sensation of both astonishment and humility as one beholds the grandeur of heavenly promise compared to the wicked, vile and sometimes violent darkness that has encapsulated much of man’s earthly experience. One need not have memorized the Lives of Saints or dine on a slice of cod every Friday to get the message. The contrast, so goes this school of thought, will keep potentially wayward souls on the straight and narrow. If that were the intended effect, it works damn well on me. So much so that when walking along wrenching interpretations of the stations of the cross, or silently studying a reliquary illuminated only by shimmering candlelight, I – perhaps channeling my inner Augustine – feel more than a twinge of guilt for being such a reprobate. Penitence? Um, next year…maybe.

Two of the most popular sites within Rome’s center are the Trevi Fountain and the Spanish Steps. A visit to either radiates the same level of tranquility and intimacy that one would expect when trying to escape a theater fire. To further illustrate what pinheads most of humanity is, these hordes scurry from one such site to the other – all of which are completely obscured other tourists jostling for selfies – oblivious that some of the city’s greatest treasures are hidden in plain sight within the palaces and museums they feverishly blow past.

Hoping to avoid contracting the myriad airborne pathogens these cretins surely host, I prefer to exist in a parallel tourist universe, frequenting attractions overlooked by the bucket-list crowd. Rome has plenty. One such jewel is the Palazzo Doria-Pamphilj, not so discreetly located on the Via del Corso. Despite the plum location, the palace’s renaissance courtyard and opulent galleries are as hushed and calm as the streets outside are chaotic. Here is where one comes to commune with the timeless brilliance of Caravaggio, Tiziano and Rafael.

It is a risky proposition to attempt to name the singular highlight of a holiday, but if forced, the main candidate from my recent excursion was finding myself alone in a chamber of the palace, viewing Velazquez’s renowned portrait of Pope Innocent X. The masterpiece is one of seventeenth-century Europe’s artistic triumphs and a significant contribution to western civilization’s cultural heritage. Modern fare such as reality-TV staple Naked and Afraid this was not. We’ve slipped a bit over the past few hundred years. 

Sharing the chamber is a bust of the same subject by master sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini.  While examining the work, one cannot escape the sensation that the work is examining you. And being that this individual was Christ’s vicar on Earth, and possibly held considerable sway on whether my wretched soul would spend eternity in fiery damnation, I felt more than a bit uneasy. But such was the genius of Bernini. With his chisel and hammer, he could transform a slab of rock into an image that seemingly emitted levels emotion and energy far exceeding the capabilities of his flesh-and-blood subjects.

The bust of Innocent X is just one of the countless gifts Bernini bestowed upon Rome. Most visitors –likely unknowingly – have witnessed his achievements when absorbing the interior of St. Peter’s, dipping their hands into one of his famed fountains or stumbling upon an alter in an otherwise nondescript parish church. Should one really want to experience Bernini-overload, a tour of the Galleria Borghese can serve up more artistic intensity than perhaps any other museum within the city. The place may have the highest concentration of mythology-inspired marble figures that consistently elicit the exaltation, “you’ve got to be kidding me,” from awestruck patrons. Don’t believe me? Hop on a plane and prove me wrong. 

No one will ever confuse me for an art snob. My preference for having large dead animals nailed to a wall eliminates that possibility. Italian cuisine on the other hand, that’s a different matter. Bathe me in olive oil, I simply worship the stuff. Yes, the country has been on a steady descent since it ruled the known world, and they really screwed up during the Mussolini years, but over the centuries, at least according to my palate, they have perfected dining. And not just what’s on the plate, but where it’s served and with whom it’s shared. Dining remains an event, whether in trattorias, or around a country kitchen table. The pasta is fresh. The wine acidic. The spices vibrant and the sauces rich. All of this is topped off with a steaming espresso to ensure the amity will continue well into the night. Of course, such a commitment to downtime and imbibing may partly be to blame for the country’s low productivity and legendary inefficiency. But it’s not like America is knocking the cover off the ball these days either. And what do we get for our purported economic might? Commutes? Birthdays at Maggiano’s?

Though provincial  compared to other European capitals, Rome is still a large, congested city. Fortunately, an Italian experience on a much smaller scale is only a short journey away, into the hills of Umbria and Tuscany. Any residual stress from a life spent behind a desk, in cars and tethered to a computer melts away the deeper one ventures down the brick lanes of these regions’ walled towns. While Rome is Rome – the splendid yet withered seat of a long-gone empire – these villages and the hills that surround them are Italy. One does not venture here for masterpieces or basilicas. The attraction is the intangible. No guide book or history class can educate the visitor on how to appreciate the view from the top of a medieval campanile as a late-autumn storm forms over distant vineyards. As shadows envelope the hills, a cool wind serves as a harbinger of the impending winter. Soon bands of rain march across the valley, ultimately surmounting the town’s fortifications. While the arrival of the storm forces a retreat to the streets below, this being Italy, the remainder of the afternoon, rest assured, can be spent in the warmth of a café, enjoying  yet another espresso and planning the next excursion to this captivating land.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Of Bells, Balloons and the Cyclocomputer from Hell

Ah, the great outdoors: where one goes to decompress, contemplate life’s grandest mysteries and commune with nature. How baroque of a notion. This is the 21st century, and we haven’t the time for such banal and unquantifiable endeavors. Long gone are the days of hiking for hiking’s sake, venturing out of wireless range without feeling hopelessly isolated or taking a single step or peddle stroke without having the latest Bluetooth-enabled device track it and – using the most advanced algorithms – seamlessly compare our achievements with those of a thousand or so of our closest cyber-friends, a concept which is tragic in its own rite.

How did it come to this? Is the jettisoning of any semblance of individuality and introspection yet another sign of a degenerate culture, or am I just acutely aware of it by residing in Colorado, a state which collectively seems to have its head jammed farther up its ass than most….and definitely more than its shit-kicking neighbor to the north, which has managed to cling to vestiges of the real west, while Denverites, Boulderites and other Front-Range Gomorrahites have long ago traded in their horses and pick-ups for electric-powered tax write-offs, I mean vehicles.

I should have seen it coming. Actually, in retrospect, I did. Nearly two decades ago, as a doe-eyed 30-something (I matured slowly) I began to recognize that many peers had an entirely different approach toward recreation and time spent in the wilderness than did I. Certainly, I too, had a competitive streak and liked to test my endurance, but seldom did that take precedent over absorbing the wonderment of the high country or snapping a few shots with the cinder-blocked sized camera that was constantly draped across my torso.

One event – or nonevent as it turned out – proved especially telling. Upon learning that it was possible to rent a sailboat on a lake buttressing the Continental Divide, I attempted to rally friends to spend a relaxing afternoon chasing the wind. Rather than being met with the overwhelming enthusiasm that I had expected, I was greeted with hemming, hawing and gripes that being stuck on a boat all day would preclude them from getting in their requisite cardio workout.

What assholes. These were the same fools who on hikes through pristine valleys would sneer any time I began to unsheathe my camera to capture a slice of God’s creation for posterity’s sake. “Come on, dude, not now. I’m in my zone. I need to keep my heart rate above 80% of max (whatever the fuck that means) for the next 20 minutes.” I’m pretty sure these self-absorbed twits would look upon rescuing a troop of girl scouts who had fallen into a snake-filled ravine as an inconvenience to be avoided if at all possible. Baby elk? Who has time? Soaring golden eagle? Whatever. Double rainbow? I’ll download one later off Instagram. Hippy girls bathing buck-naked in a mountain stream? Focus, man. Cannot get distracted. I, for one, proudly get distracted – especially in the latter scenario.

Fast forward 20 years and it pains to me report that I can be counted among the legions of assholes. This realization came to me while sitting atop a featherweight carbon-fiber bike frame that I had to auction a kidney online to afford. Anything in the name of meeting the hallowed objective of shaving weight. Not only – thanks to this transaction – do I possess a bike that weighs slightly more than a first-generation Walkman, but I am also spared the annoying extra ounces of having to cart around that superfluous organ. Yet another benefit, along with avoiding leaving bars at closing time with roadkill, of being a teetotaler.

Measuring every aspect of the machine’s (the bike’s) and the organism’s (my) performance is enough telemetry to have sent an earlier version of the space shuttle into orbit. That was, of course, when the U.S. was still in the business of propelling vehicles beyond the surly bonds of Earth, and well before we stooped to outsourcing the task to those thieving Russian bastards. At least they are skilled at ballistics. After all, it takes tremendous precision to bring down a passenger jet with a truck-mounted rocket, and last year, the Kremlin’s Neanderthal lackies in eastern Ukraine did just that with barely a whimper, much less recriminations, from the eunuch international community. But I digress.

In my defense, I did not set out to become a rigid, sullen and obsessive cyclist. But what are the alternatives in this state? Trail running equals rattlesnakes. The rivers are jammed with Audi-driving doctors amateurishly slinging fly line, and the most popular contemporary activity – sitting on one’s porch getting baked with a legalized strain of weed so potent that it could tranquilize a moose – has never been my thing. So cycling it is. But the allure is understandable, especially for anyone who as a child was overcome with the sense of freedom and adventure when his father first let loose of the bike’s seat, sending him, every so wobbly, down the driveway and toward independence, until the curb or mailbox aborted that maiden voyage. As with many endeavors, however, there is a slippery slope between enthusiast and militant. Safe to say that planning one’s holiday based on proximity to famed hill climbs, steering every conversation toward favored components, watching Tour de France stages from the 1980s on YouTube and cancelling dates when they interfere with interval training all place one in the militant camp.  Not a good place to be.

Don’t get me wrong, Wellness is important. Discipline is admirable, as are goals. But as we should have learned as children – unless raised by wolves – moderation is key.  Intense exercise to the exclusion of all else is no better than spending one’s evenings nursing a crack pipe or cultivating an appreciation of the grace and subtlety of Internet pornography. And triathletes? They’re no better that Nazis. Talk about transforming what should be a majestic and cathartic experience into a cold, industrialized process. Compare that to cycling in isolation. Countering an attack on sun-bleached 11% grade high above the Austrian timberline? That’s passion. Icily counting ones time splits, caloric intake, watts generated and heart rate is nothing more than a Mengelesque experiment carried out at 25 mph.

My demise started with that damn computer. When still in my “enthusiast” stage, it seemed overkill to utilize a GPS-enabled multi-function cycling computer. The goal was to immerse oneself in nature, not stare at data streaming across a postage-stamp sized screen. What I didn’t need was to know my cadence, power, rate of ascent or maximum speed….well maybe the latter. What I did need, however, was to see the damn screen. And truth be told, when in the market for a new computer, only the NASA-designed, dual-processor unit had font large enough for a set of eyes well into its fifth decade to read. The unit also included other features that I surmised would be somewhat useful. One of which was a heart monitor, given that that organ, too, has seen the better part of a half century. Cannot be too careful at this age. I love cycling. Just not enough to have my ticker give out on a spirited climb. Should I meet my maker in such a manner, I’d highly prefer to pull a Nelson Rockefeller and go out in the fervent embrace of a deliciously attractive lass multiple decades my junior.

It did not take long to become obsessive about monitoring my heart rate and cadence. Other features of the computer were not as welcome. After settling in on a recent climb, one such feature revealed itself. Glancing at the computer, I was not greeted with the metrics I had programmed, but instead with the notification that I had just entered a virtual race course. Since fumbling with the touch screen is never a wise idea when zipping across the tarmac at 20-plus miles per hour, I let it be, assuming that eventually the original screen would appear. It didn’t. Worse, after beeping rather offensively to ensure it had my attention, the computer announced that my virtual opponent was pulling away from me. I ignored it. After another few minutes, the entire screen was filled with the unambiguous message: GO!! (with two exclamation points).

How do I turn this damn function off?
Is that all you got?
Don’t look at the computer, check out scenery.
Virtual opponent is kicking your ass.
I’m ignoring you.
Don’t get your skirt caught in the chain…..you pussy.
Fuck you, Mr. bike computer!
How much did you pay for this bike? That shop saw you coming, didn’t it?
Listen, you glorified speedometer, I’ll gladly hurl you into the river rushing alongside the road and you can spend the rest of eternity, or until you corrode into indiscernible bits, being a target for trout shit! How would you like that!!!

After having counted to ten – well, 50 – I calmed down and imagined that this high-volume and high-speed exchange was the exact outcome that an inert and leviathan computer programmer had hoped for when conjuring up something so malicious as a virtual opponent.
This was not the first time I had pondered throwing an inanimate object into a large body of water.  Many moons ago, when residing in Central Europe, I was on a training ride on a narrow path next to what was undoubtedly a frighteningly polluted river. The objective of the day was cadence and speed, and I would not be denied. Then I heard it: even from a hundred meters away, the unmistakable sound of a rusty drivetrain. This was the calling card of the nemesis of any speed merchant burning up the pavement.

How am I going to get around this bastard? Shit, I might slip out of my zone. Then I came around the bend and saw him – well them. It was worse – and slower – than I had thought. A block of a man, with a magnificently bulbous belly that had assuredly taken years of diligently consuming lager and hog fat to shape. On his communist-era steel frame he had engineered cages to hold not one, but two, bottles of such beverages. Next to him, on a pink bike with training wheels – which ensured there would be no easy passage – was his daughter. To complete the nightmare, she had a pink kitten-shaped bell, which she happily and incessantly rung. Tethered to her seat post was a celebratory balloon. Clearly they were out giving the new birthday present a test ride.

Damn them, I grimaced. What occurred next seared my soul and provided incontrovertible proof of how warped my perspective had become. Father and daughter exchanged a glance. As she look up at him, I could tell he was overcome with more elation than I thought humanly possible.

There, on that path, next to that toxic river, he was reaching emotional heights that I wouldn’t even have felt had I crossed under the flamme rouge on sweltering July afternoon in southern France with a five-minute lead over a pack of doped-up Spaniards. He won. I lost. Beer belly and all. I dismounted, exhaled, looked at the flowing brown water – which was likely delivering a few mob corpses to the depths of the Black Sea – and without thought, I lifted my feather-light bike above my head. Then I paused. Remembering that there was a fantastically steep climb out of the river valley not far away, I reset the computer, clicked in my pedals and rolled on.