Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Tired, Sad and Hungry in Italy

Last year, when I announced that I was going to spend the summer in Colombia, South America, the most common response I heard was, "Why Colombia?". There was doubt and concern among my friends and family. If you are reading this you probably know that for me, spending time in Colombia was one of the best experiences that I've ever had. I was warmly welcomed and treated kindly by total strangers who became good friends. Jarrod came out to join me and we enjoyed the culture and country more than I ever thought we would. This year, when I announced that I was going to spend the fall in Italy, everyone's response was filled with excitement and envy. "I'm so jealous!" is probably the most common response I received. Visiting Italy is on most people's bucket list. Getting paid to work in Italy sounds like a dream. It was my own dream, in fact. Now, here I am, living my "dream", but for some reason it isn't very "dreamy". 

I know what you must be thinking: Wake up, and look around, Tracy. You are in ITALY! And not just any part of Italy, but TUSCANY! That might be the hardest part: No one back home will possibly understand why I would be feeling this way. 

Since arriving here I have been full of stress and anxiety and it seems to amplify each week. I thought that driving school in Provence was stressful, but that was nothing compared to what it has been like working here. Having responsibilities and a job to do in a foreign place is much different than visiting for pleasure. The next morning after Lorenzo dropped me off at the leader house I woke up worrying about all the things that I needed to do in the next few days before leading my first trip. I had to learn the routes, towns, hotels and restaurants for 3 different trips that were on my schedule (back to back) and had only 4 days to learn them all.  I found myself starting to feel very overwhelmed. The simplest things can seem daunting to a foreigner in a new country. Where do I find a van to use? How do I fill up gas here? How will I find my way around without GPS? How do I get minutes for my phone here and can I even use my iphone here?  Also, I need to do laundry and buy food and buy an adapter because the one I brought doesn't work, and, and, and...I'm surprised I didn't start hyperventilating. 

At times like these, it's really nice to have a friend. I am lucky enough that two of my favorite people from my training in Salt Lake City are also here. Arly took me under her wing and showed me the ropes: "This is how you pay the tolls on the highways, here is where you can see what vans are available, here are directions to the warehouse and the grocery store and around the corner you can find an electronic store that sells adapters. She was my saving grace. Arly understands because she went through all of this back in May. She was sent out here on the last day of our 2 week training. We were all getting ready for "graduation" and she was pulled aside and told that she had a flight to Paris the very next day and that she would be working all season in Tuscany. I can't image how overwhelming it must have been for her

So I spent four very full days driving to all of the places in Tuscany that our trips visit, driving the biking routes, mountain biking the hiking trails, losing my rain jacket and water bottle somewhere along the way, getting lost and unlost, stopping in to introduce myself to the venders we will visit, and just scraping by with my limited Italian. 

I arrived back at the leader house completely exhausted and the next day I was scheduled to lead my first trip. After a night of very little sleep (I was too nervous to sleep), I was headed back into the hills to meet 13 guests and facilitate the vacation of their dreams. (No pressure). Each morning I was looking at maps and reading notes, trying to memorize what we were doing that day and learn something interesting about the area to talk to them about. (People ask A LOT of questions on walking trips). The trip itself is actually amazing. It's focused on cooking, so we visit farms and kitchens and grandmothers who teach us how to make different types of pastas and cheeses and tirimisu. I only wish I wasn't so tired for it all. I was running on empty and fueled by cappuccinos in the morning and lots of wine in the evenings. By day 6 I was even more exhausted and ready for a break. Instead I was scheduled to work the very next day to prep for my next trip: a 23 person bicycling trip. I wanted to cry. That week proved to be the hardest. I found myself dangerously tired, behind the wheel of a 9 passenger van loaded with bikes and pulling a trailer and navigating narrow, winding roads that I had never driven before. Several times I had to read the directions backwards to support the route from the opposite directioin of the riders. I performed first aid on 2 women who crashed their bicycles, one of them had a rock imbedded in her knee that I had to pull out with gloves, gauze and tweezers. (I am so queasy when it comes to those things, I nearly became nauseous). I hardly ate all week becaue I was so busy driving around, shuttling people from place to place, running errands, loading bikes on top of the van and taking them down again and again. Every once in a while, I was able to look up and take in the beautiful scene, before rolling up my sleeves and going at it again. 

I had the evenings to myself during the bicycling trip, which gave me time to zone out. I'm not sure that's what I really needed though. I think, more than anything, I needed a friend. I found myself feeling extremely alone and sad. The breaking point came in an unexpeected place at an unexpected time. I was having dinner on the patio of a little restaurant in the tiniest little village in Tuscany called Villa di Soto. I had views of the sun setting over the sangiovese grape vines and olive trees. It was a lovely setting, the food was delicious, and so was the wine. The tables were candlelit and occupied by couples, except for mine of course. Sometimes I really like being alone, but not at that moment. I wanted nothing more than to be sitting across from someone too. When the bill came it seemed wrong - They overcharged for my steak - my entire bill was nearly 50 Euro, yikes! The little restaurant is run by 2 people, the chef and waitress. I went inside to try and explain that the bill was wrong. The waitress became very defensive and I realized that the price of my bisteca was actually by the kilo. She apparently explained this to me when I was ordering, but it was lost in translation. (Sigh). My Italian hasn't improved at all since getting here. I've been so preoccupied with learning the routes and things specific to the trips that I stumble every time I try to say anything. Now I am out 50 Euros. Suddenly I burst into tears. I couldn't help it, it just happened. Both the waitress and the chef became very concerned. She changed her tune immediately and came to my side to give me a hug and say "non pianga". That's how I learned the phrase "don't cry". I felt so bad for making her worry. I wished that I could explain to her that it wasn't the price of the steak, but the price of everything that I have sacraficed to come out here. Why did I leave everything I love to come out here and be alone? What is the point of being in a little hamlet in Tuscany if I have no one to share it with? 

Tired, sad and hungry is not at all how I imagined myself when I was dreaming about working in Italy. On the other hand, it's not a surprise that life is full of surprises. 

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Where am I?

Its been a fun, busy, stressful and exciting adventure, and I have somehow found myself exactly where I was hoping to be...ITALY!
It's been a week since landing in Paris where I arrived, jet-lagged, hungry and feeling like a lost child. I  figured out where I needed to be to catch my train to Provence and sat down, exhausted. An older woman sat down next to me said something in French that I couldn't understand. I just smiled, shrugged my shoulders and said the little French I knew, "je ne sais pas" (I don't know). She smiled and then pulled out a fresh plum from the bag in her lap, which she polished with a napkin and offered to me. I graciously accepted it sputtering out "Merci" before devouring it down in about 3 seconds. She quickly offered another which I also ate. My hunger must have been apparent because she insisted on offering me a third. I shyly accepted and ate that one too, more slowly this time. Sometimes the right person comes along at just the right time and offers you exactly what you need at that moment. 

The leader "villa" in Pernes is not bad at all. There is plenty of space, a nice kitchen equipped with an espresso maker, plenty of coffee and milk, and a big patio and yard that looks out to olive trees.  Shortly after arriving I met a couple of other leaders, Liz and Mikel and the 3 of us went on a full day bike touring adventure, stopping along the way in little villages called Venasque and Gordes, and others that I can't remember or even pronounce. Mikel played tour guide and was able to answer my recurring question, where are we now? We felt like guests on a Backroads trip, riding along all the narrow, winding roads picking fresh figs from trees and spoiling ourselves to a long, relaxing lunch on a terrace, before heading back into the sunset and taking in the views of the vineyards. It hit me that we were riding through prime wine country, at the southern tip of the Rhone Valley. Oh, how I wish I had more time to explore!

After our day of fun, it was "game on" and we were busy finding our way around the grocery store with a limited budget to buy ingredients to prepare a picnic typical of the area (to be evaluated by our French trainer). The majority of our time was spent driving the van and trailer down narrow roads in the little villages, while following pages of directions and not getting distracted by our trainer, Florent, who found amusement in trying to break our focus by berrating us with questions. Several times I worried that I was driving up a one way road (the only way for cars to pass each other on some of these roads is for one to back up to the widest point). At one point I missed a turn in the directions and found myself turning the van and trailer arouund in a tight spot between a ditch and a brick wall. It took about 5 minutes for me to figure out my way out of that one. As my heart was racing Florent didn't bat an eye or offer any help. Insteaad he continued talking and asking questions about my life back in Colorado. Trying to keep focus under that kind of stress was mentally exhausting, but somehow we made it through and celebrated with a big potluck dinner back at the leader house. 

After driving school I caught a ride to Italy with an Italian leader, Lorenzo, who drove us first to Liguria to spend a day with his friend who lives there, and then down to Tuscany (where I am now). Liguria is the "Italian Riviera" with dramatic hills right next to the sea and beautiful houses, churches and towns built up on the steep hillsides. It was so beautiful dirving in as the sun was setting. I think Lorenzo became tired of me gasping "wow" over and over again. 

Visiting little european towns with a van and trailer and 30 bikes creates interesting challenges. When we pulled into the little town of Chiavari we drove on a narrow road along the boardwalk, looking for Lorenzo's friend, and then eventually the road came to a dead end and we had to turn around. That's when I learned the European trick of unhitching and moving the trailer by hand (the trailers in the US are too big to do that). 

We spent the next day riding bikes up in the hills and ended up that night in a little hilltop town called Pianeza, where we drank cheap wine and had our ears blasted with the music of a local heavy metal band. Sneaking away from a mosh pit was the last thing I expected to experience in a mideaval village.

The next morning we were on the road again, Tuscany-bound. Tuscany is one of the most popular Backroads destinations, and there are multiple hiking and biking trips going out every week. During the peak months (September and October) there can be as many as 50 leaders coming and going. Lorenzo warned me; It´s going to be crazy. Here we go!