Thursday, June 7, 2007

My First Trip

My First Trip

Whoa I'm back! I just had a month off after training (So much for "needing me in three weeks.")... but now I just finished leading two trips (during which leaders tend to sort of disappear off the face of the earth) and now I finally have some time to dork off on my computer.

Not a whole lot of stories came from my month off. I went on bike rides around Tuscany, I spent a lot of time visiting friends in Bologna, and hung out in Florence. Around a week before my first trip, I found a really cheap ryanair flight from Bologna to Dublin to see the city and chill out with Elliott...

Dublin is fucking great!

Elliott and his buddies were (rightfully so) sort of stressed out with end of the year medical exams, but they were talked into letting Elliott and I teach them Beryl Street House Rules Kings' Cup then going out one night, where we promptly got obliterated in a series of Irish pubs. My sign to stop drinking was when someone handed me another pint of Guinness and it just…went…right on through my fingers to the ground. Sweet Sweet Guinness…wasted. Like me. Yay!

We did all the usual stuff, went to the amazing Guinness factory where a jolly old man with an illicit pocket of extra Guinness tokens treated Elliott and I to an extra round of the best, coldest, foamiest Guinness that I've ever had, in a sky bar overlooking Dublin with a 360 degree window view, covered with quotes from James Joyce books. We ate in the oldest pub in Dublin with two joyfully bewildered women from Alabama who exclaimed how much they adored almost everything Elliott and I told them about Dublin.

Example: at one point, Elliott told them that there were rows of bust sculptures in the old Dublin Library at Trinity College.

"Owh! Ah simplah LAHVE those!"

…Who loves rows of bust sculptures?

Anyways, after a few days of adventures, I went back to Italy, kicked around Florence for a week, then came back to the leader house...

I showed up at the leader house in a tired, hungover haze. I sort of wandered in the front door, greeted with the semi-usual blend of Italian, French, English, etc coming from the room with all of our computers armed with Skype headsets. This time, though, there was a burst of Spanish coming from the room… which was weird (not a lot of Spanish guides in Italy). I paused at the door and found myself meeting my co-leader for the week, a girl from Barcelona named Lara.

Lara kicks ass. She's only a second year leader, but due to a series of Leaders getting rapidly fired in southern Tuscany, Lara found herself armed with a whole lot of responsibility that she took to really well.

We had a short meeting with lots of gesturing and looking at maps and consulting lists and getting directions, and then I took off for a four day FAM, which is where they pay me to drive the whole trip, stay in the hotels, learn to not get lost, etc, before I actually do the trip. I talked to countless tour guides, bitchy women at front desks, wonderful women at front desks, had glasses of wine and cups of coffee with restaurant owners, and drove 700 kilometers in four days. It was actually pretty cool, in the end.

Tuscany is definitely one of the most beautiful places in the world. It's not just a generic sort of thing, it really is. I mean, Jesus. I'd write about it now, but if I have to say the terms "rolling hills" or "ancient towns clinging to the tops of cliffs" any more than I have to, I'll need to kick myself in the nuts.

But it's great.

I got back to the house really late on the Friday night before prep day, and Lara, Todd (another leader who had done a lot of work researching the trip) and I drank several bottles of wine at our "dinner meeting" and then all the new leaders who were kicking off new trips ran from room to room with each other and talked about being freakishly worried about their trips and some of the older leaders shook their heads and smiled knowing smiles about how this was going to be the last time that we dared to do a prep day hungover….

(Editors' note from one year later: I have since done many, many prep days hungover)


Wow Jesus I dragged my insanely hungover body out of bed and hopped into a van with Lara. We dropped off some maps at the copy place and headed to hell...otherwise known as the Ipercoop. This is the newest version of the Italian supermarket, which are actually reaching sizes that rival American supermarkets, with the huge, glaring exception that American supermarkets aren't chock full of angry Nonnas.

"Nonna" is Italian for grandmother, and these women are short, occasionally hostile, and won't take any gump from anybody. They command space and respect, and don't always get it, which can make them bitter. They push, they don't excuse themselves, and, being small, they are always underfoot. Italians don't move in straight lines in supermarkets, preferring to curve in unpredictable patters. And because the American concept of shopping for a week at a time hasn't really made it to Italy with the supermarket, a lot of people seem to go to the store every day, which means there are THOUSANDS of Nonnas at the Ipercoop EVERY DAY.

Whew. Shopping for our trip took hours. We finally made it out of there, and went to the warehouse/office to A) Call every restaurant, hotel, tour guide, bus driver, etc that our trip uses to make sure they know we're coming B) prep all of the bikes (pull the right amount of the right sizes of bikes from the warehouse, check tire pressures, brakes, cable tensions, blah blah blah) C) Print out stacks of directions for our guests to take with them on each day's ride D) Check for dietary restrictions to inform the restaurants about (Lara has had people who don't eat Carbsie pasta…in Italy. Jesus) E)clean the vans F) and ten million other things that people on bike tours probably don't realize that their leaders are madly scrambling to do at all time. Me being new, and being Robin, the process went pretty slowly and we finished at like nine at night.


I rolled glumly out of bed at 6am to practice that night's orientation talk, pack my bags for the day, drink a handful of espressos, and just generally stress myself out. The plan for the morning was I Lara and I were going to drive to get gas, then to the warehouse to rack the bikes on the van, take our picnic supplies from the fridge and put it in the van, then drive together to the Siena train station, where I would drop Lara off at 10am to wait for the guests to arrive at noon. I would then drive to our hotel 30 minutes away, where I would drop the trailer off, pull the bikes off the rack and display them for the guests, prepare a picnic spread, a snack table for the afternoon ride, and then greet the guests as they arrived at the hotel on a charter bus with Lara at twelve thirty sharp.

...What actually happened was that I missed the exit for our hotel on the autostrada (highway), and the next exit was 15 minutes away. I then took a wrong turn going through one of the small towns on the way, got stuck with the van and the trailer in a little parking lot, had to back the trailer at a crazy angle up a driveway to get it turned around, and when I actually got to the hotel to start my work, I only had 45 minutes to do everything.


To further complicate matters, I had chosen a…ummm…silly assortment of picnic items to prepare when you consider that time is totally, totally of the essence at all times on a Thrilling Adventures trip. I found myself haha making a pineapple boat (I am still a man) with little-uh-chocolate sailors (to my credit, I at least made a bunch of the sailors drowning) with thirty nine minutes left. I had to pull my Thrilling Adventures shirt off while I was doing this, as I was cooking under the (haha) Tuscan sun and was gong to sweat right through that shirt. I was hand seeding individual grapes with twenty minutes left. I was preparing an elaborate cheese and bread spread with twelve minutes left.

I frantically called Lara and told her to have the bus driver get lost, but even that didn't buy me enough time. I was running food from the prep area to the spot where I was doing the picnic when the bus pulled up in front of the hotel.

I realized at this point that I still wasn't wearing a shirt.

I sprinted back across the gravel parking lot, cheese platter in hand, completely shirtless, and grabbed my shirt, small slices of pecorino flying as I dashed back to the picnic spot, threw my Thrilling Adventures shirt on, took a deep breath, and pretended to be calmly finishing up my picnic while the guests came around the corner with Lara. I greeted everyone, inwardly collapsing because we're ALWAYS supposed to be done with the picnic before the guests arrive, and offered them some drinks to sip while I finished everything up. Lara slipped off while I was chatting with the guests and got the bikes and snack table ready while we made small talk, then guests went off to their rooms to get changed for the ride while I cleaned up the mess, and everything was…ok. Right on.

Lara rode with the guests on the 20 kilometer warm up ride, and I drove the van around doing van support. We got back and I went to the restaurant to confirm everything for the night, then we quickly showered, put on nice clothes, and had an apperitivo (appetizer) hour with prosecco (like champagne) and other snacks on a hill overlooking the towers of Siena, I gave an orientation talk, we went in and had dinner, and then came back to the room. One of the guests was unhappy with her bike sizing, and so Lara and I hopped in the van and drove an hour and a half back to the warehouse, swapped the bike out, then drove back in the middle of the night listening to old Muse albums. We got back at two in the morning and crashed out..


Today it was my turn to ride with the guests, and so right away I did the longest ride that I've ever done in my life…90 kilometers of steep hill climbing in and out of tiny villages "clinging to the tops of rolling hills." (They really do, though. I just talked about it WAY too much during the week). The riding was awesome (as it always is in Tuscany), and we climbed through vineyard after vineyard of the famous Chianti region, sticking mainly to tiny back roads that had very few cars at all (and even when there are cars, Italian drivers are amazingly courteous with bike riders, giving you so much space when they pass that they will endanger both their own life and that of the oncoming driver in the other lane)


They're butt-fucking insane, for the most part. There is this whole racecar mentality that dominates Italian driving. There are very few pullouts anywhere; it's assumed that if you want to pass someone, you will do so in the oncoming traffic lane, especially around blind curves. They drive as fast as possible everywhere, weaving around slower cars, and tailgating when that's not possible. The thing that I find especially funny about all this is that this person who's tailgating you, leaning out their window to gesture at you with Italian waves and swoops of the hands, is probably en route to a FUCKING THREE HOUR LUNCH. Couldn't they drive like a little slower and maybe relax a LITTLE less at their ridiculously long lunch break? I guess I'm too American to get this.

Anyways, the bike ride kicked my ass but I had to pretend that it didn't (remember, I'm a bike tour guide). We stopped for Lunch in a cool town called Castellina in Chianti, Lara and I grabbed sandwiches and made phone calls on the steps of the local church as the guests went out on their own, then we rode to another cool town called Radda in Chianti (all the Chianti towns add "in Chianti" to the end, because they're so damn proud of being in the Chianti league) before…Robin's chase of the ghost riders.


In the afternoon climbs, I was riding with three guests, these two dudes who ride like 100k a day back in the states and a female ex-triathlete who did the ironman. Needless to say, I was having a hard time keeping up with these people. I was doing ok, though, and had fallen only a few hundred meters behind the triathlete when we crested a hill and all took off downhill. The thing is, at the bottom of the hill was a place marked on the directions as an "EASY TURN TO MISS – Take a slight right at the sign to Curina." I came around the bend, and being familiar with the route from my FAM, took the EAST TURN TO MISS. My three insane riders, however, being slightly in front of me and hopped up on adrenaline from the downhill, blew right past it.

I, however, didn't know this at the time. After a little while, I started thinking, Jesus, I am going to CATCH these people, Dammit!

I took off as hard as I could up a giant uphill climb-really, really sprinting for like twenty minutes. It was at this point that the van support came up behind me, with Lara driving and a handful of guests choosing to skip the afternoon climbs.

At this point, I'm totally dripping with sweat, head to toe. There's no way that I can ride anymore.

I waved them down, and all the guests were like "where's Tim? Where's Sara?" and I was like "haha!" Because I had no idea.

They were waiting at the hotel when we got back (it turns out that the way that they went, while less pretty, is even faster to the hotel) and everyone had a good laugh that Robin spent the afternoon madly sprinting after guests that didn't exist. Ghost riders.

The evening was pretty cool 'cause we took a shuttle into Siena, had a great five course meal, and then I walked everyone around the town for an hour, telling people about the history of Siena, il Palio (the thousand year old horse race), and some of my adventures from the summer that I lived there. It was wild to see Siena again, and walking back into Piazza del Campo, where I had spent so many nights (wasted and otherwise) tugged at my heart in a few directions. It was cool, though. We took a bus back afterwards and crashed at the hotel.


So I was back to van support today. The ride was leaving the Chianti region, doing a couple of tough hill climbs in the morning, then stopping in the tiny town of Monte San Savino, where we were checking out a hand-made ceramics demo, then riding down into the plains underneath the hill town of Cortona, which was made famous by the book "Under the Tuscan Sun," which apparently every single middle-aged woman in the world has read.

My job for the day: I was to hitch up the trailer to the van, help the hotel porters load everybody's luggage into the van, support the bikers from Villa Curina (our hotel) to Monte San Savino, check if anybody wanted a shuttle from lunch to the hotel in Cortona (a really cool hotel, too. Four stars- a converted 13th century palace), then drive to Cortona, drop the trailer in a parking lot underneath the city (there are many places in Italy that you never, ever take a trailer. Cortona is one of them), then drive up into Cortona on Via Guelfa (think the steeper streets in San Francisco, but with really narrow walls on both sides and cobblestones), throw on the emergency lights and block traffic while unloading the luggage with the porters in front of the hotel, then drive back out to the bottom of the hill underneath Cortona to see if any of the guests want a shuttle up the last steep 6 km of riding.

Everything went according to plan until lunch, when I arrived in Monte San Savino, parked the van with the trailer in a small dirt parking lot, ran up to check if anyone wanted a ride (nobody did), then ran back down to the parking lot to discover that there was no way I could turn the van (with the trailer) around. I had to back the trailer completely out of the lot, maneuvering it through a narrow column of cars on both sides, and if any of you have ever tried to back a trailer down a very exact straight line, you know it's not easy. The parking lot was on a hill, so I had to use the e brake every time I started (it's a stick shift)) and then halfway out, I discovered that the bikes racked on the top of the van were catching on an overhanging tree branch, so I needed to jump out and pull leaves and small branches out of the bike spokes every time I stopped.

It took me a half an hour.

I finally got started, and yep, took a wrong turn to Cortona that set me back a half an hour. I finally got back on track and arrived below Cortona, pulled (more carefully this time) into a parking lot and dropped the trailer off, then drove to the entrance of Cortona, threw a Jack Johnson cd in the player, took a deep breath, and drove through the thousand year old porta to the city.

I made it all the way up Via Guelfa without incident, dodging stray nonnas, little kids, tourists, stone steps sticking out of buildings, and finally made it in front of the hotel. I threw on my emergency lights, jumped out, ran in, and asked where the porter was.

The looked at me blankly, then one of them turned to the other and wondered where the porter was.

It turns out that he hadn't come in to work yet.

I ran back outside, and with a line of five cars honking at me, unloaded some twenty-five bags into the hotel. By the time I finished, the guy in the front was actually hanging out of his window, yelling sarcastic things at me and gesturing madly with his cell phone. I got in and started to drive, and suddenly felt a slight tug at my van. I looked in the mirrors and noticed that an umbrella (a like fucking NICE umbrella) from a restaurant had hooked itself on my bike rack. I stopped immediately, and wearily watched as it unhooked itself, swayed from side to side a little bit, then completely snapped in half.

An American woman, who happened to be walking by, leaned in my window, looking at me looking (stunned) at the umbrella, and said (in the most terrible Italian I've ever heard)
"'E Rotta!" (It's broken) then waddled down the street, pleased that she had managed to really engage with an Italian situation, with a local!

"Fuck" I said.

I checked around. No one else had seen it. I checked my watch. I only had twenty minutes to make it to my shuttle point. I checked around again. No one around. I threw the van into first and drove out of there.

Of course, on the side of my van, it says, in huge letters, WWW.THRILLINGADVENTURES.COM, and our phone number.

I went down and picked up a load of people waiting for a shuttle (I got there just as they did…whew.) Then came up to Cortona, obsessed over the umbrella incident for a few hours, and then went to the restaurant.

"Si?" the waiter said when I came in.

"Oggi quando passavo questa ristorante nella mia macchina, ho sentito qualcosa sulla macchina, ma non potevo vedere niente a quell punto, comunque sono andato via, ma adesso posso vedere che la vostra umbrella 'e rotto, e ho paura che lo ho fatto…."

(Today when I was passing here in my car, I felt something on the car, but couldn't see anything, so I left, but now I see that your umbrella is broken, and I'm afraid I did it).

It was a little off the truth, but the truth enough, I reckoned.

The waiter looked at another waiter, and then they both shrugged. "Well," one of them said.

"The fact is, it's broken now, and it doesn't matter who did it. Thanks for coming by, your honesty means a lot, but the truth is it's broken, and that's that. Let's just say someone else did it if it makes you feel better."

This decidedly un-American response threw me for a huge loop. No one was looking for someone to blame, to pay, to be responsible. They just saw something broken that needed to be fixed. I sort of sputtered for a bit, then he just thanked me again, they both smiled at me, and I left.

God bless this fucked up but totally wonderful place.


Back on the bike. The night before, I had made a huge mistake and decided that I had all this extra energy and was going to go on a run from the bottom of Cortona to the top. It was horribly hard and so when I woke up this morning, I could barely feel my legs, which is great for when you're about to ride 80-90km of hills.

It worked out ok, and this day actually passed fairly uneventfully. This one lady whose husband was really, really fast was having sort of a hard time on the trip. She was a pretty competitive person, but the slowest biker on the trip, and so struggling a lot with this. Today I solved both my tired legs problem and I cheered this lady up a lot by taking her aside at breakfast and asking her if she would mind riding with me today 'cause I had gone on this run and couldn't keep up with the pack today. We tackled some hills together, and she had a great day, and so did I.


Goddamn I love van support days after huge riding days. I marveled at my guests' ability to ride these huge fucking distances every single day-for vacation! They make me think about my dad-he's insane like this. We paid this gross old guy named Mario to do the luggage transfer for us today (logistically I couldn't support a lot of the route and do the transfer, so Thrilling Adventures paid for a subcontractor to do it. Yes.)

We visited a 13th century monastery; I drove around and listened to modest mouse, and went back to our hotel in the evening.

A lady came out from nearby Monalcino with a few Brunellos (voted the best wine in the world by a few magazines last year) and we had a wine tasting dinner that lasted two and a half hours and left me quite wasted. Lara and I did dishes out by the trailer with our headlamps, talked about logistics until midnight, and then we passed out.


A standard Thrilling Adventures trip ends at noon on day six, but I had somehow scored one of the rare 8-day trips (two times in a row!) and by today we were insanely tired. We both woke up in our hotel room at the same time, looked at each other in the face, and then laughed for like five minutes on how terribly zonked we both looked.

I was out in ten minutes to tune up the bikes (there's a picture of me doing this at this hotel), we hitched the trailer up again, and had another crazy sort of logistics morning where I drove Lara to the picnic spot, dropped her off to make a picnic lunch at San Casciano dei Bagni, then I dropped the trailer off in a parking lot below the town, then drove back to support the route up the morning hills (gave a few of the guests a boost up the hill, etc) then had Lara's far superior (to mine) picnic lunch. We swapped roles in the afternoon, and I got to ride over a rolling hillside down into a few small medieval towns, then up across a forest into our final hotel of the week, in Sovana (which is in the far southern tip of Tuscany).

Southern Tuscan towns kick ass. They all are perched on these huge cliffs of this stone that the Italians call Tufa-and all of them were founded by the Etruscan people from the 7th to the 6th century B.C. They all look like they're about to be invaded by armies from the Lord of the Rings at any second. Awesome.

Nothing really crazy happened today, we took a bus into the town of Pitiligano (there's an awesome picture that Lara took in my pictures section) ate dinner, took a tour, came back and passed out.


We did a huge ride today. I did van support for half the day, then rode the second half. Today was awesome because we stopped at the Saturna hot springs, which are covered with smooth pools and waterfalls of warm water. Lara and I busted out a nice bottle of Morellino di Scansano (I'm learning about Italian wines!) in the pools and the guests were pretty stoked on that.

In the evening the shit didn't really hit the fan, but lightly sprinkle it. I had made the horrible habit of not ever really knowing the timing of the evening events-like what time dinner was, etc, until right before. Thus, today a bunch of the guests asked me what time we needed to meet for dinner, and I told them seven thirty (seemed like a good number to me), but then got back to my room at the hotel and found that it was actually seven…it was six thirty now, and I had half an hour to tell all the guests that dinner was actually a half an hour earlier than they expected. I grabbed a really, really fast shower, ran to one room and told them about the "change," and made my way around, telling everybody about the change until I hit the last room, and the lady said the change was ok with her, but could I tell her husband about it? He had gone to explore the hotel grounds. I ran out the back door of the hotel…and stopped cold.

The hotel grounds were HUGE.

I ran from manicured lawn to manicured lawn, searching frantically, until I reached the end of the grounds, where a large hedge was blocking my view. Ok, I thought, he HAS to be right behind this hedge. I checked my watch. Six minutes to seven. Allright, we'll get back just in time.

I ran around the hedge, and found…another hedge.


I ran around this hedge, and was greeted with three hedges, and three ways to go. I picked the middle one, and ran around the corner, when suddenly it dawned on me.

I was in a fucking hedge maze.

I guess something that everybody should eventually experience is frantically searching for something in a hedge maze. I mean, it really, really sucks, but at the same time, you're thinking, by gum- a hedge maze!

In the end, I found him somewhere in the middle, we made our way out, and were only a couple of minutes late for dinner.

That night, we made our final toasts for dinner, everybody laughed and had a good time, and that was the end of that.

A good trip. I was straight up trippin that whole next week, too.


Friday, April 6, 2007

Bonjour, Bonjour

Bonjour, Bonjour

So I'm in France now.

Here's how that happened:

At the end of last summer I was doing the thing that I do at the end of every summer (trying to figure out my life) when my sister and her boyfriend mentioned a company called Thrilling Adventures to me. Thrilling Adventures does bike tours around the world, and they need Italian speakers. A friend of mine is leading trips, Spencer said. You should do that too, Kate said.

I thought about it.

I guess that I like bike riding, but it had been years since my last real (read: not drunken and not to 7-11) bike ride. I'd probably have to wear spandex. I'd have to go back into customer service, which can really, really suck. I'd have to put off my vague ideals that I "am an artist and must make art" for another year at least.

But someone was going to pay me to live in Italy, and maybe then travel the world.



One month ago I finally applied, through the most intense hiring process that I've ever been a part of. I wrote two essays. I got letters of reference. I sent in a resume and driving record. They called me for a half an hour phone interview. They called me again and invited me to a hiring day (read: 8 hour interview where I have to give speeches to roomfuls of people, problem solve "troublesome guests" in a role-play at a smooth wooden table with executives frowning and scribbling madly in notebooks at my each and every response, demonstrate my skill in the Italian language, and fix a flat tire).

Then they hired me! They told me that I needed to be in France in three weeks, and bought me a ticket. I purchased spandex. I tried to call my Italian friends to brush up my now-bad Italian, but they being Italian never called me back.

I finished work in Nevada City and took a train to San Francisco, where I met up with Lily and Adam (and Karen and Sarah) and swore to myself that I was under no terms going to get wasted the night before my really, really long flight.

I promptly got wasted.

We took pictures of piles of people on couches for hours, then went to a party and loudly congratulated the birthday boy on his 21st birthday (it turned out to be his 28th) but then drank his beer anyway then ran to a bar then back to the house and someone announced that it was now a pantless party and food was eaten but pants were not worn and I fell asleep on a couch.

After three or four hours of sleep, delicious sandwiches were eaten and Lily and Adam drove me to the airport as I stared out the window in a hungover daze as SFO rose into view and it suddenly and roaringly occurred to me that I was leaving the country to begin an insane job in a crazy, foreign culture and I wasn't going to know anybody and start all over again and it was probably going to be great but I was scared of everything at the same time and I grabbed my bags and hugged Lily and Adam and walked through revolving doors and well I guess I was done with the States for a long time ready or not.

The flight was insane. I slumped in a chair in SFO and fought my hangover for two hours and got on the plane right next to a girl who was going to be a Thrilling Adventures guide, too. We talked for a while and I tried to sleep but it was the most turbulent flight that I've ever been on and I was too busy deciding that was going to tragically die to put any time aside for sleep but then we landed in Chicago and met another Thrilling Adventures hiree and we sat in this airport for four hours and then the plane was delayed so we sat for a little while longer then took off and flew for a few hours and then the German pilot came on over the intercom and I caught the words "liver failure" and "Canada" and "emergency landing" and then we started descending in altitude…

It actually ended up not being that exciting (some dude was having liver issues and needed to go to a hospital and so we landed on an airfield in northern Canada and there was snow and there we sat for three hours) and we took off again and flew to Frankfurt, where we promptly missed our flight to Marseilles (due to the three hours on a Canadian Airfield) and therefore were also going to miss the last train of the night from Marseilles to Pernes (where the Thrilling Adventures headquarters, ie where we were going to sleep, is). We got a new flight that was leaving in 5 hours, I spent a few hours trying to find someone (on the phone) who could drive to Marseilles (a 1.5 hour drive) and pick us up….and everything worked out. We made it into Pernes at 2am after some 30 hours of travel and passed out.

All the other people in my apartment were long asleep when I got there, so I just slept on the couch and woke up to realize that I was sharing the apartment with a whole bunch of Italian guys. I was cued into this by the shouts of "Vaffanculo" (Go fuck yourself in the ass) and "Che cazzo fai" (what the fuck are you doing) that were floating through the walls.

It turns out that I'm only one of two American guys here at this training. 1,000 people applied for jobs at Thrilling Adventures worldwide, and they'll hire about 90 of those, so I realized how close I probably came to not getting this job.

The training is frightening. It turns out that Thrilling Adventures is the number one active travel organization in the world, and that their big selling point are their "exemplary" guides.

In essence, they want us to be superhuman. We take groups of up to 25 Americans on these bike tours of say, Tuscany (I'll probably be working all over Italy, though) that weave through town after town. We make sure that everything is always perfect.

During the trip, there are two guides. They are both always, always doing something. For example, during the morning, one of the guides rides with the guests and the other one does van support. The bike rider sweeps the groups, making "sparkling conversation" and checking up on everybody. The van person needs to drive past the group at certain intervals so that everybody feels supported and watched over, then drives ahead with enough time to maybe prepare an amazing picnic lunch, with wines and cheeses and the whole shebang. During this whole period, they're maybe pulling over at times to confirm reservations or specific eating requirements, picking up hurt guests, etc. I'm half tempted to go on and on here; the sheer amount of problems that we're being trained to solve (three weeks of 8 hour days training) are pretty stressful, because I'm not sure that I'm as competent as they want me to be. But shit, who is?

Bikes are racked a certain way, guests are spoken to in a certain way, each problem is dealt with in a certain way. We're being trained in bike mechanics, cooking, European driving (IE driving a twelve seat van with a trailer backwards through a narrow, winding street in Portugal), public speaking, problem solving (your whole group just arrived where the bus was supposed to pick them up and the bus never showed, etc), accident management, CPR and first aid, and much, much more.

I was also wrong when I thought that I'd be camping a lot this summer. Thrilling Adventures does camp a lot, but not in Italy. We stay in 4 and 5 star hotels and eat at Michelin-starred restaurants every night. That's pretty cool.

I'll be working for two weeks straight, then getting one week off, all summer. Pay isn't great, but the lifestyle is. Thrilling Adventures guides in like 40 countries around the world, and more experienced guides tell me that if you're a good guide, you can guide anywhere (two weeks in Peru, then a month in New Zealand, then a trip down the great wall of china, then backpacking in Alaska, then river rafting in Bali, etc), and a lot of them really have been everywhere.

You can really only get year round work if you speak Spanish (a lot of the southern hemisphere countries are Spanish speaking). I was talking to a guide who told me that a lot of guides who want to pick up language skills work just the main season during their first summer (April to October), then move to central or south America for the winter to learn Spanish (I guess you can save enough money from April to October to not really have to work that much over the winter).

I think I'm going to request to stick to Europe for most of this summer, and then when the main season ends (October), move back to the states for a while, (probably San Diego) then maybe move to south America to learn Spanish over the winter. Anyone want a winter roommate in Buenos Aires?

Like I said, training is…intense. Despite the fact that we've already been hired, we're still being evaluated all the time (for a reason that I'm still figuring out) to see if we're really the caliber of person to be a Thrilling Adventures person. They occasionally will fly you home after training if they think that you're not up to snuff. It's kind of stressful. Yesterday was sort of hard, as I temporarily had a "Robin day" at the worst possible time.

I was supposed to do my European driving school yesterday. After a segment of public speaking training, we were headed out to the vans. "Do I need anything?" I asked Leslie, my mentor. "Oh, just your drivers' licensee, she said."

Fuck. I had left it at the leader housing (a half an hour drive away).

Ok, problem solve, I thought. That'll make me look good.

"Hey, do you think that Emyr (the other driving student) could drive to the leader housing for practice, then I'll drive back from there?" I asked.

"Oh, we're driving on another route today," she said.

Fuck. Well… "I…err…leftmylicenceattheleaderhouseI'mreallysorrydoyouthinkwecould changetheroutealittlesoicouldgetit?"

Keep in mind that this is an extra hour round trip that we're talking about here.

She hesitated, and then agreed. After all, I really did need to get my driving practice in.

Emyr drove on the way out, and I sat in a worried cloud. Man, was this making me look bad. This was not making me look like a very capable leader. Shit, what if they flew me home? Allright, just get the licensee and drive really fucking well, look good. Allright….I….


One minute away from the leader housing, I realized something.

I didn't have the keys to my apartment.

They were back at the office.

"Ummm…so do you guys want the next piece of tragic information now"?

They both just looked at me.

"I don't have the keys to my apartment."

Leslie sighed.

"Well, maybe we can get keys from reception."

I brightened up.

"Oh, yeah," I said with as much confidence that my cloud of gloom would allow, "I'll run and do that right now."

I lept from the car with what I thought to be grace and confidence, perhaps like a male Ballerina going hunting, and ran to the front desk…which was closed. For lunch. For five hours.

Sigh. France.

I then ran around the back and vaguely attempted to scale a wall to climb in the second story balcony, but gave up after a small group of French children wandered out to watch the gangly white man trying to leap up a wall.

I went back to the van.

"Got the license?" Leslie asked.

"Uh….no…." I said.

"Oh." Leslie said, coldly. "I guess Emyr can drive back, too, then."

We started the half hour drive back to Thrilling Adventures.

At some point in the drive, Leslie asked me if she could throw my backpack in the back of the van, because it was in the way. I said sure.

"Do you have any valuables in there?" She asked. I barely descended from the cloud of gloom to answer her.

"Uh…no…you can chuck it," I said.

She flung it into the air, some 6 feet above the hard surface of the back of the van, as I realized something.

Oh, yeah, I did have something valuable in my bag.

My brand-new laptop computer.


I didn't say anything out loud; I had demonstrated myself to be enough of a disaster already. But fuck was I bummed for the rest of the drive.

As it turns out, the laptop was ok, and I'm going to do my driving a little later today, so hopefully they'll still keep me on as a guide. I am sort of a joke among the new guides, though, as that story spread like wildfire within hours. It's my day off after my driving practice, and I think I'm going to borrow a bike (we have amazing bikes) and explore some nearby hilltop towns in the afternoon.

And yes, I will be wearing spandex.

But I might leave my computer behind this time.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

My Life is Paused (or) The Ghost of My Past

My Life is Paused.

I mean this in the conventional, Nintendo way. Somebody pushed the little grey button, right next to the Select Button (which is used for God Knows What).

But that Start button.

You're ten, eleven, twelve years old. You're fighting a dragon. Maybe it's a robot monster twelve stories tall. It's a dungeon that has exhausted every ounce of your childhood cunning. You're about to defeat everything, you're about the save the princess, you're about to save the fucking world.

But it's Time for Dinner.

Your parents, not being of the video game era, have no understanding of what's at stake. To them, the Princess is just a flashing pink dot on a monster of a TV that they're not sure that they should be letting you play in the first place.

Maybe, they think, you should be reading more.

And, fuck it, maybe you should.

But the whole point is that you finally hit that dreaded grey button. The dragon pauses, mid-breath of torturous flame.

You wander, dazed, out into the kitchen. You have a decent time, you chat with your parents, your siblings. You eat your dinner, which, frankly, is delicious. You clear your plate, and remember something.

The princess is going to fucking die if you don't do SOMETHING!

And back you go to the living room.

I, by the way, had no intention of talking about video games for this long.

I was just going to write, "My life is paused," then write something else.

But I didn't.

And I guess I have a point about that, too.

I'm currently living in Nevada City, California (population 8,000, most of them old and pleasant).

There are some cool kids that live here.

But this is a very, very quiet place.

And it's my past.

I'm living in the Ghost of My Past.

I moved back to my parents' house (into the same room I've had since I was seven) in September. It's an amazing room; spacious, well-lit…covered with posters that I picked out when I was fourteen.

Oh, and my closet is filled with my life.

More on that in a second.

Anyways, I moved home for a couple of reasons. My dad's been sick and I wanted to spend some time at home, and I didn't know what my next step was going to be. I figure a lot of kids do this. At least I hope so.

I decided, at the very least, that I was going to live at home, make some money, and then take a trip to South America in early 2007.

I had a weird night about a week after I got here. My closet, you see, is filled with my life. Ever since my first year of college, I would come home, dump everything I had in my closet, and then, the next fall, take very little of it with me again.

Love letters, journals, homework assignments, toys, pictures.

Anyways, about a week after I came home, I was feeling weird about living in the ghost of my past.

I mean sure, I had to live in the same room I had lived in for years. That was unavoidable.

However, by no means did those posters have to stay up. I was fourteen for God's Sake. They were nice, for nostalgic reasons, during short vacations, but I was going to LIVE here until January, when I was going to go to South America.

This room had to become me now, not me then.

The posters came down.

But the closet remained.

The closet that was filled with my life.

Anyways, one night, very late at night, I cleaned out my closet.

It took me six hours.

I'd clean for a little while, then read a journal for a while about the Love that I Couldn't Live Without from middle school.

I'd arrange some boxes, then go through pictures from my crazy year in Italy.

I'd take a load of garbage out, then look at some flirty letters from senior year of college.

I'd find and listen to Accapella recordings from my college group, the UCSD Tritones, and miss all of them, and singing, and performing, and every single rehearsal, to death.

I sat and really, really seriously regretted some of the things that I'd let slide away so that I could travel, travel, travel after school ended.

After this night, I began to think about my life, here in Nevada City, as Paused.

There are no new relationships being forged. All of my contact is with people I love deeply: My parents, my siblings, some of my best friends.

But none of this is new contact.

I am living in the Ghost of My Past, my high school past, which was a Me that I can't even begin to relate to now.

It's weird.

I put my focus to the future: my trip to South America in January.

I got a job, and work hard, rewarding work with emotionally disturbed children at a level fourteen group home. Like I said, it's rewarding, but Jesus it's hard.

But then South America fell through (three weeks ago).

And I found myself thinking, dammit.

What a waste.

All this time with my life Paused was for fucking nothing.

Here I am with some really, really hard earned money but no trip to spend it on.

And all the things I had to let go, to pause my life like this…


Moved on without me.

...But tonight.

You see, I've been spending a lot of time with my parents.

But it didn't take too long for me to start thinking about myself again, after I came home.

I make a point to spend a lot of time with my dad, and I have a good time, but then I go home at night and think about San Francisco, about San Diego, about a girl, about friends, about the life that's going on while I'm paused.

In essence, I've been a little selfish.

But tonight.

I went to the Nevada City Wild and Scenic Film Festival tonight.

I really, really didn't want to go.

A night of watching environmental films with my parents didn't sound like the world's best time.

But here's the kicker.

My dad joined a rock group after he got sick. He plays keyboards, and from what I can see around the house, he's gotten SO much better in the last few months.

He can solo now.

And his band was opening the Film Festival.

Anyways, I knew I had to go to support him, and so I went.

Parking was a bitch. It took me half an hour to find a spot.

It was freezing outside (15 degrees Fahrenheit right now), and I was bitter.

At the door they told me that I had to buy a ticket to the whole festival to see his band.

22 bucks.

And I had to buy it across town.

But I did it, and went in, and found my mom. She gave me a hug, and whispered that my dad had been looking for me the whole time.

The band kicked ass, and I was there in time to watch his solo.

We clapped and cheered afterward, and he beamed at us.

We then went to a handful of movies about the environment that were all totally, totally awesome.

We saw one about how Cuba operates largely without fossil fuels.

We saw one about Dams in Modern Day China.

We saw one about river kayaking in Tibet.

We came home and ran inside, shivering and laughing and yelling, and drank wine and talked about traveling, and sunsets in Bhutan, and food in Italy, and summers traveling alone and Bali and Saipan and Malaysia and full body massages and beaches.

My mom went to bed at midnight, but my dad and I headed for the hot tub and talked until one-thirty about how hard it is to be young and not know what you're going to be and where you're going to be it and who you're going to be it with and how in ten years I'll look back and wish I hadn't been so stressed out about all of it and just enjoyed the good things when they came but how frankly it's VERY VERY hard to just enjoy the present because the present is all we know know know

You know?

But then we talked about him and his stresses and being retired and such a thing as too much free time and loves and trips and things done right and some regrets and meditation oh yeah meditation damn it I've got to start not tomorrow today

And finally we laughed at how wrinkled we were and he jumped out and ran in one direction for his room (remember, it's 15 degrees) and I ran another direction for my room and we shouted goodnight and I came inside and shivered some more and toweled off and put on some shorts and now I'm here but hey I've realized something.

Sure, My Life is Paused.

There are Dragons and Princesses and Dungeons and Worlds that Need Saving out there, for me to eventually conquer.

But Dinner is pretty fucking amazing right now.

And I'm going to take it slow it this time.