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.