Those close to me follow my business travel with a mix of awe and sincere empathy. "Six cities in four days? How awful..." is a typical reaction from most friends and family. So when summer arrives, the last thing a road warrior wants to do is board another hot, crowded plane only to spend a week in some nameless hotel, drinking expensive drinks with umbrellas shooting off the top. My idea of summer nirvana is getting in the car for a short drive to my beach house and settling into my umbrella chair with a Corona in hand.
My girlfriend's idea of summer vacation is vastly different. She is a type A fitness fanatic who can barely sit still for a feature length film. Guess what I'm going to do this summer? Better keep the beer on ice a little while longer.
After several years of recession inspired staycations, and the fact that the Euro is hitting all time lows against the dollar, I did actually start to warm to the idea of the European vacation. But, no sooner did my new summer vision begin to take shape than my real summer vacation was actually being booked. I am trading in my comfortable beach chair for the hard, unforgiving saddle of a bicycle. We are going on a bike tour through Italy.
I am told if you see Italy by bike, you get to experience the country the way the Italians do. Inhaling the fragrance of freshly cut hay, seeing the grapes as they reach skyward toward the Tuscan sun, watching the olive pickers fill their baskets. Each day on your bike, you begin to feel like a native as you greet the locals with a hearty "Buon Giorno" as you pedal past. This is part of the slow travel movement where there is time to listen and time to breathe. My only question now is "will my butt fit on that seat?"
Four weeks pre-trip and I am headed to REI to get answers. The competent cycling specialist assures me not only will my butt fit the seat, but with the latest cycling gear I will become one with my bike. I am escorted to a rack of what can best be described as spandex torture shorts. The science of this is beginning to dawn on me. The seat doesn't get more comfortable, but the shorts are so hot and tight that by comparison the seat seems less uncomfortable.
On to the fitting room with the torture shorts along with a few shirts (called jerseys) specially designed for cycling. I pull the shorts on and step out of the fitting room for a look. I cannot imagine there is anyone, even riders on the Tour de France, who think they look good in a pair of bike shorts. Your butt is diminished to a microcosm of its former shape, and then a large gel pad compresses your, well, private parts. The whole enterprise gives new meaning to the term downsizing.
Next, on to the accessories department where I am fitted with a pair of shoes on which only hobbling is permitted. There are small metal clips on the sole, which perfectly align with a small metal clip which will be mounted on the pedal of my bike. I am given a demonstration on the bike in the store. Once clipped in, I am envisioning a circus comedy routine where a clown rides around the ring on his bicycle and spontaneously falls over. The REI salesperson says that unclipping from my pedal is easy and painless. Is that before or after the fall?
A few more accessories complete the ensemble. Water bottle, backpack, aerodynamic helmet for speed on those downhill descents and fingerless gloves for secure handlebar grip (or for when I am careening out of control on those downhill descents). I leave the store equipped and certified for the ride.
Two weeks pre-trip and I purchase a book entitled "Just Enough Italian." It is written for the traveler who wants to express their needs and desires in the native tongue of the locals. I thought that was something your guides did for you? I study essential phrases I will need on my journey like per favore (please), grazie (thank you), mi chiamo (my name is) and the all important, Scusi, dov'e il gabinetto (excuse me, where is the bathroom)? One hour is just enough Italian for me....setting the book down, I have memorized the one phrase I know will be useful: Mi dispiace, non parlo italiano (I'm sorry, I don't speak Italian).
One week before my departure and I still need to complete the most critical part of the pre-trip preparation: understanding Italian wines. Knowing the difference between a Brunello and a Barolo is as critical to this trip as having an updated passport. Off to Spec's, Houston's mega purveyor of fine wines and spirits. Conveniently, the wines are organized by region, and a helpful clerk assists me in selecting several bottles along with the definitive "Italian Wines for Dummies." I spend a pleasant evening sipping and swirling my way through the gamut of Italian varietals: amarone, barbaresco, pinot grigio, chianti, and sangiovese. By the end of the night, I am a budding oenophile ready to discuss the merits of bouquet, fruit forwardness and harmony. I may not be able to speak Italian, but I certainly can drink Italian.
The evening before departure, I carefully pack my new cycling gear and re-check my passport. I am ready for my summer vacation. One final item on the to-do list. I log on to my Facebook page and update my status. Sono via all'Italia...augurami buona fortuna, io la necessita! (I am off to Italy...wish me luck, I will need it!) Ciao!