This week featured an out and back work trip to the beautiful city of Urbino on the other side of the Apennine mountains, some bike training, and "international problem solving."
After a frustrating plateau for a little while, I believe my speaking ability hit a little upswing this week. I’m able to conduct business around town (and in my 90 minute meeting in Urbino) in Italian, and routine phrases are coming out smoother and less mistake-ridden. Since Margaret went back to the States on Tuesday, it's less fun here, but the upside is that I’m able to surround myself with more Italian language and that’s bound to help.
The purpose of my trip to Urbino was to check out a Study Abroad opportunity for our voice music majors at Ouachita Baptist University. I reserved a car online, this time near downtown and not out by the airport (saved myself 3 bus rides) and left class early on the 13th to go pick up the car and drive the three hours over the mountains to make a 4 pm meeting in Urbino. The infinitive verb “to reserve” in Italian is prenotare, but in fact, a reservation in most parts of Italy seems to me to be totally meaningless. I found the car rental place, walked in and told them I had a car reserved. I even had a confirmation number. Neither thing meant anything to this company. “Well, where’s your printed copy of your voucher?” the employee asked. Now, I’ve rented many cars over the past 30 years or so in places as far flung as Spain, Puerto Rico, Saipan, and even Italy twice before. I’ve never had to hand over a printed-off proof of reservation. To make a long story short, the rental process took longer than it took us to refinance the mortgage on our house in Miami. By the time I got the car, a Fiat 500, I knew I would barely make it to the meeting if everything went right. I plugged my phone into the car, pulled up the GPS for the instructions for how to get back to the apartment (I had to pick up something on the way out of town), and when I got going, the Google Maps voice commands were in Italian, which freaked me out for the first few turns. I was already frazzled trying to manage the unfamiliar car (it took me about 8 minutes to figure out how to roll down the window to insert the ticket in the machine to be let out of the parking garage). I eventually made the drive to the apartment, over the mountains to Urbino (sometimes driving up one-lane roads so steep I had to gear down to 1st), had an excellent meeting with the folks over there, and made it back to Firenze by a little after 9 pm. The last hurdle was figuring out how to work the gas pumps to refuel the car, which I finally did. I got home exhausted but content, feeling like I had just led the Raid on Entebbe.
Part of the international experience (if you’re not being led around by a tour guide) is that just about everything, not just language but systematically everything, is different from what you’re used to. So you feel foolish and inadequate while you stand there looking at a machine (like the gas pump at this self-service station) like a pig looking at a wristwatch, but when you solve it you feel awesome except for your sweaty armpits. I’ve tried to improve my approach to problem solving here. I’ve tended to treat it like problem solving at Navy SCUBA School, where you would swim around on the bottom of the pool and the instructors would rip your mask off and take away your regulator and shut off your air and even steal your tanks if they could. You had as much time to solve your problem as your breath hold would allow. But international problem solving shouldn't be treated that way. Just be calm. Ask someone for help. Step out of line and watch someone else do it. Take your time. You’re not splitting the atom or delivering fire to mankind.
Urbino is not as big as Firenze, but it is absolutely beautiful. It’s a college town, with students outnumbering residents 14,000 to 12,000. The cathedral, like several of the ones in Firenze, has a dome, which I’ve found out signified eternal life in the early Church.
The school in Urbino teaches Italian language and voice to music students. They have language classes in the morning and voice lessons in the afternoon for three weeks. At the end of the program they give a concert in this beautiful street side venue believed to be the spot used for the backdrop for the Piero della Francesca painting “The Flagellation of Christ” from 1452.
Since Margaret is gone, I rented a road bike for some excursions and training around Tuscany. I reserved a bike online and even got confirmation from the manager that I was all set. When I arrived Friday afternoon, you guessed it, the guy working there was stunned to see me. He had no knowledge of my reservation, so, of course there was no bike ready. I told him I needed a 56 or 57 cm frame. He had no idea what size any of his bikes where. We pulled one down that looked like it would work. Just about everything that could have been out of adjustment on the bike was out of adjustment. Do you have a work stand we can put the bike on so I can adjust it? “No.” I knew I had some tools back at the apartment, so I took the bike and paid the guy and off I went. When I brought the bike back at the end of the weekend to turn it in, the original guy who took my reservation was there, and I told him about all the adjustments I had to make to the bike to make it rideable. He offered me a job. I told him he couldn't afford me and we had a good laugh. Some things you just have to laugh about. We're a long way from the land of "The customer is always right."
I would up using my cell phone’s GPS with the voice commands and riding with one earbud in so I could navigate the byzantine road network through the Chianti region. I had some great rides and saw some fabulous scenery,
but after a month off the bike I’m out of riding shape and my “bike seat contact region” has lost its toughness. Speaking of toughness, the riding here is very, very hilly. It seemed like it was just one steep hill after another, with the curviness of the narrow roads making it necessary to brake a lot on the downhills, robbing you of the momentum you paid so dearly for on the climbs. There are no shoulders but drivers are accustomed to sharing the road. It was harrowing to deal with cars passing so closely, but I got used to it by Sunday. And through about 125 miles through the countryside this weekend, how many dogs chased me? Not. A. Single. One. Oh, I saw and heard dogs, but they were inside fences.
I’m looking at you, Arkansas.