#10 Home From The SW & On To Europe (May-June 2013)

Chasing our Tails

Sometime since our 20's, getting caught-up on our chores and our "should" lists has been as fruitless as an animal trying to catch its tail: we do and do and never seem to make any headway. But for the first time in our adult lives, late this spring we felt like we were close to clamping down on that fuzzy tail--that we are actually gaining on the endless tasks. Well, maybe not fully caught-up, but closing-in on them. One week after our May return home from the SW Bill said "I'm not just completing things that I usually do right before we board the plane, I'm actually doing things I never got to in the past." It was scrubbing sweat and sunscreen off of his wide-brimmed sunhat that triggered the comment. Far cry from 10 years ago when he started sewing a new bike handlebar bag at midnight when we'd be departing 7 hours later for 9 months overseas.

An unplanned bedtime inspection of my footwear inventory mostly on hold since we became full time travelers in 2001 resulted in about a dozen pairs being escorted out the door the next morning. The "no going back" from becoming minimalist shoe wearers had sunk in a level deeper and those "just in case" shoes were now too, too obsolete. There were the high-traction snow boots that were handy for the occasional snow storm back when we were home owners; the no-marking shoes in case we were invited for a boat outing; my last pair of proper running shoes; Birkenstock sandals that were my starting point for letting my feet spread years ago; and trusty Chaco sandals serving as emergency back-ups. Trying on each pair however made it perfectly clear: my feet now demanded new solutions should those contingencies arise. Out they all went, freeing up precious closet space.

Go Timbers!
Bill dove feet first into old financial records as planned when we returned home from the SW: it was again time to cull them and documents that survived this purge would be photo'ed, electronically archived, then pitched. The process of whittling away at our shelves of 'stuff' the last few years had made the boxes of documents dangerously conspicuous, so they were on the chopping block this spring.

I somewhat jokingly respond to Bill's periodic "Maybe we should move" comment with the threat that we'll only move after the stacks of stored items are significantly smaller. Traffic noise, wafting cigarette smoke, stairwell noise at 5 am, and the less-than-pleasing qualities of our apartment frequently trigger the "Maybe we should move" comment. It's so tempting, but it doesn't really make sense to pay more per month until we are spending more than 3 months of the year at home. But Bill has taken my position to heart and used it to energize himself to further lighten the load--he'll be ready when the time is right to move.

We may never get our belongings into what a former neighbor described as "dying order" until dying is more imminent, but it certainly is grand to be less encumbered by belongings. Some years ago we mastered the art of keeping our bodies lean and now we were on the tipping point of keeping our wares lean too.

A perfect day for a dunk in the Columbia.
The Changing Texture of Being At Home
The luxury of having less time pressure this interval at home had us saying "Yes" instead of "No" to new opportunities. Friends treated us to our first-ever, in-person soccer match, which was seeing the new Portland Timber's team clobber the visitors. And we didn't have just any seats on this night that threatened rain, we had top-notch, covered seats with an indoor area in which to scamper if the skies opened up. But only a few sprinkles blew our way and we thoroughly enjoyed the evening's entertainment and the novel venue for catching up with friends.

Bill had declared 2013 as my year to step-up in competency with electronics--especially Apple products--and I shocked him by enrolling in a 6 hour, outdoor GPS class when we arrived home. He was particularly excited because I'd be learning how to use functions on his Garmin unit he hadn't bothered with. The desire had been there to learn how to use it but the needed extra time hadn't, so this was class resolved my conflict. I substituted reading Bill's book on Wilderness Navigation for attending the highly recommended compass class that was taught weeks after the GPS class. I gambled that I'd be able to keep up in class and besides, any information I gleaned from the class was better than none.

The 4 hour Introduction to Kayaking class taught on the nearby Columbia River was the perfect way to satisfy my persistent but small desire for a little time on the water. I'd had more experience with canoe's and kayaks in high school and college than Bill had had, so it would also serve to 'even-up' our confidence levels in using small water craft. Our strategy of keeping our stash lean wouldn't tolerate buying a small craft but taking a class would give us more options for renting a boat in the future. The nearly 3 weeks of almost daily rain put a squeeze on scheduling the class during our 5+ weeks at home, but we found a perfect window of opportunity a week before departing for Europe. Even after practicing capsizing and getting back in to his kayak, Bill was eager to rent boats for a little more time on the water though we didn't manage to fit it in during "count down" for leaving the country.

Several bike rides, an athletic hike with friends to the top of Dog Mtn in the Columbia Gorge, and a visit to the Portland Art Museum's exhibit on bicycles rounded out our play time. Too soon it was time to pack up our 'at home' organizational projects and consume our small living room's floor with packing our gear for 3 months in Europe.

Lots of dogs & 1 bobcat on Dog Mtn.
Let The Summer Abroad Begin
Crossing Cultures
My pleasure with the contrasts triggered by being in Europe always begins at the Portland airport. We dutifully arrive 3 hours early for the security and check-in rituals and then linger under the grand skylight just past the final stretch of intrusive scrutiny to munch a light lunch assembled from the last items in our refrigerator. It's there that my people-watching ramps up from the lower level of alertness in the baggage check-in line, a level that peaks when we meander to the departure gate an hour later. I love sorting our fellow travelers into 3 general groups: American tourists/business people; Europeans; and travelers continuing on to other continents from Amsterdam. I size-up people from afar, studying shoes, glasses, haircuts, garments, and body language. Then I test my sorting skills by swinging close enough for a moment of eavesdropping to assess the language spoken and accents.

Lean, athletic looking, late-middle-aged women are more likely to be European than American, especially if they have a more chiseled look to their hair or glasses. Tighter fitting clothes also sways the label towards European, especially for women. A heavier, middle-aged couple in which one or both are wearing passport pouches as outer wear though the pouches are designed to be worn under one's shirt are guaranteed to be Americans; neck rests dangling from carry-on usually mark Americans as well. Years ago, inspecting footwear was about all it took to sort people out by continent, but shoes no longer stand-alone as a marker.

Once on the plane, my fascination with others is put on hold and my attention turns to making the best of a 10+ hour endurance contest. This year's flight was better than many. Bill caved-in to what feels like endless gaming by companies for their customer's money and he paid the $60 extra per person for Delta's "comfort" seats. The seat cushions themselves weren't any more comfortable but the extra bit of room here and there made the $6/hr premium look trivial. And unlike some years, we weren't on the baby run: nary a screaming infant on the plane and only a couple of irritable toddlers.

Once out of the gangway connecting the plane to Amsterdam's terminal, my foggy-brained, people-watcher kicked into high gear again. There was no mistaking the highly international scene but nonetheless, the Dutch backdrop was apparent. The 3 hours we spent in the terminal and the hours on the train to Frankfurt the same day gave me an eyeful.

Our fashion indulgence was like many: A fun but useless bike saddle cover for Bill from Frankfurt.
"Spray-on" kept coming to mind as I studied women's pants. I wanted to rush to a Dutch department store to handle the fabrics these gals were wearing as the impossibly tight garments must have been made from fabrics far stretchier than they appeared. For professional wear, spray-on pants were topped-off with a very short matching jacket which resulted in an "almost, not-quite-right" look to my eye. Maybe next year's rendition will be better.

The pinched, tight look of the clothes and accompanying high heels in The Netherlands gave way to a decidedly more "relaxed fit" look by the time we arrived in Frankfurt. "Spray-on" hadn't taken hold there and I only saw a few young women sporting the leggings/running skirt look that is gaining some traction in the US. What I call "full-sleeve tattoos" were popular in the German city among the younger crowd, with the current heat wave creating a perfect opportunity for displaying their body art. Pancake-flat sandals with 6" high, boot-like uppers were also "in" this season for the young women.

A few days later, the look of the people waiting on the Innsbruck, Austria train platform for our train terminating in Verona, Italy shouted that we'd be in Italy in an hour. Compared to the smart, sculpted look in Amsterdam, the majority of the passengers boarding for Italy looked downright sloppy. I was reminded of my conclusion years ago that full length mirrors must not be as popular in Europe as in the US. Like then, I wondered what possessed people to put together the garment combinations that they did. My earlier conclusion had found no replacement: rather than assemble an outfit that looked smart, they wore a collection of individual garments that they liked or were handy.

Wild Weather
We clutched the weeks before our flight to Amsterdam while we watched the severe flooding spread across Central Europe. We heard "Worse than 2002" over and over again, with the disastrous 2002 event being the flood that we experienced first hand when on our bikes in Decin, Czech Republic. We tensed upon seeing that Decin was included in the first dozen high-water photos I found online. And we were horrified by the current video of partially submerged Passau, Germany and other hard-hit cities we'd visited, many of them several times. We knew that more high water marks would be added to the building walls and sign posts in hundreds of communities across Europe after the crisis passed.

With concerns of flooding on our minds, we were stunned to arrive in Europe during a heatwave. Pleasant weather greeted us in Amsterdam, which was quite different than the last forecast I'd seen predicting cold temperatures, rain, and wind. Our 3 nights in Frankfurt and Innsbruck saw the mercury tickling the 100 degree mark. Fortunately, Bill had booked us in hotels with air conditioning, which is definitely not a given in European budget hotels.

But one never risks goosebumps from European hotel room air conditioning. At both hotels, we dropped the temperature setting on the controls to 50 degrees, turned the fan on high, and waited. We stood together in silence under the ceiling air conditioning vent in order to reach a consensus as to whether the system was operating or not. Both times the answer was "Yes" but it took meticulous listening and feeling to sense the slight moment of slightly cooler air. Far better than none at all, we were grateful for what we had and knew that at least our chocolate bars wouldn't melt in our room like had happened in Central Europe in the past.

Riva del Garda in the Northern Italian Lake District
Lingering, Rather Than Passing Through, Riva del Garda
Riding the bus from the Rovereto train station to "Centro Storico" or the old town of Riva del Garda brought back a flood of memories. Our approach to Riva was once again on the dramatic descent from a low pass--low if you aren't on bikes. We remembered the fun of being on rare bike paths from Rovereto and then the precipitous drop that affords a full view of the gracious but unpretentious old-world resort town sited at the northern end of Lake Garda and nestled at the base of the Dolomites. And then there were the memories of making the arduous trip back up the narrow, very steep road in the heat on 2 different occasions. But this traverse was easy: our only source of sweat was from the 90 degree temperatures in a lightly air conditioned, packed, bus.

With fashion fresh on my mind from our recent hop through the urban cultures of 3 cities in 3 different countries, my attention was first drawn to the Italian teenage boys checking their hair and ear adornments by studying their refections in a shop window on the outskirts of Riva. No pretense there but just as attentive to their look as the professional women in Amsterdam.

Riva del Garda's classic, Mediterranean-styled, old town waterfront.
Weary from the heat and days of international travel, we were disappointed to be locked off of the grounds of our Riva apartment until siesta was over at 3pm. Bill stood under a tree on the sidewalk with our two 50 lb suitcases (25% of which was food) while I looked for a nearby place for us to sit for an hour and a half. It quickly became clear that all of the grounds in the neighborhood were fenced and locked like our apartment. Fortunately, there was a park with a shady bench in range for our trolley suitcases. Disappointed but not entirely surprised by the delay, the pungent smell of jasmine hedges soothed our nerves and underscored that it was worth the wait. The characteristically neat and gracious living-look of being in an Italian autonomous region was heightened by the sweet, sweet aromas on a hot afternoon. (Autonomous regions retain more of their revenue and it shows.)

Bill's careful research had paid off and our pleasing apartment was perfectly situated: a 10 minute walk would land us at any of 3 supermarkets; the lido, which was the main tourist destination in town; or the trailheads for the steep mountain face routes. We were strategically off-center, which resulted in the mid-season price being affordable and the after-dark party noise was at a minimum. Only 1 of the 10 units in our building was the small "Tipo A" that we reserved and we and several other couples were upgraded to the larger family apartments, with ours having views of the mountains flanking both sides of the lake. Sweet--as sweet as the scents from the jasmine hedge that occasionally made it to our 3rd floor balconies.

Rev Your Engines
We came to Riva for its lower elevation hiking and good weather while we recovered from jet lag and waited for the mountain venues to thaw. Most of the hikes on steep face near our apartment began with a robust 2000' elevation gain effort, part of which was on an old concrete and round-rock road with grades occasionally in the 30-40% range. It was perfect for us, and after the heat wave broke and we had reconditioned a bit, we could do that initial gain in an hour. It was less than ideal to have each hike begin the same way, but Bill found different trails for us to explore each of our 5 times up the mountain.

Our relative-rest day hikes were much more moderate, only taking us up 1,100-1,200' above the lake but they always included some calf-burning steep segments. These outings were more like long walks instead of hikes, with one being up a big hill protruding from the valley floor and the other along an abandoned road that paralleled the lake. Both still had loose rock and other uneven terrain to keep us on our toes. These walks, like our more athletic hikes, delivered both stunning views of Lago de Garda and multiple reminders of 20th century wars in the region.

Riva and Lake Garda were part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (which is why it now has autonomous region status) at the turn of the 20th century and they began fortifying the region about 1904 in anticipation of invasion by Italy. The top of the urban hill on which we walked is riddled with stone forts and concrete gun stations. Our other rest day venue, which was walking up the road that parallels the lake, had sign boards describing the multiple fortresses there and in sight from the old road.

Riva del Garda & our urban hiking hill (center) from the trails high above.
Our hikes up the face of the mountain were on trails that were surely established during WWI. Some trails paralleled trenches carved from living rock, others were along dirt trenches. One trail wound past a small war cemetery and war church ruins tucked into the rocky faces. And from numerous vantage points we saw remnants of caves, tunnels, loop holes, and fortifications in the cliffs. Like with the via ferrata trails that were developed by soldiers during WWI in the Dolomites, the defensive features at Riva were a grim reminder of the bloody history of these coveted, modern recreation areas. What a contrast to the US were the history of the trails tell tales of Native Americans, pioneers, adventures, fur trappers, fire control, and the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps).

We came to Riva to explore a new hiking venue but most people come for the water. And like a proper northern Italian resort area, there is something for everyone in Riva. Many visitors get no farther each day than the park benches along the lake's edge. Reliable winds have given Riva and the nearby village a solid, wind-sport reputation and I'd guess that on the hot Sunday afternoon we were there that there might have been upwards of a thousand sailboards and sailboats on the water. Villages a few miles inland from Riva are favored by mountain bikers and rock climbers.

A little past the halfway point in our 9 night stay in Riva del Garda, the heat wave broke and we awoke to rain with snow on the engulfing peaks. We later learned that 2 separate storms dumped snow on the peaks in Val Gardena, our next destination, and so extreme weather would likely continue to define our stay in Italy this summer.

Where We Are Now
"In the Italian Dolomites" will be the correct answer to the "Where are you?" question this summer. Unlike previous years, all of our 2013 venues are in the Dolomites, or at their base, like was the case with Riva del Garda. After a 2 week stay in Selva di Val Gardena, we straddled our overladen bikes and ground our way up Passo Sella and then zig-zagged down the steep switchbacks on the other side to spend a week on the outskirts of Canazei. Canazei, like Riva, is a place we've ridden through several times and usually only spent a night but this was the year to linger longer in both to explore their hiking trails. Then it was on to Cavalese for 6 nights, which we'll be departing in the morning for a 2 day ride over Passo di Rolle and on to San Martino di Castrozza for a week. Ciao, ciao!