Head for the mountains

There are several ways to lose yourself in the Olympics. One is to get engrossed in an event. Another is to take in the scenery. Another is quite literal — get lost.

After two weeks in Torino, it was finally time to get up into the mountains. That meant dashing out of the media center at 10:45 to catch a bus to Oulx. More precisely, the Oulx transfer point, which is a small parking lot at the base of a mountain framed by an eerie glow. I saw no bus lined up to continue to Sestriere, so I took advantage of the “facilities,” such as they were. When I emerged, I saw a moving bus. Thankfully, it stopped. Yes, it was the bus to Sestriere, so I was saved a wait of about 20-40 minutes in the Alps at midnight.

The mountains were beautiful at night — faintly lit snow on outlining the rugged landscape, outcroppings of light for small villages, a church down in the pass that could be seen as the bus climbed up and up. The people in the back of the bus apparently weren’t impressed. A smell of nasty smoke — my guess is cloves — made the bus driver stop in the middle of the climb and yell something about “fumare” (that’s “smoking,” so I’ll assume the other words were along the lines of “don’t make me come back there.”) We made it up the mountain to Sestriere, and I hopped out.

As it turns out, I hopped out one stop too early. The co-worker who’s putting me up on his apartment’s futon calls, and we have one of the cell phone exchanges that’s a lot funnier when it’s no longer 1 a.m. on a street with plummeting temperatures. “The slalom slope is to your LEFT?” “Yes! And that building is behind me.” “Behind you – which way?”

We figure it out, and we walk up a steep hill, always fun at altitude. It’s a great walk, though — we see neat-looking ski-town bars overlooking the athletes’ village, and then we end up in a main square that’s still bustling at 1 a.m. We have a perfect view of a couple of Olympic ski slopes (obviously, the photo here is a daytime shot).

I love the way mountain towns fit into the landscape. The apartment in which we’re staying is to the left of the road, sharply downhill from road level. But we enter the building to the right of the road and walk underneath it. The Italians LOVE tunnels — the road between Torino to Oulx features several miles of long tunnels connected by bridges of staggering height.

The apartment itself is a model of efficiency. The whole thing could probably fit in one basement room in my modest house back home, but it has two bedrooms, a kitchen and a bathroom with the bidet that is standard issue in Italy. And the view is spectacular. It looks out over the Olympic slopes and down the mountain pass.

After some morning browsing (picked up a toy for MMM Jr.) and tea and a croissant in a neat little coffeehouse, I boarded the bus for the biathlon in Cesana. The view of the mountain pass gets more and more beautiful as we descend.

It’s a long, icy trudge from the bus to the security check at the biathlon venue. It’s absolutely gorgeous. Gondolas fly overhead as fans of various nationalities kill time with a few fun chants and cheers. The U.S. fans near me are oddly peeved that anyone would express such enthusiasm.

It’s a great atmosphere, but from my standing-room area next to the shooting range, it’s tough to follow the action. Both of the big TV screens are pointed toward the grandstand. We have a slight view of one that helps us follow the shooting when only a couple of teams are left in contention, but we can’t read the graphics. It takes a bit of asking around to figure out who’s winning.

I decide to skip the bus and take the gondola down the hill. It’s a pretty ride, though it leaves me a bit of a hike back into town. I walk so quickly that I forget to note something very important — the location of the media bus stop.

So I walk around the charming town of Cesana for a while and find lunch at a cafe with about 15 tables and old wooden skis and sleds on the walls. It’s great, and the ham-and-brie sandwich and beer are perfect, but I’m a little agitated at this point. Passing through the town the night before, I thought it was much smaller and that the bus would be no trouble to find. But I don’t know where it is, and I haven’t heard much English around me. The Americans at the biathlon venue were a tiny minority.

Even the people you’d think would be helpful were not. I find a couple of 20something women in NBC jackets and figure they can help. They … don’t speak English. One helpfully pops up and says something about Oulx, and she seems quite proud of the help she’s offered. I smile and thank her, not willing (or, for that matter, able) to spoil her enthusiasm by telling her that getting to Oulx is the problem.

I see someone else with a broadcast credential racing by me on the sidewalk. I start to ask about the media bus. She looks confused, so I start to dig my media credential out from behind my jacket. She gives a quick “No, sorry” in whatever language she speaks, racing off in a hurry and probably thinking that I’m either an obsessed pin-trader or someone who’s going to remove all five layers of clothing to expose myself. (The latter would not be worth the wait.)

By this time, I’m sending Blackberry messages to everyone I can think of. A couple of folks are already ignoring me after I pleaded with them to tell me who was winning the biathlon I was watching. Someone finally tells me to look for a roundabout with a lot of flags, which I’ve already passed, and tells me it’s not far from the gondolas. That’s enough to convince me to head back. I again ask a volunteer who doesn’t speak English, and she directs me to the DOM-1 bus. Again, thanks very much, and yes, I think you’re cute and all, but I don’t have the credential for that bus. (And I don’t even know where the hell it goes.)

But as I walk along the sidewalk back toward the gondolas, there it is. I’d passed right by it on the way into town and hadn’t noticed. Once again, dumb luck rescues me from being a dumbass.

The weather turns cloudy — a few flakes fell in Cesana — and I nod off on the bus from Oulx to Torino. When I wake up, we’re being diverted. Long story short … well, actually, it’s a short story to begin with … the police saw a suspicious car and decided to blow it up a little. I’m sure they enjoyed that.

Turned out to be nothing. Maybe it was stolen, and the thieves got antsy and ran off. But the theory we’re using is that they didn’t want to be caught perusing the porn machine. Yes, this was right on my way home on the street outside the media center. With a little embellishment, I could have something to offer the next time I’m hearing returnees from Iraq talk. “Oh, man … there was an explosion RIGHT OUTSIDE the media center. But we were all cool.” Hey, they don’t have to know the police did it.

So what did I do the rest of the day? Well, I did something I don’t recommend unless you are a trained professional. I live-blogged an Olympic figure skating competition. Seriously, don’t try this at home.

The response actually hasn’t been that bad. One or two people called me a Sasha Cohen apologist, and I can live with that. Christine Brennan will get called worse things than that, and she knows more about this sport than any of us ever will. (That said, I have to point that I actually predicted Arakawa’s win before the final six skaters took the ice, even before we saw Cohen’s disastrous warmup. I’m now a media center legend on the basis of that alone.)

To cap it off, a couple of good things happened at work that I can’t really reveal (sorry). And then I went “home” and barely managed to keep my eyes open long enough to see Eurosport’s replay of Rosey Fletcher’s improbable bronze.

It’s good to have a day like that late in the Olympics. If it happens early, everything else tends to be a letdown, and the adrenaline surge fades. Now, I’ve got another day and a half left to do this, and then I’m on the plane.

I’ve finally developed a couple of sentimental attachments. On my first full day here, I walked to the media center in the afternoon and happened by a school or day care (Scuola Maternale Municipale? Which one it that?) with happy children and parents milling about. I haven’t seen the kids since because I never pass by at the right hour, but the place always makes me smile. Even if I just realized today that the porn machine is around the corner on the same block.

And I’ve become quite popular with the people behind the counter at McDonald’s and the pizza booth. The McDonald’s people were unabashedly flirting with me yesterday to get me to trade pins. (The single guy I’m rooming with is still completely oblivious to how popular he’d be if he just showed off a few pins.) The pizza girl danced behind the counter last night and got me to dance a little myself.

I figured a few days ago that I wouldn’t bother to come back to Torino. But after seeing the mountains, I just might want to see the little airport again a few years after I take off from it this weekend. And if nothing else, I can finally say I’m glad I came.

3 thoughts on “Head for the mountains

  1. I for one am jealous. I would have loved to have gone to the olympics. Think of the opportunities to witness rare spectacle, to share in moments of naitoinal glory and pride, to harass the Dutch.

    Now, I have given this matter serious thought, and since the Don’s seem to have the NBC gig locked up (dang), I turn to you. I want to blog/call/write up the curling matches for Vancouver 2010. I don’t care if it is for your fine periodical or another one. I feel I am uniquely qualified to do this. By uniquely I of course mean “not at all” but surely we can work something out. It’s not about a free trip to Vancouver. It’s about the CURLING.

    Ideally I’ll be writing up the women’s gold medal match and the men’s bronze medal game this weekend but we’ll see. Safe trip back.

  2. Laughing at the image of you dancing for the pizza girl. I’ve seen you “dance.”

    Can’t wait till you’re back!

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