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Click here to see a La Crosse Tribune article about the mission in Uganda.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

In a Pinch

It's the old "between a rock and a hard place" that I find in myself these days. No, I meant it that way, in myself. It's not anything epic, like the decision whether to order Coke or Pepsi at lunch. By the way, I informed the waiter yesterday that I would take a Diet Coke or a Diet Pepsi. That's noteworthy because I am in Atlanta at the moment. He did not throw me out, but just acknowledged it would be Coke. Of all the faux pax's!

Getting back to this issue of the bind that was revealed clearly on the MRI I had a couple of weeks ago. Both hip and back pain have been dogging me this year and it became clear that professional help was needed. As said professional reviewed the images, she used the phrase "as we mature" quite often to explain the general lay of land, so to speak. But there were two noticeable irregularities (the reason I am never having my head examined). Seems I have a slightly bulging disk and a cyst at just about the same location down my back. They conspire to pinch the nerves resulting in a big "OUCH." Here they are in one of the MRI images:

In addition, I have arthritis in my hip. So, we are in the early phases of dealing with the findings. Cortisone has been involved and for now, it has helped a lot. But, as I continue to "mature," I imagine there will more new and exciting things to deal with. Good news? I'll probably not run out of material for the blog!

And there is this: I can still ride. If anything, cycling the hills and highways around western Wisconsin as proven that if there is any effect at all, it is therapeutic. It's sort of like having a walker you can ride.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Go Ahead, Make My Day!

It was on the road coming back from Grandad Bluff park where a couple in a minivan made my day week month. Having completed the climb up Bliss Road to the Alpine Inn, I decided to swing into the park before looping back towards Barre Mills. Just after turning around, this van pulled up beside me and the lady on the passenger side said they had passed me on the way up. She then asked, "Did you climb all the way up the hill?" I answered in the affirmative and she responded, "We could not imagine anyone riding a bike all the way up that road."

My observations to that were something along the lines of "It might not be as hard as it looks," and "If I can do it, anybody can." But she offered one more comment,"Well it looks like a REALLY hard climb. We are very impressed."

What could I say? "Thank you very much. I appreciate that."

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Hard Rock Philosophy

To everything - turn, turn, turn
There is a season - turn, turn, turn
And a time for every purpose under heaven

Turn! Turn! Turn! by The Byrds

Every generation has the music that speaks for it and to it. Lyrics for the most popular songs appear again and again, connecting current issues with themes from the past that shaped those who moved to the rhythms of their generational anthems.

Turn! Turn! Turn! sent the message that we could expect the times of our lives to change as surely as summer changes to fall. As unique to the 60's as we might have thought this message to be, the words were first put to music in 1959 by Pete Seeger. But this hardly represents meaningful temporal distance from the Byrds' version, seeing as Seeger borrowed from third century BC writings, words we can find easily if we just open our Bibles to the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes. As I have noted previously, if you want a new idea, read an old book.

One of the seasons of my life has been marked by the last several years during which I took up and pursued bicycling. Now, bikes were a part of my daily routine during my junior high school years in north Florida. There were relatively quiet roads in our neighborhood which was surrounded by pine forests. It was a good place to practice vehicular independence and our neighborhood group did a lot of that until we got older, moved apart and started driving cars. It was not until 2005 that I got back on a bike for any serious riding. When I had reached the point of taking my first real cycling tour, I noted that "You only get to do something for the first time once." In the years that followed, cycling gave rise to numerous other firsts: first time riding across the Rocky Mountains, first time riding in Switzerland, first time breaking a collarbone. You know, all the standards cycling has to offer.

You can only do this for the first time once

Having just returned from this year's International Compressor Engineering Conference at Purdue, I got to thinking about the first time I attended it. That would have been a long time ago. This thought occurred to me in large part because the conference I just attended may very well have been my last, leading me to the logical flip side of my "first time" observation, namely, "You only get to do something for the last time once."

The last time?

But there is a difference - last time events are not so uniquely identifiable as first time ones. When you do something for the first time, you have done it. It is over and can't be undone; it's the "you can't un-ring a bell" phenomena. But in general, it is not so for last times. Doing something for the last time once is, in actuality, just as clear and absolute an event as doing something for the first time once. The difference is that in many cases we won't know for sure that the last time was really the last time. This fact is elegantly described in the following:

Well this could be the last time
This could be the last time
Maybe the last time
I don't know...

The Last Time by the Rolling Stones

It COULD be the last time; MAYBE the last time. I plan to retire before the next Purdue conference and am not likely to attend it. But I probably COULD, as there are opportunities to stay connected to my job. MAYBE I will make that choice. But I don’t know.

When I came to the last stop of that first tour, I was, I admit, moved to a few tears. Preparation had been hard work. I was so unsure of how it would go, did not know if I could ride that far; if I could go up the mountain passes; or go DOWN them. But the result was an affirmative in all cases. It felt good.

So I find it a bit odd that I did not have that all-choked-up reaction to the conclusion of the last presentation of the last session of the conference. It wasn't cause for celebration either. Why? I'm thinking that there are some last time events that are as they should be for the changing of life's seasons. As long as we are excited about the next seasons and the opportunities for new first times, then there isn't a whole lot to be choked up over.

There have been so many great first times. A number of satisfying last times. And some of each that are painful. But assembled, they define a variety of seasons, each one turning and becoming another; each providing challenges and each serving a purpose, if we let it.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Working on the Road

Friday, March 16
Oftentimes the most difficult parts of the ride were the finding our way out of town in the morning then locating the hotel in the next town in the afternoon. Once out on the open roads, there were fewer choices as to turns and it was easier to get a sense of direction. We had GPS units, but sometimes these got a little confused in the narrow streets. We did get out of Matera without much difficulty though and were FINALLY riding on the rural roads of southern Italy.

That was until we weren't riding. Seems as if it was road work season and the narrow road we found ourselves on was blocked by men and machinery as a portion of the road had been excavated. Off to the left was a field with tall grass - just the ticket for getting around the obstruction. Except for the mud. Good grief, the ground was soft, wet clay and the short off road excursion left shoes and bike parts coated with a sticky goo that was almost impossible to get off with the sticks and various items of road detritus available to us. A rather inauspicious start.

Roadside cleaning station as we try and get the mud off

Only 19 km to lunch!

Gioia del Colle was the first stop, this being for lunch. One of the treats of these rides is the chance to check out bakeries and butcher shops to get bread, cheese and drinks for the on the road midday meal. It is almost always good. But glamorous it is not. On this day I found a place around the corner from the square. Sitting outside. On the stone steps. It was a notable lunch.

Typical lunch on the road. You can still see a bit of the mud from the morning's off road excursion on my shoes.

Bob had a flat as he rolled into Gioia and set about getting the tire back in shape after lunch. We had looked at the route to Alberobello and decided against the somewhat more direct highway. Instead, Bill and I set out to find hopefully quieter roads by riding a bit farther north, skirting Putignano then heading back in the direction of our day's destination.

The decision was the right one. There was little traffic and the road was in fine shape. We rode through olive groves for a good portion of the time, the fields being segmented by low stone walls. As we rode on, we also began to see some of the conical-roofed buildings that were responsible, in part, for Alberobello being declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, our second such destination in a row.

Before we get to Alberobello, let's go back a few miles. We are out in the country, olive groves, stone walls and the occasional farm house go by as we pedal along. Pastoral is what I think you might call it. And then... up ahead sitting on a chair drawn up nearly to the edge of the asphalt, is this woman. Dressed shall we say, rather immodestly, with RED lipstick visible from 100 meters. Behind her about 6 meters sits an upholstered sofa, looking as if it was not brought in during rain showers. Riding by, I remember thinking, "What is THAT all about?" The thought had no sooner made a lap around my brain (yes, I know - it's a short trip) when it was clear I knew exactly what it was about. Sheese...

The buildings in Alberobello were special. They were generally square and made of brightly whitewashed stone. But the roofs were round at the eaves and made up of rather smaller gray stones, stacked neatly to form a cone atop the home or shop. And what was most unique, was that the entire building was built without any mortar. This "drywall" technique was adopted early on in the history of the town as a way to avoid taxes on permanent dwellings. Homes could actually be deconstructed into a pile of rocks then built up again rather quickly. Make a tax rule and someone will find a way around it!

In Alberobello

After a day on the road and an afternoon walking around the town, it was time to settle back and start the process of re-hydrating. This bicycle touring is tough all right.

Hydration station

You are wondering about Sassi and Trulli, I know you are. Well, you have actually met them already. Sassi means stones in Italian and this is the name given to the stone homes in Matera. And, as I am sure you can now guess, Trulli are the conical-roofed buildings in Alberobello. Two World Heritage Sites in two days made for a great start to the tour.

Ride totals      Today      Tour
Distance:           47.5     56.7 miles
Total Ascent    1,729   2,789 feet

Today's ride:

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Maybe we Should Actually Ride our Bikes

Thursday, March 15

The riding started and then got into full swing during the next two days of the tour. It just seemed the right thing to do, being a BICYCLE tour and all that. Today's ride was, shall we say, a reserved effort as we had some things to see and, of course, did not want to get into serious pedaling too quickly.

Matera, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is a unique place, worthy of a closer look. Accordingly, we all agreed to ask Corinne to arrange for a local guide to spend the morning with us. It was a wise decision. I know, that's a bit hard to believe, but it happens every so often.

Our guide a) who introduced herself and b) whose name I forget, said the earliest inhabitants simply lived in the depressions and shallow caves in the walls of the ravine. Fronts were gradually closed in and the caves eventually all but disappeared from view, being absorbed in the structures that emerged. However, the people, having the history of living in the open caves, did not put doors on the buildings. Ever. Over the years, conditions in the old part of town deteriorated into a state of severe poverty, the area rife with diseases such as malaria. It got so bad that officials had apartments built in the 1950's and pretty much forced the residents to move into them. The first thing the people did was remove the doors from their new dwelling places. Cultural DNA is a powerful force.

The walking tour gave us a chance to see a variety of buildings in town, now clean and occupied again. There are homes, apartments, shops, hotels and restaurants. One stop was a restored private dwelling, providing insights into daily life early in the last century.

Old photo of the family in the restored home we visited on the tour

The family home, restored for us to try and grasp what it must have been like to live there

So many of the buildings in Matera incorporate caves, including the Rupestrian churches. This designation arises from the paintings on the rock walls, something we had a chance to see on our tour.

Rupestrian church artwork

It was a fascinating, educational morning. And, a bit sobering. Life was not easy for the people who lived in this area prior to the condemnation and subsequent renewal. Many worked in fields at distances that required them to be away from their homes for days at a time. Children too young to work suffered greatly as they were left at home with little care, Thankfully, things are better now. I must admit, touched as I was by the history shared by our guide, it was hard to see this place as anything but a unique, beautiful town.

And now, it was time to ride. Really, I mean it this time. We actually put on shorts and jerseys, got the bikes out of the storage room at the hotel and set out for an afternoon jaunt.

Our guide had suggested a ride out of town to visit another church, and we set out in that direction. I think. As we navigated through town, the group separated; as Laurenz had asked a policeman on a motorbike about the best way out of town, Bob and Bill continued on. Thinking they were unaware of what was going on, I took off to get them back. But Bob was sure that our destination was on one of the routes Laurenz had suggested in the pre-tour information we had been provided and that he was on that route and he would continue. In the end, the three of us headed out to find our own way.

We rode out of town and quickly missed the turn for the route we were pursuing. A mile or so later the road we were on ended as it merged onto a multi-lane, limited access highway. It was here we realized what had happened so back we went, up the road - literally up - to the point where we should have turned. It was then a steep, short descent during which we were accompanied by some farm dogs who kindly came out to cheer us on.

While this was technically the right road, it was not one for road bikes. Bob was determined to press on, so we invited him to go off the pavement which had ended abruptly and report back what he found around the next turn. He went on down the deeply rutted dirt road then came back a few minutes later saying what lay beyond was worse.

This does not look like the route. Unless you are Laurenz, of course

We came down it, now we had to go back up

At this point, our little trek was redefined as a short bike check ride and it was agreed the bikes were in good shape. Having reached this key point in the tour, we headed back to town, found a pub and had a beer (or two) to celebrate.

Next, we really, really get going on the cycling tour as we head east from Matera to the city of Alberobello where we would meet Trulli.

Ride totals
Distance: 9.2 miles
Total Ascent: 1,060 feet

Today's Ride:

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Friends, Old and New

As it seems to be with Lorenz and Corinne, we were with people who all had made at least one other of their European tours. I knew Lorenz, Corinne, Bill and Bob. Andre, Christian and Pat were not on their first tour with Lorenz, but I met them for the first time on this one.

Then, here in southern Italy, we all made new friends: Sassi and Trulli. They are unique, southern Italian individuals and it was a pleasure to have made their acquaintances. Sassi is strong and good on the hills. Trulli, on the other hand, is nimble and quick, changing directions on tricky curves in ways that leave others looking on in wonder. They were good companions who provided us interesting stories and lasting memories. But, before we discuss this pair, let's get through the transition from tourists to cyclists...

As cycling tours go, this one was a long time getting rolling. The time in Naples was part of the tour in the larger sense and we certainly enjoyed seeing the sights. However, the only progress made by bicycles was our rolling them across the hotel parking lot to the trailer and van which would deliver us and them to Matera, Sassi's home and the city from which riding would finally commence.

Bus and trailer loaded and ready for the trip from Naples to Matera

We pulled into Matera in the afternoon and parked near the edge of the older part of the city. There were No Parking signs up, but we figured they didn't apply to us. The idea was to send out scouts to find the hotel. You might think I am making this up, but take into account that many of the cities and towns we visited were built hundreds of years ago (Matera was founded in the 3rd century BC) when motorized vehicles were still only vague concepts in Leonardo's notebooks. Streets are narrow, winding and many lead into cul de sacs. Or is that culs de sac? Whatever... So it only makes sense to scout out the situation before committing a small bus pulling a trailer into the labyrinth - you never know what might happen, although on this day, we were treated to a first hand look at one of the possibilities. The scouts returned and reported with great precision that the hotel was "over that way," pointing in a more or less easterly direction.

Typical of the narrow streets we encountered throughout the tour

We entered the older part of town and quickly came to a point where our options were "left" or "right." The stubby stone post and large rock in the center of the street off to the left and the open access to the street to the right made it clear to Lorenz which way to go. Left. It was only by virtue of his well honed bus-trailer driving skills that he was able to squeeze between the granite obstacles and the buildings that were hard up against the edge of the street.

Stones in the street mean "Do not enter." Sometimes.

Things immediately began to look less than promising so a few of us went ahead to assess the situation. Seems as though the street morphed into a stairway just a few hundred feet from where we were stopped. Upon hearing this report, Lorenz started to drive on; I was sure for a moment that he only viewed this situation as a challenge to his driving skills that needed to be dealt with more persistance. Persistance is, of course, a good thing. When you are right. We were actually reminded of this truth several times during the tour. However, Lorenz quickly decided that perhaps this was not the right way to go so he stopped and began the process of turning around. Now remember, we are at the end of a narrow street in an ancient Italian city in a small bus pulling a large trailer. "Turning around" was not just a matter of turning around. We unhitched the trailer and Lorenz executed the "Y" turn maneuver, requiring something like 27 forward-and-back moves to get the 6 meter long bus turned around in the 7 meter wide street. Upon finally accomplishing the reversal, he drove back up past the stone barrier. We then manually swung the trailer around and pushed it up to the van - this being, thankfully, much easier than I had imagined.

Stuck. Almost.

We were off. For about two blocks. Then, the street emptied into a pedestrian square. Let me just say that getting around this required some more deft driving, advice from several Italian men and finally, Lorenz taking one of them on board to serve as a guide to get back onto the streets and then to the hotel. Now that was Lorenz, the newly commissioned local guide, the bus and the trailer. But not us. We just stood there and watched as Lorenz rolled into an adjacent street and disappeared around the corner.

Into the square

We finally found our lodgings after asking several times for directions. When we walked down the final set of steps to the level of the narrow street at the front of the hotel, we met Lorenz who had obviously been successfully guided to a small parking area. Some the luggage had already been unloaded and we collected our belongings and proceeded to check in.

Last flight down to hotel

At the destination at last

Our view of Matera from the window of our room

It was during all of this wandering around that we had our introduction to Matera. What an amazing place it is. The old part of the city starts at the level of the surrounding countryside, but spills over into a ravine, its white buildings tumbling down one side and washing up the other.

An amazing city

But what was most interesting was that the stone edifices were built around caves which comprised a large part of the interior space, as you can see in this example - our hotel room:

Man cave

It was a long, interesting day that led to a night of deep sleep, aided by the cool night air coming through the windows.

Coming next, we FINALLY get on the bikes. But not until we played tourists one more time.

Monday, June 11, 2012

It all Happened So Quickly

James “Cool Papa” Bell played center field for the St. Louis Stars of the Negro National League and, after that league disbanded, went on to the Pittsburgh Crawfords, considered to be the greatest team in the history of Negro League baseball. Cool Papa was fast. So fast that Satchel Paige once said “he could turn off the lights and get in bed before the room went dark.” Now that’s quick.

It’s just that kind of quickness I’ve experienced from time to time on my bike. Sure, I’ve written about my below average riding pace before. But, I’m not talking about riding; rather this is all about falling. Truth be known, there have been a few spills in my short riding career. There was, of course, that 20 mph crash in Switzerland that left my collarbone permanently rearranged. But there have been a few minor tumbles, too, these resulting in skinned elbows and knees and, once, a sprained thumb. It is the suddenness with which these latter spills occur that is so amazing. It's a quickness that even Cool Papa could appreciate – when taking one of these falls, I find myself wondering how serious the injuries are before I even know that I’ve fallen.

We all have those moments that remind us of just how quickly life can change. Dramatic events shuttle us off in new directions; sometimes they even throw us to the ground. We think that these events mark difficult times. We might be right. Or we might consider Pompeii...

This free day in Naples greeted us with cool temperatures and high, blue skies. The harbor across from our hotel made it seem as if we were on the Mediterranean coast of Italy. Go figure. We were in a nice place with good weather - it was promising to be a grand day.

The front desk informed us that there were still no bikes and no suitcases. But there was a plan upon which this lamentable lack of luggage had no impact. Today was set aside for a visit to the ruins at Pompeii, a short train ride south of Naples. After breakfast, we set off down the steep hill to the regional rail station to catch a train to Naples.

Upon arriving at Naples' Central Station, we changed over to the Circumvesuviana rail line, popular with tourists as it serves Pompeii, Herculaneum and the Amalfi coast. Which, of course, makes the line popular with Italian pickpockets. In fact, we were treated to a first-hand look at the tactics of one of these nefarious groups as we boarded the train. First, one man stepped up, stopped in the doorway of the car and spread his arms out a bit, enough to impede the progress of the crowd of people attempting to board the train. Meanwhile his compatriots moved in behind the stalled group. We were aware of this risk and were pretty well prepared. As it turns out, I was able to move past the man in front before he could completely block the doorway. Bill, on the other hand, found himself surrounded. But, he had the presence of mind to move sideways to the edge of the door where he turned around and slid into the car with his back to the wall. Having been thus thwarted, the group simply stepped off the train and went back to their seats on the platform to await the next train and the next group of tourists. Welcome to Naples. Sheesh...

Pompeii was an amazing place, ever so much larger than I had thought. Well preserved buildings gave a glimpse into daily life as it was nearly 2000 years ago. There were tiled baths, amphitheaters, lavish homes and even a fast food shop. The narrow cobbled streets were deeply rutted by the passing of countless wagons; on wet days, these streets would be, shall we say, unpleasant. As a result, there were numerous stepping stone crossings to allow pedestrians to traverse without getting into the muck but with stones spaced so the wagons could roll through.

Pompeii with Mount Vesuvius in the background...

Large buildings and open spaces are found throughout the city...

A fancy tiled public bath...

A fast food emporium. Bowls of food were set out in the recesses in the counter and customers could walk around and serve out a meal for themselves...

Smaller of the two amphitheaters in the city...

Cobbled streets with wagon wheel ruts and a stepping stone crosswalk...

Mount Vesuvius, which rained down so much terror on the city in 79 AD, was quiet and almost unobtrusive in the background. Again, not exactly what I had expected. It would have been difficult to imagine what Pompeii's final days were like, walking around as we were on a sunny day, surrounded by other tourists. Except there were these plaster casts of the bodies of citizens caught by the sudden onslaught of superheated vapors and hot ash. So sudden as to suspend them in the pose of their last moments in this life. The ash making such an accurate mold as to reveal some facial features on a few of them. On this beautiful day and in the magnificence of this ancient city, buried in ash for 1700 years but now easily accessible to tourists in sandals and sunglasses, we found a few poignant reminders of one awful afternoon that saw everything wiped away in a veritable instant.

And then we left. Just that quickly.

The return to the hotel was uneventful and we were greeted by bike boxes and suitcases. Being so supplied, we unpacked and assembled our rides in preparation for the trip to Matera where the actual touring would begin.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Naples or Bust

Why in the world would I pack up my bike and other riding necessities then travel to southern Italy to ride? It's pretty simple, actually. Last year was a bit of a downer in terms of riding distance and I needed to get the numbers back up, at least a little. So, riding in Europe seemed to be the quickest way to that end. The theory behind this is a bit technical, but I have not seen it explained any better than in this dialog between Frazz and Caulfield:

Let me tell you, it worked like a charm for me. In the 12 days of riding, I got in right at 1,000 (kilometers). That's a much bigger number than the 621 (miles) that would have passed under my wheels had I made this same ride at home. And I confess, I tried to have my GPS record in furlongs, but never figured out how. A real bummer since I would have recorded 8,000 for my efforts. Now THAT would have been a good start to the season!

It was a long trip from La Crosse to Naples, the starting point for the tour, although not for the riding. As luck would have it, with all of the hours in planes and airports, we still had to negotiate a tight connection at Milan's Linate airport, the smaller of two serving this large city in northern Italy. Short by plan, it was further shortened by the delay in our arrival from London. We could have been stuck there save for the personal attention we received. Upon emerging from passport control, we were immediately greeted by a young lady who said she was there to guide us to our departure gate. Smaller though it may be, it would not have been easy for us to have found our way from the lower arrivals area to the gate on the main floor in time to make our connection. In addition, our guide arranged for us to move to the front of and quickly through the security check, getting us to the gate just as the last of the other passengers were boarding. We had made it and were on the ground in Naples about an hour later.

It could have been the effect of the fatigue and sleep deprivation of the long journey that led us to agree to take the taxi offered us by the driver in the terminal building. Or, it could have been stupidity. For talking purposes, we'll go with the first one. This driver had a van parked across the lot from the rest of the taxis. A sure sign... but, no, we went ahead and had him take us to the hotel anyway. Let's just say we paid for the privilege of riding with this gentleman. Of course, if we had had our bikes and luggage, we would have needed the van. Did I mention that our belongings did not, apparently, get the special treatment at Linate that we received? Oh well.

In the off chance that you know about Laurenz, our tour leader, you will not need to be told this, but our hotel was located on the highest hill around. I was thinking it was good we were in a motorized vehicle. It was (still is, I guess) a nice hotel overlooking the Gulf of Naples.

When we walked into the lobby, we met Bob and Pat. After getting settled in our rooms, not a big production when all you have to stow is your backpack, we set off for dinner at a nearby restaurant. It was a nice walk down the hill and a good meal, although Pat was not feeling at all well. Then, there was the walk back UP the hill. A motorized vehicle would have been more than welcome, but I just accepted it as part of the pre-ride training, something we would get a good dose of it in the few days we had in Naples before setting off on the cycling part of the tour.

No bikes, no luggage. But we were in Italy and ready for the tour. All-in-all, it was a "so far, so good" kind of a day. Or two. It was hard to tell.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Far Away Places #5

Perhaps this is cheating, but just a little. London is the far away place I have visited most often; I am not sure how many times, but it's likely more than the number of fingers and toes I have to count with. A few years ago, I wrote an account of one of those visits. The one on September 11, 2001. It fits the theme of the Far Away Places series so I thought I would just offer it again, exactly as it appeared for the first time.

"We've just heard news from the States; apparently something dreadful has happened." And indeed it had.

We walked across the little park with the gazebo, an oasis in front of the engineering building at City University London. It was, and still is, all the campus there is at this university that is more scattered than sprawling, buildings hither and yon in this area on the east side of London. I was here to participate in the biannual International Conference on Compressors and Their Systems; Shirley, as she had been at previous conferences, was with me. As we mounted the stairs in front of the classroom building to greet the conference chairman and his wife, we were met with the pronouncement of dreadful goings on back home.

A tour and dinner were on the agenda for this evening, starting with a boat trip on the Thames and a visit to the London Eye before gathering at the headquarters building of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE) at One Birdcage Walk. The architect for the London Eye project was to give an informal accounting of his experiences during its design and construction before we gathered for a light meal.

We did in fact take the boat tour; a few of our British hosts were making calls on their cell phones, but details of what had happened across the Atlantic were hard to come by. The London Eye had closed out of security concerns. The skies over downtown London, normally busy with planes approaching Heathrow from the east, were quiet. Our guest speaker sent his regrets, but informed us he had friends in New York City and was trying desperately to reach them.

It was only when we retired to the reception area of the IMechE offices that we saw in the horrific detail made possible by modern video technology the terror that was visited upon the people of New York and Washington; the tragic story of heroism aboard United Airlines flight 93 would unfold later.

Later, Shirley and I got in touch with our daughters to discover that they had thought we were planning to be flying home on this day. We were mutually relieved to be able to confirm that all were well.

I called American Airlines about our September 13th flight. Not surprisingly, there was little information to be had. The next day I was told it would probably be Tuesday, Sept. 18, before we would be able to return home. The agents I talked to were noticeably and understandably upset. The agent I spoke to on Thursday broke down in tears. I talked to her a bit, told her I honestly could not fully appreciate the pressure under which she was working, and thanked her for just being there for those of us trying to get back home. It was this call that convinced me to accept the Tuesday departure. I did not call again. It just seemed unfair to the agents who were struggling so mightily with the task of getting everyone back while trying to deal with their loss as well. Also, I knew from the news that many of the stranded were far worse off than we were, having as we did a hotel to sleep in and no shortage of places to eat.

The people of London treated us kindly. Our hotel offered us the reduced rate arranged for conference guests for the duration of our stay. The Turkish family who ran the tiny cafĂ© across the street where we had most of our breakfasts provided coffee at no extra charge. A more upscale fish restaurant offered free appetizers. One young man stopped us on the street and said, “Hey Yank. We’re behind you all the way. Hope you get the b------s that did it!”

We discovered a small restaurant in Embankment Park, a short walk from the tube stop through a flower-bedecked green space. Sitting outside under a glorious tree that sheltered the entire patio area, one could escape, briefly, the unthinkable awfulness of Tuesday, September 11, 2001. And, at the same time, reflect on the fact that you know you would never forget it.

Wouldn't it be nice if no one ever had to the hear the words, "Something dreadful has happened in..." again?

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Far Away Places #4

Osaka, Japan

As it so happened, it was on a business trip to Japan that I was able to demonstrate Bushu-suru. Let me explain…

In the way of many businesses, leaders where I worked and at a company in Japan decided it would make sense to enter into some sort of cooperative agreement. My role was to work with Hiroyuki, an engineer working in Osaka. Our task was to evaluate each other's compressors and render opinions as to the possibility of each company manufacturing and/or using the other's in their products.

Hiroyuki came to La Crosse and we spent time together in the office and the laboratory, discussing features of the compressors we were comparing and making plans for operational tests and other engineering evaluations. During his stay, he came down with a bad cold and we explored the local Walgreen's. This was a foreshadowing of things to come during my subsequent visit to Osaka, as it would turn out.

So, some months after Hiroyuki left La Crosse, I made the long trip to Osaka, my first and only visit to Asia. The plan was for me to visit the offices and factory, getting an introduction to the company; a few others who had visited the facilities before, would come a couple of days later.

Getting to the hotel from the airport was a breeze as all of the signs in the airport and on the train I took were in English as well as Japanese. Same at the hotel. For example, I encountered this warning in the bathroom in my room: "Avoid contact with water. Danger of electric shock." This advice was, mind you, on the combination toilet/bidet seat. Nonetheless, I appreciated the fact that the warning was provided in my native language so I could… OK, that's another story altogether.

The next morning, Hiroyuki met me at the hotel and led me to the nearest subway stop for the ride out to his office. As we went down into the station it became obvious that the coddling of non-Japanese speaking tourists was over. As far as I could tell, all signs were in Japanese only. Like this one:

Now what essential advice do you suppose we are being provided here? Right, I don't know either. I'm sure some of the signs said "Exit," "To the Trains" and "Tickets." Or perhaps there were things here that I should not allow to get wet lest I suffer some dire consequences which were described on the warning. I'll never know. What I did was grab ahold of Hiroyuki's coat. Tightly. For the duration of the ride.

The factory tour was interesting, but I was feeling progressively less well as the morning wore on. When we returned to the office, my stomach was in full protest to the effects of the long flight and 13 hour time difference. Coffee, water and light refreshments were offered in the conference room set aside for the meetings, but there was no way. Rather, I suddenly became very ill, right there in the meeting room. A few things were demonstrated by this. One was that it is not possible for embarrassment to be fatal. I am sure of that, since I am, after all, writing this account many years after the fact.

But more to the point, I got to see first hand just how kind and considerate my hosts were. Several people came to my aid, expressing great concern over my well-being and insisting that I not concern myself with cleaning up as they were already on the task. In fact, they escorted me to the director's office where I was able to use his private washroom then lie down on the sofa in one part of the large room.

It was only a short time later when I began to feel a little better and volunteered to continue with the meetings. They had other plans, however. Hiroyuki escorted me to the office of the on site company doctor who prescribed some medications which I picked up at the on site company pharmacy adjacent to his office. I was then escorted to the reception area where a company car was waiting to take me back to the hotel.

Every hour that passed found me feeling better and that evening I was even able to confront an appetizer of octopus and other seafood delights at the hotel restaurant. I didn’t order it, of course, but just being able to consider it represented significant improvement.

So, I hung in and the rest of the trip went well. There was, in the end, no agreement for the kind of cooperation envisioned early on and I have not seen Hiroyuki since those few days in Osaka.

As you might remember, much the same thing happened to President George H. W. Bush in 1992 at a banquet at the home of the Japanese Prime Minister. Accounts of this event include references to the fun that late night comedians had with it. It was even a joke in an episode of The Simpsons. Years later, there were references to what became known as Bushu-suru, meaning "to do the Bush thing."

It's too bad that humor (and ridicule) are what seem to have been the primary reactions to that unfortunate event. Because my experience showed me the kindness and concern of the people I was with that day.

During his stay in La Crosse, Hiroyuki told me about "Yamato Damashii," which he said meant "Never Give Up Spirits!" It was the idea that you should not give up in the face of adversity. He had a headband with the words written on it and he wrote out the characters on a paper napkin. You know, in case I wanted to get a tattoo someday.

Seriously, it has not been an easy time for the people of Japan. I can only guess, but perhaps the concept of Yamato Damashii is an encouragement as they struggle to rebuild and I would also guess Hiroyuki would offer it as such. So, here it is, in his hand:

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Far Away Places #3(b)

St. Petersburg, Russia

As I am sure you can imagine, bickering between the US and USSR provided ample opportunity for those so inclined to practice espionage, subterfuge and other forms of mischief. And while my visit to this beautiful city on the Neva River took place about 6 years after what is generally considered to be the end of the Cold War, I engaged in a bit of sneaking around myself. It wasn't quite up to the standards of James Bond or George Smiley, but I did manage to go undetected until I decided to just give myself up. Here's the story:

Cancelation of a planned visit to a local compressor manufacturing facility provided a day off to explore a bit of St. Petersburg and its environs. It was Olga's turn to babysit accompany us on our explorations and she met us at our hotel in the morning. We were going to take a hydrofoil out to Emperor Peter the Great's summer palace, the trip on the high speed water craft being one of the attractions of the visit. Light rain was falling and we suggested taking a cab to the pier, but Olga said it was not so far and we could just walk. It was about two miles.

When we got to the dock, we were informed that the boat was not running because, well, because it wasn't. It might be making trips again tomorrow. But maybe not. That's the way Olga explained it. She said a lot of services in the city were like that – hit or miss. You just have to show up and take (or not) what you find. We set off on another short walk, only a mile this time, to a central bus staging area. Olga suggested we give her some money which she would use to purchase our tickets. When it was time to leave, she took us aside and said that we should not talk while we were on the bus. "Why is that?" I asked. She said, "I bought resident tickets. If they hear you speaking English, then they will know you are tourists and charge you the higher price for tourist tickets."

I was thinking it wouldn't have been any more obvious that we were Americans if we'd have had Old Glory tattooed on our foreheads. But, we did as we were told and kept our mouths shut. As the bus pulled out of the station, a lady got up at the front, took out a microphone and started talking to us. It soon became evident that we were not on a regular transit bus, but were now members of a tour group.

Without a clue as to what we were being told, we rode in silence. Once at the palace, we disembarked and our guide starting waving everyone into a group. She then motioned to Olga and took her aside for a private conversation. Olga came back and told us, "The guide knows you are tourists." Well that was a shock. So, we were busted. But not so fast…

It turns out that the guide also told Olga that she had a plan. It seems beating the system is a popular pastime in Russia and our guide rose to the challenge of getting us into the palace without having to pay the "tourist price." She called our tour group, about a dozen in addition to us, and had them gather together in a cluster, with us in the center. What we had to do was to get past the babushkas – meaning grandmothers or old ladies; that's what she called them. They collected the tickets and would turn us in if they saw we were trying to get in at resident prices. The group shuffled through the gate, looking like a giant, single-celled organism with the Americans and their Russian co-conspirator forming the nucleus. And you know what? It worked. We had been successfully smuggled into the palace grounds and were now free to wander around the spectacular gardens. Our guide conducted the tour and Olga translated, but only when she was sure no one outside our group would overhear her. Because if they did, they would certainly tell the authorities and we would have to pay the "tourist" price.

Still, it seemed as the situation was a little less restrictive and we enjoyed the walk immensely. Then, it was time to start the tour of the palace. And wouldn't you know, our guide was not allowed to conduct the tour as there were special guides provided for that. So once again Olga tells us that she cannot translate and we cannot talk to each other while inside, lest we are found out and end up having to pay the "tourist" price.

We decide that maybe there is another way. We ask Olga if we could just buy tourist tickets and then not have to skulk around in silence for the rest of the day. She said that we could to that and, except for the extra money we would have to come up with, it wouldn't be a problem. "How much are we talking about?" I asked her. "Two hundred roubles." That was about $5. "So, if we pay $5 and get tourist tickets, then you can translate during the tour and we can talk to each other and not have to worry about being carted off to some Gulag for the rest of our lives?" I didn't really say that last bit. But I'd been thinking that it was a possibility, given our nefarious behavior. "Sure," she replied. We bought the tickets, thus ending our little gambit and certainly avoiding a nasty international incident.

It was a spectacular place and we had an interesting and informative tour. It was about 2 p.m. when we finally left the palace for a last brief stroll around the gardens. We had not had anything to eat since our early breakfast and we inquired as to the possibility of lunch or at least a snack. Olga responded by digging around in her purse and pulling out an orange. She peeled it, broke it into thirds and gave the two of us our share. Lunch.

A few hours later, the bus was approaching the stop in the city and we asked Olga if she would join us for dinner. "No thank you," she said. "Why not?" "I don’t have any money," she replied. And it all fell into place. Walking to the dock and bus stop, tourist tickets, sneaking into the palace, a single orange for three. She was taking care of us, and doing it with what she had.

We ate at the Chaika, a restaurant whose name translates as Seagull. Olga told us that she lived at home with her parents, a brother and an uncle. Her father, uncle and brother were engineers, but only her uncle was employed. She was studying engineering, but it was not at all certain that she would find a job when she graduated. They had very little, although the "non-tourist" prices were quite a bit below what we saw as Americans. In addition to having little money, there were shortages of consumer goods of all sorts. Kirill had told us earlier that many people carried around lists of clothing sizes for all of their family members on the chance that they would stumble upon a shop that actually had something on its shelves.

When the bread came before we were served our meals, Olga took her share, wrapped it in a napkin and put it in her purse. She also had a large portion of her meal boxed up to take home for her family. It seemed it was something she did, taking care of others. Maybe she had to do it for her family, but not for us.

I know where Kirill is as I see him every other year at the International Compressor Engineering Conference at Purdue. But it has been years since I have heard from Olga. I hope it worked out well for her.

Here are some of my pictures from St. Petersburg. While it might have been a little rough around the edges in 1996, it was a beautiful city. I guess it still is, actually.

The Compressor Conference in St. Petersburg
With Professor Yuri Glaerkin, our host

Here we are with Kirill and Olga

He Made His Own Pressure Transducers

Banquet - The Scene of the Too-Short Speech

Around the City
Our Hotel

At the Summer Palace

Next: The land of the rising sun.