I learned last summer that I would be moving to Slovenia. We arrived in Slovenia just before Christmas and we will be here until early July. There is something quite exotic about the notion of living in Europe for just over half a year. It is Europe after all. The old country. Several centuries of history, traditions, architecture and art among other things add to the allure. For a brief bit of reference, Slovenia is on Italy’s eastern border, Austria is north, Croatia is south and Hungary is to the north-east. Ljubljana, the capital, is practically in the center of this small country. Eighteen Slovenias could fit into Montana. The country is about the size of Lake, Missoula and Ravalli counties combined.
Moving to a new country means adapting to a new language, new culture, food, routines and a new micro-sized apartment. The change is certainly an adjustment. We arrived a few days before Christmas so initially our time here was simply a vacation. We loved experiencing the new city, hearing the new language and trying all sorts of new foods. When you are on vacation everything is easy. Any challenges simply become part of the adventure. They are the experiences that enrich the trip.
Two weeks in, our lives here began in earnest. Sarah began her work, our three kids started classes in new schools, and I slowly made the adjustment to being separated from the bike shop for the first time in fifteen years. Despite the seasonality of a bike shop, there is rarely a period that becomes dull or mundane. Missing out on the lack of direct involvement, missing out on the daily activities, the banter (oh the banter!) and the social environment has been more difficult than I expected. Nonetheless, I have unexpectedly found plenty to keep myself busy here.
The vacation phase is now over. Ljubljana is our home for the next few months, and with it come the same responsibilities as being home in Missoula. The kids have school, as well as several after school activities. That keeps things moving steadily. Then there is the mundane. Groceries, laundry, dishes. Yeah, not everything in Europe is exotic. Simply out of necessity I am learning the Slovene language. It is going so well. I can read (and say) bread, beer, milk and house. Fortunately everyone here speaks English better than most Brits.
Culturally, I am doing all I can to immerse myself into what makes Slovenia unique. Ski jumping was the first thing I learned to appreciate. It turns out the best ski jumper in the world is Slovenian. Petr Prevc is amazing to watch in the air. I did not have much of an appreciation for ski jumping until I saw it live. My friend Seth, who happens to be living in Ljubljana and who ALSO happens to be from Missoula and who ALSO happens to be a former super elite ski jumper, invited me to go with him to a huge ski flying competition in Austria. He and I made the two hour drive north and found ourselves in the middle of a crowd of 25,000 nutso crazy fans. 7000 of whom were from Slovenia. I thought cyclocross fans liked to drink beer and eat frites. Ski flying fans are easily on par with the rowdiest from Belgium. The “hometown” favorite Petr Prevc won! His 16 year old phenom brother finished 6th. Imagine flying 240m on skis! That is two and a half football fields! On skis going 105km/hr. This sport is nuts and amazing.
One day, driving home from school, the boys and I noticed some lumps of dirt evenly spaced in the distance behind a stand of trees. We felt it imperative that we responsibly explore our new hometown. We found a super pro looking BMX race track and dirt jump park. Damn! This is the third one I have found here in this city of 240,000 people. That is one for every 80,000 people. Wait, Missoula has about 80,000 people. Missoula should have at least one, no? But I digress. The boys don’t have their DJ bikes or their mountain bikes here, and they were ecstatic and bummed to see the track and the jumps. We are going to see if they can find some bikes to ride. Every town needs a bike skills park, just like it needs a skate park, basketball courts and soccer (futbol) pitches. I can’t wait for the first Tanner Olsen bikes skills park to be built in Missoula. It will, without a doubt, change the character of Missoula for the better.
I was about nine years old when I got my first BMX bike. Since then I have played around with road bikes, mountain bikes, “enduro” or freeride bikes. I gravitate toward anything with two wheels, even if it has a motor. Riding a bike has always been more than a means for exercise, or competition or satisfying the need for an adrenaline rush. The bike has also been an opportunity for escape, relaxation and even meditation. Regardless of the stress, anxieties and upheaval that life has offered up over the years I have always been able to find moments of serenity on the bicycle. Managing the challenges of the culture shock that comes with moving to a new country is not always easy. My bike has been my outlet. Fortunately (except for the skier in me) the weather this winter in Slovenia has been exceptionally mild. Even better, the Italian port city of Trieste is a mere 50 minute drive from Ljubljana, and the temps there are consistently 7-8 degrees warmer. The drive is worth the opportunity to ride in sunny 9-10 degrees C (48-50 degree F). I apologize ahead of time for the absence of photos but I will post some soon. I parked my car just outside of Trieste for the first time, completely unfamiliar with the area and totally ignorant of where I might find good roads to ride. I hopped on the bike and decided that I would be content turning the pedals and taking what I could find for roads. I followed the sign that pointed toward the center of Trieste figuring that at least I would find a cafe where I could enjoy an authentic Italian cappucino. Less than 5 minutes into the ride I saw a lycra-clad group of cyclists rolling down the road in the opposite direction I was travelling. Without hesitation I checked the traffic and quickly turned tail and sped down the hill after the group of roadies. I rode up next to the guy at the tail end of the group and said “Buongiorno! Buongiorno! Do you speak English? Can I join your ride?” He started gesticulating and replying to me in Italian in a manner that told me he didn’t speak English. But he was pointing at someone toward the front of the group, and he said “Inglese, Inglese!” I moved forward and repeated the reprise and received a similar response. Finally after a couple of attempts I saw one of the riders near the front of the group turn his head and drift back toward me. I was feeling a bit sheepish at this point, and I asked if it would be OK if I joined their ride. “Of course!” he said with a wide smile. “Where are you from?” I told him I was living in Ljubljana. He asked if I was Slovene. Alas, no. I told him I was from Montana. It turns out he spent some time racing his bike in the US. His English was not great but for sure a ton better than my monolingual skill set. Given that I had no idea where we were going, I mostly followed wheels. On occasion my “host” and interpreter would tell me that there was a climb coming up and tell me it was “difficile” (hard) for 400m or 600m. I did my best to hang on. I had not been on my bike for about two months so my legs were doing the best they could to hang with these guys. They were all about my age so at least it felt like I was with peers, but at the same time I didn’t want to get shellacked on my first ride. Focus, pace, pedal smooth and efficient. Repeat. I am not going to stereotype Italians or Europeans yet, but I will stereotype master’s age riders. That is, guys around my age, which is over 40 years old. They attack every hill like it is the end of the world championships, they shoot off the front of (a fairly quick) paceline as though their career depended on it. Nothing steady about this crew. They were all full of fire. I just tried to do my part when it came time to do my turn at the front. A couple of hours into the ride they suddenly slowed and turned into a small parking lot. I was not sure what happened. I had just been on the front for a pretty good turn but the pace I was going was certainly not enough to crush their spirit. My host asked “do you like espresso?” Of course. “sì” I said in my best Italian accent. The group pulled into a nice road side cafe and a round of espresso was ordered up. It would not be a ride in Italy without an espresso break. It was just what I needed. I learned a couple of names. The guy who was my “host/translator”told me his name was Lorenzo. He was a professional sailor. In fact, he sailed for Italy in the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney. He spent the better part of 180 days per year sailing. When he was home he was with his family or on the bike. One guy was a boxer. He looked every bit the pugilist. Hard jawline, thick brows and a decidedly flattened nose. On a couple of climbs he fell off the pace a bit. As is usually my inclination I thought it nice to give him a friendly push for encouragement. He seemed to appreciate it. I did it once and then I thought, gawd, a guy that tough may not appreciate a hairy legged American offering up unsolicited assistance. He never gave any indication that a small push was unwelcome. In between deep breaths of air he gave me subtle “grazie” but I thought it best to keep my hands to myself after that. The end of the ride followed a road that rolled up and down. If I were fit I would have said it was flat but each undulation that increased our elevation also increased the cramping in my legs. We got closer to town. My legs were heavy. I was riding second wheel and barely holding on. Only 3km to go until we reached the town where I parked my car. I couldn’t believe how hard it was to hold a pace that normally I would consider easy. “Focus, pace, pedal smooth and efficient,” I repeated in my head, hoping to hang on. A gap opened in front of me. I gave what I could but could not close the gap. Just when I was at my limit and my cramping legs were about to shut down. A small burst of energy came in the form of a small push from behind. The boxer saw me struggling and with a generous push, he got me back onto the wheel in front of me. It was more than welcome. “Grazie,” I said in my best Italian.