Jan
24
2010

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Rags to Riches

by Tara

Waking up in the bitter cold at our olive grove free-camp, we ate our last few slices of bread with butter and the final spoonfuls from our jam jar. It wasn't the best breakfast for the mountainous climbs that lay ahead, but it would have to do, since neither of the two towns we passed yesterday had any stores that were open, and because it was now Sunday, making shopping even more of an improbability.

Tyler with Cold Hands Our Bikes in an Olive Grove Potenza Mountain Vista Winter Olive Potenza Mountain Road

After a very steep push into the nearby town of Vietri Di Potenza, we sadly confirmed our fears: no alimentari (grocery stores) were open. This meant we were down to the dregs of our food supply. They consisted of:

  1. Ramen (two packets).

  2. A potato.

  3. A chunk of Parmesan cheese.

  4. A little bit of butter.

  5. A bag of rice (the same bag that has been in Tyler's pannier FOREVER because we never use it unless we run out of food).

We soon discovered that the secondary road we'd planned on taking (presumably flat as it closely followed a river) was closed off some ways ahead. Instead of ignoring the construction sign warnings as we usually do, we opted to follow the highway to Potenza.

STEEP Mountain Roads

We'd barely covered five kilometers when the energy from our meager slices of bread was spent. We were exhausted and cranky, as is usually the case when we don't eat enough. As we pushed to the top of a very steep hill we joked sardonically the entire way, "This is it!" "We're at the top!" "It's all downhill from here!". At what we hoped was the apex of our push, we looked ahead only to see the road curling up even more mountains. It was definitely time for a snack and a rest.

We stopped on the shoulder and ate our one cold potato raw with a little salt. Then we chomped away most of our cheese. It was an oddly delicious snack; we both felt much more human after its consumption. Then we rested in the sun for a few moments longer, saying hello to an old Italian woman in a kerchief who was heading home after foraging in the woods (for mushrooms perhaps?).

Potenza Mountain View Green Mountain Field

Over the course of our day, we would climb 1000 meters (over 3,000 feet). At one point, when it seemed as if our work would never end, we started gazing longingly at the Autostrada (Italian for freeway) above us.

We never take the Autostrada. Not only is it pretty unsafe, but we know we'd probably be stopped by the ANAS if we tried. Exhausted, we calculated the route differences, staring in disbelief at the sharp curving of the secondary roads ahead and the switchbacks they surely indicated. We decided it was time to attempt the flat freeway. Thankfully it was Sunday afternoon so the roads turned out to be relatively calm.

Flat, Inviting Highway

Reaching the freeway was a difficult task but once we were there, things got a lot easier. Success! Roughly 15 kilometers outside of Potenza, I was tired and very jittery about being on the interstate, even if it was relatively slow, traffic-wise. To ease my nerves, we stopped and climbed over the guardrail to make lunch.

With our little cook stove sending billows of steam into the cold January skies we made our two remaining packets of ramen and wolfed them down hungrily. Then I made a large batch of rice which ended up being more like a soupy pudding. With the addition of sugar, cinnamon, a little vanilla extract, and a pinch of salt it was actually pretty tasty. Not the most gourmet of meals we've cooked thus far, but it did the trick to fuel us for a little bit longer.

Finally, our exit for Potenza came and I eagerly and thankfully took it, relieved to be off of the Autostrada. We cheered, we sighed, we laughed. We did it! (We always make it, so I wasn't worried about that. It's sometimes just a question of how bad it's going to suck until we do.) Not only that, we were now in civilization. There would be a grocery store. There would be a hotel. Everything we needed was just a short walk away.

Off the Autostrada!

At the first fruit stand we came across, we stopped to stock up on pears. Chilled and perfectly ripe, we tucked into our bag of juicy fruits right away as we chatted with the kind men who'd sold them to us. While they asked rapid-fire questions about our bicycles, we did our best to answer them in broken Italian. They were wildly impressed and gave us a lot of delicious pears and oranges for free as a result. Thanks guys!

Potenza Fruit Sellers

After our arrival in Potenza proper, we thought we were done with the most difficult part of the day. Patches of snow dotted the grassy roadside ditches but the sun shone brightly and we felt warmer than we had for the past week. As we blithely followed signs for hotels we realized that the centro, where they were located… was way up there on that mountain. Ugh. We rode, we pushed, we rode and pushed some more. As we cursed up the final 150 meters Tyler couldn't help but wonder aloud: Will this day ever end!?

Finally, after what felt like forever, we reached the top and were rewarded with views of a cozy cobblestone city that would definitely warrant some future exploration. First, though, we wanted to get settled. After inquiring about the prices at several hotels (overly expensive for what they were), we decided to try the nicest one of all, thinking it couldn't be much more.

Walking into the four-star Grande Albergo hotel in Potenza's charming shop-lined cobblestone downtown was quite the experience—a real example of how polar our trip can be at times. There we were, bundled and dirty, without having had a shower since our second-to-last night in Tunisia! I hadn't changed my layers of shirts in over a week, preferring to keep the inevitable stink as covered as possible, and my body heat carefully contained as a protection against the cold. You could sculpt Tyler's hair into any shape, thanks to the grime. I don't even want to talk about my ungodly odor.

With helmets still on to cover our hat-hair, we handled the polished brass door knobs with care, and gingerly walked on the pristine marble floor towards the reception desk, trying not to get anything dirty. The man smiled at us kindly and we breathed a sigh of relief. He didn't seem to notice our dirty dishevelment, and instead welcomed us warmly.

When he said the price per night was more than 100 euro we asked, "Do you have anything cheaper?" Instantly, he gave us an impressive discount, stating the lowest they would offer was 80 euro per night. This was the same price all the lesser hotels in town had insisted upon!

Thanks to another very generous donation (this time for my birthday) from my grandparents (THANK YOU SO MUCH!!!), we checked in without hesitation and once again felt an immediate shift in our bizarre polarized lives. Just a few hours earlier we'd been eating rice by the side of the road because it was basically all we had. Now we were enjoying the comfort and service of a four star hotel!

Our work wasn't quite over yet though. Immediately after we entered our room, we scarcely took time to appreciate the gigantic bed, the immaculate bathroom, or the wide window with a spectacular view out over the town. Instead, we began a mad rush to groom ourselves. Tyler started by trimming the scraggly parts of his beard while I cut the back and sides of his hair in the bathtub.

Then, I peeled off my clothes (which I'm convinced had begun to meld to my body as a second skin) and ran a ridiculously steaming hot bath. When a scum consisting of dirt and dead skin cells began to visibly accumulate on the sides of the tub, I decided a shower might be a better course of action (as opposed to soaking in my own filth).

It's a good thing there is plenty of hot water here (something we are always endlessly grateful for) because we used a LOT. It took a good half an hour just to shave the forest of hair from my legs!

At long last we were both CLEAN and decently presentable. Unfortunately, we had nothing clean to wear. And so, we began the long process of washing our clothes: rinsing them, wringing them, and hanging them up to dry. The big bathtub helped. When we filled it with hot water, laundry soap, and all of our clothes, the water turned an opaque black in seconds.

After much scrubbing, agitating, squeezing, and rinsing, all of our clothing was clean and drying in our hotel room. When we were done, Tyler spent at least a half hour cleaning the bathroom so it didn't appear as though a dirt and hair bomb had exploded in it.

One of the things I like least about our trip is the necessity to sometimes wear wet clothing in order to dry it faster. There is nothing more awful than pulling on a pair of wet socks or feeling the sudden chill of a damp pair of undies, but I've learned to deal with it fairly well. It is way worse to have to do this while on the road on a cold, rainy day as opposed to in a nice warm hotel room. Nevertheless, I was glad that this final small act of "work" was the last I'd have to do for a couple of days…

…because all of our "chores" are completed, and tomorrow is my birthday! I have a feeling my 26th year will be my best yet!

Here is a list of things I want to do tomorrow:

  1. Sleep in. No cell phone alarms!

  2. Open my birthday card! (Thanks mom & dad!)

  3. Take at least two hot showers or baths.

  4. Eat a truly massive breakfast compliments of the Grande Albergo.

  5. Walk along the cobbled streets of downtown Potenza, hand in hand with Tyler, sans bicycles.

  6. Go window shopping.

  7. Read some of my favorite book ever, Rosamunde Pilcher's Coming Home.

  8. Make some real progress on the adorable baby sweater I'm making for Tyler's sister Amanda's future kiddo.

  9. Find a nice coffee shop for cappuccinos and pastries

  10. Relish every moment in our hotel (Thanks Grandma & Grandpa)

  11. Go out on a birthday dinner (Thanks honey!)

  12. Drink too much wine

  13. …and finally, try valiantly NOT to look like a hobo, as I did this morning:

Cold, Bundled Tara
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11 comments

Happy Birthday, Tara! I hope it is a wonderful one and that you get to cross off everything on your list. Sending you hugs across the globe!
Posted by Clélie on January 25th, 2010 at 11:51 AM
Ooh Tara - I LOVE Rosamund Pilcher's books!!!!!!! Happy Birthday :)
Posted by YvetteDownunder on January 25th, 2010 at 12:28 PM
Happy Birthday Tara!! I hope you get to do all the things on your list!
Posted by Amanda on January 25th, 2010 at 1:04 PM
You're MY favorite hobo ever.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY, SIS!!! Love you sooooooooo much!!
Posted by Karina on January 25th, 2010 at 1:59 PM
Classic post Tara, it made me laugh out loud.
Posted by Fred Bouwman on January 25th, 2010 at 7:24 PM
Dearest Tara,
Happy Birthday and much love from Bunker Hill! We have been enjoying your travels. Your mom and dad are here and we just finished reading all your new posts. We are glad you are somewhere warm.

Hope you are having a fun time on your birthday!
love love love
Grandma Jeanne & Grandpa Don
Posted by Grandma Jeanne on January 25th, 2010 at 8:12 PM
Happy Birthday Tara!!

Have fun in your nice warm clean 4-star hotel. We tried to call you today several times but the call wouldn't go through. We'll try again tomorrow.
We love you!
Mom and Dad
Posted by Lisa on January 25th, 2010 at 8:15 PM
Happy birthday Tara! The two of you really earned your stay at a nice hotel. Your trip on the Autostrada reminded me of the time Jo Anne and I took the autostrada on bicycles from somewhere south of Firenze to town, probably not more than 10 kilometers, but pretty hair raising to be sure! You two have come a long way since we met you on the train on your way south in northern Italy last September. All the best,
Fritz and Jo Anne.
Posted by Anonymous on January 26th, 2010 at 2:34 AM
Oh my goodness everyone!! THANK YOU for all the birthday wishes!

Clelie - Thanks hon, hugs right back at ya! I DID check EVERYTHING off! More details to come. <3

Yvette - :D YAY another Rosamunde Pilcher fan! My other favorite is The Shell Seekers (duh) and the best short story is The Empty House. Now you know why I was so excited about the Aga back in England!

Amanda - Thanks! Hugs to you and your belly! <3

Karina - Hey remember the time we wore your mom's winter snowsuit and ran around like a two-headed monster? Love you so much, sister.

Fred - :D Thanks!

Grandma & Grandpa - Much love to you both in BH!

Mom & Dad - Our phone has been weird. It won't ring but then all of the sudden we have random voice mail. Hopefully it works tonight! I loved the card. I love you guys so much!

Fritz & JoAnne - So nice to hear from you! Thankfully our bit of the Autostrada wasn't too hair-raising, but ugh... never again. Hopefully.
Posted by Tara on January 26th, 2010 at 3:25 AM
Happy Birthday, Tara! What an evocative description of these contrasts. I hope you enjoy the unusual luxury.

- Emily Bruce
Posted by Anonymous on January 27th, 2010 at 12:42 AM
Thank you, Emily! I don't think anyone at that hotel enjoyed it as much as we did, nor ate so much at breakfast! :-)
Posted by Tara on January 30th, 2010 at 1:00 AM
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