The real reason we’re all ready to leave …

The media center bathrooms are deteriorating.

Around the corner from us, we have eight semi-portable potties. They’re definitely a step up from the standard-issue plastic portajohn. In fact, they were borderline luxurious when we got in. For some reason, they have two doors. Open the first, and you have the sink with the occasionally scalding water. Open another, and you have the toilet. So when you’re inside, you have a remarkable piece of privacy.

Over two weeks, we’ve seen a few problems arise aside from the sinks. First, the paper towel holders started to fall off the walls. Then, the paper towel supply started to run out. Between those two, each trip to the potty involved a quick check of the supplies.

Then came the odd part. The seats started to fall off.

So now we have a checklist: Paper towels, seat (if desired) and some tolerable water temperature. It’s tough to know what you’re getting for the latter, so I’ve frequently soaped up, put my hands under the water only to withdraw them quickly, then wiped away the soap with the paper towels.

The bathrooms at work won’t seem so bad after this.

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.

Late-night TV, multilingual style

So I was flipping channels at 3 a.m. Torino time, and I stopped on NHK, the Japanese channel. Apparently, they were teaching people English. It was hard to tell, because the name of the show was something like “100% … (Japanese characters),” but they were giving English phrases and breaking them down bit-by-bit, with what appeared to be Japanese translations underneath.

Seems straightforward enough, but there was something odd about this show. Actually, there were a lot of things odd about this show.

The hosts were a guy who looked like an American snowboarder and a Japanese woman who kept nodding that peculiar nod that’s somewhere between a nod and a full-on bow, bending her long neck over and over like one of those “duck drinking water” toys. She also didn’t have a firm grasp of English, but she seemed so cute, polite and fragile that you probably wouldn’t correct her for fear of making her gasp and cry. And no one wants to see that.

It only got weirder when they gave a scenario. They cut to a guy with two hand puppets who said, “I have (turns head to other puppet) a question.” The hosts dissected that sentence for a while. Then they went back for the response: “The answer to the question you have asked is that one.”

What? Hey, I speak English — it’s the only language in which I can even pretend to be fluent — and I didn’t get that.

The next sentence: “I will now ask my question to someone else.” Yeah, knock yourself out.

After more dissection from Shaggy Dude and Nodding Girl, they added another sentence — in the MIDDLE of the conversation they’d just had! The guy who said he had a question apparently wanted to know which of his puppets was cuter. He looked like he was asking the puppets, but there was apparently someone else in the room who was supposed to tell him which one was cuter. But his opinion obviously didn’t carry much weight, because he needed to ask someone else.

English lesson or game show in which you’re supposed to guess the missing sentence? I have no idea. I watched far longer than I should have given my lack of sleep, just trying to figure out what the hell I was watching.

I wonder if this might have been English for secret agents. “When you meet the contact at the puppet shop, ask ‘Which one is cuter?’ If he answers, ‘The answer to your question is not the answer to one you have asked before you asked it,’ then you have found Igor. Give him the puppet with the microfilm.” Nodding Girl could be sending secret instructions in Morse code or deliberately mispronouncing important words … “the answer to the QUESTION is not THE one concerning the STATE of your health.”

In any case, it was better than the bad movie I found myself watching on German TV the other night. At first, I thought it was porn, but it turned out to be some dreary tale of double-crossing and shooting each other punctuated by occasional passionate nudity.

We were led to feel some sympathy for the couple at the center of it all, and she still seemed interested in prancing around for him in all her glory even after the guy in the bad-fitting yachtsman jacket was killed. But then he did a couple of monologues before going to her house, which was roughly the size of the house Lois inherits in that Family Guy episode. He finds her practicing piano and exchanges a few words with her. Another guy enters and says something. Then he draws a gun. Our hero (we think) says one more thing before he’s shot, as if the gunman were saying, “I’m NOT going to listen to another of your stupid monologues!”

So is the woman upset? Perhaps, but it seemed a lot less like a “the man I love has died instantly from a stomach wound” and a lot more like “oh, damn it, there’s all this blood on the floor, and the maids are gone for the weekend.”

It was either that or watch Jacobellis fall again on every other network, and I sure as hell didn’t want to see that. I never thought when I shook hands with her on our plane to Munich that she’d end up getting her actions dissected by every boneheaded macho jerk in the media who see so little of snowboarding that they don’t even have a basis for comparison. I wonder if U.S. fans will learn to cut athletes a break before we turn into the Soviet Union. (If Rocky IV were filmed now, which country would have Drago?)

More from Italy: I’m just a love machine

– Did I mention the porn machine? The first few times I passed that gas station, I was thinking, “Hmm, I could stop by and pick up some snacks on the way back to the Media Village.” Then I went and took a look. Didn’t see any Cheetos.

Funny thing is — this is just two blocks away from “Tabu Sexy Shop.” What can you expect from a country that stocks its Media Center’s general store with no throat lozenges and eight varieties of condoms?

– I’m a little less afraid of the Polizia, the Carbinieri, the Guardia di Finanzia and all the other people whose uniforms and general manner suggest, “You know, if we want, we bash your head. No one care. We bash head.” A couple of them came up to me a little perplexed yesterday as I was walking from the train station to the Media Village, but they were excitedly giving me directions (thanks, but I’ve been there eight times now. I can actually SEE it from here) and say, “Pin? Pin? You change. You change.”

I’m actually out of pins from my own news organization now, having given a couple away to people who are so nice about giving me things I pay for such as milk or biathlon tickets. But these guys seem a little more human now and a little less like marauding bands with guns.


– I pass this park every day, and it still puzzles me. This is an unused monorail (what’s that sound? MONORAIL!) that was dressed up at the last minute (Thursday). A couple of days later, the star in the middle started turning. It looks like it’s designed to pull water from the pond and have some sort of cascading effect, but the arms don’t reach the water! A couple of TV crews do stand-ups by the side as if this is some sort of central gathering place (it’s next to the Palavela for figure skating and short-track, at least), but the only people here are reporters heading to the Media Center or locals walking their dogs. So I like this park, but there’s something quite strange about it.

Bienve … bene? … grazenuto? … from Italy

– There’s a bright spotlight aimed right at my forehead in my seat in the media center. Fortunately, they gave us all baseball caps with a Torino 2006 logo, so I’m able to avoid blindness and headaches. That means every time I get up, I have the option of looking like a geek because I’m wearing the handout cap or showing off the worst case of hat hair imaginable. I’ve opted for the former.

– The sinks have foot pedals for hot and cold water. That’s a good idea — it means your hands don’t go right back on a dirty faucet. The pedals are right next to each other so you can step on both and adjust the temperature with subtle movements of the feet.

Pretty cool, until you hit the one that has hot and cold water reversed. And by “hot,” I mean “fresh from five minutes in the microwave” hot. Nothing better on a cold, dry day in Italy than scalded hands.

– Those stereotypes on Italian drivers being fast and reckless? Yeah. They’re true. I admit to closing my eyes a couple of times as my cab driver played games of chicken with cars in neighboring lanes and we headed toward a merge.

– I’m could film one of those answer films to Super Size Me. McDonald’s is offering the only fare around that isn’t some permutation of cheese, tomatoes and bread. They actually have decent salads and some fine breakfast food with orange juice. (Yeah, folks? You know all those “oh, you’re going to love the food” comments? That works if I’m dining out for two hours, and that ain’t happening. The one time it did, I ordered a pasta dish with salmon and found that the salmon was basically chipped piece of skin. It was like eating a mix of dough, glue and fiberglass.

Aside from that, all is well. Wish you were here. Maybe instead of me.

(It’ll get better. It’s just been a lonnnng weekend.)

Wonder history

The basic “problem” with Stevie Wonder is this: By age 26, he had accomplished everything any musician could hope to accomplish. Hit singles we’ll all remember for the rest of our lives? Started doing that around age 13. Artistic accomplishment? He effortlessly wove new sounds into R&B without losing sight of the past (case in point: Sir Duke, released on his two-LP set Songs in the Key of Life in 1976). Meaningful songs that resonate in society and make people think? I think Superstition and Higher Ground should cover it.

So I guess we can forgive I Just Called to Say I Love You and an awkwardly staged halftime show, if only because he was able to sneak a little bit of Living in the City before a national TV audience. (Has anyone ever written a line that better captures a character than “Her clothes are old but never are they dirty”?)

Housekeeping note: I might not be blogging much the next three weeks. Well, I’ll be blogging, just not here. I’ve off to Torino tomorrow. Sure, I’ll have Net access, but it’s safe to say the epic post on the decline of rock guitar playing will have to wait until March.