Tipping Points: Looking Back at the Summer of 2015

Immigrants Adrift On The Land
Our first minutes in Italy this summer were spent sitting on the train from Munich at Brenner Pass on the Austrian-Italian border. We were horrified to see a dozen or more North African immigrants on the platform who had likely been dumped at the border via free train tickets from Milan or another major city in the south of Italy. It was our first, small look at the huge influx of boat people that were landing in record numbers on the Italian, Greek, and Spanish shores, some of whom had been in transit to Europe for more than a year. We were chagrined, but felt useless in responding to the crisis.

We were almost correct in assuming that our glimpse of the problem at Brenner Pass would be our last, that the migrants would not be tolerated in the idyllic mountain villages where we’d be spending our summer. Following the Italian news kept the issue in mind but it wasn’t face-to-face for us in the heart of the Dolomite tourist areas.

About 6 weeks into our trip, we spent 2 nights in Auronzo, a lower elevation village on the perimeter of the Dolomites. It was there that we saw our first North African man in the mountains. Sitting in front of the small grocery store, he had his hat out for donations. Hardened not to give cash to the street people in Portland because of fear of financing addictions, I turned away to ignore him.

But that evening, I reconsidered. I had reached my tipping point. Hearing twice in the previous few days that the young adult unemployment rate in Italy was 44% underscored how poor the immigrant's chances of employment were, despite the multilingual skills of the many we’d encountered over the years.
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An odd juxtaposition at Sappada: The struggling Nigerian street venders against the backdrop of traditional mountain homes.

With a 20 Euro bill in my pocket, I looked for him in front of the market the next day but he wasn’t there. I scanned the main road for him as we rode out of town but never saw him. I wondered if such visitors were only tolerated for a few hours or a day.

A day later in Sappada, I spotted another North African man with a backpack who was selling a few belts and packaged socks draped over his shoulder and arm. I paused well short of him, dug out a 20 Euro bill, and handed it to him as we passed. He took it without hesitation and Bill learned that he was from Nigeria and had been in Italy 8 years. It didn’t matter in the slightest to us that he wasn’t 'fresh off the boat.’ No doubt the recent flood of others had undermined what little standing he had.

When we returned from our shopping about a half hour later, the man was gone. We never saw him again in our week’s stay in Sappada. I assumed that both he and the other man were run out of town by the authorities.

A few days later, we spotted a 3rd man who was going door to door, presumably selling something from his duffel bag. He headed off in another direction before we settled between us if he ‘qualified’ for our evolving donation standards. In hindsight he did. Lucky for him, we crossed paths an hour later and gave him 20 Euros. He too spoke English, was from Nigeria, had been in Italy 10 years, and said he’d pray to God that he could repay us someday.

Our contribution to remedying the problem was trivial but more importantly, the encounters changed how we responded to the North African migrant population this summer and will change our response to them in the future as well.

Once at home, the experience with the several North African men this summer lead us being the gifting of cash to individuals in our immediate community.

Exemplary Performance
We were horrified by the speed with which we formed national stereotypes when we began traveling overseas in 2001. And it was instructive to us that the basic conclusions we drew then didn’t change much with more experience, they only became more refined.

We saw the Germans as organized, efficient, and prone to being too strident. The Austrians had the best of the German attributes that we liked but were pleasantly more laid back. The Italians were too tolerant of inefficiencies and too short-sighted about antisocial behaviors, like littering. The farther south we traveled in Italy, the more we were drawn to shop at supermarkets to avoid being overcharged like we felt was happening in the small shops. Being subject to arbitrary extra charges when a host lacked change for our room payment—charges that matched the amount due to us—furthered our need to armor when in southern Italy. And then there was the time in Sicily when housekeeping or the manager took a bite out of our previously sealed chocolate bar. Elsewhere, we learned to expect no slack from the French and that the Spaniards would bend over backwards to be helpful.
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Our summit pleasure was diminished by seeing garbage tossed over the edge & burning cigarettes dropped.

The stereotypes we formed were based on the behaviors of numerous individuals and they roughly fit when applied to our understanding of their governments and cultures at large. The fact that the Italian people elected Berlusconi as the president over and over despite what appeared to us to be overtly corrupt practices and links to the mafia (net worth = $7.7 billion) did nothing to challenge our generalizations about Italians. But this summer our assessment of their general culture tipped from negative to very positive with their exemplary response to the flood of immigrants coming from Eritrea, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Syria, and other distressed countries.

Italy and the EU dropped the ball in terms of integrating the huge influx of immigrants but the Italians were unwavering in their commitment to rescuing as many of the boat people as they could. Italian ships actively went out to the Libyan coast looking for dinghies and larger vessels—they didn't just wait for them to make it to Italy’s shore. They had a massive, ongoing operation searching for people floating in the water and boats in distress. They rescuing as many as 5,000 people a day and recovering 700 bodies on the worst day we heard of.

Our Italian language skills that had significantly improved this spring from streaming Italian radio into our camper several hours each morning made it more inviting to watch Italian TV news this summer. Daily we were touched by the process of search and rescue. If a dinghy packed with immigrants was spotted, the first step was to get close enough to toss large plastic bags filled with lifejackets to them. As the rescue craft drew even closer, shouts inquiring about the languages spoken on board were made (with English being common).

Gently and carefully helped on board, the refuges were quickly inspected for bugs and diseases. Babies and toddlers were often lovingly directed elsewhere, presumably for immediate and thorough exams. Stretchers and wheelchairs were in the ready. Soon we'd see images of the quiet immigrants sitting on the deck chewing food and drinking water. Over and over we saw the same scenes repeated, with the rescued being received by the hundreds at a time, all being respectfully organized for the trip to shore. Each day we heard the total number rescued, the number of dead found in watercraft, and often how many babies or young children were in the boats.

Watching the delicate rescue and treatment of these unwanted immigrants that were literally invading an overwhelmed Italy made the hateful attitudes too loudly expressed in the US towards Mexican and Central American illegals all the more embarrassing. Our television experience of the Italian’s deep commitment to these rescue operations dramatically elevated our stereotype of their culture and government.

Italian TV
Our Italian language listening skills hit the tipping point in 2015: watching TV was no longer a useless, frustrating exercise; now it was an engaging challenge. We’d always been irritated by not feeling the pulse of Italy, or any non-English speaking country in which we traveled, because we couldn’t get much out of reading or listening to the news. But this year it was different, this year we could understand enough content of enough different stories in Italy to feel more connected to the culture.
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Another kind of Italian cultural experience: caught in heavy traffic on the Tridentina via ferrata.

The Italian 24 hour news station often ran 3 separate ticker lines, none of which might match the video or be in sync with the announcer, so we could often dabble in 4 or 5 stories at once. The ticker made it easy to look up unfamiliar words and it was a bonus when we realized that there was a match between it, the announcer, and the video.

Many stories were covered for days or for weeks, so we could build on prior day's efforts for deeper understanding. For several weeks, they reported on the series of teens deaths occurring at disco clubs on the weekends; “ecstasy” was often mentioned, and even the claim made that one of the 16 year olds died of natural causes (there aren’t natural causes at that age). Supporters of the mafia don controlling part of Rome provoked public outrage with their giant banner of him on a basilica looking very papal pronouncing “You conquered Rome, now you will conquer Heaven” at his pompous funeral.

We were pretty handy with economic vocabulary when the August 24th Black Monday stock market “correction" occurred, which gifted us with a new set of words for crash, collapsed, and sank. And coverage of the 6 month long Milan Expo focusing on food tossed in some lighter concepts. We relished the media’s adult vocabulary challenges that skipped the usual beginner words like “chalk” and “blackboard” while also learning more about their attitudes.

Bookings Made Easy
Another delightful tipping point was that of booking.com’s improved market penetration in the Dolomites. By 2015, the company had been so successful in recruiting small, somewhat remote hotels that Bill had more control over our itinerary than ever before. Being able to split 2 hard mountain passes that we’d done before, Passo San Pellegrino and Passo Falzarego, into 2 day rides by overnighting along the way opened up routes that had been difficult or impossible for us in the past. I heard "I’d always wanted to go this way….” several times and being able to readily find formerly obscure lodging made all the difference in fulfilling Bill’s dreams.

With this, our 2nd summer with almost all of our our lodging reservations in Europe being made on booking.com, we also concluded that we were generally getting better rooms than we’d otherwise receive. The small establishment on the way up to Passo Falzarego only put its 2 best rooms on the website. Being brand new junior suites, they were nicer and pricier than the “bathroom down the hall” rooms in the original, main building. But still being within our lodging budget, we shrugged off the sting of the price and enjoyed the lovely, spacious room in a perfect location. Corner rooms on the quiet side of the building were more common than usual and certainly more frequent than when we had booked “internet specials” in the past.

Climb Any Mountain
The “Ah-Ha” Moment
We reluctantly turned the hiking day Bill had planned for our 2 night stay in Auronzo into a rest day and looked longingly at the peaks while we strolled on the edge of town. Prudence had prevailed: a hard hike sandwiched between 2 hard cycling days looked fine on the itinerary but felt like too much once we were doing it, especially with my irritated right knee.
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The peaks we didn't hike - but planned to - at Auronzo.

The peaks were luscious against the brilliant blue sky and I asked Bill where our big-hike route would have taken us. A familiar reply: “To the top of that one” struck me in a new way. I realized that we could now hike to the top (and back) of just about any mountain in the Dolomites if it had a good hiking—not mountaineering—trail. We had hit a new tipping point. It was time to realign my self-identity with that new reality that I could readily climb almost any mountain around me in the region.

Dramatically Improved Altitude Tolerance
By the time we’d done our 3rd hike to 9,000-9,500’ in our first month in Italy, there was no denying that Bill’s attitude tolerance had dramatically improved—improved to the point of being normal. Bill had been an “altitude weenie” since we began traveling overseas in 2001.

In the past, we’d bike to a pass at 7,000’ and have to descend part way before lunch because he felt terrible and was unsafe on his bike. He did fine if we took a lift to 7,000-8,000’ and hung out, but intense exertion at those elevations was always difficult for him. But on our 3rd high hike that was to 9,000’, we stopped at the peak after 6 hours of straight-up hiking and Bill leisurely ate his lunch, being in no hurry to begin the journey to lower altitude. A stunning change that was triggered by our ketogenic diet and was aided by previously learning to avoid nitrates and to aggressively tend to his hydration.

Fear of Heights
Bill worked hard to combat his fear of heights so as to begin hiking on the vie ferrate--hiking trails with cable and ladder assists--back in 2006. He succeeded in pushing out that barrier, but the fear was always lurking in the background. Quite unexpectedly, the form of B3 that we began taking in May of 2015 for skin cancer prevention obliterated his fear of heights. When we started hiking in June, that fear was absolutely, completely gone.
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Bill at 10,000' on the Tofane via ferrata from Cortina.

Unbeknownst to us, the product we took was known to reduce anxiety, which was apparently the sole fuel for his fear of heights. Eliminating his fear of heights and his altitude intolerance dramatically changed Bill’s pleasure in the peaks. Not only could he be comfortable having lunch at 9,500’ elevation, he could sit or stand on an edgy place to enjoy the view. And of course, it was more fun for me when he wasn’t fretting about where I was standing.

Struggling to Do Less
After a lifetime of pushing ourselves to do more athletically, we’d hit the tipping point: we now needed to master doing less. Two years ago we began training for the overly ambitious goal of participating in an Italian mountain run, which was when the struggle for the right balance between exertion and recovery began. After finishing the event in July of 2014, we’d discovered that our subsequent goal that winter of doing a 4,200’ gain hike every week catapulted our fitness to a new level. The 4,200’ gain was arbitrary—it was the elevation gain of the run—but it seemed to be magical for our fitness.

At Auronzo Bill had planned a 4,200’+ hike and our legs were willing and able but we needed to rein them in for the even harder biking event the next day. We no longer could rely upon what we felt up to doing to judge what our level of output should be. We’d already recently made that mistake on Passo San Pellegrino on our day off.

We went for a “short” walk the afternoon we arrived at the hotel below Passo San Pellegrino on our bikes and it turned into an hour and a half walk with 600’ of elevation gain. We were baited by the unexpected WWI trenches and then the promise of panoramas. The next day we headed out for a stroll during which we’d planned to alternately walk and read aloud for 20 minutes for an hour or 2. But it was hot and humid in the forest, so we continued up the mercilessly steep trail to catch the breezes above the tree line. Then we needed shade for comfortable reading, so we pressed on higher yet to a lone hut with an eve under which we could sit. And then it was the sign to a WWI Austrian observation building and tunnel that beckoned us. So much for a stroll on the non-existent flat land—we’d done what would have been a hard hike for many. It was so easy for us in the moment but we failed to invest in the recovery time we needed for the next day’s ride.

With so many great hiking options available to us given our new hiking endurance, it was hard for Bill not to ‘over book’ us for hiking and hard for us to say “No” to the opportunities. We could easily do the hikes, but we’d suffer if the next day was on the bikes. We did however learn that we could do 2 hard riding days and have Day #3 be a hard hike with no problem.

But More Is Better
Pushing our output with the goal of a 4,200’+ elevation gain hike every week while in the US SW in the winter/spring of 2015 triggered a huge tipping point for both of us as it morphed into a goal for the year.

My leg pain and stiffness that typically lasted for 5 days after we did that much work but less frequently, was gone with the more frequent, high output. In late August, the few windows of dry or mostly dry days at 3 different venues had us squeezing our “weekly" big hikes into 9 days—but 3 of them--all unexpectedly over 5,000’ of gain. Our bodies weren’t just surviving the stresses, they were thriving under them. Even my cranky knee improved during this interval. It was only the stresses of biking up steep grades on my knees that made rest days at all compelling.
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The poles were extremely welcome on the tricky descent from the Tofane via ferrata.

Trekking Poles
We added a pair of trekking poles each to our kit for the stake of entertainment this spring and we absolutely loved them in the Dolomites. Their use on the steeper, more difficult mountain descents was indeed a tipping point for us.

We readily achieved our initial goal of using poles effectively and continuously. Along the way, we noticed that they diminished the load on our knees on the steep downhills, allowing us to push our speed on the descents without compromising our safety. Transferring the load to our upper bodies improved our core and shoulder strength, which translated into improved endurance and control on our loaded bikes.

Unexpectedly, the shoulder I dislocated in 2009 became a tad more comfortable with the new patterns of strengthening from ‘poling’. And Bill noticed that his arm numbness that was an issue on longer hikes didn’t occur when using poles.

Our choice of lightweight carbon, fixed length poles fulfilled our dream of having the poles stow compactly on our packs, which was especially helpful on vie ferrate. We’d heard too many tales of hikers snapping their carbon poles which, unlike aluminum ones, couldn’t be salvaged for the hike out. Enamored with their ultra light weight, we bought them anyway. Delightfully, all 4 carbon poles survived our heavy use in the Dolomites. We each fell directly on top of a pole that was ‘bridging’ between rocks and they didn’t break. Our previous decision was now validated: even if we did break one now and then, we’d keep replacing them with carbon because they are a delight to use.

The many major tipping points we experienced while hiking and biking in the Dolomites this summer added to our sense of satisfaction with our ‘holiday.’ We gained greater confidence and clarity in a number of arenas, all of which enhanced our sense of wellbeing and made us even more eager to see what the next year would bring.