Saturday, July 16, 2011

Italy - Where I spent 6 weeks this year

Jocelyn and I arrived in Milan, Italy in the middle of March and were surprised at the warm sunny weather that characterized most of our first two weeks. Perhaps what surprised me even more were the many cherry blossoms in the area in which we lived. In Taiwan, we had only occasionally seen them on mountains several thousand feet above sea level.
Although we were staying on the outskirts of Milan, the business capital of Italy, I did not really venture into the city much at first, and so my experiences at that point were confined to what I saw in the predominantly residential area where we stayed.
With Jocelyn busy with the course that she and five other students were taking, I needed to decide how I would make the best use of the six weeks I had there, given that my work would keep me busy much of the time. When I travel to places I am particularly interested to learn the local language and if possible interact with local people. However, I realized meeting people would not be that easy, especially since I was in a big city and was really unable to take part in the kinds of social activities that might help me meet people. If only I had had a good road bike!
I did have the use of a bicycle, even though it was very old and way too small for me. It had 20-inch wheels and the seat only went up do much, so that I had to ride very carefully so as not to seriously damage my knee tendons. However, the bike did prove very useful, and I could reach the area around the Basilica of San Lorenzo (above) in just about 20 minutes from our accommodation.
Milan Cathedral was huge and I was lucky to be able to at least get a picture of it on a sunny day using a wide-angle lens. However, it was always a magnet for tourists, which meant that one soon got tired of being in that area.
Not far from there, I found the church of San Steffan Maggiore, for which the foundation was laid around the 5th century A.D. From the outside it did not look particularly special, but the inside was amazing. I was also able to find some peace and quiet here, to read and to reflect a little. This is perhaps where I began to realize why I had come to Italy.
This was the inside of a smaller church with more of an emphasis on Mary.
After being in Italy and with Easter soon approaching, I summoned up the courage to attend mass at the church of San Barnabas in Gratasoglio, very close to where we were staying. I was not sure what to expect, since I had not been to a Catholic church since my childhood. At least it was a great way of hearing Italian being read and spoken. The service the evening before Easter Sunday was also particularly good - much work went into planning the mass and it appeared very well orchestrated, with the involvement of many "lay" people.
Perhaps the church I liked most was one with a very long and rich history and a huge building, San Eustorgio. In spite of the very well planned services (the Good Friday service was particularly memorable), the excellent quality of the singing, and so on, there were not that many people (perhaps just a few hundred) in attendance at the Sunday services. I somehow got the impression that most people in Milan did not care to go to church, even though there were so many historical churches there.
I did even get to talk to one of the priests there. He did not mind my attending the services, even though I told him that I stopped attending the Catholic church when I was 17. I was later to learn that the senior pastor (now well into his 70s and who blessed me at the end of one of the services) had helped establish churches all over Italy and in spite of the robes and the relics within the church was a very fervent Christian and church leader. The ambulances in the picture where there because some of the ambulance personnel were participating in one of the services. It was good to see their commitment and enthusiasm.
Milan also has many other buildings of historical interest, in fact so many that it is very difficult to visit them all, and I could more or less write a book on the few that I did get to see.
Well, I did manage to see a few other places besides Milan, although the farthest that I went was to Venice. This is a great destination. It is packed with tourists, but it has that "olde worlde" feel and there are many alleys one can walk down without feeling one is in a tourist destination. And, no cars, too.
San Marco in Venice - It is huge.
A restaurant by a canal in Venice. No, unfortunately Jocelyn and I did not get to eat there. Generally we were on a limited budget while in Italy, and most of our money went on paying the rent. However, the views were priceless, and were almost costless (the train tickets we bought being relatively cheap).
This was a quiet part of Venice overlooking the ocean where I ate the lunch I had brought with me.
Inside a church (Santa Maria di Nazareth) close to the train station in Venice.
During my last two weeks in Italy, I got to visit a few other cities, including Genova (Genoa) in Liguria. I found this a nice city with much of historical interest, and also some astounding churches, including the one above, with its beautiful ceilings (see below).
I feel that Genova would have been a nicer place in which to live than Milan. It is by the sea, is made famous by Christopher Columbus, and is easy to walk around in a day.
A park in Genova.
Inside one of the many churches in Genova. This one benefited from the help of famous European painters in centuries past.
Standing by the Ligurian Sea in the Port of Genoa.
I also went to Torino (Turin) where I visited the royal palace.
This particular church in Torino was devoted to St. John the Baptist.
The Basilica di Superga outside Torino. This is several miles outside the city and at elevation. There is a train service. However, I chose to walk back from the Basilica to the town and it took a good two hours.
A view along the river in Verona, Italy. Jocelyn and I visited this city which is perhaps most famous for the balcony which Romeo was able to climb up to to meet Juliet and which inspired Shakespeare.
The famous churches in Verona all required admission fees, whereas most in the other places I visited were free. This one, Santa Anastasia, had a particularly beautiful ceiling.
Part of the Roman wall in Verona.
Jocelyn and I standing in front of the open door to the balcony made famous by Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet.

In my short stay in Italy, I feel I hardly got to know any local people, but I did make quite a lot of progress with the language, by first of all trying to read bits of newspapers, then attending mass in Italian on several occasions, and reading much of the mass-related material. While I was able to visit several of the major cities in Northern Italy, I feel that the greatest thing I learned during this trip was the relevance that being raised a Catholic had to me as a child, and also now later in life as I reviewed my spiritual pilgrimage over the years. Hopefully, Jocelyn and I will get to go to Italy again and then I can continue to understand more.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

The Last Year: Part One - Sweden

It seems very hard to start writing a blog again after leaving it for so long. Well, my last post was about a failed attempt at a marathon early last year. This left me wondering what on earth there was for me to write about. While I continued to swim on and off for a few months after that fateful run, I was not particularly focused on sports at all. Thoughts of a possible trip to Hawaii where I could have got back into training again had to be pushed back as plans did not work out quite as expected.
So, what is there to write about over the last year or so? The first major event was a trip to Sweden, for about 11 weeks - not exactly a flying visit.
My wife and I stayed in a small campus community of about 100 people in an area that was mostly farmland. Fortunately, there was good Internet access, so I could keep in touch with the world outside.

I arrived by plane in Göteborg, Sweden in mid-September after a week visiting family in England. After a train ride and a short drive by car, I found that I would be living in a fairly remote farming area for most of my time there. My wife was taking a 3-month course as part of her degree program, and I would be getting on as best as I could with my own work, as well as taking the opportunity to learn as much as I could about Sweden and hopefully attempt to learn some of the language.
Picturesque views like this meant that in the afternoons on sunny days I could sit and overlook the sea while getting on with some of my work, based on the idea of doing work but enjoying nature at the same time.

Having done quite a lot of swimming earlier in the year, I thought there may be opportunities to swim here, since I knew that the sea was only walking distance from where we were staying. However, while I did dive in once (very briefly), I realized that it may be better to wait until I returned to Taiwan before taking up swimming again.

Apart from the water being a lot colder than what I was normally used to, the one thing that stopped me from at least one longish swim was the many jellyfish that happened to frequent the waters at this time of the year.

A Lutheran retreat center about an hour's drive away. These were quite idyllic surroundings and I would have liked to have been able to just stay here.

While living on what had once been a private Christian school, at times it felt like being a little cut off from day-to-day Swedish society. This was because there were many different nationalities represented on the campus, meaning that English was the main means of communication. Certainly not very good if one hopes to learn the local language. So, to try to speed things up a bit, I ended up picking up Swedish here and there through the Internet, especially through listening to music and comparing what I heard with the lyrics of the songs which I could usually find somewhere.

When someone had said there was a lake within walking distance of the retreat center, I had thought that it might be the size of a small swimming pool which might provide the opportunity to swim. This lake (Kornsjön) was so huge and isolated that a swim was out of the question.

While living at the campus, in order to relax a little and get away from my desk, I would go for walks among the nearby farms - usually after lunch, as it got dark fairly early.

Because my wife and her classmates needed to visit the library at the University of Gothenberg, I had a chance to go there, too. We also went to the Economics library in another part of the city. I found that interesting, although I am glad that I hardly ever go to libraries now, preferring to find whatever I need on my computer.

The city of Göteborg has many nice buildings, many of historic significance.

Later in our trip, we got to visit the Laxå commun. I cannot remember if this church (Tiveds Kyrka) was actually in that commun, but it was in a very nice part of the countryside half way between Göteborg and Stockholm.

One of the local farmers started grazing his horses (North Swedish horses) in the field in Restenäs right next to where we were staying.

A trip to Sweden wouldn't be complete without a visit to Stockholm, in my opinion one of the nicest looking cities I have been to. We stayed in the Old Town (Gamla Stan). Here we are looking out of the old town.

Jocelyn and I in Stockholm. I was quite pleased with the hoodsweat I had found in the "boutique" (the free second-hand store) on our campus. Certainly one of my Swedish friends like it. The Swedes are very patriotic, at least a lot more than the British.

There were many nice souvenirs on sale in Stockholm. I have a few souvenirs that I brought back. However, it is not the items that are important, but rather the memories that you bring back.

Occasionally we would see a nice sunset. However, towards the end of our stay (early December) one had to hurry after lunch to get there in time.

The horses were obviously used to the cold winters. On the day this photo was taken the temperature was between -5C and -10C. Just taking my gloves off to take a picture was quite a challenge for me.

I still miss the horses, particularly this one, which always came up to me when I waded through the snow to visit them.

Each time I passed this cottage (stuga) next to our campus (which appeared to be "empty"), I wondered about one day living in one of these.

In England, the airport would have been closed. In Sweden, this was just a normal day. After dousing the plane with warm water and making sure the snow was swept off the runway, the airport authorities allowed us to take off without incident and we were soon back in England where it fortunately was not snowing.

So, what did I learn from my trip? I kind of had a lot of mixed feelings about my trip. On the one hand, it was great going to a country to which I had never been and finding the local people that I did manage to meet to be quite friendly, although not very easy to get to know. I am not a very touristy type of person, and I am not really interested in just seeing the sights and enjoying the comforts of hotels or having everyone talk to me in English just because I am British.
When being part of an international community, as we were, relationships with other people can tend to be quite shallow since everyone tends to be busy with their work or studies and after a few months most people are going to move on. That is why I particularly enjoyed being with local people who just live their normal lives year in year out in the location, usually working at the same job and living in the same house. While these kinds of contacts were few and far between, I did at least have a few good conversations (in English of course), which proved that despite the differences in nationality and background, there was still a lot we had in common. It was nice to hear people we visited talk about their taking the train each day to Örebro each day to go to work, or to hear how one man almost my age coped with the harsh winters and how they affected his livelihood. The Swedes on our campus were mostly in their early 20s and so it was like my wife and I were talking to people of our children's generation. However, that was also a lot of fun. In fact we have been so used to that over the years that we don't realize how old we are getting.
I wish in a way that I had spent some time learning the language before going to Sweden, but that is a lot easier said than done. The pronunciation of Swedish is quite different from what I would expect. Therefore, I feel I learned to recognize the sounds a lot more easily by actually being there and listening not just to the occasional Swedish spoken around me but also to music to compensate for the lack of interaction with local people. I will always be better prepared next time. I hope to go again. I went to Oslo (for one night) since my wife needed to meet her classmates there for one week as part of her course, but unfortunately my Norwegian friend was not there at the time. It is so much easier if you know someone there with the time to show you around and introduce you to people. On this trip I wasn't attending a school or doing a specific job for people so that in some ways restricted me, but on the other hand it gave me a few more opportunities, too.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Running in Kaohsiung (Cheng Ching Lake)

The winner of the men's race in the 2010 Kaohsiung International Marathon was a Kenyan (hardly any surprise) who covered the 26-plus miles (42-plus km) in 2hr 36mins, which was close to 20 minutes slower than his personal best, which only goes to show how brutal the weather conditions were. In my opinion, the true winners (and heroes) were the many local Kaohsiung people who went out perhaps for their first ever 15 mile (half-plus marathon) and stuck it out for several hours in the heat with little drink, no food, no ice, hearing the curses of motorists forced by police to let them pass, etc. and then denied any recognition for their attempt because they did not finish within the 3 hr 20 min time limit set by the organizers. Do people who are professionals, with coaches, good training and proper nutrition, first-class VIP treatment, etc. really accomplish more? I wonder. (My photo - I ended up near the podium by mistake!)

My attempt to run a marathon this last Sunday was a somewhat humiliating experience since I was told I had to stop at 15 miles because I was going too slow. Perhaps I should be thankful that I did not attempt to stay out in the 90F degree heat longer. It was not a "user-friendly" race, at least for the slower runners. I never saw any ice, hardly saw any food, and I survived on what I ate before the race started and the sports drink provided that I grabbed by the bottle rather than the cup, as the poorly-equipped aid stations were often several kilometers apart.

The man on the left, in his sixties, was from a running club in Peitou, near Taipei. I was still with him at around the 18 km mark (where this was taken), but then I slowed even more, and I assume he was just about able to make the "cut-off" at the 24 km mark, which I failed to do. He was slow (as these people are really only going at walking pace), but he had endurance. What's more, he had traveled 200 miles to race at his own expense. If I had just been a little fitter, I might have been able to see him up until the finish. Well, I'll look out for him next time.

So the rest of Sunday, I was rather tired, and felt close to fainting as I walked back to my bike to ride the 20 minutes home. It seems there were no refreshments for those who had to drop out, and no convenience stores handy. The sports stadium is a wonderful piece of modern architecture, but it may only be used a few times a year for big events, and may remain off limits much of the time. On Monday, I could have written a long blog about all my failures in running over the years, etc., but did not get round to doing so. Fortunately, another day has passed, and rather than wallow in disappointment, I am trying to work out a "modest" running plan so that I can try and run a reasonable half -marathon this summer. Carrying out such a plan, does not involve high-tech stadiums, which are inaccessible to ordinary people, but places hopefully not far from home where one can get a little training in, while juggling all of life's other responsibilities.

There's no place (to run) like home. These cement paths (and wider flatter ones to) wind their ways on both sides of a river on a few hundred meters from our home. After taking measurements, I have found one loop around the park which involves crossing two small bridges is about 810 meters or half a mile. So on days when I just need to get the running over with quickly, I could just do it here. No motorized transport is allowed on the paths and one should avoid evenings when there are more people walking.

One of the good things about my "miserable experience" on Sunday was that for a long time I have worried that running would hurt my knees, having had a little trouble with them in a failed Ironman attempt over three years ago. Well, after being out there on Sunday, they feel a lot better, and so maybe some running, done sensibly, may be helpful to me. In addition, feeling a little exhausted isn't much fun, but after two days, I was swimming today, and while a little slower, felt great.

Cheng Ching Lake is located less than 3 miles from my house. My winter swimming pool is located at about 8 o'clock (the traditional-looking hotel) and my summer swimming pool (also 50m outdoor) is at about 1 o'clock (the green mound with a person on it). Apart from mornings and late afternoons when people travel to and from work, it is relatively quiet and pollution free, and the water is relatively clean (since it acts as a reservoir for the city inhabitants' water needs). About 70 percent of the lake's circumference has exclusive, designated bike paths, to separate riders from motorists.

A 12-week running plan involves running 4 times per week, with one or two days for cross-training and one or two days of rest. Basically 2 of the runs in a given week are "easy" by which is meant just covering a distance of between 3 and 5 miles. So hopefully not too stressful. Another day involves running from 2.5 miles to 4 miles at "race pace", which for me will hopefully be 9 minutes per mile. The remaining running day, requires a run that starts at 4 miles in the first week, and builds to 10 miles by week 7, before going down a little as part of a taper towards the race day. The training plan proposes using Saturday for this - maybe not a bad idea, as there is a lot less traffic on the road Saturday morning. With all this in mind, one just needs to find suitable places to run.
Currently the most important section of the Cheng Ching Lake bike path (the 2km thick red line along the "right-hand" side of the lake in the map above), is undergoing road works (perhaps cables or pipes that are not to do with widening the path), and so it is a mess. In one month I will start to swim at the pool on the right-side of the lake which means I hope everything is back to normal by then.

The right-hand side of the lake has some popular tourist attractions like this pavilion (that is one of three pavilions together). The bike path is behind the fence on the left, and the lake is through the trees on the right.

By cross training, I will be doing swimming, since I want to continue swimming, and I will also use an old mountain bike to get to the swimming pool or to the running venue, if it is not within walking distance from my house. A slight snag is that I want to swim three to four times per week, which means that for two of the runs, I will ideally run starting and finishing close to the pool, and run first and then swim, and not the other way round as was the case in Kona. Here it is better to swim last, as swimming can help me cool off (even if the water is 82F or above), and I can make use of the showering facilities at the pool, before a relaxing cycle ride home.

Cross-training (mixing days of running with days of swimming or both one after the other on the same day), not only helps reduce the risk of running injuries, but also has practical benefits, too. By swimming after the run, you get a free shower (usually two) and sometimes a free spa, and you can return home refreshed after what seemed like a blistering run in scorching heat. The water temperature today was 82F, but it still felt cool.

After one reaches the 1.96 km point on the "red" bike path, one reaches the bottom of the lake, and the next 1.24 km consists mainly of fairly uneven cobbled sidewalk with the occasional half-felled tree that runs alongside a fairly busy road, so it is doable, but not a lot of fun. From the 3.20 km point (above) is a fairly nice and quiet run well away from most of the traffic for about 870 meters, until one reaches the road that goes up past the Grand Hotel. Since the Kaohsiung local government is committed to "building more bike paths", hopefully something more will be done to deal with the more dangerous stretches especially to the south of the lake. Many whole families bike on these roads on Sundays, etc., and so making things safer concerns a lot more people than a few freaky runners.

A few meters short of 1 kilometer from the start of Yuan Shan Rd. to the turn off (above) into Song-Yi Road, one reaches the exclusive bike path on the "left" of the lake that goes past a golf course further up on the left. This section of the bike path is 1,900 meters long and hilly, being higher at the other end. The first 350 meters is a "moderate" climb, then 650 meters is a gradual descent, then 350 meters of "moderate" climbing, followed by 550 meters of flat (along a green containment wall) then a gradual descent to the intersection of the roads the motorists use. There is relatively little traffic except during the times when people commute to and from work. After that, there is a total distance of 400 meters, the last half being a fairly sharp downward descent (with no bike path) until one reaches the "start" of the bike path track next to the side entrance of the Cheng Ching Lake park.

A few hundred yards away in a side road from the start of the "left" bike path (shown in the previous picture), I came across this larger than life sculpture. I guess the intention is to encourage people, young and old alike, to run to be healthy. At least that is a step in the right direction. Since this is a quiet residential road, I could probably lock up an old bicycle nearby and leave a towel, a bottle and some outer clothing, without anyone being concerned about it. After all, I don't want to return home looking like one of these people.

To try to sum up, since I live in a city of about one million people, finding a place to run away from traffic or just the mass of humanity is not easy, and so today I went on my bicycle to look around at possible venues. If the training plan says "short, easy run today", I will consider running in the park near my home, preferably when there are less people, such as during the day when it is warmer and people are at work. However, if I want to have bit more space to run in (so I am not just doing laps) or I want to combine the run with a swim (since I hope to keep swimming 3 times per week), I will run on different parts of the bike trails around Cheng Ching Lake, to which I can cycle within 15 minutes. This will be good for "time trials" of usually no more than 4 miles, since I have measured the distances between different points on these bike trails fairly accurately. When it comes to doing a longish, and perhaps more challenging run, say 6 or 7 miles, then I will consider doing one whole loop of the lake (or fractions/multiples thereof) in order to accomplish that day's goal. According to my calculations, one loop of the lake, while remaining either on the bike path or the road next to it where there is no path, is about 7.25 km, which is 4.5 miles. About 3 of the miles are "safe" (though nowhere is really safe), and the other 1.5 miles is OK if one runs against the traffic or on more uneven surfaces (like narrow sidewalks that no one would ever walk on or drain covers that are at least shielded by trees to keep the motorcycles at bay as you run up past the Grand Hotel. Fortunately, the longer runs don't come very often, at least for me.

About the author: Bruce Stewart is a one-time Hawaii Ironman finisher (2004) who, while having since then kept up a reasonable amount of swimming, has let the other two disciplines, biking and running, slip. After recently covering the first half of a marathon in barely under three hours, he has decided to follow a "modest" running training program that he can incorporate into a fairly busy life, all the while trying to make the most of living in a large city.