Saturday, 25 February 2006

The Long Ciao

I’m sitting in the press center in Sestriere, not far from where Bode has just skied off course and Ted Ligety was disqualified. This is it. I have no more events to cover.

We’ve all been saying it: We can’t wait for the Olympics to be over, yet we’ll be sorry when they do.

I’m exhausted. I’ve eaten badly almost every day (so badly, in fact, that it is literally a struggle to stick to my recently imposed chocolate-only-every-other-day plan), slept not nearly enough, and had a week so frustrating I literally cried into my beer on Tuesday night. And not little tears you can blame on your contact lenses or allergies – it started that way but escalated into proper snuffling blotchy sobs. Not pretty. To top it all off, two night ago I managed to lose my credential. If that doesn’t sounds bad, think again: It’s roughly the equivalent of losing your identity, as you cannot do a thing without the badge, including get to – let alone get into – the places you need to go to replace it. However, in one of the few breaks I’ve managed to catch lately, not only did I manage to get where I need to go, but my charm offensive (a mix of Spanish and Italian but – I’m most proud of this – absolutely no tears) was sufficient that they replaced it immediately, as opposed to the 24 hours they apparently usually need.

That said, I, too, will be sorry when the Olympics are over. I won’t miss the bus rides and the schlepping up and down an icy hill with roughly a 90 degree gradient (and while schlepping my computer) and the lack of time to call my own. But this has been a once-in-a-lifetime experience – a phrase I don’t use lightly.

For one thing, I know I’ll never read Olympics coverage (or the sports page) the same way again, in ways both simple and profound. I’ll probably read the sports page more often than I did before, kind of the way when I visit a foreign country, I’m more apt to read even the tiniest news briefs about it. There are names I’ll look for, because I know them, and now I know how they work. One thing I’ve been surprised to see is how sports are reported. Sometimes the reporters literally just watch the events on TV (like skiing), because you can only see the end of the course if you’re actually there. Other times they watch it on TV because they have to be able to file instantaneously, and they also can’t do that from the stands. It also surprises me how much sports reporters can get away with at the Olympics if they want to. What’s called “flash quotes” – quick quotes – from the athletes are distributed at the press centers, and I’ve seen a few reporters skip even the press conferences and write solely using canned quotes. And it’s not like they can legitimately use “deadline” as an excuse -- I know they’re not wire service reporters, and because of the six-hour-plus time difference, most U.S. reporters have a whole lot more time to file here than they usually would.

In a few minutes, I’ll pack up my computer and walk out of here for the last time. I’m dragging the ending out, coming up with last minute internet searches to do and pottering around looking for my lip balm. It is strange to leave a place you know will never exist again. With a lot of the countries I’ve visited this year, you can leave and think that while it’s unlikely you’ll be back, there’s a chance. Here most of the places I have spent time literally will not exist anymore – they’re temporary Olympics-only digs I can’t come back and see someday even if I wanted to. But it’s not the structures I’ll miss so much as the people and, for the most part, the camaraderie. The random “oh, you again” on the buses and the press centers and the mag and bag lines, and the conspiratorial chats about editors and athletes and all the other dozens of things people choose to chat about when in close quarters with near-strangers. I’m sure I won’t speak to any of these people again – it’s like acquaintances from college classes who you always liked but never became good enough friends to stay in touch with.

Except with college, at least there’s always the prospect of reunion.

Monday, 20 February 2006

Low, Down, Dirty (Part II)

There was so much snow yesterday that all the events in the mountains were cancelled, so everyone got home fairly early. A friend and I went to the local Irish bar, where Toby Dawson was doing some shots with some pals (he told us that the night before had been the first night since he won his bronze that he hadn't been drunk). My friend had Guinness and I had Nastro Azzurro, and then moved on to Baileys. (I know, ick. But for some reason the Baileys looked appealing.)

A handful of old NBC guys that my friend had been avoiding since the first day she met them were there, and they came over to talk to us. "Why aren't you finishing your drink?" one of them asked me, nodding toward my half full Baileys.

"Because I'll fall over if I do," I said.

Leer. "That's exactly what I was hoping for."

Ew. Ew. Ew.

Friday, 17 February 2006

Low, Down, Dirty

Yesterday in the Bardonecchia press room before the men's snowboardcross final, a friend from Reuters came by to tell me he’d had a rough night – that he’d been out drinking until past 5 in the morning.

I told him I’d had the first proper dinner I’ve had yet in Italy, but that I was so tired (I’d gotten two hours of sleep) that I was tipsy after my share of just one bottle of wine.

A scruffy looking photographer – and not scruffy in a cute way – leaned across the desk and said, “You sound like my kind of date.”


Thursday, 16 February 2006

On and On Till the Break of Dawn

Covering the Winter Olympics is a full contact sport – and you should see some of the people it puts you in contact with. I’m not talking about the reps who don’t return your phone calls and the elbowing for tape recorder/question access – I’m talking about the fact that all of the press pens (bizarrely enough they’re called the “Mixed Zone”) seem to be solid sheets of ice. Yesterday at the women’s snowboarding – quite possibly the most awesome sport I have ever watched, but more on that later – I watched a reporter slip and sprain his hip, and another crashed straight into me. This morning at the first half of the men’s combined, I crept along the ice like a child hugging the edge of the skating rink. It didn’t help me feel like any more of a sports reporter, let me tell you.

I started this post hours ago, planning to write about the joy of watching snowboarding yesterday and then interviewing Shaun White, the Olympic gold medalist. It was one of the increasingly rare days I enjoy my job. Today isn’t one of those days. I spent a day and a half organizing an interview and photo shoot that was a pain to get only to have my colleague – the more senior correspondent – swoop in and take it at the last second. And have the nerve to ask me for my questions. He already gets to cover most of the marquee events, and because he’s based in the city itself, he has none of the logistical headaches that I have. I wish I were one of those people who could just let things go, but I can’t.

I wrote the preceding two paragraphs on Tuesday, and I’m feeling only slightly better. I never ended up posting because Ted Ligety took the gold at about 9 p.m. Italy time, and I scrambled to interview him and his parents – interviews that ended up on the cutting room floor. (I also had to stay up until 7:30 a.m. closing stories, so yesterday was a blur.) And though I specifically told my editors that Shaun White never said dude in my interview with him – except once, when he was quoting someone else – somehow dude ended up in our aren’t-these-dudes-cool story. Yikes. Nothing less hip (or more embarrassing) than wide-eyed-wonder. Ugh.

Last night – in fact, right after bumping into a post-competition Jeremy Bloom (wearing a Jeremy Bloom baseball cap, of all things) – I made the vow to only eat chocolate every other day. (Vow had nothing to do with Jeremy Bloom, though). Last night – one of only two sit-down meals I have had in my week and a half in Italy – I had chocolate and today I had a chocolate pecan pie Luna bar, which I’m thinking surely shouldn’t count as actual chocolate. As a fellow journalist and I keep joking, we’re in a country known for its great (fresh) food, and we are all subsisting on American chemically made substances: Balance bars, Luna bars, and Power Bars. Even if we hit the vending machines we get more American chemicals: No Italian chocolate, just Twix and Mars bars. What’s up with that?

Monday, 13 February 2006

The Ugly American

Last night I had dinner at a restaurant in Sauze d’Oulx that’s been nicknamed The Godfather, because of the pictures of Marlon Brando scattered on the tables. After waiting for a bus for nearly two hours in Sestriere, I got to Sauze at 11 p.m. – not an auspicious time to be looking for any place to be open on a Sunday night in most countries in Europe. But I met a photographer from Sydney on the bus, who’d been eating nearly every day in this place. We bumped into the owner on the street, and he said he’d serve us: homemade lasagna and red wine. Ah, Italy…

Not that I’m softening on the place much. I got home last night to find that the cleaning service had taken my towels but not replaced them. When I called the helpline this morning, I was informed that I had to deal with the (no doubt non-English speaking) cleaning service on my own, and that I’d have to go to some other little town to pick up some towels. I lost my temper when she told me to listen to her. “No, you listen to me,” I yelled, already late for the four hour trek to Bardonecchia this morning and feeling tired and unshowered and very much like an ugly American in all senses of the word. “I’m on a bus for a minimum of four hours every day and the last thing I have time to do is to find my way to some little town to pick up some towels.” She kept protesting that it wasn’t her problem to solve, and I kept yelling. Ugh. Finally she said she’d call the towel people (aka the cleaning people who also have never emptied my trash) but that she couldn’t promise anything. Looks like I will be trying to buy a towel somewhere – though I didn’t spot any Olympic-branded towels.

Currently I’m sitting in the media center in Bardonecchia, waiting for the finals of the women’s snowboarding to start. I’ve finally figured out what the media centers here remind me of: the extempers’ room from high school debate tournaments. For those of you not geeky enough to understand this reference, extemp is extemporaneous speaking, where you’d draw a current events topic and have a half an hour to prepare a seven minute speech. You had to keep your newspaper clipping files up to date (I wonder if they’re allowed to use the Internet these days?), and you’d lug around these huge file boxes. If you weren’t preparing a speech, you’d shoot the breeze with the other extempers, but it was all business if you were preparing. That’s kind of how it is here – lots of quiet chatting against the backdrop of mania to meet a deadline, and knowing that even if you’re chatting, your time of totall insanity will come.

Except sports reporters, for the most part, are a lot nicer than high school debaters. In general, they seem to fall into two camps: The first is the I’m-so-lucky-to-get-to-watch-sports-all-day-and-write-about it, totally laid back type, and the second is the just-because-I’m-a-sports-reporter-doesn’t-mean-I’m-not-a-super-awesome-hard-charging-newshound, and don’t-you-dare-think-for-a-second-that-I’ll-share-my-Bode-Miller-press-conference-quotes-with-you. Most of the guys here – and they are mostly guys – seem to fall into the first camp, though I am intimately familiar with the behavior patterns of the second, as some of the celebrity news reporters I encounter are that way. (Well, not so much the reporters but the editors, who want to make sure you know they have a brain, despite what they do all day.)

Right. Off to watch some snowboarding...

Sunday, 12 February 2006

Don't Stop 'Till You Get Enough

This morning I left my flat before 8 a.m. for an event that started at noon – the men’s downhill – and barely made it. That’s because the bus driver in Oulx (the main transport hub for the mountains) drove us to Sauze d’Oulx (where I’d just come from – it’s the location of freestyle skiing) instead of Sestriere Borgata, and there was no telling him he was going to the wrong place. As I wrote my boss this morning, I’m starting to hope I’m going to fall asleep and wake up in Venice. Possibly even Venice, California.

Now about the men’s downhill: I can’t believe people pay $144 for tickets to watch all but the last four seconds on big screens. It was a beautiful sunny day, and I guess you get to say you’ve been there, but literally all you can see is the finish. And they do play some decent music – everything from Madonna’s “Hung Up” to Michael Jackson’s “Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough” (the last of which they also played at the opening ceremonies – I wonder whose job it is to DJ these things?) Occasionally there would be another distinctly late 70s/early 80s sound – the noise the Pac-man video game makes when Pac-man dies. It was played at completely random moments, so I guess it’s one of those lost-in-translation things.

* * *

I had heard the Winter Olympics were low on the celebrity count, and now I know it’s true (not that I should tempt fate, given my employer's primary interests). The opening ceremonies had Susan Sarandon, Sophia Loren, and a supermodel or two (and Bode, marching dead last with the US athletes). There were bodyguards at the restaurant I went to last night and my pulse quickened a bit, but it was only the president of the Czech Republic. And at another bar: Tom Green, aka Drew Barrymore’s ex, having pizza and wine with a handful of guys. Quick, somebody alert the paparazzi...

Friday, 10 February 2006

Pizza and Whine

Whenever I complain to my father about how useless the Tube in London is, he always tells me – in this infuriating “you silly little girl” voice – that whenever he’s been there (the whole two times, I add silently), he’s never had a problem. “But Dad,” I always say (aloud), “You’ve never been trying to get anywhere at a particular time.”

I can only imagine what he’d say about Italy. Yes, the bus system does get you where you need to go, but about 2 hours after you really needed to be there. None of the schedules sync up, which means you spend a minimum of a half hour waiting out in the cold. The timetables appear to be a mere suggestion: Yeah, 7:50 a.m., but I think we’ll leave at 8:30, after the driver finishes his coffee and chats with a few friends – or, as happened the other night at 2 a.m., after the driver finished watching what looked like Italian soft porn on the bus’s TV. (I guess I should have been grateful that he wouldn’t let me wait on the bus.)

All of which means that getting from Sauze d’Oulx, the mountain town where I’m staying, to the women’s figure skating practice in Turin took nearly five hours, much of which was spent standing outside attempting to focus on my New Yorker instead of the cold. I don’t even want to think about how much longer the trips will get when Olympic traffic heats up, as the Olympics officially start tonight. Never have I wished so badly to be one of those people who can read or work on buses, because even though I now have a snazzy video iPod (two months of fighting with Apple -- a story for another post), I can’t actually watch any videos when the bus is moving.

I don’t think I’ll be making the trip to Turin for a while, mostly because my job is to cover the alpine events. But part of the reason for today’s schlep was to see if I’m allotted a ticket to the opening ceremonies – there is only one per media outlet, and as my colleague is covering events in Turin (and because I have the backbone of an ├ęclair) I’m not making a fuss. I’ve heard it’s hours of waiting around in the cold, but I figure I’m probably never going to cover an Olympics again, so I might as well do it once and see for myself. Partly in preparation and partly because it was the most amusing of all the Official Olympic Souvenirs, I bought an Official Olympic Flask. One thing I will not be pouring in it: Official Olympic wine, which, at 8 euros, including the cheesy figure skating bottle, probably makes it the Italian equivalent of Schlitz.

I’m off for my fourth meal of pizza in three days…

Giggle of the day: Outside the New York Times office in the media center, where the pages of the Times' Olympic special section are posted, someone has taped up a handwritten sign on a piece of paper from a steno pad: "Do I have to pay Times select to read this?"

Wednesday, 8 February 2006

Something for Nothing, That's Where It's At

OK, so it took more than three hours, two bus rides, and a long walk uphill to get home last night – and I finally got there at 1.30 a.m. But where else but in the mountains of Italy do you have adorable Italian men making you little cups of coffee (they might be some kind of special coffee, but as a non-coffee-drinker, I can’t tell you what kind of –cino it might have been) as you shiver outside in the cold waiting for the bus at 12:30 a.m.?

This morning I made the schlep back down the mountain to visit the high school serving as the US athletes’ check in center, where they go around with supermarket trolleys collecting free gear. I am not making this up – the US Olympic Committee literally took about 20 trolleys from the Pam supermarket down the street, hosed them off in the bathroom (wonder whose job that was), and disinfected them. The athletes then go around the gym collecting hats, scarves, gloves, t-shirts, leather jackets (one ugly white one that wouldn’t be out of place at a 70s party, and one black one), warmup gear, medal stand gear, opening ceremonies gear, cell phones (for use while they’re here), and the Olympic equivalent of class rings – they get 6 karat gold rings with the Olympic rings and their sport emblems. (About half the athletes upgrade to the white gold version, which means they have to fork over an extra $300 to $340, depending on their ring size.)

My favorite souvenirs of any event are the things you had to be there to have – things that you can’t buy (except maybe on eBay), like the messenger bag I got at the Cannes film festival in 2004. I wasn’t actually offered anything from the athletes’ schwag stash, but I wasn’t yearning for it, anyway – nearly all of it is already available at Target, with minor variations. I love Target – I wish we’d have a version of it in London – but, um, ick. Is nothing sacred?

Off to a press conference – aka how I can start figuring out how I’m going to tell one athlete from another when they’ve got on hats, glasses and ski gear…

Tuesday, 7 February 2006

She'll Be Comin' Round the Mountain -- If Only the Olympic Bus System Would Work

The wifi connection is down, it takes four hours to get from the mountains (where I am based) to Turin itself (where the press conferences are), and my flat looks like the unloveliest cross between summer camp, a hostel, and a juvenile detention center. Oh, yeah – and there’s not even a phone line, so I can’t imagine why the press office allocated the place to me. How are they expecting me to file stories about the fabulousness I’m seeing? (Or maybe that’s why…)

I’m trying to laugh. I just took a picture of my jetlagged colleague asleep at his desk in the media center (hello, bribery material!), and I just bumped into a sportswriter I met when I was an intern at her newspaper more than 10 years ago. (She and her boss, the paper’s sports editor, said my publication is “a step up.” Ha.) And I was standing behind Scott Hamilton in the security check line for the main press center, dying to ask him how much worse he’s treated as a member of the press as opposed to an athlete.

And I must comment on the total geekdom of some of the reporters, and I mean that in the nicest possible way. They remind me of people from opposing debate teams in high school, who tried to intimidate you with their wardrobes -- basically, displaying how much experience they have by wearing clothing from all the various sporting events they've covered. Yesterday I was seated across from a guy wearing: 1. a Sydney 2000 Olympics jacket. 2. A Super Bowl polo shirt (couldn't have been the most recent one as he wouldn't have physically been able to get from the game to where we were in that time). 3. A fanny pack from another Australian sporting event. 4. a backpack from another Olympic games (couldn't tell which one).

More when I get it – or can get online (I’ve just smiled sweetly at the keeper of the DSL line at one of our corporate siblings’s rather plush office…)

Monday, 6 February 2006

OK, Computer

I had a long (and somewhat depressing) post about getting ready to leave for the Winter Olympics and how much this 3 1/2 week trip terrifies me, mostly because the last trip of this length I took for work was the trip where I got fat. Literally. I left fitting into size 8 Gap jeans -- they were tight, and on the flight to Cape Town the button pressed against my stomach like a warning -- and I binged every day of the 20 I was in Africa except for one.

Anyway, I was have connectivity problems at home, and I've managed to save all the files on CD except the one with the post. I'm leaving in an hour (all my luggage piled in my office), so I guess I'll have to post it when I get back to London -- and hopefully laugh at what a worrywart I was...

Thursday, 2 February 2006

When You're Dancing Through Your Wardrobe

So apparently what gets Linda Evangelista out of bed these days is a party thrown by Alber Elbaz to celebrate Lanvin's new boutique at Harvey Nichols. In what is quite possibly the only time in my life I’ve looked at a supermodel and felt better about my own outfit, her take on “aftermath of a debauched dinner party” was to wear a blindingly white mac, so I was hardly out of place in my black dress and satin flowered pumps with hair slightly messed (more from brutal wind than debauchery).

I don’t love fashionista parties, but I do love prowling around a fabulous shop after hours with a glass of champagne, as I was last night. There’s something almost naughty about food (beetroot parfaits, anyone? Ick – not hard to make like a proper fashionista and not eat at this party) and drink in the sort of place you practically need to wear gloves to handle the expensive clothes. It’s like the Vogue version of From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. As with most British parties, no one you don't already know speaks to you (unlike in the U.S., even if you see someone at parties 3 days running, you do not go up to them and comment on it), so I was left to sip my champagne (1 1/2 POINTS per glass) and play spot-the-most-expensive accessory. (Look! Some Roger Vivier patent leather pilgrim courts!) Let’s not even talk about how sad it is that I can name -- and in many cases, price -- these things. I'd kick ass on this particular version of the Price is Right... assuming I could balance on my stilettos.

I also spotted some Pedro Garcia jeweled purple satin peep toes – the very same pair I’d ogled in green on net-a-porter a few months ago – and looked up to realize they were being worn by Zadie Smith. Who, for the record, has cheekbones that could beat up Linda Evangelista’s. I broke the don’t-speak-until-you’re-introduced rule -- she has an American husband, so I was hoping she’d be used to Yanks who like to do mad things like, I don’t know, meet new people at parties. Apparently not. Looking startled, she told me she’d just finished her latest book and was out taking a break, then abruptly said she was heading home. I took it as a sign it was time for me to do the same.

Goodie bag: The tempting black velvet box in the Harvey Nichols bag I was handed disappointingly contained a paper fan with sketches of the Lanvin spring/summer 2006 collection. I suppose I shouldn’t have expected, oh, a nice Lanvin black satin bias cut dress, but a fan?

Wednesday, 1 February 2006

The Weight of It All

I gained a pound and a half.

Was it the fish pie or the sticky toffee pudding or an inevitable post-flu gain? I don’t know, but it’s depressing and frustrating, especially because I was careful to exercise and ate lightly on both “indulgence” days. And because it reinforces the urge to cut back drastically. I trudged back to the office thinking about how little I want to subject myself to the scary fashionista party I have to attend tonight (creative black tie is one thing, but how does one dress for “debauched dinner party” ??), how hungry I am, and how futile this whole effort seems.

I never thought a pound and a half could be so heavy.