Sunday, November 17, 2013

Dai! Dai! . . . Die! Die!

"This suffering will yield us yet/A pleasant tale to tell.”

—Virgil, Eclogues

On our third day of biking in Italy, we traveled from Mantova, a charming ancient town on the River Mincio, to Castellaro Lagusello, a small village that features a beautiful medieval castle bordering a heart-shaped lake.

If you had read that sentence in a tour guidebook, you would probably think only lovely thoughts, right? And you would mostly be correct. Mostly.

We started out the morning as usual with an Italian lesson. This one featured what to say when you pass other bikers along a path or road. You might call out a simple, “ciao,” a cheerful “buongiorno,” or a more formal “salve.” If you want to urge a person in front of you to move faster, you could call out, “Dai! Dai!” You say this for encouragement, we were told, not in hopes the person might “die, die” and get out of your way. Ah-ha, I can see an omen coming from a mile away!

As fit the pattern for those first three days, we began biking in the rain. Not a downpour, but just enough to be annoying. Still, the countryside was beautiful, the pathways were generally flat with only a few up rises, and the trees and vines were heavy with fruit. We even passed a stone on the roadside that was purported to have been a favorite writing spot for the Roman poet Publius Vergilius Maro, better known as Virgil. What more could an English major want!

Our biking group fell into its usual start-off pattern. There were 19 of us, plus one guide leading on bike and another guide following in van. While each of us bikers was unique, I felt that our riding style was influenced in part by geography. Rushing to the front of the pack were Kathy and Kevin from New Jersey, who were probably the fittest of us (and the youngest). Right behind them were our longtime friends Phyllis and Harvey from Westchester County in New York, very fit and very competitive. Then came Audrey and me, also from New Jersey, Howard and Laura from Syosset, New York, and Weld and Ellen from near Boston. People from the Northeast have what my grandmother used to call in Yiddish “shpilkes,” which she would loosely translate as “ants in their pants.” They’re impatient.

Near the middle of the group were Sandy and Fred from Maine, Excellent bikers who were a little older and more patient and very resilient. Remember, they’re from Maine! Then Susan and Chuck from Michigan in the calm Midwest, though Chuck would sometimes get impatient and shoot to the front. He had amazingly strong legs and sometimes felt the need to go out running during times that we weren’t riding.
 Starting out near the rear almost always were our five Minnesota riders—Lou and Burle, Michele and Carroll, and Dorothy. They talked slower than the rest of us, knew more about agriculture in Italy and the rest of the world than the rest of us, and never seemed phased by rain, hills, or bugs. Like the proverbial tortoise, they were steady and persistent. They might start out near the back but usually ended up near the front. I, on the other hand, usually started out around 4th in line and ended up 14th or 15th. Oh well. . . .
The Minnesota Five (L to R): Michele, Carroll, Dorothy, Lou, and Burle
Our route that day was taking us to the towns of Borghetto, Monzambano, and Castellaro Lagustello. These were all included, we were told, on the list of the 100 most beautiful towns in Italy. (I have the feeling that every town in north-central Italy is on that list or deserves to be.) We pedaled for more than 25 miles before stopping for lunch at a restaurant that resembled an Austrian hofbrau. This area in Italy is very popular with Austrians who live within shouting distance. After lunch, the rain started to pick up again, so Audrey decided to ride the van to our hotel destination in Castellaro. As a result, she missed the “dai, dai” fun.

The road from the hofbrau started out fairly flat as we pedaled along a river bank. Then we started to climb a little bit. That was the first real climbing we had had to do so far on this tour that was rated as “easy.” Our riding directions also got a little more complicated. We were instructed not only when to turn but also when not to turn. We had been warned earlier that morning that while we needed to find a road called Sant Pietro, that almost all roads in the area were called Sant Pietro. You just had to determine the right one. Luckily, Kathy, Kevin, and Harvey took the lead, with Weld close behind. They were our best milestone spotters. Somehow, those six pages of complex directions we were given each day never phased them. They would cheerfully call out, “We’re at kilometer 34.5,” or something similar, to help keep the rest of us on track. I tried to keep up, and trusted that the map readers would get us to our destinations safely.

At last, we reached the final three kilometers of our daily directions. Less than two miles left, and I was feeling pretty confident. After all I had read the description of our Day 3 journey online. Here is what the tour company had written: “Our last stretch is over gently rolling hills that approach the Natural Reserve of Castellaro and its heart-shaped lake.” I should have known a euphemism when I spotted one.

(Many years ago, my cousin David and I were going to a convention together in a small town in northern Georgia. When we got off the train, we asked someone in the station how far it was to our destination. “Oh, a couple of country blocks,” we were told. We decided we could certainly walk a couple of country blocks. Luckily, after we had trudged about one-and-a-half miles with our suitcases, a kind local stopped and offered us a ride. Later, I asked my father, a country boy from Arkansas, how long a country block was, and he told me “a little over a mile.”)

So you’d think that I would have learned my lesson, and when I read about “gently rolling hills,” I would have had my suspicions. Nope. I just blithely pedaled until I decided to look up and noticed that the road was looking steeper and steeper. I downshifted on the right, moving from seventh gear to second and then to first. (I didn’t really know how to shift on the left side to make my front wheels easier to push. I would learn that trick the next day.) The pedals were easy enough to maneuver, but I was climbing at about 10 feet a minute and breathing harder and harder. If there had been ducks walking up the path with me, they would have easily passed me by. I wasn’t sure I could make it. I contemplated taking the cowardly route, climbing off the bike and walking up the hill. No one on our tour had done such a thing. Could I shame myself in that way?

Then Howard, my new friend from Syosset, slowed down and assumed a spot just to my left about three feet behind me. He shouted, “Dai! Dai!” while I was thinking “Die! Die!” “You can do it, just a little farther.” He kept up the encouragement, and I kept pumping. Then, miraculously, the road evened out, and we saw our hotel only 50 feet ahead. “Gently rolling hills,” my ass, but I had made it, largely thanks to Howard’s insistence.
Howard and Laura: Howard's "Dai! Dai! " saved me, saved me!
Of course, when we entered the hotel courtyard, Audrey was lying on a lounge reading a book. “Oh good, you’re here,” she said in greeting. “Now you can carry our suitcases up the steep staircase inside the room. They’re too heavy for me.” The words "Dai! Dai!" (or their sound-alikes) came into my mind, but, luckily, I didn’t say them aloud.
Audrey at rest. She missed the "fun."


  1. Mr. Goodman, my name is Jim Hoffman and Kevin and Kathy Hoffman are my son and daughter in law. My wife and I have laughed and laughed at your commentary and it has really added to what K and K have told us about their wonderful trip. I particularly was interested in the visit Amanda made to her Grandmother's ancestral home. I can't recall the exact reference, but Wurtzburg was mentioned. I think it had to with a relative who had been in hospital there. Anyway Kevin was born in the US Army hospital in Wurtzburg in 1961. My wife, Kev's brother and I were stationed in Wildflecken, Germany and the unit I was in constantly trained for some "invasion by the Russians." Cold War. Anyway thanks for your great blog. Roger Rosenblatt has nothing on you.

    1. Thanks so much for your comment. It's gratifying to know that readers are seeing and enjoying your writing. Nice to that we have a connection to Kevin, too. We had great fun riding with Kathy and him. I so admire Roger Rosenblatt, so putting me in almost the same league is a great compliment!