Saturday, February 25, 2006
It's snowing lightly on a winding mountain road somewhere between Cesana and Oulx, Italy, as I make my way -- by bus -- back to my hotel after another day of covering Nordic combined skiing at the 2006 Winter Olympics.
It's late, and all I really want to do is close my eyes and rest for a few minutes. But my bus driver and an Italian man -- the only other passenger on the bus -- are in a heated and rather loud discussion.
I have no idea what they are talking about, but it can't be good. Sure, the driver seems at ease as he makes his way down the mountain road, and his discussion with the passenger doesn't seem to be distracting him too much.
But I can't help but notice the way he takes both hands off the steering wheel when he really wants to make a point. I'm not one to panic, and how hard can it be to drive a tour bus on roads that are just slightly wider than the sidewalks that run down Lincoln Avenue? Did I happen to mention that the only shoulders in this country are ones with backpacks on them?
If I was in the U.S., I might have to say something to the driver. Something like, "Hey, buddy, want to keep your eyes on the road, please?"
But in Italy, there is really no point.
After riding what seems like a million buses in the past two weeks, I've learned three things. The first is there is a one in 10,000 chance the driver will understand anything that I'm saying. Second, I'm pretty sure he wouldn't listen to me if he did understand it. Third, I've also learned not to worry, because you always seem to arrive at your destination, and usually within a couple of hours of when you expected to get there. The key is that I arrived at those destinations alive.
Don't take what I'm saying the wrong way. I'm not complaining. The bus system has been vital to my survival the past few weeks. Like most of the journalists here, I've become dependent on the public transit system to get from one venue to the next, and to be honest, this particular trip has been better than most.
It just that it seems the bus drivers in this part of Italy march to the beat of their own drummer.
It's not uncommon for a bus driver to talk on his cell phone or smoke a cigarette while driving down a road that would test the skills of the best drivers. I've even been on a bus on which the driver stopped to make himself an espresso while the passengers waited.
It's kind of like being on a party bus, except most of the passengers were not invited to the party.
But I've discovered -- first in Salt Lake City and now in Turin -- that the bus is a wonderful place to meet all kinds of people and that buses are the best way to get to all the different venues. In most cases, buses help ease the pain created by traffic and keep the Olympic Games running smoothly. But more important, buses force people to sit down with people they've never met before.
Some of those people will sleep, and some can't be bothered to switch off their iPods or cell phones. But every once in a while, you can strike up a conversation with a stranger and learn a thing or two.
The buses are a melting pot of different cultures, different languages and different drivers. So instead of worrying about how they drive or what language they speak, I simply sit back and enjoy the ride -- or at least try to. Because in most cases, I've ended up at my destination a little richer for the journey.