It Rains in Rome

Coloseo

Sightseeing and swimming

Piazza di Spagna
Spanish Steps
Trinita del Monti
Panoramic view of Rome

Friday – the alarm has been set and the trains, once again run like clockwork. We’re joined by the water polo guys, playing in the indoor pool. My 100m Backstroke is a couple of seconds slower – possibly caused by arguments with the lane ropes – one of the hazards of swimming backstroke out-doors. In the lunch-break, I help Federico with his backstroke finishes – counting from the flags and touching with one hand on a dolphin kick, or two. He’s got the 50m backstroke with me tomorrow. Meanwhile, my 200m Individual Medley is quite acceptable, but there is a Netherlander in his seventies who is faster than me. I guess I’m used to fast guys in their seventies back in the UK. He’s a strong breast-stroker and gets away with swimming fly and back with a breaststroke kick. At the end of day two, I’ve got four gold medals and the schedule has run so efficiently that there’s time for evening sight-seeing. Back in town, I head for the famous Spanish Steps. They are moderately crowded and tourists sit around the fountain in the Piazza. Whistle-blowing wardens are employed here to make sure no one sits on anything marble – posts or balustrades. They undertake their job assiduously, forcing exhausted tourists back onto their feet. The marble looks pretty worn and pitted by acid rain, so it’s good that they are trying to preserve the place. The other problem is that sitting on the steps would block the place up, making the climb up to the Trinita del Monti impossible. The pay-off to this climb is the panoramic view of Rome – the church itself is unremarkable inside but the external façade crowns the steps to dramatic effect. It’s closing time and the gate-keeper of the church shoos new visitors away as I descend and locks the gates behind me. To my right there’s an alfresco restaurant overlooking the steps and I wonder what their prices are like for this location.

Fontera del Tritone

I’m now heading, in a leisurely fashion for the Fontana Di Trevi (Tivoli fountain), but I’m seduced towards the Fontana di Tritone nearby. There’s no one here as it’s in the middle of a traffic Island – worth the diversion. It seems as if Rome has a fountain or three in every Piazza and there are drinking fountains with running water everywhere. I pass a theatre showing Mary Poppins the Musical. In Rome, Italy? Astonishing. I pass via Boccaccio and am reminded of this great medieval Italian story teller who influenced Chaucer. Rome is full of streets named after the famous, from Marcus Aurelius to George Washington. As I pass the usual tourist shops, found world-wide, there’s something different, Pinocchio.

Mary Poppins
Pinocchio
Fontana Trevi

Predictably the Trevi Fountain is crowded, though it is possible to get photos. A gap opens up on one of the iron barriers – a chanced to sit and look. I listen to the whistles preventing people from sitting on marble edges. At 9.00pm, the lights go on and there’s cheering. Two women throw coins over their shoulders into the fountain. It’s supposed to guarantee a return visit to Rome. It’s a recent legend created by the Hollywood movie Three Coins in the Fountain. The coins are collected at the end of each day and go to a charity.

Trevi detail
Trevi detail
Vittoriano

My GPS directions home take me past the gigantic Vittoriano, a 19th Century white marble neoclassical gallery. It towers over everything else. My path is down the Via dei Fori Imperiale, and I suddenly realise that all of the ancient ruins can be seen from above. The views are magnificent and there is no need to pay to see the ruins below.

Ruins by night
Rome by night
Out to Swim 4×50 freestyle relay team

Saturday is the last day of swimming. Federico is once again trying to organise a relay. As a native of Rome, it’s best for him to do this. The judge allows us to enter four men in the 4 x 50m Mixed freestyle relay and we are able to co-opt James H from the water polo team. In the mean-time, we have the 50m Backstroke and Federico hasn’t warmed up due to organising the relay. He’s run out of time and I tell him to just do the race. He does and with a much better time than he entered. We’re waiting for James F to arrive and just when we think it’s not going to happen, he materialises. The Italian Mixed team are waiting for us – so are the officials. No one is in a panic and it all happens. We are faster than the Italians, especially with James H to finish. There’s talk of doing the 4 x 100 medley in the afternoon, but no one else can do fly and I certainly can’t manage 100 metres. The other option is the 4 x 200 freestyle and I don’t think our newbies would manage that either.

Five gold medals
Road to the Catacombs
Cacti at the San Sebastian Catacombs

I’m off back to the tourist trail and there’s a bus number 118 from beside the Coliseum which will take me to the Appian Way. I get talking to an American family from LA – she’s done the research and knows what to see, but it is I who get us off at the right stop.  The Apian Way is an ancient cobbled highway – only just wide enough for two cars to pass in opposite directions plus an occasional pedestrian. It’s only closed on Sundays, so we have to contend with traffic. A fork in the road looms and a driveway bisecting the fork, promises catacombs 1.6 km ahead. The sign says it closes in fifteen minutes but undaunted I and the family from LA set of at a brisk pace. We make it in time for the last group tour of the San Calisto Catacombs. Underground, it’s a delicious fifteen degrees, a relief from surface temperatures in the high twenties – our Monk-guide dons a jacket as we descend. There are over twenty miles of burial corridors in this complex at several levels. Spartacus, the gladiator and his rebels were all crucified along the Apian Way but it was during the early days of Christianity that the catacombs came about. Romans were cremated but the Christians looked forward to the resurrection and the restoration of the earthly body; they may have got that idea from the Egyptians. Christians were much persecuted in the Empire until Constantine converted and made Christianity the official religion. They came underground to pay their respects to their dead, to light an oil lamp. The lamp niches are still clearly visible. While they were down here, they held secret communion services. One early Bishop of Rome was caught and beheaded as were Saints Paul and Peter. At this site, many of the Popes were buried and when the barbarians invaded, looting and looking for treasure (The Christians weren’t buried with their possessions), all the important bodies were moved out to the Vatican and the others went down a level where they stayed forgotten and undiscovered for two thousand years. Many of the graves cut into the walls are short (the Romans were short people) and even smaller graves belong to children and babies. The very high proportion of children’s graves can be explained by the practice that early Christians had of saving the bodies of heathen children (innocents) in the hope of their salvation. That phrase ‘In the sure and certain hope of the resurrection’ comes to mind.

A Wet Apian Way

Back above ground in the heat, I’m determined to walk on past the St Sebastian catacombs and re-join the Apian Way and see viaducts. Alas, there’s a torrential downpour which goes on for thirty minutes. I take shelter under roadside foliage, but the water finds its way through the leaves. I’m very damp and reluctantly return to a bus stop for the journey back to town. We aren’t going the way we came, but It’s a circular route and I’m getting new view of Rome. It’s not until we’ve doubled back and are returning down the Apian Way that I realise that this bus is not returning to the Coliseum. Eventually it gets to the end of the run and I transfer and wait for the return bus, which rattles alarmingly over every cobblestone. I fear it might disintegrate at any moment as there are bits on the ceiling hanging by one or two screws. We are still not returning to the Coliseum and the driver tells me I have to walk from the Campidoglio. Sure enough, the road to the Coliseum is closed to traffic this evening.

Campodoglio
Campodioglio

I try my host’s recommended Pizza restaurant to cheer myself up. It’s around the corner and great. So far, in Rome, Pizza has been 100% OK – nice thin crispy bases. Unfortunately, my Italian is not good and I manage to say yes to a whole jug of the house red wine, which has to be finished. I’ve been on a beer ration all week, so it’s a bit of a struggle.

Roma Eurogames and Coloseo

Coloseo

I exit the Metro at Coloseo late in the evening, it’s dark and I’ve never been here before. The floodlit spectrum before me is instantly recognisable; it’s the Coliseum, so this must be Rome. Childhood stories of heroic Gladiators, a Lion who refused to eat a Christian and the movie Sparticus are all part of the history that was the Roman Empire. My Mum always said it was the most successful empire ever, lasting more or less over a thousand years. Much longer than the British Empire, she said. To be fair, she didn’t know about the Incas 3.5 thousand years or the Aztecs who went for 2,750.

Coliseum

My Mr B&B accommodation is a short walk from the Coliseum and my host’s American husband is on hand to greet me to a small but beautifully appointed ground floor apartment. Todd has plenty of good advice of what to see and where to eat locally – and there’s a welcoming bottle of Prosecco.

San Giovanni in Laterno

There’s been considerable uncertainty about the LGBT Eurogames here with lack of information and conflicting reports. The website now doesn’t have the information – schedules and heat sheets, so I’m looking for some answers at the accreditation evening tomorrow. Early morning emails from the organisers inform me that accreditation has moved from the Games Village to a café due to anticipated rain, but my first priority is buying breakfast stuff from the Carrefour supermarket a short walk away.

Scala Sancta – tourists climb the stairs on hands and knees.
Scala Sancta ceiling

I’ve got time this morning, to explore and spot a likely candidate highlighted by my host on the handy map of Rome. Scala Santa houses the marble steps which Jesus (allegedly) climbed twice on the day of his death in the Jerusalem palace of Pontius Pilate. These were brought to Rome by St Helen and laid from top to bottom by the workmen so that no one walked on them. For several centuries , they were covered with wood to prevent wearing of the marble but now they have been restored so the faithful may once again engage with the same steps as Christ. Today the stairs must be climbed on hands and knees as an act of faith and devotion. As I don’t claim to have either of these, I take the alternative staircase, which looks much the same to me. At the top, the chapels are crudely frescoed and I don’t spend much time looking. I guess this is an experience for the faithful, although a party of Japanese tourists are crawling up the stairs. I wonder?

San Giovanni the porch

The Basilica San Giovani in Laterno, just across the road looks more impressive. The edifice is huge and the building seemingly attached (this happens a lot in Rome) is something to do with Rome Opera. Not many are crowding in the door and it’s free with a relaxed security check. Inside, It’s massive and uncrowded. I later discover that this is the official cathedral of the Pope, the Bishop of Rome. He has his throne here, it’s the centre of his diocese. Back at the Coliseum, I explore the Domus Aurea, a hill where part of Nero’s palace looked down on a lake where the Coliseum now stands. It’s all under re-construction and only parts of this once extensive and lavish complex can be glimpsed. Nero was so unpopular that much of what he built was destroyed and recycled. I consider visiting the Coliseum but there’s a queue. I can see that the interior is mostly in ruins and being reconstructed. I walk up towards the Forum, but you need a ticket to go there, instead I walk up an alley-way to get a view. An African trader of wooden trinkets, I passed earlier, has gathered his wares and is running up the hill looking behind as he goes. This is a blind alley leading to a church so I’m surprised to see the young African being escorted by Police down the hill. One of them is carrying his rucksack – I didn’t notice them overtake me. It all looks quite relaxed, and for the African (chatting to his captors) a common occurrence.

San Giovanni – the nave
San Giovanni in Laterno St Philip looking stern
Basilica San Giovanni in Laterno Popes Chair
Nero’s ruins
Ruins of Nero’s palace
View of The forum in the distance

My weekly pass is a great deal and I follow other sporty-looking people to the accreditation. I spot two women ahead – on of them is Viv Woodcock – Downey from BLAGS and the Gay Games committee. I interviewed her for Out for Sport – nice to have a familiar person to chat with in the queue. The other woman is her wife, who is competing in the discus. The café might have been chosen for its long and gently sloping incline to the bar where there is a library – yes real books to go with the beer and coffee. The Queue is huge, taking up all of the incline then snaking over the stage – someone briefly plays the grand piano. Word is that none of the people handing out accreditation badges have answers to our questions. There’s to be a meeting of the swimming team leaders at 7pm. As I’m the senior of the three from Out to Swim, I volunteer myself to attend. Thank goodness for our WhatsApp group as I’m able to collect a team mate’s badge – he’s been delayed at Gatwick Airport.

No one knows exactly where this meeting will take place and we’re all sitting around waiting. Suddenly it materialises with a presentation of an alternative schedule of events – quite different from the original. Gay Swim Amsterdam object as they have swimmers arriving on Friday who would miss out on their events. Apparently, the Netherlands Swimming Body fines swimmers who don’t turn up for their races. The original schedule is reinstated in a flash with no resistance. The Warm up is now at eight-thirty, races start at nine and it is a fifty-metre pool – outside. There are, however, no heat sheets.

My host’s recommended restaurant, overflowing at lunchtime is now quieter. They do a great seafood pasta dish and salad, perfect to carb-up for racing tomorrow.

The competition Pool

Thursday morning, I wake at seven. Panic – I haven’t set my alarm and I’ve got thirty minutes to have breakfast, shave and leave the apartment. This would normally take me a leisurely hour. The trains are all on time, my weekly ticket will take me all the way to the coast and google maps assures me that I’ll be there by eight-forty – still enough time to do some warm-up. Outside the Stella Polari station and I follow a couple of other late swimmers. It’s not clear where the entrance is and we all go down the wrong side – some signs, as we had in New York two weeks ago, could have been useful.

Out to Swim team
Medals at the end of day one

My warm-up is rushed and the pool is too warm – I’m not slicing through the water as in NY – still, I have time to use the twenty-fiver metre pool inside to complete my warm-up. It’s deliciously cool by comparison. When I signed up for this there was no schedule and so, just entered seven of my usual events. It turns out that the 400m freestyle, the 200m Backstroke and 800m freestyle are all scheduled for today. I’m allowed five events over the three days – the 400 falls by the wayside. Suddenly there’s a heat sheet and I’m trying to support our two relatively inexperienced swimmers to get to their races and warm up properly. A marshalling area gathers the swimmers in their heats and I can see that It’s all completely relaxed and professional. There are no hints of hysteria or panic – these officials know exactly what they are doing. There’s even time to announce each swimmer and their country. National identity, it seems, is important in Europe. The Netherlands and Germany are here in force – also Portugal, Belgian, Spain and France. Suddenly the 200m Backstroke looms. It seems like a struggle, with the lack of preparation, but it turns out to be only a few seconds under time. 

Pool and seaside

There’s now an opportunity to do a 4 x 50m Medley relay – not officially – just for fun. We have to make up a fourth team member- Nicolas (French but swimming for Stockholm) helps out. We’re giving James and Federico some experience. As Federico mainly does backstroke and James is best at Front Crawl, I end up doing the Breaststroke, but that’s OK as I need the practice. I’m not sure where we came – possibly last but we swam and our names are recorded on the official Italian site, but there’s no time entered.

The electricity is off in the pool café, so no espresso, just a tuna and spinach sandwich on white bread. It’s enough to get me through the 800m on a reasonable time – faster than Crawley back in January – leaving me with two gold medals in one day.

Dancers

It’s the opening ceremony of the games tonight. There’s a huge contingent of Brits here – hockey, football, rugby and volleyball. OTS have four Water Polo teams here so we three swimmers are not entirely alone. We all assemble at a small stadium for a short wait. There’s a rumour that only ten people from each country should march in. My legs like that idea, but it turns out not to be true. We gather on the stadium pitch in a semicircle facing the spectators and watch a graceful aerial artist perform to the accompaniment of a live opera singer. What else would you expect in Italy? Once we are seated in the stand, there are the usual interminable speeches. Every politician in Rome has to have their say and it’s all the same words. Proud, inclusive, welcoming – which all has to be translated into English – the language the rest of Europe understands. Yes, we are leaving Europe (I think) but the British legacy is the language of commerce and we can’t undo that. There follows more dancing – sexy and together. We all agree, an improvement on the Paris Gay games performance.

A Pink Flamingo, Circle Line, World Pride and Breakfast in a Diner.

Out to Swim

Saturday is Pink Flamingo day, an IGLA tradition to complete the week of competition. Out to Swim won last year in Paris at the Gay Games so we are not eligible to win again and haven’t entered. I’m the only one here to watch. All the entries seem to involve an initial conflict, needed for all good stories, and some of them are anti LGBT situations. Resolution is achieved with the help of one or multiple super heroes. Part of the show must take place in the pool which is an opportunity for some syncro. None of it is as good as last year and the combination of acoustics and bad sound system renders the commentary unintelligible.

Empire state behind
Liberty – someone wondered what she might think of now.
Manhattan
Empire State
Boat Party

It’s time for a late afternoon rest before the Circle Line Boat Party around Manhattan Island in the evening. On the boat, the bar is ‘open’ which means that drinks are included in the ticket price. Gin & tonic seems to be in order. I do need to stock up on food to manage the gin, but that’s not free. My choice is a burger – my least favourite dish – but at least it comes with salad. There’s a good group of older guys up at the prow of the boat and we discuss various new buildings and their architectural merit. I learn about ‘skinny scrapers’ which are shooting up everywhere between the regular buildings. Each floor is an apartment and the owners drive into the lift go to their floor and park the car. I’m amazed they can stand up.

Go go boys
Jade’s fan dance
Dancing over the rail

The party is hotting up as we pass liberty Island. Someone comments to me ‘I wonder what she’s thinking these days.’ We cruise on under the Brooklyn Bridge and past the United Nations, which once seemed huge but is now dwarfed by newer buildings. Out to Swim youngsters seem to be leading the dancing so it’s time to join in. Christophe takes any opportunity to make use of any pole to dance on (he does pole dancing) even if it is horizontal. He’s got competition from a sexy woman called Jade who dances erotically with a blue-tailed fan. She gives me her necklace to mind. At the end of the party I frantically search for her to return the necklace – she’s pleased.

Lights on

We don’t do the complete circle of Manhattan, doubling back to our starting place as the light come on in the city. Someone suggests we move on to Industry Bar, walkable from the pier though everyone except me gets a cab. There’s a queue but as I’m not with anyone and probably because I’m older, I get fast tracked. I’ve danced on the boat and had such a good time that the cramped conditions inside Industry are off-putting. I queue for a drink, but it’s cash only and I don’t have enough dollars on me, having spent my cash on food. The music doesn’t inspire dancing, although some are having a go. It’s time to quit whilst I’m ahead.

Corporate support for Pride on Broadway

Sunday is the big day – marching in New York’s world Pride Parade. I spend the morning cleaning up the apartment and resting in anticipation. We’re to march with Team New York Aquatics – those who have stayed on will make up a huge international group of LGBT swimmers. The plan is to meet at the starting point at 4pm. I walk down town with an idea to watch the early part of the parade which commences at noon. This doesn’t work as everything is blocked off and I end up arriving an hour early along with a very tall hairy guy with a luxuriant beard. He’s from ‘Quack’, Salt Lake City, Utah. He strips down to his speedos which I’d seen around the pool. They are a colourful mass of duck heads. A random woman wants to photograph his speedos, then, realising how that sounds, insists she’s not just interested in his crotch and does a selfie with him.

Ready for Pride

OTS Orca Water Polo Speedos
Tom of Finland on Speedos
OTS swimmers ready

Swimmers gather and expectations are high. Industrial scaffolding on nearby buildings provides Christophe with the opportunity to show off his pole dancing again and delight everyone around. There’s word of a two-hour delay in setting off so everyone relaxes. Swimmers flood into nearby bars, returning occasionally to check on progress. By 7.30pm we are still not moving. Most of the swimmers have gone back to various bars and our WhatsApp group records our Out to Swim people and their locations. I return from resting in one such bar to find that Christophe has fallen of the scaffolding and broken his arm. A group takes him to a nearby emergency room and I find myself alone in the crowded streets of New York. Nothing seems to be moving and the accident has upset me. Time to go home, finish my bottle of wine, watch the fireworks display which may be part of the Madonna concert, and sleep. I later hear that the last marcher completed the course at half past midnight and the city sweepers had not completed their work by rush-hour. Clearly the size of the march had not been anticipated.

Water Polo Speedos
Still waiting to go.

Monday morning sees me in the Brooklyn Diner for breakfast. Despite the name it’s just around the corner from the apartment. It’s a successful chain which is now up market and expensive, for what it is. Udayan and I have a good chat about everything – putting the world to rights, that sort of thing, before he has to attend to his Chinese business students who, he says, are being charged a lot for a not very good deal.

Backstroke turns, The High Line and a Gay Mums and Dads relay team.

NY skyline from the High Line

Thursday: I’m repeating my warm-up plan from Tuesday, catching the last thirty minutes in the competition pool with a section concentrating on my backstroke turns. The fifty Backstroke went well on Tuesday but I’ve got three turns to do today. I also repeat my top-up warm-up of HVOs. I’m fairly happy with the race, though apparently my legs dropped on the last length. I stay to cheer on the relay teams who are doing incredibly well it is all so exciting.

Jackson Pollack
Contemporary Ghanaian Artist – fabric made from recycled metallic material – incredibly beautiful

After lunch, I return to The Met (a ticket is valid for three days) to look at the rest of the modern and contemporary art sections, enjoying Jackson Pollack and Mark Rothco towards the end. The Met closes early, at five-thirty so it’s perfect timing to walk across Central Park and take the subway downtown to Chelsea and pick up the High Line. This is a disused raised subway line now transformed into a garden walk up the West side of Manhattan. The planting is superb – part forest and part herbaceous. In places you can still see the rail tracks. People walk and sit on grassy areas. One young man is practising his aerial gymnastics. At the top is Hudson Yards, a terminus for Subway trains. Here I discover an amazing structure built to be climbed. New York’s Staircase (known as The Vessel) entry is by ticket and I’m delighted to find that it’s free. Wonderful. There’s controlled entry (hence the tickets) as the structure can only support a limited number of people climbing an any one time. There’s a small and unusual lift but the queue is too long and it’s quicker to climb the steps, making my way around the structure looking inwards and outwards as I go. It’s spectacular.

Street tree pits are everywhere with signs saying ‘Curb Your Dog’
High Line Planting
High Line rail lines
Lawn on the High Line with acrobatics
The Vessel peeks around the corner
The Vessel
The Vessel

Friday is a Front Crawl day so no need to practice backstroke turns and I can start a little later. We’ve got to know a family of four children sitting behind us. They are all here cheering on their gay parents from Ohio. Earlier in the week their two mums and two dads did the fifty freestyle, today they have made up a mixed (sexes) relay team. We are in the same heat and in the adjacent lane for the 4 x 100m freestyle relay and they are faster than us. I’m the ‘anchor’ – swimming last but don’t notice that Daddy two is on his second 50m as I dive in. I’m keeping up with him but can’t see him on my second 50m because he’s finished. There’s a lot to be missed whilst under water. I do however, get an unexpected bronze medal in my individual 100m Freestyle.

A crop of medals

I hang around to cheer on our teams in subsequent heats. Out to Swim is up against Wet Ones from Sydney and they are nervous about competition from an ex-Olympian in that team. This turns out to be Daniel Kowalski, who swims a beautifully relaxed 100 metres. Later, I attend an event, where he and two other ex-Olympians are talking. Jeff Commings (a black swimmer and now coach) is chairing the discussion/interview which also has Bruce Hays and Betsy Mitchell. At the time of their training, all three panellists were so immersed in training that they didn’t even think about sexuality. Jeff played their key races – very exciting to watch but for Betsy and Daniel, their best work was not at the Olympics but at World Championships. Daniel won three Olympic medals, but because they were not gold, was the most hated swimmer back in Australia. He’s now returned to Masters swimming and loves it. Betsy doesn’t swim any more, having gone into teaching swimming, she got involved with rowing and was on the US national women’s team. She now plays golf but says she will return to swimming later in life. She only swims now to heal when she is sick.

Apartment block swimming pool from The Vessel

Flushing Meadows, Queens on a Monday

The competition pool

The competition pool is cool, delicious and of even depth. I can tell at the end of twenty-five metres that it’s fast. As I reach forward, it’s easy to catch the water and push it back. Perhaps it’s also the training kicking in – aerobic fitness from threshold sets building up stamina. I glide though my wall at the end of the first two hundred – the warm up is going well. I use the backstroke section to pay attention to turns. Theoretically the flags are at the same position in every pool but that doesn’t always guarantee a perfect turn. There’s something not quite right but I’m sure it will be ok.

World Trade subway

It’s an early start, negotiating the subway from Mid-town Manhattan to the pool at Flushing Meadows – all with the aid of my phone.  My stop is Mets Point the site of a huge baseball arena, deserted today but I meet up with some of my team walking in the same direction to the pool. They’ve divided the fifty metres in half so the diving end is for warm downs and late warm ups. Everyone comments on the fast pool. There’s a problem with the electronic timing pads so the programme is an hour late starting. I’ve planned to top up my warm up nearer to my event, later in the morning. Ten o five becomes eleven o five and a session of HVO’s sets me up for the 200m backstroke. I’m swimming well, but manage to miss-time most of my turns – too close to the wall at one end and not close enough at the other. My race plan almost disappears as I struggle to get the turns right. It’s initially a disappointing start but I end up with a Silver medal and a PB. I’m thinking it could have been a few seconds faster had I got the turns right.

World Trade Concourse

For lunch, I collect a salad with beef from Chipotle across the road from my apartment but can’t finish it. I’m meeting up with IGLA friends to see a documentary Light in the Water later and Marcel from Gay Swim Amsterdam messages me about meeting for something to eat before. Time for an afternoon nap to sleep off the salad – perhaps I’ll feel like eating later. Marcel & I go for a pizza slice – full of carbs for the next day. We have time, to explore the World Trade Centre area – once Ground Zero. There’s a huge skeleton-like building, the entrance to the world Trade subway stations. The footprints of the twin towers are gigantic water features surrounded by Oak trees. I’m reminded by Kathy Gupta’s excitement when the first trees were delivered and planted. She and Udayan live across the square and I’ll be visiting them later in the week. Last time I was here in 2010, this was still a site of devastation – twisted metal and holes in the ground.

World Trade Tower

Light in the Water is the story of West Hollywood Aquatics the first LGBT swimming club. A couple of gay swimmers started it to beat homophobia in the swimming world and create a safe space for LGBT people to train and become accepted as gay athletes. The movie traces the origins of the Gay Games and its history. The AIDS epidemic is a large part of the story and how WH2O became a family fighting the hysteria and taking in people rejected by their biological families. There’s a Q&A session after the ninety – minute film. Nine of the interviewees have turned up along with the current co-chair of the Gay Games. These are men of my age group who have turned up to race. Some of them were instrumental in setting up IGLA after the first Gay Olympics to make swimming an annual event. The Olympics sued but allowed other non-gay and trivial Olympics to go ahead. Current difficulties with homophobia are touched on in the Q&A and the message is that we all need to turn up and show the world that gays can be top athletes. One of WH2O’s aims was to compete in regular Masters Swim Meets and beat the straight guys, and they did. WH2O have a strong presence here in the IGLA competition, winning lots of medals.

The winning mixed 160+ relay team

Tuesday: I need to warm up in the competition pool – concentrating on backstroke turns. There’s only one turn today in the 50m Backstroke but it has to be right. There’s quite a wait for the event so I do another top-up warmup; more HVO’s (High Velocity Overloads) fast off the wall for ten metres then easy to the end. There are no backstroke flags in the warm up half of the pool, so caution and counting strokes are required. The race goes well and Head Coach, Michelle is pleased plus I’ve got third place for a bronze medal. I have to remember that all the Americans are here this week and they are fast.

There’s about an hour before our 160+ years mixed 4 x 200 freestyle relay. It’s not my favourite freestyle distance but we’ve been working on blocks of two hundred metres in training. I break it into 100m then 2 x 50m in my head, aiming to get faster over the 50s. I think our entry time of 10 minutes was a guess and we come in at 11 minutes, but it’s enough to get gold and my section of 200m is a personal best.

I met Buck and Wolfgang in Amsterdam earlier in the year. They live and swim in Berlin, though Buck is a New Yorker. He’s sent me links to sign up for the Macey’s Pride Party (they have one every year) – yes, a party in a department store. I join a huge queue snaking around and though the merchandise in the menswear department. Marcel approaches and I suggest he joins me in the queue but he’s not sure he wants to be here, opting for the IGLA happy hour drinks. We’re in line to collect our rainbow wrist tags and two free drinks vouchers.

Main Stage

There’s a cramped ‘main stage’ obstructed by pillars and sales tables. The guests crowd around holding phones up to film winners and runners up from the ‘Rue Paul Drag Race’ – a tv reality show to find the best amateur drag artistes. Nothing much here is pushing my buttons so I go up to the 9th floor after queuing for my first drink. I ask for a Gin and Tonic and get the largest and strongest mix of Ballantynes Gin ever. Until the ice melts, it’s almost impossible to drink. It might just as well be a martini.

LGBT Window dressing

Nothing is happening on the 9th floor and I get lost in the strangely deserted Ladies Lingerie department – a scenario for a horror movie suggests itself – nothing like that happens in Macey’s I tell myself – but remember Stepford.  On the 9th floor, chairs have been arranged for what looks like a platform for corporate speeches. The plastic drinks glasses are half the size here – time to return to the 2nd floor for my second drink and where I run into Wolfgang. It’s much more fun observing this marketing show with someone else.

Drag boys
Photo opportunity

We look at some Drag boys being photographed with disabled and elderly women who may of may not be lesbians; there’s a mini live cinema with iconic gay songs and a long queue. A couple of hunks are playing games -getting guests to throw soft bags into a rainbow hole and a sparkling woman on stilts just passes by.

Larger than life
NY billboard
Buck Barry – NY billboard

Time to meet up with Buck and walk ten blocks downtown to a Thai Restaurant. The signs that New York is welcoming pride are everywhere. This is not Trump land and like London, New York is another country. Many of these guys quietly reveal that they are not fans of Donald – there’s no hysteria, just a reserve which I find refreshing. Our party of older men seems to grow – there’s good food, conversation and laughter.

New York for a week of Gay swimming 2019

International Gay & Lesbian Aquatics

Liberty – someone wondered what she might think of now.

Each year, IGLA ( International Gay & Lesbian Aquatics) supports an aquatics event somewhere in the world. This year it’s in New York, home of TNYA. It’s also World Pride, the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots which sparked Gay Liberation and Pride.

Hudson river from the 67th floor

          New York is cloudless and still from the sixty-seventh floor. A cruise liner nestles in the millpond Hudson River, a wisp of smoke emanating from its funnel. From a different angle, peeking between two towers the ‘neons’ of Times Square continue from the night before – New York never sleeps.

The neighbours

          As far as budget airlines go, Norwegian, new to transatlantic crossing are luxurious. I’ve opted for hand luggage only and no meal. There’s still a check-in desk and there are isle seats left towards the front of the plane for a speedy getaway. The young man next to me has heavy stubble, wears headphones and keeps falling forwards into sloop. Eventually he rests his head in the seat in front of him, activating the screen. Opposite, a row in front of me, there is a man about my age with a grey beard. He’s wearing casuals a pink shirt and Crocks on his feet – not quite chic, but he does have a large phone and a laptop. He’s American from his accent, which surprises me because he’s so arrogant and rude to the young woman serving the meals – no ‘please’ or ‘thank you’ which is the norm with polite people in the US. He’s ordering soda water and ice and insisting on looking at the meat he’s ordered before accepting it, demanding to know what the sauce is. The young woman is being very patient, polite and accommodating. I’m seriously wondering why he’s traveling on a budget airline and in Economy, not Premium class at the front of the plane.

World Trade building

Eventually, after four or five hours of harassment, the young woman calls in her male senior. This man has been drinking his own duty-free alcohol which is illegal on planes. The senior, threatens to call the police when they get to NY. He tells him how to order his drinks from his screen. The man dismisses this but after half an hour of thinking about it he gets out the screen and orders a beer. When it doesn’t arrive immediately, he presses the call button. They’ve run out of beer, but some time later, what looks like fruit juice is delivered. I’m thinking that we’ve got a functioning alcoholic on board. Discarded sachets of milk are scattered in the isle and he makes no attempt to retrieve any of it when the young woman passes to collect rubbish. I try to lean forward and collect it for her, but am restrained by my seat belt. She’s touched by my gesture and thanks me – a recognition that she knows I’ve shared her difficulties with this customer. As a final act of defiance, he unbuckles while we are still taxiing towards the terminal, gets out of his seat and retrieves his rucksack from the overhead locker two rows behind me. This prompts an extra announcement for passengers to remain seated with seat belts fastened until we have stopped. He’s got away with it and the moment we do stop, he’s around the corner in a flash to the exit door, no doubt shoving ahead of the Premium Passengers who are supposed to exit first. That’s partly what they’ve paid for.

Pret have made Pride cookies.

          Although we are thirty minutes early, we’ve had to wait until our parking place has been vacated by the departing plane. There is confusion in immigration (JFK along with Heathrow is one of the busiest airports) created by poor signage.  The staff suddenly realise that those of us traveling on returning ESTAs (Visas) are in the wrong queue. It takes the machine ages to recognise my fingerprints – I don’t think they have changed since I last visited the US two years ago.

          I’m determined to make use of the subway with a weekly pass but I can’t buy this on the Air-train which cost $5 on a metro card. It takes me a while to work out that the weekly visitors pass is a different card from a different machine. Success, but there’s a replacement bus service for the first two stops and it’s now dark and I have to find my way outside to a bus stop. All is well and I’m delivered to the Union Turnpike station as promised. The carriages are empty, but one stop later a herd of young middle class-looking people crowd in. they’ve been to a concert and the young man next to me senses my anxiety as I check my destination on my phone subway map to compare it with the on-train indicator. He assures me that we’re going to 7th Avenue but I wasn’t expecting so many stops. It’s late and several lines are combined to stop at every station. It takes forever and it’s 11.30pm by the time I get to Stuart and Emma’s apartment. The guy on the desk (Chris) is super helpful and friendly with directions on where to by breakfast stuff at this late hour. The drugstore around the corner has everything I need.

Columbus memorial

          The lift does not service floors until #46 where the apartments begin. The view from the 67th floor is magnificent but vertiginous – wow!

Sunday Morning: Still on London time, I meet the sunrise but doze on to recover from the travel. A short walk to Columbus Circus, a few blocks away seems like a good Sunday idea. This is one of the entrances to Central Park and the monument to Christopher Columbus (discoverer of the already discovered Americas) shrinks against glass towers of apartments. The statue celebrates this discovery of America by describing it as a gift to the world. Now, in 2019 this seems like irony (which Americans don’t do) but colonialists never benefitted from hindsight or an appreciation that other civilisations existed. Pigeons perch on statues which seem to be placed especially for their convenience. Homeless-looking people sleep on the monument steps, one with his legs entwined around his very new-looking bicycle, as a precaution against theft. I return to my tower block via a grocery store to stock up before more sleep recovery.

Perching

          Team New York Aquatics have arranged for a training session at one of their pools in a very posh Convent School up on the East side. It’s a twenty-five-yard pool – a strange experience swimming less than the usual twenty-five metres I’m used to. Each length seems to be over so quickly and one length of butterfly is one stroke less. Quite a few have turned up including many of the Out to Swim team. I don’t swim for long, just enough to get the heart and lungs going for tomorrow. Later, there are welcome drinks at a bar called Industry. It’s great meeting up with old friends going back from Edmonton in 2016 then Miami and Paris. I’m the only Out to Swim competitor in my sixties, so it’s nice to socialise with my age group from around the world. I end up in a Pizza with a group of OTS youngsters but a salad and a slice of Pizza is too much and I end up taking half of it home to watch the sunset over the Hudson with a beer.

bird child

Slovenia – Sun,thunder & lightning, PB’s and Cake

Morning Swim in Lake Bled – magic

Thursday: I’ve decided to try swimming in the lake and figure that morning is the best time as after a day at the pool, the last thing I want to do is more swimming. Around ten am the water seems warmer than the reported 22 degree to start with, but gets a little colder as I swim out. One hundred meters is enough and works as a pre-warm up. The water is very clear and fish are abundant.

At the pool there’s just time to catch Neal’s 50m fly before warming up. Several of us are doing 100m freestyle and there are fifty-seven heats, but first we have to wait for the thirty-five heats of women.

Kranj Out-door pool

As much as possible the heats are run in their age-groups but I’m in a mixed group heat and get to swim in lane five near the centre of the pool. In spite of a dodgy tumble-turn, it’s a good swim and I’ve done a Long course PB of 1.22 – only one second slower that my short course PB, so what with the sunshine, it’s been a good day.

The Syncro women arrive

Ian has organised an Out to Swim dinner In Bled. It’s an opportunity for the whole team to meet up – the Syncro women have arrived and it’s great to meet some of them for the first time. Our open water swimmer, Rick Snow drops in for a beer so we are all together for a team photograph. We also have Matthew Lue’s birthday to celebrate and the restaurant improvises a cake. I decide, after much hesitation to try the famous Bled Cake. This is a custard base, with whipped cream on top.

The Out to Swim European Masters full team

There’s pastry top and bottom. It looks too sweet for me but I’m assured by locals that it’s not. What it is, is huge. It is somewhat sweet and walking home, it lies heavily on top of my mixed grill main course. Well, I’ve tried it and don’t need to do it again. Most cake-lovers, I think will enjoy this.

Lake Bled -ready for the race.

Friday: Another morning swim in this gorgeous lake. My race today is immediately after lunch. and by the time I get there, the morning session has finished and there are still two hours of lunch break. I time my warm up to end half an hour before the start of the afternoon session. I feel very sluggish this morning and the first 200m is hard work. ‘It’s often like this,’ I tell myself and sure enough in the second 200m I break through the barrier. Then it’s time to concentrate on backstroke, doing a few 50m backstroke kick to make sure my legs are straight. I follow this with backstroke HVOs, front-end to start and back-end to finish in the 50m pool. Again, I’m in lane five with only three other guys of various ages – mostly older than me.

Race officials on pontoon – waiting

Andy is here to film me and I can hear him as I prepare. It’s great to know that someone from the club is watching. The guy in lane four looks younger and faster than me, but he’s not and I win my heat with another long course PB (actually half a second faster than my Paris short course PB) and a 7th place in my age group. That means another certificate. Now is the time for lunch and I fill up on a large plate of spaghetti and treat myself to a beer, because it’s all over. Andy is racing in the last heat of the last event of the competition but while Neal and I are in the dinner tent, a huge thunderstorm breaks in the middle of the women’s 100m breaststroke. They carry on for a while, but there is lightening so proceedings stop for half an hour. Everyone crams into the dinner tent and we wait. The men’s 100m Breaststroke age group 25-29 is tense and hard fought. Andy is pleased with 5th and a PB. There were two other Brits in the 1:09 time. We’re all drained, emotionally and physically.

Rural Food tent

Back in Bled, I wander into town with a sort of plan. There’s a new Gazebo/tent showing off rural foods. Someone is doing snack sized cheese and garlic pizzas – that goes down well with a local pint. At the far end of the tent is a stage and there’s what looks like a police melodrama performed by local actors. Moving on to my planned dinner stop, one of the street food tents, I order chicken drumsticks with roast potatoes and vegetables and decide to try the local wine. It’s OK and I settle down in the semi dark to work my way through it all. The huge portion of roast potatoes defeats me and I move on to my last planned stop – a wine bar. I ask for a nice glass of red wine (un-chilled), I try it and it’s good. I put my credit card away when I find it’s only €2.30 for a large glass.  I also try a more expensive wine, which is even better and I’m surprised to find it’s a Merlot at €4. I may have that later. I don’t have time as the place is closing.

25-29-year-old men

Saturday: I need to go for my last lake swim early before checking out. After packing, I leave the hired car at the Air B&B place and walk in to look at the 3K open water swim which will start at ten am. The lake looks very organised and I can hear the commentator warming everyone up over in the out-door lido-in-the-lake. I stay and watch the first wave of 25-29-year-old men start, swim towards me then round two gigantic yellow markers before heading down to the other end of the lake. Next, it’s the young women and I make my way around to the enclosure for a closer look at the start.

30-34-year-old men prepare

By the time the 30-34 year-old men start, the first of the young men are returning. It’s won by a Russian, who when asked ‘at what stage did you know you were going to win?’ answers that he had prepared himself to win in his training, which garners a few wry smiles at his confidence.

30-34-year-old men jump in

He entered the race expecting to win. The Italian who came second and gave him a run for his money just comments that the 21 degree water was too cold for him. I’d spoken earlier to a Croatian couple who were not looking forward to the temperature – they’re used to 26 degree in the sea.

The Russian wins

Time to retire to a café in town coffee for an early lunch and to catch up on the blogging, keeping the autumnal wasps at bay and reluctantly feeding the cheeky sparrows crumbs of bread from my mozzarella and tomato with pesto. As I make my way back to collect the car, the Open Water Swimmers are still going and the officials in boats are doing a great job in aquatic traffic management – the lanes are all colour coded so not too much can go wrong.

30-34-year-old women prepare

White Garden, Bled

It’s been an amazing week in a fantastic setting. Two PBs and three certificates for being in the top eight in my age group. There’s one last encounter at the rental car return. A woman from the Black Country in my age group has come away with a load of medals. She turns out to be a great fan of the Out to Swim website and loves the coaching tips. She’s looking forward to our GLLAM meet at the Aquatic Centre (hopefully) next year and we’ll meet up at Sheffield in October.

 

Slovenia – Castles, Churches, a gorge and some swimming

St Martin

St Martin

More dreary weather – raining. At 10 am it eases off and I grab my umbrella and head for the Castle. On the way I stop to look at St Martin which nestles into the hillside underneath the castle. It’s part of the panoramic picture of Bled and up-close it’s quite ordinary.

Parish house St Martin

The Parish House next door offers coffee and accommodation, but nothing much is happening in there except souvenirs for sale. Onward, up the steep hill the clouds clearing as I climb. I emerge to a great view of the still mist- shrouded lake, but the sun is now shining through intermittent spots of rain and there’s coffee here.

bled Mist

Clearing

The surrounds

Bled Castle

Bled Castle

Like most castles, this one has been rebuilt and developed since the 10th Century. Slavs and other so-called Barbarians settled in this remote and fertile valley after the Romans. It’s fairly cut off – backing onto massive mountains to the North and West. The Museum is curious and not well curated but there is a strange exhibition of an artist who seems to be depicting Bled Cake. The work is strategically placed around the museum. There is little explanation but it seems that the area was also a centre of iron production. Gift shops are in just about every other room in the castle: the old forge, the printing press and so on. Only the chapel with its charming frescoes is till- free. The views are, however stunning. For lunch, I try out the traditional smoked sausage, once again holding back on the available Bled Cake – there’s no room after the sausage.

Bled Castle

Bled Castle

Castle Chapel

Castle Chapel

I could have spent an hour walking to the Vintgar Gorge. It’s been raining again but I need to get going and decide to drive via some of the local villages.

St Janez Zasip

St Janez

I pass through charming green farmland and arrive at Zasip where I can see a church. Once again, it’s picturesque from a distance. A very young couple walking, are more interested in playing and photographing the local cats who will no doubt appear on Facebook. What is different about St Janez is the recent flower bedecked graves which crowd around the base of the church. No leafy adjacent crematory here, that would be a waste of farm-land.

Graveyard

Vintgar Gorge

Vintgar Gorge

Rain still threatens as I approach the Vintgar Gorge. There’s a free car park and it’s only €5 entry to the 1.6Km walk-way. Apparently, the gorge was only discovered in 1891 (I’m sure the Romans found it) and was quickly developed and opened to the public. The post-rain mist rises off the warm waters. The green is delicate, reflecting moss and lichen in the water and the vegetation on the banks. The light is very different from any comparable New Zealand gorge and this one certainly stands out.

Vintgar Gorge

Vintgar Gorge

Vintgar Gorge stone pillars

The walk-way is narrow and often is nothing more than a wooden platform overhanging the often- turbulent river below.  In calmer stretchers rock towers have been built. They must get washed away regularly by rising waters but look as if they have been there for centuries. I need my umbrella at times. Even though it has stopped raining, water drips down from the cliffs above in places. There is a stream of wet dogs on leads coming the other way. At the end there is another ticket and ice-cream kiosk. The last of many foot-bridges crosses the final waterfall to the toilets, but you can’t get a view of the falls. I spot a viewing platform further downstream and push on down steps past the kiosk, follow the road across a bridge to the path leading to the viewing spot. Magic.  There’s time to review the journey on the return and see it all from a different angle.

Vintgar Gorge

Vintgar Gorge

Vintgar Gorge

Vintgar Gorge

Vintgar Gorge

Radovljica

Tuesday: I’m not sure about the timing of everything today but think I’ve got time to have a look at Radovljca, a nearby historic town on the way to Kranj. It has a main street of quite impressive, if stolid 19th Century public buildings but where to park?

Radovljica Old Town square

Eventually I find the Old Town area just up the road where there is free parking for an hour. There’s quite a cute old-town centre. Desperate for Coffee and a few calories I find a café. The cappuccino comes with a huge mountain of chilled aerosol cream and the ham and cheese toastie (the only food available) is plain.

Radovljica

Radovljica

Radovljica

Radovljica

 

I get to the pool before lunch as I know some of the team are racing before me. As I make my way to warm-up in the indoor pool Andy is heading, with a determined in-his-zone look, towards the marshalling tent for his 200 Breaststroke.

Kranj Outdoor pool

He’s the first Out to Swimmer I’ve seen here, but there’s no time to chat now. I do the first part of my warm-up (OTS standard) then head for the race pool to catch Andy’s race on my phone. There’s time for lunch (Salad) before watching the rest of the team splash and dash through the 50 freestyle. Taking coaches suggestion, I have an espresso before finishing off my warm up for

Euro Certificates 6th & 8th

the 100 Backstroke. I’m in lane zero again but manage (maybe thanks to the caffeine) three seconds faster than the June long course Nationals in Plymouth to get an eighth place. This means that I’m now eligible for two certificates. I return to the popular Pub restaurant for rump steak as I need to stock up for the two hundred Individual Medley early tomorrow.

Wednesday: I have to wait for twenty-three heats of the Women’s Individual Medley but hey, I’ve moved up to lane one, leaving the wall at last. I had some weeks off doing butterfly and breaststroke earlier in the year, so I’ve very gently been working them back in to training. It seems to have paid off and the first twenty-five metres of

Church of the Assumption

fly feels really good. It’s a matter of establishing a rhythm and keeping to it. Even though the stress builds in the second twenty-five, I manage to keep the rhythm going – something that team-mate Stephen Lue comments on. The backstroke length tends to be a bit of a recovery and preparation for Breaststroke, which I find exhausting. I make a mental note to really point my toes in the glide. By the time the freestyle comes around, usually my chance to catch up, I’m feeling really tired but am rewarded with a few milli seconds faster than Plymouth. The Team are cheering me as I stagger back to them. Nice. Neal is in the last and fastest heat – he also comes out looking whacked. It’s a tough race.

Church of the Assumption

After lunch and a good rest, It’s time for more exploring in the late afternoon. I’m looking for a boatman to row me to the Island. Further down the lake, near the island are several points where the boats launch. As I approach several seem to be pulling out but eventually I spot one about to leave with one remaining seat. Propulsion is from two oars in rowlocks either side. The boatman, with one foot forward uses his body weight to push the oars forward and twists them to return in streamlined profile. Our boatman is young slim and blond and explains that it helps to have a few extra kilos around the chest to move faster. No one is complaining, there’s a party of admiring Korean women and a tour-guide with a group from Malta. The boatman moves us around to balance the boat – a husband and wife at the front have to swap sides. All around the island there are landing stages and the boats nimbly turn around and reverse. We have around fifty minutes here, it doesn’t sound long, but in fact it’s more than enough.

Lake bled from tower

Lake bled from tower

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There’s a charge of €6 to go up the tower and enter the church. I get some good views by putting my phone though the window grills and close to the bird netting. Inside the church there is a bell rope right in front of the alter. An illustration on the floor, forbids swinging on the rope and another one recommends three rings of the bell. The mystery of the random timings of the bell is explained. Three chaps from somewhere in Europe don’t notice the signs and have a prolonged ringing between them. This brings the ticket seller woman running in to look. There is no emergency, so she leaves. You can have an ice cream or a beer and food here, but I don’t want to queue, choosing to go upstairs and look at a curious exhibition of moulded glass figures and some flat glass rectangles.

Glass Exhibition

Glass Exhibition

Glass Exhibition

Boatman and Korean women

The figures are the most interesting, suggesting the holy family, some of them are displayed in the windows so the light can stream though them.  There’s time to walk around the island and wait for the Maltese and Koreans to return from their ice creams.  The Maltese party are dropped off at their hotel landing leaving me and the Korean women, who are avidly photographing our handsome boatman, to continue on.

Street food stall

I’ve had my eye on the food stalls one the lake walkway and later, veal shoulder with vegetables and delicious roast potatoes all washed down with a beer is perfect, even if the lighting under the dining gazebo is too dim to really see the food.

Swimming in Kranj, sight-seeing in Bled, Slovenia

European Masters Swimming Kranj Slovenia

Iconic Bled Castle & St Martin

I’m beginning to wonder how much longer I can do this independent travel thing. I’d never been to a European Masters meet and the fact that is was in Slovenia (where’s that?), a country I haven’t been to before, clinched it. You have to have entry times and the only one I couldn’t enter was the 200 Backstroke – I think they made a mistake as it was incredibly fast. I had the usual trouble finding out information, like where was the accreditation? I had no reply from my enquiry and I’m a bit past the stage of delighting in the unknown. I like to be certain of what’s

Kranj Out-door swimming pool

going to happen and when.

Booking the coach to Stanstead Airport was a bit strange. Nowadays you have to register before buying anything on-line (so they’ve got your details and can bother you later) and it can take some time to recall a long-forgotten password. In the end I get to Stratford, have my usual coffee at Pret only to find the bus stop has moved, five minutes away, due to road works. The Coach is waiting but I’ve managed to book a return fare from Stanstead, not Stratford. It doesn’t matter in the end and I’m allowed on the bus which is leaving five minutes later than I’d calculated. Just as I wonder what else might go wrong on this trip, an accident on the M11 slowed us down, but I was still on time for my flight. Phew. I can just about manage Easyjet and avoid baggage charges by packing everything, including the laptop into one carry-on bag and dashing to the gate the moment it’s called. Weather over Austria and congestion in the air delayed us an hour.

My Air B&B is underneath this home

Two things worry me now sitting in the plane, at the gate – I have to get to the Accreditation Centre to register before 18.00 to confirm my place the 800m freestyle tomorrow morning. Fortunately, I’m sitting next to other swimmers (the plane is full of swimmers and hikers) who suggest I phone them, while we are still on the ground. I somehow manage to find a phone number on my downloaded hand-book which involves getting the lap-top out of the overhead locker. Amazingly I get through, but have no idea of my registration number. In the end it’s ok and I’m able to follow up with a text to Slovenia. Stress levels reduce significantly and I breath deeply;  technology can be wonderful. It’s good to chat to the couple from Nottingham about swimming though I quickly fall asleep for most of the flight. The Airport at Ljubljana is small and two flights have just landed, so the passport control area is crowded. There’s a sign pointing left for European passports and this moves rapidly.  I reflect once again, that I’ll be in the other queue next year. Finding the car hire place is easy, there’s no queue and no extra insurance thrust at me. The shock is that there’s no 4G for my phone to hook up with google maps and take me to Kranj.

Bled Island

Fortunately, I’ve been studying maps of Slovenia and more or less have the gist of where to go. It will, I tell myself, be just like the old days when I found my way around the world without a phone. I know that Ljubljana is East and Kranj is West but all roads lead to Ljubljana so I just carry on in the opposite direction from Ljubljana until a sign to Kranj appears.  At Kranj there are suddenly signs to the Masters Games parking and all is well. I actually manage to find the Accreditation tent, next to the outdoor pool, pick up my stuff and have five minutes before 18.00 to double check that I’ve been entered in the 800m. I have. I spend some time checking out things like the marshalling tent and changing rooms before continuing on to Bled. Road signs helpfully take me there via the main motorway, but there is still no 4G for navigation. I take a wrong turning and end up in the town centre and bus stop. There’s a travel information place and it’s closed, but a hotel has a local map at reception – they always do – and a very helpful young woman points out where I should go. Bled is a small place and it’s really easy.

Lake Bled

My hosts are out walking, leaving their teenage son Greggor to check me into my cosy and well-appointed basement bedsit with en suite. Armed with instructions on where to find a supermarket for breakfast things I set off to explore. It’s getting dark, but my first impression is that the lake and surroundings are incredibly romantic – like Disneyland, only real. Bled Castle high on a rocky outcrop becomes floodlit as does St Martin’s, nestling below. At the other end of the lake is the famous island featuring the Church of the Assumption. The place seems very quiet for a Saturday night, but I find a busy pub restaurant up in the old village near the bus stop. It looks popular and does traditional Slovenian food. Three large slabs of roast pork floating in gravy with mashed potatoes seems a suitable fill-up for tomorrow’s swim. The portions are huge and with a mixed salad, I am defeated.

Grand houses around the lake have been converted to tourist accommodation

Sunday: Up before the lark, breakfasted on fruit, bread, ham and cheese, I set off for the pool. Rain threatens, it’s cold and I’ve been allocated Heat 2, side A, lane 0 in the 800m freestyle. I hate lane zero, it’s right on the edge of the pool – almost out of the race. Lost in translation, side A and side B refer to the ends of the pool and we will swim two to a lane with end B starting off ten seconds later from the other end. I’ve done a reasonable warm-up but although the promised rain hasn’t quite arrived, it’s still not warm. I pile on layers and line up in the marshalling tent where we are given different coloured swim caps. I get a yellow one (they are not compulsory, but they would like us to wear them) and Side B get white ones. It’s actually all well organised and there are large laundry baskets which take  all my bags. Organising and paying for a locker key for one race, just seems to be one hurdle too far. Even though I’m swimming up against the pool wall, the race seems OK and I attempt to implement coaches notes from the Paris Gay Games. The score board at the end has me 6th with an improbably fast time. I decide not to get excited until I see the results. It’s a long treck to the indoor pool to warm-down, it involves going right around to reception and through the changing rooms again. Time for a coffee and croissant at the small café. My Nottingham friends from the flight are there and we talk about teaching and coaching stuff. The results are live on-line (4G is working today) and I find that the time displayed on the board at the pool was actually my 700m split time, so no PB, as I suspected.

Lake Bled Waterfront

I have the rest of the day to explore so after stocking up on breakfast stuff at the supermarket, I find a posh café overlooking the lake. Their Salad Nicoise featuring fresh seared tuna, is perfect with a pint. The place quickly fills up with tour groups all booked for their mandatory portion of the famous Bled Cake. It looks hideously sweet – a custard base with a layer of whipped cream and pastry top and bottom. I shall have to work my way up to this later in the week. The Sun is out and perfect for a walk around the lake; everyone is doing it.

Bled Island and the Church of the Assumption

Tour boats rowed by fit looking men are taking tourists at quite a speed over to Bled Island where lies the Church of the Assumption, making the lake extra photogenic. At the bottom end there is a popular swimming area and every now and then a white Disney-like train pulls tourist with their phones on sticks filming the experience. For the more traditional there are pony trap rides around the lake. Two elderly ladies on one such trap, are having a great time looking at their mobile phones.  By the time I’ve finished, my legs are telling me that they’ve had enough work for the day. It’s time to lie down before finding another Slovenian-style restaurant. I can have a glass or two of wine tonight as I have the day off tomorrow.

Gay Games supplementary – the build up to Pink Flamingo and my results

The warm-up end

All Christophe’s hard work is coming together and every group, having rehearsed their routines separately are now making use of every moment to do extra. I discover that I’m not hearing the beat of the music very well and am getting ahead. Then there are last minute discrepancies which have to be altered to go with the majority.  Some of the cues are linked to the lyrics, but I haven’t noticed any lyrics in our piece of music.  Admittedly I’ve given up on pop lyrics over the last ten years, considering them unintelligible. It turns out that what I hear as ’ee  oww’ is actually ‘in out’. Perhaps time to book an audiology appointment. I’ve bought a bottle of Bordeaux for the picnic and get some useful help drinking it from Oliver. Some are going on to another party or event, but I’m heading to my local café for late night glacé.  The parties here start at 11.30 pm and end around 5-6 am – not really compatible with where I’m at, these days.

one gold and two silver medals

Thursday continues with team success and I have a very good 100 metres freestyle, stretching out more, engaging my core and kicking regularly – I hope. It’s a good time and Sarah, who is watching the live results on her phone say’s I’ve got a Gold. The event is not even over yet and there will be more in my age group to race. It’s difficult to get medals in the 100 Freestyle, but five Americans drop out of the event and I end up with a sliver – 13 seconds behind the winner. It’s been an amazing result for me – three medals and three PB’s.