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Trouble in Turin

Question: Why is Italy shaped like a boot?

Answer: Because there are too many problems to fit in a shoe.

That's one of many running jokes making its way around the Winter Olympics. Turin is trying, but ultimately the 2006 Games will be remembered for their failure to realize their potential, much like the U.S. Olympic team.

For the Yanks, the first week has evolved into the 2006 Faceless Olympics, and there's no blaming this city for their shortcomings. Michelle Kwan's groin injury and subsequent withdrawal signaled trouble last week, and it's only gotten worse.

The United States had high hopes for stars Bode Miller in Alpine skiing, Anton Apolo Ohno in speedskating, Jeremy Bloom in moguls skiing and Johnny Weir in figure skating going into the Olympics, but they've been falling and failing throughout the first week. You can toss Dominik Hasek in there, too, for Buffalo-Europe-Canada flavor. Hasek hurt his groin in the first period of the first game and has been sent home.

"I didn't feel my aura," Weir explained after finishing fifth in men's figure skating. "Inside, I was black."

And to think Weir was feeling "all princessy" just last week.

This is not what NBC had in mind when it forked over billions of dollars for the rights to the Games. Marquee names like Kwan and Miller going AWOL has contributed to a slide in ratings.

Luckily other athletes have emerged. The snowboarders have built a reputation as the coolest dudes this side of the Italian Alps. Shaun White became an international celebrity after winning the half-pipe. Snowboard cross was the most exciting event and could become one of the most popular sports.

The United States won 34 medals, its most ever, in the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City, but had just 12 by Saturday. Team USA was leading with seven gold medals, but it was trailing Norway, Germany and Russia in the overall count. Good thing the Yanks had dominant snowboarders, who have accounted for three golds and five medals overall.

"These are what sports are today," U.S. Snowboard coach Ted Foley said. "This is what kids do. This is what modern people do for sports. It's a natural progression for me. This is what should be going on at the Olympics."

The United States still has time to rally, and the same can be said for Turin.

If you can imagine your mother showing up unannounced at your college dormitory, you can understand the first week of the Games. Italy wasn't prepared for an event of this magnitude because it wasted time procrastinating. Olympic banners continue to hide a city under construction. Paint works wonders.

Glitches, there have been a few.

A busload of reporters was stranded on a highway leading to the Italian Alps for nearly an hour after the bus broke down. Several journalists left for the mountain five hours before the men's downhill and still missed the event due to late buses and missed connections. During the Opening Ceremonies, a reporter from the Denver Post was stuck in an elevator for 90 minutes in the refurbished Stadio Olimpico. Internet crashes have become the norm.

People from around the world have been hurrying to various events, but other than taxi drivers -- we'll get to the traffic later -- Italians are on their own, individual clocks. If they tell you something will take two minutes, you can bank on 10. If they tell you it's 20 minutes, expect an hour.

And if they tell you it's an hour, well, pitch a tent.

The most frequently asked question is, "Why?" The most frequently provided answer is, "Because it's Italy."

"The relationships are more important than the time or event," said Dave Weaver, a minister from Medford, N.J., who moved to Turin six years ago with his family to start a church. "If they're supposed to be somewhere but they're talking to somebody, they'll be two hours late. It's an adjustment you have to make."

There aren't many places in the world where you will get a warmer reception than this northern Italian city. The people are helpful and unpretentious, patient with the millions here who don't speak their language and passionate about their town. In many ways, it's like Buffalo.

That leads us to Italy's deepest passion: food.

There are more than 600 pizza joints listed in the local telephone directory, but it seems like there's double that number. They're everywhere. Cheese is the way to go in Italy, but they dress up their pizza with ham, bologna and meats that are unrecognizable to North Americans. Good luck finding one that serves pepperoni the way we know it. The pepperoni on pizza here is more like sausage.

There are signs everywhere for bars, but that doesn't mean dart boards and draft beer. Bars in Italy are similar to cafes. If you mention cafe, someone will pour you a cup of coffee. If you ask for coffee, they'll ask in broken English where you live in the United States. If you tell them Buffalo, New York, they ask about the Bills. It's happened a few times.

You need not understand Italian to order food here. You can open the menu, close your eyes and point. Chances are you're going to get a decent meal.

One of the dorms claimed it served American breakfast, but the sausage was a ballpark hot dog. It's been full of Americans all week, leaving the Italians wondering why.

Hey, because it's Italy.

Turin is an ancient Roman city that was reborn in the 1500s. It's an industrial city, the home of Fiat, just across the mountains from France. It's using the Olympics in an effort to draw more tourists. English is spoken across Italy, but for years schools in Turin taught Italian and French. English is being taught now, mostly because it helps them in the business world. If you have questions or need directions, do not ask an older Italian. Find someone in their 20s or younger.

Many of Turin's buildings are older than our country, and nearly all are six stories or smaller. History is everywhere, and for that there are more than 40 museums. One claims to hold the shroud of Jesus, but it's been disputed for years. It's on display for one year every quarter century, but not this year.

Downtown is the Festival of Lights multiplied by 1,000, which brings out the beauty in the architecture. It's where the city comes alive after spectators leave nightly ceremonies at the medals plaza. Bardonecchia, where snowboarders are chillin', is a charming village with buildings that have been standing for hundreds of years.

It costs $750 to get your driver's license. Gasoline goes for about $7 a gallon in U.S. currency.

It's considered a privilege to have a license here, remarkable considering how many people abuse it. Turin has more than 25 piazzas, which are sections of town built around circles or squares. How people navigate them is a mystery.

Nobody follows the speed limits. Drivers in Italy think nothing of speeding down crowded streets, inches from parked cars and making quick turns. It makes you wonder whether they're the worst drivers in Europe or the best. Many people ride scooters, even in the winter, because they can sift through heavy traffic much faster.

"I used to enjoy driving until I moved here," said Weaver, the minister. "It's part of the culture. They don't follow the rules. It depends on what you drive. If you have a Mercedes, a BMW or an Audi, the rules don't apply."

Why? By now, you know why.

Ciao.

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