That we ever met in the first place was the luckiest chance meeting of all time. It will make you wonder how many potential life-long friends surround us at any given moment, yet we so rarely find them.
I was running the 4-mile loop around Austin’s Town Lake from Mopac to 1st Street. On the north bank to start, then back on the south. If either of us had chosen to run in the other direction that day, or started at a different time, or run at different paces, this chance meeting has no chance.
Four miles is a relatively short run for me so my pace is strong. As always, there are quite a few other runners on the trail, each running at his or her own rhythm. On the last mile of my four, just after passing the gazebo at Lou Neff Point, I begin to catch-up to another runner that’s just ahead of me. His pace is only slightly slower than mine so my approach is very gradual. At the point I am even with him, just before passing, this random runner speaks. He has an accent and is clearly in an exhausted state from his running, but says clearly, “Excuse me…,” he takes a couple of breaths between each set of words… “would you mind….. ….if I finish my run with you?……. …..I am running 18 miles today….. …… and this is my last one.”
“Sure, no problem,” I reply, quite out of breath myself. Nothing more is said in the way of conversation. After running 17 miles and working on mile 18, this man is in no shape for talking. I know what long runs are like. With each incremental mile, staying motivated becomes increasingly difficult. I am glad to help this stranger keep up a strong pace to the finish. Together, we make the final turn onto the Mopac foot-bridge and run it all the way back across to the north bank. Once finished, I give him a high-five and sincere congratulations for completing such a long run. He introduces himself as Boris, and thanks me for running with him, adding with a big smile that it really helped.
Little did I know, I was living the origin story of my life-long friendship with Boris Padovan.
Only later did he confess the real reason he asked if I would run with him. For 17 of his 18 miles nobody had passed him on the trail. When he heard my footsteps coming towards him from behind, he had no more strength left to increase his pace and prevent me from overtaking him. He concluded only two choices, let me pass him and spoil his perfect record on the day, or make me into a friend and finish his run unbeaten. I am forever grateful he chose the latter.
Despite his russian-sounding name, Boris is pure Italian, born and raised in the lovely, but remarkably little known northern Italian city of Padova. When I met him on the Town Lake running trail in Austin it was during the short, 10 month window Boris stayed in my city while fulfilling part of his doctorate program at the University of Texas at Austin
I introduce you to Boris because part of his story has blazed a trail in front of me. By the end of this post you’ll understand what I mean. Here is the true story of the Golden Boy, the Drunk and Boris.
Note: ‘Cause I don’t want no trouble, and the Internet can be a thorny rose, two of the names were changed, one of them for especially obvious reasons.
Antarctica is a harsh, barren landscape of snow, ice, craggy rocks and penguins. But for a few special souls it screams of adventure. In 2009, my good friend Boris Padovan applied to be a crewmember at Concordia Base, a French-Italian research outpost located at the very bottom of the Earth. If he were to get this job it would mean spending a full year at the most isolated and remote research facility on the planet. Imagine the ice-planet Hoth from Star Wars, absent the Tauntauns. For the crew of 12 hearty (and crazy) souls there was only a small window of time each year to fly personnel and supplies in and out safely.
What a thrill it was when Boris learned he was one of three finalists to be the Information Technology Specialist on the upcoming year’s crew. To narrow the candidates down to one, Boris and the two others would have to undergo a rigorous, near two-week, military-style training program run by Italy’s version of the US Navy Seals. And these muscle-bound studs don’t mess around!
As the training begins, Matteo, Stefano, and Boris, are meeting for the first time. Matteo shines with confidence. He is both charismatic and good-looking. His golden hair falls around his tanned face, almost reaching his shoulders. Whenever it swings in front of his eyes, he is comfortable brushing it away at just the right moment. Maybe Matteo is not the brightest of the three (he doesn’t even have a degree), but he knows how to tell a good story, rides a bad-ass motorcycle, and wears a short necklace like he was born with it. Truth be known, Matteo is cool and easily liked by everyone.
But something is slightly amiss. When Matteo shakes hands to greet both Stefano and Boris, he cannot hide his surprise. He was unaware until that moment that any other candidates were being considered. We know this because, perhaps stupidly, Matteo drops a comment indicating the recruiter had told him the research position in Antarctica was already his.
To my friend Boris, what Matteo gives away is an unexpected and devastating development. Later on that first evening, Boris does his own quick bit of research on his laptop. What he finds is that Matteo has already been working for one of the four centers that make up the Program for National Research in Antarctica (“PNRA”). Matteo knows the people that will be making the hiring decision; he has already been working with them. Matteo, with the long golden hair and tanned face, has it all. He is not only cool, charming, and handsome, he also has “connections.” Matteo is the chosen one, he is the “Golden Boy.”
Stefano, the third finalist, is quite another story. Short, stocky, and with a thick black mustache straight from the 70’s, “Stefano” is the acronym for “Matteo.” Instead of charming he is socially awkward, always two beats behind everyone else. Stefano makes the inappropriate jokes and never finds the right moment to let out his oversized laugh, which those nearest to him opposed due to his chronic bad breath. When Stefano speaks, those standing nearby glance at one another to silently say, What’s up with this guy? And it doesn’t stop there. As the training gets underway, suspicion quickly grows that Stefano may be concealing a flask for his vodka. Stefano is “the Drunk.”
As the realization around Matteo sets in, Boris is not happy, but he is also not a quitter. After coming to terms with Matteo’s status as the odds-on favorite for the position in Antarctica, Boris chooses to be fully-engaged in this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to train with Italy’s finest soldiers and strives to show them his best.
Training takes place early-winter at a vast military base in the Italian Alps and focuses primarily on survival skills designed to test the candidates’ mental toughness as well as their physical strength and endurance. All essential qualities the winning candidate will need to possess.
The Heavy Wait
Despite the hard truth that Matteo is destined for the position, Boris has trouble giving up all hope that maybe some miracle would lead to him being chosen. Once the training was completed and Boris is back at home in Padova, he has time to reflect on his performance. While Matteo found a slight edge when competing in tests of physical prowess, Boris very much held his own. As one might expect, Stefano the Drunk did not shine at any skill or task. Boris certainly did! Especially when the challenge at-hand favored intelligence, it was Boris that always scored the highest marks.
But would this be enough?
It is mid-morning on a Friday when the recruiter calls to let Boris know who has been selected for the crew. Boris is in the middle of working, a boring IT job at a bank (and one he is eager to part with). He recognizes the caller ID on the vibrating phone lying next to his mouse. Every nerve suddenly rushes to full attention. As he answers, Boris walks to a quiet area of the floor to take the call…carrying his heart in his throat. The verdict comes as no surprise but still lands a thunderous blow to Boris’ dreams of an arctic adventure- Matteo was chosen and Boris selected to be the first “reserve.” The recruiter explains how difficult a decision it was, but Boris knows the truth. The verdict favoring Matteo had been locked into place long before all the pageantry. Honestly, now the whole thing is just a pisser.
It would take a few days for Boris to mentally and emotionally come to terms with the disappointment. Taking full stock of his life in Padova led him to conclude…it wasn’t so bad. He was surrounded by his close-knit family and a network of beautiful friends, all of whom loved and supported him completely. Boris had been doing a lot of distance running during this time and looked forward to competing in some upcoming races. His weekly karate training was a consistent source of solace and reassurance. There was even a new girl he’d recently started dating that perhaps had some potential. Regarding his career, his professional development, that was the one area of his life that lagged. Boris needed a win in this category and he’d just been handed a heavy loss. Perhaps next year he would re-apply to go Antarctica. Ha! Such a long ways off….anything can happen.
Break A Leg
Five days prior to the date Boris would have departed on his journey to the South Pole, Matteo speeds through the Italian countryside on his crotch-rocket…on his way to the PNRA office in Bologna. He needs only to sign the final set of documents binding him to a year of service at Concordia Base. Some rain had come through the area that morning and the roads were slick. All the charm, charisma, and connections in the world could not keep Matteo’s tires in place around one particularly sharp curve. Instead of signing his PNRA contract that day, Matteo is rushed to the hospital by a passerby to have his broken leg re-set and surrounded by a cast.
The following day Boris’ phone rings. It’s the recruiter from PNRA…
It’s been three weeks since he last spoke to her and a lot has already changed. Boris has a new job lined-up that will begin in the Spring, things with his new girlfriend are starting to heat up, and broken dreams of Antarctica have faded into the background. But now, a twist in the road and a broken leg turn Boris’ world (almost literally) upside down. If he agrees, the adventure of a lifetime could begin in… [HOLY SHIT!!!] …five days.
This is NOT how it was supposed to be. As the recruiter talks, panic is not too strong a word to describe Boris’ side of the call. This is too much. There is not enough time to get things in order. Boris will not be anyone’s marionnette. As diplomatically as he can, Boris asks for 24 hours to think about. It is agreed.
But the seas around Antarctica are subject to many storms. Early the next morning, six hours prior to the 24 hour deadline, the phone number from PNRA rings once again. Boris instinctively rises from his cubicle and starts walking to the where he can speak privately. The recruiter says, “We had a meeting this morning. Your departure date can be extended by another week, but we need your answer in one hour or the second reserve will be contacted.”
You Must Go
Boris sits on the fence. Something just doesn’t feel quite right. He has the sense of being manipulated, out of control. Fear sets in. Poor decisions are made in haste, and now he has one hour to make the biggest decision of his life.
From Boris’ own journal, I share the following excerpt [translated from Italian]:
“I didn’t know what to do anymore. I tried desperately to get in touch with someone, with my family. I called home [to the landline] but the curse of a busy signal blunted my call. I didn’t want to be seen in a panic and went to lock myself in the bathroom. What blackmail! ‘You have an hour to decide, then we’ll have to call the other reserve.’ ‘Either December 16th or nothing.’ Fuck off! This is not the case with the lives of others. We are not puppets. I have decided, I’m not leaving, I’m not going anymore. I’ll tell them to shove it. Soon I will start working here for Infocert as they promised me and I will build my life as I have been trying to do for some time. To hell with remorse. I won’t have any, or at least I’ll drive it far away and bury it too. Damn the South Pole!”
Boris calls home… and calls again. With 15 minutes remaining before he owes an answer, his call finally goes through. His mother’s voice is soothing, wise, pragmatic and caring. She says decisions should not be forced upon us from the outside. If making this decision in an environment of haste only serves to terrify, the answer must be no. She states her piece and then hands the phone over to Boris’ father.
His words catch Boris by surprise. As he speaks, there is a heaviness to his voice. A lifetime of hard work and toil replaced his own dreams long ago. As a young man, how many adventures did he sacrifice for the sake of the family farm? Or was it some inner fear that had kept him from exploring the world he read about in books or saw on the movie screen? What remorse lay buried in his own past?
“Boris,” his father says firmly, “You must go.” Boris listens through the phone but sees clearly his father’s face- his graying hair, the wrinkles around his blue eyes. “This is a goal that you have been chasing for many months, a dream of a lifetime. It is the kind of adventure you have always wanted and now it is waiting for you. This train may never pass again and now it slows for you to get on board. You must go.”
Minutes later, Boris has the recruiter back on the line.
One final excerpt from Boris’ journal:
“Our life is a stormy sea and we are on board a miserable little boat that goes where the current wants. Our free will and the control we exercise over any situation only orients the rudder and unfurls the sail. We go where the current goes and where the wind blows. My winds were blowing strong from the North to the South.”
Much has happened in the decade since Boris spent a year at the South Pole. Today he lives in St. Gallen, Switzerland, about a 6-hour drive from his family’s home in northern Italy. He’s married to a Chinese wife he met while living in Perth, Australia, and has two incredible young daughters (that will grow up speaking four languages).
In my last post, I revealed that I plan to leave America, to move away and make a new life in some other part of the world. Arriving at this decision isn’t due to any one thing; it’s mixed, complicated, nuanced. But without question, one huge factor is that I feel inspired. Boris’ story encourages me to not be afraid, to be open to new challenges and opportunities. And to let the currents and the wind carry me onward to my own new adventures.