Eat. Play. Run.

My quest to live in Rome, a bite and a step at a time.


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Terremoto

14051808_10154499532801474_8331221511634694872_nThe earthquake, or terremoto, struck at 3:36am and woke me up pretty quickly. As a seasoned Californian of 15 years, I knew not to panic. Half-awake, I stayed in bed and paid attention to the time and severity of the tremor to figure out how serious it was. Twenty seconds. That’s long, and the shaking was steady but mild. Because I had a fan running, I couldn’t tell if items rattled.

Once complete, I checked online and found a seismic website for Europe, and within a few minutes listed the quake as 6.2 with the epicenter in Norcia, about 80 miles northeast of Rome. Wow. That’s stronger than I expected. After writing a quick post on Facebook and sending my family a quick message, I was searching for more information and writing replies to messages when I felt a very strong aftershock. It felt like the same amount of time and frequency as the first.

This is not good.

Throughout the early  morning I continued to feel aftershocks while trying to sleep. By 7am when I turned on the BBC, the impact had taken shape. The images were shocking, the news the major headline of the day. Villages in Umbria, Lazio and Abruzzo provinces were badly damaged, and the first reports were coming in of loss of life. Some of the worst-hit towns included Amatrice, the town in Lazio province best known for spaghetti all’amatriciana, a Roman pasta made of tomatoes, guanciale and pecorino cheese. In fact, their yearly sagra dell’amatriciana, or Amatriciana Festival, was to take place this weekend.

At work and throughout the day, we all shared our experiences. Many didn’t feel the quake at all, due to living on lower floors or sleeping through it. A colleague spoke with one of her suppliers, who has a brother in Amatrice who is missing. He was crying over the phone, desperate to find him. An Italian friend of mine spent his summers in a beautiful village just 12 miles south of Amatrice and has a summer home there. While the house isn’t damaged, some of his childhood friends lost relatives. Needless to say, we all had a hard time staying focused on work projects.

Throughout the day the aftershocks continued, one of which I felt while sitting at my desk (a 5.1 magnitude). As I write, there have been over 160 in less than a 24-hour period. And the number of deceased has risen to 120, with search and rescue continuing.

It may seem a surprise, but earthquakes in Italy are more common than many realize. While the magnitude may not be as high as those in California, the impact is greater due to old buildings and remote villages. There also seems to be a lack of preparedness. Many of my coworkers didn’t know what to do in an earthquake and we haven’t had a drill at work over the past two years. A woman interviewed this morning on the BBC stated that “We don’t have earthquakes in Italy, so we aren’t prepared for this.” And online news had a statement from a person in one of the damaged villages who said that they lacked the right equipment to quickly tear through the rubble. Email messages from the US Embassy and work security regarding the earthquake weren’t sent for hours, so by the time they arrived they were outdated and not helpful.

Then there’s the issue of rebuilding. Italy is very slow to repair. Last summer, my friend invited me to his summer home in Abruzzo, which is close to the town of L’aquila, which suffered a 6.3 magnitude quake in 2009. I spent the afternoon strolling through the historical center which was still not functional. Most buildings were closed, still covered in scaffolding, and many still hadn’t been cleaned of debris.

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And the L’aquila earthquake happened seven years ago.

What is to become of the victims and the towns that were impacted today? How long will it take to rebuild? And how can the country be better prepared in the future?

On my way home, I noticed that a makeshift stand was set up next to the Carrefour grocery store. Curious, I walked across the street to discover that a drive had been set up to collect donations of needed items that would be transported to the area for the volunteers and victims.

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I went inside the Carrefour and bought a six-pack of bottled water, reflecting on the reports of volunteers working in extremely hot conditions to search for survivors. I place my item in the pile and watched as they began loading up their car. People lingered, wanting to be a part of the experience, but most of all to help if needed. What a moment.

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Questa è La Garbatella. Questa è Roma. E questa è l’Italia.

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Papa

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I know it’s been quite some time since I’ve written, but things have settled into a pretty natural rhythm that I just assume is not that interesting. It’s your basic workday life, with weekends used for recharging my batteries. Kind of reminds me of how I perceived my life in the Peace Corps: the first year is all new and exciting, and the second year becomes routine. Seems that I’ve fallen into the same mindset.

So what has the last six months been like? Well, travel to some cool places like Iceland, Amsterdam, Krakow, and Vienna. Some wonderful visitors from the US, including my sister. Another Rome Marathon in the books. And on June 4th, I celebrated my two-year anniversary of living in Italy with a hiking trip in the Dolomites.

Okay, okay. Maybe that’s not so routine.

But we all take weekend trips, right? And so many of my friends participate in cool events involving music or sports, and have visitors. I just so happen to do all of those things in another country, and I won’t lie: it’s been fantastic.

Unfortunately, I really don’t like my job.

I work for an amazing organization with a mission to end global hunger, serving 80 million people a year through both direct feeding programs as well as development work to improve food security. We are in some of the hardest-to-reach places and still manage to get food to people who need it the most, like South Sudan, Syria, and even North Korea. It’s incredible and important work. But the place is mired in so much politics, bureaucracy and micromanagement that my skills aren’t being maximized and results are often sub par. My colleagues are wonderful and dedicated, which makes for a great work environment, but I’m struggling with one hell of an inefficient machine and it has really been getting me down.

Then Pope Francis visited today.

I have no idea how this was arranged, but last month we were informed that Papa Francesco would be visiting our office to address the Executive Board and then the staff. We have Executive Board meetings every quarter, in which 36 member states meet to weigh in and make decisions on high-level organizational issues. Executive Board meetings are a pretty big deal, with lots of planning and coordination. Add a papal visit on top of that and you have the potential for a logistical nightmare.

In preparation, I arrived at work at 7am this morning to the sight of security guards out front and cars being turned away from our parking area. The entire area was cordoned off, and staff were told to be inside by 8:30 or they would be turned away (the Pope was to arrive around 9am). Inside, the place was full of activity: guards patrolling the halls, cleaning staff sweeping outside, sound checks and cameras being set up. It was a beautiful, sunny morning, with temperatures in the low 70s, so I snapped some photos of the calm before the storm.

We were informed that if we wanted to be there for the Pope’s address to the staff, we were to be outside no later than 10:30. My colleagues and I went down at about 9am to find a spot and were shocked to find that we were the first ones there. We immediately staked out a spot right in front of the stage and waited.

I wasn’t about to miss this.

You see, Pope Francis was a big part of my journey to Rome.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013. I arrived in Rome for the first time, by train from Perugia. Pope Benedict had resigned the previous month and my one-month vacation to Italy happened to coincide with the voting for the next Pope. It was the second day of voting and as I folded some newly laundered clothes, the television set in my hotel room showed white smoke pouring out of the Sistine Chapel, signifying that a Pope had been selected.

While hundreds of thousands poured down to St. Peter’s Basilica to stand in the pouring rain, I opted for watching the announcement in the hotel lobby with the staff. They expressed their hopes that Cardinal Timothy Dolan from the US would be the next Pope. I told them that it was likely to be the rather dour-looking cardinal from Milan.

“No! We don’t want an Italian. An American will change things for the better,” they stated.

Then the name and photo of the new Pope flashed onto the television screen:

Jorge Mario Bergoglio.

A silence filled the lobby.

Who is this?

For the next four days, my visit throughout Rome was full of excitement over this new Pope, who took the name Francis, who openly greeted people, who preferred not to follow a lot of the traditional lavish customs. I couldn’t understand Italian at the time, but it was apparent that this new arrival to Rome was making quite an impression, not only speaking, but also acting as a humble servant of God. I ran my first Rome Marathon that Sunday, March 17th, the Pope’s first Angelus. Therefore, the marathon route was changed to bypass the Vatican, but that was a small price to pay for such excitement.

When I think of my arrival in Rome, I think of Pope Francis. He arrived that day too, in his own way. Now this humble servant was coming to my organization, a place where I feel like I’m not serving the people of the world as much as I am able.

Ah, the irony. And I’m not even religious.

My colleagues and I stood outside and watched the Pope arrive via the big screen set up next to the stage. As more staff began to arrive, he addressed the Executive Board in Spanish. Here’s an excerpt:

“An information overload is gradually leading to the “naturalization” of extreme poverty. In other words, little by little we are growing immune to other people’s tragedies, seeing them as something “natural”.

We are bombarded by so many images that we see pain, but do not touch it; we hear weeping, but do not comfort it; we see thirst but do not satisfy it. All those human lives turn into one more news story.

While the headlines may change, the pain, the hunger and the thirst remain; they do not go away. This tendency – or temptation – demands something more of us. It also makes us realize the fundamental role that institutions like your own play on the global scene. Today we cannot be satisfied simply with being aware of the problems faced by many of our brothers and sisters. It is not enough to offer broad reflections or engage in endless discussion, constantly repeating things everyone knows. We need to ‘de-naturalize’ extreme poverty, to stop seeing it as a statistic rather than a reality. Why? Because poverty has a face! It has the face of a child; it has the face of a family; it has the face of people, young and old. It has the face of widespread unemployment and lack of opportunity. It has the face of forced migrations, and of empty or destroyed homes. We cannot “naturalize” the fact that so many people are starving. We cannot simply say that their situation is the result of blind fate and that nothing can be done about it. Once poverty no longer has a face, we can yield to the temptation of discussing “hunger”, “food” and “violence” as concepts, without reference to the real people knocking on our doors today. Without faces and stories, human lives become statistics and we run the risk of “bureaucratizing” the sufferings of others. Bureaucracies shuffle papers; compassion deals with people.”

When I read the transcript later that day, I was really struck by that last sentence. He articulated my frustrations perfectly. Yet rather than wallow in inefficiency as I have so masterfully allowed myself to do, he urged the Executive Board not to let politics, bureaucracy or power struggles weigh them down, but rather to increase their commitment to zero hunger, so that our organization could eradicate hunger.

As he made his way outside to the stage, he stopped to kiss the head of each child being held by his/her parent, a staff member who had their child enrolled at our on-site child care center. As he stepped onto the stage, we erupted in shouts and applause.

He had a prepared speech, but he didn’t use it. Instead, he addressed us in Italian, saying that he understood that not all staff understood Spanish. In a nutshell, here was his message.

He thanked us for our work, which is unseen by so many. He told us that when we did our work, to remember our colleagues who lost their lives helping others. And he asked us to pray for him, so that he can do something about eliminating hunger, too. He was humble, funny, and sincere.

As he exited the stage, he graciously extended his hand to all of those who reached out, including my own. It was hard not to be moved by such beauty. His hands soft. His eyes full of kindness.

The rest of my day was full of long meetings, many of which were rather ineffective. I left the office after an 11-hour day and a massively long to-do list that wasn’t going to get addressed any time soon. I still question the efficiency of this organization, and I question if it’s the right place for me. But I will never question its importance and its commitment to others. As Pope Francis said this morning:

“A people plays out its future by its ability to respond to the hunger and thirst of its brothers and sisters. In that ability to come to the aid of the hungry and thirsty, we can measure the pulse of our humanity.”

I don’t know what the future holds. But no matter what, io prometto di aiutare.

Grazie, Papa.


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Sicurezza

IMG_0313Ever since the Paris attacks a few weeks ago, security has been noticeably stepped up in Rome. But that’s not the only reason for the heightened security. Pope Francis has declared a Jubilee Year, starting December 8th. Millions of visitors to the Vatican are expected over the next year. So the security has gradually been increasing anyway.

The week after the Paris attacks, armed security appeared at the subway stations. The subway stops with higher foot traffic tend to have up to four guards, with military vehicles parked outside. Some of the guards are serious and stand at attention, others talk casually to each other while surveying the stream of people. There have been a few evacuations of subway stations due to unattended items that required further examination. The area over Rome is now declared a “no fly” zone, including drones. The US Embassy in Rome now sends regular email updates. But in general, the mood is one of “business as usual”, just with more surveillance.

I have expressed concerns to friends about the ability of Rome’s government to really handle a Jubilee Year and an ISIS threat to the Vatican. After all, Rome is mayor-less right now, ever since Ignazio Marino stepped down this fall. But they have assured me that more goes on undercover than what we are all aware of. I was stating that I didn’t see any additional security measures at Rome’s Fiumicino Airport when I traveled to Munich last weekend. But I was assured that police are there – just out of sight.

Today I took advantage of the crisp, yet sunny morning to do a 10K run around the city. It was such a gorgeous day, with the trees along the Tiber River changing color, and the morning sunlight illuminating all of the beautiful old buildings. The colors here are just stunning; there really is nothing like the light in Rome. Traffic was minimal and I decided to change my route and run past Piazza Venezia and the Colosseum on my way home. As I ran past the “Wedding Cake” and turned onto Via dei Fori Imperiali with the Colosseum in view, I felt nothing but calm. There were some tourists, quite a few runners, and some police posted along the long boulevard. It was a beautiful run.

Overall I don’t fear for my safety, and neither do Romans. They are tough and resilient, and aren’t prone to sit around and worry and fear for themselves. Instead, they focus on the positive, encouraging you to have another glass of wine or to “stai tranquilla”. Worry is not an accepted emotion. It’s comforting to be here and be reminded to relax.

If you’re coming to Italy (and you should!), or just traveling for that matter, here are some security measures that you can take:

  • Inform your government of your whereabouts. In the US, enroll on the State Department’s Smart Traveler website. They will send you emails/texts to alert you of any security updates in your travel area.
  • Monitor local media and information sources in English, such as The Local or Ansa, to stay aware of any incidents.
  • Provide your air, hotel and travel itinerary to family members, including phone numbers of your whereabouts. Keep in touch with them during your trip.
  • Think carefully about how you use social media during your travel. Instead of posting your current or future whereabouts, consider waiting until after you have visited a place or until the end of your trip to post updates.
  • As much as possible, avoid crowds.

And most of all, Keep Calm and Eat Pasta.

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Nostalgica

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On the morning of August 6th, I left Rome’s 90+ degree heat and at 9:30pm that same day, I exited the Pittsburgh International Airport and gave a big sigh of relief.

No stifling humidity. No mosquitoes. No shouting. No chaos.

Nothing but calmness, and cool breezes.

Thanks to UN rules and Pennsylvania being my home of record, my flight only took me to Pittsburgh, and I checked into a hotel in enough time to catch the end of the Republican debate, and to fall asleep to Jon Stewart’s final appearance on the Daily Show, before an all-too-early 4am wake-up call.

But that’s okay. I was too excited to sleep.

Although my flight departed at 6am, fortunately it was direct, and I managed to get some sleep on the plane. I woke up just in time as the pilot announced our descent, and then the city of San Francisco suddenly appeared in view through my window. I actually cried from happiness.

I stayed with two dear friends who live in the Mission District, one of which took the day off to help me enjoy my first day, which I already had planned. Walking around felt like a dream. Large coffees. Maple-glazed doughnuts with bacon. Colorful murals. Burritos! Runners! Sports Basement! Fog! Remind me again why I left?

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The next ten days were full of friends, food, and laughter. I visited my former employer and did a presentation on my current organization. I met my friend’s daughter, who wasn’t born when I left. I spent a lot of time in my old neighborhood, and got to run in Golden Gate Park. I wore jackets and scarves, and felt the mist of fog on my face in the evenings.

IMG_0769It just all felt so easy. And familiar.

I had no grievances with San Francisco when I left in April 2014. I loved every minute of it. And that’s what made it so hard to leave this time. I don’t regret my decision to move to Rome whatsoever; it was the right thing to do. But when my current contract ends, it will be a year and a half that I’ve been in Rome. Is that enough?

I continued to ask myself that question as I boarded the plane and headed back to Pennsylvania to spend the next two weeks with my family. While my connection and sense of belonging are stronger with San Francisco than with small-town Western PA, I really treasured the time I had with my family and seeing a few high school friends was a pleasant surprise. My niece scored her first goal as a university freshman. And to hear my cat’s purring and meowing for the first time in eight months? Well, that was wonderful, too.

IMG_0887I even had an easier time renewing my visa. Because I was now familiar with all of the steps involved, I made sure to have my contract in place, my paperwork and medical clearance complete, and my contract therefore confirmed before I even finished my last day of work before starting my break. As a result, the official letter from the UN arrived at the Philadelphia consulate at the beginning of August, and I made a quick trip to Pittsburgh to an honorary consulate in mid-August to have them accept my application. My visa arrived on August 22nd, one week before I was scheduled to return to Rome.

I was happy to be going back, but it was nothing like how I felt a year ago. Those feelings of elation and triumph were gone, only to be replaced with homesickness and confusion. Is it time to go home? While confused, I wasn’t convinced that this was the right decision. Rent and home prices in San Francisco are completely out of reach these days, making a return financially impossible. And when I compare that to my current lifestyle, it seems foolish. So for now, I’m accepting my homesickness while making an effort to return to Italian life and enjoy it to the fullest.

Temperatures reached 95 degrees when I returned to Rome at the end of August. I took a nap and did some laundry in preparation for my return to work the next day. That evening, I walked around my Garbatella neighborhood. Stores and restaurants were mostly still closed due to the August holiday, but my local pizza place was open. As I drank a Moretti beer, then grabbed my pizza margherita, I headed out onto the street and thought, “what’s so bad about this?”

Niente.


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L’estate

IMG_8463Summers in Rome are not for the faint of heart. There’s heat, mosquitoes, and the influx of tourists combined with the mass exodus of Romans to the beaches and to vacation destinations, means that there tends to be a breakdown in infrastructure, such as public transit. Now, with this being my second summer in Rome, you would think I was acutely aware of all of this. But last summer was unseasonably cool, and I wasn’t working. But at least I was prepared for the mosquitoes, and managed to keep the bites to a minimum.

The temperatures started to warm up in May, when everything is in bloom and I experienced some of the worst allergies I’ve ever had. Afternoons tend to be windy, and with warm temperatures we kept the office windows open to enjoy the breeze. It wasn’t long before my cubicle and everything in it was covered with a light dusting of pollen. I rapidly depleted my allergy medication, which I had to take daily due to constant sneezing and itchy, watery eyes. So if you’re traveling to Rome in May and suffer from pollen allergies, you’ve been warned.

Pollen blankets the ground at the EUR Magliana metro station.

Pollen blankets the ground at the EUR Magliana metro station.

Then came the heat in June and July. We’re talking two straight months of high, humid temperatures in the 90s, with lows in the 70s. Our old air conditioning system at work was broken for two weeks, and public transit was unbearable, with many packed subways, trains and buses without air conditioning at all. My top-floor apartment did a fantastic job trapping the day’s heat, and despite two ceiling fans, a table fan and twice-a-day showers, I couldn’t stop sweating, especially while sleeping at night. As for running? Forget it. Temps were 75 degrees by 6am. There was no way I was running in that.

And lastly, Rome’s broken-down infrastructure. In May, Terminal 3 of Rome’s Fiumicino airport was shut down due to a fire, snarling traffic on the first day (took me 3 hours to get to work) and canceling flights for at least two weeks. And two months later, a 20-minute blackout caused hundreds of flights and practically incited a passenger riot at the Alitalia desk. City workers went on strike, resulting in overflowing garbage bins on every street (remember, it was 90+ degrees). And it seemed like half of the trains were either delayed or cancelled.

Fortunately, I had something to keep me sane.

Visitors.

I had seven friends visit me, from late May to early July, and their visits gave me something to look forward to. Although it was hot, we managed to do some sightseeing and a LOT of eating, giving me the opportunity to take them to some of my favorite places. But most of all, I was just grateful to be with people that I love, and to reconnect with them. And to laugh, which we definitely did.

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By the time mid-July rolled around, all I could think about was my upcoming trip back to San Francisco and Pennsylvania. My 11-month work contract was coming to a close, and even though it was re-renewed until December, the UN requires consultants to take a mandatory one-month contract break after every 11 consecutive months of employment. Yes, that’s right. I get a month of vacation every year. Too bad it’s unpaid! But I’ll take it. I couldn’t help but think of large coffees, burritos, corn on the cob and that gorgeous San Francisco fog.

Before heading back to the US, I spent five days in northern Italy, enjoying cooler temperatures and even a bit of rain, which was a relief. Mantova is a beautiful little town containing the Gonzaga family’s Palazzo Ducale and Palazzo Te, both with stunning frescoes. The region is also known for pumpkin ravioli, although I found it a bit too sweet. For me, the unexpected find was Gelateria Loggeta, the best gelato I’ve had since arriving in Italy. Two words: salted zabaione. I ate gelato three times in a 24-hour period. Mantova is a winner.

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Gelateria Loggetta. Promise me you'll get the salted zabaione.

Gelateria Loggetta in Mantova. Promise me you’ll get the salted zabaione.

I then spent three days at Lake Como, visiting my friend Laura, whom I met while running the Napoli Half Marathon in February. She lives in a gorgeous little town called Moltrasio, and took me around the area, which included a 5-mile run along the Lake, lots of seafood meals and a trip to the beach (with a sunburn to show for it). I didn’t see George Clooney, but I did run past his villa. I’ll take it.

IMG_1297IMG_1352My final stop was a walking tour in Milan to learn the history of the Duomo and to see da Vinci’s Last Supper. No photos are allowed of the painting, but I will tell you this: it is a must-see, and I highly recommend a guide to tell you the story of how this painting was created, its deterioration and attempt to paint over, its survival through war, and its restoration back to da Vinci’s original work. I found myself moved to tears (and I’m not religious). It’s a beautiful story and the painting is stunning.

IMG_1330I returned to Rome for a few days to shop and prepare for 3 1/2 weeks back to the US. This gave me the perfect opportunity to reflect on how this trip back felt, compared to the one I took just one year ago. A year ago, I felt anxious, wondering how long I was going to have to stay in the US before they processed my visa and I could return to start my job. But this time, I already had the answers to those questions. I was way ahead of the game this time, with my paperwork about to arrive at the Italian consulate in Philadelphia, and my appointment secured. I would definitely be returning to Rome at the end of August.

The biggest difference this time is that I couldn’t wait to go back. I actually really missed the US and my friends and family, and all of the comforts of home. I hadn’t been back since Christmas, and I hadn’t been back to San Francisco for almost a year and a half. My only worry was how I was going to feel once I got there. Would I miss it so much that I wouldn’t want to leave? Or would it be just a wonderful memory and a chance to visit friends? I had a sinking feeling I knew the answer, even before I got on the plane.


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Pigrizia

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Well, well well. Here we are. Approximately three months since my last blog post, which was the Rome Marathon. Sure, I’ve been busy enjoying Italian life, taking trips, having visitors, and getting involved in my work. But I’m not going to lie to you.

I also got lazy. This photo of my cat speaks volumes.

After the marathon I took a few weeks off from running. And that quickly turned into a month. In May I probably ran a total of 3 times, and June is looking like much of the same. I have a ton of excuses. I could blame the month of May on allergies, and while they were atrocious, we all know that there’s medication for that. My friend visiting for five days? Yes, but she was a fantastic, considerate guest and encouraged me to continue my daily routine. The hot weather? Well, maybe a decent excuse, but there have been a lot of cool evenings and mornings, which are great times to run.

However, the physical laziness, or pigrizia, is a minor concern, compared to the mental lethargy that I’m experiencing right now. It could be my one-year anniversary of arriving in Rome (June 4th) that has me feeling overconfident. Or that I’ve become accustomed to the day-to-day work schedule and my ability to successfully order a meal in a restaurant. I stopped blogging, feeling as though there was nothing out of the ordinary to say. In other words, I’m comfortable navigating Roman life.

Uh-oh. Comfort. That’s not why I moved here. What happened to challenge?

So last week, I confronted my complacency head-on and signed up for pilates classes.

Now, this may not seem like that big of a deal, but classes are in Italiano. And my Italian has plateaued significantly. I figured this would be a great way to strengthen my core and improve my comprehension: two benefits for the price of one. I checked out a studio near Circo Massimo, only two Metro stops from the Garbatella. Upon visiting the center, one of the instructors took me on a tour which we did half in English and half in Italian. I explained that I was interested in pilates reformer classes, which I took in San Francisco about three years ago and they really helped improve my running. Now I’m suffering from lower back pain and some numbness, probably from all of the sitting that I do at work, not to mention those cute Italian high heels that I keep purchasing. The studio was great, everyone was friendly, and they were running a special – a package of 10 reformer classes for 130 euro. That’s a little under $150. And so for a $15, one-hour class, I get a workout and an Italian lesson. Winning! The instructor assured me that all of the teachers speak English, so if I get lost or don’t understand, I can always ask and they will stop and explain.

My first class was on Friday and I was definitely lost on the comprehension part. Fortunately I snuck glances at the woman next to me on her machine in order to understand the exercise. I definitely understood pieces, just not whole sentences. The instructor, a young, fit woman, only corrected my form a few times, which I took as a signal that she was going easy on me for it being my first class in ages. At the end she was rather encouraging and complimentary, and so I bought the package, signed up for two more classes, and hobbled home feeling triumphant.

Fast forward to today, three days later. I refrained from exercise all weekend due to pain. Everywhere. My quads are still sore from class. I attempted a 4-mile run this morning before work and managed to finish despite my screaming thighs. Unfortunately I had already reserved a spot in this evening’s class, and since I had already paid for the package, there was no backing out now. After a delayed train, I booked it home, changed clothes, and ran out the door to the studio.

The Monday evening classes are taught by a tall, curly-haired instructor named Sergio. The class was definitely at the right level (beginner), but Sergio left nothing out of alignment. He was all business and spoke a commanding Italian full of anatomic vocabulary. I understood nothing and got adjusted, corrected, and questioned for 60 minutes. The guy on the machine next to me was just as lost as I was, and he was Italian. Just when I thought I was getting something, Sergio would appear, repeat and Italian phrase 5 times, and then readjust several body parts. He wasn’t mean, just consistent. As I prepared to attempt another exercise, he yelled from across the room,

“Kerry, ci sei?”

“Kerry, are you there?”

Ouch.

But I wasn’t angry. I was challenged. And it felt good to struggle, to sweat, to fumble, to fail, and to keep going. In fact, I felt like myself again.

At the end of the class, I thanked him and asked what he thought. He replied, “not bad, but dobbiamo lavorare”. We must work. He’s right. And I’m ready now. He teaches Wednesday evenings too, and I’m signed up for the 7:30 class this week.

Here’s to challenge.


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Romana

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The final weeks of my marathon training went really well. I managed to hit the peak of my training with a 20-mile run, and then enjoyed three weeks of tapering. The mileage gradually decreased each week, while my carbohydrate intake gradually increased. And there are no shortage of carbs here in Rome! Everything felt pretty good, with a few aches and pains here and there, but nothing serious.

Last Thursday, I headed to Palazzo dei Congressi to pick up my race number, as it was the first day of the expo, and it’s best not to wait until the last minute in order to avoid the crowds.

IMG_0583There’s great energy at an expo, and I was swelling with pride, thinking about showing up as a tourist two years ago to pick up my race number. But not this year. As I went down to pick up my race number, greeting the volunteer in Italian, he handed me my race packet, which was stamped with Italian flag. I was a bit confused by that. When I opened my packet and pulled out my race number, it also had an Italian flag on it! I guess the flag doesn’t signify your nationality, but rather your country of residence. I was thrilled. There it is – I’m a resident of Italy, and I get to represent my new country on Sunday.

IMG_0596I took it very easy the final few days, going to bed early, drinking a lot of water, and eating until I was no longer hungry (very fun). On Friday evening I watched the documentary Spirit of the Marathon, which profiles seven runners and their journey to run the 2012 Rome Marathon. I had seen this documentary in San Francisco with my running club right after I returned from running the 2013 Rome Marathon, and I figured it was worth watching again to get myself in the mood. You need to watch the movie trailer here. Seriously. It plays into the story as you continue to read. Trust me on this one.

The day before the marathon I went for a 2-mile run to check on how things were feeling. My feet had some sore spots, which was a bit concerning. I did a lot of stretching and hydrating, did a quick trip to the farmer’s market, and then went to check out the start/finish line. Despite sore feet, I felt ready. I had trained well, completed a lot of long runs, and felt confident I would achieve my goal: “You’re ready to finally break 5 hours in the marathon” I told myself. It was going to happen. I could feel it. My best time was 5:02:29, the last time I ran Rome.

I have two pre-marathon traditions, which I fulfilled on Saturday. First, I always watch Rocky. I know it’s silly, but it just works. And secondly, I call my Dad, my favorite marathoner, for advice. He always says the same thing which makes me laugh: “Start slow and finish slower. And have fun!” I prepared my bag and laid out my clothes before falling asleep.

I knew the race day forecast was rain, but it was downright miserable. After a bowl of oatmeal and some coffee, I got ready and left the apartment at 7:30am to head to the subway, and it was already raining. When I got off at the Circo Massimo stop and walked toward the Coliseum to drop off my bag, it was starting to come down even harder. The bag drop-off area was full of umbrellas and runners wearing plastic bags. I even brought one myself. Here’s a photo before I donned the trash bag.

IMG_0609The start of the race was an unorganized mess. They had us packed in next to the Coliseum and wouldn’t let the runners into the starting area on Via dei Fori Imperiali until the last minute. Once they opened the gates I headed for the porta potties and was relieved to find that the lines were extremely short. Within five minutes I was done and back in my starting corral, with just minutes before the gun went off and I crossed the start line.

I’ve never run a race in the rain, so this was new territory. Cold muscles and body, but also Roman streets are not designed well for wet conditions. I spent the first 5k dodging puddles and trying to keep my feet dry for as long as possible. But Italian runners are not intimidated by weather; everyone’s spirits were really high, and there was a lot of cheering and singing, which really helped. Romans are LOUD! Where do they get that kind of energy at the start of a 26.2 mile race?!

Despite the rain, I was thrilled to be running past so many familiar sights, like Circo Massimo, Pyramide, and my own neighborhood of Garbatella. My heart swelled with pride as we ran over the modern Garbatella bridge and onto Via Ostiense and down through San Paolo. My friend Duane was waiting there at Mile 6, a welcome sight. I threw off my arm warmers and asked him to hold onto them for me. I could have used them for the next hour, but knew I would eventually be too hot to wear them. We headed into Testaccio and onto the Lungotevere towards Centro Storico. I was finally starting to warm up a little bit and the rain had finally stopped.  My pace and breathing were solid and I felt comfortable, although my muscles were already tight from the cold. While I was confidently running my goal pace, those tight muscles told me that the second half was not going to be pretty.

At around 11:00 we ran past St. Peter’s Basilica (a highlight) and into Prati. My first neighborhood. I arrived in June 2014 with no job and no idea how this was going to work out. But Prati put me at ease and made me feel at home, so it holds a special place in my heart – not to mention my favorite gelateria (Gelateria dei Gracchi). It was like running a part of my past and I had a good time reliving a lot of memories, reflecting on how far I had come, the ability to make my dream of living in Italy a reality. I passed the halfway point and felt strong. At this pace, I would finish in under 4 hours 50 minutes. So I had built a bit of a cushion for when things got tough in the second half.

There were water stations every 5 kilometers, and I made sure to drink a bit at each one. I had waves of nausea, but just tried to think about other things until they subsided. There were sponging stations too, but I really didn’t need them, thanks to the rain.

At the 18 mile mark, I started to look at my watch more often and look anxiously for kilometer marker signs. This was were my muscles really began to tighten and the pain became a distraction. At the 32km mark (around 20 miles), I checked my watch. My pace was still pretty good, but I was so stiff that I had difficulty running. I was able to make it to the water station at the 35km point, and then the walk breaks began. I knew I was still okay on time, but these last 7km would be the real test. I had a feeling I would be cutting it very close.

Fortunately, I had the honor of running next to Simone, a physically disabled runner who was being pushed in a chair by a group of friends. They all wore shirts that said “Simone 42,195” (the marathon distance in kilometers). Simone was the most enthusiastic runner I’ve ever seen, singing and shouting throughout the race. When we arrived at Piazza Navona at the 37km mark, I was running behind them and the whole place just erupted in cheers for Simone. An amazing moment. He was such an inspiration.

We turned onto Via del Corso and I put on some music to try and distract me from the pain. It didn’t really work, but I was grateful to reach Piazza del Popolo (km 39) in one piece. At that point, I was passing another runner when I realized, “hey, I know that man!”. He was Domenico, one of the runners in the “Spirit of the Marathon” documentary! I couldn’t help myself. This was too good to be true! I slowed down so that he could catch up and in Italian I called out, “Hey, are you Domenico from Spirit of the Marathon?” He enthusiastically replied, “Yes, it’s me!” and gave me a hug. Che fortuna! I stopped at the 40k mark for water and he waited for me. We chatted in Italian a bit in which he told me that he has run EVERY ROME MARATHON. All 21 of them. He is one of 42 senatori, the term the race organizers give to runners who have run every Rome Marathon. And he’s 75. His cousin Mimmo, a pizzaiolo, was also in the documentary. I asked about him and whether he was running today, but he wasn’t. Domenico invited me to come to the pizzeria and asked if I was on Facebook. Ah, technology.

We ran the remaining 2 kilometers together and he really helped keep my mind off of my sore back and legs. He commented on how much his knee hurt, to which I replied, “forza, amico”. Which is like saying, “you can do it, friend”. We passed the sign indicating the last kilometer when he said, “we need to hold hands when we cross the finish line!”, and I agreed. After all, I was running with a celebrity and a Rome Marathon legend – how could I not?! The course on Via Nazionale started to look rather celebratory, and once we approached Piazza Venezia and turned towards, the finish line, Domenico grabbed my hand. I started to laugh, dazed at my luck. I was about to finish the Rome Marathon with one of its greats. And finish we did, with hands clasped, arms raised, the Coliseum in full view and “Roma Roma Roma”, the official song of the AS Roma football team playing over the loudspeaker.

It was like an initiation ceremony. The music, the Coliseum, the finish line, and my new friend and Rome Marathon veteran.

“Kerry, benvenuta a Roma. Sei Romana ora.”

I was now a Roman. I shouted out the words to the song as the volunteer put the medal around my neck. It was this Roman’s time to be loud, too.

I thought of Simone and his incredible friends, whose joy and love for a person was so great that they pushed him for 42 kilometers in celebration. If only I could find them and thank them. They lifted the spirits of all of us.

Domenico and I grabbed snacks and some tea and talked for a bit. I promised him I would come and have pizza with him and Mimmo, and connect with him on Facebook. I collected my bag, retrieved my iPhone, and asked Domenico for a photo together. He was jubilant. “I can’t believe I finished my 21st Rome Marathon. And I got to finish it with a beautiful girl!” he exclaimed before we parted ways.

IMG_0613Oh, and my time?

IMG_0614Just like my goal of living in Italy, I met my goal of smashing the 5-hour mark. But I’ll be honest: it felt like more of a perk than a highlight. I was too grateful and elated from running alongside Simone and finishing with Domenico, il senatore della Maratona di Roma and my new friend.

Thank you, Rome. I feel so welcome.