Eat. Play. Run.

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


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Rimorso

Piazza Bainsizza, Prati

Piazza Bainsizza, Prati, the night before departure

In about 4 hours, a shuttle will pick me up and take me to Fiumicino Airport to catch a flight back to the United States. But the reason is a good one. My hopefully future employer and I concluded salary negotiations on Wednesday, and I’ve signed a contract and other paperwork to get final written approval to be a consultant on a four-month contract. So I’m getting a jump start on obtaining a work visa from the Italian consulate in the US, in time to return to Italy for my first day of work on August 22nd.

While everything is moving in the right direction, I still need to get written confirmation, pending submission and approval of all documentation, including medical and security clearance. So it’s still not quite time to celebrate. Anything could go wrong. A rejection on the security clearance. Work visa application issues. Things have been moving so slowly that the worrying part of my brain thinks the employer will suddenly say that it’s not worth the trouble and back out of the contract.

I thought about this tonight over pizza as I was trying to relax from a frantic day of gift buying, paperwork signing and faxing. In between bites full of prosciutto and mozzarella, my mind considered what this would feel like. For the past month, it became more and more likely that I’d need to return to the States to get a work visa, and I became excited at the prospect of seeing family and friends. In all that time, it never occurred to me to consider what it would feel like to leave Italy after two months, never to return.

The first emotion was immediate sadness. And not in a grateful, nostalgic, “thank you San Francisco, it’s been a great ride” kind of sad. But a “I’m not ready to let go” kind of sad. I felt like crying, but that would ruin my dinner.

But the next emotion was shocking enough to make me put down my pizza.

Regret.

I came to Italy to avoid this. For the past year, I dreamed of living here, and despite great friends, a job promotion, and a fantastic lifestyle, I knew that regret would move in to my apartment in San Francisco if I didn’t take the plunge. So how in the hell did it follow me to Rome?

Because when I pondered the idea of not returning, my mind immediately thought of all of the things I hadn’t done. I spent the majority of July waiting on next steps for a job. And maybe that’s what I should have been doing, since landing a job is what will allow me to live here. But as a result, I stayed in the city and didn’t travel around as much as I wanted. And honestly, some days in Rome were just hard. I quickly grew tired of sightseeing and the swarms of tourists, and I hated not having someone else’s company when exploring the city. I was also trying to watch my budget, as no job was confirmed (and still isn’t). But why didn’t I make the most of every day here in Rome instead of surfing the internet or reading a book? My mind went over all of the things I failed to do in the past two months.

I never made it to Parco degli Acquedotti.

I never made it to Assisi.

I never had maritozzo, a Lazio specialty.

Why didn’t I try harder at Italian?

I never saw an opera.

I should have gone to the beach!

I never kissed an Italian man.

Ouch. That last one was a “10” on the regret scale.

When I was seeing a life coach, she had me focus on successes. So I picked up my pizza, took a bite, and started to make a mental list of what I accomplished and experienced.

I saw some of Rome’s finest: The Capitoline Museums, the Borghese Gallery, Appia Antica and the Baths of Caracalla.

I explored a lot of neighborhoods, such as Prati, Trastevere, Testaccio, and San Lorenzo.

I ate about 20 different flavors of gelato.

I mastered Italian domesticity – grocery shopping, cooking, and especially laundry.

I took day trips to Napoli, Orvieto and Perugia.

I saw the Rolling Stones, Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter.

I made some really great friends, who made me laugh harder than I’ve laughed in a long time.

I got propositioned for sex in Villa Borghese. Okay, not a plus, but an amusing experience.

I had conversations in Italian. And compliments on my language skills.

So the “what I did” list started to become longer than the “what I didn’t do” list.

I’m not going to say that I’m no longer anxious about leaving Rome tomorrow. But I am grateful for the reminder of how much I wanted this, and not to take it for granted. When I return, I look forward to making the most of every day here. You Italian men have been warned.

As a promise, I stopped for gelato on the way home at Gelateria dei Gracchi, one of my favorite gelaterias in my Prati neighborhood. I always get a cup as opposed to a cone, but tonight I opted for the cone as well as the optional panna, or cream that they put on top of the gelato. As for which two flavors to choose, it was obvious: pistacchio (pistachio), the Italian favorite, and fichi (figs), my personal go-to flavor. I smiled at my cone: the green pistachio on one side, fig on the other. Distinct, yet connected, blending more and more together with every lick.

As I made to leave the gelateria, I was stopped by two nuns, who asked me a question in Italian about the gelato. At first I thought they were asking me what flavors I chose. But then the nun asked in Italian, “how much does the cone cost?”

In Italian, I responded. “Well, for the small cone, it’s 2,50 euros.”

They thanked me as I walked out the door.

I giggled the rest of the way down the street. I just helped two nuns buy ice cream cones.

Another one to add to the “what I did” list.

See you in a few weeks, Rome.

 

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Domenica

 

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Il Ciociaro, Prati

A Sunday, or Domenica, in Rome definitely has a different feel than the other days of the week. Many restaurants and stores are closed, and if places are open, the hours may be reduced. The grocery store on my street is closed, but another one nearby is at least open until early afternoon. But thanks to the booming tourist market, you can be sure to find a variety of museums and historical sites open on Sundays. Last weekend, I decided to visit the Santa Maria Maggiore church and the Capitoline Museums, but before that, I was in need of a serious Sunday dinner.

Growing up, one of my fondest memories was having Sunday dinner at my grandmother’s house. My mother was one of seven children from a Catholic family, and every Sunday she attended mass with the family, followed by a large meal in the afternoon. Even after her children moved out of the house and my grandfather passed away, my grandmother still carried on the tradition. I can still remember the smell of pot roast or a baked ham upon entering the house, and my grandmother’s high-pitched, cheerful laugh as she hugged and kissed me and my sisters. My grandmother was an excellent cook, despite my father’s teasing that “next time, Mary Eleene, you should add more meat to the salt.” Some of the side dishes I remember fondly are scalloped potatoes, cucumbers in vinegar, and the ubiquitous relish tray full of pickles and olives. While I have more of a savory palate, my grandmother had a sweet tooth, and you could always count on a cake or pie for dessert. Her peach pie is a beloved favorite in my family, and I have yet to find another that is more sublime.

My grandmother loved cooking for others, and throughout the dinner, she never sat down at the table, as she was too preoccupied with serving the rest of us. After everyone exited the table, you could be sure to find my grandmother there, pouring herself a cup of coffee and enjoying her dinner alone. I always felt bad about this; she worked so hard to feed all of us, yet wound up eating alone. But she never seemed to mind.

I, on the other hand, do not like eating alone. I do it often here in Italy, but I feel incredibly out of place, surrounded by families and friends eating and laughing together. But we foodies do what we must, so after some extensive online researching, I managed to find a restaurant in my neighborhood that was open for lunch on Sunday: Il Ciociaro, on Via Barletta.

It was an extremely hot afternoon and the outside tables were empty, so I asked the waiter if I could sit outside. When I told him it was just me, he laughed and made a comment about being alone that I didn’t quite understand. But I caught the word “bad,” which is cattivo. Wait,” I asked him in Italian. “Are you saying that eating alone is a bad thing?” He looked a little concerned, afraid that I was offended (which I wasn’t). After some additional questioning and some assistance from Google Translate, I laughed and assured him that I understood:

“It is better to be alone than to be in bad company.”

I greatly appreciated his warmth. What a great start to a meal.

Speaking of, I decided to start off the meal with an appetizer of octopus carpaccio-style, raw and thinly sliced, with arugula and drizzled in olive oil. The octopus could have been more flavorful, but overall it was light and refreshing. Rome is not known for their seafood, but I just love octopus. Plus, it’s Sunday, and I wanted something special.

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For a main course, I stuck to the seafood theme and ordered their spaghetti alle vongole, or pasta with clams. This place is actually known for their bucatini all’amatriciana, which comes served in a hollowed wheel of pecorino cheese, but I just didn’t want a heavy pasta. Plus, this dish went perfectly with a 1/4 liter of white wine. The waiter brought me a plate for the clam shells, and I got to work, carefully twirling the pasta around my fork, piercing a clam, and tossing the shell onto the empty plate. Soon I was in a zone, twirling, tossing, chewing, sipping. It was as if the background faded from view. All of my attention and focus were on my interactions with this plate.

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I was pleasantly surprised that the dish was spicy, and as I discarded the clams I found the culprit: a little red pepper. Best of all, once I finished the pasta, I was left with a delicious garlic and oil sauce, which I sopped up with huge chunks of bread. There was not one speck of food on that plate by the time I was finished with it.

The waiter checked on me. “Is it good? Are you happy with it?” he cheerfully asked in Italian.

“Am I happy? Look at my plate!” I replied, laughing.

I didn’t have room for dessert. I may have reconsidered if there was peach pie on the menu. But I did finish my meal with coffee – a nice strong cup of espresso.

Since I arrived here seven weeks ago, one thing I have come to expect and eagerly anticipate each day is a change of perspective. And on this day, I now had a new perspective on solitary dining.

You are never truly alone at a table for one, because food speaks to us. Each bite is a sentence to which we respond with surprise, agreement, amusement, maybe even anger. Plates are whole conversations, some more engaging than others. And when the food is excellent, a meal is full of stories, connecting us with loved ones and cherished memories. You leave the table, nourished and grateful for the ability to focus on such an intimate encounter. You will never have this experience in front of the TV or at a table of six.

Maybe my grandmother wanted to eat alone after all of those Sunday dinners. She definitely wasn’t one for socializing during dinners, and she sure loved to eat. Was she having a conversation with her food? I’ll never know.

When I reflect back on some very memorable meals, a lot of them were when I dined alone. The beet salad, spaghetti and meatballs, and ginger cake at Park Chow in my old San Francisco neighborhood. A lunch of steaming hot bread, tangy cheese, rich hummus and other mezze at a Lebanese restaurant in Cairo. The first time I tried pasta alla norma in Palermo, with its meaty eggplant, rich tomato sauce and salty cheese. I was dining alone every time, and the details are so clear, so vivid. Yet I had a wonderful dinner with friends a few nights ago and can’t remember much about the food, other than that it was good, because I was too focused on the fantastic company.

So I encourage you to try this. Go to your favorite restaurant, and order your favorite dishes.  Or make your favorite meal at home, send the kids outside to play, and turn off the television. Listen to what your food is saying, and take the time to respond. I guarantee you’ll have a memorable conversation.

I dedicate this post to my grandmother, who taught me more than I realized about how to talk to food.

Grazie, nonna.

 


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Vittoria

fl-es-fotos-final-mundial-argentina-alemania-088

There have been some positive developments on the job front.

As I expected, I did not get the job at World Food Programme. However, a few days after my in-person interview, one of the managers emailed me to see if I would be willing to talk about another opportunity that wasn’t discussed during the interview. It turns out that one of their divisions is extremely short-staffed; summer is a time when most employees take vacation, particularly in August (typical across Italy in general). They also have a person out on maternity leave. Therefore, she asked if I would be interested in a 4-month consultancy contract to help research and qualify leads that the team could then turn into partnerships. I gratefully accepted, and I’m currently waiting to hear next steps from the HR department.

At this point, it is a bit premature to say that I have a job. There are still several steps to complete, including a salary negotiation, contract signing, and most likely a quick trip back to the United States to apply for a work visa (and applying is no guarantee that the Italian consulate will issue one). Anything could happen, so I am not making any public announcements.

However, what is certain and worth celebrating is that I have accepted a job offer. And this was no small task. This is one hell of a victory, or vittoria.

On the surface, anyone would be correct in saying that the odds were greatly stacked against me. I had no established local contacts, no language competency, and no prior work experience in a country with an economy rivaling Detroit and a youth unemployment rate alone above 40 percent. And upon arrival, my intentions were met with astonishment, amusement, and cynicism.

But underneath, I believed that the odds were greatly in my favor. Ten years of demonstrated marketing and development success. International work experience. Intermediate knowledge of French (an official UN language). An incredible network of people who introduced me to key contacts that shared valuable insights. Most of all, a large cheerleading squad of family and friends who believed I could do it.

Here’s an example. During my last month in San Francisco, one of my fondest memories included a lunch with a former coworker. He and I hadn’t worked together in years, yet he heard of my plans and so we arranged to get together and catch up on our lives. He proudly showed me photos of his children, one of which is about to head off to college, and we shared our excitement and fears about our upcoming life transitions. It was really special. I distinctly remember him saying, “If there’s anyone who can make this happen, it’s you. My bets are on Kerry.” Words of support like this have been with me every day on this adventure, and lifted my spirits when I was feeling doubtful. Which was often.

I’ll bet Mario Götze had this kind of support. Playing for the German team in the World Cup, he had some success in the earlier matches. However, as the team advanced, he had less playing time, and was benched throughout the entire semifinal match against Brazil. That adversity must have motivated him, because in the final against Argentina, he was sent out onto the field to play in extra time, with the coach telling him, “Go show the world you’re greater than Lionel Messi.” And in the 113th minute, he scored the only goal of the match to give Germany the trophy. Amazing what belief and support can accomplish. My job offer is my World Cup victory. Now they just need to give me the trophy (the job)!

As I await next steps, I’ve decided to suspend job searching and play tourist while I can. Naturally this involves a lot of eating, but I’ve also gone to the Borghese Museum and the Museum of Modern Art (both spectacular), the Baths of Caracalla, Appia Antica and the Catacombs of San Callisto. A couple of day trips outside of Rome might be in order. Stay tuned…..


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Lavoro

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“Finding work in Italy is not difficult, it’s rare.

Those were the words spoken to me in Italian as I shared a table with a local at a pizzeria in Napoli. It’s also a pretty common reaction when I explain that “Sono qui per cercare il lavoro”… “I’m here to look for work”. Other common reactions are laughter, amusement, and incredulity. Sometimes people ask, “Are you sure that you want to be here right now? The economy is really bad. People are upset.”

Fortunately, I like a good challenge, and my life is full of adventures in job searching in the face of adversity.

Example #1: The 2001 Recession. I finished graduate school in September 2001, right when the Bay Area was experiencing a dot.com bust. I began job searching in the nonprofit sector with little to no connections and very little work experience, in a time when all of the for-profit professionals were settling for non-profit jobs. My internship was ending, I had $1500 in the bank, and I just signed a one-year lease on an apartment in the heart of the city with two other friends. It was stressful and scary, but my friend were incredibly supportive and I made my employment search a full-time job.

The result: full-time employment in four months.

The learnings: Work hard. Tailor each resume and cover letter to the job description and qualifications. Take time to do daily job searches. Have a support network when things get tough. Laugh at yourself when walking to a job interview and homeless, crazy people shout out prostitution as a career option.

Example #2: The Switch to For-Profit. After a solid career in nonprofit management, I decided to jump ship to corporate philanthropy in 2007, despite harsh feedback from a corporate philanthropy professional. She looked over my resume and said, “I don’t see it happening. No corporation will hire you with zero for-profit experience. You should try to work at a private foundation instead; that’s probably the best you’ll be able to do.”

But at that point, I had established a lot of experienced, supportive contacts, and I started to reach out to them with questions and advice, and they helped expand my network. One of them sent me a job description for a junior marketing position at a place called Schwab Charitable, a nonprofit providing philanthropic solutions to investors and their financial advisors. I didn’t get the job, but they brought me on as a contractor when their hire didn’t work out.

The result: Three months later, they offered me a higher-level marketing position. I worked there for the past seven years. And that corporate philanthropy professional? She’s now the president of a corporate foundation. I have a speech all rehearsed should I ever cross paths with her again.

The learnings: Rely on your networks. Shrug off the naysayers. Focus on skills and accomplishments, not industry, and how those skills are transferable and beneficial to other sectors. Short-term employment is a great way to get your foot in the door.

So here I am, facing adversity again. I’m in Rome, where the unemployment is above 10% (over 40% for youth aged 15 to 24). I have no contacts and I don’t know the city or the language. But here’s my strategy for finding a job in Rome, and some of the results so far.

#1: Focus on American companies and international organizations. Upon doing extensive research, I learned that Rome is quite a hub for food-focused international development orgs, both UN- and non-profit based. Both World Food Programme and Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) have headquarters here. There are also a variety of American companies here, such as Google, Expedia, MasterCard, American Express, and Microsoft. With such high unemployment and basic Italian skills, I am not pursuing work with Italian companies. I just don’t know enough about how they operate and I have been warned by both Italians and Americans that they would probably rip me off financially as a result.

Results to date: Through Google searches, I found a website and a LinkedIn page with Rome-based jobs. I’ve applied for a few, but I’m seeing that the majority prefer bilingual candidates (fluency in both English and Italian). But I continue to look on a weekly basis.

However, I’ve had a few interviews for a few different jobs at World Food Programme, primarily in their partnership group. UN organizations follow a strict application process, based on skills and experience and not on who you know. So I’ve had to really focus on tailoring my applications to fit the job description. It’s working. I’m meeting the qualifications and HR has short-listed me for a few positions. Most recently, I had a phone interview for a 6-month contract position, assisting some of the senior managers with their day-to-day tasks. The interview went well, and I made it through as one of three final candidates. The next task was to submit a writing exercise (an internal and external email, as well as a powerpoint presentation), and then have an in-person interview with the managers. The in-person interview was more of a conversation, and it went really well. I don’t think I’ll get the job, as it seems that I’m overqualified, and they have internal candidates, but I am starting to make connections.

#2: Pursue employment that will utilize my marketing and development skills. I don’t know that I want to continue with marketing and development long-term, but I do like the work, due to the high level of creativity and collaboration required. Plus, I’ve built up over 10 years of experience and it is a very desired skill set worldwide.

Results to date: I’ve applied for a variety of jobs in marketing and development. Sometimes I don’t meet all of the qualifications, but if the job sounds interesting, I apply anyway. One job was for a business development director at Change.org. I’m not a candidate due to my lack of Italian language fluency, but it was enough for the director to reach out to me and ask to get together. We grabbed a coffee and had a great conversation, and turns out he has another company, assisting nonprofit organizations with their marketing and development initiatives. He wants to expand to the United States and was impressed at my skills and knowledge of the nonprofit market there. I’m not sure it’s a fit, but again, making connections and getting face time is helping.

One note here: along the way, there have been times when I have been introduced to people who are hesitant to spend the time talking to me, or have a negative response. Just like the corporate philanthropy professional, I chose not to pursue these conversations or politely thanked them for their input, but life is too short to invest time or energy in those who don’t believe in you and your cause. There will always be outliers like this. Just move on.

#3: Network, network, network. Three months before I left for Rome, I reached out to my network of professionals and friends, explained what I was doing, the type of work I was looking for, and a request to connect me to professional and personal contacts with experience in Italy or with specific companies/organizations. I received a lot of wonderful responses, and appreciate the time that everyone took to connect me to others in their network.

Results to date: I’m so grateful to my network. What an outpouring of support. There have been some wonderful email and Skype conversations, phone calls with experienced professionals, a lunch with an Italian lawyer, and a dinner with an executive of the Italy division of a global PR company. (I should probably digress here and mention that the dinner was one of the best food experiences I’ve had since arriving in Rome: a 12-course meal at a Michelin star restaurant.) I’m really enjoying learning about others’ experiences, and there are even a few job possibilities that have been discussed that I am still exploring.

#4: Learn the Market. And Don’t Settle. I have received numerous suggestions from friends that if nothing long-term turns up, I could always get a job as a barista, an English teacher, or a nanny. While I greatly appreciate the recommendations, here’s why I’m not pursuing any of these options.

1. A cafe manager is unlikely to hire an American in need of a work visa to make coffee, when there are a million unemployed Italians looking for work.

2. Teaching English does not pay well, and companies/agencies can easily hire great teachers from the UK and avoid the work visa requirements that we Americans have to go through.

3. Me? A nanny or au pair? I can’t think of a more unpleasant way to spend my time in Rome than to chase someone else’s kids around the city. C’mon, people. Do you not know me? And if you do, are you trying to kill me?!

#5: Reflect on successes. Learn from failures.  I spend time at the end of each day, reflecting on what I accomplished. When I get a job rejection, I ask for feedback on why it occurred so that I can learn from it. Sometimes my learning is that it wasn’t the right fit for me or the organization.

I’m giving myself three months to find a job here in Rome. I’m one month into my search, and there’s been a lot of progress! I don’t know what the outcome will be, but a new friend recently taught me a new expression in Italian:

“La tua vita inizia dove finisce la tua zona di comfort.”

“Your life begins where your comfort zone ends.”

And that’s what I love about adversity. It forces you to leave your comfort zone, take risks, accept failure, and learn who you truly are and what you’re capable of. That’s the life that brought me here to Rome.