Eat. Play. Run.

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


4 Comments

Cuore

IMG_0518I took a group cooking class in Florence when I was traveling around Italy in March of 2013. The class consisted of a mother-daughter duo, a chef from Long Island, and myself. We were all discussing the places in Italy we visited (or in my case, about to visit), and they were all raving about Pompeii. The chef commented, “It was absolutely fantastic. Unfortunately you have to go through Napoli. That place is such a shithole that it’s not worth stopping.”

At that moment, this so-called “chef” lost my respect. Oh, and by the way, he couldn’t roll pasta dough to save his life.

Any person who tells you that Napoli is not worth a visit either has is either a non-foodie, a vanilla tourist, a total moron, or all of the above. Don’t listen to descriptions of dirt, traffic, crime, and Mafia. Napoli is fantastica. Skipping Napoli on a trip to Italy is like coming to San Francisco and bypassing the Mission District. There’s culture, beauty, history, fantastic people, and yes, there is food. Oh, the food. Home of the pizza margherita and some of the best seafood in the country.

In searching for a race to run during marathon training, I was only too happy to sign up for La Mezza Maratona di Napoli (the Napoli Half Marathon) and an excuse to visit the city yet a third time. With all of the drama over obtaining a proper medical certificate, I still wasn’t convinced that everything would work out and that I’d get to run. But regardless of the outcome, I was going to Napoli, and therefore I was guaranteed at least a great meal or two.

I arrived late Saturday morning and hit two of my favorite spots. The first is Attanasio, a bakery near the train station well known for its sfogliatelle, a flaky ricotta-filled pastry. I took a number and paid for my pre-lunch snack. The queue was long, but well worth it. These little babies are filled with rich ricotta and orange peel, sprinkled with powdered sugar.
DSC_0029The second stop was for a pizza margherita and thus my third trip to da Michele, what some consider the best pizzeria in Napoli. I shared a table with three women from Bologna, who ate all of the pizza except the crust, which they claimed was burned. Of course it’s burned – it’s from a wood-fired oven! The crunchy, burned parts of the crust, combined with the sweet tomato sauce and smooth mozzarella are why this is one of the best pizzas I’ve ever eaten. Remember: the simplest things are the best things. Not to mention that a pizza this size comes for the bargain price of 4,50 euro (around $5). Perfection on a plate.
DSC_0006IMG_0509I then decided to walk the long walk to the hotel and pick up my race number along the way. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find the pick-up spot, my bag was getting pretty heavy, and 2 hours of walking had made me a sweaty mess. By the time I arrived at the hotel, I was tired of dodging scooters and frustrated by the chaotic streets and poor race coordination. I dropped my bag and napped for a half-hour. That did the trick. My second attempt proved successful, as I found the street and saw a crowd milling around outside of a Toyota store. Really? The bib pick-up is at a car dealership?! Yes it was. One table to pick up the race number, another table to pick up the shirt.

I provided my name and was rewarded with a race number. Done. Just like that. No questions about a medical certificate or the “Run Card” that is yet another silly, costly requirement for runners like myself that don’t belong to an Italian club. I left with a race number and shirt and a sense of triumph for successfully navigating another ridiculously bureaucratic part of Italian life.

By the way, this was the race expo: three outside tents. Where was the exposition hall full of race prep supplies, presentations by running experts, and free PowerBar samples? In other words, what kind of a “race” did I sign up for?!
IMG_0517My reward for acquiring my race packet was a passeggiata around the Chiaia district, a macchiato at Caffe Gambrinus (delicious), and views of Mount Vesuvius at sunset.

IMG_0516As it was Valentine’s Day, lots of couples were out for a stroll as well. Being single, I had some hesitation about coming solo to Napoli on the most romantic day of the year. I dreaded the thought of sitting alone at dinner, receiving concerning looks from other patrons and restaurant staff as they thought, “Che pecatto. What a shame that woman is alone.”

Instead, I found the evening rather enjoyable. Lit-up hearts were strung across streets. I watched bike messengers deliver flowers. Balloons decorated restaurant entryways. I had dinner at a trattoria with friendly staff who didn’t seem to care that I was alone. I carbo-loaded with an octopus salad, a light spaghetti al pomodoro and grilled calamari, returned to the hotel and fell asleep watching “When Harry Met Sally”, dubbed in Italian.

IMG_0524As usual, I slept poorly. I always do the night before a race. I had practically walked a half marathon the day before so I made sure to stretch before leaving the hotel around 6:30am. I walked about five minutes to the shuttle pick-up spot. Rain was in the forecast and there was a light drizzle. I wore my long-sleeved New York City Marathon shirt from 2007 in the hopes that it would help me engage in conversation with other runners, and it did. I quickly became friends with Laura and Luigina, who were from Northern Italy and were running the full marathon in preparation for Rome next month. Luigina ran New York the same year I did.

When the shuttle bus arrived (late, of course), a swarm of runners pushed and shoved to board. Fortunately four more buses pulled up shortly afterwards, and Laura kept me entertained with stories of her travels to the United States despite her limited English.

The start of the race is in the town of Pozzuoli, the birthplace of Sofia Loren. The wind had started to pick up and as we stepped off the bus, I looked around for the portable toilets.

Nothing.

Are you serious?

Andiamo,”  Laura suggested, as we made our way to a cafe to use the bathroom.

What a scene. The place was packed with loud runners, all decked out in a colorful sea of fashionable gear. Most were drinking coffee, and the rest of us took our place in line. While the bathroom had toilet paper, a word of advice: when running a race in Italy, put tissues in your race bag. You just might need them. Don’t expect porta-potties!

Then the rain hit. A blowing, cold rain, but fortunately not a downpour. We dropped off our bags and took some shelter near the starting line. I had a head wrap to protect my ears from the cold, along with arm warmers, but I was shivering in my shorts.

And I was apprehensive.

I’ll get lost.

I’ll come in last.

I’ll bet there won’t be any water stations. I should have brought my own water.

What if I can’t finish? Will I know enough Italian to make it back to the hotel?

Then I looked around. The starting line was taking shape. People were jumping up and down to stay warm. One runner had a plastic bag covering his head. The announcer was enthusiastically shouting a bunch of stuff I couldn’t understand.

Then I started to laugh. This was awesome. People in bathrobes leaned out of apartment doors and windows, waving and taking pictures. Laura, Luigina and I wished each other luck and promised to have dinner together in Rome next month before the race. My GPS watch managed to find a signal just as the crowd began to move, and seconds later I was running over the starting line.

My goal for the race was to treat it like a practice run for the Rome Marathon. And for Rome, my goal is to run a sub- 5 hour race, which would be a first. So for the Napoli Half, I planned to average an 11 minute-mile pace, which would have me finishing at a bit over 2 hours, 24 minutes.

As usual, I started out too fast, but I was nervous about being so slow that the pack would disappear ahead and leave me stranded, increasing my chances of getting lost. The course maps were placed on the website just three days ago, and they are a poor series of Google satellite images. However, I memorized the kilometer points that contained turns. To my relief, I saw that the course and all of the turns were etched on the street in chalk. That helped me relax a bit.

The first seven kilometers consisted of two laps around Lake Lucrino and through the main street of Pozzuoli. Then the course turned onlo a straight road right next to the bay. At that point, the pack had thinned considerably, but I could still see a handful of runners in front of me. The view was breathtaking, and I found myself smiling at my fortune of getting to run in this incredibly beautiful place.

And talk about comedy.

There were water stations every three miles, consisting of volunteers holding out plastic bottles. What a waste! I grabbed a bottle at each station, took three or four sips, then tossed it to the side of the road, where it smashed into the other full bottles, sending water flying everywhere. There were also sponging stations, which I didn’t use (it wasn’t hot enough). But I enjoyed seeing the various colors of cute sponges discarded all over the road, resembling my nephew’s legos.

I also had the pleasure of being drafted by another runner. For NINE MILES. At first I thought, “why is this dude following so close behind me, and why doesn’t he pass?!” Then I thought, “is he drafting me?” It didn’t seem possible. After all, who drafts someone running an 11-minute mile?! There surely can’t be any benefit from drafting someone who is running that slowly!

So I tested him. I moved diagonally from one side of the road to the other. He followed. At one point I slowed down almost to a stop, and he did as well, asking me, “are you okay?” His English was rather poor, but enough for me to learn that he was from China. We exchanged a few words before I got back on pace, and he got back to following on my tail. Unreal.

Finally at Mile 9, I decided enough is enough (I know, I’m rather tolerant!). I turned around, looked at him and said, “please, go in front of me.”

He said, “oh no, that’s okay.”

“No,” I told him. “You cannot follow me like this. It’s not okay. You need to run ahead, please.”

He explained that his knee was not in great shape, a total confession to drafting. I told him I was sorry, but he needed to run ahead. We exchanged a few friendly words, wished each other luck, and he moved on. I was proud of how I handled the situation, and didn’t envy him; he was running the full marathon on a bad knee. In other words, a painful not-so-smart choice.

I fumbled a turn-around, but corrected it within seconds and was back on track, now running with marathoners who were at their Mile 16, while I was at about Mile 10 of the Half. It was at this point that I realized something: I had taken no walk breaks, not even for water. I always find myself taking walk breaks at several points during a race, but this was uncharted territory for me. I had also been running a bit faster than 11-minute mile pace. This was exciting!

The route turned onto a main street that seemed to go on for miles and was an extremely slight incline. It felt like it went on forever. I took a last water stop at around Mile 11 and plodded along, reminding myself that what comes up…….

….and then I saw the tunnel at Mile 12, a long downhill. Awesome! My watch lost its GPS signal as I ran down through the tunnel for several minutes. As I came back into daylight, a volunteer yelled out “sinistra!”, indicating an upcoming left turn. Then a roundabout and onto the Lungomare that runs right along the water. My legs were so tight and sore from too much walking the day before.

But walking was the last thing on my mind. The finisher’s chute was in view, and I slowly but steadily sped up, checking my watch in disbelief, glancing at the clock as I crossed the line.

2:20:42.

A personal best by 3 1/2 minutes. Average pace: 10:45. And more than on track to run a sub 5-hour marathon next month in Rome.
IMG_0526A hot shower, followed by a delicious cappuccino. Then onto da Dora, where I devoured a three-plate appetizer and a bowl of seafood linguine. The fried calamari were the best I’ve ever had, the wait staff extremely friendly and talkative. The waiter worked for five months in Antarctica, where he told me he entertained himself by memorizing the US state capitals, thanks to a map hanging on the restaurant wall. We would quiz each other when he brought out each course.

“Washington,” he stated.

“Uh, aspetta. Olympia,” I replied.

Brava,” he said, surprised.

“Maine,” I stated.

“Augusta,” he answered immediately.

Impressive.

The hotel ordered me a cab, and in Italian the driver and I discussed my weekend in Napoli and my impressions of the city. I told him how I didn’t understand why the Bolognese women preferred a pizzeria where they could select their own toppings, when they could have a light, flavorful pizza margherita from da Michele.

“The simplest things are the best things,” I explained. “That’s why I like Napoli.”

“Ah, you are Neapolitan,” he replied. “When you come back, here’s my card. You and your husband and I will go eat pizza. I enjoy being with people who like to eat good food.”

Che cuore.

What heart.

IMG_0522


10 Comments

Certificato

Medical Certificate for Running 2015I’m on Week #11 (out of 16) of my training for the Rome Marathon, and everything seems to be going well. I’m relatively healthy, despite a few blisters and sore muscles, and completed an 18-mile run on Sunday. I’m heading to Napoli today to run a half marathon tomorrow in preparation, to see if I can run marathon pace for half the distance.

Marathon training is hard, both physically and mentally. But as I’ve recently discovered, as a foreigner living in Rome, training is not the most challenging part of running a marathon in Italy.

The most challenging part?

Getting permission to run it.

In the United States, registering for a race is a rather mature, adult-like process. You go to the race website. You click a “register” button. You fill out the information. You check a box that confirms that you read the waiver, stating that you’re fit to run. You pay the entry fee. You click “submit”.

And done.

In Italy? The mindset is, “who are you to think you’re fit to run?! You need to see an expert! THEY will decide if you’re capable of running and finishing a race!”

As a result, participating in races doesn’t feel as democratized as it does in the US. The fun of running a race is seeing people of all motivations and levels working hard to overcome and achieve something challenging. In Italy, you have to belong to a club to run races, so it feels rather elitist. Not to mention fashionable. Members of clubs wear matching gear. I’ve never seen a group of people so color coordinated.

Now, in order to belong to a club, you need a certificate stating that you are medically capable of participating in these types of competitive activities – a certificato dello sport. And if you are a staniere or foreigner like myself who doesn’t belong to a club, You need to get the certificate anyway.

I contacted the medical office at work, who gave me referrals for three sports doctors who spoke English and were certified to provide these so-called certificates. The first one that I called was not actually located in Rome, but in nearby Ostia. That won’t do. The second one didn’t have appointments until mid-February, and considering that I needed the certificate to run the Napoli Half Marathon as well as the Rome Marathon, that just seemed to be too close to the race date. The third and final office could get me in for an appointment the last week of January. Perfetto.

“It’s 100 euro for the examination,” the receptionist informed me in Italian. “But you’ll need two appointments. One for the test, and the other to meet with the doctor. Bring your exercise clothes with you.”

I thought I caught a sentence in there about bringing a urine sample, but chose to ignore it. I probably misunderstood anyway.

This office is quite far from work, so I left early, took the train, transferred to the subway, changed subway lines, boarded a local train, and still managed to arrive ten minutes early, with exercise clothes in tow. I managed to respond in Italian to all of the questions the receptionist asked me and was quite proud of myself for understanding.

“Did you bring a urine sample?”

Wow, so I DID understand that on the phone! But seriously, who travels around Rome carrying a urine sample?!

“That’s okay, you can do it here. The bathroom is at the end of the hall on your right.”

Once complete, she gave me a number and I headed to the waiting room to wait to be called. Getting any kind of service in Italy always seems to start with taking a number. Can’t you just call my name? You have to call a number on the piece of paper anyway, so why waste the paper?! Strange.

Ten minutes later, I entered a room and was greeted by two women in white lab coats, one standing at a complicated-looking machine and the other behind a desk. She checked my information and asked if I had brought along a different pair of shoes. I motioned to the running shoes in my bag. Neither of them spoke English.

“Okay,” she said. “You can change.”

“Here?” I asked.

“Si,” she responded. Neither made a motion to leave the room.

I took off my shirt and proceeded to take off my skirt and tights.

“No, just the shirt. And your bra,” she said.

“Cosa?” (What?!)

“And change your shoes.”

Once complete, she began applying these sticky electrodes all over my chest, motioned for me to lift up my arms, and slipped a piece of netting over my torso. She then motioned for me to get on the exercise bike that was hooked up to the machine.

This was ridiculous. I was naked from the waist up, wrapped in a net, wearing a skirt, tights and running shoes. I began to pedal.

“Maybe you should pull your skirt up a bit,” the one woman gestured.

Sure, that’s logical.

This all had the makings of a really bad lesbian porn for athletic viewers. I was convinced there was a video camera set up somewhere.

After a few minutes, the machine would beep, and one of the women would take my blood pressure and read it to the other one monitoring the machine, now full of seismic scribbles. My goal was to keep the rpms between 70-75, and the longer I rode, the more the resistance increased. This went on for about 11 minutes, and I had worked up quite a sweat. The netting was starting to become uncomfortable, as were the tights.

“Are we almost finished?” I panted.

“Okay, you can slow down now.”

They continued to monitor and take my blood pressure until my heartbeat returned to normal.

“So, am I good?” I asked.

“Yes. Very strong,” they assured me.

I climbed off of the bike and the blood pressure woman removed the net with one rip, passed me a wad of paper towels, and as I put on a shirt they informed me that they would give the results to the doctor, who would go over them with me tomorrow.

I left, figuring the most humiliating part was over.

Wrong.

When I returned the next day, I had a 50-minute wait before entering a room and was greeted by Dr. Sergio Lupo, who began asking me a bunch of questions in Italian.

“Scusi, para inglese?” I asked.

“Oh no, sorry,” he replied.

“It’s okay. We’ll manage.” I said with a smile.

Half of the questions were about my relatives and their health problems. I understood half of them and answered “no” to all of them. The rest were about me and seemed completely irrelevant to my ability to run 26.2 miles.

“Okay, take off your shirt.”

Here we go again.

“And your pants.”

Well, at least I wasn’t wearing tights today.

Test #1 involved exhaling into a tube as hard as I could for seven times. I’m not sure why it was necessary to stand in my bra and underwear for this.

Then Dr. Lupo told me something that I didn’t understand. He pointed to my bra. “What do you call this in English?” he asked.

“Bra,” I replied.

“Take it off. Oh, like wonderbra!” he laughed, as if he had just invented the best joke in the world.

He stuck more electrodes on my chest (wasn’t once enough?!) and had me lie down, at which point he stuck these clamp-like things on my legs and arms. I had a vision of the door opening and nurse wheeling in an Italian Frankenstein so that they could transfer my brain to his. Yesterday’s porn was becoming today’s horror movie.

Once he registered my heart rate, he escorted me over to a step. “Okay, up down, up down. Three minutes. Okay?”

So there I was, stepping up and down on a step, in my underwear, working up a sweat. The step just happened to be positioned directly under a heating vent for extra effect. The worst part was not my saggy underwear, but the fact that this was actually kind of hard. Dr. Lupo snapped his fingers like a metronome, encouraging me to pick up the pace. Just when I wasn’t sure I could keep going, he had me lie back down, put all of the clamps and electrodes back on, and checked my active heart rate.

“Okay, basta.” Finished.

As I dressed, he presented me with my heard-earned, humiliation-inducing sports certificate. I double-checked with him that this was for running marathons, and motioned to the unique forms that the Napoli and Rome Marathons had requested I complete.

“No, no, you don’t need those. This is the certificate.”

On Thursday, the Napoli race committee emailed to inform me that my certificate was wrong. I need a certificate not for sports activities, but for competitive sports activities – attività agonistica. The receptionist told me that I was more than welcome to come back to the office and talk to the doctor so that we could get this resolved. So yes, another afternoon out of work, on trains and subways, to see Dr. Lupo to deal with this damn certificate. While traveling to the office, I checked my Napoli half marathon registration status online, only to find that I had been upgraded from a red “x” to a green checkmark, indicating that my registration was complete. Yet one of their staff emailed me twice that day, informing me that the certificate was not acceptable. Nothing like mixed messages. But this is Italy, after all.

Dr. Lupo was not pleased to see me and barked a bunch of info at how it wasn’t my fault, but that these race organizers don’t understand how anything works, that the certificate is for marathons, etc. I pointed to the unique race forms again and suggested that we fill them out, but he refused. “That’s not how it works,” he insisted. He muttured a few other comments and typed away at his computer, saying, “We will resolve this.” He presented me with a new certificate.

Kerry Philp - Medical Certificate for Competitive SportBest of all, no clothing was removed in acquiring this certificate. A major win.

I emailed the certificate to the race committee. And it should come as no surprise that they have yet to respond.

Will they let me run? Or will I be sitting on the sidelines eating pizza Napoletana? Tune in to next week’s blog post to read the exciting outcome.

Andiamo a Napoli!


3 Comments

Scoiattolo

IMG_0482As a Western Pennsylvanian, Groundhog Day has been a part of my upbringing. My hometown is just 15 minutes away from Punxsutawney, PA and the country’s most famous marmot, Punxsutawney Phil. Disclosure: I’ve never been to the actual ceremony. Don’t be appalled; it’s like being from New York and never going up to the Empire State Building. Why bother? It’s always around you. No need to experience it. You live it.

When I moved to San Francisco in 2001, I learned that West Coasters don’t know much about Groundhog Day, so I decided to throw a party for my friends, complete with quizzes and games (any excuse to drink, right?). I went to the Punxsutawney Chamber of Commerce website to buy tchotckes and prizes, and found a cool novelty item: cookie cutters shaped like groundhogs, in three different sizes! The cookie cutters came with a recipe for “Groundhog Cookies”, so I bought a set and made the cookies for the party. They were a big hit, and the following February 2nd there were requests for more. A tradition was born.

The cookies are not only easy to make, but quite delicious. They are a spice cookie containing cinnamon, ginger, cloves, molasses, eggs, butter, sugar, flour, baking soda, baking powder, and salt. I prefer to underbake them a bit so that the cookie comes out soft instead of crunchy. I’ve used the recipe with other cookie cutters, sometimes adding a cream cheese frosting, but consumers prefer the groundhog shape. For an eye, I use a red candy, which is a nice contrast against the brown cookie.

Since my friends seemed to enjoy them, I decided to start making and bringing them to work for my coworkers. Over my 14 years in the Bay Area, I had three different employers. That means that about 75 colleagues enjoyed cookies and learned about Groundhog Day. I jokingly referred to myself as Punxsutawney Phil’s “San Francisco Groundhog Ambassador”, with the job of spreading awareness and advocacy of this beloved yet quirky holiday. I found the most loyal supporters at my last job, where one year I forgot to make the cookies and got a lecture from one of my coworkers (jokingly, of course). They fully bought into the spirit of Groundhog Day, so when I left last March, I bestowed upon them a parting gift: my cookie cutters. I gave them to one of the department’s best bakers so that they could keep the tradition alive.

Fast forward 11 months later. Punxsutawney Phil has transferred me to the Rome, Italy post, where my first task is to educate a department of Italian, French, German and Serbian coworkers about Groundhog Day. Phil didn’t warn me about the difficulties of baking in Rome: my oven is a convection oven in Celsius, I had to go to a specialty organic store to find molasses and ground ginger, and cloves are whole. I had never seen a clove whole before. They look like thick miniature twigs. Plus, my apartment has no measuring cups and spoons.

Again, I didn’t decide to live here because I thought it would be easy. Groundhog Ambassadors love a good challenge.

I went online to look for measuring tips, and found a great blog post with pictures of what 1/4 cup, 1 tablespoon and 1 teaspoon look like in the palm of a hand. I used this technique and mixed all of the dry ingredients together. For the cloves, I attempted to smash them with a mallet to grind them, with no luck. But the blender comes with a coffee grinder blade, and that did the trick. I then creamed the butter and sugar with a mixer, added an egg yolk (free-range, too!) and molasses, and then poured in the dry ingredients. The dough was much softer than usual, but the color was right. Once it had chilled, I rolled it out and cut out the dough with the groundhog cookie cutters that I bought while home for Christmas. The only kitchen item I had to buy was a baking sheet, which was only 4 euro.

The red candy eye was a problem; no grocery store had them, and I looked at several. But this is Italy, after all, so after much searching I found shiny silver decorating balls, perfect for my biscotti di marmotta.

Yesterday, February 2nd, I took the cookies to work, wrote my intro email explaining the holiday and the treats, and sat back and waited. The first reaction was gratitude. Our office doesn’t have a baking culture, so I don’t often see homemade goods sitting around. People politely took a cookie, thanked me, and found the holiday quite amusing. And hey, who doesn’t like cookies on a Monday?! Two of my colleagues loved the movie Groundhog Day so they were most enthusiastic about the treats. The three of us live streamed the celebration online to hear the prediction: at 7:25am EST, he saw his shadow. Another six more weeks of winter. After reading my parents and sister’s texts these past few weeks about the snow and cold temperatures, this came as no surprise.

I waited until Phil announced his prediction to email my colleagues back at my former job in San Francisco to wish them a happy Groundhog Day from Rome and tell them how much I missed them. As I was preparing to leave, I began to receive email replies as they arrived to start their work day. One email contained the following attachment.

IMG_0485I couldn’t believe it. They made the cookies.

It wasn’t the fact that I had left a legacy, or educated them about a silly holiday. What made me smile with gratitude was realizing that I shared something that was enjoyed by so many. And as I stumble along through the social scene here in Rome, Groundhog Day will now and forever remind me of this mantra: Share. Laugh. Eat. That’s what Groundhog Day is really all about.

As I wished my European colleagues a good evening, I noticed that there was one lone groundhog cookie still sitting on the tray. “Okay,” I announced. “This will NOT do. Never leave a groundhog cookie behind. Who wants it?”

Politeness got the best of them, so I wrapped it up and presented it to a colleague to take home to her daughter Isabella, an adorable 4 year-old. This morning I asked what Isabella thought of the cookie.

“Did she save it like you thought?” I asked.

“Oh no! She took one look at it, exclaimed ‘A squirrel! (Uno scoiattolo!) and bit off its head.”

It’s a start.

Happy Squirrel Day, everyone.