Eat. Play. Run.

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


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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.