Eat. Play. Run.

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


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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


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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!


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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.


4 Comments

Pausa

IMG_0433I spent my Christmas back in rural Pennsylvania with family. The travel gods were on my side: both flights arrived early, my luggage showed up, and even the train in Rome made it to the airport without issues. I’m from a small, rural Pennsylvania town with little to do, but that’s okay. Being home with family was really all that i wanted for Christmas.

And like most families, we ate a lot. I made spaghetti alle vongole for Christmas Eve, and we had a southern-themed Christmas day dinner, complete with my Dad’s smoked brisket, a ham, mac and cheese, greens, and a pecan salad. I met my future brother in-law and discovered that my cat actually does remember me, and treated me to a lot of cuddle time when he wasn’t parked in front of the fireplace.

A week at home gave me an opportunity to recharge my batteries. I must admit that I left Rome feeling a little lost about what I was doing there, and too fixated on the frustrating parts of life in Italy. Back at home, I got reacquainted with an important aspect of my life:

I did a lot of running.

Now, I’m aware that the title of this blog is Eat, Play, Run, but up to this point I’ve done a lot of eating and playing and very little running. But I developed plantar fasciitis a month after arriving in Italy this summer, and had to take several months off. The culprit: a lot of walking in shoes with little support. But by October, I started going on short runs and joined a local gym in order to use a treadmill to give my feet breaks from running on the streets. When December rolled around, I was running 2-3 times a week. And during Christmas week, I had four really fantastic runs.

The first was with my older sister. We ran for an hour and 45 minutes on deserted back roads in 29-degree weather. Slow and steady and with a companion, the time went by rather quickly. It was my longest run in months and did wonders for my spirit. My older sister has been running for about two years, and has completed two half marathons, with her sights set on running her first full marathon this May. The running bug has hit her, too.

The second was actually a 40-minute treadmill run on Christmas Eve at our local YMCA. I don’t think the run was anything spectacular, but to get my butt to the gym on the Eve of the biggest holiday is an accomplishment in itself, and one I’ll keep in mind on those future days when I don’t want to crawl out of bed and put on my running shoes.

The third run was an hour out on the back roads in my hometown the day after Christmas. While it was a solid run, what made it memorable were the two hunters I encountered at around the halfway point. Deer hunting is big in my area, but I’ve been away for too long, and to round a corner to find a man in camouflage in the middle of the road, holding a shotgun, was definitely culture shock. His buddy, a cigarette-smoking Santa Claus lookalike, were too lazy to actually walk up the hill into the woods to hunt, and decided to stand by the side of the road in the hopes of spotting a deer. When I turned around to run back home, passing them a second time, the rifle-clad hunter said,

“Why don’t you run up that hill and scare the deer out?”

I had a smart-ass answer. Then I remembered who had the gun. I kept my mouth shut, picked up the pace and pretended not to hear.

And lastly, the fourth run, a 2-hour windy run upon returning to Rome. Not bad for someone who just endured an 8 hour red-eye flight.

Unfortunately, I spent the next week with a bad cold, my fourth in four months. So New Year’s was a grand event spent on the couch, watching Season 3 of Homeland and enduring my neighborhood’s need to set off loud explosive devices until about 1am. After four non-work days of recuperation, I made a doctor’s appointment in order to get to the bottom of why I’ve had so many colds. Not only do they put me out of commission for a week, but they greatly impact my running. And I’ve got my sights set on a marathon in a few months. The doctor, who’s stationery lists him as an aeronautics and space physician, agreed that it wasn’t normal, and ordered a large amount of blood tests to determine if perhaps I am developing a new allergy. Three days later, a very young technician with a thick English accent took six vials of blood. All without wearing gloves. Culture shock again.

As I await test results and the next round of colds, I’m drinking echinacea cough syrup and an immune-boosting powder drink (all prescribed by the aerospace doctor). I guess it’s Italy’s version of Tang. Tastes pretty good, but I’m doubtful that it’s providing any benefit.

I’m also back to running. The Rome Marathon is March 22nd, and I don’t know if I’ll have the opportunity to run it again. I’ve decided to train alone this time. Although I prefer the company and support of other runners, let me explain the running club culture here in Italy.

Certified running clubs are for competitive runners. Your doctor authorizes that you’re fit to run, you pay a yearly fee, and you’re enrolled. When you register for a 10K, half marathon (or mezza maratona) or full maratona, the race website posts a list of “classifications”, or rankings from previous races, with the club listed. And your times earn you points in your own club. Whatever that means. It’s a rather serious affair. Then there’s the fashion. Italian running clubs buy high-tech, expensive gear. Think warmup jackets and matching track pants, not to mention racing singlets and shorts that are color-coordinated with the jacket and track pants. You’ll never find a more beautiful starting line than an Italian marathon. (Disclosure: wearing expensive, matching running gear will not make you any faster). For those of you who are runners and are contemplating a move to Italy, Spain, or some other nearby country, do NOT buy running shoes in Europe; you’ll pay double.

I miss my San Francisco club. We ran twice a week, with long runs on Saturday mornings, followed by bagels and chocolate milk. We also had various happy hours and holiday parties. Our gear consisted of t-shirts and hats, the colors changing frequently, resulting in a lot of mismatched clothing. Post-race celebrations always included a cooler of beer, and doing a long run with a hangover was completely acceptable.

Maybe I’ll join a club someday, but for now I want to focus on training, not on adjusting to Italian running club lifestyle. So for the remaining 10 weeks of training, there will be a lot of early nights, early alarms, after work treadmill runs at the gym, long runs along the Tiber River, and stretching exercises on my living room floor. On Saturday I was out the door by 8:15 and was thrilled to find the sidewalks deserted. I ran through my neighborhood onto Via Marmorata in Testaccio, onto the Lungotevere, where I enjoyed views of the Tiber River and its stunning bridges. Slow and steady, I passed the Castel Sant’Angelo and made a detour onto my old street, Via dei Coronari, one of the most beautiful in Rome. Then back onto the Lungotevere up to Piazza del Popolo and up the hill to the top of the Spanish Steps, with panoramic views of the entire city. It was breathtaking. On the way back, I added on a few more minutes by running around Piazza Navona, and finished my run back in the Garbatella as I passed two male runners who greeted me with “ciao, cara” as I clocked a half marathon.

I’m back. Not just physically, but mentally. Running is giving me the ability to reconnect to this city and to remind me that I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be.

To prepare for the marathon, I’ve been looking for an official half marathon to run as a practice race. There are two very good options: the Romeo and Juliet Half Marathon in Verona, and the Napoli Half Marathon, both on February 15th. I really want to visit Verona, but running that race means being in Verona on Valentine’s Day weekend. And while a friend is egging me on because it will provide great blog material, the thought of showing up in one of the most romantic cities in the world, on the the most romantic weekend of the year, by myself, would be social suicide. So I’ll try registering for the half marathon in Napoli, one of my favorite cities in Rome and home to pizza margherita. Carbo loading will be oh so delicious.


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Ringraziamento

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As you probably know, Italians don’t celebrate Thanksgiving. I really felt its absence at last weekend’s farmers market here in the Garbatella. I bought pancetta and fresh pecorino to make carbonara for the first time for a friend (with great success), stocked up on local apples, pears and clementines, and had an amusing conversation in Italian with a farmer while buying squash. I walked out with a bounty too heavy to carry, but it didn’t include a sack of potatoes, cranberries, or a turkey. I can’t help but think back to just one year ago, as I entered Trader Joe’s on Masonic at Geary in San Francisco. Bouquets of red, orange and yellow flowers at the entrance, the bright lights raining down on stacked boxes of stuffing and cornbread mix, pyramids of canned pumpkin, aisles of local pinots and chardonnays. What a contrast.

I do love to eat. But the food isn’t my favorite part of Thanksgiving. In fact, this week I felt relieved that today wouldn’t be spent piling mounds of food onto a plate and unbuttoning my pants to make room for dessert. Instead, I spent the day at work, where our manager (an American) brought us some crostata and a delicious apple cake, which I enjoyed with a caffè americano. I ate lunch with a coworker, complete with roasted chicken and potatoes, a glass of red wine, and carrot cake and espresso (yes, drinking during the work day is acceptable). Dinner was a simple meal of rice, local squash, and chard sauteed with pancetta and garlic (photo above-excuse the sloppy presentation). Now that’s a rather healthy, balanced, non-gluttonous Thanksgiving.

But as I ended my work day, I started to feel really unsatisfied. Thanksgiving for me is all about friends, and I am really missing everyone back in the States. I trudged over to the Monteverde district for my weekly Italian lesson and another painful hour fumbling over verb tenses and pronunciation. I bought an Italian newspaper on my way home, frustrated by my lack of progress and fueled by determination to improve. As I walked home I read a “Happy Thanksgiving” email from one of my best friends back in San Francisco, and a wave of loneliness and homesickness came over me.

How I wished to be there.

To laugh.

To embrace.

To connect.

To understand.

These feelings are only natural to someone like myself who is thousands of miles away from home. I recognize that.

But I also recognize that this strange, challenging and overwhelming city is home too.

I laugh everyday. And I mean that. Everyday. Romans love to joke, and you get extra points if you know how to laugh at yourself.

While it’s rare to hug, the kissing on each cheek when you greet someone is a warm embrace in itself. I cherish it.

I have a small group of friends here. And today, each one of them contacted me. I am grateful for their friendship and the connection we have with one another.

Although I struggle with the language, I feel like I understand myself better than I have in a long time. And that’s a good place to start.

No matter where I am in the world, there’s a lot to be thankful for. Here’s a few examples.

  • I am thankful that my father is recovering well from double knee surgery, and is getting stronger every day.
  • I am thankful to be here in Rome and to have a dream become a reality.
  • I am thankful for my mother. She is one of the strongest people that I know.
  • I am thankful to work for an organization that is helping people in West Africa affected by the Ebola virus.
  • I am thankful that my younger sister found her life partner.
  • I am thankful for tonnarelli cacio e pepe.
  • I am thankful for my older sister, who is providing love and care to my cat as he recovers from an accident. He could not be in better hands.

Buon ringraziamento.

 

 

 


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Quotidiano

IMG_0296It’s hard to believe that it’s mid-November already. Upon arriving in Rome at the end of August, things seem to be moving nonstop and I don’t feel as though I have the time needed to craft well-written, thoughtful blog posts. But since I’m on month #3 as an official resident of Rome, it seems like the perfect time to step back and reflect on various aspects of everyday life here and do a mental check on what I’m experiencing and how I’m feeling about it.

Work

Two days after arriving back in Rome, I started a contract job with the United Nations. Going from corporate America to a global humanitarian organization has been a huge adjustment and quite the culture shock. It is refreshing to be in an environment where several languages are spoken daily, and agenda items include efforts to help fund the response to the Ebola crisis in West Africa. I won’t go into detail on what I do, other than to say I manage initiatives to create and maintain corporate partnerships. I have smart, dedicated coworkers who foster a very collaborative environment. What is a hard adjustment is the slow, bureaucratic mentality. I’ll stop there.

Commuting

The office is located in an industrial park a few stops from Fiumicino airport, and the easiest way to get there is by train. I am lucky – I have an enjoyable 20-minute walk in the morning to Ostiense train station, where trains run every 15 minutes. Commuting by train is not new for me. In fact, I’ve been commuting by train for the past eight years, and I really enjoy it. The platform is full of people smoking and checking their mobile phones, all of us watching the sign in hopes that the train isn’t delayed (it often is). My favorite part of the commute is when hoardes of commuters disembark at my stop and I get to see everyone’s work outfit for the day. Anything goes here: stilettos, tight faded jeans, glitter, mesh. A colleague of mine told me a great story about an intern who showed up at work wearing a backless dress.

In addition to delayed trains, I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing one of Italy’s biggest sources of frustration: the sciopero, or strike. Once a month, a public transit strike is called (always on Friday), running throughout the day, pausing for the evening commute, and then lasting through the remainder of the evening. Because the public transit situation is so unreliable, there is a general acceptance of tardiness in the workplace.

Living

I had hoped to stay in my Prati apartment for the month of September while looking for a place closer to work, but at the last minute, the owner informed me that due to a family emergency, she needed the place for her sons to stay. The property rental company managed to find me a rather expensive place in Centro Storico, but I wasn’t in a position to refuse. The timing wasn’t great; the apartment change happened the same day I started my job. This apartment was located on Via dei Coronari, one of the most beautiful streets in Rome. Upon telling Italians where I was living, their eyes would roll back in their heads and they would gush about how lucky I was. It’s a pedestrian street, with Piazza Navona on one end and a view of the Castel Sant’Angelo on the other. The street is lined with beautiful cafes and Teatro del Gelato, one of the best gelaterias in Rome. I also discovered two great trattorias. The first is Trattoria Lilli, which was a welcome surprise. I ate there on my first trip to Rome and didn’t realize how close it was to Via dei Coronari (Get the rigatoni alla gricia, one of the best things on the menu). It’s a wonderful place, with friendly staff and delicious table wine. The other place is Alfredo e Ada, a father-daughter duo who serve up Roman food in a small, yet cozy place. There are no menus; they write them on the butcher paper that’s placed on the tables, and then explain them to you. Meals are extremely cheap for being located in the historical center, and they bring you complimentary cookies at the end of the meal to dunk into your red wine. I ate here several times.

So Piazza Navona, great food and gelato, and views of the Castle and St. Peter’s. What’s not to love?

Well, a lot actually.

I had a blast for the first two weeks of September, exploring the neighborhood and drinking Spritz in the Piazza. But the reality is that Centro Storico is a great place to visit, but not a great place to live. Crowds of tourists who scream and yell at all hours of the night, high prices, a challenging commute (bus then train, which are hard to time), long waits at restaurants, tons of traffic. I know, I know, poor Kerry, living in the historical center of Rome. But I didn’t come here to play tourist. I came here to truly LIVE.

Then I spotted an apartment on the UN’s community board for a one-bedroom apartment in Garbatella.

The Garbatella. Or as I like to call it, the Garb.

This neighborhood is one of the best-kept secrets in Rome. Romans will tell you that it’s “La Vera Roma”, or “the true Rome”. A walk through the Garb is like walking back in time. Restaurants resemble someone’s dining room. Old men gather outside cafes, engaged in animated discussion, while others are inside playing cards. Children ride bicycles and play in the courtyards of housing compounds before being called in for dinner. Long, drooping lines of laundry strewn outside apartment windows. AS Roma football signs hang proudly from bar counters, and political murals liven up alleyway walls. If we’re talking in San Francisco neighborhood speak, it’s the Mission meets North Beach.

Now THIS is living in Rome.

The apartment owner is a kind, quirky Brit who is spending time in Spain with her son before moving to the family home in Orvieto. I took one look at the apartment and was sold. Full bathroom, a kitchen/living room combo (there’s an oven!), tall windows that let in the afternoon son, a bedroom with large closets and a balcony with plants. A flock of parakeets fly through the Mediterranean pines during the day, and the nights are blissfully quiet.

I’m slowly becoming acquainted with neighborhood restaurants and bars, and there’s a great farmer’s market on Saturdays where I get produce for the week. People in my building are friendly, including an elderly woman who speaks to me rapidly in Italian and is concerned that I’m eating by myself. Which I am.

Italian

My language skills seemed to have plateaued, so I found myself a tutor, a young English teacher named Simona. We meet at a cafe in the Monteverde neighborhood on Thursdays where I relearn all of the grammar that I was taught at the Italian school in San Francisco. It’s humbling for sure, but I’m trying to go easy on myself. I have a job where I speak English all day, and my Italian friends enjoy speaking English, and speak it rather well. The fact that I can buy a pair of shoes (or four) in my size and ask for the 20% discount is a big accomplishment.

Friends

I’m slowly making friends, but I do wish it was happening faster. Italians are extremely friendly so that’s definitely not the reason. Mostly it’s taking time to build connections. I’ve never been the type to make fast friends. I’m attending some social events here and there which are very fun, and I see my small group of Italian friends from time to time.

I have one great friend at work, who was introduced to me by a college friend who used to work for the UN here in Rome. Duane is like a big brother to me and has taken me under his wing, introducing me to people in the office and around the neighborhood (he also lives in Garbatella). He’s lived in Rome for 30 years and has a wonderful Italian wife and a comical three year-old daughter. He also lived in San Francisco so we just sort of get one another. It’s good to be understood.

I had a good friend in Rome in September for a work trip, and we went to Florence and Montepulciano with his business partner. When he left, a friend from Montreal arrived and stayed for a week before continuing her trip around the world. I missed them as soon as they left. My work contract was extended through July 2015, so I’m hoping a few more friends will line up visits in the spring.

Travel

In October I took a trip to Genova (or “Genoa” as we say in English) with another San Franciscan. An Italian friend couldn’t believe I was spending a weekend there, as he thinks it’s a rather dirty, uninteresting place, but I didn’t see it that way. The port is beautiful, the the food intriguing, and the people some of the friendliest I’ve met since arriving in Italy. It also has the largest aquarium in Europe, which I found impressive.

The weekend after Genova, I took a solo weekend to Athens, Greece. This country has been on my list ever since I signed up for the Peace Corps in Albania in 1996. Hard to believe it took me 18 years to get there! Great food, amazing acropolis. I also made a pilgrimage by bus to Marathon, Greece to pay my respects to the first marathoner in history. The town is pretty small and quiet, but there is a marathon museum. I missed the Athens Marathon by one week, but that’s a good thing; otherwise it would have been a very chaotic visit.

Running

Speaking of, I’m slowly getting back to it. I joined a gym in Garbatella called Roma Fitness, and I’m a 2x a week treadmill user. Duane also took me to a nearby park for a 5K, and this past weekend I ran my first 10K in six months. I still have a few lingering twinges of plantar fasciitis, but it’s so much more manageable than before. I’m starting to have visions of training for the Rome Marathon, which takes place in March. We’ll see.

All in all, I’m pretty content here. One very monumental shift is that I rarely talk about work. It’s not that I work in a terrible place. It’s just that I don’t want my job to be the center of my life, and for the past three months I’ve consistently demonstrated this. I leave at 5pm, I don’t work weekends, and when asked about my job, I give a 2-3 minute summary and then change the subject. It’s just not why I’m here.

My biggest fears are that I’ll become too complacent and too stuck in a routine, which is what motivated me to leave San Francisco. I still have issues stepping out of my comfort zone and doing things that don’t come naturally to me. I came here to try and live a more spontaneous, experience-filled life and that’s not happening as much as I want. Pazienza.


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Filadelfia

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I spent the month of August in the States, waiting to get a long-term visa. The best part was definitely the time I spent with friends and family. A dear high school friend picked me up at the Philadelphia airport and fed me sushi and a homemade American breakfast that included Peet’s coffee before driving me to Washington D.C., where I stayed with a Peace Corps friend and her partner. Those five days were fantastic: great conversations, latino food, delicious cocktails, and efficiency. In order to work for the UN as a consultant, I needed to get medical clearance from a physician and have a bank account that could accept salary deposits (my current bank didn’t qualify because they use an intermediary bank, which the UN won’t accept). In a half-day alone, I had a full physical, opened a new bank account, got my hair cut and colored, got photos taken for my visa application, and sent the majority of the required docs back to the UN. In Italy, this would have taken weeks to accomplish. Then I drove home to my parents’ place in Western Pennsylvania, where I had lots of quality time with my mom and dad, older sister, brother in-law, niece and nephews, and my sweet orange cat, who is living the high life. My younger sister was also able to come home for a weekend, and I was spoiled with kayaking, Yuengling lager, home-cooked meals, and a peach pie for my birthday. Everyone along this journey got to enjoy the prosciutto, cheeses, and balsamic vinegar that I brought back from Rome.

But the waiting and the uncertainty drove me crazy. I had no clear sense of just how long I was going to be there. As a consultant, the responsibility is on me to get my visa, but I couldn’t do that when my paperwork was sitting with the UN, who provided little to no support. It made me so frustrated that I chose not to blog at all while I was home, for fear that posts would become rants instead of stories. Now that it’s behind me and I am back in Rome (I promise more posts about that will come shortly!), I do think it’s worth a story. After all, every story has lessons that might help others who are looking to do something similar.

To work for the UN as a consultant, here’s the process from contract delivery to acquiring the visa. Note that these steps happen sequentially and cannot happen simultaneously. I have put in parentheses the amount of time that it took to complete each step (includes weekend days), but note that this is only my experience.

Step #1: Employee returns signed contract and all corresponding documents (bank info, letter of medical clearance, etc.) to UN. (9 days)

Step #2: UN confirms work assignment. (4 days)

Step #3: UN informs their protocol unit of employee’s contract. (1 day)

Step #4: Protocol unit coordinates with Italian government to create a letter, called a Nulla Osta, informing the Italian consulate of the employee’s work with the UN and the need for a visa. (1 day)

Step #5: Italian consulate receives letter (by snail mail-emailed version not acceptable!) and informs employee that they can make an appointment to come to the consulate in-person to apply for the visa. (9 days)

Step #6: Employee has consulate appointment and applies for visa. (1 day)

Step #7: Employee receives passport/visa by mail from the consulate. (3 days)

Step #8: Employee departs US for Italy. (4 days)

The two most infuriating parts for me, and my advice for anyone expecting a consultancy contract with the UN, are as follows:

Advice #1: If I had known that my current bank wouldn’t work for salary deposits and that I needed a medical clearance, I would have done both of these way in advance.

You’ll need a bank account that doesn’t use an intermediary bank to facilitate international wire transfers. International banks such as Barclays and HSBC may be set up for this, but I didn’t research them in much detail. My current bank uses Citibank as the intermediary, so I thought, “why not just set up a bank account with them?!” Plus, if you go in person to a Citibank location, they can open a savings or checking account on the spot; otherwise it will take you a few weeks if you apply online or over the phone. I went to a Citibank in DC and they opened my account in 15 minutes, not to mention that both the over-the-phone and in-person customer service was excellent.

For the medical clearance, get a physical exam as soon as you can, and have your doctor write up a letter stating that you are fit to work and travel for the UN. The letter needs to be dated 30 days from the start date of your contract, so once you have a written offer, contact your physician, have them date the letter within 30 days from the contract start date, and ask them to email it to you.

I should note that although I didn’t get medical clearance in advance, I still managed to move this through rather quickly. Once in DC, I managed to get a next-day appointment with the same medical group that provided me care in San Francisco. So they had all of my medical records on file through their online system, which made for a very quick doctor’s appointment. It only took 4 days for test results to come back and for the doctor to send me the letter. They were truly awesome.

Advice #2: Make a visa appointment at your nearest Italian consulate that’s assigned to your area of residence as soon as a contract is in negotiation, and contact them directly for the EXACT paperwork that you need to bring for the appointment.

While I was negotiating my salary in July, I made visa appointments at the Philadelphia consulate (the consulate for Pennsylvania residents) and at their satellite consulate office in Baltimore. Some consulates are really backed up and it can take weeks to get an appointment, so this is key. You can always reschedule your appointment if your Nulla Osta hasn’t arrived. Explain to the consulate that you’re applying for a “D Mission Visa” (NOT a work visa), ask for EXACTLY what paperwork you need to bring, and ask them to contact you when the Nulla Osta has arrived at their office. Email/call them to ask for updates. Don’t assume that they will be proactive. Every Italian consulate operates a little differently (appointment hours, appointment process, etc.) so you need to be on top of your game.

Step #2 worked out well for me because I just kept rescheduling my visa appointment, and was able to time it so that I had a scheduled visa appointment the day after my Nulla Osta arrived.

Although my visa appointment on August 22nd meant that I had to drive 5 hours to Philadelphia, my parents came with me and we made a fun day out of it. We arrived in plenty of time to check out the Liberty Bell, which is conveniently located across the street from the consulate. When we arrived at the office, I realized that I basically walked into Italy. How did I know? Because there are no instructions on what you’re supposed to do, and upon asking another person, I learned that they were about an hour behind schedule. Benvenuti in Italia!  But what a joy to hear the Italian language again after a three-week hiatus. I had really missed it.

I watched as others were called up for their appointments, most of which were for short-term visas. Half of the visa applicants were unaware that as of August 1st, visa fees could only be paid by money order as opposed to cash. Sure, there were signs posted all over the office, but the consulate failed to update the website! One applicant went up to the window with the documents he was instructed to bring, only to find out that the person to whom he spoke on the phone failed to mention several additional documents. So off he went in search of the missing items. This is why I stress to call the consulate ahead of time and to be clear on EXACTLY what you need to bring.

As I was waiting for my name to be called, I checked my email and found out that my housing arrangements for the month of September had fallen through. Proof of lodging is one of the documents that you need to apply for a D-mission visa. But in true Italian spirit, I decided to give them the booking form anyway. Additionally, my flight itinerary was not confirmed as the consulate requires, but merely a reservation. I knew I was taking a bit of a risk, but the hour-long delay had given me plenty of time to formulate some creative, convincing responses.

Finally, my was incorrectly pronounced aloud and I stepped up to the window as the consular officer retrieved my newly arrived Nulla Osta.

The flight reservation and other documents (application, money order, copies of passport/drivers license, passport photo) passed inspection, but the consulate officer looked quizzically at the booking form.

“One month of lodging? What will you do for the other three months of your contract?” she asked.

“Well, I’ll either renew my current contract or move to another apartment,” I replied. She seemed satisfied with the answer.

Hey, this is Italy. You do what you need to do to get by the government without getting caught. Several successful attempts at skipping out of high school prepared me very well for this moment.

She took my passport, stamped my documents and asked if I would be picking up my passport/visa in person. I handed her the self-address stamped envelope to have it mailed to my parents’ address. Since my flight was just one week away, I asked if she thought that my passport would be mailed back to me in time for the flight.

“One week? Oh, sure” she answered confidently.

Yeah, right.

We left and continued to enjoy our day, stopping at the Reading Terminal Market for a classic DiNic’s pork sandwich with sharp provolone and broccoli rabe (Fantastic combination, although the pork was rather dry). We then received a great tour of independence hall and then I managed to navigate us out of downtown Philadelphia and back home without getting lost. A long Friday, but a successful one.

The following Monday afternoon, I was working on a crossword puzzle when I heard my mother say, “I think your visa arrived.” I looked up to find my self-addressed priority envelope in her hand. Convinced that there would still be a snafu, I opened the envelope, turned to the visa page, and read through the details.

I was shocked. Everything was correct. They processed my visa and mailed it that same day! After sitting around and waiting for weeks for steps to be completed, the actual visa processing took the least amount of time. Did I have it all wrong about Italian inefficiency, or was the take-away lesson more about the need to anticipate unpredictability?

One thing is certain: the bulk of my waiting around was due to the UN’s procedures. Did I mention the three weeks I spent in July on salary negotiations? This marked my first and definitely not my last lesson in UN bureaucracy.

After what seemed like a lifetime, I once again packed up my suitcase and carry-on, drove to the Pittsburgh airport, said goodbye to my parents, and took a connecting flight to another US airport that would carry me directly to Rome. This time, it was Philadelphia. In just 29 days, I had been to Philadelphia three times: my arrival on August 1st, my visa appointment on August 22nd, and now my departure. I have nothing but brotherly love for this city, who welcomed me home, got me a visa, and put me back on course to fulfill my dream of living in Italy. That, combined with the love and support of friends and family, is what made all of this possible. And that’s why, when I saw my gate assignment as in the photo below, I actually cried out in joy.

I boarded the plane surrounded by tourists who would be returning in a few weeks.

But not me. I’m going to live.

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