28 October 2011

Pesce e Patatine

Anyone who’s spoken to me in the past 3 months or so knows that I am kind of sick of Italian food.  I am sick of pasta and pizza, of panini and porchetta, of olive oil, garlic, bistecca, and scottadito.  I long for sushi and Indian food, cheeseburgers and burritos.

26 October 2011

Marathon Envy

Every year, the closer it gets to the first Sunday of November, the worse it gets.  Without fail, I get Marathon Envy. Specifically, NYC Marathon Envy.

Four years ago, I ran the NYC Marathon, my first (and, sadly, only).  

I’ve never had a Life List.  I’ve never been a planner, never been one to commit. I’ve always just sort of gone with the flow and seen what would happen (see: me, quitting a job I had for 15 years to move to Italy).  That 2008 marathon is the only thing I’ve ever planned for, worked toward and finished.

Back in 2001, V. and I were in Cenral Park for some reason that I can’t remember.  We had just moved to Scarsdale and it being a Sunday, I really have no idea why we were in the city.   It was late afternoon, as the more regular runners were streaming in to the park.

I was awed and inspired.  There were old people and young people, people in wheelchairs and on crutches and strangers were standing on the edges, urging them on.   Some of them had their names magic-markered on their arms or the backs of their shirts.  They were all doing this amazing act of physicality, together but separate. I thought, “One day, I wanna run this marathon.”

I had never run before.  Not really, anyway.  I don’t count the shuffling four times around the high school track, more walk than run, during the President’s Physical Fitness challenge or whatever the hell it was called, for which we were supposed to run a mile as fast as we could and also try to do some pull-ups.  I never successfully completed either.

Nor do I count the times M., K., & I would tell our moms we were “going jogging”.  What we were really doing was putting on our sweatpants with the elastic around the ankles and our Champion sweatshirts and jogging/walking to the convenience store about half a mile away to buy cigarettes, which we would then smoke as we walked home.

I was also overweight. A lot.  But, I thought, “One day, I want to be one of these people who can do this, who can run 26.2 miles.”

Fast forward two years.  I was living in White Plains, alone.  I had lost a lot of weight, because when you’re heartbroken, you sometimes go off your food.  I had a lot of time on my hands and needed to fill it, so I started running on the treadmill at the gym in my building.

A couple of years later, I was in that special hell I like to call Florida for Thanksgiving.  My sister, always the athlete, had signed us up for a “Turkey Trot” 5k.  After all these years, we’d found something else besides our shared history to help link us across the miles.  She and I got up, drove to the race, completed it and drove back to her house together.  No one managed to meet us there at the finish for that momentous occasion, our first “race”, but that was ok.  In fact, it was perfect.

In 2008, I took the leap.  I signed up for the NYC Marathon.  I didn’t have to enter the lottery and wait, I didn’t have to do it for a charity, I didn’t have to do the 9+1 NYRR volunteering, tho, now, I wish I could volunteer for NYRR races.  One of my responsibilities at work was handling a massive account with one of the race sponsors and they graciously gave me one of their spots.  For the longest time, I didn’t tell anyone I was going to do this.  Then, I thought, if I don’t tell anyone, it’ll be easier for me to not do it.

Pierre Herme, rue Bonaparte,  Paris 
I made a race plan. And I slowly let people know what I was doing.  For the first month or so, I followed the plan religiously, afraid any lapse would result in failure.  I ran around Larchmont, down to the Sound, back up to the Post Road, up thru Mamaroneck, back down past Walter’s Hot Dogs and home, sometimes twice.  And then in September I went to Paris.  And while I ran there, I never got in my 14 mile run.  And I ate macarons. And steak tartare. And oysters and mussels and smelly, runny cheeses.  And when I got home, I tried the long run.  And hurt my knee.

So, the rest of my training was less than perfect.  I couldn’t up my mileage to get in a run longer than 16 miles before the marathon, for fear of hurting myself so badly that I wouldn’t be able to even try.

I had marathon anxiety dreams.  One of the things you do (if you’re me) when you’re obsessed with a momentous run (like I was) is read everything you possibly can about the race.  Especially if you are terrified you might not finish it (and I was).  One thing they say is that the course closes, that there is a “sweeper” truck that stays a bit behind the last runners on the course and picks up anyone who’s not gonna make it to the finish before the organizers pack it in.  In one of these dreams, I was being followed by the truck and the road behind me was churning up, threatening to swallow everything in its path. And it was gaining on me.

I ran the marathon on 1 November 2008.  I had a respectable (for me) half time of 2:30.  I walked the water stops (and the hill of the Pulaski Bridge, getting lapped by a guy with one leg, on crutches).  I walked the hill of the 59th Street Bridge and helped someone with cramps who wasn’t feeling so groovy.  I ran onto 1st Ave.  And I forgot to take my 2nd salt packet and proceeded to be racked with calf cramps all the way into the Bronx. 

I chose not to have my name on me for strangers to shout and I had my iPod, but I never turned it on.  I was cheered on in Brooklyn by gospel singers, by NYFD and NYPD folks along the way, by Hasidic school kids and Brooklyn hipsters and by numerous strangers as I headed back in toward the Park by telling me I was “almost there”.  I wanted to hug every little kid who tried to hand me water and thank every single person who was out there to cheer on strangers and I wanted to kiss the guys in the lonely stretch of the Bronx who had Sugar Hill Gang’s Rappers’ Delight booming from their turntables and tell those last people, as I headed into the park, to shut the hell up.  I was soooo not almost there.  I had a couple of miles and several hundred feet to go.  And I was having trouble remembering why I wanted to do this.  But then I passed the signs for the firefighter who’d been hit by a bus and unable to walk and was now running this marathon somewhere behind me.  And the tops of my feet were cramping.  Who knew they could do that?  But I was gonna finish this.  And I got passed by a guy in a cow suit on Central Park South.  The plushie was beating me.  And the meters and feet were counting down.  And I saw V. on my right, his burgundy corduroy baseball hat near the finish line.  And I crossed that finish line.  Right behind the one-legged Italian, wrapped in his red, white and green flag who threw down his crutches and did a goddamned push up.

My Office, W. 50th St., NYC
And I limped to work the next day, like a jackass.

I was registered to run NYC again in 2009.  I had run the NY Half during training that August. I really wanted to beat that first marathong time of 5:44, but two herniated discs kept me out, so I deferred for 2010.  

I ran the Disney Half in January of 2010 with my sister.  
the Happiest, er, Magical, um, Darkest Place on Earth, Orlando, FL
It was fun.  But it wasn’t NY.  There are long stretches with nothing to look at, few sideline observers and I’ve never been a huge fan of larger than life cartoon characters or, honestly, the Happiest /Most Magical Place on Earth.  If my sister hadn’t been there, in the cold and rain, laughing at me and with me, it would’ve sucked. 

                                                                                                                                  Last year, I was holed up in a cold, leaky apartment in Italy, wondering what we were going to do after the plan that brought us there got all kinds of messed up.  I hadn’t deferred again, not wanting to part with the huge race fee, not knowing where I’d be or if I’d be able to afford the trip back to NY for 2011.

So, now, I’ve got a new race plan.  The Maratona di Roma is in March.  I just have to really start training a few weeks after the NY Marathon. No more of these piddly little 3 or 4 times a week, 5 or 6k runs up and down the hills around here.  I just have to navigate the registration process that includes a medical certificate from an Italian doctor and some sort of athletic association membership fee in this language that I don’t speak and cough up a bunch of euros. It’s just an idea right now.

I just have to decide that running through Rome, past the Spanish Steps and Piazza Navona and to the Coliseum can hold a candle to NY.  It might not happen.  I’m not too good at commitment.  Maybe my sister’ll sign up and then I’ll have to do it.  Maybe not. But if I do it, I won’t have to go to work the next day.

24 October 2011

The Baking Aisle (or, How I Learned the Italian Word for Baking Soda)

The typical baking aisle in Italy is quite different from those in the US.  While there are a few “mixes” on offer, they tend to be for pane di spagna or a chocolate “torta”.   There are no cans of frosting. The baking powder is not sold separately, but rather in a sachet  of “lievito per dolci” and tends to include vanilla and other ingredients.  Chocolate chips are available everywhere, in little 50 g tubs and sometimes you’ll see a big box of them.  There are a few choices for candied citron, a couple of varieties of sprinkles, some marzipan blocks and various  specific “farina”: for bread & salty treats, for “dolci”, chickpea flour, chestnut flour, the odd box of almond flour come fall.  Some crappy vials of vanilla or almond flavoring that must be shaken out one drop at a time (difficult when a recipe calls for a teaspoon, no?).  I’m guessing, but it seems the creative baker doesn’t exist in Italy.  Instead, the place is filled with people making the tried and true recipes. Crostada this, torta that.

(I was shocked the other afternoon when the waitress at our Friday lunch spot said they had carrot cake.  I was like, “Huh?!”, as in, “People make that here?!”  It didn’t translate.

She proceeded to give me the ingredients, “Carrots, walnuts, flour, egg.”  Like, “Duh, Americana. Cake. With carrots and walnuts”   F. tried to explain, “Like pane di spagna with carrot.” Thankfully, it arrived without the cream cheese frosting.  I might’ve fallen off my chair.)

Anyway, the baking aisle rarely has baking soda.  I knew this going in.  They often keep it in the aisle with the cleaning products.  I was on a mission to make muffins.  For  one of the towns three bakers.  See, he honeymooned in NY and was going on and on about everything he ate there that he couldn’t eat here.  A hot dog from a street vendor, eggs with bacon (“pancetta!, but thin & crunchy!”), a good hamburger as big as your head!  A big cup of coffee, in a to-go cup with which he could warm his hands as he walked down the street. And with  which he could eat a big muffin!  

“But, wait, “ I said.  “You have a bakery. Why you don’t make some muffins?”

“Oh,” he replied. “This is Italia.  Nobody eat them here.  You need the big coffee for the muffin!”

OK, I thought.  I’m makin’ the dude some muffins and bringing him a travel mug of American coffee.

Off I went to the Tigre across the street.  I walked up and down every aisle, including the baking aisle, on the off chance these folks kept the baking soda there.  No dice.

I circled back, between the fresh fruit and the cookies where I’d spotted one of the store’s owners.

“Di me”, (which I choose to take as some form of “tell me”) he said.

“Ummm,” I started, sure I was gonna screw it up. “Sodio di bicarbinato?”

He looked at me, confused.  He knows I’m American. Everyone does. Did he think I was speaking English?


“No, no,”  I tried again, dragging out each syllable, trying desperately to roll my “r”s, to sound more Italian. “So-di-o di bi-carrrr-binato???”
I was convinced I had it wrong at this point, but how bad it could it be? I knew what I was looking for involved both “sodio” and “bicarbinato”.

“Corrrn flakes?” he asked.

Worse then I thought, apparently.  I could practically see the thought balloon above his head: The American girl is looking for something.  The words do not sound familiar. She did not say “hamburger” or “ketchup”.  She must want cookies, which are directly to her right.  Dio, these Americans are dumb. Or maybe cereal.  I’ve seen Seinfeld.  Corrrrn flakes are American, no?

Once more I tried.  “So. Di. O. Di. Bi CaRRRR. Bi. Na. To.”

The woman standing behind him looked at me and held in her laughter.

“Oh!”, he said, the lightbulb going on above his head.  “Bicarbinato di sodio?  For cleaning the vegetables?”

“Si si si.”  Whatever.  I put it in my dry ingredients when making muffins, you put it in a bowl with water “per pulire vedurra.”  Va bene.

“There isn’t.  Tomorrow morning.”

Oy gevalt.

And that is how I learned and willl never forget the name of baking soda in Italian.  The muffins for Massimo would have to wait.

23 October 2011


Italy in winter is cold.  Hell, Italy in fall is cold.  No one tells you this, but it’s true.  I think it’s got to do with the houses being made of stone, covered in cement, filled with hard surfaces.  Tile, granite or marble floors.  Big windows and floor-to-ceiling balcony doors.  All I know is, two weeks ago, it was 80 degrees and I was wearing flip flops.  Now, I’m sleeping in flannel PJs, wool socks, and a hooded sweatshirt under 3 blankets.  It’s only October.  The temperature at nite is between 5 and 17 degrees Celsius.  That’s around 40-60 Fahrenheit.  Trust me, it’s cold.

Last year at this time, living in the south, but on the 6th floor of a building on the top of a hill near the top of some mountains  (the rest of which is a story for another day or another lifetime),  with drafty 30 year old aluminum windows that leaked when it rained, I was colder than I’d ever been.

Amongst other things we didn’t have, we had no heat.  Like many places in Italy, the heat-source was a fireplace.  If you could keep this fireplace going, it could, in theory, heat up the water running thru the complicated set of pipes behind it that in turn would run throughout the house to the radiators and, presumably, heat the place.  I wouldn’t know. Because for that, you needed wood. Which we didn’t have. And even if we did, we didn’t have the motorized contraption hanging off the balcony to bring the wood up the six flights. Sitting around, huddled in long johns and woolly hats, we could see our breath. 
We were cold. 

When we moved here, we spent one month in a small apartment on the first floor of a building on the un-sunniest street in town.  It, too, had a fireplace as its heat-source.  It did not have any pipes to bring any hot water to any radiators.  We did have wood, but we had to stand right in front of the fireplace, in the kitchen, to feel its warmth.  But it did have a space heater which is crucial during winter, when it gets realllly cold.

Italy has an abundance of space heaters.  Electric ones, oil-filled electric ones, gas ones.  Glorious, heat-radiating wonders with which I’ve become well-acquainted.  A shower in winter requires the strategic placement of one. 

Our current apartment has gas heat. And a pellet stove. And one electric heater that belongs to the owner. And one oil-filled coil electric heater that we brought with us from the first apartment.  And gas and electric are expensive here.  And the radiators all seem to be placed by windows and doors, so October seems a little early to start using any of it.  Especially when you know you’ll be cold until April or May.

So now we have this:

Chinese-made electric water bottle.  I thought the 5 euro pocket Italian-English dictionary that I bought in Salerno was the best 5 euro I’d ever spent. I was so wrong.

21 October 2011

Talking Turkey

Back in July (July 4th, to be precise), we had dinner at “Caucci”, as the hotel/restaurant in the middle of the main “piazza” (really, now, the stretch of road on which you can park and choose to take your coffee from one of 3 bars or walk up the Corso where you’ll find 3 butchers, 2 bakers, a few hair salons) is known.  Small town italy means businesses are known by the name of the person who owns them, not by the official name. Il Sole Pizzeria Ristorante is “Cappelli”; the Angolo di Fortuna, selling scratch-offs and cigarettes, is “Malaspina”;  Bar dello Sport is “Laura”, etc.

So, there we are, eating our prosciutto crudo and cheese, drinking our wine, when D., the waiter, brings up what’s been brought up earlier that day, by everyone looking to have a conversation.

“Quattro Luglio. Indepence Day?”
“Si, si.”

Again, mentioned by others earlier in the day, “On this day, you eat turkey?”

This is funny for several reasons. The first of which is the Italians hear ”holiday” and immediately want to know what you eat to celebrate it. The second, an  American holiday must mean turkey. Third, the Italians I’ve met all suffer from the same delusion that all I and my fellow Americans eat, ever, is hamburgers.  And maybe hot dogs.  And French fries.  All covered in gobs and gobs of ketchup.  With a side of more hamburgers.

This day, I tell them, is the hamburger holiday! On this day, we gather around the barbecue, at the beach, wherever we can, to indulge in that most American meal of hamburgers, hot dogs, potato salad and beer. Strangely, they’re not impressed. I bet it’s ‘cause they think we don’t know how to celebrate a holiday, what with eating the same things we eat everyday.

Next, I explained that turkey is for thanksgiving. Which is in November.  D., F., and E. all offered their tidbits on what that involves. In Italian, so I was a bit lost, comprehension-wise. I got something about the turkey. And the leg.  And putting the leg in the oven. Wait. I explained, half in English, half in Italian, it’s not just the turkey leg….we cook the whole turkey. In the oven.

“No. Impossibile!”
“Questo e mazzo!”

This is mad! Total disbelief. The craziest thing they ever heard. Maybe Italian turkey’s are bigger than ours?

I’m sure I’ll find out soon enough.  Thanksgiving is now just around the proverbial corner.  
Or maybe, I'll just make a chicken.