30 December 2011

I Need A Car, You Need a Guide

I really love driving.  Once my friends and I reached driving age, I was the one who, no matter who else was willing to take their car wherever we were going—the Hamptons, the city, the party two towns away—I, too, would take mine.  Designated driver?  No problem, but you’re gonna have to leave when I wanna go.  Maybe we’ll leave the party and take a ride to the beach…..

My car was my freedom.  Driving down the highway, in MY car, where I could listen to MY music (despite protests from friends whose tastes ran a little more Top 40 than mine), smoking MY cigarettes, going where I wanted to go, leaving when I wanted to leave.

My first car was a pale yellow Subaru hatchback that a boyfriend referred to as “the egg”.  We actually started dating after our Philosophy final, on a snowy day just before Christmas when I’d locked my keys in the parking lot of the community college’s parking lot and he oh-so-gallantly took me to his house to wait until my sister got home and could let me in to the house to get a spare set of car keys. 

It took me to work, out to my friends’ summer house in the Hamptons and straight back to work the following day.  It carted me and my belongings to and from my new upstate school numerous times.  It provided refuge and solitude, carted my ass aimlessly around Long Island and the rest of the tri-state area whenever the mood struck.

That car met its end parked in front of my mother’s house during summer break.  We lived on a corner in a town that rivals that of Edward Scissorhand’s in terms of cookie cutter suburb.  I unlocked the driver’s side door, realized I’d forgotten my watch, and ran back into the house.  Just in time to miss the muscle car that careened around the corner, spun around, crushed the enter driver’s side, continued spinning and drove off.

Despite my close brush with death, I was secretly delighted.  I really wanted a new car.  Well, an old car.  A pink ‘70s  convertible VW bug to be precise.  My father helped me find it.   Then he helped me learn how to drive it, with its four-speed manual transmission (I had to stand up to jam the gearshift down to get it into reverse).   And how to pop the clutch and make it “go” when the battery died:  find someone to push the steel beast, first gear & clutch engaged, until it reached an approximation of second gear, release the clutch and hope the one pushing it didn’t expect to get in and go where you were going.  Invaluable lesson, it turned out.

In addition to the faulty battery upon purchase (for much too much money), it had the classic VW Beetle heating system (read: virtually non-existent).  The engine was in the back.  Below the back bench seat were pipes directing air from the engine through holes right about where my passengers’ calves were.  This was meant to warm the entire car.  When the tubes carrying the air rotted, you could just take a coffee can, slit it up the side, squeezed to the size of the original pipes and pop ‘em where the originals belonged.  It was a somewhat futile fix, as with either original or coffee can pipes, the heat never made it to the front seat.  In cold weather, I had to scrape ice off the inside of the windshield.

Still, I loved that car.  It was pink!  It was a convertible!  It was a stick shift!  It was pink!  It also began to bleed oil.  I started traveling with cases of oil on the rotting floor of the back seat, right next to the fiberglass I’d intended to fix the floorboards with but never got around to, during my trips to and from my upstate college.  I finally had to leave it there, torturing my mother as it ruined her driveway until the day that kid came and asked if he could buy it (and the oil and the fiberglass) for his girlfriend.  I was about to start student teaching and needed a reliable car, more befitting of my position.  Really, I needed something that would help me be taken more seriously by the middle school students that I looked a little too much like.

Enter the oh-so-practical Toyota four-door bought with my mom.  Such a sensible ride for a teacher of English.  I drove that car through six house moves, three job changes, one towing by the NYCDOT and a major break-in that stripped me of hundreds of dollars of clothing during a stop in NYC to see Bob Mould at Irving Plaza between a day of work, a trip to Boston for the weekend and more work on Monday.  Eleven years, a hundred and seventy thousand miles and one broken trunk lock later, I bought my first car all by my self.

I loved my Mini Cooper.  It wasn’t pink, but it was mine, bought after a torturous break up when I was facing living on my own and all that that meant.  And the breaker-upper thought it was totally unnecessary.  I maintain it was exactly what I needed. 

I drove to DC.  I drove to Long Island.  I drove upstate.  Sometimes multiple times a week.  That brand new car, which its unlikelihood of breaking down (and it’s Mini-provided roadside assistance if it did) was my life saver as I went from work, to home, to the friends who let me sob my heartbreak all over them, to work again. 

I drove to my job in mid-town Manhattan.  Every day for seven years. I sat on the West Side Highway, smoking my cigarettes, listening to my music, fielding phone calls and emails from work, having conversations with my friend M. in her car that was always just up ahead in the line of traffic heading home until she hit the deadspot on the Saw Mill where Westchester turns toward Putnam.

One summer day, all of NYC, Westchester and, I think, most of the Eastern seaboard lost power.  No trains, no subways.  Good thing I had my car, into which I stuffed five other adults and drove them all home, through various neighborhoods of Manhattan, the Bronx and Westchester. 

When we decided to move to Italy, I had to sell my car.  It was actually sold after I left and it was what made the move feel final.  Sure, I’d given away, sold or packed up most of my belongings to be shipped across the ocean in a container but it was knowing that when (if?) I go back, my car isn’t waiting for me at JFK.

I don’t drive much here.  Besides the facts that our car is bigger than I’d like, a smallish station wagon-esque beast and that I’m not on the kooky, incredibly expensive Italian-style insurance plan, truth is I just don’t like to drive here.  The roads are too narrow, too poorly lit, inefficiently signed and often lead into some medieval town built for people on horseback with surprising dead ends and impossibly right-angled corners.  Did I mention our car is too big?  And then, there are the drivers.

Much has been written about Italian drivers.  Suffice it to say that they all seem to think they are Fernando Alonso, speeding through Monaco’s Grand Prix course, overtaking cars at every turn.  As V. says, often, when I scare him by bracing myself for impact as headlights head toward us in our own lane, while someone else is driving so far up our trunk we can’t see their headlights in the rearview mirror, “I’m sorry but people are trying to kill me here!”

For someone who enjoys driving so much that I once contemplated a job as a truck driver (until I realized I wouldn’t want to be broken down on the side of some road in the middle of the night or sleeping in the cab at a truck stop), the fact that driving in Italy is a non-stop battle to remain alive instead of the exercise in freedom of adventure it should be kills me.

If only I could pick up the multi-laned US highways and the drivers that don’t pass into oncoming traffic, drop ‘em down over this country, get in a little old pink Fiat 500 and go……

27 December 2011

I Know What You Did This Morning (or Essentials for Lab Tests, Italian-style)

You can find out many things necessary to live life in Italy from expat websites.  You can learn how to get the Codice Fiscale, necessary for obtaining everything from a cell phone to a car.  You can get information about visas, stay permits, citizenship.  You can find the best places to buy peanut butter and who might have barbecue sauce.  You might find how to get a card for the healthcare system.  You might not find how to navigate the health system with its tickets and receipts, clinics, hospitals and ambulatorio.  And, unless you know a local, you will not know these two essentials:

24 December 2011

The Vigilia (and Why You Should Pray for This Heathen)

Christmas Eve, or Vigilia in Italian, is widely known for the copious amounts of fish consumed.  Our American friend, L., wanted to make the dinner at her house this year.  Her plan was to get oysters for V. to shuck and some vongole, cozze, and gamberi for paella.  She ordered ahead of time from one of the fish markets in San Benedetto, fearing the Italian mammas would buy it all up within a 50km radius and she'd be left fish-less.  She then realized she’d never be able to make the half hour drive with her two small boys before closing time, emphatically stated by the woman on the phone as 10am.  We offered to go for her.

“You’re sure you’ll get there before 10a?  She was adamant.  They are closing at 10. In the morning.”

“Non ti preoccupare!  Don’t worry!   No problem.   V. gets up early.   I’ll call you once we’ve got them and are heading to you.”

22 December 2011

Nothing's Stirring Here...

The holidays are always weird for me.  Maybe it was always having to choose which parent to spend it with and which parent to be mad it wasn’t them (granted, that was probably more in my head than theirs).  Maybe it was that my Jewish grandmother was making Christmas cookies.  Or maybe, it was that the standard, portrayed in books and movies, was impossible to achieve in real life.  If there wasn’t a house full of friends and family, a roaring fireplace, a beautiful tree under which everyone’s wishes could be found beautifully wrapped, we’d all failed.  

17 December 2011

New Word: Incubo

I hear new words all the time, look them up in my dictionary, and then can’t remember their meaning the next time I encounter them.  Sometimes, I learn the meaning in such a way that I think I’ll never forget it.

A couple of weeks ago, I was sitting at the bar in San Benedetto trying to read the newspaper.  The frontpage headline showed a picture of the destruction caused by the flooded Pò River in Northern Italy, with this superimposed over it:
“Il Pò Paura, Incubo Pieno”

Somewhere in Macerata....

As you drive through italy on the winding roads, up and down the hills, you often see little stone houses, groups of houses, land stretching between them and they look almost abandoned.

I’m sure they sometimes are, but sometimes, like this Wednesday, you get to see what’s really happening in at least one of them.

This house looks like a shed, maybe a storage spot for god knows what.  It looks sort of sad, a bit neglected but for the smoke wafting up from the grill outside the door.

09 December 2011

My Italian Eye Exam

My first real foray into the Italian health system went like this:

Show up a half hour before appointment time.

Go to the hospital.

Take a number from the machine, now void of handwritten notes telling me it was closed and not to touch.

Pay €26.  I think ten of it, the “ticket fee”, or part of it, might go to the referring doctor.

Stand outside the eye doctor’s office, where a handful of Italians are sitting.

Wait while my “reservation” time comes and goes.

Walk over to the little white-clad, rubber-clogged woman appearing periodically at the office door and thrust my ticket in her face.

Sit and wait for them to call my name.

08 December 2011

Some Reservations

The other day, I called a hotel in Paris.  Now, I studied French in high school.  Actually, “studied” might be a generous term for what I did.  I coasted.  I got away with reading and writing it OK but speaking it barely.  I still remember how to say, “I would like…”, “I am…”, “Open [or close] the window” and the oh-so-important “Close your mouth.”

I did not want to have to call the hotel.  I didn’t even want to stay in this hotel.  I wanted to stay where I always stay, the place with the kitchen, the place that I could book online, no speaking any language to anybody, but that place had renovated and priced itself right out of my range so I was stuck with this hotel that does not do online booking.  They had responded to my first email and had requested I fill out a form that included my credit card details, which I dutifully did.  And got no response. I was left with no choice.

29 November 2011

Socialized Healthcare? Per me, sì, grazie!

So, we went to the doctor last week to get “tickets” so we can get our eyes examined to renew our NYS drivers licenses and have V.’s shoulder checked out.  Our doctor doesn’t speak English, but he was very nice, sitting there in his white doctor coat, trying to get our family health history using a combination of Italian, French and English.

He handed us our tickets and a post-it with the free-phone number to make “reservations” for the exams.

24 November 2011

Today's Run, in Pictures

Today’s my nephew’s twelfth birthday.  He’s running a Thanksgiving 5k today in Tampa.  The same 5k his mom and I ran four years ago (during which, I'm pretty sure he was sleeping).  

Wish I could’ve been there with them today.  For one thing, Florida's flat.  But really, I just thought about them the whole time I did my own run around the same time as theirs. 
out and back, 6k

For him, here’s my run today, in pictures:

23 November 2011

Becoming Italian, Part 3 (or Crisi di Identità)

So, I got my Carta di Soggiorno.  Now, I had to get it updated to show I live in the new Province so that I could register with the new Comune.

Ah, Ascoli, I knew I liked you, but after visiting your questura, with its l lovely chair-filled room, its lack of crowds and its little tray in which to place my documenti, (not to mention your glassed-in teller area), I think I may be in love.

21 November 2011

Giving Thanks? He Don't Wanna

We were at the hotel for dinner.  L. had just flown in from a business trip in Denmark.  She had gotten on the wrong bus from Rome’s Termini Station and Instead of passing right thru our town, where she could’ve hopped off, it took her down thru L’Aquila and more of Abruzzo over to the coast and up to San Benedetto, where she found a cab to take her here, adding approximately an hour and a half to her all ready lengthy day of travel.  We thought some handmade taglietelle with truffles might help.

19 November 2011

Being Counted

On Wednesay, we returned our Censimento to the office at the Comune.   The Italian census is much different than the US version. 

The Italian census is sixty-two pages long.  Filling it out is required by law.  Not doing so is punishable by a fine.  If you’re not lucky enough to have a form with a number on it to enter into the online site, you must complete it by hand.

11 November 2011

A Little Bit of Paris

When we lived in Larchmont, we’d often get up on Saturday morning and walk to the best cheese shop around.

10 November 2011

New Word: Incubo

I hear new words all the time, look them up in my dictionary, and then can’t remember their meaning the next time I encounter them.  Sometimes, I learn the meaning in such a way that I think I’ll never forget it.

The other day, I was sitting at the bar, trying to read the newspaper.  The frontpage headline showed a picture of the destruction caused by the flooded Pò River in Northern Italy, with this superimposed over it:
“Il Pò Paura, Incubo Pieno”

I got that there was fear because of the Pò flooding and that something was full, and I could appreciate the alliteration, but I had no idea what “incubo” meant.

Using my stellar etymological skillz, I wondered why the river was full of a demon.  That couldn’t be right.

I did what I often do in situations like this when I’m too lazy to look it up in my 5 euro “pictionary”, as it’s called by our friend, A. 

I asked F.:



“What it means?”

“You know ‘dream’?”


“Dream, no good.”

“Ahhhh. Nightmare.  Full of nightmares!”

I also like to think that my bad English grammar, while doing nothing to help F. learn proper English, does wonders for my learning Italian grammar.

Becoming Italian Part Due (or I Should've Bribed the Bald Guy)

I think I know what my new questura boyfriend meant when he shouted, “Good luck!”  He meant, “Good luck getting the actual Permesso di Soggiorno, ever.” 

09 November 2011


My Italian leaves a lot to be desired.   Often, I know the words, but can’t get them out in the right order, or I don’t know what article to use or how to conjugate the verb.  Sometimes, it’s just my delivery. 

08 November 2011

Friday Market Day, San Benedetto del Tronto

 In San Benedetto, market days are Tuesdays and Fridays, from around 8a 'til noon-ish.  The vendors, of course,  must stop in time to pack up and get to wherever they're going to eat lunch at 1p.  We've discovered the best way to approach it and it is this:

Start along the lungomare, at the circle where the road turns toward the port.  These stalls are full of sweatpants, t-shirts, underwear, cheap jeans, pants and sweaters, knockoffs of the latest mall fashions and some used leather jackets.

Then, toward the pedestrian area, where you'll find vendors who've got overstock from the Grande Firme or maybe just items that've fallen off of trucks.  Miu Miu, Prada, Woolrich, G-Star.  Some name brand shoes.

Off the pedestrian area, on a little street heading north are the food trucks.  Porchetta, fried & dried fish, and these:

The woman behind the counter says to cut up the pig ears and sautee them in a pan with some tomatoes.  I didn't ask her how to prepare the feet. 

Maybe, pick up some olive oil,
some fruit and veg,

or some dried fish for bacala.

Then, it's thru the big parking lot of shoes, herbs, household goods and toys nearer the port.

Past the fishing boats, returned.

Past the empty crates and coiled up nets to the Mercato Ittico 

where you buy these:

Two kilos for 5 euros.  And you make the long walk home to pry open your bounty.

03 November 2011

Becoming Italian Part Uno (or Immigration, Man)

I knew that once I arrived in Italy, I had 8 days to present myself at the Questura to declare my presence and to find out how to get my stay permit (Permesso di Soggiorno).  I didn’t know where the Questura was, exactly, beyond a meaningless address in a city 2 hours away, written in my ever-present notebook.

02 November 2011

food facts, le marche edition

Italians are, um, particular about their food.  Growing up in NY, you learn this at an early age, surrounded by so many of them, all of whom believe their mother’s sauce is the best, their grandmother’s way of making [insert Italian-american dish here] is the ONLY way to make it.

Well, the East Coast Italian-American community’s got nothing on these folk.

Top 5 food-related facts of le Marche that I’ve learned:

1-Salt does not go into the pot of pasta water until the water’s all ready boiling.  I don’t know why this is, but it is.  To do so earlier is evidence of idiocy and/or poor upbringing.

2-You can put onions in a pan. You can put garlic in a pan. You cannot put them both in the same pan.  Some of those who choose to go with onion also remove it prior to serving whatever the actual dish is.

3-You can eat fish. Or you can eat meat. You cannot eat them at the same time, during the same meal.  “Terra e mare? Insieme? Mai!”  Bacon around a scallop would be blasphemous.
I’m dying to make the classic Surf & Turf of my youth.  A steak and a lobster tail on one plate. Totally blow their minds.

4-You never use butter.  Except, you do. Only you don’t admit it. Tagliatelle with truffle sauce?  Some chopped up truffle, some olive oil, a little bit of butter.  I know this because, in addition to the tons of butter you see at the grocery store, the waiter in town was explaining the recipe but left out the butter.  He gave it up when I pressed him, looking over his shoulder to see if anyone had heard..  Try to tell that to the folks around here who eat it, tho, and they’ll protest in horror.

5-Putting mustard on a bologna sandwich is a sin.  Adding cheese to that sandwich?  Beyond. Scandalous.

Forget about the “sauce” vs. “gravy” debate.  That's not a topic for a non-Italian like me, but know this:  here it’s sugo or salsa in general, ragu if meat’s involved. E Basta.  Now, the pronunciation of Italian ingredients in the US and who utters them correctly? Nobody there does, except maybe Mario Batali. Everyone else?  They’re speaking dialect (not Italian) and in NY, it’s usually the Naples variety.  Take that, every Italian-American I grew up with on Long Island who made fun of how I said “mozzarella”!

01 November 2011

vongole, panocchie, and cozze, oh my

This past weekend, we hung out at the beach in San Benedetto.  I had a gloriously flat run along the lungomare, the men cooked, I cleaned up (despite their half-hearted protests that I act like a "real" woman and cook--I think they remembered my attempt to make falafel) and, as I feel is my calling here, I dispelled yet another myth about America.


I was never a huge fan of Halloween. I think it may have started when we lived in Queens and the kids there "celebrated" by spraying each other with Nair.  Then, we moved to the suburbs, where shaving cream, eggs and the old, striped tube sock filled with flour and wielded like a medieval flail were the weapons of choice.  This made Halloween scary in a different way than originally intended, I think. 

Plus, the whole costume thing.  What to be? For some people, i understand dressing up is liberating. For me, terrifying.  What to "be"? Ugghhhh.

When I was little, maybe five or six years old, and we lived in the ex-urbs of Long Island (pre-Queens), my mom made matching bird costumes for my sister and me.  I distinctly remember the scratchy paper-mache of the heads.  I think the idea was that my sister would be Big Bird and, well, I was littler, so I was a little version of Big Bird.  I liked that. I didn’t have to choose. 

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.