Rome Marathon

Sunday was the Rome Marathon. I hauled myself out of bed early Sunday morning to go cheer on the runners and try to get a few pictures. My sports-photography skills are sadly lacking so the pictures are not fabulous, but I have posted a few.

Marathon 1

The race started at the Colosseum then wound around the city passing by some of the iconic Roman monuments: the Roman Forum, the Spanish Steps, and the Trevi Fountain among them. While it has to be one of the most scenic marathons, from what I saw, it was probably a pretty grueling run because there were many stretches on cobblestone streets. I have tried to run a few times on the cobblestone streets around the city and always end up wincing in pain after a few feet.

Marathon 2

Earlier in the week, there were signs that marathon preparation was in full swing, teams of workers were erecting six foot wire fences around the Colosseum (don’t want those spectators to get too close) and I had noticed a different tourist crowd descending on the city. I kept passing small, thin people in jeans and running shoes – not old, beaten down running shoes, but brand-new high tech expensive shoes. Even American tourists don’t wear these shoes walking around Rome.

Then, one morning, I was on a bus on my way to the library. The bus was packed so I was pressed up against a window. We stopped at a traffic light and out the window, I saw a man and woman who who were probably in their thirties and had to be American as he was dressed in jeans, a t-shirt, and flip-flops and she was wearing a sweat shirt and sweat pants with some college name written in enormous letters down the leg. They looked like they had just rolled out of bed, thrown on some clothes, and walked out of their hotel in search of their morning caffeine, and they were passing our bus wandering into a coffee bar.

While Italians have probably come to expect this kind of dress from American college students studying in Rome, it seemed to come as something of a shock to see a couple who looked like young professionals walking around in public in such a state of disarray. I say this because I found I wasn’t the only person watching the couple walk into the coffee bar, as the light turned green and the bus was driving away, I noticed at least three of my fellow passengers staring out the window at the couple and craning their necks to get a better view as we drove away. You would have thought from the expressions on their faces that the couple was walking down the street naked.

When I was a kid and traveled to Italy in the 70s, you would never see an Italian wearing jeans. And, if someone was wearing jeans, they were immediately pegged as an American. While that has certainly changed and I have seen Italians of all ages in jeans, I have never seen any Italians, even teenagers, walking around dressed in the American Saturday-morning-errand-running-outfit: sweats and flip-flops.

Marathon 3

But, to return to the marathon, a huge crowd of spectators turned out to cheer on the runners. I have been a spectator at more than a few marathons and other running races and always find I am at a loss as to what to yell out to the passing runners. Clapping and yelling “go runners” seems so unimaginative, but Sunday, I learned a few new words to add to my cheering repertoire: “dai” – which is pronounced like “die” but actually means “go” which should turn a few heads if I start to use at events in the US; then there was “forza” – which, after a lengthy discussion with a friend whose Italian is much better than mine, we decided could mean either “be strong” or “go forward”.

I thought they worked particularly well when used together “Dai! Forza!”   So, for those of you running races in Philly this summer, if you hear someone screaming “dai, forza! ” its probably me.


Saturday Afternoon at the Colosseum and A Few Pictures for My Nephews

Tourism is big business in Rome. I read somewhere that 7-10 million people visit the city each year.  Everywhere you go there are entrepreneurs trying to capitalize on this market.  In restaurants there are menus in multiple languages, you find people turning their apartments into bed & breakfasts, then there are countless souvenir shops and stands that sell plastic replicas of the iconic monuments of the city like the Colosseum, Michelangelo’s David and his Pieta, (and even some that are found in the Louvre in Paris, like the Venus de Milo – but, who’s keeping track and its a famous statue, right) as well as the requisite religious souvenirs like pictures of the pope, statues of the Madonna, statues of Jesus, and of course rosaries in every size, shape, and color.


Then the are the entrepreneurs with artistic souls who dress in various types of costumes—cowboys, mummies, the Invisible Man, the Statue of Liberty—and position themselves in tourist frequented spots around town waiting to be admired and subsequently tipped for their creativity or tipped if you would like to have a photo taken with them.

My friend Susan has some great photos of a few of her favorites here.

I have seen this group in other European cities and more recently in Manhattan, however, particular to Rome are a group who dress as in costumes of ancient Rome and frequent the Colosseum and the area around the forum. In contrast to the mummies, cowboys, etc who typically don’t move and their goal seems to be to mimic actual statues, this group dressed as ancient Romans, who are often referred to as the ‘gladiators’ (though my friend Laura recently explained to me that they are actually dressed as centurions who were members of the Roman army) actively solicit clients and ham it up for the tourists.

Colosseum 1

I took a few photos this afternoon and as you can see not only can you pose standing beside a fully-clad-for-battle-centurion, or Julius Caesar (who I caught pausing for a cigarette break) they will also let you pose with their swords or laurel crowns.

Group Photo

According to the BBC, few years ago, tourists were complaining about how much theses ‘gladiators’ charge for posing for pictures and also that when you got close to them, you noticed that their uniforms were plastic on the shabby side. As a result of these complaints, the city decided to put in place regulations so now these performers have to follow a strict dress code with metal head gear and authentic breast plates and tunics as well as and charge standardized rates. As you can see from these pictures, they now wear quite serious costumes.

Group Photo 2

Another type of entrepreneur I’ve run into a lot around Rome are the people that position themselves at tourist sites and walk through the crowds selling items ranging from handbags, to flowers, to garlic, and tissues. For the most part, this group is all male and appears to be from various Third World countries. What fascinates me about this is that there are different ethnic groups selling different types of goods. So, the Africans sell fake designer purses (as they do in Manhattan), and the East Indians sell flowers and heads of garlic and packets of tissue.

I don’t mind the Africans, they either wander through the crowd showing off their armloads of fake Prada and Gucci bags or spread their wares on a blanket on the sidewalk and call after you “pretty bag for you, good price”. But, the flower sellers, or ‘pushers’ you might call them, is another matter completely.

Recently my friends from Philadelphia, Mete and Larry, came for a visit. One evening Mete suggested we walk around the city and take a look at some of the monuments that are lit at night. Here is a picture of Mete and Larry in front of the Trevi Fountain.

Mete and Larry

If you take a close look at the photo, you can see one of the flower ‘pushers’ on the far right. Here is their scam at the Trevi Fountain: they approach every women walking towards the fountain with a man (it doesn’t happen if you are alone or with a group women as far as I can tell) and they thrust (quite abruptly I might add) a rose into your hand and then look towards the guy you are with to pay for it. I guess the idea is that the woman will get sentimental – Trevi Fountain, rose, their boyfriend, husband, partner, whatever – and the man will be forced to purchase the rose. What amazes me is that this ploy actually works and I saw that many women walking around the fountain holding roses.

Obviously, Mete and Larry and I presented something of a problem for the ‘pushers’ because they couldn’t figure out which of the guys to manipulate. But, they took their best shot and some looked to Mete and some to Larry as they tried to shove the flowers in my hands. After the third approach, I thought Mete (typically not a violent guy) was going to deck one of them, so I told the guys to walk off on their own. I found them again on a less heavily trafficked part of the fountain where I took this picture. As you can see, the unsuspecting flower ‘pusher’ is leaning over the edge of the wall looking at the fountain and missing a perfect opportunity to sell either Mete or Larry flowers to give the other one.

But, this all raises a larger question for me. As I mentioned earlier, its only the East Indians who are pushing flowers and only the Africans who are selling purses. I don’t know how this all works, I’d like to think that there is a simple explanation. When my Italian relatives came to the U.S. they found jobs through other newly emigrated Italians so many would end up on the same construction site or in the same factory. But, I worry that there is something more sinister happening and that poor men from a third world country are plied to flee their current situations and come to Rome with the agreement that they must pay off their traveling and lodging fees by selling goods to tourists. I don’t know the answer to this but perhaps some Italian anthropologist is looking into these questions as I write this.

Is It Cold Outside?

Monday the forecast called for a high of 62 and a low in the mid 50s. These have been the average highs and lows for the past week and yet when I got on the bus this morning at 9:30, the Italians were dressed in wool or down coats and bundled in scarves and hats. In the Midwest, where I lived for many years, and in Philadelphia, where I now live, 62 degree weather means maybe a light jacket, but probably just a long sleeve shirt, and for some a short sleeve shirt and shorts.

I have to confess, I was not totally surprised to find a bus full of people dressed for the dead of winter. For two months now I have been watching Italians run around in 45-55 degree weather in down jackets with scarves wrapped tightly around their necks as though they are avoiding those Midwestern U.S. wind chills that hover around 20 below on some days.

It’s not simply that Rome, or Italy for that matter has a warm climate and therefore when it gets the slightest bit cold, they bundle up. It’s a bit more complicated.

My Italian cousin Guido who is a physician explains it like this: Italians don’t believe in the germ theory as a way of spreading or contracting colds. They believe you get a cold when you catch a draft. So, if you catch a draft you might get a cold and if you get a cold, you might die.

These drafts are most likely to appear between the months of September and April so in order to avoid catching a draft, you must do the following:
Start wearing your winter coat in September and don’t put it away until April because those are the months when the weather can tend towards the cold and you don’t want to take a risk by not being prepared. This rule, according to a friend, also pertains to the dogs whose owners feel compelled to dress them for winter weather. You don’t remove the dog’s sweater until the end of April
Seldom is it acceptable to open the windows in the bus, the tram, or the train, even if the bus is filled with people. Windows let in drafts.
Gyms are kept at temperatures that hover around 75 degrees (you are comfortable in short sleeves and shorts, but not comfortable if you start moving on the equipment) and if you try to open a window with anyone over 55 in the room, you will likely be scolded.
Don’t even think about leaving the house with wet hair. This is a death sentence.

This weekend, over lunch at my cousin Rafaela’s house (Guido’s sister), we got into a conversation about Italians and their fear of the cold. About two years ago Guido’s daughter, Virginia spent a school year in Boston living with an American family and attending an American high school. At some point after being there for a while, she called her mother and exclaimed “Mom, here EVERYONE walks around with wet hair!”

This attitude toward the cold in general, and toward drafts in particular was brought to the U.S. by Italians over the course of the past two centuries.

My mother, who grew up in Upstate, New York, was not allowed to go outside without a snow suit on until the end of April.  No matter what the temperature was.

Then, according to my grandmother, going out of the house with wet hair was tantamount to suicide. She would only wash her hair in the evenings before bed or in the early afternoons if she wasn’t leaving the house until evening so her hair would have a good four hours to dry. I asked her why she didn’t just wash her hair in the morning before church (she went to church every morning) she looked at me perplexed and responded “I can’t, catch a cold . . . and die”. In fact, whenever she was visiting my parents and got a cold, she would blame it on the fact that SOMEONE (typically me) had made her wash her hair at a time when there wasn’t sufficient ‘drying’ time before she left the house.

What I love about this is that the cold you get from the draft or from the wet hair-draft combination is not your average-run-of-the-mill-sniffles-type-cold, but rather a put-you-in-the hospital-with-a-priest-hovering-around-your-bed-waiting-to-say-the-last-rites-kind of cold.

My father who was always amused by my mother’s Italian family’s attitude towards cold, recently pointed out to me that there is a scene in the movie ‘Donnie Brasco’ in which Al Pacino, an Italian mob boss, scolds Johnny Depp who plays a mobster who is actually an undercover cop character for leaving the car windows open, “What are you doing?” Pacino says “you wanna kill me with that draft!”

If you don’t believe me, here’s the clip from YouTube

A Short Trip Out of Rome

Assisi 1

Last week my mother was in town visiting with a friend of hers. I let them run around Rome on their own while I slaved away in the library. But on weekends the libraries here are closed so mom and I decided to take the train to the town of Assisi and spend the day.

Assisi is a hill town in the region of Umbria which is just to the east of Rome and about two hours on a train. It was settled by the Ancient Romans in about 295 BCE. It became famous because it was the birthplace of St. Francis of Assisi, the founder of the Franciscan Order, known for his brown habit made of burlap tied with a rope (which Franciscans still sport today – some of you may recall the very handsome Franciscan priest that Samantha tried to seduce on Sex in the City), his renunciation of worldy goods, his humility, and ability to talk to the animals.

After Francis’ death, he was proclaimed a saint and there was a church built to house his tomb so pilgrims could come visit and pray before his remains. For those of you who are not Catholic or not familiar with Catholic practice, we find it very fulfilling to pray before the remains (of any size or shape–fingers, toes, or whatever) of a saint, which we call a relic. But, make no mistake, we are not praying TO the relics (we don’t think a finger of St. Anne for example can cure our life-threatening illness-PLEASE) we are simply using it to enliven our devotion. Plus its a way to get directly to the saint . . . who might work a miracle on our behalf. Which explains the throngs of people who were in the Church of Saint Francis on Saturday.

The Church of Saint Francis has itself become famous for a cycle of frescoes representing the life of the saint which is why my mother and I went to Assisi.

However, another appeal of Assisi for me is that it is a relatively large Italian medieval hill town with a wall around it, gates at all the entrances, crenelated towers, and narrow winding streets. I took some pictures which I hope will give people some idea of how picturesque the town is. However, we were there before the tourist and pilgrimage season really heats up. Apparently it starts at Easter, when I’m certain it becomes a little less tranquil and pleasant.

Assisi 2

Assisi 3

Does Anyone Have Any Pasta?

My Italian friend Ellie is going to New York for a month on Saturday.  Ellie has been my conversation exchange partner for the past six weeks.  We meet once a week and she speaks English to me and I speak Italian to her.  Ellie is an aspiring stage actress but she is going to New York to take a four-week course at the New York Film Institute.

This will be Ellie’s first time in the states and she is both excited and apprehensive.  I have been explaining to her during our time together, what I think might be some crucial things to know about the U.S. in general and New York in particular.  Such as:
Bagels: what they are, where you get them, what you might consider eating on them
Coffee in the U.S.: this was a MUCH longer conversation because I had to explain Starbucks and how she might want to avoid it; flavored coffee (she is fascinated by this and can’t wait to try it, especially hazelnut); the new gourmet McDonalds coffee; and how you order coffee with milk at a deli in New York, ‘coffee light’ (at least that’s how it used to be); and finally that places that served coffee were either delis or coffee houses (like in Vienna) and that ‘bars’ serve alcohol and very bad coffee
Pizza: American pizza is very different from Italian pizza and Ellie is from the south where according to her, and every other southerner I have met, ‘real’ Italian pizza is made.  I’m afraid she will be shocked by what we call pizza in the states so I tried to warn her not to have high expectations

Then I also told her about the Union Square Market (the fresh vegetable market on Union Square), and about Whole Foods which I explained was like nothing she had ever seen in Italy and was worth a trip.

I also explained to her that it was absolutely crucial that she get an e-mail address and be prepared to check it often because Americans love their e-mail as much as Italians love their cell phones.  Ellie has three cell phones (no joke).  When I told her that many Americans had at least two if not three e-mail addresses she understood how crucial e-mail is in the U.S.

Ellie will be joined in New York and at the film school by her Italian friend Mary who is also an aspiring actress.  Today, Ellie and I met for the last time before she leaves.  Much of our conversation was about what it is like to live in a foreign country for a couple of months, what would be new and exciting and what you would miss about home.  I told her a bit about my experiences like the fact that in addition to missing my friends and my apartment, I also miss rather odd things like large American gyms and particular American food like salty snacks.  Being Italian and therefore quite serious about her food Ellie has real sympathy for people who might be missing their particular cuisine from home, no matter how odd she might find it.  In fact, she explained to me that her friend Mary was going to be prepared for her stay in New York because she had packed several boxes of pasta and canned tomatoes in her luggage.

That’s right, pasta and canned tomatoes.

While trying not to laugh, I explained to Ellie (in Italian mind you so I’m not sure how well I did) that at least 40 million, if not 100 million (I forgot the exact statistics) people from her country had come to my country during the 19th and 20th centuries (among them both sets of my great-grandparents on my mother’s side) and therefore, if there was one thing we had in the U.S., particularly in New York (where most Italians settled), was pasta and canned tomatoes.

“Really?”  She asked me with a very skeptical note in her voice.  I swore on my grandmother’s grave that not only did we have pasta but we have two of the brands I see in Italian grocery stores, Barilla and DeCecco.

Still dubious she asked, “well then, what about Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese?”  I told her not to worry about that either because she could find it in every grocery store, though I wouldn’t recommend the kind that comes in a can that you shake.  She looked frightened when she heard about cheese in a can but who would blame her.

Perhaps foolishly, I did confess that when I was a kid “molti anni fa” many years ago, in the 70s to be exact, when my parents first moved to Oklahoma, my mother (who is originally from a very Italian-American town in Upstate New York called Utica) used to have her parents ship pasta and canned tomatoes to her because you couldn’t find them in the grocery stores.  Or, to be exact (just in case my mother is reading this), you could find pasta but it was the kind that turned into mush when boiled.  At the time, my mother’s cousin, Phil, was a regional sales-rep for a well-known pasta company and during one visit back to Utica, he explained to my mother that his company sent the pasta that melted and stuck together when it was boiled to a large portion of the country because that is what “Americans” preferred.

Now, have no fear, I didn’t tell Ellie this part of the story.  I merely told her that if it made Mary feel safer, it was probably a good idea if she brought pasta and canned tomatoes.  However, if she did not find pasta and canned tomatoes in every store in New York (except perhaps down in Chinatown), she should send me an e-mail and I would have my friend Julie drop by and deliver not only a load of pasta, but lots of other Italian food that they might be missing.

In the meantime, if any of my readers can think of anything that Ellie and Mary might need to know about the U.S. or New York, please let me know and I will send them an e-mail, which Ellie promises she will be checking regularly.

Four Days in Spain

This week I had the opportunity to go to Madrid for a few days. A friend had to attend a meeting there and invited me to join him knowing I might be able to take advantage of the libraries in town since I do study the Spanish, albeit who live in Rome.

I like Spain. Its like a team of Germans came into Italy and cleaned up all the graffiti and made everyone start following rules. So the cars and motorinos (I believe Americans call them scooters) stop at red lights, the buses come on time and the bus stops all have protective awnings with route maps, people clean up after their dogs, and every merchant has change.

However, I am not a fan of Spanish food. Even Tapas. Whenever I make that statement to an American I get lots of “but, what about . . . tapas, paeya, etc.” First, Tapas is VERY different here than in the U.S., it’s a lot of fried foods, small, fillets of fish in vinegar (think fresh anchovies), and ham (about a 100 different kinds), cheese (it seems like only one kind, manchego) and not so great bread. As for paella it is a regional dish (from Valencia) and if you eat it outside that region, its made in a touristy place and its tastes like a hamburger ordered at a Chinese restaurant. The Spanish as far as I can tell, have virtually no relationship with vegetables. If you order a salad here, you get a bit of iceberg lettuce, a few slices of tomatoes, olives, sliced, hard-boiled egg, and often a big hunk of canned tuna on top. As I am currently residing in the land of vegetables after a few days here, I go into withdrawal.

That being said, the typical Spanish grocery store has many items that are hard to find in Italy. The Spanish grocery stores have an entire aisle devoted to salty snacks, especially nuts. Much like we do in the U.S. A group of us were discussing this over dinner and we decided that the availability of a variety of nuts must be the Arab influence in Spain. The Italians don’t eat a lot of nuts so they are difficult to find and when you find them, they are about $3 for a bag that would cost $1 in the U.S. For salty snacks, the Italians (at least the Romans) eat something called “Pizza Bianca”. This is not cheese pizza without red sauce. Its thick foccacia like dough with olive oil and salt. Its fabulous, but hardly as healthy as nuts. You will see lots of Romans walking around during the day munching on a piece of pizza bianca.

Anyway, I am a huge nut eater so the Spanish grocery stores were like a salvation for me after my two-month nut deprivation. I stocked up on both nuts and change running around to all the stores and paying for things with large bills.

But, to return to Spain being a Mediterranean country that seems to be run by Germans. I think I was most surprised by the fact that the traffic stops at red lights. In Rome, a red light seems to mean, ‘stop if you have time’ and it doesn’t seem to pertain to the scooter operators who keep driving through the red lights. Every time I cross the street I fear for my life. Seriously. So, I was surprised to hear from a local that last year Spain had the highest number of pedestrian-motor vehicle confrontations. I was in shock. In response to this statistic, the Spanish government initiated a campaign to put an end to this. They put advertisements around town telling drivers and pedestrians to be more cautious and repainted crosswalks so they are more visible and for those drivers who don’t know that a crosswalk is represented by the large white stripes, they changed the image to painted silhouettes of people walking. Then, to remind pedestrians to be on alert as the cross the sidewalk, they painted a sign that reads “1 in 3 die in traffic accidents” (please feel free to improve on my Spanish translation here).
Madrid Crosswalk

1 in 3

It seems like such an organized way to solve a problem. See what I mean about a team of Germans? Anyway, I’m now back in the land of vegetables and enjoying a huge salad with several kinds of lettuce (sans tuna and boiled egg), sautéed greens with garlic, locally grown apples and of course, pizza Bianca.

For My Readers Waiting for Photos

For those of you are waiting for me to stop musing on Italians and start posting photos, here are a few.

First is free Sunday at the Vatican. While typically you wouldn’t be able to drag me kicking and screaming to the Vatican on a day like free Sunday because . . . well, its free, so every Italian who has ever thought they should get to the Vatican goes; its Sunday, so you can combine a visit to the museums with seeing the Pope make his bi-weekly appearance; and its the Vatican, the tourist mecca of Rome, where there seems to be no ‘maximum capacity’ in any room and most Europeans don’t have the same idea of ‘personal space’ that Americans do. However, if you are German, and are offering to buy me a cappuccino before, gelato after, and in between give me the German take on Italians, I’m sold.

But, rather than take pictures of the art, I took pictures of the people looking at the art. There is a famous photographer who does this. Troy if you are reading this, please remind me of his name.

By the way, if you are thinking the woman in the front is me after six weeks of eating gelato, its not, I was taking the picture.

Free Sunday at the Vatican

The second photo is the back of the Pantheon. This is my favorite part of the Pantheon because it still has the marble column and decoration that would have covered the building until Renaissance and Baroque architects and builders started using it and the rest of the ancient Roman monuments in town as quarries.

Back of the Pantheon

The third picture is a chapel in the church of San Pietro in Montorio on the Janiculum Hill The Chapel was painted by an artist named Sebastiano del Piombo, who originally hailed from Venice but came to Rome in the early 1500s. He became friends with Michelangelo. At some point, one of the two artists decided that they should combine Michelangelo’s design abilities with Sebastiano’s sense of color and challenge the reigning ‘it-boy’ of the Renaissance art world, Raphael. One of their collaborative projects was this chapel representing the Flagellation of Christ flanked by Saints Peter and Francis and a Transfiguration above, for which Michelangelo is said to have provided the drawing for the Christ being flagellated (hence the burly figure reminiscent of those on the Sistine Chapel ceiling).

I had never seen this fresco in person until a friend and I wandered into the church the other day. Its a hard chapel to photograph because its shallow, there’s no light, and there was a window directly across with the afternoon sun beaming into my shot. But, here it is anyway.