Saturday, October 30, 2010

Dieting, Italian-style

Dear Readers,

I am surrounded by temptation. Everywhere I turn there are wonderful things to eat: luscious cheeses, heavenly breads, fresh pasta topped with ambrosial sauces, pastries that make you go weak in the knees, and a dizzying variety of inexpensive, excellent wine to wash it all down with.

I'm only human. And American, at that. Let's just say that I have been wantonly overindulging a bit lately--oh, maybe for the past two years--and I've put on weight.

So, last spring, I decided I would avail myself of the national health service (the SSN, Servizio Sanitario Nazionale, for which I am taxed mightily) and go see a dietician. After getting the referral from my primary-care doctor, I rang up in May and was given--according to the dragoon I spoke with--the earliest appointment available... in late October. "Holy crap," I thought to myself, "are there that many fat people in Florence?" I consoled myself with the fact that at least it was in 2010.

Meanwhile, I kept eating....

Let me say right off that I have a natural antagonism toward diets. Apart from the obvious fact that they suck all the joy and spontaneity out of life (no more "Oh, look--there's a big plate of fried calamari! I do believe I shall eat it!"), it's the pictures of dieting women in magazines that really turn me off. These photos invariably depict winsome females enjoying healthy, low-fat meals--usually a dwarf-size bowl of leafy salad greens standing at crisp attention, cupped in the slender and well-manicured hand of a dewy-cheeked maiden dressed in white, who is serenely slipping a cherry tomato into her rosebud mouth with her fingers. Head tilted back, creamy throat exposed, her eyes are closed in profound rapture and the expression on her face is one of pure ecstacy--a pomodororgasmo. I don't know about you, dear Readers, but starvation rations turn me into a wild, hollow-eyed beast craven with hunger, hair standing on end, and itching to pick a fight. (That wouldn't be a very pretty picture, now, would it?)

Anyway, five months and four kilos later, the appointed day finally arrived. Of course, it's a miracle I even remembered I had the appointment. Well, actually I had ample time to have the date tattooed on my arm.

After getting off work, I cycled across half the city on heavily-trafficked viali, dodging double-parked cars and fiendish buses like Frogger, to get to a forlorn clinical outpost on the far edge of Florence's wild west side. "They better hand me the dietary holy grail, after all this!" I cursed to myself.

After the usual bowing and scraping, I entered the waiting area for Dietologia/Allergologia/Neurologia. Besides me, there was a lone, elderly Asian man who was so thin he looked like a Giacometti. I flopped into a chair, overheated from my two-wheeled odyssey, expecting to wait because I was 20 minutes early. But instantly a door opened and a white-coated woman called out "C'è qualcuno per dietologia?" Since Chopstick didn't move, I shyly stood up, like a schoolgirl caught off guard and asked to name the state capitol of North Dakota. "Prego, Signora. Si accommodi." I followed her into her office, somewhat perplexed. If it takes five months to get an appointment--or better, an audience--shouldn't that waiting-room be teeming, like Purgatory? Shouldn't there be fat people wedged into every chair, sprawled on the floor, banging on the door to get in? Shouldn't there be the din of bulimics retching in the bathroom?

Nope--I just sailed right in, all ______ kilos of me. (If you think I'm going to disclose my real weight on this blog, you're off your tarallini, dear Readers.)

The dietician, a sturdy woman with an attractive mop of curly gray hair and disconcerting pink frosty lipstick, seemed amiable enough. She weighed me in, and I couldn't help but blurt out, "Of course I was THINNER back when I made the appointment!!!"

Then we got down to business--she asked me what I normally eat. I said, "Why don't you ask me what I normally DON'T eat and we can get through this a lot quicker?" She seemed surprised at my breakfast, a marked departure from the typical Italian colazione of cappuccino and a cornetto. When I told her I usually eat two slices of whole wheat bread topped with some cottage cheese, butter, or even peanut butter and a dab of jam, along with my caffelatte, she raised her eyebrows as if I'd said I was polishing off a side of beef every morning. And when I complained that this Grand Slam breakfast--eaten at 7:00am, before walking the kids to school and before bicycling to work--didn't carry me through til 2:30pm when I get home and have lunch, she was mystified, "But you should be fine after having such a big breakfast!" After much cajoling/groveling/begging on my part, she conceded me a medium-size piece of fruit or a couple of crackers as a mid-morning snack--like Marie Antoinette tossing a crust of bread to the rabble.

She then prescribed to me the typical Italian diet for shedding unwanted weight: basically I have to eat the equivalent of one full meal (that is, a primo of carbs and a secondo of protein) divided in two between lunch and dinner, with veggies galore, and only three miserly spoonfuls of olive oil per day. Other austerities were thrown in for good measure: 40 grams of this, 70 grams of that, blah blah blah. Oh, and I'm supposed to eat all this wretched fruit (Italians are obsessed with freakin' fruit!). She quickly wrote everything out in inky swirls on my personal pre-printed diet form. Then she delivered her below-the-belt blow--but I suppose it's no surprise really--no wine allowed. I stifled a sob.

However, I was somewhat mollified by the fact that she was clearly very impressed with my 40 minutes round-trip of biking to and from work everyday (admittedly at a cautious snails' pace, given the bloodthirsty nature of Florentine traffic). To her I was Ironman. "But shouldn't I do more? Break a sweat with some intense cardio?" I asked. "No, no! What you do is enough!! If anything, perhaps add a passeggiata* with your family on the weekend."

Common sense, dear Readers--while utterly sensical--is just so damn boring. I was half-hoping to be given a crazy, exotic diet--say, the All-Gnocchi Diet or the Wild Boar Diet or the 3-P's Diet (pizza-polenta-pasta). The whole experience, I must admit, was a bit of a let-down. After waiting five months, I had built up a lot of expectations. It was rather like going down the rabbit hole and finding...a rabbit.

And there was no inspirational spiel forthcoming either--the dietician said gravely in what I suppose is the Italian version of a pep-talk, "Now, with this diet you will lose the weight very, very slowly. But it is better that way. And don't expect to ever go back to how you were before you had your children." (Sane? Able to speak in complete sentences? Permitted to pee in private?) She tucked my diet plan into a large, white envelope and gave me her benediction. Then I was back on the swarming viale, sitting on a bench in the waning autumn sun before setting out, and contemplating my immediate, lean future.

I could sure go for a juicy bistecca

So--considering I had to wait five months to be told that I have to eat like Gandhi until the kids are in college--I went home that evening and popped open a bottle of Grecanico and a carton of my beloved pistachios.

Gandhi could wait til Monday.



* these traditional über-leisurely strolls are performed equally well by women in three-inch stilettos, stumbling toddlers in poo-laden diapers and, well, stumbling octogenarians in poo-laden diapers. Hardly the kind of no-pain/no-gain advice I was hoping for.


  1. I'm on the road of needing to loose 15-20 lbs... final meeting with nutritionist next week.. I hope she is a little more gentlre and encouraging... xo HHL

  2. Good luck to you, High-Heeled Life!

  3. I've been sitting here reading your blog and howling with laughter while that little voice in my head was screaming 'get back to work now!'. Your writing is a delight! I'll be back...

  4. Hi Isabel! Thanks for your kind praise. As you may know, I have been a fan of your wonderful India blog for a while now--therefore I am flattered that you've spent a little time with my blog, since you have so much to tempt you outside your own window....

  5. Um, dear Campobello, from what body part(s) do you propose to lose this weight?

    Thanks so much for making me laugh!

  6. Patty, you're much too kind--you know that counter at the bookstore hides a multitude of sins! (Also a well-positioned copy of War and Peace makes me look--almost--like Shakira).

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  9. I was just reading this again and getting a KICK out of it. Can't wait to read you again, hope you get right back in the mood when you return! (When will that be?)

    1. Thank you, Barbara--I am feeling in the mood again, but taking a break was needed, I think. I'm back in town on Sept. 11 and hopefully will be posting something soon. As always, thanks for reading :)

  10. Thanks for this-very amusing. I live in Sardinia and have put my bilancia away! Dread going back to work in the states for 6 months but at least the temptations arent lurking there.

    1. Thanks for reading and commenting, Janice :) Enjoy Sardinia.

  11. Anonymous9:37 PM

    I love this post! The descriptory words of all the Italian foods make me salivate.
    I felt similarly in India, surrounded by rich, buttery Punjabi curries and rice... but life is meant to be bit of an indulgence I think :)

    1. You are so right! No sense living in such delicious places if we can't go, um, whole hog, right? ;-)

      Thanks for coming over to Italy, Bronwyn :-)


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