"Scusi!" I called for the fourth time as I stepped off a narrow sidewalk onto a cobblestone road to get around some tourists. I said a silent prayer, too, that they also didn't try to make a break, and that a moped or Vespa or teeny, tiny car wouldn't whip around a corner and turn me into Roman roadkill.
After another morning of sightseeing on my third day in Rome, legs weak and tired from standing in line to get into St. Peter's Basilica and then into the Vatican, and then through St. Peter's Basilica and then through the Vatican, my friend and I decided to part ways for a few hours so that she could go back to the Trevi Fountain to take more pictures, and I could get in a run.
I really didn't feel like it, but I already knew Italian run regret. Six years before this vacation, I spent five glorious days in Tuscany and Siena in northern Italy with a then-new boyfriend, a trip on which we drank a lot of red wine and did things that, well, new couples do. I brought pretty dresses, not running shoes, although, as we strolled over the stone streets of Siena, gelato in hand and smug in our new love, I felt a pang at leaving those shoes behind. Runner after runner zipped by, taking on the ancient hills of the town, while I ate Italian ice cream.
That relationship is long gone, so this time, I went to Italy with my best friend from high school and wore my running shoes on the flight over, and then to the Coliseum and the Roman Forum, St. Peter's, and the Vatican, hoping that the neon green of this old pair of Mizunos would help me blend in with Europeans, even when I stopped every five minutes to take pictures.
That afternoon, I put on my running clothes and sat on the hotel bed. My shoes were still covered in dust from the Roman Forum. I was tired. No one would have doubted me if I took a nap. But I shoved myself up, grabbed a paper map, and headed out the door.
Whenever someone asks me what Rome is like, I say: Picture New York City, except with older, narrower roads, and that same energy squeezed through.
Getting lost was easy, too. I'm used to Philadelphia's logical Quaker grid. Rome was laid out and re-laid out over centuries of conquerors, and around and over ruins. I stopped being surprised to see a first-century church next to a cafe, or stunning plazas with vendors hawking motorized dancing cats.
Traffic was always fast and frantic, with scooters and motorbikes whipping through narrow gaps in traffic. To cross the street, a taxi driver told me, you needed to look confidant and assume that cars will stop for you. He also thanked me for being from the state that brought the world Bruce Springsteen.
Running, I knew, would be perilous. I set out from my hotel and passed one 500-year-old church and then another, and onto Via Sistina, a road that my map said led to a green space that I assumed was a park. So I ran down that road and then up as it climbed, jumping around those tourists and praying not to get killed. I reached the summit, which was the top of the Spanish Steps, where artists painted and couples smooched in selfies with the city as a backdrop.
I kept going, though, to that green space on the map, and what unfurled was beauty, and refuge: Villa Borghese, a 148-acre park in the middle of Rome with wide gravel roads shaded by tall trees, manicured gardens, benches, a merry-go-round, and people who strolled, not zipped. I stopped to take a drink from a water fountain, then walked to the edge of the park to see that Rome lay at my feet, with the dome and spire of St. Peter's Basilica rising in the distance. It's the best view of Rome I had during the entire trip.
On the way back down Via Sistina, I saw a group of Italian runners coming up.
"Buongiorno!" I called to them, and they shouted "Buongiorno!" back, and gave me that same runner nod I give and get when running at home.
The summit had been worth the climb. It always is.