Twenty years ago, when I accepted husband No. 2’s marriage proposal, he asked where I’d like to go on our honeymoon. I – a wanna-be Italian – said Italy was tops on my travel wish list. He said that sounded great, too. When we each shared what it was about Italy that we most anticipated, he said art. I said food.
I should have gone for the art.
We ate gelato every day, sometimes more than once. This was during my phase of mastering the art of making the perfect tiramisu, so for dinner out, if we ordered dessert (and we always did), I chose tiramisu.
Fact: Tiramisu, which means pick me up in Italian, is one of the most high-calorie, high-carb, high-sugar desserts on most any restaurant’s dessert menu. While in Italy, I did discover that tiramisu comes in many forms: from pudding-like to cake-like, and they’re all delicious (I prefer cake-like).
And by the way, I did master tiramisu, but at what a price.
I gained 10 pounds on my honeymoon that I never lost. I never did get back to my pre-wedding weight.
This week I will have been on this health-and-fitness program with Matthew Lister at Align for a year. This is the most arduous, difficult and rewarding physical challenge I’ve ever undertaken. I’ve radically changed not just how I exercise and eat, but my entire relationship to food, and how I think about it. It’s fuel, yes, but because I’m still a foodie, food is also still a pleasure.
But eating is no longer my dysfunctional go-to source for comfort and pacification. I’m not on a temporary diet; something I look forward to ending so I can resume my unhealthy eating habits. I’ve found a way of life that makes me feel better than I’ve ever felt. Of course, I wish with all my heart that I’d done this sooner, but it’s better late than you know what.
Even so, as excited as I was to visit the Czech Republic last month to see son Joe, and to join him, his wife, her mother and my twin in Florence, Italy, I was also deeply afraid. This would be my first trip to Europe since I embarked upon this program, and my 10-pound honeymoon weight-gain loomed large in my thoughts. I didn’t trust myself to be away from my workouts and routine that long without gaining weight. Historically, I lose weight slowly, but I gain it quickly. I’ve often joked that I can gain weight just looking at food.
I confessed my fears to Matthew, who gradually increased my carbs two weeks before I left for Europe, to prepare my body for the extra calories I’d surely ingest. That alone seemed counter intuitive, but I trusted him. He’s never steered me wrong.
After that, Matthew encouraged me to not stress about the food. He suggested I be aware of what I was eating in Europe, but to relax and enjoy myself, too. He said that if I really wanted something, to go ahead and have it, and not beat myself up over it.
I tried to do exactly that, but I fretted over every bite. My travel companions can attest that most of the time I made healthy choices, and selected salad when it was an option, or protein and vegetables. But there were other times – many times – I mindfully chose to eat and drink foods that would not, by any stretch of the imagination, be considered on program.
My non-program drinks included beer, wine, Irish coffee and a delicious Cuban rum, Legendario. My non-program foods included gelato (once, a small portion), cannoli, pizza (once, in Florence … come on, how could I not?), Marie’s pumpkin goulash, half a hamburger at a place in Prague called Meat & Greet, and Marie’s mother’s Savoy cake.
Joe and I love to cook together, which included turkey and dumplings, of which I had a small helping that contained one dumpling. And when we made bagels, I had one, as well.
We had Scotch eggs and the most incredible pastry-cream filled doughnut at a hipster restaurant that serves “happy meat” (cruelty-free) called Maso a Kobliha (Meat and Doughnuts).
And lest I forget, there was our traditional American Thanksgiving in Metylovice: turkey, gravy, mashed potatoes, dressing, cranberry relish, yeast rolls, pumpkin pie with whipped cream, Shelly’s turkey-shaped iced sugar cookies, and California wine and port. I had a little of everything.
Finally, we ate a few dinners out that I would classify as among the best meals in my life, including my first experience at a Michelin-star restaurant, Field, in Prague, that served food so beautiful and creative and delicious that I welled up with emotion. (I’m writing a whole other column about food, so I’ll say more about that later. )
But I did worry. Plenty. I expressed my angst out loud every breakfast, lunch and dinner. I know my family was sick to death of hearing about my weight-gain anxiety.
Joe reminded me that it was probably a given that I’d gain some weight. In fact, he said I should accept and expect it, to avoid being surprised and disappointed. He assured me that because I’d already proved I could lose weight, when I returned home, I’d know exactly how to get back on track and ditch those vacation pounds. I thought Joe was probably right (because, in general, he is usually so right about so much). I predicted I’d gain five pounds, though it killed me to consider it.
However, to mitigate the damage that might come with my extra food intake, when faced with an elevator, I chose the stairs every time (except on arrival day and departure days, with luggage). There were 96 stairs to our Airbnb Florence apartment, and 70+ stairs to reach Joe and Marie’s flat in Ostrava in the Czech Republic.
I didn’t count the stairs to my and Shelly’s hotel room in Ostrava, because it was just two flights, and there was no elevator option, anyway.
There were many times, after a long, tiring day of being out and walking for miles, when my companions tried to cajole me into taking the elevator. I never gave in. A few times I actually ran the stairs to beat their elevator to the top. The more winded I was when I reached our destination, the more satisfied I felt.
Yes, I’d turned the corner from aware to obsessed.
In Ostrava and Florence, we walked everywhere, rapidly. Every city has a pace its people walk. The pace most folks stroll across the Sundial Bridge or the Shasta District Fair or even our river trails (because where else do we walk?) is practically standing still when compared to how people book it in Prague, in particular. In Prague, you walk on the right side of the sidewalk or train-station escalators and do your best to keep up with the rapid foot traffic pace. Invariably, though, Czechs are passing at warp speed on your left, as if someone’s after them. Their faces remain impassive, but their feet are a blur. No surprise, but I didn’t see many morbidly obese people in Prague and Ostrava. And I didn’t see one electric scooter, though I saw a number of double-canes with supports that fit around forearms, especially used by the elderly.
Walking in Florence was more leisurely, but our vast distances covered made up for it. Most memorable were the stairs to reach San Miniota Al Monte, epic enough that in reviews, travelers said things like, “It’s well worth the climb” – always a tip-off that you’re in for a grueling trek. I’m in such good shape now that the stairs weren’t grueling in the least. I was pleased to pass that endurance test effortlessly.
Initially my plan, while in Ostrava, was to work out a gym just for women near Joe and Marie’s place. Shelly and I went once, and worked out there for about an hour. The people there were nice, but the place was cramped, and although it had a lot of machines, none resembled what I use at Align. The whole experience just felt off. The clients were all neighborhood Czech women, and we felt out of place, clearly outsiders. So we didn’t go back.
That left walking and taking the stairs as my sole workouts. That provided lots of cardio, but virtually no upper-body work-out.
We flew home Monday, and I resumed my workouts at Align with Matthew Tuesday. I was surprised how much weaker my arms were in just two weeks away from weight-training. Matthew said not to worry, that although strength leaves fast, it returns quickly.
I was prepared to face the music and step immediately on the scale. But Matthew wanted me to wait until I’d been back at least 48 hours, to give my body time to expel water retained during long flights, compounded by excess sodium in airline food.
When Matthew finally weighed me Wednesday, his reaction was not what I expected. He actually laughed when he saw the number.
“You lost a pound!”
I’d say I didn’t believe it, except I knew my clothes didn’t feel any tighter. Matthew said that the fact that I could eat and drink as I had for two weeks in Europe and still lose a pound was proof that my metabolism had changed for the better.
“You’ve got this,” he said. “You’re never going to be fat again.”
I cried, of course.
Then I went home and made a salad for lunch. I’m grateful, but hey, there’s no sense pushing it.
I’ve got this.