Voting From Abroad

It’s official! I sent in my ballot for the US 2016 Election!

Voting from abroad is not easy, but the US government does what it can to give its citizens abroad options, without risking ballot fraud. I turned in my ballot to the US Consulate of Milan. My other option would be to send it through the post, but I didn’t want to pay the high prices for Italian mail with tracking or risk having them lose it (a likely occurrence). My ballot packet mentioned something about sending your ballot through the US Embassy mail (for free), so I decided to do some digging and figure out what exactly I would have to do.

After searching through the US Embassy Italy website, I found this blog post with this very helpful paragraph. See for yourself on the official website.

You can drop your paper ballot at the U.S. Embassy in Rome and at the Consulates General in Milan, Florence and Naples. If you wish to drop off your ballot, or have a friend or colleague drop it off for you, place it in either a postage-paid envelope or envelope bearing domestic U.S. postage addressed to your local election officials.

From what it looked like, all I had to do was show up to the consulate and deposit my ballot.

It’s about a 30 minute trip to get to the consulate using public transportation. Way longer than it would be to get to a polling station in america. Saving 5 euro and having peace of mind was worth it, especially since I pay for the Milan metro system monthly anyways.

I arrive to the consulate, right in front of the metro station, and tried to talk to the Italian police guarding it before finally just showing them my “envelope.” They laughed. It was a pretty janky envelope, not even an envelope as much as a piece of paper taped at the sides. They went inside and gave me an actually envelope, bless their hearts. They were really kind as I wrote in my country clerks address and presented me with the official box to deposit my ballot. And since I didn’t get a sticker, of course I had to get a photo op. If I can make the hour-long round trip (plus time to print, fill out the ballot, read all the instructions 4 times until I’m sure I have it right….), you can make the trip to the polls. Don’t be lazy, get out there early!!

Venice, Italy

Venice, the city of canals, romance, and getting lost (over and over again). Venice is a beautiful city, overrun by tourists from all different nations. The city that is slowly sinking, amidst rising water levels. Go to Venice, before it is gone.

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How We Got There

We took a Bla Bla Car from Milan to Venice as this was our fastest and cheapest choice. Bla bla car is a like an Airbnb combined with uber. If you are heading somewhere, such as Milan to Venice, you can rent out a seat in your car. Bla bla car helps you set a price, provides extra insurance, and is a platform for long distance ride sharing. We had a great experience with both the cars we took! The meeting spot was very convenient, usually by a train station or metro stop and the ride was smooth. We talked to the drivers and they said they do bla bla car a lot because they have to drive back and forth a lot to visit family and what not. Italy has a lot of rolls on its highways so selling the seats help cover those costs and cover costs of fuel. Plus it’s way more fun to drive when you have people in the car along with you!

Click to check out Bla Bla Car's website
Click to check out Bla Bla Car’s website

 

Where We Stayed

Venice is a very expensive place to stay, difficult to navigate, and will take awhile to get your stuff to your hotel (unless you take a water taxi and your accommodation is right on the water). We stayed in Mestre, the industrial city that connect Venice to the mainland. This is a good place to stay if you want something cheaper and not as crowded as Venice. Beware that the area by the train station is a little bit sketchy, so only stay there if you aren’t scared and have a buddy. Our hotel balcony overlooked the corner “owned” by what we concluded was a prostituted. The next corner over was covered in Nigerians and the sweet smell of herb. The main square of Mestre is a lot safer and touristy. But if you use your better judgement, you should be fine in the red light district.

There are other towns nearby such as Padova and Treviso. You can get to Venice in around 40 minutes, plus they are great towns that are safe and just as fun to explore.

Getting around

The “metro system” of Venice is a fleet of ferries known as the Vaporetto. They have designated lines and routes like a bus, but are in water and a bit slower. It’s nice to take a trip down the grand canal or go to one of the islands with them (more on that below).  The price is pretty hefty. 7.50 euro a person per ride or 20 euro for a day and 10 additional euro per day after that.

Water Taxi

Very expensive, but does make you feel like a sophisticated being. These boat taxis are motorboats with wooden paneling and act like a regular taxi, but even pricier. We didn’t take one, but we did admire them from afar.

Gondola

People don’t often use gondolas to get around, they’re mostly for tours and the experience now a days. The boats cost 20,000 euro and have a lifespan of about 20 years. They are beautiful and fancy and you will want to get in!  We went and thought it was lovely… and short. The ride was fun, but it’s not something I would do again I think. Pretty costly and it doesn’t feel much different than being in a canoe, except you’re not rowing yourself. Rowing a boat down a canal or river is pretty hard, judging by that time I went punting in England.

We shared a Gondola ride with some people through couchsurfing. An experience you should try at least once, but only once.
We shared a Gondola ride with some people through couchsurfing. An experience you should try at least once, but only once.

Walking

Buy a really good map, look for signs, and bring an extra battery charger for your phone. Venice is a maze. If you want a good pay-what-you-want walking tour I would suggest the Venice Free Walking Tour, we had an excellent guide who was a local venetian and told us about the history of Venice, how it was built, the future of Venice, and other fun stories. Highly recommend!

What to do

Spend some time researching what you want to do in Venice. The city is a maze and there are no straight paths anywhere. Try to get familiar with the basic layout of the city using a map and mark a couple places you want to go. Make sure you have your phone charged because you’ll most likely need google maps all day long.

St. Mark’s Square.

One of the most crowded places in all of Venice, people everywhere, expensive and overpriced restaurants lining every side. The St. Mark’s Basilica lies here, along with the Doge Palace (and a few others).

Doge Palace was really cool, and is something worth checking out. All of its walls are lined with paintings and sculpture and art. It’s breathtaking at first, but does get old after you’ve seen 20 rooms that all look (almost) the same. The coolest part is getting to walk over the Bridge of Sighs and into the prison. You can actually walk into the room where Casanova was jailed and kept.

The walls and ceiling inside the Doge Palace.
The walls and ceiling inside the Doge Palace.

You get a ticket to 3 other museums with the Doge Palace ticket, so if you have time, might as well pop into those. We didn’t and we ran out of time, but from what I’ve read online, we didn’t miss much.

Get lost

Venice is made of several districts. Spend some time walking around each one. There was a church built on every island before the bridges were built. Plus there used to be even more canals before the Austrians came and filled in a bunch of them. You’re bound to find many churches covered in sculptures. Visit the San Pantalon for the largest painting on a ceiling, and the Santa Maria dei Miracoli, which is the only all marble church in Venice.

The northern part of Venice is where the Jewish ghetto lies. It’s not a slums, like the word ghetto would imply, but instead just an area where a minority (the Jews) live. It’s interesting to walk around, you’ll see lots of Hebrew souvenirs, shops, and synagogues. There’s even a Jewish museum to check out if your interest.

The southwestern part of Venice is another good place to visit. Here it’s not as touristy and it’s quieter, but still has an assortment of cheaper shops and restaurants to go to.

Walk the Main Path

Similar to getting lost but with more of a goal in mind. Through the center of Venice you’ll see signs directing you to St Marks or the Rialto Bridge. These are each located on one end of the island, so even if your map gets torn to shreds or your phone dies, you can still find your way to a main landmark.

On this path you’ll see lots of Venetian mask shops and souvenir mask shops. Real handmade masks start around 25 euro and you can usually see the crafter in the shop making masks and attending the shop. This is how you know your mask is legitimately made in Italy. Most other masks are imports from China, shop local right?

Restaurants & Food

Word of advice: If the restaurant has a picture menu, or someone at the front telling you to come in, don’t sit down. According to locals these joints are overpriced and don’t have great quality food. Instead try to find somewhere off the beaten path that is filled with people and has a mostly Italian menus, with maybe a few English menus to supplement.

Beware of cover charges!!! They are higher here than the rest of Italy. You’ll be charged around 15% of the total bill, this is essentially your “sitting down fee.” We went to a bar and ordered takeaway and try strictly forbade us from sitting down on one of their tables.

Foodwise Venice is supposedly know for the origin of Tiramisu. True or not, its coffee dessert is absolutely delicious, not too soggy, not to dry, but a perfect combination of creamy and moist. Another typical venetian dish is the “Sarde in Saor,” which consists of sardines or anchovies, topped with onions, pine nuts, and raisins, in a sweet and sour sauce. I didn’t try it, but Jake seemed to like it.

Venice is one of several places claiming to be the origins of tiramisu. Either way, it is a delicious treat!
Venice is one of several places claiming to be the origins of tiramisu. Either way, it is a delicious treat!

 

Islands of Venice

There are several islands you can travel to via the Vaporetto. Mainly Murano, Burano, and Torcello. We didn’t make it to Torcello, but if you have some free time, it would be worth it to check it out it.

We visiting the island of Murano first, known for its glassblowing and glass factories. We walked into some cool glass stores with fancy chandeliers made of glass along with glass of all colors, shapes, and designs. We wanted to learn more about the glass of Murano, so we walked to the Museo del Vetro. I would NOT RECOMMEND this museum, it is overpriced and you can get the same experience watching a video on YouTube and walking through the glass shops of Murano. We each paid the student price of 7.50 euros and walked out feeling cheated. Our favorite part was this video showing the process of making certain glass designs. The rest of the museum was a timeline of glass styles. We were really wanting more information on the process of glassmaking along with reasons why Murano is so big for glass. Stick to YouTube.

On the island of Murano, overlooking their main canal.
On the island of Murano, overlooking their main canal.

I essentially had to drag my boyfriend to Burano. He told me he didn’t want to see any more “pretty houses,” but he ended up really enjoying the island. We finally found a grassy park, which there is not much of in the Venice region, and sat for an hour watching the boats go by on the sea.

Burano is such a happy island, it’s hard to be grumpy when you are surrounded by bright colors everywhere you go. It also has more of local vibe vs touristy feel. There was a festival di Ragazzi happening in the main square. An organization hosted activities for kids somewhat like a carnival. Looked like fun for them.

Burano is also known for its lace, but beware of the “Made in China” lace. If the price is too cheap, it is probably imported. There are plenty of stores that sell only lace, some stores sell clothing, overall it is a good mix of stores with diverse choices. Definitely visit this island if you get a chance.

The leaning (bell) tower of Burano.
The leaning (bell) tower of Burano.

US Presidential Debates: Live from Italy

I’ll bet you that every country in the world, in some shape or form, has been following or at least seeing updates on the US presidential election. Italy is no exception. If I watch the italian news every I’ll hear “italian italian italian Donald Trump italian italian Hillary Clinton,” etc. If I look through a newspaper or magazine, somewhere in there I’ll see something regarding the US election. When people learn I’m American they ask me who I am for, the list goes on and one, point being that the world is eating up this disaster election just as much as the American people.

I attended a debate watch at my italian university, Bocconi, consisting of mainly people from a television class offered there, but open to all others who wanted to join. Due to the time difference we were there at 3am (yes that early in the morning) to watch it live. I observed the reactions and comments that the other students, mostly italian, were making. Some had beers in their hands, and as you can imagine, they were a little more vocal. The class also created a twitter account where students could log in and tweet comments and quotes along with retweeting other twitter users and media accounts. You can check out their full twitter page here.

These are some of the observations I made and responses that I heard.

“I have tremendous respect for women.” – Donald Trump. Everyone laughs.

Similar to the young generation in America, most of them think Trump is absolutely ridiculous. They’re laughing and jeering at some of what he is saying (followed by a “Silenzio!” by the professor).

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“Because you’d be in jail” – Trump towards Clinton. OHHHHH, Everybody knows she just got burned.

Also similar to Americans: they don’t particularly like Clinton either. Most (well everyone I’ve talked to) have told me they would much rather have Clinton than Trump, but they still question her trustworthiness and character.

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The first sounds of anger from the audience came when Trump stated that “Obamacare is a disaster.” One guy in the back yelled some obscene words as Trump carried on his speech about american healthcare. In regards to Italian healthcare, from what I know at least, it is similar to the rest of Europe and is free or very low-cost in the public sector. Maybe this young man was a fellow american, maybe he just really hates the direction America is taking.

Things got more heated as more beers were drunk and as the debate got fiery. Trumps stance on Muslims and the Iraq War caused a few more obscenities and “you’re crazy” to be fired out from the audience. When Donald started his rant on “extreme vetting,” someone yelled out how we need some real-time fact checking DURING the debate. I talked to someone who told me that they are sick of Donald deflecting the question and going straight for ISIS. This subject is especially touchy for european citizens, who have to bear most of the weight of middle eastern refugees, also combined with the increased security due to recent terrorist attacks. Just this weekend walking around in Milan I saw more military soldiers than normal (all holding their large automatic weapons), and I wondered if there was any sort threat they might be preparing for. It’s hard to keep up with middle eastern affairs, especially with how complicated everything has become.

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It’s also been interesting to hear some things the candidates say and compare them to how things work in Italy. For example a candidate said “Jobs (in America) are nonexistent.” I talked about this with some italian students just the other day, they told me it is very hard to find a job in Italy. One of them, who was an international student from America (not on exchange) agreed with them and said it is way easier to find places that are even just hiring in America than in Italy. I feel like finding a job in America isn’t too difficult, you just need the skills to actually be hired for it. I think I’ve seen only 2 signs related to hiring or jobs while here in Italy, although I’m not fluent in italian so maybe I passed over a few without knowing.

Another question that got me thinking was NAFTA, or the North American Free Trade Agreement. Trump keeps talking about how it is the worst trade agreement in the world, but does the world even know what it is? Does it really affect them? Can it be labeled as a world issue? I asked a student if she knew what NAFTA was, she didn’t, so I provided a brief explanation.

“No I don’t know what NAFTA is or why it is such a big deal. From what you told me, I don’t really think it affects us here in Italy or the rest of the world.”

For more on NAFTA, check out Politifact.

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The twitter account had a poll asking who they thought was winning, there were only 9 votes, but it does show who is favored in this US election.

One of the students I talked to mentioned that Italy had their own “Donald Trump” figure a few years ago. Silvio Berlusconi, he was the 50th prime minister of Italy and in office 3 separate times for a total of 9 years. Some basic facts about him from Wikipedia: “Berlusconi was Prime Minister for nine years in total, making him the longest-serving post-war Prime Minister of Italy, and the third longest-serving since the Italian unification, after Benito Mussolini and Giovanni Giolitti….Berlusconi has been involved in many controversies and over 20 court cases during his political career, including a conviction to 4 years prison and 5 years suspension of public functions by the Court of Appeals for €7M tax evasion (and €280M slush fund) on 8 May 2013, confirmed by the Court of Cassation on 1 August 2013….. According to journalists Marco Travaglio and Enzo Biagi, Berlusconi entered politics to save his companies from bankruptcy and himself from convictions.” Read the rest of the wikipedia article here.

Silvio Berlusconi, the 50th prime minister of Italy, who is often compared with Donald J. Trump.
Silvio Berlusconi, the 50th prime minister of Italy, who is often compared with Donald J. Trump. Photo: Wikipedia

With more research I found several articles comparing the two figures and also outlining italians’ feelings towards the US Republican Candidate.

This one from TheLocal IT, “Italy’s News in English,” talks about how both Donald Trump and Silvio Berlusconi, are non-politicians who appeal to those who want change in how their government works. Berlusconi owned a lot of media in Italy, allowing him to be in everyone’s homes and promote his new party, Forza Italia. Other similar attributes between the public figures include: Crude treatment of women, anti-immigration beliefs, and relations with Vladimir Putin, Prime Minister of Russia. Read more about their similarities here.

Another article comes from the New York Times. This article focuses more on why Italians kept Berlusconi in office so long and why Donald Trump is more trusted by italians than any other european nation. It also brings a little more insight to italian politics quoting former Italian president, Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, who said: “Italians preferred to laugh at Mr. Berlusconi’s bawdy behavior than discuss the budget deficit.” Sound Similar? Read more about Silvio Berlusconi here

Overall  the majority of Italian students are liberal to the hard-left, similar to students all over Europe and North America. I’ve met students in my program from all over the world and hardly any of them are on the conservative side. Every country I’ve been to so far seems to favor “Not Trump.” From what I’ve gathered, Bernie Sanders was the choice a lot of europeans wanted, due to his socialist and similar values. While Hillary Clinton is not their first choice, they choose to back her knowing that America will be at least the step in the right direction, instead of a step towards mayhem; a radical leader who may worsen relations with countries around the world, worsen the refugee and crisis in the middle east, and one who doesn’t seem to know what he is doing.

Comments and corrections are appreciated and encouraged. If I misspoke, or you have an opinion, feel free to comment. Please no negative language or obscenities or your comment will be marked as spam and deleted.

Como, Italy

I have Wednesday afternoons off, so I decided to use my time to explore the nearby city of Como. It’s roughly 43 kilometers from Milan and takes about half an hour by train.

Como is home to a natural Y-shaped lake at the very base of the Alps. It’s the largest city on the lake and has history dating back to Roman time. It’s a cute little city filled with pastel terra-cotta roof houses, shops, and of course the lake.

I went with this girl from my università, I had posted on our Facebook group if anyone wanted to come, so it was nice to have a companion. We walked along to the lake to the Life Electric statue. Its 3/4 of the way into the lake and you have to walk on the long side to get there. We thought it went all the way through, but the boats have to get out of the port area somehow!

Life Electric monument in the middle of the lake
Life Electric monument in the middle of the lake

The city of Brunate is only a 8 minute funicular ride away. It’s pretty high and I could tell because  my ears popped several times. Unfortunately, it was a foggy day in Como. You couldn’t see much. On a clear day you’re supposed to be able to see the cities along the lake, Turin, Switzerland, and the high Alps in the distance. We didn’t want to just get back on the funicular, so we walked around town, looking for something to do. The signs we were passing kept saying Como with an arrow, so we decided it was probably time to head back. Only significant thing we saw there was yet another church.

Walking around the city center of Como was a nice walk and window shopping experience. Featuring a mix of local and upscale stores, the city embodied what a typical Italian city looks like. We found the Porte Torre, the gates of the city, and headed back to the train station to go back to Milan. A perfect day trip!

Panoramic of Lago di Como
Panoramic of Lago di Como