Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Eating in Florence, Antico's

Another spotlight on a great panini place in Florence. Though this one is not a hidden gem, considering it is #1 on the travel website Trip Advisor. However, it's located on the street leading to our school here so it was only a matter of time before we found our way in. Tips on places to go and eat spreads like wildfire amongst abroad students, and Antico was a case and point. In the first few days here, some students had tried it out and loved it. Within days, there was a line out the door during lunch hours. Luckily, it was January and there was not the giant hoard of tourists that is here now, so we were able to still get our five euro panini in a decent amount of time.

Compared to my earliest post on Pino's, this place has a few notable differences. First off, it feels a lot more authentic and there are usually up to three Italian men working there at a time. A lot of students like to tell them to "surprise me" upon ordering. That's a green light for the panini masters to whip you up one of their favorite sandwiches as a "surprise". Unless you are a picky eater, this is a great way to order, especially if your italian is lacking. You can also specialize the "surprise" by exclaiming that you like something spicy, or some mortadella + a surprise part. That way they have a base with which to add to your panini and you won't be totally shocked when you get the result. As opposed to Pino's, there is no menu here that has pre-made selections as recommendations on it, you have to make up your own. These self proclaimed "panini magicians" are guaranteed to hand you over a fresh lunch, usually on a square piece of bread with the meats hanging out the end. There is also plenty of wine options and a table hanging off the edge that is self serve. You pay two euro on the inside when you get your panini and that entitles you to the self serve part of the wine. It's really on the honor system as the glasses and bottles are already outside, however this place makes enough money that I'm sure they don't get hurt on the free riders who decide to fill a small glass for free. The line is constantly out the door, I assume in part due to the rating on Trip Advisor and word of mouth. Most students try to take their visiting parents here at one point, which might tell you that the line is worth the wait.

The self service wine station outside

Small Tip: 4 or 5 stores down is a small convenience store that sells waters and sodas for much cheaper than inside Antico's. Grab your sandwich and head there to get a drink, then take a seat on the street and enjoy your lunch.

Link to: Review on Trip Advisor

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The Overnight Train, Vienna

It’s hot, it’s cramped and I'm laying on one of six bunks in a compartment the size of a bathroom. There's maybe a foot and a half between my head and the bunk above me. When I lay flat staring up, it's hard not to imagine the bunk above you to come toppling down on top of you. Length wise, there is around 6'5", which leaves my toes brushing up against wall. Yes, welcome to the night train. I actually upgraded my ticket to a sleeping car for this trip, there was a seated option as well.

The jolly conductor stopped by a few minutes ago to offer a complimentary cup of “café” for tomorrow morning, as if that'll compensate for the presumed lack of sleep we'll be getting. Oh and a free mini water bottle as well, compliments of the very reliable, TrenItalia. Just a few days ago I was telling someone how much I enjoyed riding the trains throughout Europe. Space, space was one thing I harped on, the seats were comfortable! Well, now it looks like I'm going eat those words. But the night train is not for luxury, it's for convenience. 

My bunk
On one hand, the speed trains in Europe are 21st century, they have Wi-Fi and they have pleasant seats alongside a table space for each passenger. You sit comfortably, with ample leg space as the countryside whisks past you at a couple hundred miles per hour. This was the expectation I had in mind for the night train. Why should it be any different? Let’s have a lounge area and a bar that’s open all night serving cold drinks. How about Wi-Fi so I can prepare for my interview tomorrow, a comfortable bunk so I can get some sleep. That mindset was completely shattered as soon as I saw the train pull into the station, well rather lurch into the station. You can immediately spot the difference between a speed train and any sort of regional train here in Europe. Bullet trains look the part, riding well into the station, the front of the train looks like the front of a Boeing 767, ready to break through the air, just like the nickname says, like a bullet. There's a certain swagger about the speed trains. The latter is a run down, "Thomas the Tank Engine" looking train that crawls into the station, seemingly content on having made it to it's next stop. These are the trains that were in the VHS train movies showcasing passenger train travel from 20-30 years ago. Well, night trains fit into the regional train category. Then again, what's the rush, I get to wake up to Vienna.

So it’s four of us in this cell;, first, an older gentleman who has kept to himself, reading a book to pass the time. Another I struck up a conversation with, a man from Rome going to Vienna for the first time. He has to be in his 30s and speaks very good English. We spoke about the differences between America and Europe, everything from healthcare, the role of the private sector and the public sector, education costs for university students, roads, bicycles, drinking outside with no consequence, and the concept of American consumerism. He was certainly pro European and, in a sense, slightly anti-American. For instance, he found it astonishing; as do many Europeans that the US has insurance for health care and that there are people who aren't covered, that the private sector places such a big role. Of course his sense of the American system was a demeaning one, insisting the European system is more humane. 

            The bunk itself is about 6 ½ feet long, and maybe 2 feet wide. Not the best living conditions, it seems they modeled it after the way Navy bunks would be. Let's not harp on the lack of space though, it's enough space to sleep and that's all that matters. I may not be able to sleep much though, as I'm quite excited for my trip. The only thing keeping my eagerness and adventure spirit in check is my interview schedule for 4pm tomorrow. It presents a few problems, one of which is preparation. As I said above, I really thought I would have free Wi-Fi on the train and be able to do my research on Stryker and prepare some notes. Well unfortunately that’s not the case. Another problem is going to be finding a quiet space in Vienna. I’m staying in a hostel and booked a bed in an 8 person room. Chances are it won’t be too quiet in there, but I may have to roll the dice. Furthermore, wherever I go tomorrow, I have to be back at the hostel at some point for this interview. The entire day when I am going around now, I will have to check the time and keep my whereabouts in my mind better. It limits my ability to go get lost in the city, to roam free, to discover what’s not on the guides. So I’ll have to go visit a few museums in the morning, get breakfast and lunch. And then prepare for the interview back at the hostel. So here’s to the night train situation, here’s to hoping for some hours of sleep, and here’s to a weekend in Vienna. Let’s get it on.


A knock on the door. Roll over and ignore it for a few minutes. Another knock on the door. I look out and there is some light creeping under the curtains, it’s day time already? Here I was complaining about this train and it looks like I ended up sleeping well into morning. Although I woke up a few times here and there throughout the night, mostly due to the heat, on the whole it wasn’t a horrible night of sleep. The knock is the conductor for our car, and it’s 7am. It’s breakfast time, which is really just two rolls with butter and jelly to put on. Oh, and how could I forget the “café”. Looks like I’m a coffee drinker now. I thought I’d give it a try and it’s not as bad as I remember. It’s my first coffee in many years and I’m always making fun of coffee drinkers for being addicted to their cup of joe every morning. But here I was, a perpetually tired man in the mornings, and this coffee is like a miracle. Half the cup gone and now I’m feeling awake, alert, and ready to tackle Vienna. I can't complain about getting up too early anyway, we turned the lights out quarter to midnight. For the past hour these magnificent forests have been going by my window. So green and vast, it reminds me a bit of going through Switzerland, there are small villages tucked into the countryside, closely knit and seemingly orderly. Every now and then you can see an abandoned castle up on a hilltop, a memory of the older history of Austria. I have a feeling I am going to enjoy this weekend, interview and all. Now that the anxiousness of the night train is behind me. Can't forget a  goodbye to my compartment mates! My cup of coffee now finished.... Viena awaits me. Ciao.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Book Spotlight #2: "The Innocents Abroad"

"The Innocents Abroad" 
by: Mark Twain

Quote Highlight: "This book is a record of a pleasure trip... to suggest to the reader how he would be likely to see Europe and the East if he looked at them with his own eyes instead of the eyes of those who traveled in those countries before him." - Mark Twain

Good ole' Mark Twain. Referred to as "The great American author" by the likes of greats such as Ernest Hemingway... even Kurt Vonnegut named his son Mark in honor of Twain. Everyone loves Mark Twain. This book of his may not be as well known as his more famous novels like, "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" or "Tom Sawyer", but it's also written within a different context. At this point in his life, Twain was still in journalist mode. It's earlier in his career and he writes this book while on a steam ship journey throughout Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East. This reads more like your peering into Twain's own personal journal, gaining insight into his experiences abroad, though often through his satirical lens. Let me first give the back story on my own mindset while reading this book and how I came across it.

I purchased this book in one of the only English book shops in Florence, Italy, "The Paperback Exchange". Ideally located near the Duomo, it was a mere ten minute walk from where I was living at the time. So logically, this bookstore become a favorite spot of mine. I always enjoy having a book to read at night and so I came abroad with the latest Game of Thrones book in my arsenal. However, even that behemoth of a book only lasted me about a month. After concluding that, it was only about a week in the city before finding this shop to get my reading fix. While browsing, this book caught my eye for a number of reasons. First off, I read Mark Twain on the side and I always respect classic authors. I immediately picked it up to take a look. Also, at this point in my abroad expierence I was in the early stages of starting my own personal journal, and therefore I was subconsciously looking for advice and ideas on how to formulate my thoughts. So, here was a stellar author writing a journal styled novel about his expierence going abroad, and there I was abroad myself. The last hold up is always the sticker price, which turned out as not too bad and thus I headed to the checkout counter content with my choice.

Looking back at this a few months later, I will say reading this book has certainly aided my own journal writing  efforts. If I was able to craft my sentences with 1/1000 the skill of Twain, my journal might be something worth reading. That aside, it was quite pleasant to read about places that I was able to visit during my time in Europe that Twain also mentions and details in  this book. To see it through Twain's eyes 150 years before I did and then to compare that to the modern day was a cool experience and added to my perspective. This book also made me realize that travel really has some absurdity's about it, but the absurdity of traveling is part of what makes it worth your trouble. You're going to run into some crazy things, some crazy people, and some crazy foreign customs... but that's the idea. If travel wasn't foreign or crazy then what would be the point? Go about it with an open mind and enjoy it for what it is. Broaden your horizons, and broaden your views. At the end of the day you can always poke fun of any dumb things you do by writing about it later, just like Twain did.

This book begins with Twain outlining the advertisement for the voyage abroad that caught his eye. Starting off on the trip, as it departs from New York, he outlines daily life on the steam ship as they steam across the Atlantic. Twain does not hesitant to poke fun at and ridicule people he is accompanied by and people he meets along the way. In one sense, you begin to think Twain feels himself superior to almost all he encounters, but in another sense, you begin to see the reasoning behind his contempt. One instance, when the ship stops in Gibraltar and he explains that almost every person he runs into there feels the need to tell him about the myth of the rock of Gibraltar and this irks him to no end. If he could just look with his own eyes and not be told what he was looking at for a split second he might be able to enjoy the sight. You feel a sense of exasperation and Twain is ever so good at going into details of everything he is able to see and partake in. Satirical at plenty of points, I even found myself laughing here and there at the way Twain is able to paint certain circumstances as sheer absurdity.

Overall, I recommend this book to those who enjoy Twain as an author and are heading abroad. It's a good way to get additional context on what traveling was like two centuries ago. It worked for me and it might work for you.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Book Spotlight #1: "Why Nations Fail"

"Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty" 
by: Daron Acemoglu & James A. Robinson

Quote Highlight: referring to why nations fail, "What they all share is extractive industries. In all these cases the basis of these institutions is an elite who design economic institutions in order to enrich themselves and perpetuate their power at the expense of the vast majority of people in society." (page 399)

I recently finished reading this book on why nations have failed to obtain growth. Specifically, this book attempts to answer the question of, why are countries still lacking economic growth in an age of unprecedented wealth? What has been the focal point of much research by many political scientists and economists specializing, is why have developing countries that gained Independence in the last 50 years actually gone in reverse in terms of wealth and progress. In particular, countries in Sub-Saharan Africa that upon Independence were on par in terms of GDP per capita with the countries such as South Korea. Since then, many countries have spiraled into a far worse state, meanwhile, today South Korea can no longer be considered a developing economy, it's joined the ranks of the industrialized west. Now, your smartphone might be produced by a large South Korean firm that you have probably heard of, Samsung. In the same context, Sub-Saharan Africa is looted for commodities that end up making up the parts to that very smartphone produced by Samsung. The result is that South Korea has a GDP per capita level that of many western countries, while the poorest people in the world are stuck in a "vicious cycle" taking place in Sub-Saharan Africa. This book tries to answer why this phenomenon has occurred, though it does so rather broadly, with an "institutional" theory. I'll attempt to quickly explain what this theory means and then summarize the book and my thoughts. 

The authors of this book distinguish between two types of institutions in the world, inclusive & extractive. This refers to the governing and civil institutions of a country, or the lack of governance separated into these two categories. Generally speaking, a society with inclusive institutions features a free press, a responsive government, a broad coalition of political inclusiveness and participation, property rights, public infrastructure projects, and public spending on healthcare and education. Conversely, an extractive institution is one in which there is no public infrastructure projects, there may be a lack of property rights, there is little political responsiveness to the public, and there is an elite group that maintains power and sees all the economic and political benefits of the system. Ultimately, the inclusive institutions create incentives for economic activity and thus bring about growth while extractive institutions siphon off all economic benefits of society to the controlling elite while killing any incentive to work. Put another way, why should a farmer invest in new technology or attempt to increase output if the government or warlords can come at anytime and take his crops, increase his tax burden exponentially or seize his land. Citing case studies ranging from Sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, to East Asia, the authors speculate that the reason many countries remain poor today is solely because of the lack on inclusive institutions. The problem is, once extractive institutions are in place, it is very difficult for a country to break the mold and escape. There are huge incentives for other groups or factions to try to gain control of the extractive institution for its own benefit. Furthermore, there is no incentive for the system to be reformed when so many members of the elite are benefiting greatly, and any change may threaten their power, either economically or politically. Hence, countries get stuck in a "vicious cycle" where the extractive institution remains in place year and year, only changing hands between dictators or other groups.

This book is a good read if you find yourself interested in the economic development of the third world today. Increasingly, new literature is coming out against the use of foreign aid to developing countries, against the IMF and the World Bank policy programs, and more towards focusing on the internal institutional problems within those countries. This book has the view that foreign aid can help keep an elite group in control of the control by providing it with the funds to pay off supporters and increase its military capabilities for crackdowns, thereby limiting any economic activity. Compared with another book I read on the topic, Paul Collier's "The Bottom Billion" this book offers a different angle of attack and provokes a lot of thought about the role that institutions play. Collier focuses more on resource rich countries and the "resource trap", something I find convincing. Studying both explanations, you can begin to understand why countries are stuck in a poverty trap and why there seems to be little change year and year. This book also paints a very broad picture over large parts of history in its hypothesis, seemingly jumping to certain conclusions and giving the repeated explanation that inclusive institutions are necessary over and over again. I found the argument for exactly "why" these inclusive institutions developed in some parts of the world and not others lacking substance at some points. The authors immediately dismiss theories involving, geography, cultural, and poor economic policy decisions in the second chapter book. In my opinion, the development of inclusive institutions can be seen as somewhat "lucky" for many countries. I'll need to write an entire paper dissecting this statement I know but let me finish on this book first. On the whole, the Industrial Revolution came at a "critical juncture" as the authors put it, and those countries that were in a position to take advantage of this are the rich countries of today, while those that did not (because the institutions of the country forbid it) are still poor. Because technology moves so rapidly, the divergence between the really rich and really poor seems greater than ever. But how we have countries with no prior experience of inclusive institutions form them in a today's world, I'd be interested to know, for the authors do not provide any specific ideas.

This book was published in March 2012.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Journaling and Traveling

With time winding down for me here in Florence, it's extraordinary to think back and realize that we have now been abroad for over three months. That cliché "where did the time go" has never been more relevant in my life. When you first arrive abroad, your mindset maintains that there will be plenty of time to do the things you want and need to do while here. Traveling plans begin to take shape and you start to realize there might not be as much time as you thought you had originally. Weekends become a blur, as you leave Thursday night for the weekend, arriving back in Florence late Sunday tired and weary. No time for class work at that point, and if your traveling on back-to-back weekends, there's four days of class during that week until you repeat the process. This cycle can force you to blink an eye and watch an entire month of study abroad go by in a split second. How can you make sure all your memories from this experience, both good and bad, will last through time?

Many people have different ways of etching the memories of this experience and creating keepsakes. In my personal experience, I have decided to journal, and also take a couple thousand pictures. Some people I know blog (as I've also succumbed to), some people collect a certain object (pins, postcards), and some don't do anything at all (photographic memory?). Here is why I recommend journaling, but keep in mind that everyone has a personal preference and my main tip is just make sure you DO SOMETHING. Your future self, your future family, your spouse will thank you for having something to look back on from your time abroad.

My journal was given to me as a gift, a small black notebook with a good binding. It's plain and durable, two things that were probably necessary to get me to even consider writing in it. The number one thing that I like about journaling, its private. It's yours. Whatever you write in that notebook, whatever you put in as a keepsake is for you and only whoever you want to share it with, if you choose to do that. A public blog is just that, it's open to the public. Therefore, you write with a different mindset, your writing for someone else, your writing with an audience in mind. In a journal, you are writing without these constraints and any feelings or thoughts you've had throughout the day can be jotted down carefree. For an abroad experience, you will be having plenty of new thoughts and feelings, some you may not want to write on a public blog. So if your goal is to have a more in depth look at what 20 something year old you was thinking while being abroad, while traveling, a journal is better than a blog. If your goal is to show off to others or broadly portray your experience to the public and your friends back home, go with a blog.

Another positive of keeping a journal is that you can paste in your ticket stubs, everything from train tickets and boarding passes to museum tickets and special receipts. This adds a layer to your journal and a tangible object that you otherwise could not save. It also gives context to your entries and will allow you to look back in awe. Someday there might come a time when everything is digitalized and passes and receipts no longer are printed, you'll have yours saved from "the good ole days". You can reminisce on the eight euro train you took while you step into a driverless car.

One downside of journaling, it can become very tedious. Trying to get those thoughts running around in your head onto paper is a greater task than you would imagine, it's also time consuming. I'm constantly reminded of Mark Twain's quote from his own book of travels "Innocents Abroad", something along the lines of, "if you wish to inflict a heartless and malignant punishment upon a young person, pledge him to keep a journal a year." There are times when you are too exhausted to write or are just flat out not in the mood to sit down and write. That is okay! Do not stress over writing daily or having a certain writing schedule to maintain. Simply write when you can, if you have downtime on the train or on a flight home, write a bit. You might enjoy it more than you think, and a little writing is better than none at all. However, if there is a way to schedule in a quick 15 minutes of writing a day, say maybe before bed, that might entice you to write more. It's worked for me and I can't stress enough that everyone is different. You need to find what works best for you, are you a morning person? Write when you wake up. You can make it work.

So there's my treatise on journaling while abroad. It's worked out well for me and I am even going to consider continuing to journal when I return back home in May. Even now, to be able to go back to an entry from my first week in Florence and re-examine my first impressions of the city, of my roommates and how things have changed. Imagine how it nice it will be to look back on down further the road from now. Remember, it's not for everyone. If you want to collect postcards instead, do that. Ultimately, just make sure to do something that your future self will thank you for. There is only one study abroad experience in a lifetime.