Islamophobia and Bad Math

Flying While Muslim, similar to Driving While Black, describes the discrimination many Muslims face while traveling by plane.  It is often manifested in the form of extra scrutiny at airport security.  During this election season, however, there appears to be an uptick in stories of travelers being inconvenienced by fellow passengers’ false accusations.  I jotted down the reports that I came across:

But don’t take my words for it!  Google “Flying While Muslim” and see for yourself the number of unnecessary flight delays and interrogations.  It’s ridiculous!

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“I go to the airport, I can’t go through security without a random selection.  Fucking random, my ass.” – Inside Man 2006

I have no personal experience with “Flying While Muslim”, because I neither practice Islam nor look like someone who does (more on this point later).  However, as a travel enthusiast who’s had my fair share of frustration with both the TSA and the airlines, the thought of also having to put up with random strangers’ discriminatory imaginations would drive me nuts.

Moreover, this phenomenon is fundamentally rooted in bad math.

And bad math should be called out.

 

“But you understand statistics, right?”

A great deal of Americans who normally stick to political correctness are outspoken that Muslims should be subject to extra security scrutiny. The popular school of thought is that Islam (a religion that more or less worships the same god as Christianity and Judaism) preaches hate and incites violence.  Because Muslims are more likely to pose threat to public safety, this belief asserts, it is a matter of practicality to screen them more frequently and thoroughly.

More than once, people have commented in conversations that since I’m a math person, I should understand the statistics of terrorism… and therefore agree with them on the dangers of Muslim people.

Well, there is no denial that we see a lot of news coverage of ISIS-inspired terrorism, sometimes in what seems like an endless loop of replays.  But is it significant?  For context, let’s compare the proportion of Muslim terrorists to some other numbers:

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1.6 billion reported by Pew Research Center.
ISIS fighter count reflects estimates by US-based intelligence sources for all regions of ISIS presence.

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Total as reported in the 2010 U.S. census.
White supremacists include only KKK and National Socialist Movement membership, two of the largest groups.
FBI and Southern Poverty Law Center both recognize hundreds of other white supremacy hate groups.

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Number of pilots estimated based on the 5,500 working for Lufthansa
and 250 working for European Air Transport Leipzig,
pro-rated across the other commercial airlines of Germany using fleet size or total employee count.
Plane crash refers to the 2015 Germanwings incident.

Two takeaways

  1. There is one ISIS member for every 32,000 Muslims in the world – meaning that 100.00% of Muslims are not part of ISIS.  Also, because it is primarily an organization engaged in a war, its total soldier count is an over representation of the kind of terrorists that we discuss on news channels (I don’t mean to minimize their actions in Iraq and Syria, but it’s highly unlikely that more than a tiny fraction of them will ever set foot in the U.S. or Western Europe).
  2. More likely than a Muslim being a terrorist is a white American being a white supremacist, and a German pilot being at risk for suicidal mental health issues.  We don’t go around assuming every white person to be a Hitler reincarnation because that would be silly.  Guess what?  So is expecting terrorism from a random Muslim.

Additionally, it’s helpful to be reminded that while acts of terrorism is sensational, its impact in number of deaths is quite low:

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Terrorism includes domestic terrorists such as Tim McVeigh.
Aside from 1995 and 2001, the annual death toll ranges from 0 to 20.

 

“Sure, not all Muslims are terrorists, but…”

As the popular saying goes, “… all terrorists are Muslim.”  I’d be the first to admit: when the word “terrorist” is thrown around, my mental image jumps straight to a Middle Eastern man wearing a scarf and holding a machine gun in the desert.  It’s like, when people say “mouse”, I picture the cartoon character with black circular ears.  Both result from watching too much TV.  And sure, when we narrowly constrain these words to our mental images, terrorists are Muslims and mice are the happiest creatures on earth.

The fact is, the Department of Homeland Security has declared right-wing extremists to be a bigger threat to America than ISIS.  On top of that, domestic terrorism also includes left-wing extremists and Eco-terrorists.  Altogether, terror attacks in our country are more likely to be made in the U.S.A than a Toys R Us merchandise.  We are just less familiar with the non-Muslim terrorism because while news channels love replaying the San Bernardino shooting for weeks on end, coverage is fairly bare on stories like the Kansas “Crusaders” plotting to blow up an entire apartment complex in America.

For argument’s sake, though, let’s play along with the rhetoric and pretend that domestic terrorism doesn’t exist.  Because all terrorists are now Muslim, you might have heard news anchors explain, we should focus our screening efforts on Muslims in order to effectively catch all terrorists.

This is called False Conversion, a type of logical fallacy where one says “all P is Q so therefore all Q must be P.”  Just because horseradish ice cream exists – and possibly is the only dessert with this flavor – doesn’t mean you’ll likely find anything horseradish walking down an ice cream aisle.  You don’t go into an ice cream party and say, “hey let’s double check to make sure we didn’t bring home a horseradish ice cream.”  It’s equally as silly to look at a random group of Muslims and expect that terrorists have infiltrated it.

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Your chance of being killed by a random Muslim on the airplane is about the same as getting a horseradish allergic reaction from this refrigerator

 

What is Islamophobia?

Every time I hear politicians scream issues concerning Muslims, I pause for a second to wonder how anyone spots a religious belief in public.

Can they pick out Catholics or Buddhists from a crowded airport?  Does TSA require secondary screening for the 20 million Chinese Muslims, many of who look more like Jackie Chan than Osama bin Laden?  As the “Flying While Muslim” stories indicate, the religion doesn’t actually matter.  People are being singled out based on their skin color, attire, and language – quite a few of the accusers were even confused about the victim’s ethnicity or language used.

So, when we say “Islamophobia”, what are people actually afraid of?

More than half of Arab Americans are of the Christian faith, and many turban-wearing men in the U.S. are Sikhs.  Attempting to identify a follower of Islam in a public place by merely relying on visual cues is bond to result in plenty of false positives and false negatives.

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Left to right: Muslim, Sikh, Christian
Did you get it right?

At the end of the day, is Islamophobia really just racism in disguise?

I’m not oblivious to the fact that the average person may be able to identify a correlation between appearance and religious belief.  Sure, but does that help anyone other than the religious bigots?  All the folks out there causing the “Flying While Muslim” problems intend to promote security, but their approach is utterly silly.

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If the red is what you’re looking for, spending all your time plucking at the purple won’t get you very far

If your goal is public safety or personal security, please drop “appearance of religion” from your filter criteria.

 

Final Thoughts

It’s unfortunate that so many in our society don’t realize that Muslims go to school, refinance homes, whine about commute, and go on vacations just like you and I do.  They don’t belong in a political argument as a national security threat, and they don’t give cooties to fellow passengers on a plane.

I work with numbers for a living, and I appreciate science-based policies.  From the policing of higher-crime neighborhoods to demographics-based insurance premiums, it makes sense that we devote more resources where they are more effective.  However, harassing Muslims in the name of crime or terrorism prevention does not belong on that list.

 

Exploring Italy 8/8 – Milan

1 – Introduction
2 – Food
3 – Hotels
4 – Public Transportation
5 – Attractions of Venice
6 – Venice
7 – Genoa
8 – Milan

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We walked twice as much as I planned

Milan was my third favorite city on this trip!

It had a little bit of everything: historic landmarks, public transportation, and metropolitan modernness. However, at the same time, it seemed severely lacking of everything.  The historic city center including the castle was so small that you could easily traverse in a day.  Its downtown was rather sparsely populated and commercial activities were low, compared to other “fashion capitals” in the world such as New York and Paris.  Its tallest building was barely over 200 meters tall… which was rather sad, for a supposed big city.

We walked through quite a bit of Milan, including the business district, shopping areas, tourist central, residential neighborhoods, and a night life district.  It often felt reminiscent of Paris, Taipei, and even New York, but for the most part I couldn’t help but notice how bland and quiet it was.

 

Northeast Milan

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Porta Nuova in northeast Milan, a gate built during Napoleon rule

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Porta Nuova

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Porta Nuova Garibaldi, Milan’s second tallest building with a modern plaza, shops, and water fountains

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A cool residential building fully covered in greens

 

Central Milan

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Downtown during mid-day on a Wednesday… where was everybody?

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Evening rush hour

The Cathedral Plaza has been the very center of Milan since the Roman period.  Search for “Milan” on Google Images and it’d appear that everything there is to see in Milan is right here on this plaza.  It was a very obvious tourist trap with every other person snapping selfies, buying corn to feed the pigeons, or doing those fobby poses in front of the cathedral (“Duomo”).  That’s not all bad, though, at least we found the level of energy here refreshing.

One thing I’ve always known about Italy was the pigeons.  This plaza was full of them like a dirty NYC basement can be full of cockroaches.  Stupid tourists pay to buy handfuls of corns to feed these winged rats, exacerbating the problem.  We’d never feed pigeons, unless the feed had lethal poison in it.  We also had a different problem to deal with.  Our kids were scared to death of these obnoxious birds, and were freaking out just a few days ago when a couple Venetian pigeons walked near them.  I capitalized on this opportunity and taught them to turn it into a game… of pigeon kicking.  Instead of running away from them, we chased them around and showed the birds who’s the boss.  It made a hilarious contrast as other tourists paid to have the same birds stand on their hands/arms/heads for photo op.

Another thing I read a lot about Milan was pickpockets.  Petty crime was supposedly quite bad in Italy, and people seemed to agree that Rome and Milan were the worst.  As such, this whole trip I was mildly paranoid of losing our stuff.  Then I came to realize that most Milan was so quiet and sparsely populated, that pocket picking would be rather difficult to execute.  That, I thought, left this Cathedral Plaza the most likely of places to fall victim.  I mean seriously, there were plenty of clearly clueless folks that just got off a tour bus half awake.  Just as many in numbers were locals seizing the opportunity… selling junk like corn and plastic selfie sticks.  I was on high alert and strongly defensive against anyone who tried to approach us, and ended up being a bit unnecessarily rude to some of the corn vendors.

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Statue of Vittorio Emanuele II, the king who united Italy
The biggest irony in life for an awesome person is being immortalized into a statue and then having nasty birds poop on your head all the time

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Milan Cathedral, for the most part just referred to by its Italian name Duomo di Milano

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Xuan having a blast at the pigeon-infested church

The construction of this church spanned 600 years, directed by countless architects employing different techniques and styles.  Oh and guess which important Italian ruler ordered the completion of its main facade?  Napoleon Bonaparte of France…

It’s also noteworthy that Napoleon was crowned King of Italy right here in this church, starting the Kingdom of Italy 56 years earlier than the Savoy family’s Kingdom of Italy.

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Little obnoxious trying to order me around

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Inside of the Duomo

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Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, one of the world’s oldest shopping malls

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As one would expect, the mall was filled with high-end stores

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Via Dante, leading to the castle

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Castello Sforzesco, supposedly one of Europe’s largest citadels

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Contrary to what I understood from the confusing information online, the grounds of Castello Sforzesco was completely free to enter

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Father-daugher shot at the reflection pool

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Another father-daughter shot

 

Southwest Milan

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Santa Maria delle Grazie, the church housing Da Vinci’s Last Supper

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Porta Ticinese, old city gate at the entrance to the canals

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Naviglio Grande was the largest of the five canals of Milan, linking the city to the Ticino River
Nowadays its banks were full of restaurants and selfie-stick vendors

This was the last post about our family’s trip to Italy!  Until next time!

Exploring Italy 7/8 – Genoa

1 – Introduction
2 – Food
3 – Hotels
4 – Public Transportation
5 – Attractions of Venice
6 – Venice
7 – Genoa
8 – Milan

 

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Our walking map of Genoa

Genoa is among the lesser-known Italian cities.  I had never heard of it prior to planning for this trip, and many of my well-traveled friends didn’t know where it was, either.  However, Genoa was an important city-state in the European history.

For hundreds of years, Genoa was a naval powers that dominated the Mediterranean and rivaled Venice.  It was among the pioneers of slave trade.  It introduced to Europe, from its trading post in Asia, the disease Black Death that quickly wiped out half of Europeans.  It was also home to Christopher Columbus, the dude credited for finding the New World.

Contrary to Venice, though, this was a rather quiet port city with few tourists.

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Via Balbi, a main street in Genoa, had only a single lane

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A neat tunnel with fancy buildings on top

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Via Cairoli

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Via Garibaldi, named after the general that unified Italy, is at the heart of Genoa where some of the city’s wealthiest people lived

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One of the “palaces” on Via Garibaldi

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Ting helping me plan out the walking paths

 

Mountain City

Genoa is a mountain city by the sea, with plenty of hills, stairs, and elevators.  Getting up to the residential neighborhoods can be quite hard if you don’t know your options, but once there the view can be breathtaking.

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View from Spianata Castelletto

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View from Spianata Castelletto

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Albergo dei Poveri

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Selfie from the hill

 

Ferrari Plaza

I was eager to find out which Ferrari Genoa’s central plaza was named after, but there was close to zero information online.  There was no super car here.

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Building at Piazza de Ferrari

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Fountain in the center of the plaza

Near the plaza were some impressive historic ruins.  It was pretty clear that, unlike Venice, there was little thought here of preserving the cool stuff and presenting them to attract tourists.  It reminded me a lot of Taipei where bits and pieces of history were randomly scattered throughout the city.

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Remains of old city wall and gate

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House of Christopher Columbus

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Backyard (?) of Christopher Columbus

 

Baltimore of Italy

I thought that Genoa was a lot like Baltimore: (1) it’s a major sea port (Italy’s largest); (2) it’s got a trendy water front where the majority of visitors congregate; (3) at the water front, among tourist traps, is an impressive aquarium (Europe’s largest); (4) neighborhoods can get rough quickly once you leave this area.

Because Hong and I are big aquarium and zoo enthusiasts, part of our reason for visiting Genoa was to check out Europe’s largest aquarium.

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Compared to its peers in the U.S. and Asia, this aquarium doesn’t sell itself that well on the exterior

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Ting being really into some tropical fish

Hong and I enjoyed the aquarium. It was fun and educational.  Aside from a huge dolphin tank, though, there wasn’t any exhibit or creature that stood out as extraordinary.  Ironically, while these establishments generally target young folks, our kids were far less into it than we were.

 

The Gritty City

Travel guides described Genoa as gritty, and I learned the meaning of the word by walking through this city.  Many parts of it, just steps away from the main touristy landmarks, were visibly poor, run-down, and dirty.  Dog poop on the sidewalks was not uncommon.  We took one wrong turn and walked through a few blocks reminiscent of Spanish Harlem.  Overall probably still quite safe (petty crimes against tourists were supposedly far lower than Milan and Venice), although it did feel uncomfortable at times.

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A neat walking path up a really beat up residential neighborhood

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A side street by Ferrari Plaza where many restaurants were (but not open)

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Major graffiti on a major street

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More graffiti

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The police tortures immigrants?  This was written in more than one place, so it must be true

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Graffiti in English

 

Random…

There was a restaurant/bar named MADAI.  No idea what it served or whether it was good, but Ma Dai happens to also be the name of a Chinese general in the Three Kingdoms era.  Dynasty Warriors, the game, added the character Ma Dai in the recent versions.  His costume design is so funky and un-Asian, that we had always jokingly called him Christopher Columbus.  Guess what?  Genoa happens to be home to Christopher Columbus… Coincidence?

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Restaurant Ma Dai

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Ma Dai from Dynasty Warriors

 

I really enjoyed Genoa, and struggled in my head whether I prefer it over Venice.  It wasn’t as clean, amusement-park-like, or tourist friendly.  However, it’s got a comparable amount of rich history, and its authenticity plus unique landscape was fascinating.  I am glad to have been to Genoa and would definitely recommend a visit.

 

Exploring Italy 6/8 – Venice

1 – Introduction
2 – Food
3 – Hotels
4 – Public Transportation
5 – Attractions of Venice
6 – Venice
7 – Genoa
8 – Milan

 

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Blue marks the paths that we walked on foot; red indicates the water bus rides that we took

Beijing and New York are two of my favorite cities in the world, due in large part to their logical street layouts that defined neighborhoods clearly and moved people around efficiently.  Venice can’t be more different from that.  In fact, on paper, it’s everything I would hate for a city to be: (1) being comprised of 117 irregularly shaped islands meant that it could accommodate nothing large scale; (2) a very high bridges-to-roads ratio, therefore probably very high infrastructure maintenance cost; (3) roads are crooked and very narrow, so nobody can go anywhere fast; (4) even the Grand Canal goes in an S shape, so traveling by boat also takes forever.

I had to buy milk for the kiddos a few times.  The nearest grocery store was merely 0.3 miles from the hotel, but getting there involved 12 turns and 2 bridge crossings.  I pride myself for having a great sense of direction, but still took some wrong turns getting there and back, every single time.

Yet, in an absolutely strange way, I really liked Venice.

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View in front of Venezia Santa Lucia (the train station).  We had to abandon all land transportation in order to enter this city.

 

The Grand Canal

Hong and I had been to Venice of the East and Venice of the North.  They both had some canals and some boats, but they weren’t anything like the real City of Water.  In a way, it was quite neat that this city was so unaccommodating of cars, that we were confined to ways of travel (other than the water bus) not unlike how Venetians got around in the past 1,000 years.

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Grand Canal at sunset

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Grand Canal

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Gondola on Grand Canal

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Ponte dell’Accademia was one of the only four bridges crossing the Grand Canal
This means that you could live literally a stone’s throw from work, but still have a 30-minute commute because you have to make a huge detour to find a bridge

 

Alleys

It makes sense that when your city has so much water, you don’t want to waste the precious land on roads.  But the pathways in Venice are seriously narrow.  Like, a fire lane somewhere else can be wider than a main street here.  In some alleys it’s impossible to pass another person, and on my milk runs it could be frustrating being stuck behind wandering tourists (yeah yeah, I know I was one myself).

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Following other tourists on the way to Rialto Bridge

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In America, this would be the textbook example of the kind of road (and time of day) to never enter

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Exposed-brick walls may mean character, but when two of them are 4 feet apart it could be claustrophobic and scary

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It’s not unusual to run into these dead ends in Venice

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Hong’s dad studying a newly acquired map

 

Canals

We didn’t experience the boat rides on the smaller canals, understandably missing out on a big part of transportation in Venice.  Sure, it would’ve been nice to try a romantic gondola ride. But we thought about potentially dealing with a meltdown baby doing back flips on a small boat, and was at ease with our decision to stick to walking.

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Canal

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Another canal

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I was highly intrigued by these doors leading into the water

 

Ezio & I

Critics used to accuse Fast and Furious for inciting its viewers to drive recklessly on public roads and cause accidents.  I wonder if anyone has said the same about the Assassin’s Creed 2 franchise leading its gamers to commit suicidal stunts in these old Italian cities.

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This is Assassin’s Creed 2
While holding down R1 and X, I’ve instructed Ezio to climb plenty of windows and ledges, as well as jumping on rooftops

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This was the view from our 4th floor hotel window

Not gonna lie.  I had the urge to leap out of the window for some morning exercise.  The video game had trained my eyes to focus on the most easily climbable parts of the building.  But yeah, knowing myself, I’d simply fall and die, on the 3rd floor balcony right outside our window.  If I were a mountain-climbing parkour ninja warrior, though, perhaps I could have freerun on these rooftops to fetch milk.  Wouldn’t have needed to make those 12 stupid turns.

 

Miscellaneous

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When the girl you hit off with at the bar leaves you with an address at 5950 Brick Lane…

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A cafe near our hotel marked on its wall the “high water” records
Venice gets occasional floods that cover up the roads and stuff.  It’s supposedly getting worse

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This big church in Murano apparently didn’t believe in windows

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The best winged lion statue in the city

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Mom taking pictures of the Grand Canal

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Chilling outside Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute

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The kids loved the water

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Me & Dad

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The technique involving the Original Selfie Stick (arm) is often quite good at blocking whatever it was we were trying to take a selfie with

 

McDonald’s

I love McDonald’s.  But I really love the McDonald’s in Venice because it was hilarious.  We didn’t even go.

There was a single McDonald’s in the entire Venice (and yes I did know where it was as that was part of my pre-trip research).  It was the official sponsor of all garbage cans in the city.  Every time you toss some gelato napkins away, you are reminded of how you sort of crave some McFries.  And worry not!  The helpful trash receptacle has a map that will show you exactly how to get to the one and only McDonalds!  I kid you not…

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From Ferrovia, you gotta travel northeast for 10 minutes on foot

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From S. Zaccaria, you’d be walking northwest for 13 minutes
Or you can take vapporetti lines 1 or 2 to CA D’Oro station

This was hilarious on so many levels, the least of which being McDonald’s attempting to attract business from halfway across the city.  I wouldn’t be surprised that some tourist (omg, could be myself one day) seriously look at this and say, “oh I gotta get me some of that nuggets… 10 minutes isn’t bad”.  Then the said tourist proceeds to find the golden arches, only to end up in the completely opposite corner of Venice 20 minutes later, because the roads are so freaking confusing.

 

I really liked Venice because it was such a unique city.  The main complaint on travel sites is that this place is constantly overrun with tourists and “feels like Disneyland”.  Frankly, I do love Disneyland as well.  I think part of the charm here was that things were so densely packed together and visibility was so limited on those narrow streets, you could come across something completely new and surprising every few steps.  That made aimlessly roaming around so fun.

 

Exploring Italy 5/8 – Attractions of Venice

1 – Introduction
2 – Food
3 – Hotels
4 – Public Transportation
5 – Attractions of Venice
6 – Venice
7 – Genoa
8 – Milan

 

We knew that we arrived at Venice, when we saw the familiar architecture from Venetian the Las Vegas casino.

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Approaching St. Mark’s Square on a vaporetto

St. Mark’s Square is the heart of Venice.  The name came from St. Mark’s Basilica, which was built to house the relics of Mark the Evangelist that Venetian merchants stole from Alexandria 1,200 years ago.  The Basilica houses some of Venice’s oldest and most prized treasures… that the Venetians looted from Constantinople 800 years ago, during the 4th Crusade.  In essence, Venice was a pirates’ cove.

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St. Mark’s Square, with the Basilica in the background

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St. Mark’s Basilica at night

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Bronze horse statues, looted from Constantinople

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The Tetrarchs statue, also taken from Constantinople
I found it rather bizarre that such artwork from 800+ years ago was placed so casually in public, exposed to hazards like this tourist

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Xuan and the Campanile

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St. Mark’s Clock Tower

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The Square at night, with outdoor restaurant seating and music performance

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Campanile at night

A major attraction in Venice is Doge’s Palace.  Unlike much of Europe that was historically governed by kings and lords, the Republic of Venice was ruled by an elected official called doge.  Their main rival, Republic of Genoa, also adopted this form of government.  Doge’s Palace has been at the current location for 1,200 years, although the current construction only dates back 700.

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Doge’s Palace on the right (library in the back)

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Courtyard

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Lots of gold on the interior (the Venetians used to be quite rich)

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Inside the New Prison, on an adjacent island across the Bridge of Sighs

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Selfie in front of the Bridge of Sighs
There’s a legend about eternal love involving kiss, gondola, sunset, and this bridge built to lock criminals away for life
Italians have a strange idea about romance…

IMO the two most recognized structures in Venice are the Campanile and the Rialto Bridge.  The dude who built (part of) the current Doge’s Palace also designed this bridge, which at the time was an engineering marvel to cross such a wide canal.  Today it remains an engineering marvel being able to sustain the weight of what must be 2 billion tourists and five hundred thousand souvenir shops, at all hours of the day.

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Attempting to cross this bridge at mid-day was among the least pleasant memories from Venice

The entire city of Venice stretches 3 miles long, and just about everything touristy is confined to a 1 square mile area.  Therefore, you can exhaust your options pretty quickly, and yearn to go somewhere else.  Here’s where Murano come in – as the most interesting among the remote islands.  Travel guides generally recommend a visit, but have little to say about it.  Yes there is the famous Murano glass and a Glass Museum here, but to me the visit was mainly an opportunity to ride the boat on open waters.

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On the way to Murano, looking at fortifications at the eastern end of Venice

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“Downtown” Murano

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Hong found a door knob for hobbits

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The most interesting display in the Glass Museum
This place, like the Frietmuseum in Bruges, is an attraction that you feel compelled to check out just for the symbolism, yet right upon entry regret not having saved the admission money for a hot dog or something

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The happy faces immediately after exiting the Glass Museum

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Shops selling “Murano Glass” artwork (note: made in China) had to be the most saturated business in Venice after restaurants and gelato shops

After Murano, we took a water bus to the other end of Venice and visited the Ghetto.  That’s right, the Ghetto where the word ghetto was created.  Europeans everywhere hated Jews and Venice was no exception.  They instituted the segregation for nearly 300 years, confining the Jews to live in this corner of the city.  Liberation finally came when that hugely influential guy in Italian history arrived.  That’s right: Napoleon Bonaparte of France.

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Architecture in the Ghetto was visibly different from the rest of Venice.  The streets were also as wide as some squares

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Ghetto Nuovo, the center of the Venetian Ghetto

Lastly, here’s a picture we took in front of Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute.  Black Death killed 1/3 of the Venetian population in the 17th Century, and immediately afterwards the Republic built this church to protect its people’s health.  We didn’t get a chance to go in, but the art in the church supposedly all referenced Black Death.  Seems rather grim, yet cool, for a place of worship.  But anyhow, this was one of the most gorgeous buildings in Italy.

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Just chilling and waiting for the healthy blessings to soak in!

 

Exploring Italy 4/8 – Public Transportation

1 – Introduction
2 – Food
3 – Hotels
4 – Public Transportation
5 – Attractions of Venice
6 – Venice
7 – Genoa
8 – Milan

 

The means of moving around in Italy was interesting enough, that they deserve a dedicated post.

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“Where are we going today?”

Trains

Like in many parts of the developed world outside the U.S., trains are how people get from point A to point B.  The Italian stations, trains, and ticketing machines all seemed to come out of the same mold as their counterparts in Belgium, France, and UK.

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Vending machine at the Malpensa Airport, with a lot of clueless tourists in line

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Milan’s Central Station, looking just like all the other European train terminals

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Checking out what the family is up to

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Between Milan Genoa we got whole suite to ourselves

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Warning sign on every train door

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On our way back to the airport, this happened…

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The train company put together a smooth plan and we ended up in a bus instead.  No time wasted.

 

Hotel Elevators

While technically not a public transport, these elevators in Italy are worth a mention because they can’t be more different from elevators in the U.S..  Most of them were so small that it was a challenge to squeeze in three skinny adults.  The automatic doors also closed more quickly than we were used to.  Both of these features would be illegal in the U.S. due to ADA.

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What looked like a closet door was actually an elevator serving all of this hotel’s guest rooms

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Feeling claustrophobic!

 

Water Bus in Venice

Vaporetti are the water buses that take people around Venice, up and down the Grand Canal, and to the remote islands.  In a city with absolutely no cars, these water buses are people’s primary vehicle to get around.

At 7.50 Euro each, the single-ride ticket was 3-5x more expensive than a typical bus that ran on land in a big city.  Multi-day passes provided progressive discount, although the average tourist probably wouldn’t be using them so frequently.

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Vaporetto on the Grand Canal

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One of the more remote bus stops.  These things extend into (and float on) the water so when the boats dock, they are perfectly stable.

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One of the busier bus stops.
The vaporetti followed the time table precisely, which I found amazing considering the water traffic and this volume of tourists that they had to deal with.

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On a nearly empty water bus en route to Murano

 

Elevators in Genoa

Genoa is a mountain city with steep terrains.  While it does have one subway line and a bus system, they just aren’t that effective in the vertical dimension.  As such, the same public transportation authority also manages trams and a number of elevators.

I was excited about buying a ticket to ride an elevator.  It was such a strange and fascinating prospect, we checked out two of them.

The first, Ascensore Castello D’Albertis, had its lower entrance right beneath our hotel.  Google “strangest elevator” and you can see articles and videos of this thing taking its passengers horizontally (like a train) into the mountain, and then vertically (like an elevator) up to its exit up on the mountain.  The engineering is really cool, and you can see just about all the action through the glass doors.

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Ascensore Castello D’Albertis

The other one that we took was Ascensore Castelletto Levante.  The view at the top was stunning, but the engineering was limited to a rather basic elevator.  To reach it, we had to walk a good distance in a tunnel.  It wasn’t exactly an experience I would describe as overly tourist friendly, and if it weren’t for the TripAdvisor recommendations, we probably would’ve turned away at the entrance.

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The entrance to this elevator was at a humble corner on Via Cairoli, a main thoroughfare in Genoa.
If I didn’t know what I was looking for, I’d have thought this was a public restroom that no sane people used.

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Then we walked through a long, dark tunnel with some rather angry writing on the wall.  Started to feel scared.

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After crossing a car tunnel (which had traffic lights in the tunnel), we continued following signs to these doors.
It seemed like House of the Dead in real life.
I reloaded my machine gun in anticipation for zombies jumping through the window.

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At last, we reached the actual elevator, which we had to presume Disney’s Tower of Terror was modeled after.
There was nobody else in or near the elevator, which made the experience even creepier.
The door closed, we pressed the button, and the “room” started moving.
We braced ourselves for it to drop or go sideways or black out, and I double checked that the machine gun was still loaded.

 

Related Mentions

Milan, Venice, and Genoa were all small, walkable cities so we traveled quite a bit on foot.

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This little girl often insisted on carrying that giant backpack

We used to think that New Yorkers were experts at parallel parking.  Well, not compared to the Italians!

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These trees in Genoa appeared to have been planted as to allow exactly one Fiat-sized vehicle (plus maybe 4 inches) to go between them

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Parked cars in Milan.  Not sure if you can even fit a piece of paper between those bumpers

 

 

Exploring Italy 3/8 – Hotels

1 – Introduction
2 – Food
3 – Hotels
4 – Public Transportation
5 – Attractions of Venice
6 – Venice
7 – Genoa
8 – Milan

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Park Hyatt Milano is a top-tier Hyatt hotel, and where we did not stay

Italy lacked one thing compared to all the other countries we’ve traveled to in recent years: American hotel chains.

Except a few high-end ones in Milan and several right outside Venice, none of the hotels along our travel route was bookable with points.  This made life hard for two reasons: (1) we had to choose carefully among what fit into our budget, as opposed to finding comfort in a free-after-points $500 hotel room, (2) without a known brand name, there were more uncertainties around the physical space and service that we could expect.

Many would argue that it is a natural part of travel: experience a new kind of accommodation and hospitality when you can, as opposed to always sleeping on the same Hampton Inn mattress.  Fair enough.  It’s just that when I was single-handedly making the decision of where the six members of my family would sleep each night, I valued known comfort far more than excitement.  At the end of the day, all my picks turned out fine… even though I remained unsure about some until after we checked in.

My impression of our hotels in Italy:

  • All of them were tiny operations – with 15-25 rooms each
  • In a practice only seen in black-and-white movies, room keys had to be kept at the front desk when we went out.  It wasn’t as inconvenient as I imagined at first, because all the hotel staff knew our faces and remembered exactly which rooms we stayed in
  • All the hotels used IKEA furniture!

Here’s a run-down of where we stayed in Italy:

Milan – Hotel Mythos

Steps away from the Central Station, this was our layover spot for just one night.  It helped set our expectations low for the other hotels… the room had an awkward layout, poor lighting, and questionable cleanliness.  The plaque on each room door indicated that the hotel had been downgraded from four stars to three – curious what caused it.

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Hotel Mythos bedroom

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Hotel Mythos bathroom

The lobby was fairly grand, though.  And it was amusing that the front desk person (a slightly chubby, middle-aged white Italian guy with a beard) spoke perfect Mandarin.

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Grand piano in the lobby

 

Venice – Hotel Antigo Trovatore

I felt a sense of unease as we stepped off the water bus for the first time.  The street leading to our hotel was a dark and narrow alley.  I was nervous about the upcoming judgement, silent or spoken, on my decision to put my family up in such a back alley.  It also didn’t help that our hotel entrance was such a narrow staircase, that we would have missed it if not for the restaurant downstairs of the same name.

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I’m used to sidewalks wider than this street

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Not a grand hotel entrance

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Possibly the very first hotel in my life where we had to manually carry luggage up the stairs

Little did I know that what I perceived as a “dark and narrow” alley was actually a sizable avenue in Venice.  Additionally, quite a few very nice hotels in Venice existed in way more claustrophobic alleys in hidden locations.  Antigo Trovatore ended up being really nice – elegant, simple rooms that were clean as if the floor and furniture were brand new, great views, friendly staff, and only steps away from St. Mark’s Square.

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The room felt so clean, that we let the kids sleep on the floor

 

Genoa – Hotel Vittoria

In Genoa, we stayed at one of the closest hotels to the Prince Plaza train station.  It was booked with the intention to minimize the distance our suitcases would have to travel, rather than to be at the center of attractions.  Honestly, though, Genoa was such a small city, that its location did not affect convenience at all.

When I first saw a picture of this hotel online, I was extremely turned off by its tiny entrance at the corner of a dead-end alley, to the side of the public transit.  Once again, it just didn’t quite work to judge Italian hotels with the American mindset.  See what I mean in the picture below:

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That hotel entrance, on the left under the yellow sign, probably isn’t wide enough to be ADA compliant in America

That entrance led to an elevator, which went up to the hotel lobby.  Guests rooms were multiple steps up in an adjacent building (that orange-and-white one), requiring another elevator ride.  Getting to and from the hotel room was kind of a pain, given that neither of those elevators comfortably fit more than 2.5 people at a time.  But, hey, Genoa being a mountain city required creative use of space.  Kind of like San Francisco.

The harbor was a 5-minute walk away, but our room was easily 15 floors above the sea level.  This meant an awesome view – and some sore calves for the times we decided to take the stairs instead of the elevators.

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View from our room

The room was quite spacious and clean.  The shiny marble floor was a nice touch.  The layout was a bit quirky, but we appreciated the curtains that allowed us to semi-quarantine the kids.

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If you like pink walls and paintings of child labor, this room would be perfect

The bathroom was… intriguing.  Water pressure being almost nonexistent was our main complaint against this hotel.

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What do you call this color?  Mint ice cream?

Good news for those who often struggle to find keys in the purse…

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Pretty sure dumbbells come in lighter varieties than this key chain

Like the other Italian hotels, Hotel Vittoria required us to deposit keys with the front desk (hotel owner, in fact, was there at all hours of the day and personally handled such transactions).  They did it real old school by hanging the keys in assigned slots on the wall.

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How you tell you’re in a historic city…

The hotel included a simple but good breakfast buffet, with who seemed to be the owner’s mom personally making us cups of cappuccino.  Felt like a bed-and-breakfast place.  Oh and judging from the breakfast crowd, most of the other guests were students on a field trip.

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GEICO saves you money.  It’s what they do.  And Ting messes with sugar packets

 

Milan – Milan Royal Suites Magenta Palace

I was not pleased to find out, while in Venice, that our hotel in Milan a few days later was not actually a hotel, but instead two apartments among several that a company managed throughout the city.  Kind of like an AirBnB, I suppose, except that it was listed on Hotels.com and still charged us hotel tax.

Depending on the time of the day we wanted to check in, that email said, we needed to go to the management office 3 kilometers away on another side of the city.  Seriously?  I was pissed, until I looked at the address and recognized the office as being close to the train station.  Then, it actually worked in our favor as we were able to drop off our luggage with the management, and wait for them to be delivered a few hours later.

There was nothing “royal” or “palace” about our apartments, except for the armed guards right across the street protecting some sort of government building.

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View from the main entrance to the apartment building

While I had the full intention to stay at a hotel, getting an apartment wasn’t half a bad deal.  At a minimum, we had a ton of space – bedroom, living room with a convertible sofa bed, kitchen (that nobody used), and a full hallway great for storing the stroller.

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Living room

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Bedroom

We didn’t get to stay at any Park Hyatt or InterContinental or Radisson Blu while in Italy.  The spoiled part of me regrets the missing luxury, but it was actually fun to experience the quirks of what each city had to offer.

Exploring Italy 2/8 – Food

1 – Introduction
2 – Food
3 – Hotels
4 – Public Transportation
5 – Attractions of Venice
6 – Venice
7 – Genoa
8 – Milan

 

“Oh wow you are going to eat so much great food!”

Just about every time we mentioned to someone about visiting Northern Italy, we got that comment.  People didn’t seem to think there was much cool stuff to see or fun thing to do, but the belief that Italy = great food was deeply ingrained.

To be honest, I didn’t go with very high expectations, and the experience didn’t exceed it.  Part of the reason was that we didn’t like wine, which I understand was a big part of Italian cuisine.  The other reason was that, at the risk of sounding uncultured, I have always preferred the Americanized versions of Italian food (i.e. Cheesecake Factory) over the authentic fare.  Would the ultra-authentic stuff wow me like Japanese food in Japan did?  Well, it didn’t.

Regardless, we had good food in Italy.  I didn’t consider the meals to be the highlight of the trip, but they were still quite enjoyable.

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Street food in Milan

 

Local Specialties

I’m a sucker for trying local specialties.  In these cases, though, it was an uphill battle because I wasn’t particularly fond of the types of food.  In Milan it was Milanese risotto (risotto is just about my least favorite rice dish), and in Genoa it was pesto.  Nevertheless, trying was important because now I could associate the cities with specific flavors.

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Milanese risotto looked kind of like Craft mac & cheese

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Trofiette al pesto looked like worms swimming in green vomit, but it was pretty tasty

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Teaching Xuan to eat pasta my way… cover it with grated cheese until it just tastes like cheese

 

Food in Venice

Venice, we were told, was basically an amusement park where food was expensive and tasteless.  Even those who told us to expect amazing Italian food never extended that excitement to this city, so we had our bar set very low.  Turned out that it was actually alright… we came across a bit of that fed-to-tourist garbage, but our favorite meal also happened in Venice.

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Pizza!

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We made the brave decision to dine at St. Mark’s Square, and the tourist trap proved to be the laughing stock of Italian food.  Each plate of ugly noodles and a small bottle of water cost us 21 Euros after service charge, and it was easily the worst meal of the trip.

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Square ink pasta in the Ghetto

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Trovatore, the restaurant downstairs from our hotel, was an amazing modern Italian fine-dining establishment.  A three-course meal at 23 Euros, plus complimentary Champagne and appetizer, was a steal compared to most restaurants that we visited.  The service was unbelievably friendly and food was excellent, too.

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One of the courses at Trovatore

 

Other Miscellaneous Foods

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Prosciutto and buffalo mozzarella that we had in Piazza Mercanti in Milan.  I don’t usually like mozzarella, but this one was quite good.

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Gyro in Genoa… they called it Kebab here.  For how little Americans hear about Genoa, we were surprised by the diversity of cultures in this city.

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Luini was a famous shop in Central Milan that sold panzerotti, which kind of resembled calzones

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Look at all these tourists who must have read the same TripAdvisor recommendation

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Hong and her panzerotto

 

Chinese Food

Hong’s parents, like mine, are traditionalists who could deviate from Chinese food only once in a while.  As such, we ended up having quite a few Chinese meals on the trip.  There were plenty of Chinese restaurants in each city.  Considering that Chinatown and Little Italy always seem to be adjacent to each other, I should have known that Chinese and Italians were naturally good buddies.

While Hong and I weren’t initially excited about eating Chinese food in an European country, we did have some good meals there.  My favorite was a cheap place in Genoa (not pictured) that cooked home style food.  It was so good, that I could commit to going there twice a week if I lived nearby.

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Tian Jin in Venice, with hybrid decor, was Hong’s favorite

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La Felicita in Milan was a Chinese restaurant that catered to Asian tour groups

Possibly our favorite meal in Italy happened in Genoa.  Hong, the kids, and I were hungry near Ferrari Plaza, but restaurants were nowhere to be found.  Seriously.  We mapped a few restaurants in the side streets and none of them had a single soul around (most of them didn’t open until 7:30pm).  Out of desperation, we followed a sign that said “sushi”.  Even Hong, the only person in the family who ever craves sushi, wasn’t really in the mood to get raw fish in Italy.  But we were hungry.

The initial strategy was to just grab a few light bites here, and wait to do a proper dinner later.  Only after sitting down we learned that we had entered an all-you-can-eat buffet.  Conveyor belt sushi that was all-you-can-eat?  We expected real crappy food.  Turned out to be better than most sushi we’ve had in the U.S.  Not only that, we had some fatty salmon sashimi that I’d consider the best salmon I’ve ever had.

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Wouldn’t call this place swanky, but it was quite nice

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Having learned that we had just paid for unlimited amount of sushi, I turned on my hoarder mode

After clearing 20-25 plates of conveyor belt sushi, we were told that it wasn’t the only thing this restaurant had to offer… there was also a section of hot food buffet, which in my opinion was highly respectable and can stand by itself to justify the price charged.

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Fruits, meats, typical Chinese buffet dishes, and stuff like paella.

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There was also a self-serving gelato bar, so we got 3-4 bowls…

 

Gelati

Speaking of gelato, if there’s such a thing as too much of gelato, we probably reached the threshold while in Italy.  Having more than one per day was not the best thing ever happened to my waist line.

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Our kids having a go at it in front of La Boutique del Gelato in Venice was an instant sensation.  Have a dozen tourists stopped to take a photo of them eating.  If I were a real Chinese person I would have charged them a fee for photographing my kids.

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Aside from gelato, there was also this mint granita, which was basically frozen Listerine

 

Drinks

One thing I noticed about Italy was that ice was incredibly expensive.  I knew that people outside America don’t obsess over ice the same way we do, but was still surprised by how difficult it was to find a cold drink there.  Once found, the price spread often made me wonder if I truly needed one.  An iced coffee, for example, can cost many multiples of a regular coffee.

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At this cafe, a latte with latte art was 1.30 Euro, while a tasteless lemon-mint water was 4.00 Euro

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There was a Coke Pinko in Italy!  It looked like a nasty diet soda, but I had to give it a try.

We would happily revisit Singapore, Taiwan, Japan, and parts of China just to eat more of their food, and we would not say the same about Italy.  Nevertheless, we had many good meals and tried a bunch of interesting things.

 

Exploring Italy 1/8 – Introduction

1 – Introduction
2 – Food
3 – Hotels
4 – Public Transportation
5 – Attractions of Venice
6 – Venice
7 – Genoa
8 – Milan

Last month, we checked off Northern Italy from our long list of vacation destinations.  We brought the kids and went with Hong’s parents.  It was a blast: the logistics went smoothly, things were cool to look at, weather was better than even California, and our pockets didn’t get picked.

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Happy family (plus a grumpy toddler) at Castello Sforzesco

In eight days, we visited Milan, Venice, and Genoa.  What fascinates me most was that, unlike France and England that had always had fairly consistent national identities, these three cities did not share a common destiny until that French bad ass named Napoleon came along – and conquered them all.  And this happened 70 years before they all became, for the first time, part of the Kingdom of Italy.  Even though the individual cities had vast amounts of history, the country as we know it today did not exist until after Abraham Lincoln was gone.

In order to hop on and off a lot of trains, we packed light.  With Hong’s parents’ help bringing some supplies (diapers) from Jersey, we managed to bring only the following.

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Since we bought four seats, this was half of our carry-on allowance on the flights

We stressed over some last-minute flight changes to fail-proof our connection in JFK, and it went well.

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Landing in JFK

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Xuan was now mature enough to be glued to the TV

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Ting was a hot mess, but occasionally she took a break from the tantrums and acted cute.  The lavatory worked every time.

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We got more Emirates-branded swag.
Before even landing in Italy, these creatures took up half of the luggage space we reserved for souvenirs

I have not experienced any material amount of jet lag in years.  Despite the 9-hour time difference, this trip was no exception.  It’s a real blessing when you travel with little kids and operate at the edge of exhaustion at all times, because at no point would your body refuse to sleep.  The kids didn’t have the same luxury of carrying around another human being, so they suffered from some rather irregular sleep schedules.  And of course dealing with that was part of the fun.

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I think that was a cheek bone grinding on my skull

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This was a nap…

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… and this was sleeping at night.  Can’t you tell the difference?

When we weren’t sleeping or dealing with drama involving someone’s sleep deprivation, we were out and about and did a bunch of things.  For example:

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We ate

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We took pictures with animals

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We window shopped

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And we rocked made-in-Italy fashion accessories

Stay tuned!

 

Dad vs. Disney Princesses – Part 4

Finally, part 4 of this series will bring us up to speed with the latest Disney Princesses in cinema history.  Before we bring it to conclusion, I’d like to mention a few Disney female characters who I feel deserve to be on the list as well:

  • TIGERLILY – Okay she’s a Disney original and officially has “Princess” as part of her name.  Why did she never make it to the list?
  • NALA – While never explained in the movie, I believe this lioness was a daughter to the king who ended up marrying a son of the same king… making her doubly eligible to be on the princess list, right?
  • JANE – She ended up with the male human who took the throne of the gorilla clan… yes, that’s rather stretching it to call her a princess.  But the same goes for Mulan and Tiana.

Alright, that’s it with that part of my whining.  Let’s turn our attention to…

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MERIDA

Like Ariel, Jasmine, and Pocahontas, she wasn’t happy with her family’s arrangement for her future.  Unlike many of her predecessors who did stupid things that put her own loved ones in harm’s way, however, she went out of her way and sought to harm her own mother.  What the hell.  Okay I don’t plan on having a healthy dialogue with my daughters about this one, because they won’t be watching this movie.

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“Just make me something that’ll get rid of my mom… don’t bother telling me the details, because why would I care?”

 

 

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RAPUNZEL

Consider how she had been locked up all her life in a room, Rapunzel was extremely intelligent, social, articulate, strong, and articulate.  She tamed bandits and a horse, fought like a pro with a frying pan, and used her hair to pull off Batman-styled stunts.  Her healing magic was also quite useful, unlike Elsa’s ice power.

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Not even Tarzan could do this.  Nor Batman if he weren’t rich.

 

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ELSA AND ANNA

From what I can remember, no Disney Princess was worshiped by as many little girls as Elsa from Frozen, who technically was a queen for the majority of the movie.

I get her appeal: Elsa was a good-looking royal person with a badass power.  But that’s about it.  She was unable to control her power and struggled with fear all her life.  She refused to communicate with even her closest family member, and did not seek help for her problems.  She nearly killed her own sister three times: the first time was accident, the second time was negligence, and the giant snow monster was an inexcusable attempt to murder.

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“Your sister loves you so much, that you must now drop down this cliff.”

Elsa abandoned her kingdom on the same day she was crowned, leaving her people (and more) to suffer in the “eternal winter”.  When confronted with the disaster that she created, the only thing she could come up with was “you just have to let me go”.  Finally, due to her personal issue with one person, she decided to end all her kingdom’s trade with supposedly their largest trading partner.  She showed completely no regard for the kingdom that she was supposed to rule, in bad times or good.  Wow.

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“Look, I really don’t give a fuck that you and a million other people are cold, okay?  Let me go and I promise I won’t make the situation any better.”

Anna, on the other hand, was a far more likeable Disney Princess.  Despite her general cluelessness and “raised in a barn” manners, she was kind, loving, and brave.  The whole movie was about her risking her life to save her sister and the entire kingdom, so it’s a rather bummer that subsequent marketing pushed young girls to idolize Else rather than the younger sister.

 

The real good guy in the Frozen movie, hear me out, is Prince Hans of the Seven Isles.  He took care of the people in Arendelle when its queen and princess both abandoned it, managing to hand out blankets, firewood, and soup to the commoners.  He led a successful search and rescue party, defeating the giant snow monster himself.  He was the only person in the entire story who possessed any diplomacy, keeping Elsa from harming and being harmed by others.  He did more than everyone else combined to attempt restoring summer.  And, hey, he was more charming than many Disney Princes, too.

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The 13th prince from a remote island cared more about the folks in Arendelle than their own queen

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Prince Hans KOing the snow monster.  He’s among the very few Disney Princes who took on monsters without any magical assistance

Yeah, yeah, the movie painted him like an ass toward the end.  But was he really?  Let’s see what people would blame him for:

  • Having no true love for Anna – not a crime, is it?  His motives were quite understandable because princes and princesses marry each other starting with Snow White.  I mean, did Prince Phillip have any true love for Aurora?  They did decide to get married on the day they just met, too.
  • Leaving Anna to die – if his kiss wasn’t going to have the true love’s magical power, he couldn’t honestly have done anything anyway
  • Attempting to kill Elsa – well, nobody had any better idea for how to restore summer, so slaying the monster was the natural last resort.  Note that for the most of the movie, he had gone out of his way repeatedly to protect Elsa.  In fact, he understood that the unfortunate only way to keep the people of Arendelle alive was the death of both the royal sisters – since if Anna remained in power, she would remain unhelpfully idle rather than allowing anyone to take any action against Elsa.  Therefore, what he did to earn such a bad name in the end was out of true love for the people… and it was a shame that the story got spun against him

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Hans saving Elsa’s life