About 2,000 years ago, Rome’s Testaccio neighborhood served as a storage area for all the grain, wine and olive oil that came in on the Tiber River. They all arrived in large terracotta vases which, when disgorged, were broken up into little pieces and discarded onto a big pile. The mound, which stands more than 150 feet high, still exists today and is dubbed Monte Testaccio.
Friday night, on Via di Monte Testaccio, the Democrats Abroad’s Rome chapter held a potluck, celebrating the Democratic Party’s take over of the U.S. House of Representatives, breaking up the Republican Party’s stronghold into little pieces.
The irony was not lost on me.
Being an American expat can be lonely at times. Here in Rome, most of my friends are Italian. I have few to vent with about the U.S. circling the drain into the bowels of fascist and racist hell. My rants are mostly limited to unbridled torrents on Facebook, sitting in bed, pissed off at 2 in the morning.
I’d go out with my Roman girlfriend after our Pres. Rancid Velveeta would call an entire ethnic group worthless protoplasm or something earlier that day. She’d see me visibly agitated. I’d fidget. I’d frown. I wouldn’t have to say a thing and Marina would say, “You’re thinking about Trump, aren’t you?”
She knows me all too well.
Democrats Abroad gives me an escape. It’s the one place in Rome where I can meet like-minded, pissed-off people and unleash pent-up anger in an arena where everyone understands and everyone has all their teeth. Friday night wasn’t just a receptacle for hate. It was a victory bash. The Democratic Party took over the House. We have put a blockade on the Republicans’ charge toward a fascist state for the next two years.
We expats made a difference. I made a difference, however small.
According to Julia Bryan, international chairperson of Democrats Abroad, voting among expats around the world increased — get this — 800 percent since the last midterms in 2014. She said she won’t know the total numbers until all the votes are counted but she said we helped flip seats in Florida and New Mexico and may end up helping flip another in Arizona.
“The Florida agricultural commissioner won by a little under 600 votes,” Bryan said from her home in Prague. “We definitely sent more than 600 votes to Florida.”
Democrats Abroad is a feisty, underrated organization that has 150,000 members in 190 countries. There are Dems Abroad committees in 45 nations. Italy has nearly 3,000 members.
We all came to Rome for different reasons. Job. Heritage. Love. Or, in my case, retirement. But we have one thing in common: We hate Putin’s Papaya-Flavored Pawn. Trump has united us. Misery loves company. Despite being 4,500 miles from Washington, despite being that far away from the nearest Trumpeteer, we think of our country’s direction and are miserable.
“I like the word ‘indignant,’” said Neal Huddon-Cossar, the chairman of the Dems Abroad’s Rome chapter. “We’re extremely concerned about the direction the country’s going. People are indignant. That’s why I personally have seen so many people in my social circle who are Americans become more active in political organizing and activism.”
Take Huddon-Cossar. The day after the Halfwit Tweet Twit won the election in 2016, Huddon-Cossar, started a Facebook group. Using the hashtag #notmypresident, he invited all his friends then learned about Rome’s own involvement in protests such as the Women’s March and Indivisible Movement. More local chapters formed in Italy, and he got in touch with those people.
In two years, this 30-year-old grad student in global energy and climate policy became chairman of Rome’s Dems Abroad chapter. Talking to other Yanks, he learned we were as appalled at what was happening across the Atlantic as the people in the trenches.
“Americans abroad are shocked at what the politics are in the U.S. at the moment,” he said. “It was all driven by the election of Trump. Just the Trumpian direction of the Republican Party has taken over the past few years. A lot of people were complacent under (Pres.) Obama and didn’t think it was necessary to vote or stay engaged.
“But this (2016) election was a real reality check.”
So Huddon-Cossar went out and set up about a dozen get-out-the-vote events, mostly at Rome’s various universities specializing in American abroad students. He set up sign-up desks in expat events such as Expats Living in Rome of which I’m a member and set up a website, votefromabroad.org. He established a ballot drop off at a local school, hosted by a cultural center and supported by the U.S. Embassy. That three-hour event alone signed up 90 people.
It’s not easy voting from abroad. Rules are confusing. They vary from state to state. I vote in Colorado, where I worked from 1990-2014, and twice had to call Denver to make sure they’d send me an email ballot. I voted in October. Filling it out was easier than a to-do list.
I voted Democrat all the way down the line. I didn’t look at a single name. I didn’t do one second of research. If I saw a “D” next to the name I voted for it. I’m furious. I want change. Democrats Abroad provided me that avenue. As it turns out, Democrats in Colorado, a battleground state, won four of seven House seats, nine of 17 Senate seats, 37 of 60 State House seats, the attorney general’s race and the governor’s race. I learned the Democrat who won the Colorado governor’s race, Jared Polis, is gay.
I had no idea, nor did I care.
I wasn’t alone.
“We are the bluest state,” Bryan said. “We’re the only Democratic state that had a growth in the primaries in 2016. We had 50 percent growth over 2008. That’s huge.”
How blue? Bryan said two years ago 69 percent of Dems Abroad members voted for Bernie Sanders. (“We are very progressive,” she said.) I didn’t. Bernie was a liberal’s wet dream: He had all the right ideas but no convincing path to achieve them. I voted for Hillary Clinton. If more Democrats had done that, I’d be writing about AS Roma today.
Sometimes I wish I retired to Rome in the ‘90s. That was before Internet, before social media. Our only American political news would come from whatever the old International Herald-Tribune would print. Today with cable TV and every American newspaper and wire service available on your cell phone, I could just as well be in Washington’s Dupont Circle as my leafy neighborhood in Rome. The U.S. government is a train wreck. You don’t want to watch but once you start you can’t pull away.
Italians are up on it, too. When they meet an American, they all have one question.
“They want me to explain how the hell this could happen,” said Jim Sawitzke, a Dems Abroad member at the potluck. “They used to have so much respect for the U.S. What’s happened to us? Like, I’m an American, I have the answers.”
Sawitzke, 55, is an interesting expat story. Raised in Helena, Montana, he went up through the educational and professional ranks as a scientist when three years ago he moved to Rome to work for the European Molecular Biology Laboratories. Like all Dems Abroad members, he and I bonded — and not just because he got his doctorate at the University of Oregon, my alma mater in the knee-jerk liberal town where I was raised. Sawitzke spent 21 years in suburban Frederick, Maryland, where he lived near the apex of American politics.
Like me, Dems Abroad has become a safe haven of vent. The potluck was just one example. It was held in the Associazione Rigatteria, a cultural center built in a stone cave that once also served as a storage area for food and wine. Glass squares on the floor illuminate dark tunnels that snake through the area.
A table was filled with finger food, from salami to breads to the one thing you’ll never find at a Trump rally: hummus. We clinked wine glasses toasting the victory. We talked about who we want running against Dingbat Donald in 2020. Huddon-Cossar gave a presentation summarizing all the Democratic victories.
“I enjoyed it immensely,” Sawitzki said. “It’s nice to talk freely with like-minded people. I felt comfortable. It reminded me of people I’d speak with in similar events in the U.S.”
Dems Abroad isn’t stopping. Bryan and Huddon-Cossar have reached out to expats for stories about their health care overseas. We all have our frustrations living over here. Rome is the filthiest capital in Europe. The government is rife with corruption. But Italy’s health care system, like many in Europe, is fabulous.
Bryan will soon take to Congress her stories, including my story of going blind in my right eye in the summer of 2017. The total cost of my treatment, including tests, counseling, medicine, an MRI and laser surgery was only 525 euros. In the U.S. it would’ve been nearly $7,000.
The Rome chapter did the same.
“The idea was to share our stories as American citizens living in these countries and what it’s like to live in a country that guarantees health care,” Huddon-Cossar said. “We had a huge, huge response.”
He received more than 300 stories, including his own. Last year he had to get an endoscopic gastrostomy exam after a series of stomach problems. He went to the ASL, Italy’s state health service, and they gave him an appointment in Frosinone, a town 55 miles southeast of Rome. Instead, he went to the Ospedale Fatebenefratelli, a private care hospital, on Rome’s Tiberina Island. They had him in the following week. His total cost?
One hundred fifty euros.
Besides health care, the other advantage all expats agree on is the streets in Europe are safe. Rome, a city of 2.8 million people, averages only 30 murders a year, hardly any by guns. Last fall gun nuts barbecued me online after I reacted to the slaughter in Las Vegas by pointing out that Italy’s tougher gun laws were reasons for the low murder rate. The critics pointed out the Czech Republic, which has the most open gun laws in the world behind the U.S., is proof that more guns mean safer streets.
Bryan, who grew up in a liberal family in Charleston, South Carolina, moved to Prague 20 years ago to head up a design section of a startup and now has a software company. She said guns nuts are missing the point.
“The thing to understand is the Czechs don’t have open gun laws,” she said. “They have really intelligent gun laws. They’re really strict about who can have a gun. If you have any mental problems you’re not allowed to have a gun.
“The Czechs take away guns. You can lose your reliability status if you are deemed to have excessive use of alcohol, if you commit a crime, if you commit misdemeanors. The health clearance is an important part of the license process.”
I left the potluck early and went to Marina’s. I had a bounce in my step, a smile on my face. She didn’t ask me a thing about the Decomposing Jack-o-Lantern.