Equalizer

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You are the great equalizer. We all come to you: young and old, rich and poor, great and small. Some come willingly; others out of necessity. Most take your offering but grudgingly, accepting their fate with stoic resignation. A few seem to take pleasure in the fulfillment you bring, such as it were.

The seasons change. Days grow busier, nights shorter. People come and go, plans are formed and re-formed. Yet you stay constant. Once, I had hope that you would change somehow– if not for the better, at least not for the worse. Now I know those hopes were foolish. What could I expect? At least I know my death will not come from starvation, though perhaps it would be better if it were so.

You are the great equalizer: the school cafeteria.

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Officialization 8: Stay Permit, part III

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Officialization TOC

  1. Officialization 1: WTF comes next in Italy?
  2. Officialization 2: Apartment
  3. Officialization 3: Internet
  4. Officialization 4: Stay Permit, part I
  5. Officialization 5: Picking Courses
  6. Officialization 6: Stay Permit, part II
  7. Officialization 7: TV Tax
  8. Officialization 8: Stay Permit, part III <– You are here

Stay Permit, part III

The entire stay permit process has been an emotional rollercoaster. I left off last time with waiting for my permit to be processed, and wondering what to do with my husband’s permit.

As a US citizen, my husband is allowed to stay in the Shengen Zone up to 90 days in each 180 day period. He arrived at the end of August, and it is now November, so he has around just 22 days left.

Last week, we went to Cinformi, an office that helps immigrants submit their paperwork, and found out that we had a few outstanding documents to collect for the spousal visa. Namely, we needed a copy of our landlord’s I.D. and we needed proof that our apartment was larger than the minimum for two people of 45 meters squared (ours is 48 meters squared, which is just huge, by the way). Cinformi told us that the paper attached to our lease which includes the apartment size information, wasn’t enough as proof of this, so we had to go to Anagrafe (municipal office) to get an official stamped form.

In any case, since it seemed like my permit wasn’t going to arrive anytime soon, my husband went ahead and got plane tickets back to the US. The idea was to save as many Shengen Zone days as possible so that once I finally got my permit, he could come back and still have time to initiate the process for himself.

However, on Friday, I checked the status of my permit, and lo and behold, it was ready!

They had actually expedited it. Excited, my husband and I decided to start moving on the outstanding documents so we could try to submit his application before he flew out. This would give him a solid date on when to come back, and make everything go just a little faster so he wouldn’t have to leave the Shengen Zone again to save days between appointments. So we went to Anagrafe about the apartment size form, but they sent us to yet another office one kilometer away. The lease is in my name, and I didn’t have time to go that far that day, so we’d have to get it later. I still needed to get in contact with our landlord for a copy of his I.D. anyway.

The next task on the list was for me to actually pick up my stay permit. I went to Questura and luckily only had to wait a few minutes to get in this time. The lady there had me sign a document stating I would follow all the Italian laws and start learning Italian as she opened the envelope containing my documents. I can’t describe the feeling I had as the lady pulled out my stay permit– a pink card with a lovely holographic sigil stamped into the plastic and my ugly mug on the left hand side. I suppose it was a feeling of excitement and relief that the rest of the process would be straightforward (if not easy). I wanted nothing more than to gently slip that card into its new home in my wallet, and to never part with it again… precious… my precious. She passed the shiny new card into my open hands, and it felt so right.

Unfortunately, it was wrong.

The permit said it was valid until the end of August 2018, but I don’t expect to graduate until October 2018! In any case, I paid for health insurance through December, so it’s supposed to be valid even through then. Chagrined, I did my best to express this in my terrible Italian. After a few minutes, she seemed to understand the problem. She told me it was their mistake and to come back in 20 days.

20 days! That meant my husband would have to be in the US that long. I was disheartened, but at least we already had those plane tickets. We had also already decided to go back to Cinformi that afternoon for some clarifications. Now I could ask them about this too.

The Cinformi in Rovereto is a bit of a clusterfuck. They don’t have numbers for the queue or space to make a line, so you just come there and try to remember the faces of everyone who’s already there before you. Last time, we were sent to someone who spoke English/French after it became clear that our Italian was awful. This time, when our turn came up, we had no such luck. So there we were, sitting in front of a nice lady trying her best to speak slowly, and me struggling to form grammatical sentences to explain our whole situation. However, a moment later, it just so happened, that the same lady I had spoken to at Questura, was walking by, and she recognized me.

Quickly, she spoke to the lady at the desk and explained the situation with my stay permit. But then, she turned to me, and said that actually, she thinks my stay permit running out in August was correct after all, because that’s all that Erasmus students need. Only I am not an Erasmus student. I am Erasmus Mundus, which means I have a different study plan, and I should stay through the whole year, rather than just one semester. However, even people who know about Erasmus, don’t always know about Erasmus Mundus, and I have no idea how to explain all of this in Italian. I tried my best, but in the end, I asked her to talk to the person at the Welcome Office at the university. They got in contact the next morning, and although I still have to wait 20 days, it should be corrected now.

In the meanwhile, we were still sitting in front of the Cinformi counter, asking what to do about my husband’s permit, while mine is in the works. We were still missing some documents, and now it looked like it would take forever to get his started.  So I asked the lady at the counter what we should do next. She said we would submit everything now. I wasn’t sure I heard or understood her right. I asked again. I asked two more times. She replied: Don’t I want my husband to stay with me? –Of course I do. –Then don’t worry.

She filled out the form for us, collected all our documents into an envelope, and told us to go to the tabacchino to buy a “marca da bollo” for 16 euro (some sort of tax stamp) and to go to the post with a little over 100 euros to mail off all the documents. We did as we were instructed. My husband’s appointment at the Questura is November 22nd, so he is changing his plane tickets to come home much sooner than we ever could have hoped.

 

Officialization 7: TV Tax

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View from Castel Beseno

Officialization TOC

  1. Officialization 1: WTF comes next in Italy?
  2. Officialization 2: Apartment
  3. Officialization 3: Internet
  4. Officialization 4: Stay Permit, part I
  5. Officialization 5: Picking Courses
  6. Officialization 6: Stay Permit, part II 
  7. Officialization 7: TV Tax <— You are here

TV Tax

It seems like European countries in general tend to have some sort of TV tax. This is a ridiculous tax that you pay for the privilege of existing in a world with television stations, even if you don’t own a television.

Fortunately, in Italy (unlike in Germany), you can get out of paying this tax if you declare at Agenzia delle Entrate that you don’t have a TV. Unfortunately, I was supposed to do it within a month of moving here… or something. Since I didn’t do that (because I didn’t know about any of this), I have to pay the tax for the rest of this year. The good thing is I can declare that I won’t have a TV next year, so I won’t have to pay the tax for next year. This year, I’m stuck though. The first month’s tax already cost me 33 euro, but I don’t know if that’s how expensive it always is or if that much was just the first month.

To declare that you won’t have TV in the next calendar year, you just bring your codice fiscale, passport, and address (well, I brought my lease just in case) to the Agenzia delle Entrate, and you just have to sign a paper stating you don’t have a TV. I doubt anyone ever comes and checks.

If you do have a TV, and you pay the tax, the electric company is the one that deducts the tax from your account, and sends it to the correct place. No one ever tells you about this, and I only found out it thanks to a friend, who noticed the charge on my electric bill. By the way, the electric bill set up fees were really expensive in general!

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Weeks 57 through 60

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September and October have been the months of hikes. It’s been surprisingly warm during the day, though the evenings have been chilly. I’ve gone somewhere almost every weekend with friends, and I’ve watched the trees turn from green to gold to rust.

At the end of September, a friend with a car took us on a difficult hike to Cima Rocca. I’m not that accustomed to hiking, though I enjoy it quite a lot, and this hike was particularly difficult. It went at a fairly steep uphill the entire way, until the very end, at which point it became nearly a Via Ferrata style climb. That is to say, there was a metal guide cable, and you had to use your hands to scramble up the rocks.

It took around three hours to climb to the top, with your thighs and calves protesting the entire way, and just one hour to come down, with your knees complaining. As hard as it was, the view from the top was absolutely worth it (though it was a misty day). Not only that, but there were some cool old caves dug out from WWII along the way, and a great deal of fresh air. In the end, this was one of the hardest, but also one of the most fun hikes I have done.
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In October, I had the chance to visit Milan to meet the same friend who I met recently in Prague. Milan was… money. The city center was small in terms of area, but grandiose in terms of content. The cathedral was huge, the castle had a moat, and the shopping/fashion was so high-end, that the cheaper area was the one that had labels like Prada and Louis Vuitton. The expensive fashion district had clothes that looked like they had just come off a model– you know, the weird ones, that no normal human would ever wear.

Although I usually like visiting museums, the one in the castle somehow didn’t impress me. Maybe I’ve been spoiled by the world-class art in huge cities like Paris and Berlin. Overall, two days in the city were just enough for me to see everything, though if I was the shopping type, I’m sure I would have needed more.

The next weekend, I headed back to Saarbrücken (SB) to retrieve my bike, and visit my friends. After a 10 hour commute through lovely Austria, I found myself in Germany again.

I think I have a sort of love-hate relationship with SB. Although I am frustrated at the quality of schooling, I can now look back and realize that it was better than what I will see here this year, because there were many different professors to work with, and many different course offerings. In addition, SB has an amazing community of students. Everyone in the local program is studying the same thing, so you have a lot of people to work with, and a lot in common with those around you.

Here in Italy, I have found it difficult to integrate into the local community in the same way. Everyone in CIMeC is studying cognitive neuroscience together, so they share all the same classes and have the same interests. It’s possible that we have more in common than I think, but I don’t share any classes with them, so I wouldn’t know anyway. The computer science students in Povo also share all their classes, and by virtue of this, have also formed a tight knit community. Basically, I am rather on the periphery of what is going on here. So while my personal life here is good, my academic life is shitty.

Coming back to SB reminded me of everything I am missing out on.

I returned from SB feeling rather disappointed, but fortunately, a friend was coming to visit for a couple of days, which helped lift my spirits. We wanted to show her around some of the sights, so we headed back into the mountains. The first day was unfortunately misty again when we took a small trip an a hike just above Rovereto. The second day was a little clearer, and we headed up higher, up a windy road into the hills nearby, where we hiked through falling tree leaves, to the top of a large hill.

My friend only had a couple days with us, and once again, I had to say goodbye. One great thing about my master’s program is that I get to meet a whole ton of amazing international people. However, the entire experience is basically a revolving door of goodbyes, as people finish their masters and head back to their home countries, and you wonder all the while if you will ever see them ever again.

In any case, I had to bear my sadness on the move, because the next day we went on a trip with the university right back in the mountains, to Rio Novella. I stumbled through this trip, a bit tired after the last three days, but happy to chat with all the various international students from different departments. We went through apple orchards, to a really steep canyon, and through a gorge to a church on top of a cliff. You’re probably tired of hearing this– the views were amazing.

Finally, at the very end of the month, I visited the Castello Beseno, which is a castle on top of a hill not far from Rovereto. It was a peaceful day, and there weren’t many tourists there, so we had a lovely stroll throughout the whole thing. It was a real medieval castle, like the kind you read about in history books! Although I’ve been in Europe for a year now, I didn’t visit that many castles last year, and as an American, I am still impressed by these historic structures.

Apart from taking trips and just enjoying life… I have to admit that in terms of work, I’ve done very little this month. As I mentioned before, there doesn’t seem to be that much for me to do in the department here. I’m only taking a few classes, and they aren’t that good. The machine learning class in Povo has a really good instructor, but strangely it doesn’t have any homework, so I’ve just had to do my best to study on my own. The Human Language Technologies course in Rovereto is possibly the worst course I have ever taken. The topics are all repetition from last year’s coursework, and the lecturing is both boring and uninformative.

I’m quite frustrated (but unsurprised) that my second year university does very little to coordinate a curriculum that will be useful to second years. As I was warned by my second year colleagues last year, in the LCT program you basically end up doing Year 1 twice. My hope is that I will be able to teach myself everything that I haven’t managed to learn yet. I mean, I mostly taught myself last year anyway. I’ve been working on linear algebra in my spare time, but right now, my main goal is to find an internship and a master’s thesis topic.

At least daily life in Rovereto has been good.

However, there’s one more bit of frustrating news. My husband has been in Italy for almost two months now, and my stay permit is nowhere in sight. Once I do get the stay permit, it will take him probably at least a week to get the appointment with Questura (immigration) sorted so that he can be allowed to stay provisionally in Italy. However, with the Shengen visa waiver that Americans get, he is only allowed to be in Europe for 90 out of each 180 days. That means he has to go home ASAP, so that he can save some days for doing all the paperwork once I get my stay permit and he returns. So I guess he’ll be going back for Thanksgiving, and I’ll be here all alone for a while again.

Costs:

It seems like it does help to have a second person splitting costs. Even with all the dining out and travel, I’ve managed to stay under budget. However, keep in mind, my utilities payment has not been charged yet (it will be very expensive at the start of November because of move-in costs, but should be much cheaper after that), and my internet bill was low I think because of last month’s deposit payment.

I see a lot of extraneous items below. It’s time to think about reigning it in again. Phone is too high, and I should probably finally pull the plug on Project Fi… I am just such a sucker for the convenience. The bouldering gym passes will eventually get used, but I am going to swap to mainly doing aerial now (I will be ramping it up to twice a week), so those were not really a necessity after all. The miscellaneous category was just silly spending. As usual, all the dining out is ridiculous. I will say that I won’t feel bad about the coats, because I got a seriously insane discount there.

  • €235 – rent
  • €14 – internet
  • €60 – phone (I should probably drop Project Fi, since the European plans are way cheaper…)
  • €50 – bouldering gym passes
  • €150 – aerial silks classes
  • €60 – transport, misc stuff for the house
  • €55 – a coat and a warm jacket for winter (fantastic thrift store price)
  • €231 – groceries
  • €120 – dining (including amazing gelato at Zenzero in Rovereto!)
  • Total: €975

The Drive

 

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View of a road from the train through Austria.

I loved taking long road trips around the US, both seeing new destinations, as well as driving there. We’d gather up all our things– our clothes, our food, our tents, our games– and we’d head off towards the forest of huge Sequoias in the North, or the vast deserts to the East. Even when we just took day trips to the hills nearby or the beach an hour away, I never minded driving. When we left in the morning (or let’s be real, in the early afternoon, since we never got out on time), the car trip meant that the fun was all ahead. When we started on our way home, usually long after the sun had set, it meant our comfy beds were waiting for us. On dark stretches of road, we could see the stars outside the car window.

Sometimes, later, when I was the one behind the wheel, driving in the car felt like both my adventure and my home. Often, I felt like I could easily skip my exit on the freeway, and just keep going into the sunset, to find whatever waited for me at the edge of the world.

But I never did keep going. I always took the exit. Why did I do that? The world is so vast and there’s so much to see. Why not just let the moment take you away? I guess there was always a reason: work in the morning, people waiting at home, laziness to make the trip back, discomfort at the thought of facing the unknown. Maybe the reasons made sense, or maybe they were just excuses. In any case, I never answered the call of the road.

Now, I don’t have a car, and I don’t have the same chance. Taking the train is just not the same. I don’t know if it’s the other people chatting nearby, or if it’s just the constant foreignness of everything around me, but there is neither the excitement of adventure, nor the anticipation of homecoming. Rather, there is a feeling of constant displacement, like my trip is anchored between nowhere and nowhere else.

On the train, I can’t just skip my exit, and let the rails carry me away– the conductors don’t take a liking to that. On the train, I can’t let my mind wander as I become a part of the vehicle, controlling its motions over the smooth asphalt as easily as I control the motion of my own body. On the train, I can’t stop to grab a bite at an interesting hole-in-the-wall, or to explore a little-traveled corner of the world.

Instead, I must submit to the vehicle and the system propelling it onwards. I must agree with the system on my intentions ahead of time, and accept its plan for me. I must fight the timetables, and struggle through the crowds, and all my things must fit in a handy bag. Oftentimes, I don’t even get the window seat.

Of all things, I never thought I would miss the drive.

Officialization 6: Stay Permit, part II

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Part of the hiking (climbing) path to Cima Rocca.

Officialization TOC

  1. Officialization 1: WTF comes next in Italy?
  2. Officialization 2: Apartment
  3. Officialization 3: Internet
  4. Officialization 4: Stay Permit, part I
  5. Officialization 5: Picking Courses
  6. Officialization 6: Stay Permit, part II <— You are here
  7. Officialization 7: TV Tax

Stay Permit, part II

In Stay Permit, part I, I went to the post and paid a ton of money to send a bunch of documents to the immigration office. I received a receipt, on which was written the time of my appointment at the Questura (Immigration Office). In Rovereto, this office is located inside the police station. I arrived a little early for my appointment, which was meant to be at 9:34. Of course, just 1.5 hours into the morning, the whole system had already slowed down, and I wasn’t actually called in until around 10 minutes later.

Once again, the university had sent someone to help us talk to the office. I am so grateful for this, because my Italian is incredibly rudimentary, and the situation was stressful the way bureaucracy always is.

I had brought all of my documents, plus copies of them, i.e. the receipts from the post office, including the receipt for payment of the health insurance, my passport, my German stay permit, proof of funding, my lease, photos, and even some cash, just in case. In the end, they only asked for the postal receipts, my passport, my German stay permit, and the photos. They took my fingerprints, and I had to sign a paper with all my information. I looked over this paper very carefully and found a mistake in one of the dates, which they immediately corrected. It was very important to look over this information before signing it for this reason! After that, they gave me the same postal receipt back, this time with a very important “codice pratica” number handwritten on it which identifies my application.

Unfortunately, my German stay permit runs out in a couple weeks, which means that after it runs out, I am not allowed to travel outside of Italy and the US (my home country), until I receive the stay permit, and whenever I travel, I need to bring those postal receipts with me, in order to be able to legally re-enter Italy. I wish I had asked Germany to give me a stay permit for a little longer (apparently, some people were successful with this), but I didn’t know it was possible at the time.

The processing time on the stay permit is supposed to take 3-4 months, but there might be a possibility of expediting it, so we’ll see what happens. In terms of picking the thing up, since I didn’t have an Italian phone number to give them, I am going to have to check the status of my application on the Questura website (using that same code that was written on my receipt).

It sucks that I’m going to be unable to travel throughout Europe until I get the stay permit. Plus, I’m not 100% sure the legality of staying here without it, even with the receipts. I mean, the office lady said it was ok, but who knows how a different official may feel about it. The worst part of all of this is that after I receive it, we are going to have to go through the whole process with my husband, this time, without any translation help from the university (they don’t help at all with spouses). At that point, my husband will be the one confined to traveling around Italy/US. Long story short, it sounds like we won’t be able to travel together until something like April (but maybe my stay permit will get expedited and it won’t take as long as that).

Weeks 52 through 56

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I’ve talked a lot about getting an apartment with Internet, working on my stay permit, and picking courses. What I didn’t mention, is that I also took a number of small trips over the course of the last month. It turns out that this year I am living in what is probably of the most beautiful places in the world. I don’t have a car here, of course, so, unfortunately, I don’t have the opportunity to just take off and see everything, but I have had some opportunities this month to explore nonetheless.

At the start of the month, I visited Bologna, where my husband has relatives. This trip wasn’t exactly planned ahead of time. It turns out that as my husband was coming here, to Italy, some of the stuff he was bringing in his pack got stolen. That stuff included a translation of our marriage certificate. Our relatives knew a translator that was willing to help us get it done quickly, and this became an opportunity to take an overnight trip to Bologna, where they live. I imagine we could have gotten it done here in Rovereto, but it would have definitely taken longer, and we really thought we needed it ASAP, because we thought we had to apply for my husband’s stay permit along with mine. In the end it turned out that we didn’t have to do this, but rather, we have to wait for mine to come in before he can apply for his at all. By the way, this means that he will probably have to leave the country once his Shengen visa waiver runs out, because my permit will most likely not come before that time.

As a result of all of this, the trip was a little stressful, but it was made worth it by the fact that we got to spend some time with our relatives (and I got to know them better). Also, Bologna was pretty awesome. It was bigger than Rovereto or Trento, but still fairly walkable, and the public transportation seemed good enough. The center of the city is covered in porticos (covered archways over walkways), which helped keep the heat from the summer sun at bay, along with old stone towers, cute restaurants (with delicious cured meat), and of course, gelato.

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Later on in the month, I took a trip with the university to Lago di Garda, the biggest lake in Italy, which we are only a couple hours away from. The morning was cloudy, which was a shame, because it meant the guided tour didn’t want to take us on the hike up to the castle in Arco (apparently it was dangerously slippery). We visited Riva del Garda instead. The other LCTs and I broke off from the guided tour almost immediately, and headed up a light hike to the castle overlooking the town. At this point, the sun broke through the clouds, glistening over the waters of the lake, and showing us a bit of the lovely day that was to come.

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After this, we went and grabbed lunch (we had pizza, pasta and gnocchi) before meeting the tour back at the bus. Next, we traveled by bus to Malcesine, a town on the banks of the lake. By this time, the weather had cleared up and we had a great time exploring the castle there, which overlooks much of the lake. Apparently, this lake is great to swim in when it’s warm, and I really hope I get the chance to come back next summer.

Finally, just recently, one of the LCT students who has a car took us to the mountains. On the way up, we saw a church literally built into a cliffside. It was really funny to see a normal building inside a cliff. It was almost like the stone was trying to gobble it up.

Afterwards, we went on a ~10km hike high up in the mountains, called Forra del Lupo/Wolfsschlucht (Wolf’s Gorge). The hike went up hill most of the way, sometimes getting somewhat steep (but never so steep that you had to climb). We reached the Forra del Lupo part sometime in the middle. It was a deep crevice in the hillside, with built up stone overlooks before and after it. Afterwards, we kept hiking until we ended up at the very top of the mountain (at around 1600m elevation, if I recall correctly). At the top was an old WWII fort made of white stone. Unfortunately, it was at this point that my broken-ish phone, finally gave out, so I couldn’t take as many pictures as I would have liked. However, it’s not a great loss– no picture can capture these breathtaking views.

Costs

The costs over the last 5 weeks are insanely high. This is probably the most I’ve spent in any single month in all my life (except for once when I bought a fancy computer). Move in costs to the new apartment were crazy (a lot of it is a deposit that we will hopefully get back), but our family helped us with a good chunk of them. I also traveled a fair amount, so that added to it. Finally, there’s two of us now, and that makes food and stuff more expensive. You always forget how much it costs to buy all those little things (e.g. cups/plates, blankets, towels, etc.) that you need when you are in an actual apartment, and how much it takes to start off with a nice full pantry.

Note: Below is just what I spent. My husband spent some of his own money as well. We don’t share any bank accounts, so I will probably continue to report on only my own spending, since it’s just easier.

  • €122 – public transport (50 for a pass, the rest before I got the pass)
  • €403 – travel to Rovereto at the start, travel to Bologna, and some smaller trips
  • €111 – dining out
  • €233 – groceries
  • €302 – stuff for the apartment,
  • €49 – phone is extra high due to no internet at home and making tons of calls
  • €1890 – rent, deposit, Internet, apartment fees
  • Total: €1220 + €1890 = €3110