Officialization 4: Stay Permit, part I

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Alleyway in Malcesine.

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 <– You are here
  5. Officialization 5: Stay Permit, part II

Stay Permit, part I

The Welcome Office at the University of Trento organized a giant officialization day for all of us foreign students, which included getting through enrollment, applying for health insurance, and sending off paperwork to apply for the student stay permit. The latter procedure is fairly complicated, so it was incredibly nice that they did this for us. I had to do things mostly on my own in Germany last year, and it was definitely harder.

Enrollment was way easier here than in Germany. The Welcome Office at University of Trento had set up an appointment for everyone to come enroll. We had to bring our passports, and that’s it. We came to the appointment, the lady there filled in some form on her computer with our basic information, and she printed out a paper that confirmed that we were enrolled. Then it took a couple of days for the websites to update with our status. That’s it.

The only trick now is that I have to pick up the student card that lets me use the Mensa over in Trento. Also, I have to sign up for sports separately, and I have to pick up a card for that from a different office in Trento. Finally, as a student, I can get a really cheap “free circulation” pass for the region, and I have to pick up a card for that also in yet another office in Trento. By the way, CS courses and language lessons are also in Trento. I’m starting to think I should have spent more time searching for accommodation in Trento.

In terms of health insurance, I had to already have health insurance that lasted until the end of my stay. Since my German health insurance is apparently running out, I used the one the LCT program provided me with for now. Italian national health insurance costs around 157 Euro per calendar year, even if you only use it the last 3 months, so I decided to just use the LCT program provided insurance until December. After that, I did pay for a year of the Italian one, because I just want to make sure that my pre-existing condition is covered. It’s cheap enough that I feel it is worth it. I’ll just have two insurances now.

Once you are enrolled and you have health insurance, you can apply for the student visa by post. For this you need:

  • A form that was provided to us by the Welcome Office, but I guess you can get it at Cinformi
  • Copies of each page of your passport, including the stamped pages at the back
  • A copy of the enrollment certificate from Uni Trento (or the invitation letter from Uni Trento or similar)
  • Copy of your health insurance policy with dates on when it is valid
  • Optionally, €149.77 to optionally sign up for the health insurance from January to December of next year
  • Copy of your lease if you have it (otherwise you bring it with you to your appointment later)
  • €16 for a revenue stamp, which you have to buy at a tabacchi (there’s one across the street from the Rovereto Post Office)

Once you have all of the above, you go to the post office, and send it all off in a massive envelope. The post office then gives you really important receipts for all of this. You need to make copies of these receipts and guard them with your life. The receipts tell you when your appointment is at the Questura (immigration office).

The Welcome Office helped us do all of this. They literally filled out the application form for us, they helped us make copies, they took us to buy the revenue stamp, they made an appointment for all of us at the post office, they gave us the massive envelope to send it all off in, and they were there with us when we paid and sent things off. This was really great.

What the Welcome Office doesn’t help with is doing all of this for my husband. He has to wait until my stay permit comes in, before he can get started. Since it will probably take at least 4 months for mine to come, he will probably have to leave Italy at the end of his 90-day Shengen Visa waiver expiration date, and come back.

 

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Officialization 3: Internet

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Officialization TOC

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

Internet

My new apartment doesn’t have Internet yet, so this is something separate that I have to set up. I found four different Internet providers in the area and visited each of them: TIM, Fastweb, Infostrada, and Vodafone.

Each had a variety of pay-as-you-go options, capped at a certain amount of gigs per month, where you use a local SIM in your phone. For example, an average offer was around 15Gb per month for around 10 euro, plus activation cost. Only some of the shops (Infostrada I think) had cheap burner phones that you could buy to toss that SIM into.

Of course, those caps aren’t going to work for home internet that my husband and I both have to do work on. In terms of more permanent options, none of the ones available were very good (of course). In general, they looked approximately like this:

  • Around 25 euro for a reported 50Mbps down/10Mbps up (I’m sure it would be less than that in practice). Note that some websites claim that 1Gbps down is available, but this does not seem to be the case in Rovereto.
  • Installation costs of over 100 euro
  • Additional cost of over 100 euro total for the modem (spread over the time of the contract).
  • Contracts for 4 years. If you break the contract before the 4 years is up, you have to pay a cancellation fee depending on the number of months that you are short on (usually over 100 euro).
  • Additionally, TIM made you pay another 100+ euro for some bundled TV service that I obviously don’t need (and there were no plans that did not include it).
  • You need an Italian bank account to pay with. A different European bank account won’t work (i.e. I could not use the account I got in Germany that my scholarship payments currently go into).

So obviously, most of the above points are deal breakers, in particular the 4 year contract, the extra modem and especially TV fees, and having to use an Italian bank. I already have Deutsche Bank (which does have branches here), so I’d like to avoid opening an Italian account if I don’t absolutely need it for some bureaucratic reason.

Fortunately, Vodafone seemed to have somewhat more reasonable demands:

  • 50Mbs down/10Mbps up for 30 euro per month
  • 2 year contract, with 65 euro cancellation fee
  • 50 euro deposit, which allows you to pay by mail instead of with an Italian bank
  • No other hidden fees (or so they say so far)

Unfortunately, the process for getting Internet from Vodafone works like this:

  1. Go into the office, bring your ID (passport in my case) and your codice fiscale
  2. Order the Internet, and wait to receive an email, which signifies your confirmation of the contract
  3. Wait to receive a phone call to your Italian number from the technician ~3 days later
  4. Wait for the technician to arrive ~10 days later

Once again, I don’t have an Italian phone number. I don’t mind getting an Italian phone number, but I really need my current phone number for now, since that’s where my meager Internet is going through. The guy at the shop was nice enough to provide me with a temporary Italian SIM that I can put in my phone to receive the phone call. He did this for free (I’m not sure if it was really supposed to be free or not).

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My phone unpredictably turns off, registering that the battery is empty, now when the battery indicator is between 45% and 80% (used to happen at 20-40% previously). I carry a giant battery pack with me, until I can get a new phone.

Unfortunately, since we couldn’t find a burner phone at any shop we’ve gone to so far, we had to use one of our phones while we await that phone call. Incidentally, my phone has been acting up lately and my husband was supposed to bring me a new phone from the US, but it got stolen along the way. I have been very unlucky with theft lately. If it had not gotten stolen, I could have just used my old phone for the Italian SIM. (I should have a new phone coming in the next week or two, I hope.)

Anyways, we finally got the phone call yesterday. I managed to navigate this, too, in my low level of Italian understanding (which I mostly get for free from French– I really don’t speak Italian). They said they were coming on Tuesday of next week at 10:30 in the morning. (They’ll probably be late, right?) So for at least the next week we are without Internet. If it comes in on time, then it will have been 2.5 weeks without steady Internet in total, which is around what my optimistic estimates were when I was moving here.

On the plus side, I can go to the Rovereto library for free for slow Internet that occasionally craps out. It’s free to come in, sign up for an account, and use that Internet while we’re in the library (you don’t even have to talk to anyone). I do have Eduroam through my last university, but it doesn’t seem to automatically work here, and nothing else will be set up for me here until at least the orientation on September 14th.

 

Officialization 2: Apartment

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The view from our new apartment.

Officialization TOC

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

Apartment

As a married couple moving together to Italy, we apparently needed to find an apartment of at least 45 square meters. A couple of months ago, I visited this area and stopped by some agenzia immobiliare (apartment agencies) to look at apartments. I had been in contact with one of them through email (all in Italian thanks to a heavy dose of Google Translate), and in the end decided to go with that one.

The apartment is huge (perhaps even too big for us), but the price is acceptable, and the location is central. Well actually, the location is a little too central, because there is always some noise from the street outside and there’s a popular bar below us, so it doesn’t die down at night. But because finding an apartment (especially registering everything) is such a hassle, I think it’s going to have to do. The apartment does have both AC and heating, so theoretically, we could just keep our windows closed and the noise outside won’t bother us.

In order to get the apartment, we needed to fill out the lease. An Italian acquaintance helped me translate a draft of the lease, which was really kind of her. There didn’t seem to be anything fishy in it, but the set-up costs are not cheap. In addition, since we went with an agenzia, it turns out, we have to pay them a hefty sum as well. Actually, I asked about the agenzia fee before I signed the lease and the guy claimed there were no other fees apart from deposits and so on. It’s very possible, though, that my Italian wasn’t good enough to get the idea across. It’s also possible the guy was being deceitful. He seemed like a normal person, but who knows. In fact, I sort of suspected that there might be a fee for this, since I was going through an agenzia. In the end, everything was already getting set up, and I decided it made more sense to pay this than struggle through the rest of my life– a perk of having some cash saved up. So please be aware that if you use an agenzia, you will have a hefty fee to pay.

After signing the lease, I needed to pay a deposit of 3 months’ rent, the first month’s rent, and the agenzia fee. Then the contract needed to be certified with a stamp. The agenzia will do the certification for us. In addition, we needed to go to the energy company to get electricity, gas, water, and garbage set up. Actually, these things were already set up from a previous tenant, but they needed to be moved to my name. So the agenzia guy went to the energy company together with me, to get some information (since he actually spoke Italian). Then he provided me with some paperwork, and I ended up coming back the next day. The documents I needed were:

  • Passport
  • Lease signed by both parties (doesn’t have to be stamped yet)
  • Codice fiscale
  • Bank account IBAN & Swift/BIC code (my German one worked)
  • The agenzia provided me with the forms I needed (but I think they can give them to you there as well) to switch the accounts from the previous owner to me, including some forms with information about the owner of the apartment (including his ID).
  • There was also a form with the current amount of gas used, which can be found on the gas reader.
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The gas reader (10,333 was the number I needed to provide).

After I was done, I received the bags for trash. By the way, trash here is not a simple affair. There are separate bags for organic, plastic, paper, and residuo (everything else). There’s a huge list of what goes into each bag. The bags are picked up on different mornings (we were given a schedule), and are tagged to your name. The residuo bag is particularly small, and you only get one per month. This is a problem because dirty cat litter and feminine hygiene products all have to go in there. That bag is going to be really gross by the time it can get picked up.

I will also need to return to the energy office after I have moved my residence to Rovereto to give them proof that I live here now (which I believe makes some of my costs lower). Registering your residence is done at the Ufficio Anagrafe, but I can’t do this until I have received my stay permit, which I get from the Cinformi. And I can’t do that until I’ve received my enrollment paperwork from my university on September 14th. By the way, my European stay permit from Germany runs out on October 17th… I doubt all of this will be done before then, so we’ll see how that plays out.

Costs:

  • €1410 security deposit (equal to three month’s rent)
  • €470 first month’s rent (paid earlier in the year though)
  • €549 agency fee

Officialization 1: WTF comes next in Italy?

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The view from the train on the way to Rovereto.

Officialization TOC

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

WTF comes next?

Back to this again– the craziness of figuring out how to get a stay permit, now with a husband and a separate apartment to think about as well, plus an almost complete lack of knowledge of the local language. The stress levels are quite high. Anyways, here is my best guess as to the order in which things will need to get done next (I will probably be updating this post a lot as new information comes up).

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Once again, that’s a lot of stuff, and I will be breaking it down into separate posts as I get each step done.

The first step is getting a codice fiscale (tax code), but luckily, my school was able to apply for one on my behalf, so this task, at least, is done. Moving forward though, there is still a lot to be done.

Unlike last time, I feel even more disconnected from everything, probably because I am an atypical student (with a husband, separate apartment, over 30), and because last time I was able to come a month early to take an intensive language course where I met other students dealing with the same problems, and participated in some social activities that cut the stress. This time, there is no intensive language course at the start, and I really feel that it’s a damn shame.

Officialization 10: Leaving Germany

My first year in the LCT master is over, and I am moving from Germany to Italy to do my second year. But damn German bureaucracy… even leaving Germany isn’t easy. Having to talk to all of these offices is like knocking on a door that will never open. Their hours of operation are haphazard, and even when you get through, you just end up asking the same things over and over, hoping someone will know the answer.

Of course, the first thing I had to leave Saarland is to write a physical letter to my landlords announcing my intent to leave well ahead of time (a friend helped me with the correct wording for this). I was lucky and had to do it just one month in advance since many leases ask for up to three months notice. I ended up owing my landlords €140 for electricity over the included amount and a cleaning fee. My lease agreement covered that so it wasn’t a big surprise, but still a bit much.

Next, I needed to go back to the Bürgeramt at most one week before I was to move in order to announce to them that I’m moving and to get a leaving certificate. They needed to see my passport for this. I guess I could have done it via email, but I ended up having time in person. Anyway, it took like half an hour, so just another small annoyance.

The worst part though, is dealing with the health insurance. So, remember when I signed up for national health insurance when I first got here? Yea, it turns out, that was probably a mistake, after all.

Here’s a thing. As a student under 30 in a German university, you are required, by law, to be covered by insurance. You can waive this requirement when you enroll. Although I had a private travel insurance through my program, I chose to actually sign up for the national system anyway, thinking that that would ensure proper coverage through some of the issues that I have. The cost was around €90 a month, and as an American (our insurance system is famously fucked up), this seemed to be quite affordable.

But now that I am moving to Italy, I would like to sign up for the Italian one to make sure I am correctly covered there. My German one is supposed to work in Italy, but I’m told the local one will still probably make more sense to doctors. More to the point though, the Italian one is much much cheaper. It costs less than €200 per year. So that means if I cancel my German insurance and pick up the Italian one, I save something like €900.

But cancelling is harder than it sounds. As I said, there’s a law that requires you to have insurance as a student under 30. Because I signed up for AOK (the national health insurance) when I enrolled, and did not sign a waiver to cancel it, I cannot legally drop it until I am no longer enrolled, and I can’t just change to a private insurance either. Also, I can’t easily un-enroll, because my program automatically re-enrolls me and waives the enrollment fee, since I have to be enrolled in order to submit my master’s thesis work next year.

It sounds like the way for me to drop AOK would be to:

  1. Officially un-enroll in Saarland
  2. Provide proof from the Bürgeramt that I have moved away, and proof of un-enrollment to AOK to cancel my insurance
  3. Get a new acceptance certificate from my department for the second year
  4. Re-enroll with my same matriculation number in Saarland,
  5. Provide proof of a German health insurance again, or a waiver for the insurance

The good news is that since I literally just turned 30, I don’t actually have to do that very last step anymore, since that law only applies to people under 30.

The annoying thing is that after living here for a year, and seeing how things went, I actually think it would have been fine for me to just stick with the private insurance that LCT provided us, and soak whatever costs from the doctors visits would have been. I think it would have been more affordable and easier in the end.

I don’t have time anymore to deal with all of this in person because I am moving to Italy today, so I’ll have to keep following up online.

UPDATE:

Actually, it turns out that since I turned 30, AOK is actually supposed to automatically cancel my insurance by September 30th. Normally, this would be a bad thing, since I think would have to re-sign up with them as a non-student or else get private insurance, which would both be more expensive.

In this case though, it seems like this is a good thing, since all I will have to do now is get the Italian insurance and send it to AOK to confirm that I have something, as I believe is legally required.

All packed and ready to go!

Summer Travels (Weeks 48-51)

August has been a whirlwind. I finished out the first year of my master’s degree, and went on a 16 day vacation full of walking, hiking, and swimming. In total, I visited Berlin, Potsdam, Dresden, the Czech Republic, and Barcelona.

Germany

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View from Berliner Dom

My trip started with a train ride to Berlin. The week was a little rainy, but I still enjoyed walking and seeing the sites, and hiding from the rain in museums. I stayed in Wombat’s City Hostel which was pretty comfortable, although my roommates were coming in and out at all hours as usual, so I didn’t get much sleep.

What struck me most in Berlin was how the history of WWII and the Cold War were woven into the fabric of the city. Monuments to those murdered during the Holocaust and tours through old bomb shelters clearly describe the atrocities of those times. Old pieces of the Berlin Wall are displayed like art pieces at Checkpoint Charlie, covered in graffiti at the East Side Gallery, covered in gum at Potsdamer Platz, and pocked with bomb blasts in the Typography of Terror museum.

However, the monument that stuck with me the most was probably the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (Holocaust Memorial), not far from the Bradenburger Tor. From the street, it looks like a huge collection of unmarked tombs on uneven ground. From within, it’s a dark and claustrophobic forest of pale gray towers. It makes a clear statement against the crimes of war and genocide, and its prominent location in the city is a testament to Germany’s desire to learn from its painful past.

My visits to these monuments was, unfortunately, particularly timely, because the neo-Nazi Charlottesville attack happened in the US while I was in Berlin. The violence of the attack juxtaposed with these stark monuments that scream for peace and unity just underscores the absurdity of hate and terrorism (not that the emphasis was needed). Maybe if the US had more monuments to the courage of those our country has failed and those we have wronged, we would not be headed down a crooked path today.

On my last day in the region, I took a small trip to Potsdam, and walked around the city center and the Sanssouci Palace and gardens. It was a cloudy day, and the gardens were absolutely massive, so there were plenty of places I could relax without anyone else around. The next day I headed out to Dresden to spend one more day walking around the city center. Dresden was completely bombed out during the war, but it has been rebuilt, and is absolutely adorable. Both cities were worth a visit, but a day trip to each seemed like enough (although I didn’t go into any museums there).

Truthfully, by now, I had completely tired myself out from four straight days of nothing but walking through cities, and little sleep. It was a sunny day, so after I’d seen the main avenues of Dresden, I ended up crashing on some grass in a park and taking a short nap. No regrets.

Czech Republic

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Lovely hike in the Czech Republic

After Dresden, I finally made my way to the Czech Republic. I was really looking forward to going there, since I would stay with a friend who I hadn’t seen in a while. He lived a little ways outside of Prague, which was perfect, because we were able to get away from the city for a while and enjoy some of the beautiful forests of Bohemia. He picked me up at the train station, and we began the business of catching up on what had happened in our lives since our last meeting.

Over the next few days, we traveled around the countryside on old trains that rattled and clacked, past tiny stations with flowers in the windows, each one manned my a collection of human conductors. It was loud, and shaky, but somehow so charming nonetheless, and the trains seemed to run mostly on time (unlike in Germany). On the first day, we traveled to Křivoklát Castle, an old keep where the kings of Bohemia lived in medieval times.  Afterwards, we ate a tasty Czech lunch at a nearby restaurant, and hiked around some of the paths nearby to a small hill overlooking the river. I’m not sure this is a place I would have thought to travel to, had I been visiting Prague on my own, and I really enjoyed this trip.

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Křivoklát Castle

Although we spent most of our time getting a much needed break from the hustle and bustle of the city, of course we did see some of Prague as well. I spent a whole day on my own exploring the Prague Castle, the Charles Bridge, and all the little, towers, and passageways of the city. One passageway was so narrow that it had a pedestrian stop light, because only one person could fit through at a time.

After Berlin, I didn’t feel like going into too many museums, but we did see the Mucha Museum (an art nouveau artist) together. It’s a small museum, but it would be hard to find such a large collection of his work in another city. Both days that I was in Prague, I ate Trdelník (Chimney Cake), which was like the Baumstriezel I had in Germany but with ice cream inside. If only this fried dough street food would spread to the US!

Wherever we went in the Czech Republic, my friend seemed to have something to say about the area, or the people, or the history. He told me about the railway system, the plants in the woods, the architecture, and the Czech nobility. He told me how Prague houses the Czech crown jewels and how during important events, seven important leaders open seven locks to retrieve the jewels and display them to the people. The crown itself may only be worn by a monarch of royal blood, and since the last monarch is dead, it may never be worn again.

My friend had plenty such stories, and this, combined with the beautiful medieval castles, cathedrals, and towers dotting the city, as well as the lush oak and birch woods we leisurely strolled through, made my whole time in the Czech Republic feel like a romp through fairyland.

Spain

It was with some reluctance that I left the charming Czech Republic for Barcelona, where I would split an AirBnB with some friends. I was reluctant to leave, not only because of how lovely my time in Bohemia had been, but also because just two days before, Barcelona, too, was the victim of a terrorist van attack that killed 13 or more, and left over a hundred injured. My friends and I were staying near La Rambla, where the attack happened.

Upon arrival, we saw huge collections of flowers, candles, and small gifts laid out all along the avenue honouring those who had been killed in this senseless act of violence. It was a sobering sight. There were also plenty of well-armed cops dotting the street, but less of a military presence than I had feared there would be. Overall, travel around the city wasn’t hampered too much by any restrictions, but there was definitely a somber feeling in certain areas.

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Gifts in remembrance of the La Rambla attack

Despite all this, in the end, my stay in Barcelona was no less lovely than my stay in the Czech Republic. The place we were at was smack dab in the middle of the historic Gothic Quarter, literally facing the huge Basilica de Santa Maria del Pi. Below us was a square where street musicians would gather to play on their accordion, guitar, or violin in the evening. It was one like one of those things you see in the movies.

On one of the days, we met up with another local friend, who showed us around the city. We hit up hit up all the major sights and vantage points, including Montjuïc and the famous La Sagrada Familia, for which we had reserved tickets online (you should definitely reserve them because the line outside was really long otherwise).

The rest of the days were spent at the beaches in town and at Castelldefels, snorkling near Punta del Molar (we took a tour there with Barcelona Excursions, but I think it wouldn’t be that hard to get there on your own either), and otherwise just splashing around in the perfectly warm and clear Mediterranean sea, which was exactly what I needed during summer vacation!

We also ate some of the best food I have ever had. The creamiest paella, the freshest seafood, the most refreshing gazpacho, and the ham… my god… the ham. It tastes nutty and rich, nothing like what we call ham (it’s really quite wrong to use the same word in this context). I haven’t had food this good for months.

The best part in terms of food, was going to La Boqueria Market, and gathering up supplies for a picnic dinner. They’ve got everything there: a variety of otherworldly ham, various salami, cheeses of all sorts (including really good Catalonian goat cheeses), veggies, fruits (e.g. a kilo of fresh figs for just 2 euro), smoothies, baked bread, seafood, raw meat (including atypical meats like tripe and even brain), nuts and dried fruits, chocolate and other sweets, spices… I mean, it’s just crazy. Wandering through markets is one of my favorite things to do, and this market absolutely did not disappoint, although it was pretty pricey, of course.

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Ham at La Broqueria in Barcelona

Looking Ahead 

At the end of this long and wonderful vacation, I came back to Saarbrücken for just 1 crazy working day to wrap up everything I had to do, and the weekend to pack up my things and clean my apartment, before leaving for Italy. I’m still apprehensive about the move, because I have no idea how everything is gonna go down, and I don’t speak Italian. I’m particularly worried about figuring out how to set up the Internet, which I expect I will not have for the first few weeks. Ugh. Anyway, I’ll just have to figure out a way to muddle through it all.

Oh yea, I also just turned 30, so you know, I’m sort of re-evaluating my life’s decisions a lot at the moment. But I believe (and hope) that in the end, it will all have been worth it.

Costs

I planned this trip nearly at the last moment, and I ended up paying a lot, since tickets to everywhere were already fairly expensive. I also spent a lot while traveling, without giving the budget too much thought. Fortunately I saved a good amount back when I worked, so this sort of thing is possible occasionally, but I think I need to watch it more carefully once in Italy. I’m looking forward to hopefully finding a paid internship while I’m there as well.

  • €225 – rent
  • €90 – health insurance
  • €54 – clothes
  • €40 – phone (abnormally high since I used a lot of minutes this month)
  • €120 – dining out (not during the trip, since I didn’t buy groceries all month)
  • €1186 – everything for the trip (~200 trains, ~250 planes, ~350 accomodation)
  • €90 – train to Italy
  • Total: €1805

Year 1 Retrospective

IMG_20160915_212159Well, my first school year is now over! (Almost. I still have a couple projects to finish.) There’s a lot to say on many topics, so I wanted to write a year 1 retrospective, in order to have one place that summarizes my feelings on the program as a whole. (Caveat: my experience is very much biased from the US perspective.) Anyways, here we go!

Contents

  1. Bureaucracy
  2. Accommodation & Costs
  3. Getting Around
  4. Food
  5. Weather
  6. The University System
  7. The LST Department
  8. Courses
  9. Final thoughts (TL;DR)

Bureaucracy

Getting through the bureaucracy to get your student stay permit takes 3 months (the full time of the Shengen Visa waiver you get as a US passport holder). The hardest part is just figuring out what to do and when to do it. You have to go to a million different offices, and bother people constantly to figure out what to do and then to get it done. Most things take twice as long to get done as you would expect. Also, the Internet is one thing that seems to take extra long to set up. I already had internet set up at my place, but many friends reported that it took them a whole month.

The good news is many people speak English really well. In fact, many people speak 2-3 languages fluently. (Most of Europe is more multilingual than the US, in fact.) The people at the Welcome Office at the university will most likely be able to communicate with you, plus they know what you have to get done.

In terms of learning German, unfortunately, I didn’t have that much time to do it, because I really spent a lot of time on my LCT courses. So my German isn’t as good as it could be, which is just a shame, but it definitely did improve some since I got here (I’m probably low B2 level now).

Germans do seem to like rules, and even young people are less likely to overlook rules, whether official or unspoken societal rules (e.g. politeness, respect of authority), but although the bureaucracy is bad, it’s not that bad. You can manage it.

Accommodation & Costs

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The dorms aren’t too bad for the price. It’s a 1-person room, with a kitchen and bathroom included.

Finding a place to live at the start of the school year is really hard. You will get interviewed by your potential roommates to see if you are a good fit. With that said, costs are pretty low. Most rooms in a shared flat go for 250-350 euro (plus or minus for heating/water/Internet). If you come for the intensive German course at the start, they set you up in a dorm for a month, and this is a great opportunity to focus on German, get to know the area, meet cool people, and have time to find a real apartment and get your paperwork done. It’s expensive though.

By the way, the houses tend to have these weird shelf toilets. They are pretty gross and loud when flushing. LPT: If you place a couple of sheets of toilet paper down at the start, it makes clean-up easier. Yes, it’s a bit of a waste of paper, but otherwise, you waste water when you have to flush the toilet some more in order to clean it with the brush. Ew.

If you sign up for the German national health insurance (which was worth it for me because I am on regular medications and need to have regular doctor’s visits), you will pay 90 euro a month. If you’re on this, you won’t pay anything to go to the doctor or dentist (English speaking ones can be found), and medications should be cheap, I think. This is really nice compared to the huge premiums we pay in the US, plus copays, plus deductibles. Ugh.

Electronics are way more expensive here than in the US. Buy your laptops, cell phones, tablets, etc. when you are in the US. Also, shipping things here is not always that reliable. Stuff seems to get caught up in customs, or vanish sometimes, so you probably don’t want to be shipping expensive electronics. Have someone bring them when they visit, or bring them back yourself.

In short, cost of living is quite reasonable, and the Erasmus Mundus scholarship should more than cover it, unless you are like me, and spend a ton of money on travel and food (way more than I need to or should). Still, you can very easily find a HiWi for some extra cash and be just fine.

Getting around

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Art in front of a cafe in SB.

There are buses that go around Saarbrücken, but Google maps doesn’t show them. You can get updated schedules through the Saarfahrplan app. The buses don’t come as often as you’d like (especially on Sundays and holidays), and sometimes road construction really hampers them. On the plus side, SB is small enough that you can get around by bike pretty easily. In short, I think having a bike was worth it.

SB is centrally located in Europe, so you can travel around pretty easily. There’s an app for Deutschebahn, but it doesn’t work very well (it always crashed for me). I prefer using the Trainline app, because they make it really easy to find the cheapest tickets and you have the ticket on your phone when you need to show it. In retrospect though, I would have bought the student pass for Deutschebahn, because I travelled a lot and it would have been worth the money. As for the trains, Deutschebahn is pretty awful, so be prepared for train delays. Transfers of less than 10 minutes are risky and not recommended.

Paris is only two hours away by train, so I visited it at least four times. They have the best cheese, and that makes me very happy. Luxembourg is two hours away by bus, and also a great place to visit. Trier, Heidelberg, and the Saarschleife were nice day trips nearby. Frankfurt is a couple of hours away, which is great for catching planes elsewhere. Flights on Ryanair can be as cheap as 25 Euro, but you have to book way ahead of time and fly out of Frankfurt Hahn, which is no where near Frankfurt (there’s a bus that goes there from SB though). Airplanes also tend to be late (especially budget ones), so don’t plan layovers of less than an hour. Frankfurt airport is huge, and getting from the terminal to the train will also take you around that long.

Food

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Decor at Zing, a local bar.

Typical foods from this region are high in carbs and starches, so make sure you cook with plenty of vegetables at home. The cured meat and cheese is great though. The US has no idea what it’s doing when it comes to cured meat and cheese in comparison. I’m also going to miss real Bretzeln (soft pretzels).

I didn’t go out to restaurants in SB too much, but I did enjoy a few:

  • Zing – great local bar with a chill atmosphere to hang out at with friends
  • Flammkuchenhaus – all you can eat wood-fired Flammkuchen (like a very thin pizza with creme fraiche for the sauce and all sorts of toppings)
  • Mei Thai – really good Thai curry, and you can get it real spicy (not just German spicy)
  • Henry’s Eismanufaktur  – homemade ice cream with interesting flavours
  • China Restaurant – all you can eat hot pot with reservations, great for big groups
  • Taiha’s – very affordable Chinese food
  • Street food – whenever they have a street food festival, I get Baumstriezel, whenever I am at the train station I get hot Bretzeln, and whenever I am on campus I get Laugencroissant (which is a totally Saarland thing)

In terms of shopping for food, keep in mind that everything is closed on Sundays! This is a very annoying thing about Germany. Do your shopping on Saturday!

In terms of grocery stores, you have a wide selection. I usually go to multiple stores to get everything I want though:

  • Edeka is the best grocery store, but it’s all the way on Mainzerstraße in SB.
  • Aldi, Lidl and Rewe are also ok.
  • Netto is a cheap budget store. The produce there is kinda crappy, but you can definitely save money by shopping here.
  • Kardstadt has a grocery store in the basement that’s a bit expensive but has good fish.
  • Diskontopassage (the thing that looks like a subway in the center) has various specialty stores.
  • There’s a farmer’s market on Saturday from 8:00-14:00 in the center at St. Johanner Markt. This is a good place to get fresh vegetables, and there is a vendor there that has the best yogurt ever.

Speaking of food, the cafeteria (Mensa & Mensa cafe) at the university is pretty bad. They serve mostly bland carbs, in too-salty sauces. They sort of manage to make edible curly fries, Schnitzel and Flammkuchen, but that’s about it. Anything that claims to be “Chinese” food, or “Gulasch” or anything even slightly non-German sounding is basically really gross. There are no easily accessible microwaves, so bringing your own food can also be tough. But I found a microwave on the second floor of C7.1 building. I don’t think it’s meant for general student use, but no one has stopped me thus far!

Weather

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Frost in SB in January.

The weather is not unmanageably cold, but it is annoyingly cold. There are weeks in winter when it snows, and weeks when it goes below freezing. Most days it hovers around freezing though. Personally, since I come from sunny SoCal, I was happy to have a winter coat, gloves, hats, a wool scarf, sweaters, and layers.

The summer doesn’t really start until June/July. Even in the summer, it’s not always that warm, and it can rain a lot. It can get hot (30+ degrees C) but it doesn’t stay hot. Most places don’t have AC. Windows don’t have screens, so in the summer you get bugs.

It seems the pathogens here are somewhat different because from September to May I was sick as many times as I had my period (both period and illness randomly skipped in March). That’s just not right. You’re not supposed to be sick that much! But since June I seem to have broken this streak.

When you are sick, if you want meds, you have to go to the Apotheke (pharmacy) and talk to them to get what you want. For some meds, like pain meds (e.g. ibuprofen) I think you need a prescription. So consider bringing those with you from the US for less hassle as you are settling in. Also, they don’t have NyQuil pills here in Germany. They have MediNait, which is like the disgusting liquid version of NyQuil. I would definitely bring NyQuil from home.

The University System

The university systems in the US and in Germany are somewhat different. It’s hard for me to judge how much of it comes from the specific universities I attended, and how much from the German system in general, but here is my comparison.

US (UCLA) Germany (UdS)
There is a central admin for grades, rooms, finals, hiring post docs, organizing a curriculum, etc. Each prof does their own admin for the above (as I understand it)
University-wide website for courses and dept.-wide prof pages Each prof does their own webpages
Many profs prioritize research over teaching Nearly all profs prioritize research over teaching
Some teacher training sometimes provided, and profs get evaluated for every class Evaluations happen haphazardly (do profs even look at them?)
Assignments, midterms, finals, and often attendance count for a grade Assignments qualify you for the final, but the final is your entire grade, attendance is optional
You need to be signed up and paid for to take the course You can visit whatever lectures you want (great way to learn extra topics)
All classes start and end at the same time, with breaks and finals at the same time Exact time frames are up to the department and prof for each class
Sign up for courses in the first ~2 weeks, drop in the first ~4 weeks Sign up for finals near the last month of the semester
Tuition fees are huge (>10,000) so you have to take out loans Tuition is nearly free (~230 euro)
Most classes require you to buy books It’s up to you if you want to learn from books

In general, I think you get a better education in the US, because you have guidance in the topics and accessible professors willing and able to explain complicated topics. Professors are able to synthesize all the information out there in the world, and you are guided in correct direction and progression for the best learning outcomes.

In Germany, most classes are little more than a list of topics with some crappy slides, and you have to go out and teach yourself those topics. Professors don’t have time, don’t want to, or maybe just don’t know how to guide you down the path of learning, so you waste a lot of time flailing about every which way before finding the right way to learn the topic. The number of times I heard “just go look it up on Wikipedia” from a professor is shameful. My entire year of study here is best summarized as being a year of independent study, plus some exam hoops to jump through.

The LST Department

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Homemade card game about countries, kind of like “Go Fish!” on steroids, in Czech. Plus beer, of course!

Let’s start with the good. It’s a very international program, which is great. The other students especially are smart, fun, and just a joy to be around. Without them, I would have probably dropped out a long time ago. The faculty has plenty of smart researchers and you can take many different subjects and topics that sound interesting, so that’s nice. There’s a strong computational focus, and there’s also a good psycholinguistics section. The pure theoretical linguistics isn’t as strong as it was at UCLA, but it’s fine as far as I can tell. Overall, the education seems better than at some of the other LCT partner universities (I’ve heard bad things about San Sebastian, and Nancy in particular.)

Unfortunately, the department here is completely disorganized, and this shows in everything:

  • There’s no centralized web site for the department, sometimes no website at all for courses.
  • Classes start at irregular times, not in sync with the rest of the uni.
  • Finals happen within a wide span of two months, so it’s hard to plan around them.
  • Intensive block courses fill up any breaks you might have, so you won’t have vacations.
  • The same slides, assignments, and final exams (yes, even final exams) are reused year to year (so get study notes from the previous year if you can).
  • Requirements are a mess, and second year LCT students get especially screwed, since they have to take a lot of extra crap for no good reason. Don’t come here as a second year LCT.

Speaking of requirements, there’s actually a lot of prerequisite knowledge that would be really good to have before you start this program. The program takes people from varied backgrounds, but the truth is, that if you have already studied certain subjects, things will just make a lot more sense.

For those of us with linguistics backgrounds, keep in mind that since you cannot take bachelor’s level math and computer science courses for credit, you will lag behind most of the time. That’s not to say you can’t pass the program, just that you won’t get as much out of it, which is a shame. So I would say, try to learn up on math and programming before you come.

In general, I would recommend knowing:

  • Calculus
  • Linear Algebra
  • Statistics & Probability (though you will be taught much of this)
  • Python programming
  • A proper course on introductory linguistics where you have covered phonetics, phonology, morphology, syntax, and semantics (or at least basic logic).

I would also like to say that I would probably not recommend doing LCT as a self-funding student without the scholarship. There is an option to come to LST (the local Saarland program) directly, or to transfer from LCT to LST once you get here, and if you don’t have the scholarship, then you should consider this. (It makes sense to do LCT with the scholarship, since you get a free education out of it.)

The reason I say that, is because although Saarland has it’s problems, it is one of the better schools in the consortium as far as I can tell, and interrupting your studies to start over at a second university (basically doing most of the first year two times) is not worth it. Maintaining consistency, getting to know professors, and getting the chance at better internships here (since most jobs want you to be around for a while) is probably better than swapping schools. The other intangibles you get (e.g., meeting awesome people, living abroad, learning a new language, etc.) are still attained if you stay at Saarland. Of course, I haven’t done my second year at Trento yet, so take this with a grain of salt. I might change my mind after the end of the second year, but this is just my impression so far.

Courses

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Machine translation and speech recognition are big topics here.

Since there are no official course prerequisites, and most courses don’t really mention requisites, I would just like to summarize what I learned here about the implied requirements for the courses I took (or started taking and dropped). I’ll also take this time to give mini-reviews of the courses. I’m going to be completely honest in them, so if a prof ever reads this blog, hopefully they will understand that my criticism is meant to be constructive rather than destructive. There are many courses I didn’t visit, so this will just be a list of the ones I did visit.

In general, finding study notes and mock exams from previous years will help you.  I also cannot stress enough that you should work with other students whenever possible, because you have to teach yourselves mostly everything in the German school system, which is much easier to do when you have another person to bounce ideas off of.

Core Courses:

  • Computational Linguistics (Koller), prereqs: python
    • Great introduction to basic comp ling algorithms, but the class moves quickly, so be prepared to work hard. No exam, final project instead. You won’t get grades back for a shamefully long time. Recommended for learning the basics, as long as you don’t need grades right away to graduate.
  • Foundations (various profs), prereqs: none
    • Why is this still in the curriculum? It’s a waste of time, but it’s a required course. Fine to skip class most days (don’t skip Klakow’s though), but review slides rigorously for final.
  • Language Technology I (Dehdari), prereqs: none
    • I had Dehdari for this, but he left SB recently. This is a gentle introduction to basic topics in comp ling, but the topics you will go over are covered in more depth in all of your other classes. Only recommended for easy credits, not that useful otherwise.
  • Language Technology II (van Genabith), prereqs: none
    • You can bring all materials, including a computer to the final. Skip lecture, study the slides, get an A. Only recommended for easy credits, pointless otherwise.
  • Semantics (Vanhuizen), prereqs: none
    • Good balance of lecture to exercises, and expectations are clear. However, exercises can be much harder than what was explained in lecture, and exam is harder still and graded very strictly. Prof is very approachable. Recommended as a good introduction to semantics, but be prepared to possibly fail.
  • Syntax (Avgustinova/Clayton), prereqs: syntax
    • Syntax is a great topic, but this is not a well-taught introduction, so you’ll lose your passion for it. Not recommended; teach yourself instead.

Other courses:

  • Methods of Mathematical Analysis (Clayton), prereqs: calculus
    • I didn’t finish this class. It’s billed as a class to teach linguistics students the basic math skills they need, but you will be teaching almost everything to yourself. The final was reported to be way harder than the assignments. Not recommended; teach yourself instead.
  • Speech Recognition (Klakow), prereqs: linear algebra, machine learning
    • I didn’t finish this class, but my impression is that it is one of the hardest CoLi classes, probably for the same reasons as the other Klakow classes (see SNLP review just below).
  • Statistical Natural Language Processing (Klakow), prereqs: python, machine learning
    • Terrible slides, awful tutors, little guidance, hard homeworks, even harder final. It’s possible without having taken machine learning (I managed it), but it will take you a long time, and you will teach yourself everything. Recommended only if you handle frustration well, and have a good partner to study with.

Seminars:

  • Natural Language Generation (Koller/Demberg), prereqs: general knowledge of NNs
    • Present on a topic with ~2 other students. Can work together as little or as much as you like. Good seminar to write your paper in because you get a lot of material to base it off of. Recommended for writing your paper, and if you are ok waiting on grades to come back.
  • Question Answering in Applications (Neumann/Heigold), prereqs: none
    • Boring, but a good place to do that oral exam requirement since it will be exactly what was in your presentation. Not recommended due to how boring it is.
  • TTS/Voicebuilding (Moebius/Steiner), prereqs: none
    • TTS is boring, but required for Voicebuilding. It’s ok to skip most classes, but study the slides rigorously for the final. VB builds a voice with MaryTTS which is an annoying system to work with, but you learn a lot of other tools (linux, gradle, sox, docker, etc.). You’ll likely get good marks in these courses. Recommended for the tools.
  • Semantic Parsing (Koller), prereqs: semantics preferred
    • You are helped and encouraged to make a good presentation, and you have a lot of freedom for the project, so you get out of it what you put in. You can do it without having taken semantics (I did), but I think it’s better to take it first. You will get a good grade if you do the work. Recommended if you are legitimately interested in this topic.

CS Courses:

  • Artificial Intelligence (Hoffman), prereqs: programming, basic algorithms
    • I didn’t finish this class. A lot of the linguists take this class to fulfill the CS requirement, because it seems manageable. It still takes a lot of your time, and to me, it didn’t seem to be that practical.
  • Database Systems (Dittrich), prereqs: Java
    • I didn’t finish this class. Inverted classroom is nice. Mandatory quizzes, final based on quizzes. Homeworks are a lot of work. This is one of the classes that seems like it could be manageable for linguists, as long as you have time for it.
  • Software Engineering (Zeller + Tutor), prereqs: object-oriented programming
    • Completely dependent on project assignment and group dynamic. Homeworks are required for a grade, but a massive waste of time. Don’t rely on your tutor for much help on them either. Final is 3x longer than mock exam, so use the cheat sheet you get wisely. This class is very practical and you will most likely learn new technologies, which is the good part, but it will take a lot of your time. Competency-wise, it’s manageable for linguists trying to get the CS requirement. Recommended if you have lots of time, and you get the project and group you want.

Language courses:

  • Deutschkurse für internationale Studierende (DaF)
    • The summer intensive program is expensive but worth it to get settled (good chance to search for accommodation) and get acquainted with other international students. They have weekend trips which are great for getting to know the area.
    • Both summer and yearly courses are very dependent on what profs you get (Ralf is great), but this is a great way to meet other people from all over the world, and an ok place to get conversation practice. You probably won’t learn much grammar, so teach that to yourself.
  • Deutschkurse through MPI
    • Also very dependent on what profs you get (Kate isn’t great), but it’s worth trying this one out as well to see what meshes with your learning style best
  • Sprachenzentrum language courses (Italian, and French)
    • At the lower levels, these courses are taught entirely in German. They like to spend most of their time explaining the grammar, and you don’t get enough speaking practice or a large vocabulary.
    • The higher level conversational classes seem to be a lot more fun.

Final thoughts (TL;DR)

  • This is a year of independent study, with some exam hoops to jump through
  • Don’t come here as a 2nd year LCT student, the requirements are too stupid
  • The program is disorganized, so be ready to follow up on everything yourself
  • Finals and classes happen at weird times throughout the year, so vacations are hard to plan
  • Before coming, try to take calculus, linear algebra, and python, plus statistics/probability if there’s time, and at least an introductory linguistics course plus maybe syntax since the course here on it isn’t very good
  • The other students are amazing and make this worth it, plus living abroad is always a great experience in my opinion
  • The scholarship is more than enough to cover a frugal cost of living in a shared flat, and a small job for extra cash is easy to come by (email your profs)
  • Travel is easy, but don’t take train transfers of less than 10 minutes because Deutschebahn is often late, and don’t do plane layovers of less than an hour
  • Get the Saarfahrplan app for bus schedules, and the Trainline app to buy train tickets (also get a student travel card, it pays for itself), Ryanair for cheap airfare from Frankfurt, plus the bus that goes to their airport
  • Health insurance and going to the doctor is easy, even with medication prescriptions, but bring Nyquil and pain meds from home
  • Electronics are expensive, so buy them at home
  • The weather likes to hover around freezing most of winter, bring hats
  • Lifestyle is typical for the West, and many people speak English
  • Everything being closed on Sundays and stores closing at 8pm really sucks
  • Saarbrücken is pretty boring, and a little dirty, but it’s got almost everything you’ll need to live a normal life (except on Sundays)

Overall, I enjoyed my first year. I got to meet so many amazing students, and see a bunch of new things here in Germany and in Europe. At the end of my first year here, I would recommend the LCT program for the intangibles, and the free education. Without the LCT scholarship, I would recommend coming to Europe for a cheaper education, but not swapping schools in the middle. Mainly, if you are really dead set on getting a good education in computational linguistics, and/or are not strong in teaching yourself, and are willing to stomach the massive loans you have to take out, consider top US schools like Carnegie Mellon or University of Washington instead.

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UPDATE: Costs over the entire year

I tried to keep the costs I spent listed on my blog posts throughout this year, but it’s possible I miscalculated or forgot to mention things as I went. However, my records now show that over the course of the year, I spent a whopping €20593 (including the rent and deposits for the new place in Italy). My income over the course of the year ended up being around €20950 (1600 scholarship, 2700 HiWi job, various sources for the rest), so by some miracle, I managed to not spend more than I earned.

I stayed very close to my desired monthly budget 4 out of 12 of the months. I went significantly under budget 2 of those months. The remaining 6 months I went pretty significantly over budget. Those were the months that I bought new tech to replace broken things, or spent a lot extra on travel. Close to 30% of my expenses, €6008, went just to travel. I don’t regret it, although I may have been able to do some things cheaper if I had thought ahead a little more.

In terms of percent of spending, the costs were split up as follows:

  • 30.25% rent and bills
  • 29.17% travel (incl. tickets, hostels, food, souvenirs)
  • 8.72% groceries
  • 8.24% dining out
  • 7.58% tech (e.g. laptop and phone)
  • 3.86% medical expenses
  • 3.68% new clothes
  • 1.97% going out to nightly entertainment or sports
  • 1.5% education
  • 1.32% public transport (incl. bike)
  • 3.57% other (gifts, miscellaneous purchases)

My financial goals for the next year are:

  1. not have any more tech break on me or get stolen (obviously, this isn’t entirely up to me)
  2. be smarter about ordering travel tickets ahead of time
  3. go out less and/or cook wisely because cost of living seems higher in Rovereto than SB, although I don’t think I did that badly on that last year in the end
  4. spend more time (and money if necessary) on sports