Year 2 Retrospective

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Rovereto, outside my window.

So here I am, at the end of the LCT program. Things are nearly wrapped up, but not quite over yet. My stay permit in Italy runs out December 31st, and before then, I hope to figure out what comes next! In the meanwhile, a lot happened this year, so like last year, I’d like to provide a summary of my experiences. I feel like the LCT experience is really unique for each person, especially during the second year, so take this all with a huge grain of salt, as being very much my subjective opinion.

Contents

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

Bureaucracy

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Colosseum in Rome.

Oh boy. Where do I start? Italian bureaucracy is famed for being bad, and rightfully so. I’m sure it’s not the worst, but it’s not the best. You will go to many offices, many times, and many people will tell you many things. They will tell you those things in Italian. Many times you will either fail to understand those things, or those things will be contradictory, so you won’t know which one to believe. Deadlines are important, when they pertain to you. They are unimportant when they pertain to others.

Although much in the bureaucracy is annoying to deal with, two big points jump out: the stay permit, and thesis submission at the uni.

The process of getting the stay permit was very tiresome. All in all, if you are in Rovereto and you get it expedited, you should still expect it to take 4-5 months, assuming everything goes smoothly (in Trento, I heard it could take longer). For significant others… well, my husband still doesn’t have his, 14 months later. This means he was unable to travel around the Shengen Zone (since his 3 month US citizen visa waiver ran out early on). As long as he stayed in Italy and/or traveled through ports of Italy, it was fine, but the whole thing was just a bummer.

In terms of thesis submission, there are a series of deadlines that you will need to meet, and a number of small document submissions that will need to be made along the way. No one will let you know about these deadlines or the requirements, but they may be posted on the CIMeC website (or they may not, if it’s not updated for whatever reason). It’s something you just need to watch for on your own.

My suggestion would be to ask around from the other students at the start of the semester about any deadlines, to check the websites, and then to email the coordinators to confirm with them that you understood everything. There were many times that I thought I had read about all the deadlines correctly, but after an email, I realized that I had missed something. Expect to get some flack for this, like “you should know your own deadlines,” but do it anyway. It’s worth it to take the flack, rather than deal with the issues after the fact.

Accommodation & Costs

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The view from my window in summer.

The cost of living in Trentino is a little higher than in Saarland (which was extremely cheap), but the quality of life is much much higher. The 1000 euro a month stipend from Erasmus Mundus is still quite alright in terms of living a student life, but it’d be nice to have a bit extra for travel, especially. With that said, paid jobs are much harder to find than in Saarland. It seems to be expected that you won’t get pay for an internship, which I feel is a bit silly, since by now, you can probably consider yourself a programmer. As such, I would say start looking for paid internships in companies (nearby or abroad) right away. I lucked into one at FBK, but they don’t seem that common there either.

In terms of rent, the uni has some housing, but they do this thing, where they put two people in one bedroom (“doppia”), like in the days of undergraduate dorms in the US. Normal (“singola”) rooms in shared apartments are not too difficult to find though. Expect to pay a little over 300 euro per month, plus the extra costs of heating and such.

If you are looking for a proper apartment (like I was, since I had a significant other and a cat with me), the most efficient way is to walk around town (either in Rovereto or Trento) and go to an “agenzia immobiliare.” You will have to pay around 1 months rent as a fee to the agency for hooking you up with an apartment (you won’t get this back, it’s just a horrible fee). Then, expect to put down at least 2 months rent at the start for the apartment. You can probably find an apartment without an agency as well, but since I was under a time pressure, this was what I found to be the quickest method.

Getting Around

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The view from the bus on the way to Povo.

Getting out of Rovereto, in particular, is just super annoying. The last train to Trento in the morning is at 9:37am, and there’s nothing until 11:50. The last train from Trento back to Rovereto is at around 21:30 or sometimes 22:30. This means that if you want to go watch a movie, have a nice dinner, or just hang out with friends in Trento, it’s basically not going to happen if you live in Rovereto. On the other hand, the last train from Rovereto to Trento is at around 11:30, which is a bit better, but still not great.

The computer science courses and the FBK research institute (where a lot of internships for computational linguistics take place) is located in yet another town called Povo, which is an additional 20 minute bus ride from Trento. By the way, the language courses also take place at the campus in Trento, a short walk from the train station. Therefore, unless you are interested in more of the cognitive neuroscience courses/internships from CIMeC in particular, I would probably recommend you to live in Trento. You can always travel to Rovereto if there’s really a course you would be interested in, since it’s just a 15 minute train ride, but traveling in the other direction is much harder. To me, Trento seems more fun and vibrant of a city, and it’s a little bigger as well.

Finally, as a student, you can apply for the Libera Circolazione travel pass, which is only 50 euro for the whole year, and absolutely wonderful. With Libera Cirolazione, you can take busses and trains not just to Trento/Povo, but all around Trentino. In the summer, the lakes (e.g. Lago di Garda, Lago di Lamar, Lago di Caldonazzo) are great to visit, and you can take the cable car to the top of the mountain in Trento as well.

Until you get the travel pass (or for visiting friends), you can use the app called OpenMove to buy bus and train tickets in Trentino. I find this to be the easiest way, and the cheapest way as well, since you can oftentimes combine bus/train tickets into a single “trip” on the app for cheaper. Barring this, bus tickets can be bought at Tabacchi shops, and train tickets from the machines or counter at the train station. Bus tickets can’t always be bought in the bus, so it’s much better to get them ahead of time. You can ask the Tabacchi for “bus urbano” within the city, or “bus extraurbano” for outside the city.

By the way, you can assume that the trains will be at least 5 minutes late. They don’t even announce it at the station if that’s the case. Once they start announcing that the train is 5 minutes late, that actually means the train is already 10 minutes late. For this reason, it’s nice to be able to keep track of train times, platforms, and how late they are. For that I think the TrainTimetable app is pretty good.

In terms of traveling farther away, you will probably need to fly out of Milan or Venice, meaning you may need to stay there the night before, if your flight is early in the morning, since there aren’t a lot of trains going there very early. Otherwise, there may be flights out of  Verona, but I don’t think that airport connects with as many international airports.

Long story short, travel is going to be a pain.

Food

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Korallo pizza.

If you don’t like pizza or pasta you will be in trouble. These are the staples. But after being here for a year, you will probably come to like pizza and pasta, because it’s very good. Cheese and cured meat (coming from all over Italy) are also fantastic. White bread, on the other hand, is mostly useless, unless you can find some of the tasty Germanic bread more particular to the north. This region is influenced a lot by Germanic culture as well. Some regional foods include spätzle, canederli, and speck. Good places in Rovereto include Bar Christian (Germanic, good, and cheap), Pizza al Volo (good and cheap), Osteria di Pettirosso (fancy), Al Silenzio (hip), Drago d’Oro (Chinese, and cheap), and actually, the student mensa is quite good, though it isn’t as cheap as one would like. I didn’t get to go out very often in Trento, but one of the best pizza places is on the way to Povo. It’s called Korallo, and it is an absolute must (it won a prize for 33rd out of 500 in all of Italy for pizza).

Trentino is also an amazing wine region. I don’t actually know a lot about wines, but I never had a bad wine the entire time I’ve been here. I particularly enjoyed Marzemino, Lagrein, and Muller Thurgau. You will definitely notice this, because there are vinyards growing on every single spot of available land (except where there are apple trees, which is another thing the region is known for). You will ride the train past vinyards, you can ride your bike alongside them, and you can walk right through the middle of them too. It’s quite lovely.

Finally, before I came here, I thought I disliked coffee. I was wrong. The coffee in Italy is not like the coffee in other places, and you should give it a chance, at least once or twice, even if you have sworn off of coffee in the past. The coffee bar is a huge part of Italian culture. Italians might go for a coffee as many as 5 times a day (although I think 2-3 might be more common), but they don’t linger there. They typically order their coffee at the bar, and then just stand at the bar and inhale it on the spot, before getting back to work.

Gelato is the other thing that’s worth trying, even if you aren’t a big fan of ice cream, just to give it a chance. It’s really good, because in many shops it is actually handmade from local cow milk and fresh fruit, which is also why each shop has its own flavours.

In terms of meals, they will be typically split into strict categories and go in this very specific order:

  1. Antipasto (appetizers) — optional
  2. Primo (first dish: pasta or rice)
  3. Secondo (second dish: meat, fish, etc.)* + Contorno (sides: potatoes, veggies, etc.)
  4. Dolce (sweets) — optional
  5. Caffe (coffee) and/or Aperitivo (sweet wine)

*Pizza is considered secondo, but it usually replaces primo+secondo.

Personally, when I have the option, such as at the mensa (cafeteria), I prefer to eat my meal all at once, taking a bit from each dish. Whenever I did this, Italians that I would be sitting next to, would comment saying, “Italians would think it weird that you don’t eat your primo first.”

When you enter a restaurant, you may have to wait to be seated, but often, when you enter a cafe or bar (which can be an alcoholic bar or a coffee bar), you just go pick a table yourself. To pay for food you usually (but not always) do it at the counter after your meal, and you don’t give any tip.

Weather/Activities

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Rotwand via ferrata.

The weather in Trentino is fairly moderate. It doesn’t get too hot or too cold. In the summer, it will be around 30 degrees Celsius most of the time, and in the winter, it will hover above freezing. It might snow once or twice, which is always fun, but it probably won’t stick for long.

I really got into aerial silks (a type of acrobatics). There are a few different places that do it. A.S.D. Punto Fitness in Rovereto is just wonderful, although it’s a little bit hard to reach without a bike since it’s about 3.5km from the city center. La Bolla di Sapone in Trento is also a nice one. I think there might be one or two other groups but I haven’t tried them.

This area has so much to do if you enjoy the outdoors. You can hike all year round, but when the snows come to the mountaintops, it might not be the best idea unless you are very hard core. It seemed like the best hiking season was something like April through late October or mid-November. Before April it’s still a bit cold in my opinion, and after November the snows come. July and August are also way too hot to hike in certain places, but if you go to high elevation then it’s noticeably cooler up there.

If you are into mountain climbing, bouldering, and via ferrata, you will be very happy here, since it’s one of the best places for this as well.

In the winter, you can go skiing/snowboarding at a few different places nearby. There should be public transport that takes you to the well known spots, with areas for beginners and experts. I didn’t get the chance to go, so I can’t recommend any particular places, but I know that it’s a well-known area for this as well.

In the summer, there are many different lakes to go swimming at, which is one of my favorite things to do. Lago di Lamar (my favorite), Lago di Caldonazzo, and of course, the famous Lago di Garda are all just an hour away by bus and very easy to make connections to.

If you are into castles, there’s a ton of them all over the place around here. My favorite one was Castel Beseno, which is very medieval and well preserved on top of a beautiful hill looking out over the entire Adige valley. It’s just a short bus ride (and 45 minute walk up a hill) away from Rovereto and Trento. The castle in Arco was another favorite of mine, since you walk up to it through a lovely olive grove, and it is also very well preserved. There are many more as well… if you shoot an arrow you will hit a castle here! If you are into churches, there are even more of those. A new church is hiding around every corner, and each little village has it’s own little steeple poking up above the rooftops.

If you are more into city travel, it’s not too difficult to make connections to all the well known tourist cities like Venice, Florence, Verona, Bologna, Bolzano, Rome (which is a 4 hour high-speed train ride away), Innsbruck, and even Munich. For the most part, it makes more sense to plan these as overnight weekend trips, since they are far enough away that a day trip would make it a bit stressful. Genova and the beautiful Cinque Terre are also close enough, that you can plan a long weekend around them. Unfortunately, travel to more distant areas takes a bit more planning, due to the difficulty of flying.

The University System

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Cathedral in Trento.

The university system at Trento (maybe in Italy as a whole?) seems to be about giving you some 4 hours of lecture per week, and then telling you to pass an exam. There are few exercises, if any, few opportunities to meet with professors, unless you really go out of your way, few required textbooks, and few mock exams. In short, you just learn on your own.

Like in Germany, you don’t have to sign up for finals until closer to the end of the semester, and if you fail the final, you get one or two more chances to retake it. If you never pass, you can somehow “reject” your grade, and pretend the whole thing never happened. That part is kind of nice I guess.

The grading system is between 18 and 30L. The top grade is 30, but the L means “honours.” I think lower than a 25 is already getting to be not that great, and many people start rejecting their grade at that point (depending on their level of perfectionism).

Overall, personally, I hate this system. I prefer exercises to gauge my progress along the way, accessible professors who don’t force me to make multiple emails to arrange meetings that they end up missing due to their other obligations, and mid-term exams along the way to practice, if possible.  So the learning style didn’t mesh with my learning style, but since I only needed to take 2 courses after my first year at Saarland to meet the requirements to graduate, it wasn’t that big a deal.

CIMeC

CIMeC is a cognitive neuroscience department. The “Language and Multimodal Interaction (LMI)” track that is available within CIMeC is the one that LCT technically falls under, but there are way fewer students and professors teaching this bit of it. LMI is on the periphery of CIMeC and LCT is even more on the periphery. All in all, for computational linguistics it certainly doesn’t come near the quality of education that you get in Saarland. (If you recall, my opinion of the teaching methods at Saarland was already mediocre, and CIMeC is definitely worse.) On the other hand, if you are into cog neuro, CIMeC seems to be very good.

For those who are less interested in cog neuro, and are rather specializing more in computational linguistics, I would recommend enrolling in the computer science courses in Povo. I have a background in linguistics, and I found some of those lectures to be very useful to fill in some of the holes I had (although you will still have to teach yourself a lot, including calculus, linear algebra, and more than a little programming, if you didn’t have that in your prior education).

In general, the fact that over the course of these two years calculus and linear algebra (at least) was not required by the curriculum for those who didn’t have it in their bachelor is a bit ridiculous.

Internships

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Grape-laden vines in Povo near the CS campus and FBK.

You need a 15 credit internship during your studies at UniTN. While courses are very lacking at CIMeC, there is an ok sized group of comp ling researchers at the associated CLIC lab, who seem to work a lot with semantics, so an internship with them might work well.

For me, I lucked into a paid position at FBK, the local research institute. This institute is huge, and includes computational linguistics groups working on machine translation, natural language processing, and speech recognition, as well as all manner of other topics like physics, chemistry, social sciences, and so on. The environment is pretty nice, with many young people from different fields working on their PhDs, masters, and bachelors theses or internships, and visiting researchers coming in to give talks every now and then. Overall, I can recommend FBK.

However, you probably won’t get paid at these places. Therefore, I would say, first try to apply to positions in other companies around Italy or abroad, since you deserve to be paid what you are worth.

Final Thoughts (TL;DR)

  • Each person’s experience in this program is unique, so take all of this with a grain of salt.
  • Bureaucracy is painful. It takes 5 months for you to get your stay permit, during which time you cannot go to the rest of the Shengen Zone.
  • Food is great (except for white bread). If you like pasta and pizza, even better. Give the coffee and gelato a chance, even if you didn’t like it in the past, because it’s really artisanal here, and at least worth a try.
  • The climate is fairly temperate. Winter gets a bit cold and summer gets a bit hot, but it’s not awful.
  • There are many outdoor activities. Hiking and other mountain sports are breathtaking.
  • You will be teaching yourself everything.
  • Travel is annoying. Live in Trento and study at the CS campus in Povo if you are more into computational linguistics. Live in Rovereto for cognitive neuroscience.
  • Use the OpenMove app to buy tickets since it’s a bit cheaper, and get a Libera Circolazione pass once you have enrolled in the uni for extra cheap. The TrainTimetable app is good for seeing when your trains are late, by the way.
  • Don’t take train transfers of less than 20 minutes trains are late more often than not.
  • The university system is just you going to lectures for a couple months, and then studying like mad for a single final at the end.
  • Take the initiative when searching for internships. Find yourself something paid (will probably be abroad in that case). FBK in Povo is a good option (though most of their internships aren’t paid).
  • Before coming, try to take calculus, linear algebra, and python, plus statistics/probability if there’s time, and at least an introductory linguistics course
  • The scholarship is enough to cover a frugal cost of living in a shared flat, but costs are higher than in Saarland at least.

Overall, I enjoyed my second year for the experiences. I learned Italian to the point that I could get around (after having started from only knowing some French), I hiked some of the most beautiful hiking paths in the world, swam in some of the nicest lakes, and learned to do aerial silks. I didn’t learn much NLP though, because of the limited selection of courses, so I am quite far behind now, and will have to teach myself even more. Now that I am trying to apply to jobs, I know just how patchy my education has been. But for that, I should write another post.

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I’ll miss the view outside my window.

Costs for the year:

These costs are from the beginning of Sept. 2017 through the end of Oct. 2018 (so actually 13 months). I wrote monthly costs over the course of the year, but those were estimated and probably a bit off. These numbers should be more accurate for the entire period.

I spent €19587. It was good that I got a nice paid internship to supplement the scholarship, since the scholarship alone would have made this year a lot less fun. I spent a little less than last year, over a longer period of time, and I feel like the money went a further way… but that’s because a lot of the lowered costs can be attributed to living with my husband, and having him split half of it, since actually, the cost of living in Trentino is higher than in Saarland. This can easily be seen in the fact that I spent almost only around 30% of my income on rent/bills last year, as compared to 45% this year. Groceries, dining out, and clothes were definitely more expensive too, although it’s poorly reflected in the values below, since I just ate out less, bought few clothes, and my husband helped a lot with groceries.

  • 44.95% rent and bills (incl. internet and phone)
  • 21.98% travel
  • 9.79% groceries
  • 8.09% dining out
  • 3.29% medical expenses
  • 2.46% sports (mainly aerial silks)
  • 2.07% clothes
  • 2.00% public transportation
  • 1.22% education
  • 4.15% misc (gifts, entertainment, video games, etc.)

I met some of my financial goes from last year, and failed to meet others:

  1. Goal: not have more tech break (not entirely in my control obviously)
    • Failed. My work laptop broke 3 weeks before my thesis was due. I have yet to buy a new one.
  2. Goal: be smarter about ordering travel tickets ahead of time
    • Failed. If anything, I got more spontaneous and worse at this! Oops!
  3. Goal: go out less and/or cook wisely
    • Succeeded. Mostly thanks to my amazing husband.
  4. Goal: spend more time/money on sports
    • Succeeded. And spectacularly! Thanks to aerial silks.

My goals for the next year include:

  1. Find a good job and and a new place to live!
  2. Really have no more tech break on me… is this possible at all?
  3. Again, be smarter about travel. If I find a good job, I probably won’t have as much opportunity to be spontaneous so I will really have to plan ahead I think.
  4. Increase time spent on sports (and therefore money), because it’s fun.
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Getting actually lost amongst the vines somewhere near Rovereto.

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