Last month, our families came to visit. First my husband’s family and then my own. In total, we had family here for around a month, although I was only able to take around 2.5 weeks off. It was great to see everyone, and to get the chance to travel around Italy a little bit. In total, we visited Bologna, Venice, Bolzano, Castel Beseno, Florence, Rome, Pompeii, and Sicily.


I don’t have many tips for these places that you can’t find elsewhere, so I’ll compile the few I have here at the top since the rest of the post is pretty long.

  • Rome: 3 days is enough, official taxis are white and they are cheap and efficient; deep fried artichokes are amazing (“carciofio alla giudia”)
  • The Vatican: during tours at the Vatican, you can drop off your headset and keep going on your own if you want; spend a bit of extra time in the map room, because there’s a lot going on here; Garage Vespasiano can even take giant cars (but bringing a car to Rome is pretty pointless)
  • Pompeii: use the Circumvesuviana train to get there from Napoli (follow signs from the central station to their platforms), but watch the stop names outside the train to make sure to get off at “Pompei Scavi”, because the map might be missing stops on it; check out Villa dei Misteri (NW corner) for some really cool frescos
  • Sicily: spend a week here; renting a car at the airport makes sense to travel around the island; driving on highways feels similar to driving in LA (but I don’t know about driving in Palermo; that might be hard); don’t rent a big car or it won’t fit on small roads; keep in mind that Google maps will send you on tiny cobblestone streets that you aren’t supposed to drive on because they are limited to residents, so pay good attention to street signs
  • Venice: 1 day is enough to walk around the center and then take a ferry (“vaporetto”) back to the train station; there is parking in one area on the island but there’s not much point in bringing a car
  • Bolzano: buy speck (cured pork), take the cable car (10 euro there and back) to Soprabolzano and check out some of the views and hikes there
  • Trentino area: check out Castel Beseno, which is the largest fortification in the area and the views are amazing; there is 2 hour break between 10 and 12 in trains in the mornings, so plan around that for travel
  • Florence: the line for Uffizi can take an hour or more, so plan accordingly; eat amazing lunch sandwiches at “I’ Girone De’ Ghotti” on the way there from the cathedral


The families

Our two families are similar in some ways, but different in others. They bring with them different stresses. My husband’s family likes plans, and I find it difficult to improvise or to explore, lest we go off the rails. My family, on the other hand, fails to make any plans, and as a result, everything is in utter chaos most of the time, making it difficult to achieve goals. Both families have strong opinions. Also, both families have members temporarily dealing with some health/walking difficulties so we move pretty slowly.

However, I feel that this year, things went pretty well overall. There were no big arguments and we got to do almost everything we set out to do together. The biggest stresses came from factors outside our control, that is, less from our interpersonal relations, and more from just stressful situations that occurred, and in the end we handled all of them.

I would very much like to pretend that the successes partly came from my experiences in Italy over the last year. I wish I could say that I have somehow become a more open and laid back person, capable of handling complex situations in a calm manner. I remember in the past once being playfully called “small and intense” (but in every joke there is a kernel of truth). It would be nice to think that over the last year I have become more relaxed, but without losing whatever positive aspects “intenseness” entails (such as perhaps focus or emotive capacity). But most of the successes of the vacation can more likely be attributed to my husband’s empathy and forethought than any of my own abilities, or else just to dumb luck with things working out as they should.



The most tense moment was when we lost someone. We were on the Circumvesuviana train from Napoli to Pompeii, and although this train is the simplest way to get to Pompeii, it is really shitty. It’s old and rattly and hot, and it makes many stops along the way. Before heading out, I got a timetable and map of the stops from their info center. As our stop was nearing, we moved to the front of the train. On the map, I saw that the next stop should be “Pompei Scavi (Pompeii excavations)” and told people to prepare themselves.

My husband’s brother was at the front as the doors opened and his parents were behind me (my husband was sick that day so he wasn’t with us). The doors opened and my husband’s brother hopped out. As quickly as they opened, they closed! I swear, it was something like 3 seconds that they were open, maximum. I tried to hold them open, but it was the old sort of train where the doors don’t sense people (it was kind of dangerous, to be honest). Just in that moment we realized this was not Pompei Scavi, but some other stop, although the map had not shown another stop in between. The train left, with my husband’s brother stuck on the platform. He didn’t have his phone since it wasn’t working in Italy, and he doesn’t speak a word of Italian. As the train pulled away, I made a motion for him to wait through the train door window, which I felt he understood.

We got to the next stop and went into full gear. I ran to buy a ticket for the next train back, and my husband’s parents got the station to call back to the previous stop to tell them what happened. Unfortunately, the station said they didn’t see him on the platform. Everyone was freaking out, but all things considered, I felt pretty calm. I felt that he had understood to wait (where could he go, after all?), and that the next steps were clear to me. I only had some restless anxiousness as I waited for the next train. Fortunately, it came in just 10 minutes, and the stop was only another 5 minutes away. All told it probably took around 25 or 30 minutes to get back. As I exited the train, however, I realized the platform was completely empty. No brother-in-law. No one at all, really. I descended the stairs, and saw only the exit doors.

Somehow, in this moment, it all caught up with me, and I felt that wave of panic starting to rise. I forced myself to calm down, and decided to thoroughly search the platforms above before trying to head past the exit doors (which I would be unable to re-enter without spending a ticket). I finally returned downstairs and went around the corner towards the exit doors– and there he was, sitting at the cafe bar. Of course, he had known the best course of action was to stay put. The station operators had found him after we called ahead (without being able to inform us), and had gotten him some coffee and water to calm his nerves while he waited. Crisis averted.



We spent the rest of the day in Pompeii and I returned later once again with my family. I can really recommend spending a day there, especially if the weather is nice, because it’s just incredible to see how people lived back then (not so differently from us in fact), how vivid their frescos and other art was, and how much of the city has survived until now.

The Vatican

Other than the time we lost my husband’s brother, there were no major incidents. Of course everyone traded sicknesses as usual, we were late to many places, and had to figure out how to get around and where to eat, but these were normal every day stressors. Our families were together for only one of the days, and this was the day we decided to go to the Vatican. We had been too late to buy individual tickets, so we ended up having to get tickets in part of a tour. This tour was awful. The Vatican was super crowded and the tour lady raced through the coolest parts of it, so we kept losing people in the crowds. We should have just returned our radios to the lady after we got past the doors at the start, and walked through the rest of the museum on our own instead, because it would have been way less stressful.


In fact, we spent too much time in Rome, since our family trips only overlapped over one day there, and both families wanted to see everything. Unless you travel there specifically for the many different museums, it’s really just a big city like most other big cities, which is to say, 3 full days (not counting travel days) are enough to see the main sights. In terms of traveling around Rome, it’s true that we could have likely taken public transport almost everywhere, but being with people who had some trouble moving around, it made better sense to take taxis, especially since they were actually surprisingly cheap and incredibly efficient. It probably cost us an average of 5 euro per person per ride.

My parents had decided to rent a car since they were staying at an AirBnB some ways outside of Rome, but the only car they could find to fit everyone was a massive behemoth, half the size of a bus. This sequence of decisions all made little sense. The behemoth could hardly be driven in Rome and we would spend at least 30 minutes just searching for parking. Eventually, we found the one parking garage (Garage Vespasiano) that the behemoth could fit into, but sometimes that garage was full so we’d have to keep searching. In the end, after we parked, we still had to take taxis everywhere.


After Rome and Pompeii, we continued on to Sicily. We flew from Rome to Palermo Airport with Rynair, which was another mistake. The plane was around 3 hours late, and that caused us to actually come later than if we had driven there. In fact, we ended up having to rent cars at Palermo Airport anyways, since once again, my family chose to live somewhere without a train connection. This time, we rented two smaller cars including one manual transmission SUV and an Alfa Romeo, the only automatic they had at the time. This turned out to be a good idea because we were able to get around pretty quickly this way, and to see many beautiful sights along the way.

Having two cars also gave us the ability to split up which also helped keep stress levels low. Driving on the autostrada (highway type road) wasn’t a lot worse than driving on Los Angeles freeways, but driving around small streets was harder even with the normal sized Alfa Romeo sedan. I would recommend renting as small a car as possible (a two door hatchback maybe), and I just wouldn’t bother to rent anything bigger than a small SUV.  Also, when you are driving around, if you are using Google maps, keep in mind that it will send you on tiny cobblestone streets that are actually illegal to drive on unless you are a resident there. So you have to pay close attention to the signs yourself, and don’t fully trust Google maps.

We only spent a few days in Sicily, and it wasn’t enough at all. A week, at least, would have been much better. We didn’t even visit Palermo, because we were staying in the countryside. Also it was a bit rainy and some of us were trading sicknesses around this time, so we really saw very little. We spent one day wandering around the lovely town of Cefalù, where we saw a centuries old laundry, and another day at Agrigento, which took us a couple hours through some lovely mountains to get to.

North Italy

After Sicily, we returned to the North of Italy, and visited Venice, Florence, and Bolzano. Once again, my parents rented a car and we had to drive and park it everywhere. It did come in handy since it gave us the ability to leave when we wanted, so we didn’t have to conform to train schedules (something my family is very bad at doing), but we still had to find a place to park before taking public transport around the cities.

In Venice, there is parking in only one place on the island but there are a few different garages there with plenty of space in them. In Florence and Bolzano there is parking near the train stations. So yes, it is possible to take cars to these cities, it’s just a bit of a hassle, and parking is around 20-30 euro for a full day. The cost of tolls also adds up, being between 5-15 euro one way.

Anyways, we had a nice time with both of our families, but we did get pretty tired out. After all the family was gone, my husband and I just ordered pizza and slept for two days straight.

Weeks 68 through 72

This year, I spent the holidays back in the US. I typically only get to see my family once a year, and this is the first year in a while that I have been able to actually get back home. It was really nice to see my family in their natural habitat, as it were, as well as all the friends I had been unfortunately neglecting.

The first part of the trip the weather was a bit suboptimal, and I was super jetlagged, but I visited a lot of friends which was great. The second half of the trip the weather improved but, of course, as it always goes, I got horribly sick (I’m still coughing a little almost 2 weeks later), so I couldn’t do much of anything. I had planned to go hiking and to the beach, but I mostly ended up sitting at home, trying not to keel over. We only made it to Zuma Beach once, but we did see some dolphins (which is what happened last time we were here too). In any case, it was good that I allocated 3 weeks to the trip, since I was still left with enough time to see people despite all this.


Can you make out the dolphins in the center left in this crappy phone pic?

Being back in the US reminded me of all the things I miss. Firstly, how nice it is to be close to friends and family! I really miss just being able to call someone up and have them be like, “yea! let’s hang out,” spur the moment, without having to overly plan an activity, without having conversations stray towards work, and without worrying about having to reach home at some particular time. I miss this kind of easy company.

Secondly, it’s nice that stores and restaurants are actually open. You can get anything you want at any time. It makes life just a lot more convenient than in Europe, where everything is only open at odd hours. I also missed the wide variety of food, including asian and mexican food (the latter of which you can’t hardly find where I have been living)– and omg, LA sushi! Also, I kind of missed driving. It gives me a nice feeling of agency that I don’t have in Europe, since I don’t have a car here. I also missed not having to breath in a ton of second hand smoke on the streets. Finally, I missed not being rammed into by groups of ladies with giant bags when walking on the sidewalk. I don’t understand it, but Italians just won’t share the sidewalk so you either have to skirt to avoid everyone (which is sometimes literally impossible because you are already at the edge) or just get rammed. They push and shove all the time actually. So inconsiderate.

Then there were all the things I certainly didn’t miss: the traffic, the smog (visible certain times of day over LA), the long travel times (partly due to the traffic, partly just due to long distances), the incredibly high cost of living, and the consumerist/workaholic culture as well, which is, to some extent, the other side of the coin with things being open and available all the time.


I experienced that culture rather strongly when I went to check out the aerial classes at Cirque School near Hollywood in LA. I emailed them ahead of time, telling them about what I had been working on in silks and they said I should just do a drop in beginning class. So I signed up and I brought my little brother too, who I wanted to introduce to aerial. Unfortunately, this ended up being a terrible introduction for him. It was clear that the teacher at Cirque School expected us to be (a) physically fit and proficient, that is, you can already whip up plenty of push ups, sit ups, stretches, and yoga poses and (b) to be unable to do anything on silks or trapeze beyond basic climbs.

Maybe it isn’t unreasonable to assume that someone interested in aerial is already physically proficient, since it is a really demanding activity, but Cirque School’s tagline is “For anybody with any body.” I am afraid they did not fulfill that promise at all. The teacher was really dismissive of my little brother and of me as well, although I can already manage a few things. For my brother it was exhausting and discouraging, and for me it was frustrating and boring. It was clear that to the teacher, we were just another number on the long list of students that would file through the school, destined never to return– a self-fulfilling prophecy.

It’s like night and day as compared to ASD Punto Fitness in Rovereto and Night Flight in Portland, where my first experiences were so warm and welcoming. The teachers there didn’t expect you to be able to do anything, but they still got you up on the silks even in the first class, and they got you working on strength and flexibility right away. You walk away tired, but you feel like you are constantly improving, and it’s always fun and encouraging. I wanted to share that experience with my brother, but it just didn’t work out.

The end of the trip came much too soon. It took us over 24 real hours to get back to Rovereto, with 10 of those being spent on the most uncomfortable KLM plane imaginable. I wish I had taken a picture of how it was oriented, but basically, the seats were offset for some reason, so you had a seat leg right in front of you instead of an open space, and in our row there were additionally some sort of metal boxes taking up part of that space as well. I am a small person, who can fit in just about any seat, and I’ve sort of come to expect bad airplane conditions, but honestly, in this case… fuck that. This is just degrading. If you fly overseas, don’t pick KLM.

In any case, after a 1.5 hour car ride, a 10 hour flight, another 3 hour flight, 3 trains, and a bunch of waiting around in between, we finally reached Rovereto with just enough time to completely crash in bed. The very next day was Monday morning, when I would start my new full time internship, and in the following weeks, I would travel to Florence and Bologna as well. It was going to be busy!


Cathedral in Florence.

For my master’s here at University of Trento, I need to write the thesis of course, but I also need an internship of 375 hours, which should be on separate data from the thesis work. In September, I applied to a paid research studentship with FBK, a local research institute. They hired me primarily for the master’s portion of my work (which they see as a precursor to doing a PhD with them), but I will also do a separate internship project with them.

For my master’s thesis, I will be working on acoustic model adaptation for second language learners of English and German. This is a piece of a larger project aimed at automatic grading of English and German proficiency exams for Italian speakers. Some of the problems we will encounter are that speech of second language learners exhibits phonological crossover from their native language, making it difficult for a speech recognition system trained on English to recognize that speech; however, there isn’t enough training data available to create a model trained solely on second language learner’s speech, let alone in our specific domain, hence the need for model adaptation. In addition, the assignments have the students produce spontaneous speech (rather than read speech), meaning we don’t have an expected transcription to train on from our domain. The ultimate goal is to be able to assign a grade to the students the way a teacher would, but the teachers are often not entirely consistent in their grading, which is another hurdle. Long story short, it’s a challenging project.

The team at FBK hired me because I have experience in speech recognition already. Actually, I would have liked to work on something new, to get some more cross-pollination, but this position was paid, unlike most other options here (even if the pay isn’t much after the crazy high Italian taxes), and the topic seems interesting. I also hope there will be some opportunities to work on the language modelling portion of the project as well.

For the internship portion, it seems like I will most likely be working on Russian morphophonology. Since Russian exhibits a great deal of inflectional and derivational morphology, a naïve pronunciation lexicon of Russian suffers from having many different forms of the same word. In addition, stress drastically changes the realization of vowels in Russian, and stress often shifts based on inflections/derivations, making speech recognition much more difficult. The task will involve creating a Russian morphology model that can hopefully alleviate some of these issues. This is a problem I remember encountering at my last job as well, so I am excited to get the chance to work on it now.

For the time being, I have started getting used to my new position, learning Kaldi (an open source speech recognition toolkit), and reminding myself how restless I feel after 8 hour days at work (plus lunch and 1 hour commutes each way). Humans were not meant to sit in front of the computer for this long, and I am afraid my long-term health will suffer (I’ve had some hand pain in the past from this). I’ve continued doing aerial which helps me stay fit and I try to take breaks while working. It’s striking how little quality of working life of the average person has increased in proportion to the massive gains we have seen in humanity’s productivity in recent years.

Anyway, after a long first week at work, my husband and I woke up super early on Saturday to travel to Florence for the weekend. There was a Netrunner (card game) tournament there on Sunday that he wanted to participate in. In my case, I just wanted to see the city. The weather was perfect, so we spent Saturday walking around the city together seeing the main sights, and on Sunday I visited some museums on my own.

Of course I saw Michelangelo’s David in the Galleria dell’Academia, the beautiful painted ceilings of the Uffizi Galleria along with Botticelli’s Venus and many other amazing artworks, but I think my favorite piece of art was Caravaggio’s Medusa, painted on a ceremonial shield, just because it was so shocking:


All in all, it was a lovely city, though I would say that 2-3 days is enough to see the most interesting things. Also, I was very happy to visit in the off-season, because even in this chilly weather, the city had plenty of tourists!

This last weekend, we swapped the historic masterpieces of Florence for the modern street art of Bologna. My husband had another Netrunner tourney, and since we have family in Bologna, it made sense to visit. Bologna is a lovely city, and though we visited once before, it was under more stressful circumstances, so I am really happy to get a more relaxing weekend here. The city seems to be just the right size, where you can live comfortably with lots of varied things to do, with the nice possibility to get around (both by foot and public transport), but you aren’t inundated with people or tourists. I can imagine it being a nice city to live in, and it’s been a really nice time just chilling.


I didn’t break up the costs that well in my log for this month, so there’s a weird misc category with both gifts, groceries, and some other junk inside there, but oh well. It was an expensive couple of months due to Christmas and travelling a lot, but I should actually still manage to stay within budget. (Once again, having a person to split the costs with is huge.) Also, since I didn’t report costs in the last post, these numbers cover almost two months worth.

  • €450 – rent for two months
  • €123 – utilities (internet and gas/electric)
  • €23 – phone
  • €165 – aerial in Italy and the US
  • €385 – groceries, gifts, misc
  • €514 – travel
  • €186 – dining
  • Total (for almost two months): €1846