The NLP Job Hunt

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Castelvecchio in Verona

Around a week after graduation, I sent off a very small handful of applications to a few different companies in computational linguistics. I didn’t spend much time thinking about the whole thing, because shortly thereafter, I left to attend EMNLP (a big comp ling conference that was held in Brussels). After that I headed to Paris to meet some friends, then returned to Trentino to hike a bit more in the Brenta Dolomites, and then went to Berlin. Below I’ll describe my experience and advice I’ve gotten for applying to both smaller companies, and big companies, interspersed with images of my recent travels for fun.

Searching for jobs

First of all, it was pretty easy to find jobs that looked appealing or related to my studies in smaller companies. One nice source was nlppeople, who had the most relevant openings. Other sources like linguistlist and corporalist also seem useful, and then there are the typical postings on LinkedIn or Indeed that seem to target typical software engineers a little more. Another couple of places I found later on, but didn’t explore were remoteok.io and remoteml, so I wonder if those are actually useful (anyone have any experience with them?).

On the other hand, finding jobs for the big companies like Amazon, Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Apple, etc. entails going onto those guys’ websites and doing a search. The correct job opening tends to be called something like “Applied Scientist” or “Research Scientist” and has some description of the field you’d be working in or the project you’d be working on. It’s not always clear what exactly you’d be doing, and it’s easier to get an interview there if you have an acquaintance that can push your resume through to the right recruiters.

In any case, finding interesting jobs and actually getting an interesting job are different beasts.

Small company interviews

Interviews for normal companies (and start-ups) seem to consist of the following stages:

  1. introductory phone screen conversation
  2. technical interview
  3. coding project
  4. follow-up interview and/or final interview

My (limited) experience with these has been pretty positive. The introductory phone screen has typically talked about the company’s work and business model, and has asked about your own background and cultural fit. The technical interview asks machine learning and computer science questions, with a skew towards the position you’d be working in. The coding project has typically focused on a task relevant to what the company is working on. The follow-up interview might ask a few more questions about your knowledge, to see how you are stacked up against other candidates. The final interview will already talk about logistics such as salary, start times, moving, and so on.

This interview process is not easy, but it also does seem very reasonable. The questions I saw were typically to the point, and not outside the bounds of what I should be expected to know about after completing my degree, and planning to move into industry. In terms of time frames, the small companies were pretty quick on getting back to me, usually taking only one or two weeks after receiving my resume to respond, and just a few days in between each step thereafter.

It’s possible I got lucky with the small companies I interviewed for, because I heard that other people had strange interviews, where the small companies were trying to replicate the interview process of the big companies, which I believe would be a mistake.

Big company interviews

Interviews for big companies (Amazon, Google, etc.) are very different. The best way to describe it is as a massive comp sci entrance exam. Everyone takes these entrance exams, and typically, after passing, you get further interviews with the specific group you would be working with. The process seems to consist of the following stages (though I admit that I myself did not complete the whole process, so I’m not sure about the end):

  1. phone screen with behavioural, basic comp sci, and basic machine learning questions
  2. phone technical interview
  3. on site all day technical interviews with whiteboard coding (and sometimes presentation of own work)
  4. follow-up interviews with teams of choice
  5. final interviews with logistics

I won’t sugar coat this. If you are taking the big company entrance exams, you need to have a computer science degree and remember a good chunk of what you learned, or you need to (re-)teach yourself computer science fundamentals. This is really shitty for us who are coming from a theoretical linguistics background and the LCT program, which does not cover these fundamentals (although I think they really should offer them to those who don’t have them). Below I’ve assembled all the advice I’ve received from various sources on what to study before making applications to the big companies. Some companies may ask for less of the computer science stuff, and more stuff related to your degree, but it’s better to over-prepare than under-prepare.

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Hiking trail in the Brenta Dolomites

Behavioural questions

First of all, some of the companies ask you behavioural questions, like “Have you ever had a conflict with a coworker?” or “Have you ever failed to meet a deadline?” or “What are your weaknesses?” For me, I kind of handle these questions on the spot. I feel that the best way to deal with them is to say “Hmm, let me think about that…” and then start thinking about working conditions at your previous job/internship/whatever. Usually, something relevant pops to mind.

Some people might find it easier to research the most common behavioural questions, and take time to think of a scenario for the most common ones. There is also a formula that can be followed which leads to a succinct answer to these types of questions, called STAR. These methods might be the more principled way to attack behavioural questions.

In any case, I feel like these questions are sort of bullshit, and I find it easier to bullshit my way through them, because that also leads to a more natural way of talking about the problem for me. I also have a lot of prior work experience, so it’s not that hard for me to conjure up some scenarios. I don’t think I’ve ever flat out failed this section, but I’ve also never applied for leadership positions where this section is probably a lot more heavily weighted.

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Brussels Town Hall

Topics to cover

For the computer science entrance exams at the big companies, you can use leetcode.com, topcoder.com and projecteuler.net to practice, and read the well-known book Cracking the Coding Interview as well (behaviour quesitons are in there too). In short, you will need to know:

  • algorithm complexity (big-O notation for runtime and memory)
  • sorting: n*log(n) complexity algorithms such as quicksort and merge sort
  • hashtables: how they work and how to implement one in code using only arrays
  • trees: how to construct and manipulate binary trees, n-ary trees, tries, red/black trees (and/or splay trees, and AVL trees); how to traverse trees using breadth-first search and depth-first search; the difference between inorder, postorder, and preorder
  • graphs: objects, pointers, matrix, and adjacency list representations of graphs; how to traverse them using breadth-first search and depth-first search; their complexity, tradeoffs, and implementation in code
  • other algorithms: Dijkstra and A*
  • NP-complete: what this means, and problems such as the traveling salesman, and the knapsack problem
  • combinatorics: n-choose-k
  • probability: bayes, likelihood, prior, posterior
  • statistics: significance testing, distributions such as Gaussian and Poisson
  • concurrency: processes, scheduling, locks, mutexes, semaphores, monitors, avoiding deadlock and livelock and how to avoid them, parallelization on multi-core systems
  • object oriented system design: features sets, interfaces, class hierarchies, constraints, simplicity and robustness, tradeoffs
  • development practices: validating designs, testing whiteboard code, preventing bugs, code maintainability and readability, refactor/review sample code

In addition to computer science, you will need to know machine learning. If you only took one course on it during your LCT program, you will probably need to study some things that you missed, including:

  • supervised/unsupervised/semi-supervised learning
  • generative vs. discriminative models
  • clustering
  • classification
  • regression
  • overfitting/underfitting
  • cross-validation
  • regularization
  • bias-variance tradeoff
  • ROC curves
  • train vs. dev vs. test data
  • ML algorithms: naive bayes, linear regression, logistic regression, decision trees, random forests, KNN, K-means, SVM, HMMs, Viterbi, GMMs
  • neural networks and their specific issues: feedforward DNNs, RNNs, LSTMs, vanishing/exploding gradient problem, attention, stochastic gradient descent, learning rate, mini-batches, etc.

You will want to be familiar with the issues in computational linguistics and your specific field, which will depend on what the company is doing and the job you are applying to. This part you might not have to study as much for, since it will depend on your interests and will probably be related to your studies. In any case, it could include topics such as:

  • language modeling, including smoothing
  • FSTs and regular expressions
  • word embeddings (and sentence embeddings)
  • common traditional and state-of-the-art algorithms in your chosen sub-field (e.g. for machine translation you should know SMT models and also Transformer NNs, for speech recognition you should know about HMM-GMMs and also TDNNs)
  • handling big data and data cleanup (e.g. text normalization for language data, detecting misaligned data for MT, disambiguating speech from noise in speech data)
  • other issues specific to language processing (e.g. different scripts, word orders, phonologies, etc.)

Finally, you will want to know some modern technologies for working with machine learning, neural networks, computational linguistics, and software engineering in general, such as, for example:

  • common sources of language data
  • common data formats (e.g. XML, SQL databases, etc.)
  • Python and packages like numpy, scipy, matplotlib, spacy, nltk
  • MATLAB
  • c and/or java could also be helpful if you know them
  • TensorFlow, Torch, Keras, deeplearning4j or similar for NNs
  • Kaldi for speech recognition
  • Git for version control
  • cloud computing
  • Docker
  • Linux and bash

There might be more topics that I missed, but that’s the gist of it I think. It seems like a lot, because… well, it is. It basically covers an undergraduate degree in computer science, a graduate degree in machine learning, and one or two courses in computational linguistics. You likely won’t need to know all of it for whatever job you’re applying to, but it’s not unrealistic to have questions asked from any of these topics. You may not know an answer to every question, and that might also be ok, but it’s good if you know the larger majority.

My feeling is that if you come from that comp sci background and studied comp ling, you will just have a little bit to brush up on, while if you came from theoretical linguistics and studied comp ling (at least in LCT), you will need to spend an extra semester (or more depending on how quickly you learn) to properly learn what you need to know.

At the big companies, I was told that I should apply in the topic I had the most experience in (speech recognition for me) rather than applying to other topics I might be interested in, because this is where I had the best chance of getting actually hired.

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The Eiffel Tower in autumn

Final thoughts

For me, I admit that I certainly don’t know all of the things I’ve listed above. First of all, since I don’t have a comp sci background, I never studied any of the comp sci topics in a structured way. Second, I feel that the LCT program did not have a curriculum that progressed in a logical order over the course of the entire two years, which would have supported me in learning what I needed to know. In essence, I had to restart my progress at my second uni, because my second uni didn’t really have a curriculum that allowed me to keep learning on the same track I was already on. In addition, many of the topics that I did cover during my studies were taught in a disorganized way, and/or a superficial manner, and/or in-depth but very quickly. Therefore, those items that I did cover of the topics above, I covered in a way that didn’t really solidify my understanding of them.

Having graduated, I no longer see an easy path and time-investment opportunities towards learning them. Yes, there are MOOCs, but my personal learning style really benefits from in-class instruction. I will probably have to keep studying in evening courses if I want to properly learn some of those computer science topics I’m missing. Otherwise, I have to hope that the next job I have provides me opportunities to fill in at least some of the gaps.

In any case, I am going to be very busy soon– I have accepted an offer at a start-up in Berlin.

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Hallo Berlin!

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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.

Rotwand

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Rotwand, from the bottom of the hiking path.

After a year here, I finally had the chance to visit the actual dolomites and to do a via ferrata. Last weekend, during what seemed to be perhaps the last warm weekend of the season, we headed up to the Rosengarten range, to Rotwand (Roda di Vaèl), the peak of which lies at around 2790 meters.

A via ferrata (literally “iron path”) is a hiking path with additional metal rebar and metal cables running up it. You can use climbing gear to hook into the cables, and pull yourself along. It’s not as hard as mountain climbing, because you have the cable and often also rebar ladders cut into the cliff face, but it’s harder than normal hiking, where you’d just be walking. Actually, I wouldn’t say the climbing harness makes the via ferrata feel particularly safe. The thing is, you hook yourself to the cable, but the path beneath you is often steep and slanted over the rocks. If you were to fall, you will slip quite a ways along the cable. You wouldn’t die (especially with the helmet on), but you could injure yourself pretty badly anyways, and I certainly wouldn’t want to be climbing back down a mountain bruised and bloody. In any case, the Rotwand one wasn’t a particularly difficult one, so that was alright.

We started the trip from Rovereto around 8am. The drive to Bolzano, where we would rent the gear, was around an hour, and then it took another half an hour to get to our parking spot in the mountains. By the way, we rented the gear from Base Camp Dolomiti, which is actually located inside the train station in Bolzano, like basically off of platform 1. The place was open on Sunday, and the people there were very nice and understanding when we were unable to return the gear the same night, so although they were small and their gear selection was tiny, I can’t complain about the service.

Anyways, after picking up our gear, we headed up to Rifugio Paolina, in the Dolomites. From there, we rode a ski lift up to Rotwand, and hiked in a circle around the rock formation, until reaching the beginning of the via ferrata. The ride up the ski lift was only around 15 minutes, but it covered a wide stretch of ground, a little under 2km in length.

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View of the valley below, from near the start of the via ferrata.

The day started out chilly, and there was a mist in the air. I was afraid I’d freeze in only my Patagonia sweater, but thankfully, it warmed up quite a bit in the afternoon. The mist never quite dissipated, though, instead floating back and forth over the peak as we ascended, giving the excursion an ethereal feel. The hike around the peak was not too bad. It took just around 1.5 hours, and it was only moderately steep.

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This peak was behind us the whole time we climbed.

I was very excited to finally do a via ferrata. I’d heard of them all year, but had never gotten around to renting the gear and finding a way to go. It was fortunate that a big group decided to go this time around, so I was able to tag along. The Rotwand via ferrata wasn’t much more difficult than the hike up to it. There were many times that I felt the ferrata gear was hardly needed, and was just slowing me down– but then again, there were also times that I was happy to have the peace of mind. This via ferrata didn’t have a lot of exposed areas, which is one thing that I had hoped for, but once again, maybe it was all the better to cut my teeth on a simpler climb. In any case, the view from the top was absolutely spectacular.

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On the way back, we caught the setting sun, as we made our way down the mountain. It’s warm rays cast the mountain behind us in a ruddy bronze, which is where the name Rotwand (literally “red wall”) must come from, I suppose. Unfortunately, we were too late to catch the ski lift, meaning we had to walk an extra hour all the way down the ski slope. By the end, my knees were hurting, and my thighs burned the next two days, whenever I tried to walk down the stairs. Such is the hiking life I guess? I’m definitely going to miss these exquisitely breathtaking hikes when my stay in Italy is over (the end is very soon now), and I wish I had started on the via ferrate much sooner in the year!

Weeks 98 through 111

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I submitted the thesis.

The work’s not done. I still have the defense and probably some annoying bureaucracy, and I hope I haven’t failed to account for anything, since other people have had some trouble graduating due to last minute realizations made by the university administration(s)… but one big milestone is completed.

Anyways, it’s been a lot of weeks since I did a post about what’s going on in general, though I’ve made a few smaller posts since then. The last two months have just been incredibly busy. Any time that I haven’t spent working on my thesis, I have spent traveling or exercising. Well, I exaggerate. There have been evenings of mindless video games, to blank out a little bit after all the hard work.

Over the last few months, the seasons have changed again, as is typical on a planet whirling rapidly around a shining star in the void of space. Amongst the activities over the last few months, I met the new Trento LCT students, which was nice, though I haven’t had much opportunity to hang out with them so far. I also went to the doctors, and got a travel pass, both of which were a bit of a hassle.

On a lighter note, we had visitors non-stop for a while, which was a blast, as usual. We traveled with them, to hikes and lakes nearby, as well as farther out to Liguria. In sum, we visited Torino, Cinque Terre (twice), Lago di Garda (again) including Limone sul Garda, Lago di Caldonazzo, Lago di Lamar, Tre Cime del Bondone, and Monte Altissimo di Nago.

Lago di Caldonazzo was super easy to reach. We took a train from Trento in the direction of Bassano del Grappa (the same one that goes past San Bartolomeo, where the student housing is). That train brings you straight to the lake. It’s a lovely area, with a small resort town and plenty of nice swimming beaches. The day we went, a train of little old cars paraded through the center of the town, so that was nice to see, but otherwise, there’s not much to say. The lake was very pretty, and we had a relaxing time.

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Lago di Lamar was also not particularly difficult to reach. You take a bus from Trento to Terlaghi, and it also takes you right there, practically to the shores of the lake. This lake is much much smaller (you can swim across the whole of it), but it is so lovely. The water is clear and blue, and filled with fish that dart around you as you enter. On the opposite side, where you have to swim to, there is a cliff of around 10m in height that people jump off of. This is a bit too high for me to dare jumping off of; however, even better, there are three ropes around the edges of the lake that you can swim and jump from. This is basically the best thing ever.

The rope on the right bank of the river is pretty low, so I think it’s better for children, since the water beneath it looks a bit shallow. The two ropes on the left bank are better for adults. I’ve jumped off both the first one and the second one. The second one is maybe 2m in height, and the first one is maybe 3-4m in height. When I jumped off the first one, I sort of ended up twisting in the air, and basically landed right on my thigh. I ended up with the biggest bruise I’ve ever had, all the way down my entire leg. It was kind of nuts… but it was worth it.

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Finally, there are a number of beautiful hikes around the lake. The one that we chose to go on, though, was basically straight up. It was too intense for me, especially considering the heat of 30 degrees C. At some point, I turned back around, and went back to jump into the lake some more. The cool water felt so incredibly good after such a sweaty and tiresome hike.

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The other two hikes we did were exhilarating, as usual. The first went up the Tre Cime del Bondone (Three Peaks of Bondone). This was definitely an all day hike. I think it took us around 6 hours, although we did take some long breaks on my account. The hike up to the first peak is steep, and the view from the top is pretty nice, though not as nice as some of the other views we’ve seen (but now I am really splitting hairs). Then you hike down a bit, and head over to the second peak.

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On the second peak, there are some very light Via Ferrata sort of areas. These are basically rebar ladders stabbed into the rock, with cables alongside. In a typical Via Ferrata, you are meant to use a harness with two supporting ropes to hook onto the cables, and you can climb along the rock or cliff face this way. It’s sort of like mountain climbing lite. In the area we went to though, it wasn’t really Via Ferrata. That is, you didn’t really need any gear, and the rebar/cable was more as a nice handhold to get up to the next little rock. One day, I hope I will have a chance to do a real Via Ferrata, but unfortunately, the summer has gone by, and so I missed my chance this year.

After climbing through the second peak, you go up to the third peak. The view from here is really nice, with the mountain tops and valleys behind you. After this, you can wind your way down the mountain without too much difficulty, to return from where you started.

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Finally, the hike up Monte Altissimo di Nago was just lovely. I liked it because it was actually quite a bit shorter than the other hikes we have done, but the views were at least as stunning. The hike started steep, but then leveled out to a wide mountain biking road that wound up and around the entire mountain. It was longer this way, but quite easy to go up. From the top, we could see the a very large part of Lago di Garda. I had never seen so much of it in one glance before, and it really impresses upon you the immense size of this lake.

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The hiking path up this side is populated by cow farms, so we saw many cows on the way up. On the way down, the cows took a special liking to us. One of them came to say hello. She licked at our legs and arms (I guess we were salty from the sweaty hike). She was a total cutie! I can’t decide which picture of her I like better. What do you think?

Costs:

I spent a lot of money these ~3 months (around 600 euro over my budget), since I took some extravagant trips, and went out a lot with friends (both during those trips and outside of that). I’m able to be frivolous like this because I have a paid internship.

  • 705 – rent
  • 1252 – trips
  • 389 – food
  • 231 – groceries
  • 377 – dining
  • 125 – sports
  • 156 – clothes
  • 151 – phone
  • 115 – internet
  • €35 – medical expenses
  • €69 – utilities
  • 46 – entertainment (games/drinks)
  • €156 – misc
  • Total: 3576

Cinque Terre

 

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View from the Church of St. Peter in Portovenere.

We went to Cinque Terre twice this month. The first time was over the Ferragosto holiday in the middle of August, and the second was with our friends, who came to visit from the US at the end of August. It wasn’t our intention to go twice, that is, we might have gone elsewhere the first time, had we realized we’d have a chance to go to Cinque Terre later in the month, but we didn’t regret the trips at all.

Cinque Terre, meaning “Five Lands,” is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a national park in Liguria, located on the Italian riviera, near Genova. It contains five coastal fishing villages, built up on the rocky Ligurian shoreline, strung together by a verdant hiking path winding its way through and above the villages. Each town has its own character, but they share certain themes, such as pastel-coloured houses, steep steps climbing through crooked alleyways, hole-in-the-wall fried fish joints, and lovely little beaches or swimming holes in the clear blue waters of the Mediterranean.

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The booming of a thunderstorm could be heard in the villages as it reflected off the cliffs.

From North to South, the villages are Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore. Portovenere lies even further south, and might be considered the “sixth” Cinque Terre, though it is not officially part of the park. The larger towns of Levanto and La Spezia lie to the North and South, respectively, of the park. Both times we visited, we found that it was easiest to find accommodation in La Spezia, which is the largest town in the area. I can heartily recommend both of our La Spezia AirBnBs (Tina’s House, suitable for one couple, and Wiwi, suitable for two couples). The hosts were incredibly welcoming, incredibly accommodating, quick to answer inquiries, and the apartments were both well furnished and conveniently located, including all the necessities (even AC). The first host whisked over to our place in just 10 minutes when we had some trouble with the power, and the second host brought us the freshest figs I’ve ever had straight from their garden for no reason at all! We did also stay one night in Corniglia with my husband, but the AirBnB we stayed at was basically just a normal hotel room with a nice view, and did not compare to the amazingly warm welcome we received at the two La Spezia locations.

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La Spezia, near the docks.

La Spezia was a perfect base of operations. It is very walkable, has plenty of food/stores/gelato open at night, and provides connections via train to each of the Cinque Terre towns plus Levanto, via bus to Portovenere and Lerici, and via ferry to Portovenere, Lerici, Levanto, and each of the Cinque Terre except Corniglia. There are also bus connections to Portovenere and Lerici (the latter of which we unfortunately didn’t have time to visit). The ferry (provided by the company Consorzio Marittimo Turistico) costs around 35 euro for a day pass, that you can use any number of times, or around 6 euro for one trip. Since I get seasick on longer trips, I only did a single ride from Vernazza to Monterosso using the ferry, and it was definitely worth it.

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The ferry landing at Vernazza, headed to Monterosso.

The train, on the other hand, is cheaper, and it goes way more often, although it mostly goes through dark boring tunnels. The cost is 4 euro per ride, but it’s way more worthwhile to get the day pass (at the Cinque Terre Point stores) for 16 euro, so you can hop back and forth using the train. The day pass also lets you access the lovely hiking trains that wind through and above the five towns. If the weather isn’t blazingly hot, and if the trails are open, hiking is probably the best way to travel between the towns. Each section of the trail takes between 1.5 and 2.5 hours (depending on the section). Unfortunately, the days that we traveled there, two of the trails were closed due to mudslides, the rest of the trails were closed at some times due to thunderstorm warnings, and anyways, it was over 30 degrees C most of the time. Actually, I love weather over 30 degrees C, because it’s the perfect swimming weather, and swimming, particularly in the pleasant Mediterranean waters, is one of my favorite activities. We did wind our way through the staircases of each of the towns, and hiked a bit to see the main sights, but I have to admit, we spent most of our time in the water. I would love to return in the spring or fall, just to do all the hikes. I actually think there would probably be a few weeks in early September that could be perfect for both hiking and swimming, assuming the trails were open. You could hike to each town, and get a fish cone at each stop!

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Deep fried anchovies, mussels, calamari,veggies, and even a chicken wing somewhere in there.

The largest beach that we visited was in Levanto. Much of it was dedicated to rent-a-chair type places, which we have taken to calling “vacation factories,” since you are packed in literally side-by-side to all the other tourist-goers, and you get the same perfect sun/beach/food/lounge experience. If that’s your thing, Levanto has a good amount of it, though it does have a small section of public beach, were you can put down your own towel as well. The beach in Levanto is made up of small rocks, which get larger as you start heading into the water. The day we went, the waves were actually large enough, that there were surfers stationed at the wave line, riding them in as they formed. The waves weren’t as big as what I’m used to in SoCal, but there was definitely a very strong undercurrent, and they started out pretty far, so that I just didn’t feel comfortable swimming out there without a flotation device. I did see some swimmers out there, but for the most part, it was just surfers.

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Surfers and swimmers awaiting a wave on the pebbly beach of Levanto.

South of Levanto is the first of the Cinque Terre towns, Monterosso. This is the most vacation-factory style town out of all of them. The beach, which is right outside the train station, is smaller than the one in Levanto, but similar to Levanto, it is sandy-ish. There’s a bit of a bay created by a jutting out of the land to the North, which seems to lessen the waves to a gentle roll, and the water is clear and warm, making this a wonderful spot to go swimming… as long as you can stand having your towel propped up right against another person’s on the teeny tiny public portion of the beach. Once again, most of this beach is devoted to the vacation factory, where you can rent a chair-umbrella combo, but when we were there, all the chairs were rented out already anyway. There are some food stands up near the train station, where you can get cones of deep fried seafood (I didn’t know I liked anchovies until I had them fresh here), French fries, and chicken wings. If you walk a bit further from the train station, you reach the older part of Monterosso, where tourist souvenir shops and restaurants line cute little streets. In short, Monterosso is pleasant, and comfortable, and a great place to relax, but in a land of touristy towns, it is touristy to the very max.

The next town over is Vernazza, a small town with one main road. The hiking paths just above Vernazza on both the Monterosso and Corniglia sides provide stunning views of the entire village below. The large pier creates a sandy (but also a silty) little beach, providing a sheltered enclosure, where hesitant swimmers can safely splash around. The outside of the pier has a ladder down into the water, so braver swimmers can dive right in off the edge to swim amongst the waves, and climb back up via the ladder. It’s just like swimming in a swimming pool, except your pool is the entire Mediterranean Sea. Another beach is located at the other end of the town, underneath an archway of the distinctive layered rock found in this region. This beach was apparently created by a recent flood that unfortunately claimed some lives, so it is superficially tethered off, but there are as many swimmers here as anywhere else. More delicious cones of fried fish, focaccia pizza, and farinata (chickpea flour based flat bread from the region) is available at stands along the main road.

The next town to the South is Corniglia. This one is situated on top of a hill. The train station is near the bottom of the hill. Therefore, you either have to hike around 1km up some stairs, or you take a bus that comes approximately every 20 minutes during the day to the top. Since it’s a tad bit harder to reach, less tourists make it up here, giving the town a bit of a cozier vibe. There is a lovely viewpoint inside the town, above a small soccer court, where you can see Manarola down the coast, and a nice view of Corniglia itself just up the road from the main square, next to a vineyard. There are plenty of lovely sit-down restaurants inside this town, with local pastas (e.g. trofie) smothered in local pesto Genovese, and more delicious fresh anchovies, as well as local wines.

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Corniglia viewed from up the street.

Down the coast from Corniglia is Manarola, another pastel-coloured village with just one main street. There is a path here, which slopes upwards to a peak overlooking the entire little town. The wine bar at the top always has an incredibly long line. As lovely as the view is, the swimming is even better. It might be funny to see people setting up their towels on the long boat ramp, but you have to look further to see the real beauty of this swimming hole. The boat ramp leads down into a calm-watered pool, sandwiched between a rocky pier to the left, and a real treasure: a very climbable rock. The rock can be jumped from at various points, from varied heights, providing adventure for the more timid jumpers as well as the braver ones. The tallest point of the rock is around 4.5 or 5 person-heights high (I would guess around 10 meters or so), and juts out perfectly, to allow for a smooth and easy dive into a deep hole. I was too scared to jump off that height though, so the most I did was a jump from around 2.5 person-heights. For those who do not want to jump, there are ladders on both sides of the pier, the sheltered side, and the outside which faces the sea.

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Manarola viewed from the walk above it.

The Southernmost village of the Cinque Terre is Riomaggiore, which, like the others, has its own distinctive character. Here, I enjoyed walking around, and exploring the nooks and crannies of the hilly town, filled with steep and narrow staircases, winding up and down the cliffs. I didn’t get the chance to spend too much time here, though I believe there may be a beach off to one side that I did not visit. I suppose I will just have to come back another time!

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Riomaggiore.

Finally, South of all of the Cinque Terre, sits Portovenere. A bus connection from La Spezia (bus P) takes visitors to this small town, which follows the same architectural themes as the other five towns, though it is officially not part of the national park.  The day we visited, a thunderstorm had come through in the morning, leaving a half-cloudy sky in its wake, and some breathtaking views for us to enjoy. The sea was a deep blue, and the setting sun cast its golden rays over the lush cliff side, whenever it peaked its head through the clouds.

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Portovenere.

We explored the church of St. Peter laid with striped bricks on the very tip of the town, and a pathway up to a fort on top of the cliff. The fort was was closed by the time we got there, but on the way we saw an homage to Portovenere by sculpture Scorzelli, titled Mater Naturae. The statue is of a voluptuous middle-aged woman, wearing a simple undergarment, gazing out at the sea beyond the town. It seems to me, that, tired from a difficult life, she looks out longingly at what might have been, but, also with some pride for the work she has wrought.

Torino

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The lid to a huge sarcophagus of a high ranking vizier, painstakingly carved of a very hard, nearly black stone.

Last weekend we visited Turin/Torino, the capital of the Piemonte region, and the first, original capital of Italy. It took around 5 hours to reach it from Rovereto (by the cheaper regional trains), so we left on Friday night. The weather was lovely almost the whole time. The first day, we wandered around the town, enjoying the sights and delicious food, before eventually heading into the Egyptian Museum. The top couple floors of the museum were alright, but all the cool stuff was on the bottom.

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The Book of the Dead. Osiris presides over the afterlife ritual, in which Anubis weighs the heart of the deceased against the feather of Ma’at, while Thoth records the result. If the heart is heavier than the feather, it will be consumed by the hippo-lion-crocodile monster Ammut.

The second day, my husband had a Netrunner (card game) tourney, so I headed off on my own. I took my stuff with me so I could head back home in the evening. It was Sunday, so my plan was to take a tour bus out to Sacra di San Michele, an abbey at the top of a cliff overlooking Torino, around an hour away. From my research online, it seemed that this place was a little annoying to reach by public transport on most days, involving some confusing combination of bus/train connections and hiking, but on Sundays in summer they run a tour that goes straight there, leaving Torino at 8:30am, and going back from the Sacra at 13:00. This sounded way less confusing, so I booked that.

I arrived at the bus stop a few minutes early. I found a large Pullman/Greyhound type of bus, and asked the driver if he knew which bus I should take to the Sacra di San Michele. He said it was his bus. I showed him my phone ticket, which he glanced at, and waved me through. We headed in the direction of the Sacra, gathering a few more people along the way, and I tried to rest a little since I hadn’t slept that well the night before. We reached the town of Sant’Ambrogio di Torino, when the bus driver alerted me that this was my stop. I could see the Sacra way up on the top of the hill nearby.

This was confusing, since I had been under the impression that this bus went straight to the church, not to the town nearby. But from doing my research earlier, I knew that there should be a path to get to the church from here. As I was getting off the bus, the driver told me he was returning around 17:40, I think, from the stop across the street. Again, I had been under the impression that the return bus was at 13:00. When I asked him about this, he said yes, I should wait at that stop at 13:00. Okaaay.

It was only once I got off the bus that I noticed a missed call on my phone, and some text messages. Apparently, the driver of my original tour bus had been unable to reach me, and had left without me. But if the driver of the tour had been unable to reach me, then what bus had I ended up taking? And why had the driver of this bus let me on with a ticket for a different bus?

I was looking at my phone, pondering these questions, when an old lady, who had been on the bus with me, started talking to me. She had heard my conversation with the driver, and she really seemed to want to help me. She described to me how to reach my destination, which was the same way I expected. I would have to hike up the Antica Mulattiera (Old Mule Path), 600 meters straight up. The path was well maintained, laid with stones, and though I was carrying a bit too much on my back, and the weather was a bit too warm for hiking, it was still a nice walk. It took me about 1.5 hours to make the hike, and the views at the top were definitely worth it.

For the way back, I was no longer very confident that the Pullman which I had taken here originally would actually come at 13:00, since the old lady that had helped me earlier, who was from the area, said it only comes in the evening. I had a plan to hike back down and then keep walking until I reached a train station to go back to Torino. However, I also texted the tour operators from the morning again, asking them how to reach their actual return bus. They were helpful, but not very good at explaining it. Anyways, long story short, the road up to the abbey stops at Colle della Croce Nera. That’s where I finally found my bus (which, by the way, was meant to leave at 12:30, not at 13:00 as I was originally given to understand). The driver realized that I was his missing passenger, and seemed annoyed at the situation from the morning, but I think he understood that something had gone wrong on their end (and I made plenty of apologies to assuage him). In any case, he was happy to take me back, and this was much faster.

When I first arrived in Italy, before I could speak some basic Italian, I would not have felt comfortable making a multiple train/bus connection journey like this one for fear of exactly this happening. But now, I know that if something goes wrong, I can probably find someone who is willing to suffer my poor accent to help me find a way back. Additionally, having hiked a ton over the last year, I feel comfortable walking longer distances now as well. I was nervous about this trip from the start, since I knew the destination was a bit harder to reach without a car, but in the end, the skills I’ve gained over the last year helped me feel more comfortable traveling around.

Weeks 84 through 93

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How long has it been since I’ve posted one of these types of updates? There’s been a lot going on. Spring and summer, for one! Everything is green and beautiful now, and there are flowers everywhere, although it has also been raining a lot. I wish I had more time to enjoy this season, but things have been more than a little busy. A massive family vacation took a chunk of time, but was, of course, very worth it. Then, as soon as I got back, I learned that I had many deadlines, and all of them were due around the same time:

  • a poster presentation for the LCT meeting
  • a master’s thesis proposal for the “master seminar” course at Uni Saarland
  • a presentation on the thesis proposal for my adviser at Saarland
  • a report of the work done at my internship plus a ton of documents for Uni Trento
  • a master’s thesis outline for my adviser at Trento
  • edits on a paper for a conference that my group at FBK wants to submit to

This all, by the way, in addition to normal work, which should theoretically continue as usual. In practice I had been focusing almost exclusively on the reports and presentations, and very little on actual work, which is a problem because I really  need to make progress on my master’s thesis research if I want to actually be able to write the thesis.

Speaking of the thesis, I had a bit of a heart attack last month, when I found out from a friend, who found out from a friend, that I had to fill out a “Title Registration” form for University of Trento. This was a simple form with some basic information, but we needed the signature of our thesis adviser on it. The problem is that my intended adviser was gone at a conference that week. He had told me he would be hard to reach, and he had warned me ahead of time to check deadlines and get signatures from him. I had checked the deadlines I knew to check, but not this one, because this was a situation of “I don’t know what I don’t know.” I got lucky and was able to contact my adviser after all, but I if my friend hadn’t told me about this requirement, I would have gotten all the way to September, and wondered why I couldn’t graduate on time for no apparent reason.

It’s hard being a foreign student, but I get the feeling that this is a difficulty even local students have to deal with. No one sends any emails about these deadlines. We have coordinators here at UniTN who should theoretically be involved with us, but they don’t seem to care that much about us. They don’t know our detailed situation, they forget some basic details about us as well, and they seem more concerned with their own work than anything else. It doesn’t feel like there’s anyone who is actually there for the students, in particular the LCT students, who are on the outskirts of the program at UniTN.

I’m also a bit upset because now that summer is here, my aerial classes have been cut down to just once a week, so I need to find an alternate form of exercise to avoid losing too much muscle. I’ve worked too hard so far to let myself atrophy.

On the plus side, the weather has warmed up, and we managed to get three hikes in, all with beautiful wildflowers, breathtaking views, and lovely company. These have certainly been the highlight of the season.

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Costs:

Ok so I’m going to cheat, and lump everything into one big pool over the last few months. I’m sorry I fell behind keeping track of this here by month.

  • 705 – rent
  • 165 – internet
  • 100 – phone
  • 600 – travel
  • 300 – dining (also during travel)
  • 300 – groceries
  • 160 – sports
  • 40 – fixing glasses
  • 120 – clothes (for hiking)
  • Total: 2,490