Year 2 Retrospective

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Rovereto, outside my window.

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

Contents

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

Bureaucracy

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Colosseum in Rome.

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

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

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

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

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

Accommodation & Costs

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The view from my window in summer.

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

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

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

Getting Around

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The view from the bus on the way to Povo.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Food

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Korallo pizza.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Weather/Activities

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Rotwand via ferrata.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The University System

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Cathedral in Trento.

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

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

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

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

CIMeC

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

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

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

Internships

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

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

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

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

Final Thoughts (TL;DR)

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

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

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I’ll miss the view outside my window.

Costs for the year:

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

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

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

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

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

My goals for the next year include:

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

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Graduation

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Castel Beseno in Trentino, one of the places I am going to miss.

As a student of two universities, plus the LCT program, I get to graduate three times if I so choose– once at each of the universities, and once at the LCT meeting (which I have to pay to to go myself once I become an alumnus of the two unis).

In practical terms, this means that you end up going through the majority of the formalities at your second university, and then at some point, some more documents come in from your other universities. Since my second uni was University of Trento, I got to go through the Italian graduation process first. Surprisingly, everything went very smoothly, and graduation day was actually pretty fun!

When we graduate from high school or from a bachelors in the US, we have a massive assembly, with the entire graduating class (hundreds of students). You wear your robes/hat, and you wait forever until your name is called, so that you can walk up there, accept your diploma, and shake hands with some important leaders of the university. I didn’t go to my bachelors graduation, because I didn’t want to wait in the southern California desert sun for 8 hours, while everyone’s name was called, and because the ceremony took place some months after I had actually finished my schoolwork (I finished in December and ceremonies are in June/July), so I was already living somewhere else.

In Italy, the ceremony is completely different. First of all, it takes places with only your department, so the graduating class will just be the students that you know. Second of all, for the masters, it actually takes place on the same day that you defend. This means everyone makes their defense presentations, then the commission goes to deliberate on everyone’s grades, and then you get called back into the room again to receive diplomas. They call out your name, your grade, and you walk up to shake hands with your professors. In this way, it’s much more personal, which I really appreciated.

For my defense, I was defending a thesis on speech recognition to a department more focused on cognitive neuroscience. That is, my commission and fellow students were not experts on speech recognition. I had to tailor my defense to be a little more general, to be able to keep non-specialists interested in the topic, and the defense was only supposed to be 15 minutes long. This was actually really hard to do, and I had to cut out a lot. I think a longer defense to experts in the field would have been easier to present. On the other hand, I think since they were not experts, they judged me a little easier than an expert might have. I received full marks and highest honours. It felt really nice to get such amazing recognition for my work, but I know there were some mistakes in my thesis, and I’m sure that the commission at Saarland will be stricter.

Our defenses were split into a morning session and an afternoon session. After our session was done, the commission spent a good chunk of time (30-45 minutes) deliberating on our grades. Then we all got called back in with our families, for handing out the diplomas. When the student’s name is called, the professor says his normal spiel in Italian, and calls out the student’s grade, right there in front of everybody. It was something like, “with the power vested in me by the university, etc. etc., I award [the student] the master of cognitive science, with a grade of [the grade].”

This makes me wonder what happens if the student is going to fail the defense. But I get the feeling that this doesn’t happen. That is, once you are invited to the defense, it is almost certain that you will pass. At our department in Trento, they didn’t suggest for corrections to be made either, and I don’t know if this is typical or not.

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Handmade wreath of laurels.

Once this is done, the fun starts! We all got together in the garden in back, with champagne, sweets, confetti launchers, and actual “confetti” candies. These are little round candies given out in Italy for special events, and they are colour coded. For example, red ones are for graduation, white ones are for weddings. Each of the graduates was handed a wreath of laurels to wear on their head. (I think the colour of the ribbons in the leaves is supposed to be significant, but ours were just different colours for fun.) The ones we got were actual laurel leaves, created by our friends in the department, which was so nice and thoughtful of them! Our friends also put up compromising pictures of us throughout the halls, which was quite funny to see.

Then, the other students, the parents, and even the professors, sing a graduation song for you. This song is actually obscene, which is so funny… even funnier when it comes from professors! I don’t want to write the Italian version, because I think writing down Italian curse words might be frowned upon, so I will let you google the “dottore dottore” song.

Once the party begins, it doesn’t end. At least not in our department. Our students organized a massive alcohol-fest that night. I’m not a big drinker, so I only stayed a short while, but I expect it was going on until the wee hours. There, I saw another Italian tradition– a typical graduation drinking game. In this game, friends of the graduate write a big scroll about the graduate’s life with lots of rhymes and tongue twisters, and then the graduate has to read it correctly. Every time they mess up, they take a drink. People continued to sing the “dottore dottore” song throughout the night, as well.

I think the whole point of all of these festivities is to counteract the seriousness of the event. You just went through this grueling effort, and you are graduating as an official master’s degree holder… congratulations to you, but don’t let it go to your head, you’re are just the same as all the rest of us!

So that’s Italian graduation for you. I don’t know how German graduation goes, since I am (predictably) still waiting for my grades from Saarland. It turns out that the main person in charge of this aspect of bureaucracy is on sick leave right now, and since there’s no redundancy in the bureaucratic system there, we are probably going to have to wait until he gets better before getting our grades transferred and our diplomas in the mail. At some point next year, I hope to also be able to attend my final LCT meeting to see all the students from the previous year, and to graduate once again, from LCT (if they do a graduation for us, which I don’t know if they will).

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Castel Beseno in Trentino.

 

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.

Officialization 13: Going to the doctors

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They were randomly giving out free watermelon in Rovereto the other night (no strings attached, not even an advertisement), and storing the watermelons in the fountain!

Officialization TOC

  1. Officialization 1: WTF comes next in Italy?
  2. Officialization 2: Apartment
  3. Officialization 3: Internet
  4. Officialization 4: Stay Permit, part I
  5. Officialization 5: Picking Courses
  6. Officialization 6: Stay Permit, part II
  7. Officialization 7: TV Tax
  8. Officialization 8: Stay Permit, part III
  9. Officialization 9: Residenzia
  10. Officialization 10: Health Insurance
  11. Officialization 11: Thesis Registration
  12. Officialization 12: Stay Permit, part IV
  13. Officialization 13: Going to the doctors <– You are here

TL;DR

The process for getting national health service benefits is a hassle. The fees are pretty low though, even compared to the ones in Germany, and certainly compared to the fees in the US.

  • Process:
    1. Get your stay permit (i.e. at least 4-5 months after arriving in Italy), so you can sign up at Anagrafe with a general practitioner, and receive your “tessera sanitaria” (national health insurance card)
    2. Show up at the GPs office hours exactly when they open or you’ll have to wait. There’s no formal queue– ask who is waiting for your doctor; you are behind the last person.
    3. Get a normal medication prescription if needed, and pick it up at a pharmacy.
    4. Take initiative to request a prescription for special tests if needed.
      1. Show up at the hospital exactly when they open.
      2. Wait in one line to pay. Wait in a second line to get the test.
      3. Go back to the hospital/ your doctor after a week or so to receive your results. (They can only call you to tell you that they’re ready if you have an Italian phone number.)
      4. N.B.: Blood work can be scheduled via Telegram (info here) so you don’t have to wait.
  •  Insurance Fees:
    • US: $10-15 / month (but my employer paid the larger share, otherwise it’s hundreds of dollars per month)
    • Germany: €90 / month
    • Italy: €150 for the calendar year
  • Synthetic thyroxine medication:
    • US: $10-15 / month
    • Germany: €5 / three months
    • Italy: €15 / three months
  • Doctor’s appointment with blood work:
    • US: $100-150
    • Germany: €0
    • Italy: €35

Going to the doctors

I’ve had to go to the doctor a few times now in Italy. The process has not been as smooth as last year in Germany. I admit that after all this time, I still haven’t fully understood how the health system is supposed to work here. There seem to be two classes of health care, public and private. As I understand it, though I haven’t tried, for the private health care, you can call any doctor you want directly, and set up an appointment, and just pay for the meeting out-of-pocket. However, so far, I have used the public services, using the “tessera sanitaria” (national health care card) that I received earlier in the year.

The way the public services work is first you pay for the insurance and then you sign up with a general practitioner who will be your doctor. They will be the person you first visit for any issue, and they can send you along to further specialists. The way you visit with them is just the same as the way you do anything in Italy… by getting to their office before everyone else. All the public doctors seem to have open office hours on a first-come first-served basis. I cannot stress enough that you need to arrive immediately as they open, or a couple minutes before, in order to get to see them in an expedient way.

So you arrive as they open, and just walk into the doctor’s office. In terms of the queue, if there are already people waiting, you should try to ask who is waiting for your doctor; some may be waiting for other doctors who share the office (if you don’t speak Italian well, you can just say your doctor’s name, and people will probably understand your question). Then, remember who you are behind, and take a position in front of the doctor’s door after they go in.

You tell them your problem. If you have pain or something that requires antibiotics, they write you out a prescription for ibuprofen or antiobiotics or cream or whatever, and you take it to the pharmacy. Otherwise, they tell you to wait and see. Usually, that’s your entire appointment. It’s rarely very helpful. By the way, if you don’t have a tessera sanitaria, they aren’t supposed to write you a prescription, but my doctor seems to be pretty willing to bend those rules.

If you actually know what your problem is, you can ask the doctor to request tests to be done if you need them. In my case, I am hypothyroid. The first few times I went, I just asked for the same medication that I always take, and my doctor just wrote me a prescription (the very first time I didn’t even have my tessera sanitaria yet, but he just said not to worry about it). Recently, though, I decided I should check my blood levels again, to make sure everything is still on track, since it’s been a while. Note, that I decided this. In the US, my doctors would know me as a patient and they would know my history, so they would occasionally suggest that I get such tests done, in particular if I had other problems going on as well, or if it’s been the requisite amount of time since the last one. Here, although I have been with this doctor since the start, he doesn’t suggest such tests at all. It’s up to me.

So I asked him how to get the blood work done. My doctor doesn’t have a lab in his office and I believe most public doctors don’t, at least in small towns like Rovereto. So he gave me a prescription and told me to go to the hospital for this, where they have the labs to do it. You can apparently schedule blood work appointments via Telegram (info here), but I didn’t know about that at the time.

Thus, I went to the hospital in person. The procedure there was not at all straight forward. The first day I went, I couldn’t find the correct place to go. I entered through the main entrance and tried to understand the signs for the departments (things like gynecology, cancer, and so on). None of them suggested to me that they did blood work for normal issues. I went to the Segreteria (secretary’s office) to ask them. The lady there was one of the first people I’ve met in Rovereto/Trento that didn’t make much of an effort to make herself understood. If I can’t understand someone right away, I always tell them that I don’t speak Italian that well, and this usually gets them to speak slower or use simpler words. This lady really didn’t care about that. It took me more running around, and asking of other workers (at random) to finally understand that the office was only open from 7:30 till 9:30am, but I still didn’t fully understand its location. In any case, I had to come back another morning.

When I came back, I very fortunately ran into a friend coming out of the hospital. She explained to me that the entry for the blood work was in a different place on the side of the building. I finally found and entered the secretary’s office for outpatient procedures such as blood work (“prelievi del sangue”) around 8:15am. As soon as I entered that room, I realized I had come too late. I knew right away that I would miss the last train to work before the morning break, which comes at 9:37am. This is because the room was filled with people waiting in seats. A number queue monitor called numbers from different needs categories, and the blood draw category was definitely low priority (I think pregnancy-related issues were highest priority). Still, I was already here, so I decided to wait.

Around 45 minutes later, I guess, my number was called. I went up to the secretary, and found out I would have to pay around 35 euro for the blood draw, before getting it done. I did this, and received my receipt. She sent me along to the next room. To my chagrin, I realized that all those people that had just waited in front of me, were now seated in this second room, awaiting their blood draw appointments. I would have to wait again. Not only that, but if I left, I would have to get a refund for the cost of the blood draw, and then re-do this whole process later. So I decided to wait.

Maybe half an hour later, I was finally called in. The blood draw was done by a skilled nurse, and it took all of 1-2 minutes, as usual. Nice and fast.

For getting the blood work results, the hospital will call you– that is, unless you don’t have an Italian phone number, in which case, like most government offices, they can’t understand how to call you. In my case though, the results were thankfully sent to my doctor electronically. He also doesn’t seem to be able to call non-Italian numbers, so I still had to go to him another morning to find out the results. Why not use E-mail you ask? Good question; I have no answer.

By the way, I didn’t manage to catch my 9:37 train, however, there was one more train coming at 9:43. This was the German train going up to Munich, and it would cost me some 6.30 euro or so, if I could catch it. However, by the time I got to the platform, I couldn’t pay for the train anymore, neither at the machine, nor on the train apps, nor at the counter, because the hour the train should arrive was past– even though the train itself was also late (fortunately for me). The lady at the counter told me to pay on board, which I’m sure would have been pretty expensive. Still, I decided to risk it. Sometimes they don’t check tickets. I caught the train, and indeed, no one checked tickets that day.

What a hassle this day was!

 

 

Officialization 12: Stay Permit, part IV

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View from La Sacra di San Michele, near Torino.

Officialization TOC

  1. Officialization 1: WTF comes next in Italy?
  2. Officialization 2: Apartment
  3. Officialization 3: Internet
  4. Officialization 4: Stay Permit, part I
  5. Officialization 5: Picking Courses
  6. Officialization 6: Stay Permit, part II
  7. Officialization 7: TV Tax
  8. Officialization 8: Stay Permit, part III
  9. Officialization 9: Residenzia
  10. Officialization 10: Health Insurance
  11. Officialization 11: Thesis Registration
  12. Officialization 12: Stay Permit, part IV <– You are here
  13. Officialization 13: Going to the doctors

Stay Permit, part IV

It’s been 11 months since we arrived in Italy. You might be wondering why I am writing about stay permits now, so much later. Yeeaaa. It’s because my husband still hasn’t gotten his.

Last I wrote about this, a lady at Cinformi helped us submit his documents to Questura, even without the  proof that our apartment was larger than the minimum for two people of 45 meters squared. We did eventually need to get that proof. We had to walk up a hill a kilometer to the east, to a municipal office different from the main municipal office, which was located in a very strange place. It was near a fish hatchery, and after a very creepy parking lot… a place that is very difficult to find, even with the address, because Google doesn’t even send you to the right spot. Inside the building, it was also difficult to find the correct office. I had to ask a random worker to help me find the “segreteria” (secretary’s office), who was then able to assist me with my issue.

The secretary was able to look up our apartment in the archives, where they had a physical repository of apartment architectural specifications. We had to come back a couple days later to pick up the documents, and we had to pay another 32 or so euro for the tax stamps (marche da bollo). We submitted these documents to Questura (immigration) many months ago, and waited.

Questura had to send police officers to our house to ensure that my husband was, in fact, living here. They decided to do this on Easter Sunday and Easter Monday. We were gone on vacation that weekend, and it took months for them to send more officers. They wouldn’t tell us when the officers were coming, I guess so we couldn’t fake anything.

In the meanwhile, Questura lost that apartment document.

Since Questura apparently can’t figure out how to call non-Italian phone numbers (in fact, most government offices here can’t), we didn’t find out about this for a little while. When we went back to them to ask what was up, we were pretty annoyed, but there wasn’t much we could do. So we had to go back to the weird place to get another copy and resubmit it (paying all the costs again), and now we are waiting on Questura again.

I’ll be done with my master’s thesis soon (in October if all goes well), and we had wanted to go traveling around Europe for a few months, but if the stay permit doesn’t come through, that might not be possible. Looking at the time we have left and how long each of these steps seems to take, I don’t think my husband is going to get his stay permit before I’m done.

Ridiculous.

Spring Hikes

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The weather has gotten warmer, and we’ve been able to go hiking. I’ve done three hikes in the last couple months. The first was a wine walk organized by a few of the PhD students from CIMeC. This was a hike including four wineries along the way, one of them in an old castle. It was a nice ~7km walk down the hill, with great wine and food (parmiggiano reggiano, salami, and other small bites) along the way, although it turns out that a steep downhill hike through narrow forested paths and twisty city alleyways is a bit challenging when you’re with a group of fairly drunk people. Still, the views were lovely and it was a great way to spend an afternoon. My favorite white wine from the walk was the Gewürtztraminer from Cantina d’Isera, and my favorite red was the Lagrein from Castel Noarna.

The next hike went up to Cima della Marzòla. We did this one with a friend we made in the last year at Saarland who was visiting, and the hike was much longer than we expected. It totaled in around 18-20km, with approximately 1000 meters elevation difference, first up through forest and fields of wildflowers, and then down around the side of the mountain. It took around 6 hours to complete it, I think. Needless to say, my calves and thighs were hurting on the way up, and my knees on the way down, but we survived, and the views were well worth it. The whole way up was covered in these beautiful trees, whose yellow flowers hung down like willow branches. And just as we were at the peak, a rainbow shone over a smaller hilltop below. How lucky! Most of all, I enjoyed spending time with friends. I miss that wonderful community we had at Saarland, as well as the relatively decent education/organization there as well, for that matter (which is not something I expected to say at the end of last year).

The last hike went up Monte Stivo. This one was the longest. We left from the base somewhere near Passo Bordala around 10:00 in the morning, and returned, I think, around 19:30. I’m not sure how many kilometers we walked, but it was a hell of a lot. The way up was winding through some forest at first, but after the first peak, it became rather steep. Amazingly, at one of our stops, we saw a group of 30 horse riders taking a break before continuing their climb to the top. I wouldn’t have expected horses to be able to make it up there, but I guess they are more nimble than I thought.  The path up to the first overlook wound its way through wooded underbrush, and grassy cliff sides, dotted with lovely yellow, white, and violet flowers, where bees and butterflies buzzed and fluttered around us– and it only got better from there.

As we climbed over the last rocks along the steep path, we saw a wide grassy hilltop covered in beautiful wildflowers. The top was breathtaking. I think this was my favorite hike out of all the ones we’ve done here in Trentino (or maybe ever).  In each direction we turned, we saw a landscape of valleys and mountain tops, many of them lower than Stivo, though some in the distance were much higher and snow-capped. The sun was hot, but the breeze was cool, and it brought with it wispy clouds that occasionally obscured the view of Lago di Garda in the West, far, far below us.

We had climbed around 900m in elevation to get up Monte Stivo, and so we had to go the same distance down, this time around the back of the mountain. As we walked along the ridge of the mountain, over a path flanked by wildflowers, we encountered a small farm with cows, sheep, goats, turkeys, and a dog guarding the little house. The farm was literally just on the side of this giant mountain, barely even fenced off.  As we made our way through the farm (that’s the way the path went), a curious baby goat bounded up to us, getting so close that we could pet it, and feed it a bit of grass. What kind of a life must it be to lead a farmstead in such a remote, and beautiful place? I bet it’s really cold in the winter, when the snows cover Monte Stivo, along with all the mountains and valleys surrounding it. We continued our descent back into the forest.

The way back, was much longer than the way there, since it didn’t cut straight down the mountain, but looped all the way around back. Much of it took us through the somewhat wild underbrush. We had to hike through deep mud, clay, and leaves, and some parts of it were actually fairly tick-infested as well. One of our party members ended up finding 9 ticks on her that day! Somehow, the others of us didn’t get any biting into us at all, just a few that we managed to brush off before they took hold.

The whole thing was pretty crazy, but I can’t deny that it was breathtaking (both metaphorically, and literally)

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