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.

Officialization 14: Getting a travel pass

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Limone sul Garda

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
  14. Officialization 14: Getting a travel pass  <– You are here

Getting a travel pass

As a student, at the start of last year, I was able to get a Libera Circolazione (free movement) pass for the entirety of Trentino for just 50 Euros. Now, since I have already submitted my intention to graduate, I am no longer eligible for this awesome deal. So instead, I had to get an “abbonamento” (monthly pass) from the normal railway and bus system, Trentino Trasporti. Weirdly, I could still get the student version of this pass, and they used a grainy image of my student id mug shot for the card.

Anyways, the process for getting this was a minor hassle. First, I went to the train station, and asked them what to do. They gave me a form to fill out and said to come back in a week for the card. Like most offices here, they can’t call my US-based number, and don’t send emails, so I had to come in physically (I do recommend getting an Italian number at some point, although I never did).

I came back in a week, and they told me that they needed another form from me. The second one seemed to be a student related form. The funny thing is it had literally the exact same info on it as the first form. I had to fill everything in exactly the same. But for whatever reason, it was a separate form. I filled it out, and they told me to come back in a week.

I came back to pick up my card, which cost 4 euros. I asked to pay for the monthly pass. They said that they didn’t do that, and I had to go to Trentino Trasporti. The guy tried to explain to me where that was in Rovereto, but when I looked at Google maps, I didn’t see it there. I never went there in the end. Instead, I went to the one in Trento. In fact, this is actually the same office as the Autostazione (bus station), and in Trento, it’s located right next to the train station. I pass by there often, so it made sense to stop by at some point.

I bought the monthly train pass to travel between Rovereto and Trento, and a monthly bus pass to get to Povo, where FBK is located. This cost me 54 Euro– for one month– more expensive than the entire school year with Libera Circolazione.

In the meantime, I had to buy a bunch of train and bus tickets, so I spent a ton of money. Actually, I sort of messed that up, because I didn’t realize at first that using the OpenMove app, you can buy a combined train+bus ticket from Rovereto to Povo, and it’s cheaper than buying a separate Rovereto->Trento train ticket and Trento->Povo bus ticket. So yea, the cost of work travel this month has far far exceeded the cost of work travel for the entire year prior.

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Weeks 61 through 65

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This month has been all about hunkering down. My husband had to go back to the States for a bit while waiting on the stay permit process, but got to come back sooner than expected. In the meantime, school got busy, with tons of presentations and reports to do.

We both had a lot of good news in terms of work-related things, as well. For one, my husband’s gig is becoming salaried at the start of January. This is something he’s been working towards for a very long time, so we are both super excited. In addition, I have already started preliminary work on my internship (and hopefully master’s thesis) with FBK, a local research institute. This also becomes paid starting in January.

All of this is fantastic news, but it does mean I am about to become much busier than I have been. I may not have time to hike or loaf around as much as I have been. In the next two weeks, I also have to finish the last things left for my courses to get the last few credits I need. I have 3 presentations and 4 short reports to write up, and I have to study for a hard final in machine learning that will take place in January. I’m also headed back to the US for three weeks over the winter holidays, which I am really excited about. I can’t wait to see my family and hopefully many friends too!

In terms of exciting activities this month, I only went on one hike, but it was a breathtaking one. We went to Strada delle 52 Gallerie, just after the first snow. It was the longest hike I’ve done so far (6.5 hours and 12km I think), but it didn’t feel as difficult as some previous ones.  The hike snaked through some old tunnels built during WWI, up to the very top of the mountain. The views were spectacular, perhaps even more so with the snow. (I’m afraid these phone pics do it no justice though.) I look forward to returning another time, maybe in the spring.

By the way, the Christmas markets have also started up here. Rovereto has gone on some sort of fanatic Christmas spree: they spent over a week building wooden houses for the stalls, they brought in the most giant real tree I have ever seen, they put up projectors to light up the buildings with Christmas decor, they put up speakers playing Christmas music, they have live bands walking through the city on the weekends, and they have a red fucking carpet spread out through like half the city center. It feels really over-the-top for such a tiny town. In terms of the Christmas market itself, though, they don’t serve nearly as much hot spiced wine as they should, and they don’t pass out adorable mugs the way they did in Germany, which is a shame; however, the fried dough treats don’t disappoint.

Costs:

Splitting costs (and cooking duty) with a second person really helps.

  • €225 – rent
  • €22 – internet
  • €136 – utilities (electric/gas) including installation costs and stupid TV tax
  • €234 – groceries
  • €135 – dining out/ snacks at markets
  • €90 – last health insurance payment to AOK back in Germany (ugh)
  • €47 – phone
  • €16 – extra aerial silks days
  • €30 – fancy bike tire pump
  • €8 – misc for the apartment
  • Total: €943

Weeks 57 through 60

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September and October have been the months of hikes. It’s been surprisingly warm during the day, though the evenings have been chilly. I’ve gone somewhere almost every weekend with friends, and I’ve watched the trees turn from green to gold to rust.

At the end of September, a friend with a car took us on a difficult hike to Cima Rocca. I’m not that accustomed to hiking, though I enjoy it quite a lot, and this hike was particularly difficult. It went at a fairly steep uphill the entire way, until the very end, at which point it became nearly a Via Ferrata style climb. That is to say, there was a metal guide cable, and you had to use your hands to scramble up the rocks.

It took around three hours to climb to the top, with your thighs and calves protesting the entire way, and just one hour to come down, with your knees complaining. As hard as it was, the view from the top was absolutely worth it (though it was a misty day). Not only that, but there were some cool old caves dug out from WWII along the way, and a great deal of fresh air. In the end, this was one of the hardest, but also one of the most fun hikes I have done.
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In October, I had the chance to visit Milan to meet the same friend who I met recently in Prague. Milan was… money. The city center was small in terms of area, but grandiose in terms of content. The cathedral was huge, the castle had a moat, and the shopping/fashion was so high-end, that the cheaper area was the one that had labels like Prada and Louis Vuitton. The expensive fashion district had clothes that looked like they had just come off a model– you know, the weird ones, that no normal human would ever wear.

Although I usually like visiting museums, the one in the castle somehow didn’t impress me. Maybe I’ve been spoiled by the world-class art in huge cities like Paris and Berlin. Overall, two days in the city were just enough for me to see everything, though if I was the shopping type, I’m sure I would have needed more.

The next weekend, I headed back to Saarbrücken (SB) to retrieve my bike, and visit my friends. After a 10 hour commute through lovely Austria, I found myself in Germany again.

I think I have a sort of love-hate relationship with SB. Although I am frustrated at the quality of schooling, I can now look back and realize that it was better than what I will see here this year, because there were many different professors to work with, and many different course offerings. In addition, SB has an amazing community of students. Everyone in the local program is studying the same thing, so you have a lot of people to work with, and a lot in common with those around you.

Here in Italy, I have found it difficult to integrate into the local community in the same way. Everyone in CIMeC is studying cognitive neuroscience together, so they share all the same classes and have the same interests. It’s possible that we have more in common than I think, but I don’t share any classes with them, so I wouldn’t know anyway. The computer science students in Povo also share all their classes, and by virtue of this, have also formed a tight knit community. Basically, I am rather on the periphery of what is going on here. So while my personal life here is good, my academic life is shitty.

Coming back to SB reminded me of everything I am missing out on.

I returned from SB feeling rather disappointed, but fortunately, a friend was coming to visit for a couple of days, which helped lift my spirits. We wanted to show her around some of the sights, so we headed back into the mountains. The first day was unfortunately misty again when we took a small trip an a hike just above Rovereto. The second day was a little clearer, and we headed up higher, up a windy road into the hills nearby, where we hiked through falling tree leaves, to the top of a large hill.

My friend only had a couple days with us, and once again, I had to say goodbye. One great thing about my master’s program is that I get to meet a whole ton of amazing international people. However, the entire experience is basically a revolving door of goodbyes, as people finish their masters and head back to their home countries, and you wonder all the while if you will ever see them ever again.

In any case, I had to bear my sadness on the move, because the next day we went on a trip with the university right back in the mountains, to Rio Novella. I stumbled through this trip, a bit tired after the last three days, but happy to chat with all the various international students from different departments. We went through apple orchards, to a really steep canyon, and through a gorge to a church on top of a cliff. You’re probably tired of hearing this– the views were amazing.

Finally, at the very end of the month, I visited the Castello Beseno, which is a castle on top of a hill not far from Rovereto. It was a peaceful day, and there weren’t many tourists there, so we had a lovely stroll throughout the whole thing. It was a real medieval castle, like the kind you read about in history books! Although I’ve been in Europe for a year now, I didn’t visit that many castles last year, and as an American, I am still impressed by these historic structures.

Apart from taking trips and just enjoying life… I have to admit that in terms of work, I’ve done very little this month. As I mentioned before, there doesn’t seem to be that much for me to do in the department here. I’m only taking a few classes, and they aren’t that good. The machine learning class in Povo has a really good instructor, but strangely it doesn’t have any homework, so I’ve just had to do my best to study on my own. The Human Language Technologies course in Rovereto is possibly the worst course I have ever taken. The topics are all repetition from last year’s coursework, and the lecturing is both boring and uninformative.

I’m quite frustrated (but unsurprised) that my second year university does very little to coordinate a curriculum that will be useful to second years. As I was warned by my second year colleagues last year, in the LCT program you basically end up doing Year 1 twice. My hope is that I will be able to teach myself everything that I haven’t managed to learn yet. I mean, I mostly taught myself last year anyway. I’ve been working on linear algebra in my spare time, but right now, my main goal is to find an internship and a master’s thesis topic.

At least daily life in Rovereto has been good.

However, there’s one more bit of frustrating news. My husband has been in Italy for almost two months now, and my stay permit is nowhere in sight. Once I do get the stay permit, it will take him probably at least a week to get the appointment with Questura (immigration) sorted so that he can be allowed to stay provisionally in Italy. However, with the Shengen visa waiver that Americans get, he is only allowed to be in Europe for 90 out of each 180 days. That means he has to go home ASAP, so that he can save some days for doing all the paperwork once I get my stay permit and he returns. So I guess he’ll be going back for Thanksgiving, and I’ll be here all alone for a while again.

Costs:

It seems like it does help to have a second person splitting costs. Even with all the dining out and travel, I’ve managed to stay under budget. However, keep in mind, my utilities payment has not been charged yet (it will be very expensive at the start of November because of move-in costs, but should be much cheaper after that), and my internet bill was low I think because of last month’s deposit payment.

I see a lot of extraneous items below. It’s time to think about reigning it in again. Phone is too high, and I should probably finally pull the plug on Project Fi… I am just such a sucker for the convenience. The bouldering gym passes will eventually get used, but I am going to swap to mainly doing aerial now (I will be ramping it up to twice a week), so those were not really a necessity after all. The miscellaneous category was just silly spending. As usual, all the dining out is ridiculous. I will say that I won’t feel bad about the coats, because I got a seriously insane discount there.

  • €235 – rent
  • €14 – internet
  • €60 – phone (I should probably drop Project Fi, since the European plans are way cheaper…)
  • €50 – bouldering gym passes
  • €150 – aerial silks classes
  • €60 – transport, misc stuff for the house
  • €55 – a coat and a warm jacket for winter (fantastic thrift store price)
  • €231 – groceries
  • €120 – dining (including amazing gelato at Zenzero in Rovereto!)
  • Total: €975

Weeks 52 through 56

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I’ve talked a lot about getting an apartment with Internet, working on my stay permit, and picking courses. What I didn’t mention, is that I also took a number of small trips over the course of the last month. It turns out that this year I am living in what is probably of the most beautiful places in the world. I don’t have a car here, of course, so, unfortunately, I don’t have the opportunity to just take off and see everything, but I have had some opportunities this month to explore nonetheless.

At the start of the month, I visited Bologna, where my husband has relatives. This trip wasn’t exactly planned ahead of time. It turns out that as my husband was coming here, to Italy, some of the stuff he was bringing in his pack got stolen. That stuff included a translation of our marriage certificate. Our relatives knew a translator that was willing to help us get it done quickly, and this became an opportunity to take an overnight trip to Bologna, where they live. I imagine we could have gotten it done here in Rovereto, but it would have definitely taken longer, and we really thought we needed it ASAP, because we thought we had to apply for my husband’s stay permit along with mine. In the end it turned out that we didn’t have to do this, but rather, we have to wait for mine to come in before he can apply for his at all. By the way, this means that he will probably have to leave the country once his Shengen visa waiver runs out, because my permit will most likely not come before that time.

As a result of all of this, the trip was a little stressful, but it was made worth it by the fact that we got to spend some time with our relatives (and I got to know them better). Also, Bologna was pretty awesome. It was bigger than Rovereto or Trento, but still fairly walkable, and the public transportation seemed good enough. The center of the city is covered in porticos (covered archways over walkways), which helped keep the heat from the summer sun at bay, along with old stone towers, cute restaurants (with delicious cured meat), and of course, gelato.

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Later on in the month, I took a trip with the university to Lago di Garda, the biggest lake in Italy, which we are only a couple hours away from. The morning was cloudy, which was a shame, because it meant the guided tour didn’t want to take us on the hike up to the castle in Arco (apparently it was dangerously slippery). We visited Riva del Garda instead. The other LCTs and I broke off from the guided tour almost immediately, and headed up a light hike to the castle overlooking the town. At this point, the sun broke through the clouds, glistening over the waters of the lake, and showing us a bit of the lovely day that was to come.

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After this, we went and grabbed lunch (we had pizza, pasta and gnocchi) before meeting the tour back at the bus. Next, we traveled by bus to Malcesine, a town on the banks of the lake. By this time, the weather had cleared up and we had a great time exploring the castle there, which overlooks much of the lake. Apparently, this lake is great to swim in when it’s warm, and I really hope I get the chance to come back next summer.

Finally, just recently, one of the LCT students who has a car took us to the mountains. On the way up, we saw a church literally built into a cliffside. It was really funny to see a normal building inside a cliff. It was almost like the stone was trying to gobble it up.

Afterwards, we went on a ~10km hike high up in the mountains, called Forra del Lupo/Wolfsschlucht (Wolf’s Gorge). The hike went up hill most of the way, sometimes getting somewhat steep (but never so steep that you had to climb). We reached the Forra del Lupo part sometime in the middle. It was a deep crevice in the hillside, with built up stone overlooks before and after it. Afterwards, we kept hiking until we ended up at the very top of the mountain (at around 1600m elevation, if I recall correctly). At the top was an old WWII fort made of white stone. Unfortunately, it was at this point that my broken-ish phone, finally gave out, so I couldn’t take as many pictures as I would have liked. However, it’s not a great loss– no picture can capture these breathtaking views.

Costs

The costs over the last 5 weeks are insanely high. This is probably the most I’ve spent in any single month in all my life (except for once when I bought a fancy computer). Move in costs to the new apartment were crazy (a lot of it is a deposit that we will hopefully get back), but our family helped us with a good chunk of them. I also traveled a fair amount, so that added to it. Finally, there’s two of us now, and that makes food and stuff more expensive. You always forget how much it costs to buy all those little things (e.g. cups/plates, blankets, towels, etc.) that you need when you are in an actual apartment, and how much it takes to start off with a nice full pantry.

Note: Below is just what I spent. My husband spent some of his own money as well. We don’t share any bank accounts, so I will probably continue to report on only my own spending, since it’s just easier.

  • €122 – public transport (50 for a pass, the rest before I got the pass)
  • €403 – travel to Rovereto at the start, travel to Bologna, and some smaller trips
  • €111 – dining out
  • €233 – groceries
  • €302 – stuff for the apartment,
  • €49 – phone is extra high due to no internet at home and making tons of calls
  • €1890 – rent, deposit, Internet, apartment fees
  • Total: €1220 + €1890 = €3110

Officialization 2: Apartment

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The view from our new apartment.

Officialization TOC

  1. Officialization 1: WTF comes next in Italy?
  2. Officialization 2: Apartment <– You are here.
  3. Officialization 3: Internet
  4. Officialization 4: Stay Permit, part I
  5. Officialization 5: Picking Courses
  6. Officialization 6: Stay Permit, part II
  7. Officialization 7: TV Tax
  8. Officialization 8: Stay Permit, part III

Apartment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Costs:

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