When I first arrived in Italy I wrote about how I’d missed chaos. I can now say that I have had enough chaos and that I am looking forward to all things orderly. Don’t get me wrong, Italy is a stunningly beautiful country, with cheap, fresh, delicious food and architecture that you can’t get enough of. A wonderful place to visit, but living here gets exhausting (i.e. due to crazy university paperwork bureaucracy). It’s too hot. The humidity is so high that it feels like 40°C and we are rendered incapacitated. All of the time. Never have I wanted the North Sea so much.
Living in Italy does make you popular however. I’ve had at least 6 friends come to visit, as well as my mum, in these past few months. I’ve visited Venice and the beautiful islands of Murano and Burano where the houses are painted like Balamory, and they make garish glass objects that people seem to go crazy for. I saw Trento and it’s Science Museum, where I got to pretend to be a gravitational wave, and I ate pasta in Bologna and was disappointed. (Bologna also has a lot of beautiful construction work on offer right now.)
I saw the opera, Aida, in the Arena in Verona. An unannounced storm drenched everyone who had arrived early, eager for the best seats. The show started an hour late, after the rain finally stopped and an army branded with kitchen towel mopped everything up. We sat shivering to the bone for the next 3 hours in our fancy attire as dancers and singers appeared in ever increasingly elaborate costumes. The set was also immense, and must have cost an absolute fortune. The girl who played Aida was a phenomenal singer, able to reach every high note both quietly and with such clarity, whilst still managing to fill the arena. In the distance the storm raged on, lightening flashes enticed our eyes away from the opera, demanding attention. And the moon, oh the moon so bright and brilliant as it appeared from behind the clouds whenever it so desired. Afterwards, we found a restaurant for warmth and food until closing time, then sat drinking wine by the river until the first train came to return us to home and to sleep.
I also visited Rome, but it is not the place for me. It is an outrageously big city with buses that never come, or when they do they don’t go anywhere useful. Said buses are also filled with men who like to grope women. I don’t know if I just have bad luck, but it happened to me three times. Some men try and do it more discreetly than others, but we can still tell what you are doing as you shift your crotch further and further into my personal space thinking we won’t notice. We are not stupid. It’s an utterly awful, helpless feeling, because no matter how much you thought you were a strong woman who could simply yell and curse and push such a person away, when the moment comes you’re not who you thought you would be. Instead you just stand there and take it, waiting, hoping, pleading for it to be over, for it to go away. The fact that you couldn’t stand up for yourself makes you feel even worse. I was lucky in that I had friends with me, who realised what was going on and switched places with me. I don’t want to imagine the scenario in which they weren’t there. Groping aside, at least I got to go inside the Colosseum for free.
The AstroMundus retreat was hosted by the Gran Sasso Science Institute this year. We stayed in the town of L’Aquila, known for the earthquake of 2009. We met the students from the year above us, who presented their research and gave us advice for our futures. We discussed with potential supervisors about potential projects for our thesis. Dinner consisted of red wine, a starter, 2 main courses (the first is pasta, the second, meat), then dessert. We couldn’t breathe. All in all our days started at 8am and finished at 10pm; we had lectures and a tour of the Gran Sasso lab, deep in the mountain. It was cold, and we were unprepared. There are several experiments going on, mostly trying to find evidence of Dark Matter. I couldn’t help but wonder, what if we never find it, what if it doesn’t even exist? Or at least in the way that we think it might… We hiked up to the top of Gran Sasso, all the more rewarding after a very late night and basically no sleep. A captivating view, even more so with the accompanying cool breeze.
My favourite place in Italy is Bassano del Grappa. Yes, it’s where grappa comes from, although I don’t go there to drink grappa. Instead they have a drink called mezzo e mezzo (half and half), which I simply cannot get enough of. It’s their equivalent of aperol spritz in Padova, or campari spritz in Venice, but with rhubarb! Maybe I love Bassano so much because of the mountains, so close in the distance. The river, still retaining some of the vivid teal colour it had back in Innsbruck. The best of Austria (nature) and the best of Italy (food and architecture) combined.
The following is somewhat a rant about exams, so you’ll probably want to stop reading now.
The hardest thing to adjust to has been the style of education, it’s like nothing I have ever encountered. We haven’t had any tutorials, no homework problems, and my poor calculator is feeling very lonely. I can’t remember how to differentiate or integrate. Instead we learn all of the theory. We learn and we learn and we learn, every little detail, off by heart, and then we regurgitate. I failed my first exam. And then I failed my second one too. I began to wonder if I’d ever pass an exam again.
Then help came to the rescue! Help was offered and I accepted with the uttermost gratitude. My friend coached me for hours and hours, before each exam. I got full marks. I almost burst into tears in front of the lecturer when she told me, so she offered me a lower grade out of concern. I kindly accepted the former. The next few exams I also passed, things were looking up. Not that grades really account for much, I feel like the grades are based entirely on intuition, there’s no marking scheme.
For the first time in my life I’ve had oral exams, I had no idea what to expect, and I still don’t because every exam has been so different. Often we give the exam in front of the whole class. The worst part is being in the audience, when you know the answer, and all you want to do is scream it out, while you watch the person suffering and stumbling and struggling through the one of the worst halves of an hour of their lives.
One exam, by the name of Galaxy Dynamics, will probably go down as being the hardest exam in history. I took the exam four times until I eventually passed. And by the fourth time I really knew everything there was to know, from Euler’s equation to violent relaxation to Clausius’ virial, all derivations included. And yet he still always managed to ask me what I didn’t know, in some cruel twist of fate. But I scraped a pass and was happy to have it done with. Hopefully my last two exams won’t be as bad.
So what can I take from all of this? A lot. AstroMundus teaches us to be resilient, adaptable, forgiving, and many other adjectives. But that doesn’t stop me from counting down the days for exams to be over – forever – so that I can finally do some research.