By sylvie on October 13, 2013
I am a firm believer in the idea that if you are living somewhere, you should sample as much of the local culture as possible. When I lived in Australia, I was a big Aussie-rules football fan (and would still be, except it’s really hard to see footie outside of Aus). Now that we are in Italy, I was determined to try opera.
Let me start by saying that while I love classical music, I have never been a fan of opera. Unlike André, I don’t have a thing for beautiful voices, and not being able to understand what is going on when I am looking at something has always annoyed me. So pretty much the only operas I would willingly submit myself to were French ones (that is, Carmen and the French operettas) and even then, I wouldn’t say that I made much of an effort to go see one (but I have been to a couple, once in Australia even).
But we are in Italy, the Land of Opera, and I felt it behooved me to at least go once to an opera house. And while I would love to go to La Scala just for the experience, it would mean doing a weekend in Milano, which neither of us seems very interested in doing (and I am pretty sure it will turn out to be impossible to get tickets for La Scala). Another good choice would be to go to the opera in Verona, where it is held in the Roman Amphitheater. In fact, they were having a Verdi season this summer and we kept telling ourselves, let’s go! But we just never got ourselves organized and the first thing we knew, the season was over.
Then André proposed that we attend the operas in the local theater. In fact, he wanted to do the whole season, which, it turned out, was just four operas. I would have preferred just one, but I supposed I could do four, especially since they were all of them classics and none of this post-modern atonic stuff. Also, for opera, the price was amazingly reasonable. So I agreed. I can definitely do one opera every few months.
Slight bonus: two of the operas are in Trento and two in Bolzano. For a small fee, we could get bussed to and fro Bolzano for the opera. So we paid the extra 20 euros for that.
The operas are Il Barbiere di Siviglia, L’Elisir d’Amore, La Bohème, and Il Flauto Magico.
Well, yesterday was the barber of Seville. I must take pictures of the Teatro Sociale because it is special. It is a tiny theater but with five stories of galleries in addition to the parterre. We had two seats on the second floor, in a side box. Not the most comfortable of places as it was hard to see our side of the scene without sticking our head out of the box. Also, I don’t know if it was because of the particular angle of where we were, but the orchestra playing at full force would almost always drown out the voices of the singers, which was a pity.
Be that as it may, I thoroughly enjoyed myself. I don’t know if it was the fact that I was having trouble accepting the fact that I was in Italy in an opera house listening to opera (something I never thought I would ever have an opportunity to do), or the fact that my Italian has progressed enough that I now was able to understand, not everything, but bits and pieces here and there (and then they would start singing fast and I would just drift off into enjoying the music and not bother with trying to understand), or the scenography that was clever and made us laugh several times, but I really had a great time. Me. Having a great time at the opera. Whodathunkit?
By sylvie on October 7, 2013
One year ago, we were arriving in Rome to eventually make our way to Trento and a new chapter in our lives. So how have things shaped up in that time?
I love my new job. It is wonderful to work with a team that is big enough to resolve programming issues without me having to try my hand at crappy coding. I love my colleagues and sincerely enjoy their company. The project itself is very interesting, as we build apps that are meant to be useful to the local communities.
Beyond the project itself, I love being in a university setting again. I had forgotten how much I enjoy the intellectual stimulation that comes from frequenting smart young people. Plus, the University of Trento has an excellent reputation and so attracts lots of good students.
My only regret is that this is only a two-year contract and we’re already at the halfway mark. How did that happen?
If you enjoy living in smaller cities, as I do, then you will understand why I love Trento. It is small enough to be easily visited in a day (unless you include all the suburbs) and while it does not offer the same level of tourist-y sites that a city like Verona does, that just means that we have much fewer tourists invading our city. Except at Christmas time, when people come here for the Christmas Market, and then it’s hardly walkable in the historical city center. Sigh. How do the other cities in Italy manage?
In spite of its small size, though, Trento has plenty of interesting activities going on all year long, whether cultural, social, or just plain marketwise. This summer, for example, there were free rock concerts every Tuesday. This autumn, we will be attending four different operas (two of which will be held in Bolzano). I particularly love the little markets that they set up every once in a while. There, you will find stalls for all sorts of local products, such as foods from all over Italy.
In addition, Trento is situated in the pre-Alps, which means that we are surrounded by mountains and our vistas are of even bigger mountains. For someone who grew up in the flat plain of Montreal, the local scenery is exotic and gorgeous. I just cannot get enough of looking at mountains.
Trento is situated in the North-Eastern part of Italy, so day trips up to now have all been around this area. While it is not as well situated for these kinds of trips as Verona - which is a major train station, housing trains going east-west and north-south - it is still fairly easy to get to some interesting towns and cities in the region. Up to now, we have visited the following places:
- Firenze (Florence)
- Venezia (Venice)
- Bolzano (aka Bozen in German, as it is in the German-speaking area of Italy)
- Riva del Garda
- Monte Bondone
- Monte Terlago
Of course, nothing is perfect, and in Italy, the major source of frustration for foreigners is the bureaucratic paperwork that needs to be done. This is especially painful when you have just arrived and speak nary a word of the local language.
On the other hand, the local comune is very enthusiastic about ensuring that foreigners do speak the language and so it is possible to follow amazingly cheap adult Italian classes.
The Country and the People
Italy is, well, it’s Italy. It is full of the most amazing paintings and architecture, and the hordes of tourists who come to visit them. And yet, in spite of this, the Italians are amazingly humble. How often have locals asked me why I would want to learn their language, as though the fact that it’s not as widely used as English or Spanish should be more important than the fact that I am here and would like to converse with people in their native tongue. Plus, you know, the more languages you know, the richer you are intellectually. Plus, the fact that I have wanted to learn how to speak Italian since I was a teenager.
The other thing that surprises me with the local population is how polite they are. Not only do they refuse to teach us how to swear in Italian (and for a French Québécoise whose vocabulary is liberally sprinkled with juicy swear words, this is frustrating), but they are more respectful in buses than Canadians. That’s right, Canada, you are being out-polited by Italians.
Italian people, young and old, will spontaneously get up and give their place to the elderly or the handicapped. If someone has a young child, they will give up their place for the young child. I never realized how jaded I had become about being polite in the bus until I came here. I just want to hug everyone and tell them never to change. (I have no idea if this is just a local phenomenon or if they are like that in other cities.)
Italians are very proud of their food and I have even heard someone claim that the Italian cuisine is superior to the French cuisine. Well, I am of French descent, so I have to politely disagree. Not that I don’t love the food here. When it is well done, it is marvelous. But it does tend to get somewhat repetitive.
Maybe this is one of those cases where living in Trento is to the disadvantage of the student of the culinary arts. The local food is heavily influenced by the fact that this region was under Austrian rule for centuries: bland wurstel sausages, polenta, wild mountain animal meats, and so forth, typical of the region, are not foods that one would normally associate with Italian cuisine. Of course, there is pasta and pizza galore, and you can even find a couple of seafood restaurants. But the many “typical Trentino” restaurants all serve similar dishes, and while I do enjoy them, I also would like to eat something new once in a while. It does not help that the few “foreign cuisine” restaurants are either Indian, Chinese/sushi bars, or doner stands. Also, there is a Mexican restaurant and a new one that purports to be of American cuisine. What I wouldn’t give for an actual, real Greek or French restaurant here. Sigh.
The Weather and the Ecosystem
When I was living in Australia, I enjoyed myself a lot too. But there was one thing that I found despairing after several years. It wasn’t the heat or the overabundance of dangerous animals. It was the gray-greenness of the local eucalyptus trees. When you have grown up in a country where gray-green leaves signal a dying tree, being surrounded by these eucalyptus trees was sending the wrong message to my brain.
Trento, however, has an ecosystem where the trees are somewhat similar to those in Canada and the leaves are, for me, in the correct shades of green, enough that I do not feel displaced, even if the palm trees still throw me for a loop.
On the bird side, well, we’re still having trouble identifying the local species, probably because we haven’t gone out specifically for birdwatching except once. I think it’s because when we decide to go visit something, it always turns out to be a city. I call this phenomenon “there are too many things to see in Italy!”.
As well, the weather is somewhat similar to that which we experience in Canada. Yes, the summer was a heckuva lot hotter (40 degrees Celsius? I’m melting!). But on the plus side, the winter was much cooler than Canada’s, and we hardly had any snow in Trento (although if you wanted to go skiing, there was enough snow in the local mountains to get your sport on).
Of all the cities we could have ended up in in Italy, I am glad it was Trento. The weather is a bit cool for Italy but quite enjoyable (at least if you are Canadian), the views are spectacular, the people are amazingly nice, and the city is small enough to feel intimate while still offering plenty of things to do.
Yes, I am still struggling with the language, but I can tell that I am making progress. While I find it hard to follow normal conversations, I can pick out enough words to start getting an idea of what is being talked about (even if most of the time I wouldn’t be able to give you an accurate description of the content). I can read well enough to get a good idea of the content of the local newspaper. I can, with a lot of thinking, speak short sentences. I just need to expand my vocabulary more and that means more studying. My hope and plan is that by the end of this two year contract, I will be able to hold proper conversations with people.
My professional life is very satisfying. I really like the people I work with and I feel as though the project we are working on could really make a difference.
Even though we both miss our Canadian and American friends and families, both André and I love it here and keep making plans on what we would do if I manage to get another contract.
By sylvie on October 4, 2013
Yesterday, we distributed 100 smartphones to Antonella di Angeli’s HCI class. And we were still short of approximately 5 phones. As you can imagine, it was a bit of a hectic scene, although we did split the class in two to make distribution easier.
This morning, I arrived to over 200 new messages in my inbox. That’s just our system automatically generating two different messages to all of the new users. Still it was a bit of a shock this morning to see my inbox overflowing like that.
One of the tasks these students will have is to select one friend from outside of the Computer Science department and nominate them for a smartphone so that they can work together on design problems. So that will be another 100 students to add to the trial.
Should be interesting!
By sylvie on October 2, 2013
A bit over 15 years ago, I decided that it was time to get a dog. I was living in my parents’ home as my dad had gone to live with his lady friend and while they were trying to sell it, they wanted someone staying there. But the house was very empty with just me rattling around in it and so one day, we went to a no-kill shelter on the South Shore of Montreal. The second dog I met was this big ball of white fur that trotted up to me, put its front paws on my stomach, and said, hey there, stranger, I would really like to be your best friend. And I said, yes, let’s be best friends forever. And as we drove back home, he curled up right next to me and put his head on my lap and slept like that, very contented.
I renamed this already-by-then three-year old dog Odin, after the Nordic god. At first, I was a bit disappointed because he never barked and I had wanted a dog to feel more secure, among other reasons. But it was just a question of time before Odin decided that this really was his home and when he began barking, well, he would bark at anything he saw crossing the street in front of the house. And coming towards the house. And leaving the region of the house. After all, he was part terrier.
A few weeks after I bought Odin into my life, I met André. The two of them bonded almost immediately and thus we became a family.
Odin was never the brightest of dogs (I was never able to teach him to sit on command, no matter how often I tried), but he compensated through his affectionate personality. He loved people. He loved getting pettings, he loved snuggling up against you, he loved to go up to strangers and say “hi!”. But mostly, he loved car rides.
We called him the “chien de char” (car-crazy dog). Any car door that was open was an invitation for getting in, even if it wasn’t our car. It was for him that I suggested we go camping for our vacations, as we could then bring him everywhere with us without worrying about whether a hotel would accept him or not.
André and Odin had a game that they loved to play: hide and go seek, or rather run after each other, then hide and go seek. André would run after Odin, Odin would run after André, and they would change sides like this. Usually, when the man was chasing the dog, Odin would come up to me and “stand his ground” there, barking, ready for another round of chase. In the middle of the game, André would use the moments when Odin was running up to me to go hide somewhere (e.g., behind the door in the bathroom). Then I would call to Odin to find André and off the dog would go, looking here and there. At some point, he would either find André or André would jump out from his hiding place to scare him and then there would be another round of running around the house.
It has been a long while since the two of them have played the game. Odin has been progressively losing strength in his back legs for several months now and wasn’t even interested in going for walks, much less running.
Yesterday evening, Odin couldn’t get up anymore. I tried putting him on his paws a couple of times but all he did was stand fraily for a few seconds and then fall back down.
I am writing this as we wait for the vet clinic to open up. It will be his last visit there.
By sylvie on June 4, 2013
I don’t know about you, but I love animated gifs. But since this blog is supposed to be my professional blog, I’ve started a parallel Tumblr one which is just for fun: Being a stranger in Italy.
Also, it gives me an excuse to try out Tumblr.
The plan is just to put up silly images, so don’t expect anything profound.
By sylvie on May 25, 2013
At our latest Italian class, the teacher told the whole class how we had done some great progress in understanding. But then she turned towards me and André and basically said that we needed to practice talking.
She is right, of course. André’s Italian doesn’t seem to have changed much since the first day we started, with him just mixing English and a bit of Italian and calling it a day. As to me, I am too embarrassed by my lack of vocabulary to speak much.
Yesterday, we went to a “birthdays” party - it just so happens that several members of the HCI research group are born in April and May - and, fueled with a bit of wine, I made some rather pathetic attempts at speaking. It must be frustrating to the Italians to listen to me speak, as this is the process I use. First I think of what I want to say in French, since the sentence structure in French and in Italian is almost the same (which cannot be said for English and Italian). Then I painstakingly take each word, figure out what its italian equivalent is and try it out loud (with the Italians helpfully correcting me as I go). Eventually, I hit a word that I don’t know and just say it in English. After a couple of sentences like this, I finally collapse in a corner from sheer exhaustion.
And when the Italians speak to me in their native tongue, I mostly go, “ripitare più lentamento per favore”.
You have no idea how frustrating it can be to try to learn a new language and see how easy it seems to be for everyone else. Sigh.
By sylvie on May 25, 2013
When I first learned that Liz Lawley, who was spending a semester teaching at Dubrovnik, was going to end her stay in Europe with a quick trip through Italy, I got very excited and begged her to come visit us in Trento. It’s not often that you get to see old friends when you’re living far from home. When she said yes, I began plotting like a machiavellian prince.
You see, I know that Liz is a great speaker. And I know that the project that she has been working on for the past few years, Just Press Play, has been a successful attempt at engaging university students. Now it just so happens that, not only is Smart Campus also about engaging university students, but the Smart Campus team has been organizing a weekly set of seminars. While our approach is somewhat different from the playful design approach that Liz and her team have been using, it seemed to me that there were enough similarities that we could learn something of interest. In addition, several computer science students here are interested in games and game mechanics, and this would be a great opportunity for them to see an application of game mechanics to the real world as described by one of the big names in the American scene of games research.
By the way, I love the new term that the Rochester folks are using: playful design. So much nicer than gamification, don’t you think?
Anyway, once I had come to the conclusion that having Liz speak here would be a great idea, I started the wheels rolling on making it happen. Wouldn’t it be great if this well-known American professor would come tell us about her experiences with games and gamification? Liz, would you mind giving a talk about Just Press Play to the folks here?
I felt a bit guilty about asking Liz to do some work while she was on her Italian vacation. Bad enough that I was making her and her son come to Trento, which is on the travel list of pretty much nobody in North America. (Which is a pity, because it’s nice here, although on the other hand, we don’t have much to offer unless you’re interested in ecclesiastical history.) But Liz was nice enough to say yes to both coming here and giving a speech at the University of Trento. And so that is what she did yesterday.
It was, I think, a resounding success. Liz was up to her usual standards with regards to communicating her obvious enthusiasm about her research. I had seen part of her presentation before, but this one went deeper into both what had worked and what hadn’t worked. It was quite fascinating. From a few conversations I had afterwards, people had taken to heart what she had to say and were reconsidering how to integrate game play into their projects. And there might be some longer term ramifications which would be really interesting.
All in all, I think this was one of my more brilliant ideas.
By sylvie on April 28, 2013
Nous avons pu observer quelques oiseaux sur le lac Garda même si nous n’avions ni nos jumelles, ni nos livres d’identification.
- Foulque macroule (Fulica atra) - lifer pour André
- Colvert (Anas platyrhynchos)
- Grèbe huppé (Podiceps cristatus) - lifer européen pour moi et André
- Cygne tuberculé (Cygnus olor) - lifer européen pour moi et André
Nous avons aussi vu un fuligule mais nous étions trop loin pour l’identifier.