Placement blogs

Faculty of Humanities & Social Sciences' students share their placement and year abroad experiences.

Tagged: Italy

Year Abroad IV – moving to Siena, Italy

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📥  2016-17, Politics, Languages & International Studies

Siena, Italy                                                    March, 2017

Buongiorno a tutti! Long time, no see. I have now started the second part of my Year Abroad – my study exchange in Siena, Italy.

Why Siena?

I decided I wanted to do a study exchange rather than a work placement in Italy because I wanted to try out both options. I felt quite confident with my Italian before coming to Italy but I thought spending the spring and summer months as a student in this beautiful country would be the dream – good weather, amazing food and a lot of young people.

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The University of Bath has study partnerships with five different Italian universities: Naples, Rome, Trento, Parma and Siena. When applying for a place, we had to shortlist the destinations to three, so I took it to the Internet and final years’ experience (pro tip – you should totally ask year abroad returners about their experiences, they will be happy to help you out retelling their [hopefully] amazing time abroad from a student’s point of view!) to narrow the list down to three. First of all, I was looking at the size of the destination. I did not want to go to Rome because, as a capital city, I deemed it too large and probably quite expensive for only six months. Remember, I come from a tiny island, Tenerife, and Bath isn’t what you’d describe as a big city either… Naples was a similar case. It seems to be renowned for not being the safest city in Italy which threw me off. In contrast, the location and fact that it is the only coastal place in the list was very appealing, but the cons outnumbered the pros. Then I looked at connections. Trento was soon discarded because I could not even find how to easily arrive there. I’ve been told it’s beautiful and picturesque, but I’m planning on travelling around the country so having good travel connections was very important. And then I was left with two options: Siena or Parma. Both cities quite student-y and of similar size; connections seemed to be equal too, so my choice came down to the region they were in. Eventually I went for Siena because of its history: a very ‘Italian’ looking city with lots of narrow alleys and a wall surrounding the historic centre.

Siena is a medieval town, Florence’s life-long enemy and UNESCO Wold Heritage Site just like Bath (cannot stay away from beautiful cities apparently), in the Italian region of Tuscany. It’s mostly famous for Il Palio, a horse race between the contradas or neighbourhoods of the Old City, held twice a year in the Piazza del Campo. There are two different Universities and it is a very touristy city with masses of tourists arriving each day (even now in the winter), which reminds me greatly of Bath. Inside the city walls, all the buildings have that typical Tuscan look: tall windows and red bricks, along with the laundry hanging to dry under the window sills. I must say I have fallen in love with this (extremely hilly) place and I’m quite happy with my choice.

I'm in love with the style of the houses!

I'm in love with the style of the houses!

My arrival & finding accommodation

I moved to Italy late January, since I was yet to find somewhere to live and had signed up for an intensive Italian course in February to pick up my Italian again, and will stay here until July. The trip to get to Siena was long but went fine. I was quite worried I’d lose my suitcase during the short layover at the airport in Madrid, but I was lucky and my luggage got here just fine. It was a long journey - two flights and a couple of buses and taxi ride-, but I feel like I’ve mastered travelling by now. I had to fly from Tenerife to Madrid and from there to Florence. To arrive in Siena from Florence there are two options: a bus or a train journey with change in Empoli, so I went for the easier bus option – make sure you get the one along the autostrada or highway, shorter and less curvy!

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I’d booked an Airbnb near the Duomo for the first two weeks while I looked for a flat; perfect location a minute from the Piazza and very comfortable since I had the apartment basically all to myself! I would recommend doing this when moving to a new place: find an Airbnb or hotel for a week at least while you look for long-term accommodation once you’ve arrived. Things look so much different in person and this way you’ll avoid scams (I was sadly victim of one before arriving, so please don’t make the same mistake and make sure you look at the place in person before paying anything). I must say, it was hard to find a flat. Since I’d arrived so early the first semester Erasmus students were still around with exams, so their places were not available yet. In addition, a lot of landlords do not seem to like Erasmus students because of the short-term contracts, which limited the options. It has been even worse for male students, as most adds I saw were for female student and camera doppia which means a room-share. I was looking for a central apartment where I could have a single room and I had been doing research from home, sending tonnes of messages to book viewings with little luck. I used webs like uniaffiti, easystanza and housinganywhere. Eventually I managed to get a viewing that was really promising and that ended up being my actual flat. I live in the centre, in the Contrada del Drago, and I couldn’t be happier! Siena is quite small so you can walk everywhere. I’d recommend looking for a place within the walls, because everything happens inside the historical centre, but if you end up outside it’s not much of a big deal either. Also, make sure you actively look for a place; not only messaging online but talking to everybody you meet in the street as I know of people who got lucky because they met someone who knew of an available room. And, above all, don’t give up!

Taking an intensive language course

Concerning the language course I took, I have mixed feelings. Before arriving here we were offered a mostly subsidised Italian language course (75euro) by the Universtà degli Studi: either intensive in February or ordinary between March and April. I went for the February one since I had the time and it would allow me to sort out accommodation before the start of the semester in March.

If you’re going on a study exchange, I’d recommend doing a language course if available just to make sure you’ll be able to follow the lectures. While I was in France I barely got to speak any Italian so my skills had become rusty from being out of use since June. I do think doing the course has eased me back into speaking Italian confidently and has definitely tuned my ear.

However, I found the quality of the course at the Università degli Stranieri (the course is in the other University; my exchange is with the Università degli Studi), to be quite disappointing. We had to do a language level placement test at the start, after which I was placed in C1 level. I was accurately placed since the OLS test results also classed me as C1. However, I don’t know if it was because of the higher level or the timing, the group I was assigned was a mix of international students out of which I was the only Erasmus, contrary to first semester students’ experience. Also, I believe we (the other Bath students and I) were put into ordinary lessons not the intensive course we’d signed up to. Anyhow, we had four and a half hours of Italian lessons a day for three weeks. In my class we did a lot of reading and debating, but not much grammar. I found some of the topics interesting, such as language and dialects in Italy or the economy. However, I do not feel like it was worth the money or the time overall. A week would’ve been enough for me. Everybody was really nice and I met quite a few people in the course, which was great, but if I were to condense the new things I learnt over the course, they’d come up to an hour and a half, maybe two hours-worth of lessons… I did the end test a couple of days ago and all it involved was writing a ‘for and against’ essay (250 words minimum) about social networks and we were given two hours and a half and a dictionary. Talk about challenging… Either this was really easy, or Bath is really demanding.

Overall, it will depend on who offers the language course. Here in Siena it could definitely improve. For lower levels like A2 or B1 I imagine it will be a lot more useful since you’ll be taught actual grammar along cultural topics. For higher levels like me, the experience might vary. I do nonetheless recommend searching for a short course before starting, particularly if you haven’t been able to practice the language during your other half of Year Abroad.

Day trip to Florence.

Day trip to Florence.

Despite the unsatisfactory experience of the course, I’ve really enjoyed the time I’ve spent in Siena thus far. The place is smaller than I anticipated, but now that the lectures have started life has got busier.  I’ve been using my time to run errands and sort out most of the paperwork, as well as exploring the city and surrounding area. I feel like I’ve got a grasp on the situation by now thanks to that extra time. Since I had to change modules and send Erasmus paperwork, I’m glad I arrived earlier and have had plenty of time to sort it out before getting caught up in lectures and module work. I must say the Italian system is nothing like the English one. We’ve had to chase down quite a few people to get the papers signed – it has been quite an adventure – and I expect this is the usual process in this country. My piece of advice? Be patient but persistent, and don’t stress out.

I will be writing another blog entry on the Erasmus paperwork and Welcome Week in Siena because the whole process definitely deserves one on its own, so keep your eyes peeled!

Ci vediamo presto!

Zoe

Day trip to San Gimignano.

Day trip to San Gimignano.

 

What living in Italy has taught me…apart from Italian.

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📥  2014-15, Politics, Languages & International Studies

 

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1). What culture actually means and actually how British I am.

I always thought that I felt pretty Italian, I mean my Dad is from Rome and my mum speaks it fluently. I grew up on Italian cuisine, always  being excited to go and stay at my dad’s because I knew we would be eating a feast! (even if it wouldn’t be ready until like 9pm) I’ve also been to visit my Nonna in Rome a few times over the years so it’s not like I haven’t experienced the Italian culture before. But actually living here is a very different matter. Day in day out of pasta and Italians rapid chatter and really really unreliable transport is just a little bit too much after a while, so I found myself longing for the rolling green countryside of the UK and our silly, but nice over-politeness.

I found myself missing things that I never even realised were such an important part of my life in England. Now that I’m writing them down, it sounds kind of silly, but I really missed being able to have a proper cup of tea, just whacking the kettle on (not having to boil the water in a pan for aaaages). I even started taking my own milk and teabags into work! #desperatetimesdesperatemeasures.

And although I love love love Italian food, I mean In England you would find me with a ciabatta stuffed with prosciutto and rocket rather than a ham sandwhich, I began to miss British food. Potatoes, pies, roast dinners, burgers and even Nandos (the honour of my first meal of my first time back in England was actually given to Nandos, please don’t judge).

But this is just food and drink! You might say, but surprisingly it does make a big difference!

However, I also began to realize something else… The way Italians behave and think is completely different.

Obviously I can’t speak for 100 percent of the population, as with anything,  but for the majority, that stereotype  of families being closer is true.  It’s also true that Italians stay with their parents until much later- one of my colleagues only moved out last year when she got married and she’s 30!

Overall I’ve found the culture to be much more traditional, and perhaps in a way a bit more restrictive, for woman especially.  I’ve found that I don’t really agree with a lot of things and I find it quite suffocating at times (e.g when Italians are shocked when I travel around at night by myself, night as in 10pm). What can I say, I like my independence! But that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s wrong and I respect the differences, however it’s clearly shown me that my values are definitely British! And actually how deep “culture” actually goes.

2). To be prepared for anything!

Honestly I feel like anything could happen in Italy. Even when you’ve planned it down to a T, the unexpected will just completely throw your perfect plan out of the window. It’s advisable to have a plan B, and C and maybe even D…just in case. I can’t count the number of times I’ve gone to take a train or bus and there’s been a strike, always when I need to get somewhere important too like oh I don’t know the airport! Also expect trains to be canceled without reason or notice and nice restaurants you’ve taken the time to research to be closed! Basically you just need to be able to think on your feet, which I can certainly do now!

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3). To Keep Calm and Carry On.

This is linked to the previous one. Seeing aso many things have gone wrong, it makes sense that after a while you get used to it. So now instead of going into panic mode, I just remember that it’s not something I can control and it’s definitely not my fault so what’s the point of stressing? So maybe I’ll be a little bit late, but hey it’s Italy so it’s allowed (I think the public transport situation might have something to do with it!).

4). To go outside my comfort zone

I am naturally a quiet person, especially with people I don’t know so going off to meet new people isn’t exactly one of my favorite things to do, let alone going to meet a whole bunch of them by myself. But I did it because I had to. Living in a small town outside of Milan, it wasn’t always easy to meet people, especially because I had chosen to work full time in an office.  So I really had to make an extra effort and just ignore the fact that it was a little bit scary. I did all the things I could think of like going to an English conversation meet up and meeting people from a website called Conversation Exchange (yeah meeting people off the internet, pretty scary!). But you know, it was worth it because I have made some great friends, that I know I will keep in contact with.

And of course all this is on top of improving my Italian, which I can tell (if I do say so myself) has got a whole lot better. I wouldn’t say I’m fluent, I feel like I probably need another year  or two for that, but I know  a heap of vocab, like the ones that you’d  just never learn but take for granted in English like “My bike has a flat tyre”. I don’t have to think so much when I speak and I feel like I can speak more natural Italian, the kind of phrases that you can only pick up from living in a country.

Most of all though, I have just got so much more confident in speaking Italian. I realized that making mistakes wasn’t such a big deal, the most important thing is to communicate!

So really in 7 months I have learnt a lot! Hopefully the next 4/5 months in Vienna will be the same!

 

The end of Year Abroad part 1.

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📥  2014-15, Politics, Languages & International Studies

This time next week will be my last day at work.

I can’t believe I just said that.

I mean, I knew it was always going to come to this, that at some point I would have to say goodbye to everyone, pack up all my things (things that might not fit in one suitcase anymore) and leave the country I have called home for 7 months...

But it just feels weird. I've gotten so used to living and working here I can’t imagine being anywhere else.

It will be weird not cycling to work every day, braving the cold and the rain and the crazy Italian drivers.

It will be weird not arriving at the office and having a morning espresso with my colleagues.

It will be weird not speaking Italian anymore! (I hope I don’t forget it!)

It will also be kind of weird moving to a whole new city and starting again (again). But, at least this time around I feel a lot more prepared and I know what to expect. Besides, if I can live in Italy, and deal with all the unexpected things that happen (trust me there are a lot) I can definitely live in Vienna right?

Because sometimes things have been quite hard here, from feeling lonely to issues with transport (seems to be a strike every month and always when I need to get somewhere i.e the airport).

It has also been quite hard living in the tiny town where I live, because it's tricky to get around and if I want to go out in Milan, I always have to stay at a friend’s because there is no transport late at night. But they always say, you have to make the most of it and I think I have really tried to do that.

Ok so maybe I have moaned a bit along the way, especially when I have found myself running in panic for the last train/bus but I don’t think you can feel guilty for letting out your frustrations once in a while…it’s only human!

It’s also been hard being away from family and friends and especially my boyfriend. And I found myself missing England waaay more than I expected. Really it was just the little things, like the rolling green countryside or cadbury’s hot chocolate (I really hate Italian hot chocolate it’s all thick and gloopy) but I think they really make a difference, something which I only noticed when I was gone!

So I really indulged in these things when I went home for Christmas. It was just nice being back because I had some time to relax too as usually I work 40 hours a week, that’s a 9 to 6 day FYI. So I spent two wonderful weeks lazing around, eating my weight in chocolate and all the British food I could (mainly involving burgers, curry and nandos).

I was enjoying being back so much that I almost didn’t want to come back to Italy.

Italy may be il bel paese, the home of la dolce vita and possibly the best cuisine in the world (just my bias opinion guys sorry) but nothing really compares with home.

But I was motivated by the fact I only had one month left after I returned before I left for Vienna. One month to do all the things I hadn’t yet done! And to eat all the Pizza and Gelato I could before it was no longer so easy to come by. Naturally I have a bucket list which includes seeing the cenacolo (the last supper by the one and only Leonardo Da Vinci in Milan) and visiting Bologna and Firenze, which I am ticking off in one go this weekend!

As I’m reading this, it kind of makes it seem that I don’t like Italy, which is totally not true, it’s just that it’s not as easy to live here as sun-filled holidays would make you believe and the full time working life is tough!

Going from being a student with an abundance of free hours a day (of course after going to lectures and studying ahem) to working 9 to 6 every day in the week, is quite hard to get your head around at first and kind of exhausting! You also have to realize that no you can’t go out on a Monday night, or leave the house in a mess (not that my Uni house was that messy anyway but I ended up living with some middle aged Italian women here who were slight clean freaks).

So I have at times really missed being a student, and living with other students and really just the whole student community. There’s so much going on at University and it’s so easy to find, but when you’re a working woman (or man) you really have to seek out your own leisure activities, and indeed friends, especially when you arrive in Italy in summer when ALL activities of any kind have stopped, especially August- the whole country stops! But slowly I began to meet people and some people through other people. It was hard but I got there!

So despite sometimes wondering why on earth I had chosen this path for my year abroad and chosen something that to me would seem a bit easier, when I look back at all the things I have gained from my placement such as being able to code in HTML and translating more accurately to the “softer” skills like using my initiative more, I know that for me, someone without any professional work experience and a naturally shy quiet person, that it was the best decision I could have made.

Besides, I can use all the difficult and frustrating things I’ve experienced whilst living here, such as shops closing at lunch time and not being able to buy a ticket on the bus, as answers to those interview questions “tell me about a time you had to overcome a problem”.

Ha! Got that one sorted!

So you see, even the bad things have a positive side.

And that I have come to the conclusion is what the year abroad is about. It’s not going to be some perfect, instagrammed picture but full of ups and downs that will make you better prepared to deal with the stuff life throws at you.

Even if that stuff happens to be in a different language.

 

Travelling (a bit)

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📥  2014-15, Politics, Languages & International Studies

It goes without saying that a Placement is a great opportunity. You will gain valuable experience and skills that will help prepare you for -as everyone keeps going on about- the highly competitive "real" world.

You might even realise what is you want to do after you graduate! (not everyone has their minds made up, me being one of them).

But doing a placement in a different country? That's a whole other level. As well as learning new skills and getting used to full time work (which can be tough at times), you also get to experience another culture (which can be surprisingly different to your own), sample the local delicacies i.e eat all the Gelato you can and even improve (or learn) another language.

And all this while you’re gaining real life work experience.

Fantastic!

But the best thing I think is getting to travel.
Never before have you been so close to so many destinations.
You can just hop on a train for an hour (or two) and tadaa you’re in Venice, or Verona or Lake Garda. No flights to juggle, suitcases to pack or leaving the house at ridiculous times in the morning.
Of course, you can’t go swanning off somewhere every weekend because well there’s bills to pay and food to buy  but planning in advance and finding deals makes a few trips here and there possible.  Much more possible than if you were in England anyway.

At first , you might come across the problem of but who can I go with, depending on your circumstances (when I arrived in Italy I didn’t know anyone. Absolutely zero friends - thankfully that improved).  So I made the most of people coming to visit me and dragged them along to all the places I wanted to visit.

Of course, I haven’t ticked everything off my list and I probably never will because it keeps getting longer but here are a few of the places I’ve been lucky enough to visit and if you’re ever in Italy you should definitely check them out!

Desenzano on Lake Garda and Sirmione.

Lake Garda is incredible. It’s just so beautiful, the taking-my-breath-away kind of beautiful.  A great expanse of stark blue water it stretches for miles, never seeming to end giving you the feeling that you’re by the sea rather than a lake.

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The little town of Desenzano where I went (because there are a few little towns dotted around the lake) is full of cobbled streets and those pretty pastel houses with the shutters. It’s small but lovely with a little harbor in the main Piazza where expensive little boats bob up and down on turquoise water. You could be fooled into thinking you are in the South of France (which is fine by me).

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The real treat though, is just across from Desenzano on the tiny island of Sirmione. It’s really easy to get to, just a half an hour ferry ride across to this little spot of paradise.

 

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Suddenly we were transported into what felt like the middle of the meditteranean, not rainy northern Italy.

Venice

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I had always wanted to go (well don’t we all?) and now that I’m living just outside Milan, it’s only a couple of hours away on the train. Using a two-for-one deal on the train (deals again.yay!) me and my boyfriend took a day trip to the floating city. Unfortunately it rained the entire morning and some of the afternoon too, which kind of dampened the mood a bit (no pun intended honest). But after the sun came out it was very enjoyable (warning, Venice is not the kind of place you can enjoy in the rain).

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Bergamo

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Ok, so maybe this one you won’t have heard of, but it’s definitely up there with the rest. The town is made up of two parts: Citta bassa and Citta alta. The one you want to go to is the latter.

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It’s a medieval town built high above the modern city with stunning views over the whole of Bergamo. You can even see the mountains. It’s tiny at the top but like the majority of towns in Italy full of beautiful architecture and winding cobbled streets. Perfect for a lazy afternoon of wandering, eating (make sure you try Polenta, the area’s typical dish, very yummy but very filling!) and sipping sophisticatedly  from a glass of wine.

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Despite how it looks, Polenta is actually very yummy!

Lecco

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Another beautiful lake-side town, set in the mountains. I’ll admit not as grand as lake Garda but still very pretty nethertheless. I’m making the most of all these lakes and mountains because we just don’t have the same thing in England.

Rome

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Trasteverie in the summer

This one kind of doesn’t count because I’ve been there before as I have relatives there (hence why there's no picture of the colosseum)  - I’m half Italian, dad’s side but I couldn’t come to Italy and not pay everyone a visit could I? To me, this is my real Italian home. I mean, I love Milan it’s a cool place and lots of fun but I’m just not in love with it like Rome.

Verona

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The famous balcony

The city of Romeo and Juliet.

And what a beautiful city for the greatest love story of them all. I could quite happily live here, wandering around, imagining myself as Juliet.

There's even her balcony, which given the story is fictional is totally made up, but you still get swept away with the Romance in the air.

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Love Letters. Who says Romance is dead?!

Without studying languages and doing the year abroad, I never would have had the opportunity to explore so many places. I didn’t do the whole gap year thing and my family rarely goes on holiday (we don't really have the money you see) so for me this is a great opportunity to explore the world a bit. Ok so Italy is only a very small part, of a small continent but it’s a start.

But I’m planning on going to Switzerland too as I’m so close (I can get to the most southern bit within 40 minutes- ok so it’s only chiasso which no-one’s heard of but still!) and have booked train tickets to Zurich because they were so crazily cheap (advantage of being in “mainland” Europe).

Having had a slice of what it’s like to travel (couldn’t have done it without you langauges, thanks!), I want more! I’m definitely going to make the most of all the opportunities to do so this year.

And when I do come back to England I think I’ll go and explore that a little too.

I think we forget sometimes with all this travelling malarkey, that our own country has so much to offer too.

Which is pretty crazy when you think about it.