Final chapter

Final chapter

My flight home is now booked, so what seemed like a distant concern 10 months ago is now just around the corner. Today marks the start of my final three weeks here in Italy, and the end of an incredible experience. There’s been highs and lows along the way, and I’ve met so many people I can’t keep track. Studying here has been tough at times, particularly the course I took in Italian, but I’ve managed to come out the other end having passed all my courses. Not everything has been easy about living abroad, but moving to a different country never was going to be a walk in the park. This is a final reflection on some of the key experiences and moments of my year here in Padova.

Fountain in the middle of Prato della Valle, the largest square in Padova, and supposedly the largest square in Italy

Fountain in the middle of Prato della Valle, the largest square in Padova, and supposedly the largest square in Italy

Grand Canal, Venice

Grand Canal, Venice

Living in a residence

One thing I can’t say I’ll miss is the place I’ve been calling home this year. Residenza Nievo is a university residence which seems to be slowly falling apart. There’s a lot of old buildings in Italy which could do with some love, but this one so much so that I think it’s due to be closed next year for refurbishment. Naturally, it makes little sense for the accommodation service to spend money on anything right now if it’s only going to be torn out in a couple of months, so we’ve had a lot of problems which have remained unresolved or have been temporarily fixed. The attitude to this kind of stuff seems really different in to how it is in the UK. Sometimes we can be a little over-obsessed with health and safety in the UK, but here it seems like that’s not really a top concern.

The main problem with this particular residence is that there is just one kitchen for 72 people, and this has been a rub for most people living here from what I gather. Cooking at a normal time is often a challenge because you’re rubbing shoulders with often more than ten other people all trying to cook at the same time. There’s also a lack of fridges, shelf space, and consistently functional appliances, but it’s OK because we have a new microwave now (5 months late, but better late than never).

This is the size of the kitchen, with Spanish friends Rubén and Salva

This is the size of the kitchen, with Spanish friends Rubén and Salva

One of the drains was leaking for a few weeks back in May. The smell was potent

One of the drains was leaking for a few weeks back in May. The smell was potent

I’m not sure if I’d change my mind about living in a residence, even knowing everything I do about it now. At the price I paid (€205/mo.) it was never going to be The Ritz, and I’ve paid less than half of what some of my friends pay per month to live in an apartment. I’d also not have had the opportunity to make so many Italian friends had I chosen to live in an apartment, so I expect my Italian wouldn’t have improved nearly as much as it has either. There’s been a lot of bad things about the residence, but it’s too easy to forget the positive parts of it as well. I think I’ve really benefited from sharing accommodation with so many people, and it’s been a contrast to living at home since you rarely have a moment alone here. You’ve got to take the good with the bad, and I’d say on the whole it’s been a good experience.

A few polaroids of fellow Brit (actually Swiss/Irish) Katie's farewell dinner - meals like these are the real upsides of having lived in a residence with a garden

A few polaroids of fellow Brit (actually Swiss/Irish) Katie’s farewell dinner – meals like these are the real upsides of having lived in a residence with a garden

Fencing with A.S. Comini

The gym has closed its doors for the summer now so training for this season has concluded. The difference in the level of fencing was staggering at first, but over the course of a year I’ve come to think of this level as standard. I can’t wait to get home and see how much of a difference training here for a year has made for me. It’s not been quite the experience I was expecting it to be, and some things were really different to how they are back home. The social aspect of the club here is not quite the same as it is in Southampton, but then again this is a competitive independent club, so each club serves a different purpose. More broadly speaking, the sport seems to be more well acknowledged and accepted by people outside of the fencing community, but I thought it would be a lot more popular than it turns out to be. I’d say fencing is as popular in Italy as cricket is in the UK, though I imagined it would be more the size of hockey given how highly accomplished Italy is in the sport.

I’ve managed to largely correct a few bad habits I brought with me to Italy, and am aware of a lot more things I could or should be focusing on. Any weaknesses in your game are really exposed when you train with such a high level group, so there’s plenty for me to take away and continue to work on. I think the hardest part was not so much the training but the communication with both the coaches and the other guys and girls at the gym. This got a lot better as the year went on and my Italian improved, but I imagined I’d be further along by the end of the year than I was.

Me and Oscar with some friends from Comini, couldn't find a time to get a photo with all of them but this won't be the last photo opportunity for sure

Me and Oscar with some friends from Comini, couldn’t find a time to get a photo with all of them but this won’t be the last photo opportunity for sure

I think this will probably be one of the parts of my year abroad that I will miss the most, as it’s been a really defining feature of my time here. It’s been really inspiring to train with such a talented group of athletes, and I’ve learned a lot from them, and the experience I’ve accumulated in my time here has been invaluable. I can’t wait for the next time I’ll be able to come back and train again, and I really can’t thank the club enough for having had me for the year.

Me with coaches Andrea and Francesca - it's been an amazing year and I'm so grateful for having been able to fence at their gym for the year

Me with coaches Andrea and Francesca – it’s been an amazing year and I’m so grateful for having been able to fence at their gym for the year

Italian Improvements and the Future

My Italian has come a long way since the start, and this was one of the things I really wanted to work on since before coming to Italy. Taking the language in the first semester gave me a real boost in progress, and though often times I would find the level quite hard, I think pushing myself to learn was really worthwhile.

Sienna, this is the square where the annual Palio horse race takes place

Sienna, this is the square where the annual Palio horse race takes place

My idea of what it means to be fluent has changed throughout the course of the year. Initially, I very much felt that being fluent meant you could conjugate 85% of the verbs, handle any conversation, and have a ton of vocabulary to draw from. This is probably something non-native speakers would dream to be able to do, but I think being fluent is less complicated than this. I think fluency means that whilst you may have some limitations on your grammar and vocabulary, you’re able to adequately explain whatever it is using what you do know, in a way that’s not too circuitous. For me, this means I’ve still got several hundred more hours to go before I can consider myself fluent, but there’s an enormous difference between what I can manage now, compared to me not even being able to talk to my taxi driver on my first day in Padova. I still can’t hold a conversation on the phone that well, but I can communicate the information I need to and understand them just about.

Photo from a visit to the Fattoria San Donato, we got to try some amazing wines during a tasting session that afternoon

Photo from a visit to the Fattoria San Donato, we got to try some amazing wines during a tasting session that afternoon

In the UK, I’d like to continue conversation regularly with Italian Erasmus students in Southampton if I can find them, with a view to eventually passing a B2 or C1 language exam. This was something I wanted to do before leaving Italy near the start, but in hindsight I think this goal was overly ambitious given all the other things that have been going on this year. I’m not sure if it’s possible to consider finding a job in Italy given the current employment situation for young people looking to start their career, but working in Italy is certainly an option I’d like to revisit in the future, and having the language certificate is going to make that all the more possible.

Florence, from my visit back in April

Florence, from my visit back in April

It’s also been really nice to finally be able to hold a conversation with my family living in Frascati. This is a connection I definitely want to keep alive, and I think by me being able to speak in Italian it’s going to make things in the future so much easier. There’s a lot more history I want to dig through yet, but having Italian will give me greater access to a lot more information and records I’d otherwise not be able to translate. I’m still not sure quite where to begin my research, but I’m moving in the right direction.

Closing thoughts

I think the best part about this year has been the people that I’ve met and spent my time with. It’s nice to know that I’ve got a network of sofas all over Europe and some further afield that I’ll be able to sleep on during future adventures. I like to think that even if I’m  not in touch with the friends I’ve made here for several years, we’ll be able to pick up where we left off. It’s hard to find a way to wrap up this blog without sounding clichéd. It’s been great to share all of these experiences with the people that I have, and I think the friendships will be the most valuable takeaway from the whole experience. I also owe a thank you to the Erasmus coordinators in both Southampton and Padova, since without their help and hard work this experience would not have come to fruition. I hope the relationship between the two universities continues to develop in the coming years, and that many more students get the opportunity to have the same experiences that I’ve had.

Baldieri out.

Man making glass in Murano. Not sure if it was this one but he managed to somehow make a glass horse in less than a couple of minutes during our visit

Glass man from Murano. After this he also made a horse, and another bottle (which he then smashed)

Burano, one of the islands in the Venice lagoon famous for its lace

Burano, one of the islands in the Venice lagoon famous for its lace

 

My visit to Rome back in the first Semester with Belgian and Spanish travel companions

My visit to Rome back in the first Semester with Belgian and Spanish travel companions

One more from our visit to Rome

One more from our visit to Rome

One of the first trips I made with friends all the way back in November last year. Can't imagine it being as cold as it was in this photo now

One of the first trips I made with friends all the way back in November last year

A boxing match which took place on my first night here in Padova. Seems fitting to end the post with something from the start

A boxing match which took place on my first night here in Padova back in September. Seems fitting to end the post with something from the beginning

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Fencing, Venice, and the end of teaching English

The end of my year abroad is fast approaching, and with exams out the way it’s time to write my final couple of posts. In this post I’ll stick to just a couple of important episodes from the last few months, and you’ll also find a few captioned pictures from some of my other travels during this period.

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This is the face of a statue called ‘Luca Cava’, located just outside the town of San Gusmè, a small town in Tuscany I visited during April. You can count the town’s population on two hands and the main piazza is not much bigger than your living room

Fencing & a Turning Point

If you’ve been keeping up with my other blogs, you’ll know I’ve been fencing at a local club called A.S. Comini for the past 9 months or so now. Back in May, my friend Oscar came to visit for a few days of training and a quick tour around Venice.

The plan was to train Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday night, and for Oscar to go home on Friday. This holiday was more of a flyby, so we didn’t have time to get further afield than Venice, though sightseeing wasn’t really the purpose of the visit.

We managed to get to the gym briefly on Tuesday night after Oscar’s arrival and make a few introductions, but Wednesday was our first full day. We visited Venice during the day, and I did my best impression of a tour guide. We only got lost three times looking for an ice cream place I’d been shown a couple of weeks before, so I’d say I didn’t do a bad job.

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Typical canal from one of our minor detours

We managed to see most of the main sights, but this being my fourth or fifth time visiting, I feel like I had a realisation about the tourist attractions of the city. They can be roughly divided into the following two categories:

  • Category A, ‘I’ve done Venice’: includes the Rialto Bridge, St. Mark’s Square, Canal Grande, tacky souvenirs, eating overpriced food that is not typical of the region (Hawaiian pizza does not belong on this island).
  • Category B, ‘I had more time and money’: travelling by gondola, staying in fancy hotels, going into designer stores and realistically being able to consider buying something, buying a not-fake Venetian mask, enjoying some ‘cicchetti’ (Venetian finger food) from a local bar.

There’s definitely some things from category B you can do on the cheap, but you’re probably going to have to search. This is also not to say you can’t enjoy Venice as a day trip, but if you want to get a really good feel for the city you’ll need longer.

The common tourist, from a local’s perspective

We got back to Padova pretty early and warmed up together when we got to the club that evening. Even after my one year training in Italy, I’ve got a little way to go before I can rival Oscar. Him visiting was a good measuring stick for me, as a problem I’ve had most of this year has been how to assess my progress. The standard at Comini is really high, so winning bouts with many of the guys and girls there is out of the question. Winning matches isn’t the only way to measure your progress, but it’s pretty solid.

This means the next best thing I could measure was the points I scored in my bouts. They have been slowly trending upwards throughout the year against people I’d fence regularly. But so much is down to how you and your opponent are feeling on the day, so much so that you can have a very different outcome against someone who you lost to convincingly the day before if you’re on it and they’re not. It can be hard to judge whether you’re just having a good day when you do come out on top, or whether that’s training paying off. Fencing someone from back home let me see the difference in my results pre-Italy and now having spent 9 months here.

Training the following evening was probably the highlight of Oscar’s visit for me. Having made what felt like slow progress for a few months, everything just seemed to fall into place after a few bouts that session. I can’t really describe the change any other way than to say that it felt like I’d changed gears. I was able to bring a level of intensity and focus to each bout which I felt like I’d been lacking until that point. Scores that night I think were particularly good, and there was a real sense that the work I’d been putting in for the year was starting to pay off.

You can tell who's really Italian in this picture by how red in the face they are

You can tell who’s really Italian in this picture by how red in the face they are

We said our goodbyes on Friday morning, as I had my final English lesson to teach that afternoon. Having Oscar come to visit was great, particularly having a familiar face amongst the friends I’ve made at the club. Before Oscar’s visit I had been a little frustrated that I wasn’t quite where I imagined I’d be with that at the start of the year with my Italian, and the limits this imposed on my social skills. If you’re lacking in grammar or vocabulary you become painfully aware of it very quickly. I had many awkward conversation when I talked myself into a corner, only to realise I didn’t have the words to get myself out. That said, having the opportunity to mix with a local crowd whilst doing a sport I love has been an amazing experience I’m incredibly grateful to have had. The upside to the awkwardness of not being a fully competent user of a second language is that I now have some good stories to tell about the times I really messed up.

Being able to share the experience of fencing at Comini with someone I know was really good for me. Having Oscar come helped me get some perspective on everything I’ve talked about above, and to really make the most of the final month I had fencing at the club after he left.

Me, Andrea & Oscar, you'll find the second half of our photoshoot in GQ and Esquire

Me, Andrea & Oscar, you’ll find the second half of our photoshoot in GQ and Esquire

Teaching English

Near the beginning of this year, I applied for a role as an English language assistant teaching at a local high school. My job started in January, and just recently finished in May. I’d never taught before, so I figured it would be an opportunity for me to develop a new skill, and get a better understanding of the differences between Italian and British education systems.

For most weeks from around the middle of January this year until the middle of May, I’d go to the school once a week to lead an hour long class. The school I taught at was specialised in economics, marketing, and tourism, so the lessons I taught would follow these themes.

I have little knowledge of marketing and tourism, but there’s a gold mine of teaching resources all over the internet on just about any topic you can think of. Needless to say I fully exploited these resources as soon as I found them.

Initially, I tried to teach lessons I’d planned entirely myself, but these often me standing at the front of the class and talking for an hour without really starting a dialogue with the class.

I’m sure this was quite boring.

Watch as a man uses a borrowed boat and a plank of wood to try to attach a flag encouraging students to vote in the student union elections

This is a man who navigated his way down the river in a borrowed boat with a plank of wood for an oar, trying to attach a flag to the bricola (the wooden poles sticking out the water) to encourage students to vote in the upcoming student union elections

The resources I found made the lessons I taught a lot more engaging and interesting for the classes, and I think they learned a lot more by asking and answering each other’s questions as well as presenting to their peers, than they would have by just listening to me talk about the supply chain of Nutella or how a what a credit score is used for.

A few of the classes I taught were entirely or almost exclusively female, so getting the class to answer my questions took a few weeks, but we got there. Classes where there was a more even split of boys and girls were more forthcoming and happy to ask and answer questions, which from a teacher’s perspective is a lifesaver. Having spent time in their shoes now, I have more sympathy with the professors at university who ask the class a really straightforward question, and are greeted by silence.

I was contracted to teach thirty hours of lessons altogether, and I ended up with a backlog of classes I had to catch up on towards the end of April and all of May. This meant that I could be teaching four hours or more on some weeks, in contrast to the one hour per week I was used to towards the beginning of the year. It’s not something you really think about as a student but if you want to teach a good class there’s a lot more planning that goes into it than you’d think. You can wing some lessons, especially if it’s material you’ve taught before; but any new materials (like tourism and marketing for me) take time to understand to a point where you’re able to lead a successful class on them.

This was just after I taught my final class. I was happy, I don't think someone else was though

This was just after I taught my final class. I was happy, I don’t think someone else was

Would I consider teaching as a future career? Probably not, at least not for the time being. I did find it really rewarding when you could see you’d explained something to a student and you can see in in their eyes as everything falls into place – it’s a really unique and powerful sense of satisfaction. However, the thought of doing this on a more than part-time basis is not appealing to me. Maybe there will be a point in my life in the future when I’ll reconsider; but I don’t think I’d be teaching English, and I’d prefer to teach older students who have a particular interest in what you’re teaching and are eager to learn. That’s all a long way away yet, and there’s a lot of stuff I want to do before I even give that any serious consideration.

 

***

 

That concludes my penultimate blog, the very last one will be out in a few days’ time. I’ll talk more broadly about the year as a whole, and about the benefits of having written this blog, or what I suppose are the benefits of just putting pen to paper and documenting your experiences.

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Some things that happened in March

This one’s about a ski trip I went on in March, organised by ESN Padova. The trip was to a small resort called Folgaria, in Trentino Alto Adige. Just north of Verona, it takes about an hour and a half to get there from Padova by coach. I initially wrote this post as a retelling of events from start to finish, but honestly it was really boring. So here’s a condensed and slightly more interesting summary of some of my experiences and findings from the trip.

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It’s not written on the map but this is where Folgaria is

Trying to teaching skiing without being an instructor is hard. You never have to think about how to do a turn or how to slow down once you’ve been skiing for a while. It becomes something so natural, like walking or riding a bike, that you don’t have the right words to give clear directions to a beginner.

Visibility at the top of the mountain on the first day was so poor that you couldn’t see for more than about 10 meters before everything became white. We nearly ended up going off-piste by accident as we took a wrong turn off the top chairlift, but after seeing no poles for about 20 meters we decided to turn around and head back. Turns out this was one of the best choices we made all trip. The way we were going would have taken us off-piste and into a basin with no easy way out – not ideal for the first day.

The ski boots I tried on at the start of the trip seemed good at first, but towards the end of the first day they were hurting. I refused to change them for the first day because boots are often uncomfortable for a while before you get used to them, and you can just wait for it to pass. After another hour of ankle crushing on the second day though I decided it was worth changing. Unsurprisingly, the rest of that day and the days that followed were a lot more fun. Who would’ve thought.

One of the conveyor belt tunnels, this was one of the only ways to make it back down to the main resort

One of the conveyor belt tunnels, there was a lot of snow on the first day

When the sun’s been shining on the snow all day it gets really sticky, so the snow sometimes feels like it’s grabbing you and slowing you down. Any flat section in this weather becomes a chore, as any pushing does frustratingly little to move you forwards. What’s worse is not all of the snow is sticky, so you can be going as normal for 10 meters, then suddenly slow down, putting you off balance, then be going normally again, then slow… rinse and repeat until you either fall over or make it to the next lift.

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Weather was perfect but the snow was disappearing fast

A lot of the people on the trip couldn’t figure out how to get back into the hotel on the first night, so they ended up banging on the front door and ringing the bell for an hour or more. This would have been understandable if there was no other way to get in that had already been comprehensively explained to us. But as it happens that’s exactly what there was. We even got a video via WhatsApp showing us how to do it. It’s amazing that we’re all studying for bachelor’s or master’s degrees, but some people can’t figure out how to use a side entrance with a keypad, or that knocking and ringing the bell for hours is going to leave the owner in a bad mood the following morning.

Padova-proofing the doorbell

Padova-proofing the doorbell, it worked

The third day a small group of us skied off-piste for a while which was good fun. We came down a stretch off the side of one of the longer runs in the resort, through some moguls and a bunch of trees.  The weather being as it was (sun with intermittent rain) meant that the snow was sticky and any kind of turn meant you had to shift a lot of snow before you could bring your skis around. That said, on this trip I managed to punch myself in the mouth after doing a jump in the snow park, so you guess which kind of skiing I was better at.

There was a big event organised for the final night, a neon paint party in the only club in the centre of town. I can remember walking to town but I can’t remember what happened during the time we were at the club. Nights like this where I remember little to nothing have become par for the course since I started my Erasmus year. Through a comprehensive effort to collect as much anecdotal evidence as I could (maybe three or four other reliable sources), I’ve concluded that this is a pretty standard experience.

We arrived back in Padova late on Sunday evening. Anytime coming back to town after a trip like this I often find is a bit a disappointment, because it means coming back to the reality, which means starting to study again. There’s 101 other things I would rather be doing in Italy besides studying, and now summer is approaching there’s at least 105. I found it particularly hard to get going after this trip, but I’m just about back on top of my studies and everything else at the time of writing this (end of April).

I won’t set a date for the next post as having said something in most of my previous posts about the time and content of the following post, I’ve almost never stuck to it. I will say expect the next few to be shorter, and that there will more than likely be only two more (I only need to write 8 altogether, not 10 as I thought). Besides that there’s nothing more to be added. Keep an eye on the sky and my Facebook profile for the next one.

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End of Semester 1 (part 2 of 2)

End of Semester 1 (part 2 of 2)

In my last post I mentioned a fencing competition I attended in Paris with my fencing club from Southampton Uni. I will spend most of this post talking about this. In this post I intended to talk about both fencing in Paris and my job teaching English, but since starting writing I’ve realised I have a lot more to say about Paris and fencing here in Italy in general than I thought, so this will be the main focus of the post.

Paris – context

The X-SYSTRA fencing competition on Paris has over the past decade or so has become an annual tradition of the Southampton University Fencing Club. The event is hosted at École Polytechnique university located just outside of Paris, and this year marked the 26th edition. It’s a competition usually frequented by a number of UK universities, as well as entrants from the host university, Austria, Germany, and some other parts of Europe.

Photo from our final day in Paris, this is everyone that came to the competition from Southampton

Photo from our final day in Paris, this is everyone that came to the competition from Southampton

In one of my very first blog posts I mentioned that one of my main reasons for coming to Italy was for the fencing, since the quality and consistency of the opponents here is a lot higher than it is in the UK, and if you want to get really good you need to train with people who are really good. Regulars at the club here in Padova include guys and girls who have had great success at both national and international level – most recently, silver in men’s foil at the European Junior Fencing Championships, gold in mens and women’s foil at the Italian U23 National Championships respectively, and a final 16 at the Anaheim fencing GP in the USA.

Having this high level competition at the club means that even after  5 months of Erasmus, I’m still getting beaten by a good margin more often than not. It’s to be expected, given that most people at the club have fenced since before they were 10 years old, but it makes it hard to judge my progress. Having spent the past 5 months (more or less) training quite intensively, I figured Paris would be the perfect place to see if I’d improved, and by how much.

The competition

For non-fencing readers, at a competition there’s first a round of pools (sometimes two). Each pools is normally made up of 5-8 people, and everyone fences everyone else. Depending on how you do here determines where you are seeded for the following round of direct eliminations (DEs). Depending how many matches you win and points you win and concede, if you do well you’ll be seeded near the top, if you do badly you’ll be near the bottom.

The next round is the first DE, where the top and bottom ranked fencers are matched together continuously until everyone has a match (in a competition of 64 this would mean the 1st and 64th are match, followed by the 2nd and 63rd, 3rd and 62nd, and so on until everyone is matched). The winner of the DE proceeds to the next round of DEs, and so on until eventually you get to the quarters, semis, and ultimately the finals.

This is a photo of the men's foil tournament at Anaheim, California last weekend. This is a really big international competition attended by the best in the world. A fencing tournament works the same way as any other, and this is a picture of the results up until the semi-finals

This is a photo of the men’s foil tournament at Anaheim, California last weekend. This is a really big international competition attended by the best in the world. A fencing tournament works the same way as any other, and this is a picture of the results up until the semi-finals

I did a lot better this year than my first time at this competition, but I’m not happy with my final result (36th of 63, could have been a lot better). When I fenced the first two opponents in my pool I wasn’t focused, so I made a lot of unforced errors I was kicking myself for at the time. I managed to win most of my pool matches thereafter, but I know I could have done better. There was a quick stop for lunch after the round of pools, and after that the first round of DEs begin.

This is the round I went out in.

I don't have a picture of my reaction to being knocked out, so here's a monkey riding a goat from Versailles instead, I think this captures how I was feeling in that moment

I don’t have a picture of my reaction to being knocked out, so here’s a monkey riding a goat from Versailles instead, I think this captures how I was feeling in that moment

I don’t think I’ve felt the same level of frustration and disappointment that I felt after that match for a very long time. It’s not frustration with anyone else, but at yourself, as the loss is largely the result of factors under your own control. At the time, it’s hard to think about anything but what you could have changed in the match or during your training on the lead up to the competition. Hindsight is always perfect, and there’s numerous things I would like to have done differently in preparation for this competition so I could have been better prepared. The dates for this competition came right after exam season, and during that period I wasn’t able to train nearly as often as I would like to have done. This meant my game was not as sharp as it could have been on the day, and my fitness level also took a hit because of the lack of training.

Oscar fencing in the round of 16, finishing in 10th place, our best result in men's foil

Oscar fencing in the round of 16. Finishing in 10th, this was our best result in individual men’s foil competition

Whilst it’s deeply frustrating at the time, eventually this passes and you can draw from the experience and think more clearly about what you can do differently for the future. It’s useful to analyse, but there’s no point dwelling – what’s done is done and no matter how much you wish things had gone differently, you can’t change it. It’s better to take the lessons and apply them to what you’re doing now, and what you’re doing in the future.

I hadn’t done a competition for a little over a year, so I was not mentally ‘in the zone’ from the get go, and I think losing those first 2 pool matches were probably the reason why I went out so early. Had I won those, I likely would have been seeded higher in the rankings, and had an easier first DE. This goes to show how important it is to be switched on from the very beginning.

It's about 07:30 in the morning of the second day, everyone's exhausted from the competition the day before and the cheese and wine evening that finished quite late. I'm running on bacon grease and croissants at this point, hence the face

It’s about 07:30 in the morning of the second day, everyone’s exhausted from yesterday’s competition and the cheese and wine evening that followed. I’m running on bacon grease and croissants at this point, cornerstones of any healthy diet

Day two was the team competition, and we did a lot better here. We finished 7th out of a total 18 teams. This day wasn’t without its own frustrations though – the main sticking point for me is that we were knocked out by a team of really awkward fencers. For those readers who are unaware, there are generally three people in a fencing team. Two of the three of them in the team that knocked us out had a really unconventional style that meant their actions were hard to read and prepare for, and the way they moved meant sometimes you couldn’t get your point on target for love nor money. To their credit, though they looked kind of weird when you watched them, it worked well for them and they made it all the way to the semi-finals.

I should have beaten at least two out of the three of them, and even their strongest fencer I had beaten the day before in my pools. This was another case of not being mentally ‘in the zone’, since I’d had too long to cool down from the previous match. For me, getting into a mental state where I am focused, then being able to maintain that state of focus between matches is one of the most important lessons I’ve taken away from this competition. I’m not quite sure how to go about this yet, but competing more and getting more comfortable in that environment will help a lot.

The club did have a real success on the second day - our women's epee team won their competition. Well done girls!

Our women’s epee team won their competition. Well done girls!

Training

There’s definitely a lot I can improve on so that I’m better prepared for the next competition, but there’s a lot of other factors which make optimising my training not such an easy task. As much as I’d love to have 2 (or more) lessons per week from the coaches at my club, it’s not financially possible. This is the biggest limiting factor when it comes to fencing, as both the equipment and the training can be quite cost prohibitive. I’d also love to train 4-5 times a week every week, but I’m studying in a foreign country where there’s a lot of other things I’d like to see and do besides fencing.

I trained a lot last semester, but as I result I felt like I largely neglected my social life, and missed some of the best trips organised by the Erasmus Student Network (ESN) here in Padova. For me, I think it’s better to train less often, but smarter and harder. This might mean going only three times a week, but I think the benefit of having balance in other parts of my life is greater than the benefit of another training session, particularly at the expense of going somewhere new or meeting new people. I feel like since taking this approach I’ve been able to make a lot more of the training sessions that I’ve been to. There’s more time pressure, which means you have to be a lot more intentional with your training, and what you want to get out of it.

 

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There’s work to be done and still a lot for me to learn, but at the moment I’m focusing on just one thing each training session and making small but consistent improvements. A small improvement each day means a slightly bigger improvement for the week, an even bigger improvement for the month, and a massive improvement for the whole year. I don’t like losing, so shifting my focus away from trying to win so that I can focus on a particular action has been difficult, but I’ve found that I’m enjoying fencing a lot more now that I’m drawing satisfaction from the process instead of the outcome.

I mentioned in the previous post about switching to a weekly schedule and writing a little less for each blog. I’m still planning on making this switch soon, but I’m not quite settled into my study routine for this semester. Once I’ve figured out how I can divide up my time, you can expect some more regular content.

Next post will be about the ESN ski trip to Folgaria that we had last week. No date on this yet, but expect it sometime soon.

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End of Semester 1 (part 1 of 2)

January, exam season

January has been probably the busiest months I’ve had yet during my year abroad. Over the period of about a week, I managed to sit and pass all of my semester 1 exams. Immediately after my last exam, I headed to Venice to meet my mum and do some quick sightseeing, and from there to Cortina to ski for a long weekend. The weekend after that, I travelled to Paris to compete in the X-SYSTRA fencing competition hosted at École polytechnique, a uni just outside the city. This is also an annual pilgrimage made by my uni club from back in the UK, which meant I had a chance to catch up with some old friends and do some sightseeing in Paris after the competition wrapped up.

I’ll break this post up into two parts: in this part I’ll focus mainly on the semester 1 exam session and skiing in Cortina, in the second I’ll talk about the fencing competition in Paris, plans for the next few months, and my experience teaching English at local school here in Padova.

Exams

Uni exams in Italy are done very differently to how we do them in the UK. Instead of receiving a % from 0 to 100, exams are marked out of 30, and in order to pass you have to score at least 18. At first glance, this seems like of having to score a 2:1 (any mark from 60% to 70% for non-British readers) just to scrape a pass. In the UK, particularly in the humanities, anything over 75% is hard to get. Here though, the system is different. Believe it or not, it’s actually possible to get a full 30/30 marks, which means the 18/30 pass mark makes sense. None of the Italian students seem content with just scraping an 18, and it seems to be viewed as the equivalent of getting a third in the UK – a bit rubbish. Here’s a table to show the equivalent marks between the UK and Italian grading systems. Might not be 100% correct but is more or less how the marks here seem to be viewed:

 

UK Grade Italian Grade
40-49 – Third class 18-20
50-59 – 2:2 (Second class lower division) 21-23
60-69 – 2:1 (Second class upper division) 24-27
70+ – First class 28-30

 

Even with only three exams to sit I still had about 1800 PowerPoint slides and 600 pages of reading to do. To stay on top of it all, I used a Gantt chart (see my picture below) to see what needed doing and by when. I started using this system of visualising and planning my studying almost a year ago, after it was suggested to me by my dad, and I’ve had my best two semesters of exams yet whilst planning my time in this way.

 

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It looks like a colourful mess and is essentially meaningless to anyone but me, but it worked for me. YMMV

 

Of the three exams that I had to sit, the most interesting one was probably my philosophy one, which was an oral exam. We don’t do them in the UK (at least for non-language courses) so it was a novelty for me. Everyone sits and waits in the same classroom, before they are invited to the front of the class for an individual conversation with the professor which lasts about 20 minutes. It’s up to you to find a way to lead to conversation to the materials you know well whilst avoiding those you don’t. This gives you some room for improvisation, but if you don’t know your stuff and you start beating round the bush the professor will call you out. It’s easier to just be up front and admit you don’t know something. I think they respect you more for being honest than for talking in circles about something you haven’t understood well.

I managed to pass all three exams on the first attempt which I was very happy with. This meant I was able to go skiing at the start of February without having any more exam dates hanging over me. In Italy you get to try exams an almost unlimited number of times. You get two attempts at an exam per exam session (two sessions so that’s 4 attempts there alone), and one final attempt in the summer. This means for an exam you take in January, you have two attempts during that exam session, two more during the June/July session, and one last attempt during August/September, meaning you’re able to sit the same exam up to five times (and I think even if you don’t pass any of those 5, I think you can resit the exam during next year of your degree).

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I took no photos during exams, so here’s a picture of a seagull in St. Mark’s square instead.

 

I gave up quite a lot to stay on top of my studies during this period, and I didn’t manage to get in more than about three days of fencing during the whole month. This was kind of frustrating, and meant I wasn’t on form for the competition I went to with my university in Paris. More on this in the next post.

One strange positive to come from this period is that I think I was the more socially active during this one month than during the 3 months leading up to Christmas. I was going out 4 nights a week for a good two week stretch (crazy! I know), and there were at least a couple of days which were a write-off because of the excesses from the night before. Despite that though I don’t think I would have done it any differently looking back on it now. I met a lot of new people, made some new friends, and had a lot of fun, even though my sleep/diet suffered a bit trying to balancing work and play. All I can say is takeaway pizza is a lifesaver.

 

Skiing, Cortina

View from 'Ponte degli Scalzi' near to the train station, Venice.

View from ‘Ponte degli Scalzi’ near to the train station, Venice.

 

Cortina is a ski resort in the dolomites, approximately one and a half hours from Venice airport by coach. I met my mum in Venice after finishing my final exam. We ate a really good meal at a restaurant suggested by our Airbnb hosts and did some sightseeing the next morning, before heading back to the airport to take the coach into the mountains.

Handmade masks in a shop called 'Il Canovaccio', Venice.

Handmade masks in a shop called ‘Il Canovaccio’, Venice

 

Where we stayed was a little way down the valley from Cortina, a place called Valle di Cadore. From there, you could get to Cortina in about a half hour by car, a trip we made a couple of times over the course of the weekend. There was also a resort called San Vito di Cadore which took a little over 10 minutes to reach, being about halfway between Valle and Cortina the resort. This place had about 4 runs in total, but since I hadn’t skied for about 3 years I was happy to go just about anywhere there was snow and a hill to go down.

 

First chairlift on the first day, San Vito di Cadore.

First chairlift on the first day featuring our 2 hosts for the weekend, San Vito di Cadore

 

My family is quite competitive, so for me there’s nothing better than tearing down the slopes as fast as possible, better still if there’s someone to race. Neither my dad nor my brother were here for this holiday, and my mum was getting her ski legs back having injured her ACL on a ski holiday about one year ago. This wasn’t a holiday where I went super-fast down every slope, so I took things a little slower than normal (only marginally).

 

We were really lucky with the weather - it snowed loads the day before we arrived, and the skies stayed clear every day thereafter.

We were really lucky with the weather – snowed a load the day before we arrived, then brilliant blue skies for the rest of the weekend.

 

This was more than made up for by the numerous Bombardino stops. This is a yellow alcoholic drink that’s popular in the mountains here in Italy during the winter. It’s made by mixing equal parts Advocaat and brandy, finished with a generous serving of whipped cream on top. It’s a drink you have to be in the mountains to truly appreciate – it’s just not the same drinking it at sea level. It burns all the way down, but I’d still recommend it as an alternative to hot chocolate to anyone skiing in Italy.

 

Bombardino before last run of the day.

Last Bombardino before the final run of the day. Didn’t quite get into double figures

 

All in all, this was a great weekend, and an excellent way to end the semester 1 exam session. It had been a while since I’d seen our family friends who hosted us, so it was also a good to be able to catch up with them, as well as spend some time on the slopes with my mum and eat some really decent Italian food. It goes without saying that this ski trip will be a very different experience from the Erasmus ski trip I have signed up for in the middle of March. They call it a ski trip, but anyone who signed up knows what they’re really in for – I’ll post the results of this next expedition towards the end of March.

 

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This is it for my first post for January. In my next one I’ll focus more on seeing my fencing club at the X-SYSTRA competition in Paris, the debacle of a journey I had to get to there, and a brief part on the English classes I’ve taught so far. I’m also planning on downscaling the length of my blog posts, as I think writing less but on a weekly basis might mean I procrastinate less. So if during the next 2-3 blogs you find a post that seems a little short, it’s likely to be the first a series of shorter but more frequent posts. Or maybe I didn’t have much to say that week. One of the two.

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