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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.