Airport chaos, programming in a convent, Aperol as a stress-reliever and a catholic promise to be paid – QHELP Seminar in Padova

It all started out with a new email in my inbox: a call for applications for a week-long seminar of quantitative methods in Psychology that would take place in Padova, Italy. Students with all levels of acquaintance with R (a programming language for statistical computing), from all academic levels in the field of Psychology (from bachelors to PhD) were encouraged to send their CV and motivation letter and try their luck in what sounded like an exciting (yet geek) international experience.

Given my usual pessimism, I applied with near zero hopes I would ever get a spot. Gladly I was wrong, and after a couple of preparatory meetings I was ready to join a group of 5 other students I had not yet met in person for an eventful week abroad.

A pit stop in Milan

The Summer of 2022 will definitely become known as dark times for European aviation: all across the continent, airports of both mainstream travel destinations and eventless boring cities saw countless planes not taking off the runways, while furious customers and undelivered luggage accumulated at the main (and most inconvenient) passing areas.

For the sake of the whole group attending the seminar, one of those customers was Emerson. After a last minute cancellation of our flights to Venice, and while everyone else seemed too disappointed to even react to the airline’s unapologetic message informing us that we were not going anywhere, Emerson rushed to the airport to try and solve the situation and save the day. Thanks to him, we got flights to Milan the next morning, and a new challenge to think about while packing last minute: how the hell would we get to the tiny village close to Padova where the seminar would start the day after, STILL ON TIME FOR DINNER? (And yes, food was a consensual number one priority shared by our group, and acknowledging that fact was something that brought us closer than ever – after all, relationships are built on a scaffold of shared values, aren’t they?).

We met at 5 a.m. at Lisbon airport, and arrived in Milan (delays and all considered) around lunch time. A 40 minute bus ride to the city centre was the ultimate trigger to the hunger centre in our brains, that got collectively activated in full potential, which, looking back at it now, seems like the only plausible explanation for our dumb decision to sit and have lunch at the first super-touristy restaurant we found, enjoying some overpriced not-so-spectacular Italian food among laughs and the first group selfies. Even though we were already tired from the journey up to that point, the genuine happiness of sharing that moment with each other must have shown, as even the waitress seemed somehow annoyed by our manifested joy… ‘Why are you SO happy?!’, she mumbled, bringing plates to our loud table.

After lunch, energies half recharged, we made the most out of the few time we had to explore the city. There was time to be mesmerised by the famous Cathedral, and for some influencer-style pictures taken at the Galeria Vittorio Emanuele II, fighting with hordes of tourists that insisted in sharing the scene with us.

Our teacher, waiting for us already at the village near Padova (a place that, as the hours passed by, seemed more and more like a mirage to us), kept sending encouraging messages (accompanied by nice smiley stickers): saying that he was waiting for us, describing the place, and informing about which bus we were supposed to take in Padova to get to the village (as if the 2 trains and 4 hours we still had ahead before reaching Padova were already practically done! – the kind of “glass half full” we needed at the time, and that I generally need in my life!).

The next 4 hours were spent on a train, with some of us half asleep, and others, like me, Emerson and Ana, wide awake. But while Emerson was happily explaining to an Italian lady (who struggled with English and simply kept nodding in perplexity) how he had learnt to perfectly pronounce the five words he knew in Italian language from a Brazilian soap opera he used to watch as a kid (‘called “Terra Brava”, do you know it?’); Ana and me were closely watching a drunken guy who was traveling with a stolen electric scooter continuously beeping an alarm. Matching its new owner’s inebriated behaviour, the scooter kept bouncing to each side as the train speeded on the railways, hitting Ana’s shoulder a couple of times. I must say he was lucky, as Ana is one the most peaceful souls I have known lately, and even though she was clearly upset she remained calm.

A convent in the night

When we finally reached Padova the sky was already dark. Since we were starving and at risk of missing dinner, we took a taxi that would take us all to our final destination much faster than the bus. Of course the taxi driver passed by the address we gave him at full speed, as he was imagining a different host location for a group of loud cheerful friends like the one sitting inside his car, and his astonished face at the realisation that we were actually going to stay at the convent he had just left behind should have been recorded.

That tiring day could have not ended on a better note: we had made it on time for dinner! Our exhausted faces exhibiting huge smiles, and Inês, the poor vegetarian that was not as well fed as the others after the over-priced lunch, could finally have a well-deserved feast!

Should we talk about the pros and cons of staying in a convent? Well, food is obviously delicious universally across convents. During the week, we all developed a pavlovian reflex to the sound of the bell that resonated through every corridor and every room at lunch and dinner times. Tasty food and a couple of wine jars (that we would shamelessly ask in a broken Italian while standing by the kitchen entrance) will definitely come to our minds when recalling this week together.

Another important thing was the beauty of the place: the claustrum, the corridors, the small chapel… every square metre was terrifyingly beautiful, and the whole atmosphere gave us the impression of being in a parallel reality (which, during pandemic and war times like the ones we are living, was a blessing). The vast corridors along the claustrum were enchanting during the day, but pretty scary during nighttime, when we crossed them in a fast, yet silent, pace, a little tipsy, aiming for the boys’ room to annoy them a little before bedtime (Gonçalo and Emerson would patiently feed us cereals they had stolen from the breakfast table, in hopes that we would calm down and leave them alone to rest after hard working days – a sweet gesture that we girls appreciated so much we would stay in their bedroom for even a bit longer, laughing cheerfully and making sure they would not fall asleep!).

The giant bells, that sounded loud and clear every hour of the day, were pleasant to everybody’s ears during daytime, but a curse during the night (particularly the full JINGLE at 7 a.m. that would drive us all a bit crazy!). But we later found out, as we were complaining to some guys one night about this jingle from hell, that we were actually lucky: “Oooooh you are complaining about the bells? Try waking up with a soprano rooster giving a concert by your bedroom window every dawn!”, the Austrians said, with a tone of despair in their voices. We did not, in fact, hear the rooster, but me and my roommate Catarina had the privilege (or curse, depending on the point of view) of listening to the entire service – and its melodious loud catholic songs that made the walls of our room right next to the chapel vibrate every morning. Clearly our convent life was marked by eventful dawns.

Metaphysical classes, group projects and meltdowns

The problem of having these eventful dawns, was struggling to keep following the metaphysical classes that were scheduled for that week. Teachers from different countries in Europe had come all the way to that particular convent to share important theories and exciting new methodologies in Psychology with what they were hoping to be interested and dynamic students. Each class was more interesting and more demanding than the previous, the kind of teaching method that works by making students feel super ignorant and definitely not enough for the whole time, but culminates with them proving to everyone (but mainly to themselves!) that they have actually acquired an absurd amount of knowledge.

The seminar was pretty intense for everyone, as classes were on complex topics and students were rearranged in small groups each having to work on a project they would present on the last day. I remember sitting at a class in which I felt like the only thing I had caught up was the fact that there are several levels of infinite (something so irrelevant to the main topic that the teacher just briefly mentioned, assuming it was a shared certainty among everyone present in the room!). Everyone’s lack of sleep combined with complex classes and a project to finish against the clock resulted in a couple of breakdowns per student during the week: “I will go to my room right now and cry a bit, I accept some company”, whispered Ana to me in a serene tone, standing up from her chair in the end of a class. Ironically, those moments of shared weakness and lousy consolation were the strongest glue to the bonds that were developing between us.

A holy cell for two

Stressed about the final project I had in hands, I would come to my room in a boiling mood late in the afternoon, only to find my roommate sitting by the window, laptop over outstretched legs, glasses on her nose and her attention divided between her own group project and what was happening in the claustrum courtyard (almost as old as the sun-clock, is the so called “portuguese nosy lady at the window” – a traditional portuguese surveillance system under use for centuries!).

I must say I could not have asked for a better person to share a holy cell in a convent for a week: Catarina had a great sense of humour, a natural calmness that would calm me down in those stressful afternoons (she was able to wait patiently one day that I finished showering to calmly inform me that “we had a problem” – as if that problem was not a scary giant bee that insisted in flying around and escaping into the tall gothically-arched ceilings of our room!), and, most importantly, she would join me for an Aperol spritz anytime I was craving for some alcohol and a good chat. Moving forward from her initial shock at my decision to remove the crucifix we had in our room (directly facing my bed!) and keep it in the closet for the whole week, I think we got along just fine.

A promise to Saint Lucy – Venice in a day

After a stressful morning of project presentations, we set off to Venice, not only because we all wanted to visit one of the most iconic cities in the world, but more importantly because Emerson had a promise to be paid – and the rest of the Portuguese crew would not let him go alone, of course we all wanted to take part of such an important moment to him.

In the small church of San Geremia, next to the train station of Santa Lucia, in Venice, lies the body of the catholic saint with the same name – Santa Lucia, the patron of sight, frequently depicted by medieval artists carrying a dish containing her eyes. Emerson, like me, has struggled with vision loss his entire life, and his parents always taught him to venerate and be grateful to Santa Lucia. Being in that church with Emerson, who left ready to donate his thick glasses to the first person who would accept them, and seeing just how deeply his faith shapes his life and his view of the world was really moving, and it made me feel sorry for living without religion in my life.

Strolling through the city made me think how romantic love is like Venice: one gets inebriated with all its magic, and ends up almost drowning in a canal after confidently turning into a narrow street with a water dead-end. Beautiful from every angle one could look, Venice enchants visitors like no other place in the world, with its bridges and colourful buildings along the canals.

After a lovely day in Venice, it was time to come back to Portugal, say a PRETTY HARD goodbye and return home to share a glimpse of our adventures abroad with friends and family, who may find it interesting and even listen with full attention, but won’t ever really know how intense, immersive and transformative our week was.