Traveling to France? Preparing for the trip may both heighten your anticipation as well as enhance your experiences there. Travel entrepreneur Rick Steves has called this Prepare for Spontaneity. A basic knowledge of the local language and culture are essential tools for navigating new places and meeting locals.
In our four language courses we are introducing the learner to various particularities of each language or culture. For example in our French 1 course our traveler Daniel learns about the "bouillabaisse". Listen HERE to a conversation between him and his aunt. Maybe your French lets you understand how this traditional French dish got its name. If not, you'd certainly understand it by the end of lesson 33!
The 36 lessons - we call them "Scenes" - take our "hero" Daniel (and, by extension you!) for a three week journey to France, where you'll learn the language of daily French life.
For example, in Paris, you'll visit with relatives, take a walk on a famous square, order "un express" and "une tarte aux fraises" at a café. You'll buy a train ticket to Aix-en-Provence. There, you'll ask directions to a friend's house, and on a walk around the city, learn about Cézanne's occupation before he became a famous painter. In Avignon, you'll take a bus to your hotel, and check in. Later, after dinner, a friend will show you the famous bridge. (Who doesn't know the song "Sur le pont d'Avignon"?) For your last week, you'll return to Paris.
Each of the 36 lessons is based on a dialog and on part of the story. In each lesson, you'll play your way through a series of games, with which you learn and practice vocabulary, train your listening comprehension, practice speaking by recording and playing back your own voice. You'll also get essential grammar and culture tips.
Your goal will be to exceed a target score so that you can move on to the next lesson and hear “the rest of the story.” You'll also be challenged and often able to understand the meaning of the next dialog through the context of the story alone – similar to what you might experience living in the foreign country, or following an original French movie.
So, maybe, next time you're sitting in a French bistro and see the "bouillabaisse" on the menu, you'll give it a try and even know what the name means...
A Delicious & Expensive "Veal Cutlet"
Swiss Pricing & Guest Choices
Beware of "False Friends" & innovative Pricing strategies...
Recently we put together a YouTube video “Why did Mark Twain like Heidelberg?” based on Scene 4.5 of our course and our conjecture that Mark Twain liked the name "Heidelberg" because Heidelberg in English means Huckelberry mountain, (actually Heidelberg is an abbreviation of Heidelbeerenberg [huckleberry mountain].
We found it interesting that Twain had stayed in Heidelberg with his family for several months in 1878. A Wiki entry notes that he had unsuccessfully tried “to learn German in 1850 at age fifteen. He resumed his study 28 years later in preparation for a trip to Europe."
Mark Twain had published his novel “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” in 1876 and “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” in1884. A little further digging found several German sites which also describe his love of Heidelbeeren. He found them in the forests around Heidelberg and enjoyed Heidelbeerkuchen (huckleberry pie). By the way, the confusion between a huckleberry and a blueberry also exists in German between a “Heidelbeere” and a “Blaubeere” and the difference is well explained here.
So the character of Huckleberry Finn had already been well established by the time Mark Twain arrived in Heidelberg as this link explains further:
“Supposedly looking for a quiet village, where people didn't know him, neither of which fit Heidelberg because it was already home to active American and British communities, he arrived with his family on May 6 for the day and stayed three months.His biographer Justin Kaplan asserts Twain was aware that Heidelberg derived from "Heidelbeerenberg", meaning "Huckleberry Mountain", which may explain his affinity.
Nobody really knows," writes Werner Pieper in his updated Mark Twain's Guide to Heidelberg , 'what made Mark Twain stay in Heidelberg for such a long time. Maybe he was prompted by old dreams from the times he was passing Heidelberg, Mississippi, while working on the steamships? Did he plan to stay here or did he and his family just fall in love with this city?"
While the above allusion to Mark Twain's passing by Heidelberg, Mississippi during his days as a river pilot may also be compelling, a little further digging causes some doubts: Mark Twain worked on a steamboat, first as an apprentice, then as a pilot during 1857 to 1861. However, Heidelberg, Mississippi was only founded in 1882 by Washington Irving Heidelberg. Twain visited the river a number of times, after his pilot days, most notably in 1882 as he prepared to write "Life on the Mississippi". Maybe that's when he came across the name Heidelberg again.
So whether he already knew the name Heidelberg or whether he related to it as a translation of "huckleberry" we'll never know. But we do know that he liked his three months in Heidelberg, Germany.
And we'll explore in another blog Mark Twain's love-hate relationship with "The Awful German Language" which he published as an Appendix to his "A Tramp Abroad" in 1880.
A few years ago when I retired, my wife and I decided to head to Europe for an extended stay. Both of us had been born in Austria. My wife had childhood memories of the Italian Alps and Venice, but it had been over 30 years since our last visit to Italy as young adults. Although neither of us spoke any Italian, we decided to spend five months in Rome and take trips from there. We prepared with Italian CDs, (my wife was still working as a free-lance editor for Pimsleur Language Programs), rented an apartment in Trastevere online and were off in September.
Rome and Surroundings...
We enjoyed Rome very much, improved our Italian by taking daily lessons with an Italian tutor, and explored the city and its surroundings on foot, by bus, and by train. We came to realize that staying in a foreign place for more than a few days has many benefits. Not only can you visit the “must see” attractions (view from St. Peter's right) at your leisure, but even more importantly, you can start to experience the “vibes” of the city: the daily bustle on the streets and in the markets ; the atmosphere in the neighborhood cafés and restaurants; the conviviality of the Romans' habitual late afternoon stroll; the pleasurable local night scene: in movies, theaters, concerts, bars; the activities at neighborhood squares and parks that function as community centers...
And as in most European cities, you can visit many places just using public transport. From Rome, we enjoyed easy day trips by bus or train to Castel Gandolfo, Ostia, Frascati, Tarquinia, Civitavecchia, Villa d'Este, Hadrian's Villa, and others. Still starting from Rome, several overnight train trips - to Pompei, Naples, Capri, Sorrento and the Amalfi Coast - rounded out our Italian experience at that time.
Getting to Know a City...
We still travel by car from time to time (e.g. see our blogs on our recent trips to Barcelona w/ Gaudi's Sagrada Familia left, Southern Spain, Cornwall and London, Brussels. etc.). However, we really like to stay in a place for at least a month, especially when we are in a larger city. Besides our stay in Rome, we have also stayed a month each in Paris, Berlin, and Barcelona. Recent one-week visits to Madrid and London were pleasant and filled with many activities, but they didn't allow us to absorb each city's character in a leisurely way. We know Vienna, Amsterdam, Munich, Zurich and Brussels quite well, but there are still many other European cities on our current list, such as Dublin, Prague, Budapest, Oslo, Stockholm, Helsinki, etc.
And When You Have Time...
So, if you have time on your hand, love other cultures and languages, and can afford it - you may want to forgo the “5 countries in 7 days” kind of trip. You may rather want to choose a country or even just a city to get to know in more depth. Regarding “affordability”: We have found that renting an apartment is not only more economical than staying in a hotel in most cases, but also gives you more space and flexibility. And, in our case, it often provided an opportunity to invite friends and family for a visit! (For the more adventurous travelers, there are also apartment/house exchanges, etc).
So far, we have limited our extended stays to European countries, but we are eager to extend our reach. Still, unless we stay in countries where we speak the local language, it would mean that we should start learning another language. And that will be another project (and story)...
During a recent trip to Europe, I realized again that you can practice your foreign language skills even while waiting in line. Waiting has never been one of my particular pleasures, but this time I enjoyed it!
Grand Place, Moules et Frites, et Gaufres
We were spending a few days in Brussels, marveling at the wonderful “Grand Place” (picture on the right) and city hall, enjoying “moules et frites”, “gaufres” (waffels) with ice cream and strawberries, and hearing all kinds of different languages in the busy streets. At the end of our stay I needed to get some train tickets for our afternoon trip to Bruges. And I was surprised by the long lines at the railway station, both in front of the two ticket machines as well as at the ticket windows. Getting in line at one of the counters, I asked the man behind me (in French), whether he knew of any other ticket machines in the station. He did not, but we continued our conversation.
Hell: Staying in Bruges forever?
I quickly learned that he was actually French, not Belgian, had been visiting Bruges as well as Brussels and was now returning to Paris. As we were talking about our travel experiences – he gave me some good recommendations for Bruges – waiting in line suddenly became enjoyable. He also commented that Bruges was really a worthwhile place to visit – and not at all what the somewhat facetious line in the 2008 British black comedy-drama (“In Bruges”) implied. We had both seen the movie and talked about some of the scenes. (on the left, the Bruges tower, where much of the movie's action takes place) And when he then complimented me on my French, I remembered a German proverb: “zwei Fliegen mit einer Klappe schlagen.” Freely translated, this means: to kill two birds with one stone, which seemed to me a very fitting translation in connection with the film.
So, waiting in line, especially in a foreign country, not only lets you exercise your foreign language skills, but it also lets the waiting become more enjoyable – and you may even pick up some good tips and information. I for one, will start to apply this notion also while waiting in other lines at home...
Many Americans and for that matter many natives of other English speaking countries (Ireland, UK, Australia, New Zealand, etc.) often feel that the effort of learning another language is just not worth it: “Everybody speaks English anyways” is a not uncommon excuse.
The fallacy of this notion becomes evident as soon as your travels take you off the beaten path. Knowing at least a few basic words becomes a matter of necessity when you’re looking for the bathroom or a street or place to stay. Admittedly, traveling with a guided tour group as part of an all inclusive package greatly reduces such necessity. But the inability to communicate in the local language may also limit your travel experiences.
Several years ago, we traveled to China as part of a professional delegation. We had prepared ourselves diligently with audio courses (though for obvious reasons, learning to read and write Chinese was way beyond our efforts to prepare for the trip). Our audio lessons had included Chinese numbers, and thus we were able to “negotiate” in Mandarin during our visits to various markets. We also found other basic vocabulary very handy, when asking for directions, requesting a restaurant bill, or asking how much something costs.
A snake in a bottle on the Li River...
Later on during a boat cruise down the Li River we encountered a travel group from Rome. After we had quickly determined that our Italian was much better than their English, we had an amusing Italian conversation with two of the couples. We were all deliberating whether to dare a drink from an ominous looking bottle with a dead snake in it, but for good reasons we finally decided against it. Which illustrates another point: When traveling you may meet people who will also speak your second (or third) language. And for many people who travel, the ability to communicate in a language other than their own will create memories that last.
“Assassins et Assassinés”
Our recent trip to England just reminded me again how much more you can get out of traveling when you understand (and ideally also speak) the local language. While sitting in a pub or joining a walking tour through a city, you pick up tidbits of information that would elude you otherwise. Obviously, it was easy for us in London where we learned much on David Tucker’s (the co-owner of London Walks and author of London Stories) Shakespeare’s and Dickens’s London walk.
However, several years ago we joined a French tour at the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris. Our guide was the well-known “Nécrosophe” Bertrand Beyern and we visited the graves of “Assassins et Assassinés” (Assassins and Assassinated ones). Not only was the walk fascinating and funny, but we learned a lot about Paris history and events at the same time. Not to mention that Bertrand’s stories nicely stretched our French vocabulary. Both the London and Paris walks made us realize how differently humor is expressed in each language.
Which brings me to the conclusion: Not everybody speaks English, and the most memorable events of a trip often don't happen in English, they happen in a foreign language!
When somebody told me some time ago that there are palm trees in England, I thought they were kidding. However, during our recent trip though Cornwall and the “English Riviera” we could convince ourselves first hand that indeed there are palm trees growing there! And, Chevy Chase has an English (or rather Scottish) origin...
A wonderful discovery in Porthcurno at the very tip of Cornwall was the Minack Theatre. The dream and vision of Rowena Cade, who started the construction in 1938, has now become a world famous open air theater. It could easily be mistaken for the remnant of the Roman occupation as it reminded me very much of the amphitheater in Taormina in Sicily with its spectacular view out to the sea. We saw a wonderful performance of Oliver Twist during a sunny afternoon with sailboats in the background adding to the spectacle on the stage. Pictures of the subtropical garden can also be seen when clicking on the above link to this amazing theater!
Europeans and Languages
The many cars in the theater's parking area with French, German, Swedish, Dutch, Swiss, etc. number plates reminded us that most Europeans are quite able to communicate in more that one language, and their training starts early. Right behind us on the seat terraces cut into the ledge, a German couple was seated with their 10 year old daughter. We were quite impressed that the girl sat through the whole performance, without complaint, although, as her parents told us, she really did not speak any English (yet). She was following the action on the stage with great attention, with her parents, who were fluent in English, giving her brief explanations from time to time.
Another interesting visit during our trip was to St. Michael's Mount, which not coincidentally shares with its French cousin both its tidal island characteristics and its conical shape: The island was given to the Benedictines, the religious order of Mont Saint-Michel in Normandy, France, by Edward the Confessor in the 11th century. The Mount, as the locals call it, with its imposing castle, has gone through various ownerships, after Henry VIII abolished the priory. The St. Aubin family retained a 999-year lease after donating it to the National Trust in 1954, and one of the Lord's nephews lives in the castle and manages the island's operations.
Chevy Chase on the Mount
We took at small boat over during high tide, visited the castle and walked back across the causeway during low tide. The causeway and the harbor as well as the palm trees can be seen on the picture on the left looking out towards the town of Marazion, only a few miles from Penzance, the most westerly major town in Cornwall and home to the pirates in Gilbert and Sullivan's comic opera. During our visit of the castle we were intrigued by the name of the Chevy Chase room and one of the guides explained to us that the name comes from the plaster frieze depicting hunting scenes of the Ballad of Chevy Chase: "The ballads tell the story of a large hunting party upon a parcel of hunting land (or chase) in the Cheviot Hills, hence the term, Chevy Chase." There is actually another more linguistic explanation for the name, which can be found on the site of the Chevy Chase Historical Society: "Chevy Chase may have been derived from the French word 'chevauchee' used in medieval Scotland and England to describe the horseback raids made into the ancient borderlands between the two countries."
A recent NPR article by Stephen M. Walt, professor of international relations at Harvard University, caught my attention: Foreign Policy: 10 Things Future Wonks Should Know. The article meant to address the "things" our future Secretaries of State or for that matter, the students and future international policy wonks should learn. (The 1938 photo from the article shows undergraduates from Oxford University as they walk to lectures, well equipped with books.)
While I certainly cannot argue with any of his ten points, I wish he had listed “Foreign Language” as #2 or even #1 (instead of #3) for all the excellent reasons he mentions:
“... I know that everyone is learning English these days, but learning at least one foreign language provides a window into another culture that you can't get any other way, and also provides a sense of mastery and insight that is hard to achieve otherwise.” It seems clear to me that among the many other “things” a foreign policy expert should know, foreign language and history should be on top.
Considering the interconnections of our lives with the rest of the world, Prof. Walt's reasoning does not only apply to foreign policy wonks, but indeed to many industries, businesses, and people. He also speaks to “a sense of mastery that is hard to achieve otherwise,” a point that is rarely mentioned when enumerating the benefits of knowing a foreign language.
The current presidential election campaign in the US also makes me again painfully aware of the fact that knowing another language (than English) does not give any candidate an advantage with the voting public.
You may all remember that John Kerry downplayed his knowledge of French in 2004, and Mitt Romney is currently doing the same. President Obama is now staying away from that topic as well, as he got blasted in 2008 when regretting: “I don't speak a foreign language. It's embarrassing ... It's embarrassing when Europeans come over here, they all speak English, they speak French, they speak German. And then we go over to Europe and all we can say is merci beaucoup, right?" (CBS News 7/11/2008)
But for those who endeavor to learn another language both the “window into another culture” and the “sense of mastery” provide ample rewards.
En route by car from Córdoba to Madrid (both “must see” tourist destinations), we turned off the main highway and followed signs to the town of Almagro (“red clay” in Arabic), where we decided to stay the night.
The Fuggers in Almagro?
After a tourist-heavy day in Córdoba - which was especially congested and noisy because it happened to be Mother’s day - we welcomed the more tranquil stay in Almagro. It’s a small and stately town with an unusual history. We learned, for one, that in 1525 the Fuggers, a German banking family, due to the financial woes of Charles I of Spain, became the beneficiaries of cinnabar mines near Almagro and Almadén. (Cinnabar is a mineral from which mercury is extracted.) The Fugger warehouse in Almagro has now been restored and tells about the rise and fall of the Fugger empire during the 16th and 17th centuries. (Above, the courtyard of the restored Fugger warehouse.)
When in Spain - Speak Spanish
Looking for a place to have dinner, we were happy to stumble upon a small restaurant that was open. At 8:15 pm, we were on the early side. Only one other table was occupied. Two Swiss German couples were chatting away about the events of their day. When the restaurant owner approached them with menus, asking “¿Inglés o español?”, one of the men answered in a voice with a distinct Swiss German accent: “Estamos en España. Español, por favor.” This was a welcome answer. The owner went out of her way to explain to them the various local dishes in Spanish and helped them select a suitable wine from the region.
Similarly, most of our own efforts to speak Spanish have been met with open friendliness. This has been particularly true whenever we went off the beaten tourist path.
Most importantly, though, we found it easy and pleasant to interact with locals - in Spanish, of course: Asking for information about the town; asking for directions to the various sights and landmarks; buying gifts to take back home; looking for a restaurant to have dinner (on a Monday night when many restaurants are closed); chatting with the waiter on the magnificent Plaza Mayor (left), where we were having drinks; and with the owner of our delightful restaurant, who took obvious pleasure in explaining the local dishes to us in detail.
As part of our recent trip through Spain, we tried to combine “must see” tourist destinations (such as Granada and Seville) with smaller towns that are off the beaten track.
On our drive from Seville to Cordóba, we decided to stop at Carmona, a town of about 25,000 inhabitants and the first major town, about 25 miles east of Seville. Our travel guide only had a short entry, but we were glad that we got off the main highway: The town is located on top of a hill overlooking fertile plains and it has an interesting history.
"Europe's Oldest inhabited Town"
As we walked through Carmona’s Puerta de Sevilla, we found a dense cluster of houses and winding streets that led to a plaza in the middle of town. We actually walked to the plaza only later - after we had taken a tour in a brand new electric mini-bus. The tour and bus were the idea of an enterprising young attorney, Alfonso, who had realized that in the current economy, his legal skills could not provide sufficient income for his young family. Alfonso took us and a Canadian couple on a leisurely half-hour drive through the town. As the mini-bus slowly wound through the narrow streets, he gave us a synopsis of the town’s history. He noted that Carmona is one of Europe’s “oldest continuously inhabited towns.” (This tour was, by the way, one of the few times that we listened to a talk in English; our Canadian co-passengers did not understand Spanish.)
Moors, Washington Irving, And Movies...
During their long occupation, the Moors fortified Camona, but also built palaces and fountains. The town was captured in 1247 by Ferdinand III of Castile and served as an important crossing point between Seville and cities to the east. The bell tower of the 15th century church of San Pedro, is often called "little Giralda" as it is a replica of Seville's Giralda.(left)
Apparently, as we later learned from a sign outside the city, Washington Irving had visited Carmona less than two centuries earlier, in 1829. In “The Route of Washington Irving,” (published by the Fundación El legado andalusì), there is a long entry about Carmona, describing it aptly as a town with a “welcoming atmosphere.”
Today, the town is often used as a setting for movie shoots, 26 last year alone. We actually passed a movie set on our tour, but the crew was resting after a 50+ horse scene which had taken place the previous night in the narrow streets. Clearly, the difficult economic climate has also had an impact on Carmona. While we were there, we saw a demonstration of town residents who expressed their anger especially with Spain’s drastic cuts in education. (see picture to the right)
Before we left Carmona, we sat down at a café in the town square to have a “cortado” (espresso with a dash of hot milk); at the next table, a group of local men and women were talking about events in their lives; our waiter was friendly and chatty, and we were happily soaking it all up.
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