Posted on by Peter Rettig

Pre-Corona European Travels 12 – Bordeaux and Arcachon

Cité du Vin MuseumIn September 2019, as we flew from Amsterdam to Bordeaux, Ulrike and I had no idea yet how different our life would be in a few months.
I am writing this post just about a year later. Checking the websites of the places which we visited during our week-long stay in Bordeaux and travels through the Périgord region, I realize that many activities are out of reach at the moment: exploring Bordeaux by tram and bus, visiting museums, a wine tasting class in the Cité du Vin (see picture above), a river cruise with Bruno, visiting castles and the Lascaux caves, wine tasting in vineyards, etc, etc.
Fortunately, the memories and pictures from that trip will last us for a while. And maybe this post will motivate some readers to explore Bordeaux and its surroundings once the Covid-19 period has passed!

A Very Brief History of Bordeaux

As we usually do in a new city, we visited the local history museum, here the Musée d'Aquitaine. This gave us a quick and comprehensive overview of both Bordeaux's ancient and recent history.
We learned that Bordeaux's importance as a major port increased after the marriage in 1152 of Eleanor of Aquitaine with Henry Plantagenet (who is better known as Henry II and was King of England from 1152-1189).
The “English era” gave Bordeaux protection, and the wine trade and tax-free status with England made the city flourish right into the middle of the 15th century.Aerial view of the Port of the Moon in 1899
Annexed by France in 1453, Bordeaux eventually entered into another golden era in the 18th century, when it became France's busiest port, supplying much of Europe with coffee, sugar, cotton, etc from overseas. (Image by Hugo d'Alesi, 1899, Archives de Bordeaux métropole.)
After World War II, two long-serving mayors were responsible for Bordeaux's development: Jacques Chaban-Delmas from 1947-1995 and Alain Juppé from 1995-2019, both with various interruptions, as they also served as Prime Ministers under Jacques Chirac and Georges Pompidou respectively.
Today the Bordeaux metropolitan area has a population of about 780,000 with about 250,000 living in the city. As such, it is France's sixth largest city, the capital of the Nouvelle-Aquitaine region and the center of a major wine-growing and wine-producing region.

Exploring Bordeaux by Tram

Bordeaux wireless tramNeither Ulrike nor I had ever been in Bordeaux or that part of France before. We especially looked forward to exploring the surrounding wine country as well.
Our rental apartment was near the Place Gambetta, right in the center of town. This allowed us to explore “la vieille ville” and other quarters on foot, and by using several tram lines that were nearby.
Eager to use the public transport system, trams and buses, we made the mistake of purchasing a seven-day transport card online. Why a mistake? Because each time we used a tram, we had to use our smartphone and internet connection to validate. (A better choice is to purchase a 7-day card in one of the public transport offices.)
And as the tram was our favorite mode of transport, we noticed one thing right away: there were no overhead wires in the city. We were intrigued. (See picture above of tram in front of the Bordeaux Opera.) I noticed that there was a center rail set in the pavement, but people normally walked over it, so obviously it could not be electrified.
A Google search and our visit to the Historical Museum solved the mystery: Mayor Chaban-Delmas had the last of the 38 tramlines, with their over 120 miles of tracks, removed in 1958. But plans for a subway failed because of the sandy soil and related costs.
The “Bordelaises and Bordelais” (women and men of Bordeaux) had to wait until 2003, Bordeaux wireless tram trackswhen the first of the now 3 lines (about 40 miles) of a modern tramway were opened. Mayor Alain Juppé had insisted that no overhead wires should spoil the view of the buildings in the city. Thus a ground-level power supply operates in the city, called APS (Alimenation Par Sol). The center rail is not continuous, but connected with what look like ceramic isolators. (You can see the center rail with the light brown isolator in the picture.)
In the city, electric power is supplied to the tram by the center rail with only the portion under the tram electrically live. Reportedly, the system had problems at the start, but seemed to work well while we were there. (We wonder, however, how it would work during snow and ice conditions.)
Once the tram leaves the inner city, the overhead lines appear again and each tram raises its collector arm (pantograph) to connect.

Cité du Vin

One of the must-see sites when you visit Bordeaux is Cité du Vin, the Bordeaux Wine Museum. You can get there either by tram or by water shuttle on the Garonne river. At the museum, you will learn more about the world's wine cultures than you'll likely remember. The permanent exhibition explains how “humans cultivate vines all over the world in a wide variety of natural conditions. Winegrowers have adapted, invented and modeled their landscapes and shaped them through their traditions.”
Cité du Vin wine shopWe also decided to take a wine tasting class in French. The teacher was entertaining and familiarized an international audience with the basics of French wine terminology. And while it certainly takes more than a one-hour class to become a real wine connoisseur, we became fully aware of how many vivid adjectives the French language has for describing wines.
For example: The level of “acidité” (acidity) can be described by words like “mou, vif, nerveux” (soft, lively, nervous); the level of “tanin” (tannin) with “souple, charpenté, âpre” (flexible, framed, harsh); the level of “onctuosité” (smoothness) with “creux, gras, lourd” (hollow, fat, heavy).
And most importantly, we learned: When you “name” (i.e. pin down with words) your own impression of the wine that you're sampling, you'll better remember a similar taste next time. (But it requires that you equip yourself with the relevant vocabulary to describe your impressions! Here is a link to such a wine glossary in English.)
The shop at Cité du Vin has a large selection of wines from the region (see picture above), and from the top of the spectacular building (where more wine tasting occurs), you have a spectacular view of Bordeaux and the Garonne river.

Bordeaux's Museums

Besides the Musée d’Aquitaine and la Cité du Vin, we also enjoyed the MECA,Bassin de Lumières exhibition poster musée des arts décoratifs et du design, and the Musée Mer Marine (Maritime Museum).
Indeed, when we visited the Maritime Museum, we were also intrigued by the nearby submarine bunkers. An unattractive remnant of World War II, which had housed the Italian submarine fleet at the time, its thick concrete walls and roof have made demolition cost-prohibitive.
At the time of our visit, parts of this base were just being converted into the Bassins de Lumières. While not yet open to the public then, the above link and picture give you an impression of a spectacular exhibit, which appears well worth visiting.

La Garonne and Le Miroir d'Eau

Miroir d'eau in front of Place de la BourseFor many cities a waterway adds to their special appeal and Bordeaux is no exception (see also Lisbon, Portugal). Pictures in the Musée d'Aquitaine showed us that before World War II and even into the 1960s, the Garonne river's waterfront had been a busy port, with ocean-going ships docking right up to the Pont de Pierre.
Today commercial harbor terminals and pontoons, especially for container ships, have moved downstream. But major cruise ships can still dock downtown, close to the Place de la Bourse and the Miroir d'Eau.
There is now a wonderful promenade that stretches from beyond the Miroir d'eau with mistPont de Pierre to the row of converted warehouses downstream. These hangars house various expositions and events as well as brand-name discount shops.
The Miroir d'Eau, in front of the Place de la Bourse is reportedly the world's largest reflecting pool with 37,100 sqft. It is indeed quite spectacular, both as a mirror and also when the rising mist begins to hide the people walking around.
I would be amiss if I didn't comment on the color of the Garonne river.Dordogne joins Garonne river I had already noticed the brown color of both the Garonne and the Dordogne rivers from the plane as it made its approach to the Bordeaux airport.
Bruno, our Garonne river cruise guide, made it his first point of business to explain why the Garonne is NOT “dirty”: the color is the end-result of a natural phenomenon. The sediment that the Garonne carries downstream meets the oceanic tides that come up the estuary. With salty water being heavier than fresh water, the undercurrent brings the sediment to the surface and coagulates in the form of microscopic flakes, producing the brown color. Nevertheless the Garonne is ranked as one of Europe's cleanest rivers!

Arcachon and the Dune du Pilat

Oysters lunch @ ArcachonAt the end of our one-week stay in Bordeaux we rented a car to explore the surrounding wine country. (More about that in another post.)
We had heard from friends that a visit to  Arachon was also a must: both for its famous oysters as well as for the “Dune of Pilat”. Arcachon is only a 40 mile drive from Bordeaux and a favorite weekend spot for many locals.
For centuries the name of Arcachon has been related to “great oysters”, and keeping the Arcachon Bay unpolluted is of key concern for many area residents. (Over the last 50 years there have been a number of natural and man-caused disasters affecting the oysters in the bay.) The area's oyster industry grows oysters for the French restaurant market as well as seed oysters for oyster growers all over Europe.
The delightful little Hôtel du Parc, where we stayed, was in walking distance to the Plage Pereire. After renting bicycles directly at the hotel, we were soon using the bike paths up and down along the beach.
We even made it all the way to downtown Arcachon and its harbor. The downtown area is not very attractive, as it is overbuilt with hotels and condominiums. However, the promenade along Arcachon Bay with its beach, promenade, restaurants and large marina is lovely. It was still bustling during the weekend even at the end of September. Sitting in one of the many restaurants, "people watching" can be a great pastime!
We sampled the famous “huitres” (oysters) at several restaurants. Our favorite was the Restaurant du Soleil, right at the beach, with a fabulous view of the sun set each evening.

Climbing up the Dune du Pilat was an amazing experience. Located just southClimbing the Dune du Pilat of the entrance to the Bay of Arcachon, the dune rises to over 300 feet above sea level and is about 1.7 miles long. The name “Pilat” (or “Pyla”, to the locals) originates from the Gascon word “philar”, which means heap or mound.
On the last September weekend there was a stream of visitors climbing up and down the dunes, some picnicking on top, others just watching the para gliders making their turns and  – because of the upwinds –  often landing above from where they started.
The dune has been observed to move backwards at the rate of about 15 feet per year, encroaching on the pine forest and swallowing up houses built at its base. This explains why the visitor center and large parking lot have been placed far in the back.

After our stay in Arcachon we still had a few days left to explore the “Médoc region” to the left of the Gironde estuary, but we'll report on that in our next post.

Posted on by Ulrike Rettig

Why Knowing Another Language is Cool at any Age

Cool ski jumpWe're well into January and I've already had a few days of cool skiing behind me.  (And no, that's not me, but a photo by Jörg Angeli on Unsplash.)

It's high time though to put together some goals for this year's language learning. But is learning a language even worth the effort?

Here we are at the doorstep of a new decade. New technology - such as instant translators - will make learning a foreign language unnecessary, if not obsolete. So why bother?

We're getting used to wanting things fast (by ordering from Amazon, believing in instant personal transformations, etc). But learning a language takes time. Certainly more than 10 days (as promised by Pimsleur) or 3 months (as promised by Benny Lewis).

Life is getting more automated (think of self-driving cars, robots for the house, etc). Why go to the trouble of memorizing and practicing words, figuring out weird grammar, or struggling to decode a stream of "gibberish"?

Yesterday, I reread Kirsten Winkler's 2015 piece on LinkedIn: The Grim Future of Language Learning. There she concludes: "It might sound like sci-fi, but at the current rate, we’re going to have working technologies in our ears and in front of our eyes that will make language learning pretty much irrelevant for most people". Argument closed!?

For a couple of hours, I felt a little depressed. But then I looked at my own life and went happily back to my language learning routine.

TECHNOLOGY AND SELF-LEARNING

screenshot of iPhone with language apps

For sure, advances in technology have revolutionized and disrupted the classical model of language learning - which in my time was a chapter textbook with short reading passages, grammar explanations, and exercises.

Many of us remember some of that from our college language classroom. (I taught college German for some years using the classic textbook plus-pattern-drill approach. But funny enough, it just wasn't the way I myself learned languages best.)

Now we have everything we need for successful self-learning. We can use language apps, join language groups on social media, access online language sites, learn with YouTube videos, watch foreign language movies with (English or other) subtitles, play other-language audio books, listen to online radio stations from other countries, participate in language exchanges, and so on.

Some of us also have the opportunity to travel and try out our language skills on location.

So what's holding us back? Is it the assumption that we can thrive in a global world just with English? Is it laziness, or the feeling that we have no time? Is it the idea that we've missed the language learning boat, because we're now "too old" - at 30, 45, 60, or at 70?

WHY MAKE THE EFFORT?

Once you're out of school, language learning is no longer a "subject". It becomes part of what makes life interesting and adventurous. Passing exams is no longer part of it. Your goal is to have a conversation with someone who speaks the language. Or to watch a film, read a book, listen to an audio book - all in another language. When you can do that, it's huge.

No doubt, it does get somewhat harder to learn other languages as an adult. Not so much because you have lost all abilities that you had when you learned your first language. It's more because work, family, and social commitments now fill your days. Your priorities have changed. 

And there are some other reasons too. For example, from the time we are young, we gradually lose the ability to hear certain sounds. Young children can absorb other languages easily because their brain can identify a broad range of sounds. (See Beyond "Learning a Language Like a Child".) But as children grow into adults, the sounds of their native language become dominant and their ability to hear some sounds of other languages diminishes. Still, studies have shown that listening to other languages can give us back the ability to hear a broader range of sounds again. Have a look at Gabriel Wyner's article in Scientific American: How to Teach Old Ears New Tricks.

Another complaint we have as adults: we don't like memorization. But language is not just a list of words, it's also context, grammar patterns, tone of voice, etc. By experiencing language as communication, you work your brain on a much more complex level.

Besides giving our brain a boost, learning another language gets us out of the monolingual way of seeing the world. It opens up other cultures to us, teaches us empathy, and helps us become citizens of the world.

Having a device for instant translation can definitely help in certain situations. Especially, if you use it to communicate specific information. But having "technologies in our ears and in front of our eyes" all the time when talking with people, can't be pretty or pleasant. 

And, when you have no understanding at all of the local language in the place you're visiting or even living in, you'll remain shut out. Locals are not going to speak English with each other just for your benefit.
So, why is learning a language worth the effort? Because it gives you the tools to live a richer and more interesting life. At any age.

4 TIPS TO MAKE LANGUAGE LEARNING PART OF EVERYDAY LIFE

1. Add language learning to your identity.

For many of us, what we do in our free time becomes part of our identity, in addition to the work we do. I see myself as a teacher, but also as a skier, tennis player, and yes, a language learner.

These are things I love to do and to talk about with others. They are often my priority. When I ski, play tennis, practice or use another language, it gives me the chance to stretch my abilities. It feels good. I get a sense of accomplishment.

2. Find your inspiration.

Language learning woman while joggingWithout question, learning a language takes time and determination. You have to recall words and phrases often until they become automatic. Only with practice can you improve your pronunciation.

How do you inspire yourself to keep going even when you get discouraged? For some, the advice of a language hacker or a polyglot - such as Benny Lewis or Steve Kaufman - will do the trick. For others, doing something fun with the language - such as playing a game or listening to a story, will keep them engaged.

Do whatever gets you excited about the language - from listening to songs or audio books, to planning a trip to the country or region you always wanted to visit.

3. Check your mindset.

Having the right attitude helps a lot. Learning a language cannot be an instant achievement, but rather stretches out into a series of small, enjoyable successes. If you accept that, you're well on your way. But there's more.

Making mistakes is simply part of learning and nothing to worry about. Learning a language is a process of learning, forgetting, and relearning, like any new skill.

When you make your language learning a fun habit (rather than a chore) it is easier to keep going.

4. Do something in your new language every day.

Make a list of "small things" that you could do in the course of your day. Listen to a song, do a few flashcards, watch a YouTube, read a page, write a few lines, list a few words, scan news headlines, check an Instagram account, make a grocery list, copy out a few sentences, read out loud, record yourself and play back, listen to an audio book or podcast, play a game. The list could go on and on.

Make some of the items part of your daily schedule. For example: sing a song in the shower; do a few flashcards with your morning coffee; write a few lines in a journal; take a break and play a language game; read a couple of pages on the bus home or at night before sleeping; watch a film.

So, go for it, take some risks, become adventurous, try things out. And remember these eight words: "Some is good. More is better. Everything counts."

Posted on by Ulrike Rettig

European Travels 11 - Lisbon, Portugal


Lisbon PortugalIt was first the sound of Portuguese that I loved, a language we often hear spoken in the Boston area and in a small New Hampshire village where we vacation. The intriguing part: Portuguese looks very similar to Spanish but sounds so different.
So, before a March visit with family in French Switzerland, we discussed the idea of going to Lisbon for a week from there. We had just started our site, Lingo-Late.  Why not seize the opportunity to test its basic premise: Learning about 20-30 essential phrases before traveling to a new country is not difficult - even if you do it late, just before your trip - and adds to the fun and pleasure of the visit. 
Unless you're a dedicated Polyglot, you probably cannot become fluent in every language you try to learn. But, you can definitely master basic greetings, polite phrases, learn some easy "where is..." questions and a few directional words and phrases. 
That's what we did for Portugal and you can do as well with Learn Portuguese For Travel!

A BRAZILIAN IN PORTUGAL

Our nonstop flight from Geneva to Lisbon took about 2 1/2 hours. From the Lisbon Portela Airport, we took an Uber into town. (Uber is available throughout the city.) Our driver Eduardo was from Brazil and clearly eager to practice his English. We, in turn, took the opportunity to ask him about the differences between Brazilian and European Portuguese. Was the language a problem for him?
Oh, he said, no problem with the language: Brazil versus Portugal is similar to US versus UK. The big difference is that Brazilians speak with open vowels, in contrast to speakers from Portugal, who “eat their vowels”. And, he added, you have to be careful about a dozen words or so, since they have different (sometimes offensive) meanings, depending on the country you're in. He also said that speakers of Portuguese can understand Spanish quite easily. But, Spanish speakers usually have trouble understanding Portuguese. 

MY LANGUAGE BOOKLET

As always, I had a little notebook along. In it were written down all the phrases I had practiced on Lingo-Late. The key for me is to practice saying words and phrases often and with a kind of spaced-recall practice. (For example, I recall/test myself the next day, then four days later, then after a week, etc.)
I like having the option to record my voice (easily done on Lingo-Late), and then to play back and compare. For a new language like Portuguese, it feels a little awkward at first, but with time I get used to my own voice trying out unfamiliar sounds.
Once the sounds of the essential phrases are solidly in my head, I find it easy to pick up new words and phrases that I hear or see during my travels.

SEVEN HIGHLIGHTS

Lisbon is a beautiful, cosmopolitan city with a wealth of things to do. Here are seven places and activities we especially enjoyed.

1. Exploring Bairro Alto Lisbon, Portugal

Our rental apartment was in a building on Travessa da Espera, in Lisbon's Bairro Alto (Upper District). It's a trendy neighborhood where many restaurants and bars line the narrow streets. Most evenings, we found a restaurant nearby. 
At a couple of them, we definitely needed our basic Portuguese phrases, as the owners barely spoke any English. Our best and most fun experience was at the small restaurant A Nossa Casa, which features an amazing array of "petiscos" (the Portugese version of "tapas").

2. Praça do ComércioPraça do Comércio, Lisbon

On our first day, once we had lunch and studied the city map, we headed to the historic Praça do Comércio, a generously laidout U-shaped square.
There, at the Story Center, we learned about the different periods in Lisbon's history, from the early sea explorers of the 15th and 16th centuries, the devastating earthquake of 1755, to Salazar's dictatorial rule (1932 to 1968), and the 50 years since then. 

3. Miradouro das Portas do Sol

Later that first day, walking back to Bairro Alto, weOverlook of Lisbon were talked into a 90 minute e-TukTuk tour that turned out to be perfect. Lisbon is built on seven hills. The narrow streets go up and down and up again. In her quiet electric cart, our guide Maria drove us through several different neighborhoods. In her fluent French - the preferred tour language of our little group - she told us stories about Lisbon's history and its people. 
Because of its hilly cityscape, Lisbon has a number of Viewpoints (Miradouros) scattered throughout. Maria took us to the Miradouro das Portas do Sol (Doors of the Sun). The soft late-afternoon sun gave us a stunning first view of the city and the Tagus River (Rio Tejo). Over the next days, we were always on the lookout for other such viewpoints.

4. Day Visit to Belém

Padrão dos Descobrimentos, Belém, PortugalOnce we had figured out the city's transit system, we took a bus to Belém (the Portuguese word for Bethlehem). The bus was crowded mostly with locals and the ride took about 30 minutes.
Our reward was a wide, open promenade that stretches along the Tagus River. On it stands the Padrão dos Descobrimentos, a stone monument celebrating the achievements of the Portuguese Explorers of the 15th and 16th centuries. It is a 52 meter high ship's prow and has on it more than 30 statues of historical figures of the time. The one best known is that of Henry the Navigator, (1394-1460), a prince who financed many of the explorations, but who is also known for founding the European slave trade. The excellent Marine Museum in Belém tells the story of Portugal, the seafarer nation.

5. Train Trip to Sintra

To get to Sintra, famous for its 19th century Pena Palace, Sintra, PortugalRomanticist architecture, we took a suburban train from Rossio Station. Sintra, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is only 27 km (16.5 miles) from Lisbon but the trip took about 45 minutes, since it's a commuter route with many stops. 
Exploring Sintra (on foot and by local bus) took us into the world of somewhat eccentric architecture. We were glad we could ask in Portuguese where the bus stop was for the bus to the palace - and understood the directions.  
The Palace of Sintra is in the lavish Mujédar style of architecture (Moorish revival); the old center of town, a little higher up, consists of narrow streets, stairways, and quaint mansions; still higher up, you have the ruins of the Castle of the Moors; and finally, on top there's the colorful Disney-style Pena Palace. 
Best of all, the large terrace at Pena Palace opens up an incredible view of the countryside. 

6. A Walk through the Maurario and Alfama Districts

Santa Just Lift, LisbonWe took a day to do some casual sightseeing on foot. We walked to the top platform of the Santa Justa Lift from a hill (we didn’t take the lift because of long lines). 
From there, we slowly made our way through the hip Maurario district, with its street and tile art, and into the historic Alfama district, going past the city walls and ending up at the Castelo de São Jorge. 

7. Ferry to Cacilhas

On our last day, Christo Rei Statue, near Lisbon, Portugalwe took the ferry across the river Tejo to Cacilhas on the other side. Then we caught the local bus to Cristo Rei - a monumental statue inspired by the Christ statue in Rio de Janeiro. An elevator takes you up to a 80 meter high platform, from where you have a panoramic view of the entire Tagus Estuary, the 25th April suspension Bridge, and the seven hills of Lisbon. 
Afterwards, we took the bus halfway back to the town of Olho de Boi, rode the Boca do Vento (Mouth of the Wind) elevator from cliff-top down to the river's edge, and walked the 15-minute path along the river back to the Ferry Terminal.

Because we had learned and practiced greetings in Portuguese, asking for directions, and ordering in a restaurant, we tried these out whenever we could. For sure, we weren't even close to being fluent. But, people appreciated our willingness to use Portuguese, rather than immediately throwing English at them. Because of our persistent attempts at using the local language, we had many a conversation that otherwise would not have happened. It clearly added to the enjoyment of our stay in Lisbon.

Posted on by Ulrike & Peter Rettig

Which useful phrases should every traveler know?

young couple with vacation choicesWhen planning to travel to a country where you don't speak the language, you typically face some choices:

  1. Don't bother learning anything new – just rely on your native language, or whatever you already know.
  2. Learn and practice a few useful words and phrases, a few minutes a day.
  3. Spend time and effort to relearning the language, if you studied it in school.
  4. Invest time and effort to learn the language from scratch.

Obviously, your decision depends on other factors as well, including:

  • How much time will you spend in the foreign country, or countries?
  • How likely is it that your native language will be understood there?
  • How much time can you invest?

For many English speakers who travel abroad, the obvious choice is No. 1: Don't learn anything new.
That is because English has become more and more a “lingua franca” for travelers. (Pamela Druckerman's recent article in the New York Times points up some pitfalls for monolingual English speakers.)
But think about it. Even if English is your native language and the only one you speak fluently, learning just a few words and phrases of the local language can make your stay in a place so much more interesting and enjoyable: It can become the starting point for more tips and insights, or simply the beginning of a conversation with a local resident - even if it continues in English.

The Case for Useful Words and Phrases

From every country we visited and whose language we don't speak, we have a couple of anecdotes that remind us how useful it was to know at least greetings, polite phrases and some numbers in the language locally spoken.
Several years ago, we visited Japan and China. We learned and practiced the basic numbers, and a few common phrases and greetings: thank you, please, excuse me, good morning, goodbye, etc. For us, knowing the numbers in Japanese and Chinese proved especially useful.
In Hiroshima, we ventured out one evening and found a restaurant Flat lay of Sushi seton the second floor of a building. As we entered, we soon realized that nobody spoke English. Nor did anyone speak any of the other European languages we know. The restaurant was crowded. But because we knew the Japanese word “fifteen”, we understood that we could have a table in about fifteen minutes. So, we decided to wait. We had read earlier that it's a Japanese custom to overestimate such waiting times. Still, we were pleasantly surprised that after less than 10 minutes our booth was ready.
It was a memorable Japanese dinner. We had dishes we had never tasted before and savored the sake that overflowed our small ceramic cups. We were glad we had waited.

In China we visited the Great Wall and afterwards our tour guide led us into one of the government-run shops that lined the road. Being able to negotiate prices in Mandarin, proved not only to be fun but also made us feel that we got some bargains. (That was very likely just wishful thinking.)

On a trip driving from Germany to Denmark to catch a ferry, we wanted to get some Danish Krone at a bank ATM. (Denmark, as well as the UK, Sweden, Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Romania don't use the Euro.)
In one of the small towns we drove through, we stopped and asked a passerby: “Undskyld, hvor er en bank?” and immediately got a fast Danish response, which we didn't understand. It prompted us then to ask: “Taler du engelsk”? And we realized that when you ask for directions in a foreign language, you should also know a few of the typical directional responses, e.g. left, right, straight ahead, around the corner, etc. We then had a very pleasant conversation with the woman in English and she also showed us the way to a Bank ATM.

In Stockholm, Sweden, we asked for directions in Swedish to one of the museums. We were delighted that the older gentleman continued in Swedish when giving us directions. That was maybe a bit unusual for a Swede, as most of them speak English quite well. But we felt great that our 3 months of studying Swedish beforehand paid off. Not only did we understand his directions, but we found the museum quite easily.

Czech milk cartonLast year we stayed in Prague, the Czech Republic. (See also European Travel 10 – Prague in 2018). As we had rented an apartment for a week, we went to a neighborhood grocery store for some breakfast items.
The young man at the cash register was able to say in English how much we owed. But he did not understand the English words jam/marmalade, butter, cereal, etc. Nor could he explain what the word “polotucné” on the milk carton meant. (We wanted to make sure we weren't buying skim milk. In fact, it means “half fat” or “part skim”, as we later found out.)
We now also look up and practice the foreign words of our typical breakfast items ahead of time, if we travel to a country whose language is new for us . (And we'll add some basic food terms to our Lingo-late Essential Words and Phrases.)

Useful and Essential Words and Phrases

In fact, our experience at our next stop, Budapest, Hungary caused us Home page of Lingo-late.comto start our new site, Lingo-late.com, for those who choose #2 above: Travelers who invest a little time to learn and practice just a few useful or “essential” words and phrases.

What are useful or essential phrases for YOU?
We believe that the first +/-10 polite phrases and greetings in a local language could and should be learned by any traveler.
They include words and phrases such as:

  • Yes
  • No
  • Thanks/Thank you
  • Please
  • You're welcome
  • Excuse me
  • Good morning
  • Hello/Good Day
  • Good evening
  • Goodbye
  • Do you speak English (for English speakers)

(You'll find the translations for 12 of the European languages on Lingo-late.com)
What else you then want to learn and practice may depend a little bit how you travel and where to.
We took part in a tour to Japan and China, but we have never used organized tours for our travels in Europe. So, for European countries we like to be able to ask “Where is...?” questions.
We do this not only to ask for directions. We have found that politely asking “Where is...?” questions can also be the beginning of a conversation with someone who lives locally.
And even if our conversation partner's English turns out to be better than our foreign language skills, we often have a nice exchange. Many times we've ended up with tips and local information that has enriched our stay.
Plus – based on our experience in Denmark – we also like to learn and practice a few of the directional phrases: left, right, straight ahead, around the corner, at the light, etc.
Food and drink items vary quite a bit from country to country. Menus in the big cities often include English or are even multilingual. However, in the countryside, the local language prevails and you may well want to know the foreign names for chicken, fish, snails, clams, beef, tongue, lamb, mutton, tripe, sweetbread - that is, any food or drink items that you may want to order or or want to avoid ordering.

Useful Words and Phrases for Special Circumstances

Obviously, if you just learn a handful of words and phrases, you won't be able to have a conversation in the foreign language. But even you can understand and speak the language, you may come across special circumstances that require you to learn new terms.
Unicaja bank branch Seville, SpainThis occurred to us in Seville a couple of years ago. On the way to our apartment after a late dinner, we used a bank's ATM to get cash. However, there was a problem, and the ATM did not dispense the cash to us. The next day though, we saw that our account had been charged Euro 500.  When we tried to explain this in Spanish to a bank official, we realized that we needed to brush up on some banking vocabulary. Nobody in the bank's branch office spoke much English. So it was clearly better to use our Spanish. The branch manager even declared proudly: “No hablo ingles”. You can read more in 5 Tips for Dealing with ATM Troubles Abroad (and at Home).

The Benefit of Useful/Essential Phrases

In a foreign country, using polite phrases and customary greetings in the local language is always a good idea. This is even more so when you leave the big cities and venture out into the countryside or to places that are off the beaten track.
Our best memories from our car trip from Seville to Madrid are visits in towns like Carmona, Almagro, Aranjuez and conversations with locals there.
Often these conversations start when we ask for a restaurant, or how to get toFriendly conversation a museum or a church. Yes, in some cases we could use our smart phone (if we have Wifi or phone reception), but then we could not practice our foreign words and phrases and have a conversation either – even in English.
Traveling is not just about seeing new sites or monuments. What you'll remember more are the interactions with the people you meet, the conversations you have.
Just knowing a few words and phrases in the local language can get you a smile, and sometimes a conversation and valuable local insider tips.
And yes, English may well be the "Lingua Franca" of the World. But you'll never go wrong by learning just a few "essentials" for your next travels...

Posted on by Ulrike Rettig

Before You Travel: 9 Tips to Boost your Language Skills

Mao of Bordeaux region, FranceIn the fall, we'll be spending two weeks in Bordeaux, France. So, before we get there, I'm super eager to take my French up a notch or two.

If I'm an Advanced learner (C1-C2), as I am with French and Dutch, or an Intermediate (B1-B2) as I am with Italian and Spanish, there are many resources to choose from: books, audio books, Ted talks, TV series, news stories, etc.

If I'm a Beginner (A1-A2) in the language, as I am with Swedish or Portuguese, I look for apps or online programs with words and phrases; later on for simple texts and audios.

Free options like Duolingo and Lingohut can give you a good start; others, such as Babbel, Mosalingua, Pimsleur, LingQ, Busuu, etc. also ask you to spend some of your money. (And - if you want to learn/practice polite phrases and greetings just before your next trip to Europe - take a look at Lingo-late.com. More about that below!)

The most important thing to keep me going is to choose interesting materials. I try to do something every day.

Below are 9 Practice Techniques that work for me. They are in no particular order, and I don't do each one every day. I practice a language when I can and feel like it.

1. Listen and Repeat (without seeing the text)woman listing on earphones

  • Focus on the sound of words without visual interference.
  • Imitate how words run together in phrases and sentences.
  • Practice sentence intonation.
  • Notice how the different intonation of sentences can change their meaning.
  • Learn to listen for patterns in the language.

Pimsleur Language Programs are a good method for this. We practiced with 90 lessons of Pimsleur Italian before spending 5 months in Rome.

I ended up with a pretty good pronunciation and some basic phrases I could use. (But I still had to learn to read Italian and my vocabulary was very limited.)

Later, I used the listen and repeat program, Ripeti con me for Italian. For Spanish, it was the fun app. SuperCoco.
smiling-man-with-laptop-and-headphones-at-home2. Listen and Read

  • Correlate the sound and spelling of words and phrases.
  • Become aware of typical letter combinations.
  • Notice "silent" letters that are written but not pronounced.
  • Look for grammar patterns in the language.

Knowing how written words sound is very helpful for asking directions, for ordering from a menu in a local restaurant, etc.

We had our Pimsleur Italian experience before DuoLingo came out in June 2012.
The wish to correlate text and sound digitally for learning a language was the impetus behind GamesforLanguage, which we launched in September 2011. Our courses and games helped me catch up on my Italian reading skills, expanded my vocabulary and kept me in pronunciation practice. They also gave me a good start for Spanish.

DuoLingo Stories are a fun way to read and listen. They started to come out in 2017, and are now available in Spanish, Portuguese, French, and German. You go through the story sentence by sentence. When you click on a word, the English translation comes up.

Olly Richards of IwillteachYouALanguage has a series of Readers with audio in various languages and for different levels. I've been using Spanish and Italian Short Stories for Intermediate Learners.

Typically, I listen to a story once while following the text. I write down a few key words that I don't know and look them up if I need to. Then I "listen only" to the story several more times.

3. Interactive Play (flashcards, games)Gamesforlanguage French shootout game

  • Mix it up and add some fun by learning interactively.
  • Use flashcards to learn vocabulary and test yourself.
  • Build basic language skills for listening, speaking, reading, writing.
  • Focus on practicing your pronunciation.
  • Create a "streak" or build "points" to motivate yourself.

Many programs now offer interactive, gamified language learning: DuoLingo, Babbel, Memrise, Busuu, Drops, and yes, GamesforLanguage.

I've used all of these at one time or another, with GamesforLanguage, of course, being my staple.

Interactive play doesn't replace having a conversation with a native speaker, but it's a fun way to get in some practice time. It's a great way to learn a language bit by bit.

Man reading newspaper4. Read Silently

  • Practice reading fluently, without stopping if you don't know a word.
  • Guess the meaning of words from their context.
  • Notice verb tense markers, eg. whether the verb is in the present, past, future.
  • Be aware of "who is speaking", as some languages drop pronouns.

Once you are able to read on a high Intermediate level in the language you're learning, there's nothing to hold you back. Reading is a powerful way to acquire new vocabulary and absorb grammar structures intuitively.

When you start reading things that really interest you (novels, non-fiction books, news articles), the language is yours.

5. Read Aloudmother reading to young girl

  • Practice reading aloud fluently, focusing on phrase and sentence intonation.
  • Pretend you're a native speaker and add some drama to your reading.
  • Record yourself and playback.
  • Have a native speaker give you feedback (live, or of your recording).

A couple of years back, our French-speaking nephew visited us with his family while we were spending a month in Barcelona. His daughter was four at the time. She asked me to read her a bedtime story in French. It was cute, because like a teacher, she corrected my pronunciation here and there.

The next day, I noticed that reading aloud had a clear benefit. It made me more confident in speaking French, which in turn improved my fluency.

Writing in journal6. Listen and Write (dictation)

  • Learn to identify words by their sound only.
  • Produce the spelling of the words and phrases you hear.
  • Be aware of word endings, agreement, etc. which may be "silent". 

I've always enjoyed practicing a language with dictation. It's very satisfying when you figure out what the sound you hear means and you get the word(s) right.

Producing the written version of words that you hear helps you to remember them better than just reading them.

To practice with dictation, I take an audio that I can easily stop and start again as often as I want. An audio book is perfect for that. I've also used TED and TEDx-talks that are not too long and deal with subjects that interest me.

7. Just Listen (and watch)couple watching TV

  • Get the meaning of each word or phrase through the context.
  • Get used to the language spoken at normal speed.
  • Pick up everyday conversational phrases.
  • Learn the vocabulary around a particular topic.

While driving we often listen to German or French audio books. One we enjoyed was Guillaume Musso's "Fille de papier".

Recently we also listened to Yuval Harari's Sapiens in French. And while I may not have understood each French word, I certainly got the meaning of every sentence. And I'm sure, my vocabulary was further enriched.

couple in conversation8. Have a Conversation

  • Anxious about having a conversation? Prepare yourself!
  • Write down phrases and sentences you think you'll to use, and practice them.
  • Look up vocabulary on topics you think may come up.
  • Prepare some questions to ask your conversation partner.

All the Listen-and-Repeat or Reading-Aloud practice will help to prepare you for real conversations. Your mouth mechanics will have gotten lots of good practice, so anxiety about pronunciation will be less of an issue.

And don't underestimate the value of talking to yourself in the language you're learning. Have a self-conversation about things you need to do, things you've done, things you notice around you, etc.

9. Write an Email, a Chat Message, keep a JournalWriting in journal

  • Try to write fluently, to say what you want to say.
  • Then go back and see if you can catch any errors.
  • For words you're not sure about, look them up.
  • Note words you want to learn in your Vocab Booklet.

It's hard to write spontaneously in a foreign language. Your native language (or another language you're learning) often interferes.

Still, if you focus on what you want to say, and not so much on grammar, your writing will make progress.
Pretend you're just having a conversation with a friend, and write that way.


I'm not someone who spends hours and hours a day drilling and practicing languages.
But I do speak a few languages. I've accumulated these patiently, step by step, always finding fun in learning, and always looking for opportunities to try things out.

I've also found that traveling is a great motivator for learning and practicing a language. Before every trip to a country where I don't speak the language, I spend some time learning useful phrases.

Greeting people in their local language, thanking them, ordering in a café, asking for directions, these are all ways to show respect for the people whose country or region you are visiting. Just think how you'd feel if the tables were turned.

(In fact, the realization that we can't learn all languages for the European countries we like to travel to, made us start a new site, Lingo-Late.com. Here we've begun to add the 50-100 most useful - “essential”- words and phrases for most European languages. The site is free and you can Listen, Repeat, Record you voice, and Playback any of the phrases.)

Posted on by Peter Rettig

From Budapest to Lingo–Late: Essential Words and Phrases

Prague CastleAs with GamesforLanguage, the idea for Lingo-Late was born straight out of our own experience.
In the fall of 2018 we stayed for a week in Prague, the Czech Republic. As we typically do before any travels, we had prepared ourselves by reading about Czech history. (The book "Czechoslovakia: The State That Failed" by Mary Heimann was an eye opener.)
We had also learned some basic Czech words and phrases and Ulrike wrote about our trip in: European Travels 10 – Prague in 2018.
Finding some of the basic Czech greetings, as well as words such as yes, no, please, thank you, etc. - together with audio was in fact not easy. Yes, we obviously could find them on Google Translate and on our phone translation apps. But we really would have liked to have them in one place to listen to the audios, recording ourselves and to practice and review them often. Learning the new sounds of another language takes time and repetition. If it's not convenient to do, it's hard to sustain.
(On Duolingo, what we consider “essential” words and phrases for travel are scattered throughout numerous lessons. You have to go through all kinds of other vocabulary to find the ones you want.)
And many other free sites have essential first words and phrases, but few have audios and none have recording features.
Not surprisingly, we found that people appreciated our attempts to use the local language. For us it was a way to show respect. And, even a few words were helpful in small local shops, although in Prague's restaurants and hotels many speak English.

Our Budapest Eureka

After a wonderful week in Prague, we took a train to Budapest. Buda Castle view across the Danube from PestAs we had only planned to stay there for three days, we didn't  put the same effort into learning essential Hungarian phrases as we had done with Czech.
However, breakfast in our hotel showed us that just a simple “Thank you” in the local language can bring a smile to even a taciturn waiter: As we ordered from the Menu, the waiter was silent and appeared quite tense. When he brought our plates, Ulrike thanked him with a friendly “Köszönöm".
This little word was all it took for him to lighten up. He then told us in broken English that he had been to England, but had not really learned enough English there, that he wanted to continue learning, etc. We gave him some suggestions for language sites and he shared some of his experiences in England. That was a really nice travel moment!
We realized in Budapest that we were in a similar situation as many travelers to Europe who take river cruises or organized trips through several countries: No time (or plan) to really learn another foreign language, but interested in just practicing some essential words and phrases for a next trip.

Lingo-Late.com Beginnings

Lingo-Late.com Home PageWhen we reserved the URL Lingo-Late.com, we wanted to attract a target audience, i.e. adults “later in life”, say 55+. But, we also wanted to suggest that you can learn +/- 50 essential words and phrases "late", i.e. in the last couple of weeks before your trip. Maybe you'll only remember the first 10-20, but this will still be better than knowing none at all.
Based on our own experiences, we thought that the first batch of 11 should include yes, and no, excuse me, please, and thank you, as well as the basic greetings. Lesson two includes the typical “Where is...” questions that many tourists will want to ask. In the third lesson, you learn directional responses i.e. left, right, straight ahead, etc. The lessons after that will include food and restaurant-related words and phrases as well as the basic numbers.
Our lessons have a simple format:

  1. 11-15 words and phrases in the foreign language with the English translation below.
  2. The foreign language audio that can be replayed as many times as wanted.
  3. A recording feature that lets you repeat the foreign word or phrase and compare yourself to the foreign speaker.

We feel that a recording feature even for some very simple words and phrases is essential: Not only will saying them aloud make you remember them better, but hearing and comparing yourself to the foreign speaker will really sharpen your pronunciation.
As of May 2019 we have posted the first 36 words and phrases (3 lessons) for German, French, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish and Icelandic, and the first lesson (11 words) for Dutch and Danish.

Why Portuguese and Icelandic?Essential Portuguese 1 - The first 11 Phrases

In March, we spent a week in Lisbon, Portugal and had the perfect occasion to try out our Lingo-Late idea firsthand. It worked great. But we have to admit, that knowing other Romance languages such as Spanish, Italian and French also helped. Still, without also learning and practicing the rather-different Portuguese pronunciation of similar Spanish words, we'd have missed quite a bit.
We added Icelandic, as our son and his family will spend a week in Iceland this summer and want to also learn and practice some essential Icelandic words and phrases. And of course, Iceland is also on our own travel list.

Next steps?

Once we have added the first +/- 50 words and phrases for most of the European languages, we plan to add some simple and entertaining games and quizzes as well. Might as well have fun learning.
We also have to do more work on our website, make it easier to find languages and lessons, etc.
As we build our audience and users, we'd like to hear from travelers and share their stories of how learning local words and phrases made their visit of a place more enjoyable and interesting.
And who knows, maybe we'll expand the vocabulary from their stories and suggestions a little further,
If you have any suggestions or stories to share, please comment below or send us a note at contact@gamesforlanguage.com.

Posted on by Ulrike Rettig

European Travels 10 – Prague in 2018

View of Castle & Charles Bridge, Prague in 2018Fifty years ago I was in Prague as a young student. As luck would have it, that visit coincided with the Soviet-led Invasion on the night of August 20-21, 1968. (see also: Memories of the Soviet Invasion of Czechoslovakia, August 21, 1968)

Whatever little sightseeing my travel friend and I had done on the preceding day - Charles Bridge, the Castle, (see picture) Wenceslas Square, Old Town Square - was eclipsed by the chaotic events of that night and the next day, when Warsaw Pact and Soviet tanks rolled into the city.

The dissolution of the Soviet Union in December 1991 was followed in January 1993 by the split of Czechoslovakia into two countries: the Czech Republic and Slovakia, both parliamentary republics.

Since that time, Prague has become one of the most popular tourist attractions in Europe. It was high time for me to go back and see what I had missed 50 years ago.

Getting ready for a trip is always fun and interesting. My husband Peter and I like to read up on the history of a country and its language. (For anyone who'd like to learn more about the history of Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic, I can only recommend Mary Heimann's “Czechoslovakia: The State That Failed”.)

For our Prague trip, we were also bent on learning some Czech language basics.

In fact, I was particularly motivated to learn some Czech because my grandfather was born in Bohemia in 1880, when the region was still part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

He was born in the village of Netrebice (near Cesky Krumlov). He spoke only Czech as a child before being sent to live with an uncle in the neighboring, German-speaking region of Styria, Austria. He was five at that time. And that's how my father's family came to Austria.

WHY LEARN SOME CZECH

In our past travels, we've often found that English has its limits, that learning some of the local language has huge benefits.

For Czech, we spent fifteen minutes or so a day for three months learning to say and understand basic phrases and to practice pronunciation.

In Prague, we noticed that older people - those not in the tourist industry - often did not speak any English. That was quite understandable because during the Soviet era, Russian was the compulsory foreign language taught in all schools in Czechoslovakia.

We also noticed that younger people did tend to speak English. But, if they weren't working in the tourist industry, it sometimes had its limits.

This became clear the first night when we tried to buy milk carton with Czech languagesome breakfast items at a small neighborhood market. The young man at the cash register was able to say in English how much we owed. But he did not understand the English words jam/marmalade, butter, cereal, etc. Nor could he explain to me what the word polotucne on the milk carton meant. (I wanted to make sure I wasn't buying skim milk. In fact, it means half fat or part skim.)

In all though, we got by very well with English and, occasionally with German.

Still, learning some Czech before the trip was worth every minute. People would greet us automatically in Czech and only switched when we spoke English. By using greetings and polite phrases in Czech, we were making an effort that was clearly appreciated.

I can well imagine, that locals in Prague are sometimes overwhelmed by the hordes of tourists constantly present in their city, and by the barrage of English that often confronts them.

Don't we expect visitors to the US to greet and address us in English and not in German, French, Czech, Danish, Italian, Chinese, Japanese, etc.?

Prague well deserves its popularity as a travel destination. There is lots to do and to discover.

In addition to the exhibits, museums, and public art works that we saw – the Caltrava and Kupka exhibitions, the Mucha, Kafka, and (new) National Museum, the often controversial David Cerny sculptures here are six (6) more highlights of our stay.

1. A WALKING TOUR

With tour guide Vaclav on Charles Bridge, PragueWalking is a great way to get to know a city. Peter's sister, who had joined us in Prague, speaks German and French. So we arranged for a German-speaking guide for a four-hour walking tour the first day of our stay. (see photo on Charles Bridge)

Vaclav, whose Austrian-tinged German was delightful, took us first through the Lesser Town of Prague. With him we discovered special places we may not have found on our own.

He showed us Wallenstein's Garden, the Kampa Island, the Maltese and Grand Priory Squares, etc., and entertained and educated us with many historical facts (the fate of the Templars, the Hussites, etc.) and stories, some of them quite personal.

The John Lennon wall (see photo) had very special memories for him: John Lennon Wall, Prague

Vaclav related to us how scared he (and his parents) were when they were visited one evening by a policeman. Together with some classmates Vaclav had been part of a demonstration at the Lennon Wall during the “Prague Spring” and had not realized that they were all being filmed or photographed. He was a fourteen-year-old school boy at that time. The policeman's “advice” was easy to understand: If Vaclav wanted to finish school – he should stay away from demonstrations!

Old Town Square, Prague in 2018After the tour of the Lesser Town, we went over the Charles Bridge, to the Jewish Quarter, and finally to Old Town Square (see photo).

We waited for the famous Astronomical clock to ring at 6 PM, but in vain – it was still being repaired.

Since there were just three of us taking the tour and Vaclav's approach was quite casual, it felt like we were just having a conversation with him, not getting a tour lecture.

Such a very personal introduction to Prague at the beginning of our seven-day stay was wonderful.

2. TOUR OF PRAGUE CASTLE

View of The Castle, PraguePrague's Castle complex towers high over the river Vltava. With the original building dating back to the 9th century, the Castle area was built and rebuilt over the centuries. It now holds several palaces, three churches, a monastery, defense towers, and gardens.

It was fascinating to walk around the Castle complex. Its buildings combine architectural styles from several historical periods: Romanesque, Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, Mannerism and Neo-classic. For art lovers, the Castle's Picture Gallery and the collections in the Lobkowicz Palace are a special treat.

St. Vitus Cathedral - whose spires give Main Nave of St Vitus Cathedral, Prague in 2018the Castle its distinct presence - is not to be missed. Begun in 1344, the stunning Gothic/Neo-Gothic cathedral was finally finished in 1929. The work by the early architects, Peter Parler and his sons, Wenzel and Johannes Parler, is particularly interesting. The so-called Parler vaults (or net-vaults) are said to have heavily influenced Gothic architecture in Slovenia, Austria, and Croatia. And, art historians speculate: Did St. Vitus Cathedral influence English Gothic, or was it the other way around?

The gorgeous stained glass windows of St. Vitus Cathedral were created by Czech artists of the early 20th century. A sweet discovery was the new window in the north nave, designed by the famous Art Nouveau artist Alphonse Mucha. (It was installed in 1931.)

The way out of the Castle area took us past the Golden Lane, a narrow street with small colorful houses. Built in the late 16th century in the Mannerism style, they housed the families of Castle guards. Somehow it seemed fitting to me that Kafka lived in one of them for a year (number 22).

3. A TRAM RIDE TO VYSEHRAD

View of Prague from Vysehrad castleWe made extensive use of Prague's public transportation system. With all three of us having passed the 70 year milestone, we could use it entirely for FREE! (We could first not believe it when we wanted to buy a ticket!) Vysehrad was only a short tram ride away along the scenic Vltava River.

Originally an 11th century fortress, Vysehrad has great historical significance for Prague. Legend has it that the fort was the first seat of Czech dukes. It stands on a hill surrounded by a large park. From the walls of the fortress, you have a fantastic view of Prague and the Vltava River.

The Basilica of St. Peter and St. Paul is part of the Vysehrad complex. Inside, besides more traditional art, you'll find amazing Art Nouveau frescoes covering the walls. They are by the painter Frantisek Urban and his wife Marie Urbanova-Zahradnicka (done in the early 1900s). Dvorak's monument on Vysherad cemetery

We toured the cemetery, where many Czech luminaries are buried, including the composers Smetana and Dvorak. (By the way, Dvorak's name is a good example of how the Czech accented-r is pronounced: it's r-zh, that is r + zh, as in measure. Sorry, but my font doesn't support Czech accents.)

On the way back down to the tram stop, we had lunch at a small bistro that was obviously a favorite with locals.

4. DAY TRIP TO PILSEN

Map of Czech RepublicOn one of the days, we took a train to Pilsen, home of the famous Pilsner Urquell. The town is located about 90 kilometers (56 miles) southwest of Prague. Trains go every hour and it takes about 90 minutes to get there.

At the Pilsen train station, we looked for a tram to take us to the center of town. We didn't see a ticket dispenser, so we tried to buy tickets from the driver as we got on. There was clearly a problem. It turned out that she had run out of tickets, so we rode free again.

We've been to plenty of breweries before, so we skipped the one in Pilsen. Instead, we took a 2-hour walking tour through the historical center of town. Tatjana, our guide, started us out on Republic Square. In its center stands the Gothic Cathedral of St. Bartholomew with its high spire. (The cathedral is currently undergoing extensive renovations.)St. Bartolomew Cathedral & guilded fountain on Republic Square, Pilsen

Around the square are buildings from varying periods, including an impressive Renaissance Town Hall. A curious contrast to the historical buildings are the three modern gilded fountains (built 2010) standing at three corners of the square. They symbolize three motifs from the Pilsen coat of arms (Camel, Greyhound, and Angel), and have caused plenty of controversy. (The one on the picture is the Greyhound.)

Pilsen, with 178,000 inhabitants is the Czech Republic's fourth largest city, and capital of the Pilsen region. After the hustle and bustle of several days in Prague (1.4 million), we enjoyed the more relaxed and quiet day in Pilsen. Our tour was also quite private, as it only included a young couple from Germany besides us.

5.VIDEO EXHIBITION: INVAZE 68 (Invasion 68)

Soviet Tank with students in Prague 1968An exhibition of the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact Invasion of 1968 at the Fair Trade Palace was just being held as we were in Prague. The exhibition marked the invasion's 50th anniversary.

The show included a video installation based on photographs by the Czech-French photographer Josef Koudelka, together with authentic sound recordings.

Archival footage of the 1968 invasion by the classic Soviet Tank in flames in Prague 1968filmmaker Jan Nemec was also part of the exhibit.

The powerful images of burning tanks and trucks together with the sound recordings of gunfire brought back to me how chaotic those days were.

And how lucky my travel friend and I were to be able to get out of Prague in time.

6. WALK UP TO PETRIN PARK

View of Petrin Tower in Prague 2018 On the last day of our one-week stay in Prague, we walked up to the Petrin Park to take a last look at the city from above.

There is a Funicular Railway to the top of Petrin Hill, built for the national Jubilee Exhibition of 1891. We passed up the ride, however, for a leisurely but invigorating walk.

The path led us up through woods, past several open spaces and along the “Hunger Wall”. The story behind the name of the wall (of which about 1,300 yards remain) goes back to 1360 when Charles IV began its construction during a period of famine.

At the top of the hill stands the Petrin Lookout Tower, a small version of the Eiffel Tower. The Petrin View of Prague from Petrin Tower, Prague in 2018Tower was built as part of the 1891 Exhibition, only two years after the completion of the original. At 200 feet high, this famous Prague landmark is about one-fifth of the height of the real Eiffel Tower.

We took the lift up the tower, though you can also walk up via 299 stairs.

The view from the lookout platform was magnificent. We had hit a clear day and could see far and wide beyond Prague into the verdant region of Bohemia.

OTHER THOUGHTS

I was glad to have visited Prague again. My memories of tanks, people running, long lines of shoppers in front of dark facades and buildings in disrepair have been replaced.

What I remember now is a modern city, with modern architecture, side by side with well-restored Romanesque, Gothic and Baroque buildings and the charm of times passed.

The Czech Republic was only born in January 1993 after the peaceful dissolution of Czechoslovakia. However, this year the country also celebrates the 100-year anniversary of the formation of Czechoslovakia, the initial multi-cultural state that formed in 1918 after the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

We heard that relations between Czechs and Slovaks are better now than during the 75 years when they both were part of one country.

For anyone visiting Prague, we can only recommend staying in New Town. There are fewer tourists, and you can walk and use public transport to wherever you want to go.

And, if you are a beer lover, you'll like both Czech beers and their prices.

Postscript:
After our stay in Prague we continued to Hungary, where we stayed in Budapest for a few days. As we did not learn any Hungarian words and phrases beforehand, we felt quite handicapped not even knowing the basic greetings and "essentials", such as yes, no, thank you, please, etc.
In Duolingo and many other apps and online programs it often takes a while before you can get to or even find such language "essentials".
We therefore started Lingo-Late.com and plan to add - over the weeks and months - 50-100 essential words and phrases for most of the European languages.
Initially, each lesson post will have 10-15 words and phrases, with translation, audio and voice recording feature. Later-on we we may add some simple dialogues and games.
We'll start with French, German, Italian and Spanish, add Portuguese, Icelandic, then Dutch etc.

Bio: Ulrike Rettig is the co-founder of GamesforLanguage.com. She's a lifelong language learner, growing up in Austria, the Netherlands, and Canada. You can follow her on FacebookTwitter and Instagram, and leave any comments right here below! 

Posted on by Ulrike Rettig

3 Tips for Your Next Adventure Travel Trip

Travelers discussing planMaybe you're an adventure traveler who likes to explore a country on your own. But traveling to a country where you don't understand the language can be intimidating.

Yes, you can tell yourself, everyone speaks English. But actually not everyone does, and certainly not in areas that are off the beaten track. Or in areas that don't care that much about speaking English.

That last point was driven home to us during our one-month stay in Seville, Spain. One night when we tried to withdraw money from an ATM, the machine went on the blink during the withdrawal.

Our card was withheld, and "for technical reasons" the machine was unable to issue us the cash we had requested (though, as we found out the next day, the money had been withdrawn from our account after all – see for the full story: 5 Tips For Dealing With ATM Troubles Abroad - And At Home).

To our surprise, our several conversations with the bank manager (to get our card and our cash back) had to be done in Spanish. He proudly told us that he "did not speak English". The one employee of the bank who supposedly spoke English, didn't really.

Our Spanish turned out to be much better than his English. Still, using Spanish banking language proved to be quite a challenge and we had to brush up on it quickly.

That kind of experience has taught us a few things about preparing for our trips to foreign countries.

To prepare for our "slow travel" adventures - they include unhurried stays in Rome, Paris, Berlin, Barcelona, Seville, Madrid, Copenhagen, Stockholm and Amsterdam - we made sure to learn some language basics and to find out about cultural differences.

1. Practice the Phrases You Might Use

To prepare for speaking the local language on your travels, Practice where you can cartoonyou need to practice. But you need to especially practice words, phrases and sentences that you are likely to use.

Greetings, please and thank you, numbers, question words, asking for directions, language for shopping, - all these are helpful, especially if you go outside of larger cities.

Obviously, you can't prepare for all occasions and emergencies, as we found out in Seville. But it didn't take us long to learn some of the key banking terminology either.

A good part of your language practice can be done on your own. To do that, nothing beats online sites that have audio and text, and which teach you the practical vocabulary you need.

You can pace yourself, you don't have to worry about making mistakes, and you can practice until the phrases you want to learn become automatic.

Words and Phrases

As I'm acquiring a new language right now - Czech - in preparation for a week's stay in Prague, I'm experiencing the challenge of learning totally unfamiliar words and sounds.

I find that it takes persistent practice to learn new words and their spelling with the goal to get them into my long-term memory.

Not only do I repeat the words often, and practice them in a kind of "spaced repetition", I also make sure I recall them frequently.

Learning vocabulary in "chunks" (meaningful phrases) is better than just learning individual words.

Once you have a set phrase, such as asking "Where is ...? or "How much is ...?" or requesting "I'd like ..." or "Please give me ...", you can put in other words to suit different situations.

Numbers

We discovered during trips to Japan and China that the most useful vocabulary we learned were the numbers.

The need to understand and say numbers came up again and again as we visited markets, paid in restaurants, requested tickets, asked for information, etc.

Listening practice

Young women during listening practiceClearly, understanding the rapid speech of native speakers is more difficult than speaking phrases and sentences that you've practiced.

So, learning to listen without translating is also really worth practicing. Especially with the kind of vocabulary that you are learning.

At the very least you'll get the gist of the responses people give you.

Pronunciation

Practicing pronunciation goes hand in hand with learning the words, phrases and sentences you want to use. No doubt, it's your goal to be understood when you speak. It therefore helps to practice out loud.

To get your pronunciation good enough, listen carefully to the native speaker and repeat what you hear. 

Some words and phrases may be easy to pronounce. Others might take a lot of practice because they contain sounds that are not part of your native language. Foreign sounds are a challenge because you may not hear them correctly at first.

2. Learn About Cultural Differences

Interacting with others who are from a different cultural background and speak another language is so much more pleasant when you understand some of the cultural assumptions they may have.

Yes, seeing YouTube videos about the social and cultural gaffes some people commit can be quite funny. And people are often very forgiving.

Still, understanding and respecting the values and traditions of others will help you engage positively with them. It will also make you more confident as a language learner.

Formal and familiar forms of address

English has one word for "you", but many other languages have two or more.

Because of the single "you", English speakers just doesn't have the ear for some of the situational differences that dictate a specific form.

Learning when to use the formal as opposed to the familiar forms of address is a must.

Differences in age, social class, type of business, etc. impact on some of the "rules" for using the formal versus the familiar "you". Also, these rules change over time.

The Internet has added some confusion to the issue since age, profession, or social class are usually not visible for participants in group discussions. Often the familiar "you" (German "du", French "tu", Italian "tu", Spanish "tú") is automatically used by all and feels friendly.

Still, if you're in another country and walk into a shop, you'll certainly want to use the formal, polite "you".

Hand GesturesHand gestures

Becoming sensitive to non-verbal clues in another culture, such as hand gestures and facial expressions, is also important.

While a certain gesture may be respectful in one culture it may be rude in another.

Read more in LingoHut's guest blog post Are There Right or Wrong Hand Gestures? 

Personal Space

When we travel, we often become quite aware of how close people stand to us, including strangers in public spaces.

In some countries, we may feel we are being crowded. For example, people in "contact cultures" (e.g. Southern European countries, South America, Middle East) stand closer and touch more than people in "non-contact cultures" (e.g. Northern European countries, North America, Asia). (Amanda Eriksen, Washington Post) 

Just know that such differences exist and be aware of how you react to a person who handles personal space differently from you.

Sense of Time

Woman showing timeTime is another factor where cultural differences occur. Not understanding them can cause unneeded friction even between people who are well-meaning and friendly.

Countries where public transportation and trains run on a precise schedule give you a different experience, as opposed to places where schedules slide and are unpredictably flexible.

The way we perceive and handle time also affects scheduling personal get-togethers. We all have expectations and reactions regarding punctuality and lateness.

But a people's culture isn't just levels of politeness, the experience of personal space, or the perception of social time. When you visit a country or region, it's also worthwhile to learn about its history and traditions.

No doubt, you can learn about cultural differences without learning a language. But inversely, if you acquire another language, learning about the culture that has evolved with it is a must.

3. Don't Be Afraid to Use the Language You've Learned

Once you're in the country where the language is spoken, it's up to you to find ways to engage in conversations with native speakers.

Of course, such conversations are very different from practicing online or Smiling woman in conversationeven practicing with a tutor (which you obviously could also consider as part of your travel preparations.)

In a conversation so much is going on at the same time. As you listen to your conversation partner and try to understand what the flow of sounds coming at you means, your mind is also working on a possible answer.

It may sound simplistic, but it's true: You can't learn to engage in foreign language conversations unless you do it. Start with baby steps and keep building.

Insist on using the local language at the market, in restaurants and bars, at the bakery, at the supermarket, when asking for directions.

You'll certainly encounter situations when the other person would rather practice his or her English – especially when their English is better than your new language. It's easy to succumb to such an offer, but try to resist.

Such situations are especially true in countries where many speak English. But in rural areas or places off the beaten track you'll certainly have the opportunity to practice what you've learned.

I've always found that locals are very supportive of my attempts at using their language. Often it has led to further conversations about their city, about travels, about my home country, etc.

And if you are also a practitioner of "slow travel" and are staying in a city for a longer period, you may be able to engage a tutor. Or you could personally meet an online conversation partner you found via one of the many language-exchange sites.

Even knowing just the basics of the local language will enhance your travel experience. And being able to listen and participate in conversations will get you to another level.

If you're an adventure traveler who likes to explore a country on your own, learn as much of the local language as you can before you get there. You won't regret it.

Bio: Ulrike Rettig is the co-founder of GamesforLanguage.com. She's a lifelong language learner, growing up in Austria, the Netherlands, and Canada. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and leave any comments right here!

Posted on by Ulrike Rettig

Italian Travel Memories 2: Marco in Florence

View of Florence and Veccio bridgeIf you're traveling to Italy, you won't want to miss Florence. Exploring this romantic and historic university town will leave you with some wonderful travel memories.

Our first ItalianTravel Memories post covered Pisa, where Marco, the young traveler in our Italian 1 course, visits his aunt and uncle. He then takes the train to Florence where he looks up a friend he met back home. At his friend's place he meets two other students who join him on his walk through the historic center of Florence.

We'll follow Marco's explorations of Florence. For those of you who are doing or have done our Italian 1 course: Marco in Italia, the additional details will complement those of the course.

The Travel Memories blog posts tell you a few interesting facts about the cities that are featured in GamesforLanguage's travel-story courses. We typically use the cities' names of the streets, hotels, squares, restaurants, etc. and we've been to many of them ourselves.

In future blog posts, we'll provide more details of the other two Italian cities Marco visits, Venice and Rome. And we'll do the same for the cities that our other travelers visit in France, Spain, Germany and the U.S.

In our travel-story course you learn everyday conversational language. In this post, we've listed some additional basic words and phrases in Italian that you may encounter in your travels.

Quick Florence History

The city of Florence (Firenze), considered the birthplace of the Renaissance,Map of Italy and Tuscany  region is the capital of Tuscany (Toscana), one of Italy's 20 regions. It lies in central Italy, about 2 1/2 hours north of Rome by train.

The most populous city in Tuscany, Florence was named a Metropolitan City (città metropolitana) in 2015. This includes the city itself and the large urban sprawl around it.

Early Florence was a Roman city, established in 59 BC by Julius Ceasar as a place to settle his veteran soldiers. Because of its position at the confluence of rivers (the Arno and its tributaries Murgone, Ema, and Greve), this outpost was first named Fluentia. But the name was later changed to Florentia ("flowering").

In the early Middle Ages, Florence was a city state. It had a flourishing textile industry and developed into an important international trade and finance center.

The Medici family held power in Florence for three centuries (from 1434 to 1737). They were bankers to the pope and great patrons of the arts. Lorenzo die Medici 1449-1492 for example, was a poet as well as a statesman, and commissioned works by Michelangelo, Botticelli, and Leonardo da Vinci.

From 1737 to 1859, a number of foreign powers governed Florence (the Austrian House of Lorraine, the Italian House of Bourbon-Parma, Napoleonic France). Then in 1861, Tuscany became a region of the Kingdom of Italy. For six years, Florence was its capital.

Italian Unification (or Risorgimento) was a complicated process that lasted from 1815 to 1871, when Rome finally became the capital of the Kingdom of Italy. After unification, the state adopted Italian as the official language.

Standard Italian is based on the Tuscan dialect, which was a literary language spoken by the upper class of Florentine society.

Florence is a beautiful city to discover on foot. Its historic center is a UNESCO World Heritage site containing numerous monuments, art museums and architectural treasures.

Marco's Arrival in Florence

Florence Santa Maria Novella Train StationThe trip from Pisa to Florence takes Marco around an hour by train. He arrives at the Santa Maria Novella Train station in the center of Florence. (see picture)

From there, it takes him ten minutes on foot to arrive at Via Montebello 52, where his friend lives. His place is in the historic center of town (Quartiere 1).

The other four administrative boroughs (quartieri) of Florence lie in a ring around the historic center.

Nearby is the Arno River, which runs through the old part of the city. The best known of the five bridges that cross the Arno is Ponte Vecchio with its gold and jewelry shops.View of Ponte Vecchio and Arno River

  • il tren - the train
  • la stazione ferroviaria - the train station
  • la via - the road, street
  • il quartiere - the district, part of town
  • il centro storico - the historic center
  • il fiume - the river
  • il ponte vecchio - the old bridge

Palazzo Ricasoli and James Fenimore Cooper

Palazzo Ricasoli Hotel in FirenzeOn a walk through the historic district, his friends show Marco the Palazzo Ricasoli, where the popular American writer, James Fenimore Cooper (1789-1851) lived during his nine-month stay in Florence in 1829. (The Palazzo is now a hotel right in the center of town, where you can stay, see picture.)

Fenimore Cooper's most famous novel, "The last of the Mohicans", was written in 1826. He's also known for a series of adventure stories called the Leatherstocking Tales.

Reportedly, Fenimore Cooper loved the cosmopolitan atmosphere of Florence. He met and socialized with emigrés from various countries and became a kind of celebrity with travelers on the Grand Tour and with American expatriates.

  • la passeggiata - the walk
  • il soggiorno - the stay, temporary residence
  • il palazzo - the building, palace
  • il scrittore - the writer
  • il romanzo - the novel
  • il emigrato - the emigrant
  • il viaggiatore - the traveler

Palazzo Vecchio

Palazzo Vecchio in FlorenceNext, Marco and his friends walk past the Piazza della Signoria and the famous "Palazzo Vecchio" (Old Palace). The palazzo has a long and interesting history.

Construction on the building started in 1299. During the centuries the palazzo was used for various purposes, including a prison. Since 1872 it has served as Florence's City Hall. A replica of Michelangelo's David stands near the entrance.

A tour of the Palazzio Vecchio takes you through several courtyards, Roman ruins, a Medieval fortress with secret routes, beautifully decorated Renaissance chambers, and more.

  • la piazza - the square
  • la prigione - the prison
  • il comune - the city hall
  • la entrata - the entrance
  • le rovine - the ruins
  • la fortezza - the fortress

Piazziale Michelangelo

Finally, Marco and his friends take a 15-minute bus ride to Piazziale Michelangelo, a large square in the Oltrarno (beyond the Arno) district of Florence. From that piazziale (large square) one has a stunning panoramic view of the city.

Marco's Next Stop

From Florence, Michael takes an Intercity train to Venice. There he stays in a hotel he had booked on the recommendation of his friends. To get to the hotel, he has to take the "vaporetto", or water bus. In Venice he meets up with Claudia, one of the students he met in Florence.

Have you been to Florence and want to share some of your suggestions and travel memories? It would be great to hear from you!

Register, or log in again and continue with the Italian 1 course.

Bio: Ulrike Rettig is the co-founder of GamesforLanguage.com. She's a lifelong language learner, growing up in Austria, the Netherlands, and Canada. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and leave any comments right here!

Posted on by Peter Rettig

European Travels 9 – Fribourg: Kaeserberg, Languages, and more...

Upper and Lower City of Fribourg, SwitzerlandYou may never have heard of the chemins de fer du Kaeserberg.

And unless you live in Europe or are familiar with Switzerland, you may draw a blank when you hear the name Fribourg, or its German name, Freiburg (“im Uechtland”).

Perhaps you're more familiar with the city's German cousin Freiburg (“im Breisgau”), a picturesque university town located in Southern Germany's Black Forest.

Well, Fribourg is the capital of the Canton of Fribourg, (see picture above). It is located on the cultural border between German- and French-speaking Switzerland and the seat of the country's only bilingual university.

Every February, for over ten years now, Ulrike and I have visited my sister in Fribourg before heading to the Berner Oberland for some skiing.

While in the city, we always make some new discoveries. This year it was the Chemins de fer du Kaeserberg". And, we always take advantage of learning more about languages and enjoying Swiss food specialties.

Our Swiss experience typically begins in Zurich after an overnight flight from Boston.

Zurich Airport to Fribourg

One of the pleasures of traveling in Switzerland is the ease of train travel.Zurich Airport - Fribourg Map

We now know that there is a direct train from Zurich Airport to Fribourg that runs every hour. We often don't have to wait long after buying our train ticket.

A few years ago though, we didn't have time to buy a train ticket. So we just boarded the train.

The conductor didn't come by until after the next stop, which is Zurich Main Station. We told him that we had boarded the train without tickets at the airport. He sold us the tickets and was nice enough to waive the penalty fee.

You can no longer purchase tickets on the train, and penalties have increased if you're caught without a ticket.

However, if you don't have time to buy a ticket at the counter or ticket machine, you can now easily purchase the tickets online with your smart phone.

Just download the free SBB Mobile app for iOS or Android devices to check time tables, purchase tickets, make seat reservations, etc.

Our 2018 Fribourg Discovery: Chemins de Fer du Kaeserberg

Over the years we have visited many of Fribourg's sights, the Cathedrale St-Nicholas, the picturesque lower town you can get down to with a Funicular, the Espace Jean Tinguely-Niki de Saint Phalle in the Musee D'Art et D'Histoire Fribourg, the Musee Gutenberg, etc.

During our visit this year, we spent a whole afternoon in theChemins de fer du Kaeserberg model at night Musee des Chemins de Fer du Kaeserberg.

If you're a model railway enthusiast, the railway museum is nothing short of a feast. But anyone from 4 to 90 years old will enjoy this technical marvel.

The model railway was a childhood dream of Marc Antiglio. He had taken over the family construction business as a young man and worked on his dream throughout his adult life.

(I had met Marc over 40 years ago when I worked for a few years in Fribourg as a structural engineer.)

It took Marc 17 years to fully realize his dream: A model railway exhibit on three levels, in a custom-designed, multi-level, state-of-the-art building with solar collectors, a geothermal heating system. All of this was completed just a few years ago.

Built at a scale of 1:87, the model exhibit occupies an area of about 6,500 sf, with currently over 6,000 ft of rails (both H0, 16.5 mm, and H0m, 12.0 mm).

The rolling stock consists of 300 locomotives and 1,650 wagons and cars, many of which are stored and can be accessed on the depot/station, the first level the visitor encounters when entering.

Lake Scene @ Chemins de fer du KaeserbergThe attention to detail in building and landscape design is amazing. The model imagines a Swiss landscape around 1990, with villages, buildings, railway stations, cars, and people, plus circus tents, lakes and ships – so realistic - that you need to look twice to see that they are not real.

Even the background photos of sky and mountains blend in seamlessly.

The introductory video for the visitors we saw was in French with German subtitles. In it, Marc Antiglio recalls how he got fascinated by trains as a little boy. He explains the many challenges he and his team of dedicated professionals and volunteers had to overcome to create the model. (Marc speaks with a slight "Fribourgois" accent. If you want to learn more watch this video on French accents and and French pronunciation.)

We had a wonderful time watching the many trains going through tunnels, over bridges, stopping at and leaving the stations. In the night mode, the changing lights created magic images.

The exhibit is open to the public at certain days during each week, and private visits can be arranged on other days. Check the website for the opening days and hours.

(If you wonder about the name “Kaeserberg” - it has nothing to do with the German word “Käse/Kaese” (cheese), but is the name of Marc Antiglio's late friend, who was instrumental in supporting Marc's passion.)

More about Fribourg

View of Fribourg upper and lower cityIn the past, the language lines in the city of Fribourg were drawn rather clearly: In the lower town, since the city's founding in the 12th century, people spoke mostly a Swiss German dialect. In fact it was the official language until about 1800.

In fact, today the language spoken on the streets of la basse-ville (lower town) is a mix of Swiss German and French called le bolze. This swissinfo.ch article - Nei, dasch zvüu, tu me connais! - (No, that's too much, you know me!) not only gives some wonderful examples of typical bolze expressions, but also more details of Fribourg's linguistic history. (Sorry, it's in French and does not solve the origin mystery of  French bolze" or German bolz”.)

With the industrialization and the influx of French immigrants, the French population in the upper town became the majority in the 19th century. (see picture of upper and lower town)

By the year 2000, nearly 64% of its 38,000 inhabitants spoke French as their first language, and only 21% German. Italian was third with about 4%.

In restaurants, cafes, and shops, etc. you hear a mixture of French, Swiss German, and Swiss standard German, which curiously is called “Schriftdeutsch” (written German). Increasingly, you also hear other languages. In 2008 nearly 32% of the population were resident foreign nationals.

The term “Schriftdeutsch” - written German - is used to distinguish Swiss standard German from the spoken Swiss German dialect.

Swiss German children learn to speak Swiss German at home. They start to learn “Schriftdeutsch” in first grade and likely French a couple of years later.

That's about the same time that Swiss French-speaking children learn “Schriftdeutsch” as a second language. Also, in many schools children learn English already in fourth grade.

From discussions with family, friends and acquaintances in Fribourg, we've gained the impression that there are more German speakers who are fluent in French, than French speakers who are also fluent in German.

We don't know why that would be. Maybe it's because French speakers are now the majority in Fribourg, or learning French as a third language (after “Schriftdeutsch) is “easier” for Swiss German speakers, or maybe Swiss Germans feel a more personal or economic need to be bilingual than their French speaking compatriots.

A visit to the local market provided a non-representative sample, as most of the Swiss German-speaking farmers easily switched to French, while French-speaking bakers and butchers had more difficulty speaking German.

Language can still be a divisive issue

While the casual observer may be pleasantly surprised by the city's apparent bilingualism, language in Fribourg - as in other Swiss cities and towns that are located on a language and cultural fault line - is often still a divisive issue.

Not much has changed since swissinfo.ch covered this issue in 2004, citing both Biel (where French speakers are the minority of the population, with 28 %) and Fribourg as examples. Family connections, social status, school locations, etc. all influence parents' decisions which language path their children should pursue.

In 2017 the Swiss Bilingualism Foundation awarded Rapper Greis (alias for Grégoire Vuilleumier) that year's “prize for bi- and plurilingualism”. Listen to his “Enfant des Etoiles” song which switches between Swiss German and French.

It certainly seems that in a small country like Switzerland (about 8 million inhabitants), being bilingual or at least being fluent in two of the major languages, German and French, should have great professional and personal benefits.

A couple of years ago just as we were visiting Fribourg, Happy in Fribourg songthe local Newspaper, La Liberté, reported that local film makers had adapted Pharrell Williams' song Happy” from the movie Despicable Me 2” to Fribourg, similar to what other Swiss cities have done. You can watch the YouTube video which shows many images of Fribourg.

(You may recognize Ulrike in one of the video's scenes while she was at the weekly farmer's market.)

Now Our Swiss Tradition: Cheese Fondue or Raclette

Before heading to Gstaad and Schoenried (more about that in a future post), we typically will have a Cheese Fondue or Raclette with our family.

La Fondue (au fromage)

Probably the best-known dish of Switzerland is a cheese “fondue”. The word is French and comes from the verb “fondre” meaning “to melt”. Used as a noun, “fondue” is the feminine form of the past participle “fondu”. (larousse.fr)

Young women eating cheese fondueFondue has a lengthy history in Switzerland. The recipe “Käss mit Wein zu kochen” (cheese cooked with wine) was first mentioned in a Zurich manuscript in 1699.

La fondue” showed up in 18th century culinary literature as “oeufs brouillés au fromage fondu”, scrambled eggs with melted cheese (as noted in the dictionary, Le petit Robert). The dish was particularly popular in the western French-speaking cantons, and there mostly among city dwellers who could afford the rich cheese.

Fondue, as we know it, dates back to around the middle of the 19th century and by 1875, it was named a Swiss national dish. In the 1930s, the Swiss Cheese Union (Schweizerische Käseunion) used the idea of a national dish for its own marketing purposes. That kind of promotion was continued after WWII.

Fondue was popularized in the US in the 1960s, helped by being showcased in the Swiss Pavilion at the 1964 World's Fair in New York.

The traditional fondue is served in a fondue pot (un caquelon), which is kept warm over a chafing dish (un réchaud). To make the fondue smooth, you add cornstarch to the cheese mixture as it heats. Each one of you gets a long thin fork for spearing chunks of bread (or sometimes potatoes), which you then dip into the cheese. Eating fondue is definitely a social event that also includes plenty of white wine and/or tea.

Various traditions are observed: for example, if you drop your bread into the pot, you pay a round of wine, or a pot of hot tea.

Cheese Fondue Variations

Many of the Swiss cantons have their own version of fondue, using different combinations of cheeses. For those who want to try, this Epicurious post will give you the recipe for making a perfect traditional Swiss Fondue. Being frequent travelers to Fribourg, the two fondues we know best are the Fondue Fribourgeoise, and the Fondue Moitié-Moitié.

Fondue Fribourgeoise

Fondue Fribourgeoise is prepared with 100% local Vacherin Swiss Vacherin Cheesecheese. Vacherin from Fribourg is a medium-firm cheese made from cow's milk, as the name - vache (cow) - implies.

The cheese is melted in a few tablespoons of water over low heat. To our knowledge, this is the only cheese fondue that does not use wine. Often you dip pieces of potato instead of bread.

Fondue Moitié-Moitié

Moitié-Moitié (or half-half), as its name states, uses Gruyère and Vacherin cheese in equal parts. This fondue is made with white wine, (dry and high in acid) and for flavor a shot of kirsch is often added to the mixture. You eat it by dipping chunks of bread.

La Raclette

Traditional Raclette serving Our foray into the world of melted (Swiss) cheese would not be complete without mentioning the “Raclette”. The name is derived from the French “racler”, meaning “to grate or scrape” and that clearly describes the method in which it is served: The melted cheese is scraped off the roasted/heated end of a large piece, most commonly a half a wheel of cheese (as in this picture).

The Raclette Suisse site traces Raclette's origins to the 13th century. In the German-speaking cantons, convent writings mention Bratchäs” (roasted cheese - note the Swiss spelling of Käse”) already in 1291 as a nutritious food for mountain cow herders.

Raclette cheese is made of raw milk and many variations exist. Only the “Raclette du Valais” is a protected brand under Swiss law.

The traditional method melts the half-wheel of cheese, either right at an open fire place, or in restaurants, with an electric heater. The Raclette cook/server scrapes the melted cheese off unto each customer's plate. (see photo above, courtesy of: Grcampbell-Wikipedia Commons).

The modern, self-serve version uses small pans in which Modern Raclette to heat Raclette cheese pieces right at the table with a special gadget (as in this picture).

In either case, “Gschwellti” - Swiss German for potatoes boiled in their skin -  are served with gherkins, pickled onions, and often preceded or accompanied by dried meat, such as “Bündnerfleisch” or “viande des Grisons” or “jambon cru”.

A Raclette evening, during which the meal is served the traditional way to a large table, is a social event that can last for hours.

As with cheese fondue, locals will warn you not to drink cold water. It doesn't mix well with the hot cheese. However, hot tea, a “Kirsch” (cherry), “Poire” (pear), or “Framboise” (raspberry) Schnaps come highly recommended.

Raclette and Fondue (whether the cheese or meat variety) always make for a lively, social dining experience.

Even after the taste and smells of melted cheese have faded in your memory, you'll certainly remember the fun you had with your family and friends sharing such a meal in a warm and cozy mountain hut after a hard day of skiing, snowboarding, or hiking.

The best kind of travels are those where you can linger in a place, make discoveries, learn new things, and try out new tastes.

It's a kind of “slow travel” that lets you soak in some of the local language, history, and customs. You have time to explore different neighborhoods, go to various cafés, bars and restaurants, and visit local shops and markets.

And if you've learned a new language for your trip, you'll have the chance to try out what you've learned. That's one of the great pleasures of travel: Get that sense of accomplishment as you stretch your boundaries.

Bio: Peter Rettig is the co-founder of Gamesforlanguage.com. He is a lifelong language learner, growing up in Austria, Germany, and Switzerland. You can follow him on FacebookTwitter and Instagram, and leave any comments with contact or below.

 

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