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Tuesday, January 22, 2013

From Sea to Shining Sea

When is all-inclusive not all-inclusive? When the term is used in cruise advertising. Thanks to a chart developed by All Things Cruise, we can now compare apples to oranges.

For example, it's a common misconception that your cruise price includes alcoholic drinks. Au contraire, Pierre. The chart shows that drinking isn't free on most ships, nor are gratuities and land excursions usually included in the base price.

Studying the chart, which compares the offerings of more than 30 cruise lines, leads to several interesting conclusions. Smaller ships tend offer more "freebies" than large ships do. For example, as ATC notes, the only amenity included on Carnival ships is 24-hour room service. Meantime, AMA Waterways and European Waterways, which operate small river-cruising vessels, include both land excursions and wine and cocktails with dinner. Scenic, Seabourn and Silversea appear to be the most generous in terms of their included amenities. Of course, these lines do have a more expensive base price. But as you realistically budget for a cruise, it is important to know how much extra you will need to pay in order to have the experience you expect to have, without being nickel and dimed.

As the embed code for sharing this information resulted in a chart containing cruise ship cabin-sized font (read teeny-tiny), please click here for a reader-friendly grid.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

9 Questions to Ask When Choosing a Language Program Overseas

If your New Year's Resolution is to learn a new language, one of the best ways to do so is by dunking yourself into immersion classes overseas. Once you choose a language, the next step is to opt for a program. In some countries, the choices are limited. But in places like Italy, France, and Spain, there are an abundance of choices. How do you choose the best program for you? Here are some thoughts, based on my experience studying Italian in Bologna.

1. How much time do I have to devote to this exercise? 
Certain institutions focus on two-week programs for tourists, while others offer longer-term options for those who might be moving to the country. 

2. In what part of the country do I want to spend time? 
As Americans know, regional differences within one nation can be vast. The South is different from the Northeast which is different from the Pacific Northwest. Similarly, Northern and Southern Italy, for example, provide two unique experiences. Dialects, dishes, and the local culture will vary, depending on location. So study up and decide on a region that is right for you.

3. Do I want to study in a big city or a small town?
Each has its advantages. A big city will allow vast opportunities for after­-school sightseeing, while smaller towns may allow you to delve into a local community and its lifestyles and culture. A big city provides more convenient transportation options for visiting other places. In a smaller town, you may be more isolated, but it's easier to meet residents and become a part of local life.

4. How much of a language do you want to learn? 
Do you want to become fluent, or do you merely want to learn enough to get by while travel­ing through the country? Depending on your answer, consider the length of the program, the number of daily hours of classroom study, class size, and the opportunity for one-on-one instruction. If you want to get fluent fast, find a program that is at least four weeks; one that offers small classes and one-on-one tutoring; and one that offers family stays. 

5  Are you ready to work hard? 
If you are merely looking for a relaxing vacation, do be aware that hours of study every day can lead to brain drain and a type of mental exhaus­tion not experienced since Finals Week in college. Plus, you may get frustrated when the Louvre awaits and you are stuck in a classroom.  For those who want to combine vacation with vocab­ulary, study in a small town or in a resort area, or consider selecting a program in which language study is combined with a favorite interest, such as cooking or music. If you are studying in a big city, you may want to spend an extra week on your own after graduation specifically for sightseeing (and practicing your language skills).

6 Where do you want to live during your stay?
Most schools help students with lodging arrange­ments that range from stays at local pensiones to apartment-shares with other students. Another option, as previously mentioned, is the family stay. Before accepting this option, find out what you will be getting, as sometimes, this definition can be a misnomer. My "family stay" in Bologna was limited to a confining room in the apartment of a single woman (with no kitchen privileges and limited-time bathroom privileges to boot). Had I known in advance that this type of situation made up the bulk of the family stay offerings in Bologna, I might have opted for another program. 

7 What is the student body like? 
If the people with whom you are studying are impor­tant to you, ask about the demographic breakdown of the student population. One of the beauties of Cultura Italiana in Bologna was its interna­tional clientele. It drew from nearly every country imaginable, with students from Scandinavia, Germany and Japan heavily represented. English speakers from the United Kingdom and the United States had a presence, but not a large one. One advantage of studying in such a diverse setting is that students are less likely to lapse into their native languages (although, admittedly, English was the common language among the European polyglots with whom I attended class).
Age may be another matter of concern. Person­ally, I liked the diversity of my crowd, which ranged in age from 20 to 55 (and in profession from "student" to sports producer to scientist). The age range was especially large in Bologna, due to the appeal of this university town for younger people (Bologna is said to have the highest number per capita of nightclubs in ltaly). However, Cultura Ital­iana 's other campuses, located in smaller and quieter places, attract an older crowd, including retirees. The bottom line: check the demographics.

8 What is the method of teaching? 
At Cultura Italiana, students were separated accord­ing to levels in grammar and speaking. The first two hours of the day were devoted to Italian grammar with others at a similar level of under­standing. Then, in the speaking class, another group of students were peers in terms of oral ability.  This structure worked very well, given that speaking and grammar skills can vary so dramatically. Do you want to focus on speaking skills, writing skills or both? Also find out average class size. The student-teacher ratio can be crucial in the learning process..

9. What extracurricular activities are offered?
Extracurricular activities can be every bit as impor­tant in the learning process as the classroom experi­ence. Many schools offer after-hours programming, including wine tastings, film viewings, and museum visits (ask to see if such programming costs extra). Not only are these extracurriculars a good way to practice a language and learn about a culture, but they also provide an informaI setting with which to bond with your fellow students. If your desire to learn a language is secondary to engaging in other cultural pursuits, consider enrolling in a course where you can combine those interests with language study. For example, you can learn Italian while focusing on mosaic-making in Ravenna, painting in Perugia, or cooking in Bologna. 


1. Start the learning process at home. A good basic knowledge of a language will allow you to get more out of your classes in a shorter amount of time.
2. Go to films and watch TV. Because of the speed at which dubbers often have to speak, it might be easier to watch programming with which you are already familiar. Another option is to watch the local news, where subject matter and video can put unfamiliar words in context.

3. Eavesdrop. Sit in a café and pretend to read while listening to conversations at nearby tables. If traveling via train, close your eyes and listen to what your cabin-mates are saying.

4. Take city tours, or guided tours of museums or tourist attractions, in the local language. The milieu will make what is being said easier to understand.
5. Speak all the time and don't be intimidated, even if you stumble. When Americans make an attempt to speak a foreign language in its home country, the locals do appreciate the effort. Most are happy to accommodate you by speaking slowly and helping you finish your sentences.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Ciao, Tutti: Parte Prima

Is your New Year's Resolution to learn a new language? One of mine is to polish my rusty Italian tongue (figuratively, not literally, of course). Thus, I am now taking classes with a lovely group at Casa Italiana in Washington, DC. But some six or seven years ago, my place of study was Bologna, Italy. Here is a recap of the adventure written for Ambassador Magazine.

Learning vacations are all the rage these days. And among those who can trace their genes to another country, a popu­lar option is to learn a language at the roots of the family tree.
Fortunately for those of Italian heritage--and even for those with nary a drop of sangue italiano -- the options for studying the language in the old ­country are abundant. In fact, perhaps the hard­est part of studying in ltaly is making the decision of which school to attend. 

After four weeks of studying at Cultura Italiana in Bologna, the biggest lesson I learned was that in order to get the experience you expect, you need to ask the right questions prior to enrolling in a particular school. Before detailing a list of questions, let me relate my own experience at Cultura Italiana.

Lost in translation

It's funny how the adult brain doesn't process language quite as easily as the more nimble, less-cluttered teenage mind. While the ability to learn languages easily may be the province of the young, it is never too late to give the process a go.  As I had quickly learned to speak fluent Spanish as a teen, I figured it would be a breeze to pick up a sister Romance language like ltalian.  However, a spell studying Italian at a Santa Barbara community çollege taught me that while learning grammar was a proverbial piece of torta, the difficulty, dear Brutus, was in the oration. 

Ergo, I came to the conclusion that the only way to learn to speak properly was to go to school in Italy and become immersed in the language for several weeks. 

Making that decision was easy. Selecting a school from among the hundreds of choices was the chal­lenge. After surfing the Internet, I found a virtual plethora of programs for everyone from the novice to the novelist. Name a pIace - Firenze, Perugia, Roma, Milano, Salerno, Lucca - and there was a school... or two...or three...in each. Given the choices, I turned to the Istituto Italiano di Cultura (IlC) in San Francisco, one of five such centers across the United States.  The cultural office of the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the IlC offers an extensive scholarship program with the mission of promoting Italian culture and language. The IlC selects candidates for full and partial tuition scholarships offered by more than 50 schools.

I applied for and received a scholarship to Cultura Italiana, a school located in a former palazzo in Bologna (the program also has a branch in Arezzo). I was to study Italian in class four hours a day, every week ­day, for four weeks. Additionally, I would be placed in a home (or so I thought) where I could practice my Italian every night with a host family.

The instruction was excellent, as classes were molded  to the needs of the international group of students. But, I did have a few beefs with my Bologna experience. Opportu­nities for socializing with other students outside the classroom were limited and the school had no  common areas for gathering and group study. The living situations were not ideal (see Parte Due). Plus, when students  went "home" at night, each headed to a different area of the city, making evening tete-a-tetes quite a test.

While my weeks of study did not allow me to be fluent enough to write this article in Italian, I did gain valu­able knowledge. For now I am fluent in the ques­tions you need to ask in order to ensure you receive the educational/cultural/social experience desired during the course of an intensive language course. 9 Questions to Ask When Choosing a Language Program is next.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Places to Go and Things to Do in the New Year

Where in the world will you go this year? If you are following trends, you will be getting off the beaten path in search of adventure and the exotic. Forget sun and sand. Be part of the avant-garde cognescenti.

The lure of forbidden lands is beckoning this year--even though it seems there are getting to be fewer and fewer of those places on the list. Before the fall of the Berlin Wall, Eastern Europe and the USSR were considered--if not verboten for travelers--then certainly alien. Prior to the mid-1980s, the same held for China. And then there have always been places that are the geographic equivalents of personae non gratae due to political reasons--including South Africa during apartheid, Burma until last year, and perhaps Iran even now.

In talking forbidden lands, I am not recommending war zones. Rather, I am talking about the axis of exotic--Burma (Myanmar), Cuba and North Korea.

Now that the government of Burma has finally chilled out, and long-time opposition leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi is not only out from under house arrest, but sitting in the Houses of Parliament, more Americans are open to visiting the country. And Burma is reciprocating by opening the doors to what was formerly a country largely shut off from the rest of the world.

Visas are becoming easier to acquire--back in 1997, when I visited, it took months to get a visa and I could not list my occupation as journalist. At least 50 new hotels are being built to meet the demand, and more tour companies are adding Burma to their itineraries. Given the pent-up demand that built during the decades of dictatorship, tourism officials in Burma are expecting a doubling of tourist arrivals by 2016.

It's a hot spot, for sure, but it's still a place where you can still step back in time. No McDonald's, no KFC, spotty Wi-Fi, etc. So, if you visit in the next year or two, you will largely experience what I did 15 years ago, albeit with construction cranes replacing the large billboards broadcasting the People's Desires, as outlined by the former junta.

Burma is a land unspoiled by mass tourism. When I visited, I was struck by the beauty of the countryside and the gentle nature of the people. Still, back then, paranoia was rampant and getting the locals to talk was a challenge. But now, I imagine, tourists will find it a fascinating time to chat up a Burmese population experiencing elevated levels of freedom of speech for the first time in years.

You won’t necessarily find such freedom of speech in Cuba and North Korea, but those countries, too, are high on the interest list. Cuba, of course, has been open to the rest of the world forever, but it’s been restricted to Americans since 1961. And the fact is, Americans can travel legally to Cuba--it’s just that they will be breaking federal law if they spend money there.

Nonetheless, most Americans who want to go to Cuba can travel there freely, as long as they go under the auspices of a licensed tour company. For awhile last year, those licenses were lifted--one could blame presidential politics and the Florida vote--but they have been reinstated and so you can go without breaking any laws. North Korea is also legal, and if you go there, you will definitely have bragging rights as being among the few who have braved the Hermit Kingdom, a place where time stands still...or runs backward.