Cultural Observations from France

As when visiting any country, one’s experience is improved by observing certain cultural customs.  Below are a few norms (definitely not an exhaustive or authoritative list) to follow that will smooth your path to successful interactions with French people:

  1. Always use the “vous” form (formal “you”) address when speaking with a server, store clerk, grocery check-out worker, and basically anyone you don’t know, but with whom you’d like to have a mutually beneficial interaction. Merci and s’il vous plait don’t hurt either!

    Town of Amboise
  2. Make sure to greet those working when entering any type of store.  It is not the job of the store clerk to greet you, and it is considered rude not to say “Bonjour!” especially since most places of business are smaller than the ones we frequent in the US.  Ignoring the one person working in the store becomes painfully obvious when the store is a shoe box, so when in doubt, just say hello. Say goodbye too, even if you decided not to purchase anything at the store you visited.

    Chateau Amboise
  3. You can always window shop if you aren’t in a buying mood.  Lingering outside a store front display is normal in France (and Spain).
  4. Holler “Hello” and “Goodbye” when you enter and leave the host family’s home. This lets everyone know who is where, avoiding any unwanted surprises, and it shows respect for those staying at home as you traipse in and out.
  5. Try to speak French in your daily interactions!  We were pleasantly surprised to find that most everyone would respond to us in French, and were willing to let us practice, even if we made gargantuan blunders.  It could be that Tours is a small town with more limited tourism, so English isn’t quite as widespread as it might be in Paris or another large city.  And, if someone does switch to English, that’s okay too!  People are generally flattered if you notice their English, and comment on how well they speak.  This is another way to open the door to a friendly exchange.  I used to feel insulted that someone would switch on me to English (it happens all the time in Germany!), but now I realize it isn’t generally done in arrogance, rather for the sake of efficiency, or because they’d like to try out their language skills.  I’d rather have a positive interaction than feel slighted, too, and the power to make a conversation uplifting ultimately depends on me. IMG_3017.JPG
  6. Cars have the right of way in France!  We’d been surprised by how fast cars sped by the zebra crosswalks in downtown Tours, and kept commenting to each other on how drivers weren’t nearly as thoughtful of pedestrians as in Spain or Germany.  Well, turns out, they don’t have to be!  I’m sure we made quite a few French motorists upset by barreling out onto the crosswalk without a second consideration!  After asking our host “mére” what the protocol was, we understood the uncomfortable feeling we’d had, even if we didn’t agree with the law.  We began to stop at the curb before each crosswalk, waiting patiently for oncoming vehicles to pass.  Though some drivers didn’t slow down, just as many stopped out of courtesy for the pedestrian.
  7. Dressing “chic” is appreciated, but not a prerequisite to success.  While packing I panicked!  How could I dress as effortlessly as the French?  How could I keep my blackheads to a minimum when I was sharing a bathroom with Andrew and another German student from the school?  What was I going to do with my hair without access to my beloved heat wands to curl, straighten and flatten? (Just fyi, the converter that ConAir markets that will “regulate” the voltage for your hair tools doesn’t stand up to a flat iron that heats to 450 degrees Fahrenheit or your Dyson hair dryer – thank me later for saving your preciously expensive styling machines). Turns out, in Tours at least, people aren’t as “chic” as I expected.  Hair stands up in the wrong places, a natural wave is expected, and as for clothing, anything goes.  There really was no defined dress code.  I way over-packed in fear that I’d have to have a solid rotation of clothes to keep up, but in reality, I could have packed much more reasonably.  Not that I minded having lots of options, since half the battle of a good attitude in the morning can be feeling good about how you look.

These are a few insights we picked up on while in France!  Anything important you’ve noticed while traveling abroad that would improve our interactions in the wide world for the future?  Anything you think we should add to this list?


Thoughts on CLÉ Language School

Monday through Friday during our trip to France, we attended French language school. After multiple positive experiences with language schools in Europe: Treffpunkt Bamberg, Germany (different directors now, sadly), Hispano Continental in Salamanca, Spain, Estudio Sampere, Salamanca Spain, and Portuguese Connection, Lisbon, Portugal, Andrew and I both know that we enjoy attending language school as part of traveling and vacation.  We decided that studying French and staying with a host family while in France would enrich our experience, teach us about culture and language, provide a group of people to practice our language skills with that have similar goals and interests, and give us a home base for exploring the Loire Valley Region.  CLÉ Language School in Tours did not disappoint.

Each morning, after eating a breakfast of toast and jam, Andrew and I set off on a 15 minute walk to the language school, located in the center of old-town Tours, for our classes that began at 9:00 am.  Until 12:15 each weekday, we participated in intensive language courses.  Andrew placed into a more advanced B2 course, while I “parleyed” with the beginners in an A2 class.  On Tuesday and Thursday afternoons, the school offered afternoon workshops for all students that was included in the price of tuition.  I learned how to talk about my daily routine, practiced oral comprehension of numbers, listened to songs in French, drilled pronunciation (I still need a lot of work), and learned how to order like a French person at a bar or café.  My favorite “atelier” though, was the wine tasting course, in which we learned about the wine regions of France, and how to properly taste wine, followed by a practical application of our learning: a wine tasting session of two different white wines of the region.

Some advantages and highlights of studying at Clé:

  1. The school and teachers were serious about language learning!  French people do not take the proper instruction and study of their language lightly.  We received homework almost every evening, and teachers reiterated the need to study!  Every Monday, students were given a test to assess whether they understood the concepts covered the week before.
  2. The library at Clé is immense and filled with resources for students who are serious about taking advantage of their time to expand their French knowledge. Andrew loved taking home the French magazine, Bien-dire, written for second language learners, and I was able to fill some gaps in my understanding with a comprehensive verb-conjugating manual.  Andrew snagged old copies of GEO and National Geographic in French to peruse at home.  Clé also owned a vast collection of French movies, which students could check out to view at their host homes.
  3. The afternoon workshops were creative, oftentimes based on student suggestions for what they’d be interested in learning or improving, and allowed students to work with different teachers, which is always refreshing.  Although I don’t love pronunciation workshops, I did see the value in each different aspect of language learning that the 1.5 hour sessions highlighted.
  4. Geographical location:  Located in the heart of the Loire Valley, Tours is the perfect place to base if one wants to visit impressive chateaux.
  5. Host family:  We experienced a wonderful host family, and had the impression that Clé worked hard to match students with caring families.  We ate delicious meals, profited from the time spent over dinner with our family to improve our language skills, and liked that a bottle of rosé showed up at many meals.

Since we have spent time studying at other schools, we felt a few areas were lacking in what Clé had to offer:

  1. Afternoon and weekend activities:  Canoeing on the Cher River under the Chenonceau castle was a number one highlight of the trip, and Clé organized this experience for us.  Unfortunately, it was the only guided excursion we participated in while at Clé.  In Spain and Germany, we loved going with a group and teacher from the school on the weekend to explore the region.  These type of excursions provide an insider’s view of a landmark, and more language immersion.  I would have loved to see afternoon movie screenings at the school, a guided tour of the impressive cathedral, a visit to a winery, or an organized meeting at the local watering hole offered for students.  It seemed like the director of the school was directly responsible for all the afternoon and evening activities, and it could have been too much a burden for one person.  French people take their weekends just as seriously as they do their language, so it might have been that asking teachers to work on weekends was simply impossible for the school.
  2. We missed having students from more varied backgrounds studying together with us!  Clé attracted Americans, Swiss, and British students.  We wondered where the Spanish, Italian, Brazilian, and Asian students were?  A variety of cultures and perspectives always enriches the experience, and gives people more motivation to practice French – it becomes the common language!
  3. Cost:  This was the most expensive school Andrew found as he searched for places to study in France.  It could be why we didn’t have quite the cultural melange we hoped for.  We decided on Clé since it was located in a small, safe town, in a region we’d been wishing we could explore, and because the internet reviews are overwhelmingly and astoundingly positive (all deserved).  I am definitely glad we chose Clé, and now feel like I know the region well, but we did hesitate based on price initially.  The afternoon workshops do help to justify the price, I should add.

We took full advantage of our time in France and at Clé, and are absolutely satisfied with our choice of language school.  I am already plotting which French school we’ll attend next and in which region, so we can up our levels of French proficiency, and get to know another part of a country we love to visit.

Andrew with his class at Clé

What I’m going to miss about Spain

Our time here is quickly coming to a close (published post-return to the US). I know that everyone says this about unique opportunities and experiences, but it went by so fast. Didn’t I just move here a couple of months ago? Why is it that when you finally feel comfortable somewhere, it’s time to pick up, move and feel all uncomfortable again? But, I know feeling outside of your comfort zone is critical to growth in all aspects of life, so it can only be a good thing (I’m hoping and praying!). We’re looking forward to change, but I have been thinking quite a bit about what I love here in Spain and what I’ll miss about living on the Iberian Peninsula.

1. A truly laid back culture. I think anyone here will tell you that their work doesn’t dominate their life. People make time for taking long walks along the beach with their family and their cute dogs, they learn new hobbies, practice languages and spend time and care preparing meals to share with the people they love. Instead of a ‘live to work attitude,’ people here work to live. I realize this isn’t always what leads to genius, innovation and productive national economies, but the stress level of the average citizen seems to be pretty low. People look healthier and one the whole, just happier. This could all change overnight with the global economy teetering the way it is and with Spain’s national unemployment over 25%, but I somehow get the feeling they’ll weather whatever comes their way.

2. Local artisan products. Spain has been producing some of the highest quality food products for centuries. A few items that come to mind are: wine, cheese, olive oil, dried hams, chorizo and bread. Each product is respected in its purest form and a simple, but filling meal for many in the evening is a crusty piece of bread, a hunk of artisan cheese and a glass of wine. Also noteworthy is the affordability of these products that are considered “gourmet” in the US. We’ve bought a bottle of good wine for less than three euros, more than 2 lbs of cheese for 10 euros and a liter of store brand (and good quality) olive oil for a little over a euro.

3. The eating out experience. At first, Andrew and I were both shocked at the sticker price of a single meal in a restaurant. 12 euros for lunch? In my mind, I’d do the math conversion to dollars and come up with almost 18 dollars. What? But, after our fair share of enjoying the daily menu, I’ve got to say I think dining out in Spain, and maybe even Europe in general, has got to be the best deal of all. When eating lunch at a restaurant, which is the main meal of the day, the advertised price generally includes the tax, service charge and tip. The meal consists of a starter, main course, and dessert, plus the meal normally comes with wine or water and bread. When you think about it, eating dinner at a nice restaurant in the US means that if you decide to have even one glass of wine, it could run you upwards of $6 a glass. That is not including your meal, the tax or the tip. If we both decide on a glass of wine with our lunch here in Spain, they occasionally serve us the entire bottle! Another factor that I appreciate is the care with which food is prepared and served. Servers aren’t the lowest of the low on the totem pole here and neither are the folks working away in the kitchen. They treat their work with pride for the most part and the quality of the food reflects that. I’m really going to miss our occasional treat of Friday afternoon eating out here in Laredo.

4. Since I’m home now I can tell you I really miss the beach! I didn’t think I would, but it is a great place to take a walk, to dip your toes in the water and to relax. Not to mention the heat here is stifling while the high’s last week in Laredo were in the 70’s.

5. Walking to work. Enough said.

6. Finally, I’ll miss getting to go on so many new and exciting travel adventures with Andrew. Looking back over our pictures, I am reminded again to be thankful we had the chance to spend our first year of marriage abroad, travelling, teaching and learning. I know we have new challenges coming our way and I also have a good feeling we’ll still be travelling, teaching and learning.



Andrew and I are addicted. Before I tell you to what, let me tell you the how and the why.

A couple weeks ago we spent a blissfully relaxing school week chaperoning English camp for a sweet group of 12 and 13 year old students. What? Being responsible for 43 moody teenagers and having a good time aren’t mutually exclusive? It’s true. Week Camp was run completely by a third party company. The camp counselors were entirely in charge of the little terrors throughout the week and us “chaperons” were left to our own devices from Monday at noon until Friday afternoon at 4pm (or better known as arrival and departure times for the bus ride).

Yes, these pictures were taken the middle of April. Cold spell!

Besides showing up for mealtimes in the dining hall, where we indulged in some of the best Spanish cuisine has to offer (think: french fries, country ham, potato soup, lentil soup, fish soup, ham and cheese pop-tarts, essentially anything the color light brown), our time was all our own. Our main teacher activities consisted of the lifestyle I imagine a Spanish pensioner having. Between feeding times, we took long, rambling walks, drank coffee at our favorite neighborhood bar, sat around and chatted in the sun, observed the locals, read and napped. Tough life, huh?

This brings me to the discovery we made on one of our treks to the tiny village (Coladilla is the name of the pueblo, if you’re interested) that was 2km down the country road from the tiny village (Vegacervera, León) we stayed in. Another practice that Spaniards avidly partake in, and that I personally respect and admire, is making, buying and appreciating local and artisan products. In Coladilla we were told that the local quesería (cheese factory) made some darn good cheese. Andrew and I are a little skeptical when it comes to cheese we haven’t tasted before though, seeing as some folks recommend cheese that is much too strong and stinky for our delicate palates. But, we decided to take the risk and bought two entire wheels of cheese (I never thought I’d ever buy that much milk fat at one time), lugged them the two kilometers back to our lodging for the week and let them ripen and breathe on the counter.  It is important to know (and I just learned) that cheese breathes. Many times if the rind is still on the entire wheel, it is perfectly fine to leave at room temperature, just don’t leave it in plastic. Because, if it breathes, well, it also sweats. If you do decide to refrigerate it for the stench factor (it can get pretty stinky, however mild the cheese is that you buy) don’t put it in a plastic bag either. Once you’ve sliced it, wrap it in parchment paper.  This is all according to a reliable source. Oh, the things I’ve learned in Spain.

Once back to Laredo, we waited a couple of days to “cut the cheese.” Haha, I just chuckled out loud typing that sentence. But, really, our diet of light brown called for a purge of sorts once back in our own kitchen.

I guess you’ve figured out that we’re addicted to the artisan cheese made with local cow’s milk from Coladilla. It is quite scrumptious if you ask us. It isn’t too funky, not too mild and plenty creamy for our persnickety cheese tastes. It makes my cheeks pucker just a little every now and then from its sharpness. It’s good. It is part of our before-meal snacking time. A torn piece of crusty bread and a glass of red wine make it even more delicious. Eat it with a sliced apple. I’m sold.

The second wheel we gave to some friends, but now I’m wondering if that was such a smart idea (except it probably was, for my waistline).

Gracias Dr. Velasco

One of the great progressive arguments that has survived until today is that without universal state-funded public schools, the majority of children would not receive an education and would instead suffer in ignorance and poverty. It’s an argument that has obviously been pretty successful in the West over the last century. Education in Western countries has across the board become a function of the state, to be paid for at tax-payer expense. The push towards state-run public education in the U.S. has likewise been relentless, so much so that even most “conservatives” wouldn’t dare question the status-quo public-school apparatus. Karl Marx, who made the demand for universal public education clear in his manifesto, would be pleased.

However, I was reminded the other day (by a state education functionary no less) that in the 19th and early 20th centuries, many Cántabros and Asturianos founded local private schools for the education of poor children. During that era many young men from northern Spain emigrated to the Americas (mainly Cuba, Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay) in search of opportunity and work. While not all prospered, many achieved great financial success in the New World and later returned to their native Spain in old age. On their return, they were dubbed the indianos for having made their life in America. The specific example that I was reminded of was that of a man named Doctor Velasco from Laredo. Velasco made his wealth in Uruguay as a prestigious surgeon and returned to his native town to found a school for the children of working-class fisherman who otherwise could not have afforded it. The building still stands honorably in town.

The example of Doctor Velasco is quite interesting to me when so much of the common wisdom says that it’s in society’s interest for the state to assume the role of educator. Clearly, here is an example of how even the poorest in a small fishing town received education without the state. Yet today in Spain, the faith put in the centralized state-run approach to education is incredible. And yet while the universal public education system has no doubt produced a more educated society, education itself has clearly not improved the society as a whole. An unemployment rate of over 20%, total decline of marriage and family, and youth delinquency are serious and obvious problems.

And in the United States, more money is spent by the government every year on education, yet the overall competence of students is clearly declining. The failure of public schools, especially those in urban areas, is alarming and well documented. I argue that civil society will do a much better job at providing education, from churches to even secular benefactors. The example of Doctor Velasco is a great inspiration.

What an English conversation teacher should always have in his bag…

There are a couple of indispensable items an English conversation teacher should always have handy in his or her all-important school bag. The items I have found essential aren’t difficult to locate, nor are they unusual, but they will definitely help you get through a class that is slowly, painfully, struggling along.

1. A small pair of scissors. You never know when you’ll need to cut up small strips of paper to hand out in class for one reason or another.

2. A USB. Those files you’ve meticulously saved on it can only be printed and used when the pin drive is at your side. Also good to pull up an old Power Point presentation you previously prepared to use for class material in a pinch.

3. A deck of cards. Any day is a good day to practice English when your beginner students play a rousing game of go fish.

4. A nerf ball or a splash bomb. Need a way to put students on the spot and get them speaking a little English? Ask a question and then toss them the ball. The pressure is on! Just make sure to take a relatively small and lightweight ball. I wouldn’t put it past ornery fifteen year boys to lob said ball at an unsuspecting classmate’s noggin. I, in fact, witnessed this very act today in class.

5. Dice. I’m sure they could be used creatively and I carry them around religiously, I just haven’t figured out the secret to using them yet. For now, they act as my good luck charm, I suppose, jingling around in the zipper pocket of my purse.

6. A two pocket folder. Keep multiple worksheets and game ideas handy for when you’re put on the spot and not sure what in the world you should do. Try to make sure that you have worksheets and games that are adaptable to most levels.

7. A spiral notebook. Take notes on what students are struggling with, jot down slang words or vocabulary that you think of randomly that might be interesting in another lesson, keep track of which lessons worked well and which ones didn’t and make sure to pretend that you are writing down comments about students’ behavior. It’s a great scare tactic.

8. Index cards. I love these perfectly sized lined cards screaming to be turned into vocabulary quiz flash cards. I’m not so sure my Spanish students like them as well as I do. Why should they though? They have a human translator standing right in front of them that is much easier to consult than a dictionary or an index card.

9. Pictures torn from a magazine. Anything from the “real world” is more appealing to a student. For example, photos of people are perfect for learning physical and personality descriptions. Need to teach location prepositions or vocabulary pertaining to the home? Tear out a bunch of pictures of rooms from magazine like Southern Living or Better Homes and Gardens and you’re ready to go (heck, even the IKEA store magazine would be an ideal option). Ads can be useful when practicing comparatives and action shots are perfect for reviewing the present progressive tense.

10. Individually wrapped candy, cookies or suckers. These are great for making friends with teachers or to hand out to students who participate well in your activities or win games.

11. A piece of fruit for when hunger hits during recreo.

And, a couple things to keep in your mind…

11. Reusable games to play during the dreaded lesson that doesn’t last as long as you expected.

12. The names of your students. Nothing catches their attention and gets them to shut up better than the English teacher who sees them once every two weeks telling them by name to sit down and be quiet.

12. Patience! (I’m still learning this one).

What do you carry in your purse or backpack that is essential to your job or day to day routine? Any suggestions for teachers?

on teaching…

I’ve noticed that I am finally getting the hang of how to plan an effective language lesson that lasts for about an hour, not an easy feat. Our lessons are supposed to be focused entirely on speaking and cultural activities, when appropriate. At first leading a class in front of fifteen to twenty blank faced teenagers was incredibly intimidating. I spent hours wading through the quagmire of information available for ESL teachers online, looking for ideas on how to lead a conversation oriented class. Later I tossed and turned in bed, wondering if I had figured out the secret formula. This unfortunate routine was mostly fruitless and always frustrating, since even the best game for one classroom is a total fail for the next, unless adapted to your current situation and students. Trial and error have since taught me the insights I have gleaned so far from this experience and I by no means think I am a master ESL teacher. On the contrary, I now realize how much there is to learn and what a challenging career being a teacher is, if done well and responsibly.

A truly basic revelation, but the most essential one to planning any type of class, is that any activity you have laboriously prepared will ultimately flop if your students have no background knowledge or vocabulary on the topic you have chosen. This might seem obvious and maybe it is, but I strutted as arrogantly as a useless peacock right into a number of lessons without having made sure that the students had appropriate background information on the activity (i.e., vocabulary, instructions, cultural differences and nuances of a situation clearly explained. Not to mention that if they don’t know the grammar involved, you’ll be stuck looking pretty idiotic to the teacher, who probably knows some rules about English that you only know inherently). For example, in a low-level administrative vocational class, I handed out a slip of paper stating that a group of students needed to write a role play that would imitate an office situation. A person walks into a place of business, speaks with the secretary, the secretary is then supposed to call the boss and finally introduce the “big cheese” to the third person who has come for a meeting. Sounds easy, right? I originally thought so, but there are a number of glaring problems with this situation. The set-up is way too vague for starters. The students need to know: why exactly is the first person coming to the business, what type of business is it, and how would a secretary actually even greet someone properly. Then, the specialized vocabulary in this activity needs to be taught, reviewed and then seen in context by the students before they’ll ever be comfortable using it in a modified dialogue. Finally, language students must listen to an example of this role play before they’ll be able to create their own effectively. No one ever mentioned any of the above to me, so I spent a couple of months frustrated and clueless, until I found a brilliant example of how a dialogue should be taught.

In the successful example, key vocabulary was first reviewed (in this case, chores and curfew were key vocabulary, plus we talked as a class about whether students had to help out around the house and what specifically they were required to do) and then the target grammatical structure was discussed, used in various examples and later written on the board. Finally, the teacher and I read a scripted role-play so the students knew exactly what they needed to do to complete their assignment. Not only was I rewarded with cooperative students, better yet, they were creative and engaged in the activity, in which we used modal verbs (should, could, would, must, mustn’t, have to, can, might) to convince their mother that they should be able to stay out late tonight, even though they hadn’t finished their chores. I was elated and overwhelmed when the class finished, satisfied with a lesson well planned and even more so with the efforts of the class.

Some other particularly effective lessons lately have looked like the following: a teacher indicates to me that her class is studying rooms of the house and furniture vocabulary. To start, we play a quick review game. The point of the game is to get a student who is sitting in front of the class with his back facing the board to say the vocabulary word I’ve written on the board. The class must give the student clues IN ENGLISH about the word without saying it. So far this game has been a big hit, with students mostly eager to participate and some really effective vocabulary practice. Following this game, pictures of rooms in a home (courtesy Southern Living!) are handed out to the students and they have to talk with a partner about the furniture they see. The teacher and I monitor language usage and the students have a chance to work semi-independently. To finish the lesson, students have to draw a floor plan of their own home, labeling the rooms and drawing their own room, along with its furniture. Of course, there are always a few audible groans for any activity from obstinate students, but when they’ve seen the target vocabulary consistently for 50 minutes; I’m guessing they are learning.

Role plays have been a blast in class, writing a recipe is entertaining, singing along with Celine Dion Because you loved me to learn the past simple tense has been stellar, and taking turns describing a photo on the projector screen while the other faces away and draws what his partner describes is good for a laugh. It’s an awesome feeling to know that a lesson was successful, but many times the lessons depend on the individual responsibility the students take to participate in class. My favorite times so far have been when students take the initiative to not only do what they are asked to do, but when they do it well and with a stroke of their own teenage creativity. For me, an effective learning period is when the bell rings, you weren’t consciously waiting for it and everyone leaves the class having learned something valuable.