Sunday, October 20, 2013

Learning Italian with Rick Steves...

Ce weekend, j'ai eu une bonne idée. This weekend, I had a good idea...

On Saturday, I headed to the lovely town of Edmonds, WA for a visit to the Rick Steves' travel office. Not my first time. Not my last one either. I visit this wonderful facility several times a year, alone or with a friend. Where else can I hear people discuss their travels in Europe or watch them plan for upcoming trips? Where else can I have access to free Wifi, and an incredible selection of travel guides (Rick's and his competitors',) maps, and travel DVD's? Where else can I browse such an entertaining selection of travel bags, travel gear, and travel-oriented everything? Spending a couple of hours at Europe through the Back Door is the next best thing to... boarding a flight to Europe!

When I am finished there, Edmonds is waiting. And as Seattle locals know, time spent in Edmonds is always time well spent. 

Rick Steves has been traveling almost non stop since spring,
but he is back in town...


On Saturday, I had a specific goal in mind when I stopped chez Rick. His European Travel Festivals are successful events, but many people do not know that Europe through the Back Door also offers free weekly travel classes year round. 

You may remember I teach France travel workshops in the Seattle area. The most challenging of these programs (and the most popular,) is Survival French for the Traveler. In just three hours, I lead participants through the basics of French pronunciation; essential French expressions; and I provide cultural and travel tips. The program is fast-paced, and not for the faint of heart. I keep it light and fun, and most participants show enthusiasm and a willingness to make fools of themselves as they tackle the notoriously challenging French sounds. By the time they leave, they know major greetings; understand the importance of "Bonjour!" and know how to ask and answer basic questions, or find their way around a typical restaurant menu.

When teaching French/Spanish/Italian/Martian for the Traveler classes, native instructors are always pulled in two different directions: How much time should be spent on speaking the target language, and how much time can be devoted to sharing cultural and travel tips with the participants? 

It often feels as if I am walking on a tight rope as I instruct that workshop. 

But there is always room to improvement, and on Saturday, I signed up for a free Italian for the Traveler class chez Rick Steves. My goal was to observe another instructor and see if I could do better with my own program. I also wanted to step in my students' shoes for a while and remember what it was like to learn a foreign language from scratch. 

Halloween is around the corner, and Europe through the Back Door had added a European spin to seasonal decor... 

The Guillotine:
What happens to *Ugly* American tourists if they fail
the Rick Steves selection test...

The morning travel presentation on major Italian cities had attracted a large crowd of travel enthusiasts...

As always, Rick Steves' line of travel gear beckoned...

Finally, we were ushered in a classroom where our native Italian instructor, Graziella, faced the difficult task of turning us into fluent speakers in just 1.5 hours! 

I needn't have worried. Graz was up for the challenge. 

Graz chatting with some students at the end of class...

I quickly realized she had all the required personality traits and skills of a successful foreign language instructor. Her energy level and enthusiasm were contagious. She also used humor and engaged the students right away. They laughed their way through the program and time flew by. Finally, thanks to Graziella in-depth knowledge of the American and Italian cultures, participants received invaluable tips they could put to use during upcoming trips. 

Highlights of Graziella's excellent presentation:

Eating strange things in a foreign country:  

"If you go to a ristorante (restaurant,) and the waiter brings something weird to the table, for example four small birds with their heads still on, displayed on a plate, just say: "Allergia!" (sorry, I am allergic!)"

Dealing with nudity: 

"Nudity is everywhere in Italy, and in Europe. Get used to it. Talk to your kids about it. There will be young people making out in front of the duomo (church.) There will be TV commercials with naked women running in a field to advertize a rice brand!" 

About taking your time and going with the flow: 

"Sometimes you may hear of a sciopero (strike.) Don't panic. Figure out if national or regional trains are on strike. Do not get upset. That is the Italian way, and they won't change because you are American. Just bring a book and wait, like everyone else!" 

About using the right greetings:

"There are four different ways at least of saying Hello and Goodbye, (she  lists them.) Then there is "Ciao." You can use it for Hello and Goodbye. It is familiar. Does it matter? Of course not. You are American. You won't be able to hide the fact you are American. That is good news. People will cut you some slack. You get to use "Ciao" all the time if you want to. "

You get the picture. Graziella was a hit. 

I am not sure I can converse fluently in Italian, but I learned how to pronounce words starting with "C-," "Ci-," "Ch-." 
I learned Italians speak many local dialects that are not understood in most other regions. I learned Italy as we know it today is a younger country than the United States. I learned that in Italy, like in France, time is elastic and when someone says " un momento," you could end up waiting for two hours, and for "un secondo," at least 45 minutes... I learned that if I get lost in a town, I should always ask for "il centro," (the center of town.) I learned that excellent brands of Pinot Grigio are sold at Trader Joes' (Mezza Corona.) I learned most Italian restaurants in the United States overcook pasta. I learned that Italians are emotional, often short-tempered, and quick at picking up a fight, or at making peace (unless a family member has been offended in which case they can remain angry for generations.) 

I am grateful for Italy and Italians. Next time I hear Americans criticize the French way, I will be able to say: "It's not just the French. Italians do it too. They have the same rice commercials with naked women running freely in gigantic fields!" I will also say: "The French? Argumentative? Pffff... You obviously have not dealt with Italians before!"

Grazie, Signora Graziella. Job well done. Thank you, Rick Steves, for introducing so many Americans to Europe and European ways for over thirty years!

I watched a new France dvd at the Travel Center...

A trip to Edmonds would not be complete without a short stroll in town, and lunch at Chanterelle... I did just that. Traditions are traditions. The French, like the Italians, are traditional people. I made sure to stay away from the pasta selection (in case it was overcooked...)

Edmonds is ready for fall, and for Halloween. Everywhere I went, I was greeted by friendly characters in this friendly town...

A bientôt, Edmonds. Have a successful European Travel Festival next week!

I will return soon. 

All photos unless otherwise noted by French Girl in Seattle
Please do not use, reprint or Pin without permission.
-- French Girl in Seattle

More French Girl in Seattle stories mentioning Edmonds, WA or Rick Steves:

Wonderful small towns: Edmonds, WA. Here.

Searching for the perfect salad niçoise. Here.

Everyday is market day on Cours Saleya, Nice, France. Here.

Enhanced by Zemanta


  1. Ciao et Bonjour, chere Veronique! What a marvelous post, and what a wonderful workshop! (I wish I could attend one of YOURS!) But then again, you are very generous to share so many tidbits of French culture on your blog, thank you so much for that...
    And thank you for sharing some of Graziella's insights and advice! You know, traveling and languages...this was my first passion very early on...I was a little girl, and fascinated, specifically with European culture and language. And what a treat to have Rick Steve's travel office near you!
    I hope lunch was splendid at "Chanterelle" (my fave champignon!)... ;)
    Right now I am reading Harriet Welty Rochefort's newest book, "Joie de Vivre"... the theme never gets old... :)
    Enjoy your week!!
    - Irina

    1. Ciao Irina! Thank you for your message. I bet you would enjoy a visit chez Rick Steves, followed by lunch at Chanterelle's too! I have heard of Joie de Vivre. Do you recommend it, then?

    2. Ciao Cara Veronique! Come state oggi? (About all I rember from my college Italian..hee)
      You know, Harriet's book is mostly a personal account, but she does delve into some topics a bit deeper than some of the other "light" books I have read. The focus is mostly on Paris, but being a Francophile, I tend to devour this genre... :)
      Her first book was "French Toast"...have you read that one? Is there a livre or two that you would recommend? Merci! :)

  2. Coucou! Wonderful reportage as always. Your enthusiasm comes through in every word you write. Hope we get to see each other one your next visit to the 'sud.' Bises Jilly xxx

    1. Coucou/Ciao/Bonjour Jilly! I will make sure we meet next time I am "sur la Côte," that's a promise. Bises to you, and the pooches, of course!

  3. I would LOVE a chance to spend an entire weekend just at the Rick Steve's travel office!!!!

    1. Bonjour Sandy. I don't know if you could keep busy there for an entire weekend (even though I suppose you could spend half of it watching Rick's excellent travel videos.) The Travel Festival is a lot of fun. They sell out most presentations every time they run it.

  4. what a great way to spend the day-how did it feel being the student-that's for sharing the experience-have a good week v!

    1. It was a fun day indeed... and I learned a lot, which is always a plus. Then again, I have always loved being a student :-) I have a brand-new appreciation for my students go through as I lead them through the complexities of the French language, that is for sure!

  5. This travel shop is very tempting.
    Je suis plus sceptique sur le cours italien, qui me semble véhiculer beaucoup de clichés.
    Très peu de décos d'Haolloween de ce côté-ci du monde. Alors si tu manques d'inspi, tu peux nous faire un reportage sur la question! :o)
    Bisous et bonne semaine!

    1. Bonjour Marie. Bien sûr qu'il y a des clichés, mais la plupart sont basés sur un petit fond de vérité quand même :-) J'ai pour ma part remarqué beaucoup de similitudes entre la France et l'Italie, ce qui n'était pas complètement une surprise... Je ne parle ici que de certains points couverts par Graziella pendant sa présentation (ceux qui m'ont paru le plus amusants...) mais elle avait une bonne compréhension des différences culturelles entre son pays d'origine et les USA. C'est un avantage réel qui permet d'anticiper les éventuelles "incompréhensions culturelles," dès l'atterrisage en Europe...

  6. I should perhaps have tried something similar. When I'm with my family, my son in law is good in Italian and you don't have to worry, but sometimes I'm also alone... Well, I think it's really easy to get along with Italians, even if you are not really mastering their language. To be able to understand a menu and winelist is of course a must.

    1. Bonjour Peter. You might have learned a thing or two about the language, as I did, even if you already speak three (or is four?) languages fluently... You're right, les Italiens are pretty laid back. Maybe that is why their country is so popular?

  7. Dearest Véronique,
    I did manage to read this before but was too tired to comment. Still recovering from major surgery. A complex Adnexal tumor got removed etc. etc. Non cancer as it turned out which was good news. Now the healing, slowly one day at a time. Can't wear that Coco Chanel belt yet... My tummy is not yet taut.
    Hugs to you,

    1. Dearest Mariette. Thank you for stopping by. I am glad your surgery went well. Don't worry about the Chanel belt. It will be there, waiting for you when you are ready to wear it :-) Hugs to you and wishes for a prompt recovery!


Bonjour! I love hearing from you, my readers. To quote a fellow blogger, my friend Owen, "Comments are the icing on blogcake... Comments are the UFO in the twilight sky bearing news from other planets... Comments are raspberry vinegar in salad dressing... Comments are the cool balm of after-sun moisturizing lotion... Comments are the moment the band comes back out onstage to play an encore... Comments are the gleam in the eye across the room in a smoky bar... Comments are the rainbow after the rainstorm..." Merci for your comments! French Girl in Seattle