Pedestrians, please don’t make me hate you.

I’ll admit it, there are times when I am the most clueless tourist there ever was. But, as a rule, I don’t consider myself a tourist. I’m a traveller. I go places, I immerse myself into a location and try to coexist with the existing population. This means embodying the “When in Rome” spirit. In cities always on the go, such as New York City or London, this means walking quickly and being aware of the thoroughfare.

Unfortunately, many people do not do this when out and about in the world.

I was recently in Oxford Street’s Primark in London. That was my first mistake. Even to get in, there were people who were walking 3 abreast, ridiculously slowly. I should have realised this was a bad omen. Please, get out of my way.

I managed to overtake them once we were inside, but then I was faced with the amblers who stopped without notice to look at products beside the aisle. Or they weaved back and forth between the left and the right side of the walkway, preventing people behind them from passing. I grew frustrated and took a detour between racks of clothing to get to the escalator leading to the floor I needed. On the escalator, people blocked its entirety, instead of leaving the left side free for people to walk past, and spoke loudly of their new-found bargain-basement treasures. I excused myself and they let me through, grudgingly. Really? You’re the ones annoyed by me wanting to not spend more time in this hellhole?

Once at my destination, I grabbed what I needed and dashed to the check-outs… where I was greeted by a 20 person line ahead of me. Le sigh. The 2 sales assistants at the check-outs looked worn out and completely apathetic. Given their minimum-wage and unrewarding roles, I couldn’t really blame their attitudes. They were slow, but did things. However, the line seemed to be moving at a pace which makes political progress seem fast. I realised it was the people in line who weren’t paying attention to when the next check-out was available. A sale would be completed, the sales assistant would say “Next customer please”, and the people at the front of the line were often oblivious to this, needing to be beckoned a second, sometimes even a third time. Or they would just look up and not have any idea which counter to walk to. Come ON, let’s go, people!  Watch what’s going on! 

My blood started to boil when, having completed my purchase, a family (parents, pram, baby and two little ones) stood blocking the pathway to the door. Lemme out, lemme out, lemme out now! I can see you have to adjust your family and strap everyone in, but must you block the entire way?? At every turn, more shoppers blocked my way completely oblivious and uncaring to their surroundings. They just saw shiny things and price tags.

I weaved in and out, and skirted around this obstacle course known as “shopping” and finally reached the door to the street. There, I breathed a sigh of relief that I had a metre of space in front of me. I fell into the pace of the pedestrians on the footpath. This was more tolerable. Until people walked out of stores in front of me, turned in my direction but kept talking to people behind them. Not surprisingly, they walked straight into me. LOOK where you’re going! If anyone tried doing that in a car, there’d be constant accidents and fatalities.

I’m generally such a chill person, but experiences like this make me wish many curses upon my fellow man.

As such, the general rules which apply to driving should also apply to high-pedestrian-traffic areas as well:

  • Watch where you’re going.
  • If you need to stop while walking somewhere, find a place on the side of the thoroughfare where you can pause to answer your phone, check the map or dig out your metro card, ie DON’T BLOCK THE TICKET GATE, PATHWAY OR STAIRS.
  • Don’t block the entire walkway. This means leave space on the side for people going in the opposite direction to pass by, or for people wanting to overtake to use.
  • Be aware of the people around you, and roughly what their intentions are.
  • Stick, roughly, to the side of the pathway which reflects the side of the road that people drive on. Eg on the right in the US, left in the UK.
  • If you are waiting for a space to open up for you to move into (eg a sales counter), watch what’s going on. Imagine what would happen if all cars at traffic lights needed to be honked at when the light goes green. The world would be a much more irritating place.

Is this really so much to ask? Don’t make me wish you a horrible, fiery death just because you’re not paying attention to your surroundings. 😉

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How do you learn French? ALL THE WAYS!

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One of my favourite things about travelling is learning the local language. And while previously I’ve mentioned the basics you should learn when arriving in a foreign country, I’ve been in France long enough to start focussing on more sophisticated conversations with the hopes that I will be able to work in French soon.

There’s a standard framework used for European language learning called the CEFR. This explains some of the competencies expected at each level. Language schools tend to teach you a curriculum based on particular levels. My French, to my knowledge, is somewhere in the B1-B2 range, depending on what I’m talking about, and with whom. For work purposes I should ideally be in the C1 or C2 range, so there’s still a lot for me to work on.

Meanwhile, I seem to be able to function in French, more or less. I can buy things in shops, order food at restaurants, have basic conversations about who I am and what I’m doing in France with minimal issues. I am starting to ask more complex questions and I surprise myself with the concepts I’m able to convey. I can understand most of what is said to me, at least the general topic area and the sentiment.

So far, my French education involved 6 years of classes in school (ages 12-18), and when I first arrived in Paris in April, I took classes at the Alliance Française for 3 months to try and bring back what I’d forgotten from my teenage years. I was away over the summer, and didn’t practice during that time at all, really. (Bad me!) So there was a little backsliding in terms of my skills when I returned in November. But after a week or two I think I was back at where I had been in June.

In November I decided that I wanted to focus on my spoken French for a while, since I can already read and write reasonably well. I needed to get my verbal French up to the same standard.

Of course, I don’t have the money for a French tutor to really work with me every day, or even French lessons so I have to find other solutions.

So, what have I been doing other than lessons?

  • I have moved in with French flatmates. Even if the daily conversations are only a few minutes of ‘Are you using the washing machine now?’ or ‘By the way, I will have a friend visiting for a few nights next week’, every little bit forces me to think about how I would express myself in French, and they speak only French to me. Even finding a place to live was an adventure of calling up in French and meeting them speaking only in French. Deciphering ads on Le Bon Coin (the French equivalent of Craigslist) was entertaining, too.
  • I ALWAYS try French first. At the bank, at the supermarket, at the train station, at the internet café. Everywhere. I assume the person I’m interacting with knows no English, even if I know they speak some. You’d be surprised at how much you can express if you just try and use a few key words. Also, I’m very good at gesturing. In fact if they respond in English (because I’m a foreigner with an accent), I often keep trying the French despite their English efforts. I am determined to communicate in French if I possibly can!
  • I found a wonderful conversation group: l’Arc. It’s a group of native French retirees who provide an environment where you can go and practice your French with other non-native French speakers from all over the world. At each table there’s a French person to guide the conversation, welcome new people to the table, and to help provide corrections when required. It’s on 5 afternoons a week, and they even organise weekend trips every few months to see more of the countryside. I try to make it there most days for at least 2-3 hours at a time. It helps to have some degree of fluency, though. To begin with I sat and listened a lot, but these days I interact much more.
  • The Polyglot Club has also been incredibly useful. This is an organisation where you can get in touch with people who want to participate in language exchange events. You can find native French speakers who want to learn English, for example. I go semi-regularly to some of the evening events and over a beverage I chat with French natives in French, then in English. Or Polish, or whatever other language I want to practice. The website also provides resources to help correct written works. But be careful because not all of the corrections are done by native speakers.
  • Also through Polyglot and My Language Exchange I have connected with people for one-on-one language exchanges. We meet for a drink, or lunch, and spend half the time speaking French, and half English. The one-on-one nature means you get more personal feedback, but also it means you need to be lucky to click with the person so the dynamic works between the two of you. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Thankfully, as a native English speaker I’m in demand and could probably meet someone new every week if I needed to.  Exchanges can happen in person, via IM, phone or Skype, depending on your preference.
  • I consume lots of the media. I watch French TV and news, I listen to French radio, I read newspapers. Usually, I’m terrible at keeping on top of current affairs in English-speaking countries. Here, I’m better simply because I’m using it as yet another resource to help understand the language.
  • I love watching French films and reading books which I already read in English before. Currently, I’m making my way through Bridget Jones’ Diary 2: The Age of Reason. In French. Booyah. Lots of slang, but because I’ve read the book and seen the movie, I think i understand a lot more than I might otherwise.
  • I do local courses. In an interesting twist, I’ve been volunteering at a swing dance school. So I attend dance classes, even beginner ones which are well below by skill level, to learn French. Arguably, much of the vocabulary I learn is specific to the domain of dancing, and I’m not sure how often I will need to describe keeping your core straight but rotating your hips in other circumstances. But I’m sure even the brief interactions with the teachers and other students are helpful from the perspective of learning French social interactions and how interactions differ here. I’m also finding it interesting to try and diagnose the beginners’ mistakes, and attempt to explain how to do it better in French.
  • I plan to also join a ukulele practice group when it stops conflicting with my schedule. And in that vein I’m listening to and learning to play some French songs.
  • There are dozens of mobile applications to make use of too, for vocabulary and to practice grammar. These are great when you have a few minutes to kill on the train, for example, or waiting for a bus.
  • I’ve dabbled with online resources like Duolingo and LiveMocha, but honestly, for me interactive activities work better. Online stuff rarely retains my attention for long.
  • I have also listened to a lot of mp3s (Pimsleur, BBC Active Talk 2) especially while walking somewhere or working out at the gym. Definitely good ways to make the most of your time.
  • Finally, one of my evil plans is to translate these blog posts into French, too, (with the help of my French friends, of course). Stay tuned!

What am I missing? What have been your most effective language-learning techniques? 🙂

Top 10 ways to look like a tourist. (Conversely, how to avoid doing so.)

These days when I’m out and about in a city, I like playing the game of ‘Spot the tourist’. Some people make this game way too easy. If I wanted to make this a drinking game in Paris, I’d get alcohol poisoning within an hour. 🙂

The most effective ways to look like a tourist are the following:

1. Read your map / guide book in public.

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I’m a perpetual traveller, and so can you.

My friends know me as the Traveller. Always planning a trip here or there, and who knows where I’ll be any given month. They wonder how I can afford it.

A few years ago, I read The Four Hour Work Week by Tim Ferriss. It’s an interesting read, and while I don’t subscribe to all of his advice, some things did sink in for me. For example, he talks about the importance of not leaving all your time off to when you’re old and retired and no longer as energetic as you were in your 20s and 30s. Instead, he recommends mini-retirements. 3 months here and there, perhaps once a year if you can do it. It’s been a lot of fun for the past 4 years. 🙂

Now, for many people, this concept seems downright impossible. In fact, if you ask a random American about their plans to travel they’ll usually talk about how they don’t have any leave left after planning Christmas and Thanksgiving and a single week somewhere else.

But taking 3 months off per year is doable. And hasn’t landed me in debt.

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Sick while you travel? Or sick of travelling?

As I hang out in London mainlining a steady stream of cups of tea with honey, it occurs to me that perhaps I could share a story about being ill while travelling and general advice for dealing with illness while away.

I’ve mentioned this in the past: I’ve travelled a lot. Sometimes it’s been for long stretches of time (6 months, or 3 months a few times), and with the additional stress on your body, illnesses happen.

Between walking huge distances every day (I often carry a pedometer and walking 30,000 steps a day, 20km, is not unusual while exploring a new city), different and inconsistent meals, jetlag, as well as exposure to different viruses and bacteria, your body often takes a battering and succumbs to illness.

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The curse of currencies

When you travel a lot, especially to a variety of different countries where each one has a different local currency, you end up accumulating a lot of coins and notes of various colors and values. It starts to look like play money.

Vietnamese DongCambodian riels

Mixing up money can be a costly affair.

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