Monday, November 19, 2018

How Not to Look American -- from an American who sticks out

Triestini can spot their own kind from a Kilometer away. "You can tell by the way they walk... Check out those sunglasses!" My husband says, "Italiani in vacanza!!"

The Triestini say the Germans wear sandles with socks and, in summer, they are anywhere they can be naked (boats, nudie camping grounds, anywhere in Croatia...).

Americans are also abbastanza obvious. Use this guide and maybe you can fool the Triestini (not likely), or at least not stick out too much.

1. Yellow gold.

Leave it at home (it's considered old-fashioned) unless it's your wedding ring. White gold is okay.

2. The Diamond Engagement ring.

Triestini don't do engagement rings. They would prefer that money go toward a down-payment for their very own apartment or an awesome vacation. Two rings on one finger means you are a widow/widower and you are wearing your deceased partner's ring.

3.  Bottles and Bottles of water.

What is it with Americans and obsessive hydration? American tourists can be spotted in European capitals wearing contraptions in the Baby Bjorn family designed for holding bottles of water. They seem to be hanging everywhere: on the backpack, over the shoulder, one in each hand. You might as well be wearing a sign that says: "I am not from here, please pick my pocket."

Having a bottle of water with you in your bag is fine. Many Italian cities have water fountains in various places where you can fill up your reusable bottles with "aqua del sindaco," and it is perfectly delicious (Trieste and Rome are great for this). Better yet, why not do like the Italians? Stop at a bar and order something to drink and have a conversation with someone or do some people watching! Be careful what you order if you don't want to stick out. According to my mother-in-law, "Water is for washing." She would order an espresso or a glass of wine.

4. White Tennies.

Italians prefer shoes that can work in both casual situations and in a professional context. Their reasoning is you can never be overdressed, only underdressed. For this reason, it is a safer bet to go dark, which is always more elegant than white, or, godforbid, dirty.

5. How you stand can make a difference.

This video by an ex-CIA Chief of Disguise explains that you can even spot an American a mile away because of how they have a tendency to lean on one leg rather than distribute weight evenly to both legs...

6. How you use space.

Americans are used to having lots of space and not having to touch anyone on public transportation. David Sedaris says you can spot an American on a metro in Paris because they "hug the pole" rather than hold on with one hand so that others can hang on, too.

Same with elevators. Americans will not get on a full elevator. They will wait for the next one. A European will squeeze in and be happy to be so close to the door so they can be the first off.

7. Going to the back of the line.

If there is a line, Americans will go to the back of it EVERY TIME.

I was just in Rome with American friends who have lived in Italy longer than I have. At the conference where we were presenting, they saw a line and went immediately to the back. I did not.

Like a good fake Italian (observer), I went to the front of the line to understand the situation. There were actually TWO lines: one for speakers (no waiting) and one for guests (big long line). I registered immediately and went back to rescue my friends.

All this is not to say that I don't look American. I do. I also sound American, but I do not look or act like a tourist. It's all about situational awareness. You want it to be clear that you know what's up!

You know me, I just want you to fit in!

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Let's Stop Being So Available

I had a shocking experience in the Adult Classroom this week (it was not at the Italian American Association, but in a company). I realized that many adults can't detach from their cell phones anymore.

There have been cell phones in my classes for as long as I remember, but the difference is that in the past they were a discreet presence. You would do a hip grab to see if that ringing phone was yours, you might pull it out of your pocket to see who called or where the message came from, if you actually took it out all the way you would be genuinely embarassed to take attention away from those around you.

That has changed. Apparently people are now allowed to disengage on a near constant basis. What I mean by this is that they were physically present in the space (a small group course, workshop format) yet they continued working with their laptops and cell phones as if they were in their office and not in a classroom, and when I say working, I mean checking their emails and text messages and responding to them in real time all the while I am trying to teach the coolest lesson plan I have come up with in a decade and yet I am feeling like an analog dinosaur speaking in Morse Code because they are just NOT FOLLOWING ME AT ALL.

What I wanted to say to these people was this:


The messages I received:
Real people are a waste of time.
Creativity is not useful.
The participant is in no way responsible for the success of a course. 

One student even told me that she "tuned out" because I showed a video that was longer than 4 minutes. Wow.

So it was a depressing day because it didn't matter what I did, there was always going to be something better going on somewhere else.

And it hurt. Boy, did it hurt. I have never left a workshop with less energy than I had going in. I usually go home riding high on the energy of an excellent group making something incredible out of nothing.

At first I couldn't figure out where I went wrong.

Yes, there were a ton of unforeseen annoying obstacles because there always are. Normally we get past them with a little empathy and a sense of humor. Technology that doesn't work the way we want, a room that doesn't fit our needs,  big whoop, we laugh and go to Plan B.

But this time there was no shared understanding. Instead, each glitch was an opportunity to check email again (and rack up nasty feedback points for the form at the end of the day).

Phones and laptops became barriers that never allowed us to connect as human beings, and that broken circuit made all the lights go out on the string.

There is a huge price to pay for this semi-presence.

1. It kills the vibe of an otherwise positive atmosphere.
2. It communicates disrespect for colleagues and the instructor.
3. It substitutes reflection with distraction. 
4. It makes it impossible to create a productive working group.

It's not just in the classroom, though. Even in restaurants, chefs are getting annoyed at people taking constant photos of their food rather than enjoying the experience. One article I read (which I can't find at the moment) linked an increase in complaints for cold food with people taking longer to eat it because they have to photograph it first.

They say success is a string of failures. I count yesterday as a turning point (which is what you call a failure when you don't want to keep feeling like a loser) because it made me approach my next workshop differently. I planned like crazy, put as much paper material together as possible and ordered a room with only chairs. Then I made an excellently detailed plan with a disclaimer.


And just to make my point, I turned off my own phone for an entire six hours. When I turned it back on, I was happy to note a good 15 different fires that had been addressed to me and subsequently (and rightly) extinguished by somebody else because I was not available.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Hooray For Useless Languages!

Today I went into my classroom and made the following list on the whiteboard. See if you can figure out what it all means.

International Cities:
Dubai, Budapest, Nurnberg, New York, London, Manchester, Paris, Lisbon, Bolzen, Rome, Florence, Bologna, Ancona, Milan, Sao Paolo, Dakar.

Professional Sports:
NBA, World Championship Sailing, World Championship Paratriathlon, Formula Indy.

Other Sectors:
Insurance, Toys, Tunneling, Engineering, Food and Bev, Wine business.

Did you get what they have in common?

My students couldn't figure it out either, so here the solution.

These are all of the cities (actually it is a partial list of just the sexiest ones) that I have visited for work in the sectors above (Formula Indy was not work but thanks to languages). I had all of these opportunities because I studied what other people called "useless languages."

The "useless" languages that led to these experiences were French, Portuguese and Italian.  I have lots of others I am working on with varying degrees of commitment as well: Albanian (specifically Kosovan), Triestino (yes, it's a language), Wolof, Slovenian, and, most recently, Swedish.

What are your useless languages? Who knows what doors they will open for you.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Get your Students to talk NOW

Today's post is about teaching foreign language. Specifically, I want to propose an answer and a solution to this question:

Why is it that practically everybody has to study a foreign language, yet so few people actually speak the language they are trying to learn?

Normally I address the student because we all have to take personal responsability for our language learning. This time, however, I address the foreign language teacher.

What students want: To speak the language so they can use it in practical situations (especially while traveling around the world on a mega yacht sipping mohitos with the movers and shakers). I know this because I have asked every student I have ever had. 

What teachers teach: Grammar, which is more often than not taught in the native language and NOT in the target language.

Why do teachers get so hung up on grammar? There are several reasons.

1. It's easy to put a grade on because it is either right or wrong.
2. It's comfortable and familiar.
3. It is a teacher-centered activity (I teach, you take notes, then you do the exercises at home) and therefore easy to control and not noisy.
4. The pressure to follow "a Program"
5. So kids will do well on standardized tests.

Why do teachers teach in their language and not in the target language?

1. Because the students won't understand if I teach in the target language.
2. Because the grammar is so technical, they will lose something if I do it in the target language.
3. I don't feel comfortable teaching in the language because I am not a native speaker.

The problem with the grammar-based approach.

1. It encourages perfectionism, which is the enemy of language acquisition.
2. It is discouraging (see above).
3. It is difficult to apply to real life because the focus is on rules rather than usage.
5. It assumes there is a uniform "ideal" way of speaking (which does not exist) and therefore leads to impossible expectations and fear of judgement.

How many people do you know learned their native language by studying grammar? Just saying. 

I feel that our job as foreign language teachers is to provide as much contact with the target language as possible (you can never get to the point of understanding a language if you never hear it. Simple). The LEAST we can do is use it as our teaching language. Will our students understand absolutely every word? Of course not. Each student will get something out of the lesson based on their experience with the language. The more experience I have, the more I will understand. That being said, I am the teacher, so I will use my entire bag of tricks to MAKE SURE my students understand what is really important in the lesson (that's what tone of voice, body language and cognates are for).

Anybody who teaches teens will know that you get the same blank look from students no matter what language you use. Try it, I am not kidding. So if this is the case, you have nothing to lose by teaching in the target language. It may even keep them a little more alert.

Our second job is to prepare our students to use the language in practical situations. This means setting into motion rehearsed conversations that we repeat a gazillion times until they become so automatic we don't have to think to use them, and we can bend them to fit our real life needs.

Here is one you can start using today in the first five to seven minutes of class. We call this beginning part of the lesson "circle time" because when children are little (pre school- elementary) we sit in a circle on the floor and go through the same information each time (How are you? How's the weather? etc) with flashcards and get them used to asking and answering basic questions. That repetition is comforting and gets them speaking immediately (with no worries about grammar).

Circle time from Middle School to adults looks a little different. I like to go around the room and shake each person's hand and have this individual conversation (I print up a copy and distribute it on day one. I write it on the board when I add a new piece, which is usually once every two to three weeks).

Phase one.

Teacher: How are you?
Student: Fine thanks and you?
Teacher: Fine thanks. Nice to see you.
Student: Nice to see you, too.

Phase one  + Phase two.

Teacher: How are you?
Student: Fine thanks and you?
Teacher: Fine thanks. Nice to see you.
Student: Nice to see you, too.
Teacher: How was your day yesterday? (on Monday you can say WEEKEND)
Student: It was fine.
Teacher: What did you do?
Student: (choose one) I went out with my friends. I went to school. I stayed home.
Teacher: Great. Have a good day!
Student: Have a good day!

Phase one + Phase two + Phase three.

Teacher: How are you?
Student: Fine thanks and you?
Teacher: Fine thanks. Nice to see you.
Student: Nice to see you, too.
Teacher: How was your day yesterday? (on Monday you can say WEEKEND)
Student: It was fine.
Teacher: What did you do?
Student: (choose one) I went out with my friends. I went to school. I stayed home.
Teacher: What are you doing today after school?
Student: (choose one) I'm having lunch. I'm going home. I'm going out with my friends.
Teacher: If I were you, I would do the same! Have a good day!
Student: Have a good day!


Is it repetitive? You bet!

Is it a rigid conversation? Oh yes. No creativity required or desired. I make it clear that this is a formal conversation accompanied by a firm handshake and eye contact. Yes, even if it's the worst day of my life, everything is "fine". This is the rule of grooming talk in English.

Do I do this with every student at the beginning of every class? Yes, I do.

Isn't that a waste of time? No. Here's why.

1. I shake their hand and look them in the eye and we talk to each other. This creates rapport and the human connection that is so important for learning.
2. It is a clear signal that class is starting, yet gives them a moment to transition from their native language.
3. It becomes automatic for them, so it is a positive way to begin. If I don't do it, the students are disappointed!
4. I always remind myself that even if my students learn NOTHING from me, this conversation will be part of them for the rest of their lives. They can use it anywhere in the world and make friends immediately.
5. There is about three years of grammar in that little conversation!
6. I teach many types of students including students who have had bad experiences in the foreign language classroom. This conversation increases confidence, especially when they use it on a real foreign person and they are able to have a real conversation.

Is it noisy?

Yes, because students do not typically go silent the moment the teacher's back is to them and they are not in the spotlight. I don't mind this, as long as I can hear the person I am talking to. If the volume gets too loud, I stop and remind the class to be respectful.

The payoff.

Your students will use it on you even when they see you around town and hearing "Nice to see you" from your students is it's own reward.

We teachers need as many personal victories as we can get.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Kids Playing in the Street

My thought of gratitude for this Sunday evening was supposed to be that the weather changed and it got cold, which normally happens during the second half of August. It did get colder yesterday, mind you, but NOT COLD ENOUGH. It's still effing hot and I don't know what to wear anymore. Because my skorts that I normally wear ALL SUMMER are like ENOUGH ALREADY!! And my jeans are all like YOU'RE TOO FAT and it's STILL TOO EFFING HOT TO FAKE IT!!!

So forget that moment of gratitude, because even at our FAVORITE OSMIZZA this afternoon in San Giuseppe (Zerjal, but please don't go, because it's already too crowded) the women are all grimacing (in the bad kind of way) because they have never suffered such hot weather in September. But they are happy to see me, since we are neighbors.

Instead, I will tell you that the best part of this little Osmizza outing was when the lady at the counter said, after telling me it's never been so hot in September since the beginning of time (and I know she is right because in the last 15 years of proof I have this is absolutely true, and why wouldn't it also be true for the several million years before that?)...

 "Your daughter? Where is she?"

and I was all like: Daughter? Who Dat?!

Because, you see, I live in a PAESE, or a little VILLAGE, where the children leave the den at sunrise and return at sunset because they are PLAYING TOGETHER IN THE STREET.

Is there TRAFFIC? You ask. You bet! Tons of it, but the kids do like we used to do when we were little: scream CAAAAARRRRRRRRR!!!!!! And then they take the ball into their arms, and flatten themselves against the nearest house in order to avoid being run over.

All of us parents know that our kids are hanging out together in one big girl gang (plus a couple of boys) that has a triangle of influence that goes from Anna's place, to Eva's, to Isabelle's. There is always one set of parents on duty, which means that you get a ton of stuff done at the house that you can never get done during the week because your kids are outside and not asking you to do anything for them. Even if they are inside, they are on their own.

So, today, our friends who, in the not-so-distant-past did not believe such a utopia could possibily exist, came over and liberated their monkey with ours, and we went to the Osmizza, had a couple of sparkling malvasia's and came back to our place for one last drink.

We could hear the girls, of course, because they were playing some sort of ball game with a deflated volleyball that resembled a cross between volleyball, rugby, and dodgeball, and created several minor injuries.

But it didn't matter, because there were also three fridges, and three freezers full of ice, and towels all over the place, ready to ice all of those old-fashioned play in the street wounds.

Viva Domenica!

Monday, August 27, 2018

The Opposite of Happiness is Boredom

The opposite of happiness is not sadness as it turns out. According to my new favorite book The 4-Hour Workweek by Tim Ferriss, it's BOREDOM!



As a result, what I am SUPPOSED to be doing (as defined by ME) is MEDIOCRE, BORING CRAP that I have NO INTEREST IN DOING.

I AM DESTINED FOR GD GREATNESS (pardon my French)!! I just COMPLETELY FORGOT ABOUT THAT (does that ever happen to you??)

Now, to be fair, I do not believe that everything has to be exciting all of the time, but I have generally lost touch with what I find EXCITING and WORTH MY PRECIOUS TIME. I need to get back to KNOWING what will make me SUPER MEGA PSYCHED to wake up in the morning (although I do not wake up unhappy, I am not JUMPING OUT OF BED the way I could be).

My TO-DO List has nothing to do with what I am DYING to do before I DIE. So I am creating a new list (don't laugh).

I know it is strange, but this revelation (the opposite of Happiness is Boredom) explains my SEA LEVEL EXISTENCE over the last six months: why I fell off my Vegan diet (still vegetarian but HATING IT, want to get Cheese out of my life for good!!) and can't get  motivated to create a lifelong healthy running habit past the next small roadrace. I am running but have gained 25 (not kidding) pounds since Christmas. This has GOT to stop.

So here is what I am going to work on in the SHORT TERM (0-6 MONTHS)

1) Write consistently (blog and other writing) and finish my next book on learning foreign language super fast.
2) Sign up for an Ultra Marathon (50k or more. I may do the Bora run because it is in Trieste). I am not a fast runner, but the spare tire around my middle tells me I am meant for DISTANCE!!
3) Learn Swedish so I can get in touch with my mom's roots (and read IKEA boxes better). For this I will use Duolingo.
4) Sign up for the Stockholm marathon in June and thus kill three birds with one stone (running goal, practice my Swedish, dig up my Pippi Longstocking long lost relatives and hopefully talk my mom into coming along for the ride).
5) Make a plan to become financially independent (I live in Trieste, so I am looking at real estate opportunities) and cover my expenses so I can be free to plan even wackier things that are NOT BORING.
6) Finish my house inside and out so I can rent her out and get paid to go on crazy vacations around the world with my family (wish list: Turkey, India, Japan, Sweden, Middle East, Greece, Brazil, and go back to Belgium, France and Brazil to visit old friends)
7) Find the joy in the jobs I am doing. Everything I do must be AWESOME
8) Get a new bike.

This list should keep me busy and get me motivated again.

My friend Monica used to tell her students that being bored is a reflexive verb in French (Italian, too). That means getting out of it falls entirely within our own control.

I feel like it is my responsibility.
Wish me luck.

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Welcome to Ricmanje

Now that we have moved to a small village in Val Rosandra, our life has changed. While we live about five minutes away from our old apartment in the periphery of Trieste, it's like we moved to a new planet.

Today I want to tell you a little bit about my new village: Ricmanje, or San Giuseppe della Chiusa, as it is known in Italian. The fact that it has two names gives you a sense of the place. It has a split identity and the name you choose to use with people says something about YOU (hint. with Slovene speakers say Ricmanje).

Here are some other fun facts!

1. Ricmanje has a unique  sign on the Bike Path that cuts through it. It looks like someone designed and made it in metal shop class during their lunch hour. There is no other sign like it on the bike path. It catches your eye as you pass on your bike or you huff through on foot. 

2. Ricmanje is part of the Comune of San Dorligo, which means it is in Val Rosandra, so it's on the prettiest part of the bike path (not to brag!!)

3. It is 124 meters above sea level. From here you have a view of Cattinara hospital (isn't that everyone's dream?) and the gulf of Muggia (just in case you thought, like I did, that you had to live in Barcola to have a sea view!)

4. If you live here you do not need a watch. The church bells tell you everything you need to know. During the week they even ring at 6am (first chime of the day, time to start waking up) and 7am (too late!)

5. The village has two symphonic bands. I guess there used to be just one but there was a split at some point. Isn't that crazy? I live close to the place where they practice. This summer it was like having a free concert every night.

6. There are two actvie Osmizas here. There used to be 15.

7. San Giuseppe is full of cats. If I were a photographer (which I am not, as you can tell by this blog) I would make a poster and profile each one and call it "The Cats of San Giuseppe" in the style of "The Doors of Dublin" my mom used to have hanging on her wall. Feel free to steal that idea. I will buy a copy of it and put it on my wall!

8. The houses here were built around the church and the ones closest to the church are about 1000 years old (although our house had its last face lift at the end of the 1970s, doh!)

9. The church here is famous because a miracle happened here in 1749 the Priest is an Exorcist. I am not kidding. All well documented.

10. When locals order pizza delivery, if they want their pizza to be hot when it gets here they order from San Dorligo, the only pizza place that knows what questions to ask to be able to find your house which is NEVER "what is your address?" Houses are numbered  in the order they were built. The question to ask when you make an appointment in San Giuseppe is "where are you in relation to the church?"

If you want to come up, take the number 41 bus from the Station. Check the schedule, though. There are few busses during the day and the timetable largely reflects the old train schedule that took people to work in Trieste in the morning and brought them back to San Giuseppe in the evening.

My house is on the street below the church. If your back is to it, hang a left. If you go around the big curve, you have gone too far.