National Garden, Athens, Greece

Two Week Intensive French Classes in Montpellier

I was lucky enough to take intensive French classes in Montpellier because after Madagascar, there was a lot of uncertainty – would I actually go back to London? Would I move back to California* like I’ve been dreaming about for a few years now? Look for another position in the field with a more robust health care system? Or even take a few months off just to focus on language?

Then I got offered my current position back at MSI and the decision was made. I’d be moving to London and happily back in with G! I had a few weeks to play around with before my start date, and learning French is something that has been on my list of goals for years. It would be a huge career boost, and despite taking a course at MSI in early 2018, I still felt like I lacked even the most basic building blocks of the language. So I decided to book in for an intensive two week course in the south of France at LSF French school. I decided on this school because of price, location (I’d never been to the South of France, I liked the small size of the city, and the weather was meant to be lovely – though I had terrible luck in that regard), and reputation – it had loads of excellent reviews.

Place de la Comedie, Montpellier

French Classes in montpellier

Promenade du Peyrou, Montpellier, France

Host Family Life

I stayed with a host family which is very out of character – I highly value independence and privacy. I did it because it’s meant to offer the best opportunity to learn French, and while I don’t regret having done it, I wouldn’t again.

Pros:

  • You can practice French in a natural environment with people who have to be patient with you. You’ll learn how people speak colloquially, learn words about everyday living that may not come up in class, and be exposed to the language basically 24/7.
  • You can see how locals live, which is something I think is important when visiting a new place – to get outside of the tourist bubble. I was quite far out and had to take a 25-minute metro ride into the city centre every day, and while this wasn’t ideal it did allow me to live a bit more like a local than tourist.

Cons:

  • Every family is different, and you’re inserted right into someone else’s family. Two weeks is a bit of an awkward amount of time. It’s difficult to get close, but you’re right there there for long enough to feel a bit involved – there was some personal drama with the host mom that happened while I was there that I was a bit caught up in – very awkward when you’re an outsider who doesn’t speak the language.
  • In my experience, the expectation was very much that I would spend as much free time with the family as possible. I spent 90% of my time in the library studying, and I think my host mother felt a tiny bit put out by this. I didn’t sign up for catered food, but started feeling guilty if I didn’t eat with the family every night anyway (with my own food obviously), and even at nearly 30 years old, they very much wanted to know my whereabouts at all times.
  • I think the biggest issue I had was that I came in as a complete beginner. The family didn’t speak English, and I think a few decades ago the model would have worked where I’d have been forced to gesture until I could speak, and then speak and build from what I was learning each day, etc. Instead the host family used Google translate to communicate with me. I did eventually ask them to at least speak the words as well, so I could hear it in French, and it wasn’t terrible both seeing it written out and hearing it out loud. But I didn’t feel comfortable enough to do that right away, and for a while it felt like the only things I was learning were from listening in on their conversations to each other.

These things all might be very expected for a host family, and even desirable for some people. It’s also just one experience – I’d stayed with one other host family when I was in Guatemala for a few weeks in 2010, and in that instance we had breakfast together every day, but there were no expectation to spend free time socializing together. They were very happy to help when needed and would have a chat in Spanish at the end of most nights, but I still felt quite independent. That wasn’t the case here, and I think will be hard to know what kind of situation you’re getting before arrival.

Promenade du Peyrou, Montpellier, France

What Can You Learn in Two Weeks?

A lot, actually! I was lucky that I was in a small class (there were only four of us) and we were all really motivated to learn. We also came in at complete beginner, so were luckily all at nearly the exact same level. I had class from 9 – 12:30 every day and then and extra 90 minutes in the afternoon on Tuesdays and Thursdays. I spent every afternoon in the library studying, and the library was usually quite full. When I came back I joined an A1.2 class in London, was pushed up to the A2.2 class the next week, and that was actually the right level! This is the result of London labelling classes as more advanced than they are (I found the same thing when I tried to do Spanish classes here as well), but also due to my time at LSF – I really did come back quite good. I learned far more in two weeks than I expected. I’ve since forgotten loads, but I know with a bit of dedicated study, my new class at MSI, and hopefully a few more trips to LSF, I’ll get there.

Promenade du Peyrou, Montpellier, France

Looking to take French classes in montpellier?

I have a lot of good things to say about LSF. I think they’ve nailed the model, have excellent, well trained teachers, dedicated students, and I 100% plan to go back to the LSF for French classes in Montpellier in the future. I think language lessons can be extremely hit or miss, and I am really comfortable telling you LSF is a hit. They know what they are doing – they aren’t the cheapest but this is definitely a case of you get what you pay for, and if you’re serious about French this is a place you can go to improve. Also Montpellier is not a bad place to spend some time! It’s got a gorgeous old town, is a small-sized city, perfect for learning a language, generally has fantastic weather, and has great food. What more could you want?

Montpellier, France

*This would have been difficult to do as I don’t have health insurance in America anymore. If I got sick now, it would be nearly impossible to move home with my family to receive care. Another reason America’s HC system needs overhauling and another reason to vote for Elizabeth Warren in the upcoming primaries and election!

Madagascar – One Month Update

So I blinked and it has somehow been just over a month since I arrived in Fort Dauphin! In some ways it feels like I’ve been here much longer, and in so many others it feels like I’ve literally just arrived.
Fort Dauphin, Madagascar

getting here

To back up, I left Boston the evening of Sunday, November 11th and after a long journey (Boston → Chicago → Addis Ababa → Tana), I arrived in Madagascar on Tuesday, November 13th.

I was nervous for the chaos I’d been told to expect at the airport, but it was really easy to find my driver and secure myself a Telma SIM card for my phone – everything went smoothly right up until I realized I had forgotten the PIN of my brand new ATM card and had no access to money. I changed what little cash I had and THANK GOD was able to remember it the next morning, when I was back to catch the internal flight down to Fort Dauphin.

Fort Dauphin

Fort Dauphin is stunningly beautiful. I keep having to take a break to look around in shock that I actually live here.

Fort Dauphin, Madagascar

view from my flat

Fort Dauphin, Madagascar

view from a favourite lunch spot

I’m really loving the work aspect of everything, which is exciting as that’s what I’m here for. My projects are all very interesting, and I’m really looking forward to learning so much more about HIV and WASH. I’m going to focus on learning enough Malagasy to get by — the basics, numbers, words for food, etc, and then I’m going to switch to learning French, as I think it’ll be really easy to learn the basics here and most people I’ve met speak it. There’s also an Alliance Francaise in Fort Dauphin where I might be able to take lessons. This is the first time I’ve been anywhere near an immersive French experience, and I want to take advantage!

Fort Dauphin, Madagascar

Settling in

I live with one other girl in house new to our company, meaning it’s empty aside from two beds, a table, and a couch. It’s going to take some work to make it homey, and our first week was a series of unfortunate events where every time we thought we had it figured out, something new went wrong. Finally got buckets to fill up when the water is on at night to use for showering/flushing the toilet, and the water went out for 10 days straight. There was a period of time when I had giardia, no water to flush and all the lightbulbs in our house had burnt out. Stumbling to a dirty toilet with a head torch whilst feeling like you’re dying in a brand new country is QUITE the trial by fire!

When I first arrived it was kind of terrifying how helpless I felt. I didn’t know my way around town and Google maps is not really a thing here. Nor is Google translate, and I didn’t know any Malagasy. So for things as basic as food and water I was so dependent on others to show us where to get them, order for us, handle the money.  I’m so excited for everything coming up and by this time next month to hopefully feel even more settled in than I do now!

The biggest adjustment has been how much time it takes to accomplish anything. It took a full week to get to a point where we had drinking water, toilet paper, soap, buckets to shower/flush with, and a trash can. My first week I learned to celebrate the smallest victories – having a shower was an entire day’s accomplishment, and I’ve grown from there. There are still so many things I need (a fan! a fridge, a functioning laptop, a dresser not filled with cockroaches, etc), but I’m getting closer and closer to living a relatively normal life.

Fort Dauphin, Madagascar

That said, it’s only been a month and I’m now nearly as comfortable killing the roaches as our very capable upstairs neighbor is. We have a good stock of back up water, set up steady laundry service and a cleaner who comes twice a week (what luxury), and everything feels much easier. It’s shocking how happy the ability able to wash your hands, take a shower (even from a bucket), and flush a toilet can make you. I’ve also found a bunch of places  in Fort Dauphin where I love to eat, and beside the giardia haven’t been that sick from food yet (touch wood).

Coming up

Somehow time has moved fast enough that Gareth is currently in the air, on his way to Tana. It feels like we said goodbye so recently, and if we can keep this up through the year I think time will fly and be much easier than our LA to London long distance was. We’re hanging around the Fort Dauphin area while hoping to do a few day/overnight trips to nearby reserves and lodges, and maybe a few nights at the fancy hotel here in town.

After that we’re into 2019 which is almost too crazy to consider! 2018 flew by, and it’s kind of freaking me out how fast time has been moving lately. That said, 2019 will be quite the adventure and I’m looking forward to being even more settled here in Mada.

Big News Part Two: Madagascar

Hi there, it’s been a minute hey? We’ll be back to regularly scheduled Greece posts shortly, however I’m behind on everything due to some Major Life Changes. As of last Thursday, I no longer live in London. I’m home in Boston for a few (amazing) weddings, and next week I’ll be getting on a plane and arriving three days later in Antananarivo. Why you ask? I’m moving to Madagascar.

The when

I fly out next Sunday night, and arrive midday Wednesday. The contract is for 12 months to start, which feels great professionally and long personally. This is without a doubt the most exciting, terrifying, adventurous thing I’ve ever done. I vary between confidence and fear, along with overwhelming sadness at leaving Gareth (OH GOD AND BRADY), both of whom I’ve already had to say goodbye. But it is an incredible career move – and in that respect I’m nothing but excited.

The What

I’ll be a Project Development Officer for Community Health in Fort Dauphin, which is on the south-eastern coast of Madagascar. I’ll be working on project design and development, funding applications, donor reporting, and implementation for three projects – HIV in both rural and urban settings and WASH in schools.

MPH

ALSO, I was accepted to begin my Masters of Public Health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. Classes are through distance learning, so I can complete the work online while living in the field in Mada. It’ll take 2-3 years to complete, and I’m honestly shocked my degree in writing/TV got me into LSHTM, as it’s one of the top programmes in the world!

So by this time next year, I’ll be halfway through a masters and have a year in the field as an Officer on my CV. I’ve felt this urgency to progress as I changed careers quite late, and haven’t been so pleased to still be an assistant at 28. But now (I hope) the ball is finally rolling and things are going to only get more interesting from here. These are two things I’ve been trying to do for years, and I am SO happy it’s all happening!

What next

I’ll be able to check off number 12 and 23 of my 30 before 30, which are probably the most important ones on there. I’ll be posting more frequently as this is definitely a time I’ll want to look back on years from now. I’ll be talking about how to survive long distance, the preparation needed before moving to a developing country, and once I arrive, all things Madagascar. I’m so excited for this next chapter!

Sunset, Greece

A Week in Greece Itinerary

Guys, the countries left on my 30 before 30 list are dwindling right down! When I made that list 3.5 years ago, I didn’t think there was any chance I would come close to visiting all the places on my list – and now I’ve just crossed off my third to last location!

I’ve wanted to go to Greece since about 2001, when Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants was first published. 17 years later and I finally made it!

We had 9 days and in that time we visited Athens, Paros, Santorini, and Crete. Due to an unexpected ferry strike, we had far less time in Crete (and much more in Santorini) than we had planned on – but I’d recommend following our original itinerary.

Athens

Athens Acropolis

We had just over 24 hours in Athens, and used that time to explore Plaka, climb to the top of Lycabettus Hill, and (of course) stopped by the Acropolis. I wasn’t expecting to love Athens, but I really did – it felt young and artistic but still quite traditionally Greek. Given our short time in the country we wouldn’t have traded anything out to stay longer, but Athens is definitely a city where you could happily spend a lot longer than 24 hours.

Paros

Paros, Greece

Paros, Greece

Our three days in Paros were the highlight of our trip, without a doubt. Before going, so many people had told me it was their favourite island, and now I understand why. It is the perfect size, is set up for tourism but not overcrowded, feels authentically Greek, and has some incredible beaches. While there we did a day long boat tour around Paros and Antiparos, rented an ATV and drove around the island, and hiked up to a gorgeous lighthouse. If you’re deciding which islands to visit, definitely include Paros on your list.

Santorini

Santorini, Greece Sunset Santorini, Greece

We originally planned to be in Santorini for just over 24 hours. I really wanted to go, but had heard it was extremely crowded, expensive, and commercial due its popularity. 24 hours would have been perfect, but we ended up being there for about four days due to a ferry strike – and that, to me, was much too long. I’ll explain why later, but it just wasn’t the island for us.

Crete

Elafonisi Beach, Crete, Greece

Our 4 days in Crete had become a day and a half, which was disappointing – especially once we arrived and realised just how beautiful the island is. I definitely want to go back to Crete and spend more time there, but I think we came up with a great itinerary for the time we had. The highlight was spending a few hours at Elafonisi Beach, with its amazing views, clear blue water, and PINK sand!

Greece was incredible. It lived up to my expectations and more – I wasn’t expecting to love the food so much. I’ve had Greek food before and enjoyed it, but it tastes so, SO much better there. I don’t know why – maybe the quality of the produce? But Greek yogurt, Greek salads – things I like but don’t love elsewhere were things I went to bed dreaming about in Greece. Honestly – I might like actual Greek food more than Italian food (never tell my dad I said that).

One of the best parts of Greece are the endless islands to discover. While I can’t really imagine anything topping Paros, I want to go to Folegandros and Milos – and spend more than a day or two in Crete.

Have you been to Greece? What were your favourite places? We only just returned and I’m already desperate to go back!

Safari in Kruger National Park

Kruger was the best introduction to South Africa. It was the most anticipated, dreamed of part of the trip, and even with sky high expectations, it didn’t disappoint. This post is more of a photo diary, but you can find my tips for going on safari in Kruger here, and a cost breakdown here.

We arrived in Kruger around midday, and spent an hour getting settled in to our home for the next few days. Our tent had everything we needed – even a full-size refrigerator and a wardrobe! It was hot, so the fact that we were in separate twin beds was not as tragic as it could have been.
Kruger National Park Permanent Tent

kruger day one: Guided Drive

We left a few hours later for a sunset game drive, one of the two guided drives we went on. It was a perfect start to an incredible few days – we saw four of the Big Five on that drive alone! This experience was different (read: better) than our second guided tour. Here, we were in a smaller truck with just 5 other people, who were all experienced and knew so much about the animals we were seeing.

Lions in Kruger National Park

Highlights were going off road (I guess technically not allowed!), and seeing four sleepy lionesses semi stalking an impala. We also got up close and personal with an elephant at sunset, saw a group of rhino, and quite a few buffalo. We didn’t see a Leopard (spoiler alert: we never did!), but otherwise saw so much. It was actually quite overwhelming. I was living out a dream I’ve had for so long, and it was even better than I had imagined. It didn’t feel real – here I was, a few feet from a lion, an elephant, giraffe! I settled in, but the dream-like quality lasted the entire trip.

Lions in Kruger National ParkYawning lion in Kruger National ParkRhino in Kruger National Park Rhino in Kruger National ParkGame drive in Kruger National Park

kruger Day Two: Self Drives

The next morning we slept in (for Kruger) until 6:00 am. We decided to drive to the Lower Sabie camp, because the route from Crocodile Bridge to Lower Sabie is one of the best in Kruger. We were alone with four giraffes, just meandering down the street, and an elephant that got so close we had to keep backing away. There was no one else on the road, and being alone with these animals was so cool and special. At one point when we were driving, I put on the song Africa, which I had always known I’d one day listen to while on safari, and maybe shed a tear or two at how incredible big and sprawling and beautiful everything was.

African elephant drinking water in Kruger National Park African elephantGiraffe in Kruger National ParkGiraffe in Kruger National Park walking giraffe in Kruger National Park

We then came upon a huge group of cars, probably the largest we saw the whole time we were there. It took ages to figure out what everyone was looking at, but finally we spotted it. There was a dead impala that had been dragged up a tree. Everyone was camped out, waiting to see if the leopard who had done it would be back. We waited for two hours, but never spotted her. However, she was there, just under the tree. The woman in the car next to us saw her lift her head, look around at the commotion, and go back to sleep. It’s hard work being a leopard.

Dead impala in a tree in Kruger National Park

We made it to Lower Sabie around noon, where we had lunch, a nap, and read a bit. It was a good place to hang out because from the desk we could see hippo, buffalo, and crocodiles. We’d already had such a busy few days with only one of the past three nights sleeping in actual beds, and we were feeling it.

hippo, crocodile, and buffalo in Kruger National Park

can you spot the crocodile?

After a few hours of blissful relaxation, we headed back out for a final drive before returning to camp. We saw a few more lionesses, and millions (approximately) impala and zebra.

Impala in Kruger National ParkKudu in Kruger National ParkScratching baby monkey in Kruger National ParkMonkey family in Kruger National ParkImpala and lake in Kruger National Park Hornbill bird in Kruger National ParkZebra crossing Zebra in Kruger National ParkLionness in Kruger National ParkKruger National Park

kruger day three: guided drive

The next morning we did a sunrise drive, meaning we had to be up at 4:30 for the 5:00 am start. This drive was less fruitful than the last one. The highlight was finding some baby hyenas, which were seriously cute. We also saw a rhino, some zebra, and an elephant, and some gorgeous landscapes.

Baby hyena in Kruger National Park Baby hyena in Kruger National ParkKissing impala in Kruger National Park fighting implala in Kruger National Park eating giraffe in Kruger National ParkAfrican elephant in Kruger National ParkKruger National Park River

kruger day three: self drive

We got back to camp and drove around looking for cheetah and leopards on our way to Skakuza. We didn’t see any, but instead had a fully grown male lion walk down the road right near our car! It was incredible! His lady was waiting for him in the grass nearby.

Lion walking down road in Kruger National ParkLioness in grass in Kruger National Park
We had lunch there (the steakhouse is delicious), and then headed back out. As this was our last day we wanted to see absolutely everything we could. A fun thing about this area of the park is that there are three camps fairly close to each other, and you bump into the same people over and over. After only three days there were so many familiar faces and people to swap stories with – the couple camped next to us had a leopard and her cubs cross right in front of them!

giraffes in shadow in Kruger National ParkGiraffe in Kruger National ParkAfrica elephant in Kruger National ParkAfrican elephant in Kruger National Parkbathing buffalo in Kruger National Parkwalking rhino in Kruger National ParkJumping Rhino in Kruger National ParkStomping Rhino in Kruger National ParkKruger Road

As we drove back on our final safari, the sun was setting so beautifully and we put Africa back on and it was one of our best drives. We saw elephant and lions and a rhino playing around. I was so, so sad our time in Kruger was coming to an end, but so grateful we got to experience it. I’m happy we did this first, because for the end of the safari to also be the end to our trip might have been too much – at least this way I still had our Garden Route road trip, Franschhoek, and Cape Town to look forward to!