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!

Pisa and (finally!) getting my ID card!

A few months ago I had my first interview at my current job, and left it so (unusually) confident, that I arranged a spur of the moment flight to Italy for the next day, as I knew if I was hired I’d need my proof of right to work in the EU. I had originally planned to get it a few weeks out, and fly into Milan, rent a car, and drive out to the tiny mountain town my ancestors were from. However, with one day’s notice, Pisa ended up being much cheaper, and was about the same distance as Milan. It was also quite close to Cinque Terre, and this unplanned, last minute trip became one of my all time best travel experiences.

I flew into Pisa and stayed at Hostel Pisa. It was walking distance from the airport, and can I just say any city where you can walk to the airport is OK in my book. I was only spending one night in Pisa, and didn’t arrive until 4:00, so my expectations weren’t high. However, I had the best night. I don’t have major Pisa recommendations, other than the tower, obviously, and the most fantastic dinner/drinks place.

I headed straight for the tower because the light was fantastic and I wanted to see it in all its glory. While there I asked two girls to take my photo, and they recognized me from checking into the hostel. They were returning home to Germany a year volunteering at in International Hospital in Jerusalem, and we also met up with a guy who had just arrived in Europe for a year abroad in Florence.

On the walk to the tower I had stopped to take passport style photos for my ID card. (They did not come out well—Gareth kindly pointed out the shading makes it look like I have a 5:00 shadow, which is an accurate analysis of the photo). Nearby, I saw a dock on the river that looked like it may be a restaurant. I mentioned it to the crew I had met, and we decided to head there for dinner. It ended up being such a lovely night. Two of us were heading home after a long journey, both to graduate school. One was arriving for the first time in a country he was about to make into a home, and I was there to get proof of my newly recognized European citizenship. Arno Vivo was half on a dock and half on a floating raft, where we grabbed a table. There was live music, mood lighting, and the buffet style food was free with a drink. We shared a bottle of wine and swapped travel/life stories, and it was one of those moments that reminds you how absolutely wonderful travel can be.

The next morning I walked back to the airport to pick up a rental car, and headed out for Vernasca. I was so nervous the whole drive, that they would be closed (our communication was all in Google-translated Italian, and I wasn’t sure they’d be open until I arrived), or that I didn’t have the proper documentation. It seemed too easy, honestly, after the process leading up to it had been so drawn out and difficult.

The drive was beautiful, through the mountains and farmland, and the little village was so cute. I headed straight for the municipal building, and there was one woman working behind the counter. She was expecting me, and we chatted away—her in Italian, me half in Spanish and half in hand gestures. She filled out my ID card right there (so easy, it’s just made of paper!), and handed it to me with a big huge and a congratulations. It was such a surreal moment, being in my ancestors old village, even being in Italy, and I’m honestly so grateful that’s how I received my ID, rather than at a consulate in LA or London. Afterwards I wandered around the town a bit—there’s a big church up a hill right behind the municipal building that offered incredible views, before getting some lunch and starting the drive back.

downtown in the village

I was eager to drop the car off because that night started the second part of my trip—Cinque Terre!

Cinque Terre Guide – Tips and Recommendations

Back at the end of August, I unexpectedly flew to Italy and was able to spend three and a half days in coastal Italy. It was one of my favorite trips ever, and below you can find my Cinque Terre guide to the tips and tricks I wish I had known before going!

Getting there

Cinque Terre is incredibly easy to get to from Pisa. You just take the train to La Spezia, where you can change to the train line that connects the 5 towns. In La Spezia buy train passes for the days you’ll be in Cinque Terre, which makes exploring all the towns super simple. The passes are 13 euros for one day, or 23 for two, and include unlimited access to the trains, hiking trails, and (spotty) wifi. The trains run from Levanto to La Spezia and stop at each of the five towns along the way.

Where to stay

Because I booked so late, my options for staying in/around Cinque Terre were quite limited. Nearly all the hostels were completely booked, even in the surrounding towns. I booked the only place available, Affittacamere Patrizia. It had some reviews that made me hesitate, but lacking other options I didn’t have much of a choice.

Though it ended up being expensive, it worked out because had I booked earlier I would have tried to save money by staying in La Spezia or Levanto, and the quiet early mornings and late evenings, before the crush of tourists arrived, ended up being the most magical hours of the trip.

The place was strange—I booked two nights and I stayed in separate buildings each night—a bit annoying because I had to respect check in/out times, and arrange to pick up/drop off my bag around their front desk opening hours. The first night I was literally sleeping in the front room—there were three bedrooms and a bathroom off where I was staying, and the front door opened to my bed and one other.

The second night I was in a new house, staying on the top floor in the kitchen, but it had a great balcony and it was the only bed in the room, so it was nearly like having my own apartment. If I had more notice I’m not sure I’d stay there again, but I wouldn’t hesitate to return in a pinch. However you can learn from me and book early, and plan on staying in one of the towns to get the full experience. I’d recommend Riomaggiore, Coniglia, or Vernazza.

The Villages

Riomaggiore, Cinque Terre

Riomaggiore

Riomaggiore was the quietest of the towns, and it was quite small. The food was delicious and the place was stunning, probably the most beautiful of them all—this is where I stayed and I’d definitely be happy staying there again. There’s less to do than the other towns, but as a base it’s pretty perfect. It’s built on a giant hill, so be prepared for a steep incline to get anywhere! It had a good amount of rocks to use as a mini beach, and a few places to jump in as well. (Mom, that’s for you!)

Manarola, Cinque TerreManarola

Manarola felt quite young and hip. It was lively and had a fun vibe. The harbour had a place where it was possible to jump off, so people who were braver than I dove off the rocks. I think a lot of people list this as their favourite town, and while it was up there for me, it wasn’t the top of my list.

Corniglia, Cinque TerreCorniglia

All the guides I read suggested skipping Corniglia if you were short on time, and I considered it. I’m so happy I didn’t! It was quite unlike the other towns—it’s high above sea level and there’s no beach access. However that gives it really nice views, and the town felt a bit more chilled and artistic. There were some cute shops, unique looking bars and coffee shops, and it had more shade than the other towns. If it wasn’t such a hike to the train and/or nearby towns, I’d consider staying here. I hiked in from Manarola and out to Vernazza, and both hikes were incredible but very hard—and the walk up to the town from the train was stairs on stairs on stairs. Be prepared for a work out, no matter how you arrive.

Vernazza, Cinque TerreVernazza

I loved Vernazza. It had two beaches, one hidden through a rock tunnel that was created after a huge rock slide, and another spot along the harbor next to the cliff that leads to Monterosso. The food was good, the gelato better, and I spent more time here than anyway other town.

Monterosso, Cinque TerreMonterosso

Honestly, Monterosso wasn’t my favorite. I didn’t go until my last day, and by then was already so in love with the other four towns, I’m not sure I gave it a fair shot. I spent the least time here, and it felt much more city-like than the others. It’s the only one that has a sand beach (I HATE sand, but maybe this is a selling point for someone else), and it was set up more like a resort, which is also not my vibe. It looked big and like there would be some great shopping, so maybe spend a bit more time there than I did.

What to eat

Gelato

You only need to go to one place, and that’s Gelarteria Vernazza. I tried the others, and none came close.

breakfast

I did some real searching, but didn’t find anything other than pastries and yogurt as breakfast options. Eggs were not a thing as far as I could tell—if someone finds them please let me know in case I ever go back!

Dinner

I had dinner both nights in Riomaggiore, which was great. All the food I had there was delicious, and recommend Trattoria la Grotta and Pizzeria Da Mam’angel if you’re looking for good food that isn’t going to break the bank.

Dessert

I know gelato technically is dessert (though I utilized it as a lunch), but Monterosso is also well known for Torta Monterossina Ricetta, which I tried at Pasticceria Laura and it was SO good. It was the best part of the town for me.

Books

Bring books! I only brought one (The Story of the Lost Child, by Elena Ferrante, which I highly recommend), and there was so much time for reading I blew through it, and struggle to find other English books available in the towns.

Hikes

I hiked Corniglia to Vernazza and Monterosso to Vernazza. They were fantastic, and if you’re in any kind of shape I highly recommend them and any other hikes that are open. They had stunning views and were a great work out—honestly both were much harder than I anticipated, and I planned poorly and did the first one right at noon, when the sun was directly overhead. Plan to go earlier in the morning, or later in the afternoon, bring a lot of water, maybe a snack, and definitely be prepared to sweat. Luckily there are beaches at either end with some seriously inviting water, and there is a cafe high in the cliffs at the midpoint of the Corniglia/Vernazza hike.

Art

One of my favorite things to do when I visit a place is collect some kind of art, so I can bring a piece home with me. There was a really cute art store in Vernazza owned by Antonio Greco where he shows his work. I got two prints there, which make me insanely happy whenever I see them. One was by Antonio, and the other was the Imago Cinque Terre poster. I get compliments on them all the time. They were affordable as well!

In 21 days…

I’ll be in Portland! I found out I was going to have a few days off the week before Gareth gets into town. Which was kind of the worst timing ever and felt a little like the universe was mocking me. He’s always worked when I’ve been in London, but he has much more sociable hours (if I’m also not working–if we were both working with his crazy schedule, we would literally never see each other). But he’s come to the states three times, once in May of 2015 after my job had ended, once to LA before I found a new job (during the dark months of unemployment), and once over Christmas (which I guess was still during the dark months, but I could pretend it was just the holidays). Never when I’ve been working. And I work like 12 hour days, which is going to feel like pure hell when I know he’s just down the street and I’m sitting in my office, trying not to feel like I’m wasting his whole trip working.

BUT! The extra days off. Before he was set to come. Well, he changed his plane ticket–only by a day, because all the flights were booked before then–but then we suddenly had a long weekend together. So we did the only rational thing–immediately booked tickets to go on what is shockingly our first proper trip away.

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MV

We’ve spent time in Cornwall with G’s family, gone to a few Crossfit events, had the best new years ever on a secret island with all our friends, hung out on Martha’s Vineyard with my mom, spent a weekend in Boston, and NH, and a night in Santa Barbara–but none of those places felt like getaways really. They were either spent with family or places one of us had already been. There was no mutual discovery or exploring together. We never had that feeling that it was the two of us out in the middle of the world, far away from “real life.” (That’s a lie, I’ve felt that in his mom’s house and in my parents’ houses, but it’s still different.)

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We had to take a boat to get there!

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And it was crazy beautiful

So we’re doing a jam packed long weekend in both Portland and Seattle. We’re going to fly to Portland at 6:00 am on Friday, getting in around half 8 in the morning. We’ll spend all of Friday and Friday night in Portland, before eventually taking the train to Seattle, where we’ll spend Saturday night. We don’t fly out until Sunday at around 8 pm, so we’ll have a little more than a day in each city. Definitely a quick stop in each place, but we are happy to just stroll along the waterfront, have some delicious donuts, take a photo booth picture at the Ace, maybe go to the space needle, and definitely check out Powell’s Bookstore (but not spend the whole day there!). Also find as many happy hours as we can, obviously.

I’m SO excited. That we get to go somewhere neither of us has been. That I get him a day earlier and a day longer. That this four month (minus my last minute whirlwind bday trip) separation is finally over. We’ve done four months once before and it was horrible and I insisted we’d never do it again, but here we are. Thank god, almost on the other side of another one. But I mean it for real this time. Never again. It’s just too long.