Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Do You Know How to Say 'how do you say..." in Spanish?

One of the most difficult aspects of traveling internationally is being unable to communicate with the locals. Luckily for us, most people do speak English, at least basic phrases, making it easier to converse. But if you don't want to be one of those typical (ugly) Americans who expect others to cater to you, even if you are a visitor in their country, then I suggest learning some common questions and statements so you can talk to residents, figure out the cost of something, learn about the ingredients on a menu, and, most importantly, find the bathroom. (That's ¿Dónde está el baño? in Spanish, just so you know.)

Had to know where to find this
As someone who studied Spanish, French and Italian, and lived abroad in Rome for four months, you would expect that I'd be somewhat fluent in at least one of those languages. Much to my chagrin, I'm not even close...in any of them. However, I do know some key phrases in Italian that were saviors during my time abroad. Quanto costa questo? (How much is this?) Posso acquistare un biglietto del treno? (Can I buy a train ticket?) Un cappuccino e cornetto al cioccolato, per favore (A cappuccino and chocolate croissant, please.) Posso avere un bicchiere di vino? (May I have a glass of wine?) Dove si trova il più vicino negozio di gelato? (Where is the closest gelato shop?) You get the idea...only the essentials. If you learn nothing else, at least learn "how do you say..." and insert whatever it is you would like to know how to say in a specific language. This definitely helped me when I found myself searching for the right word in Italian to tell the young man who was hitting on me that I was in a relationship. Somehow the word for boyfriend (ragazzo) escaped me at the time---not sure if it was those deep brown eyes, or the sultry accent, or that dreamy smile...

But I digress...

Obviously, you could take a language class to learn the necessary vocabulary; or purchase an expensive software program like Rosetta Stone or Pimsleur Approach. But most of us don't have the time or the money set aside for those kinds of commitments. But there are alternatives.

Do a quick search on iTunes, and you'll find a waide array of free language lessons. There are some fun podcasts from Radio Lingua called Coffee Break Spanish--though there are more languages than Spanish. Each one is 15-20 minutes and encourages interaction to better learn pronunciation. There are also one-minute crash courses in Greek, Arabic and Mandarin. Living Language is not free, but there is a "free downloads" section that offers freebies like a pocket phrase guide to help you learn a few things before heading on your trip.

The BBC offers intruction on 40 languages, for no cost at all. Users select the desired language and then can choose from a variety of vocabulary categories in the "holiday phrases" link, such as food and drink and shopping. The downloads are accompanied by cultural notes and games, and there is even a beginners' course for those who have at least three months before their trip.

If you're willing to spend a little bit, try Livemocha, a networking site that connects people from different parts of the world and offers basic intruction in a given language. The program facilitates learning through actual communication with someone else, hands down the best way to learn a language. It costs $9.95 for one month of unlimited access, and $99.95 for a year.

So if you are heading to an international destination--whether for a week or ten--why not take some time to learn a few words. It will help you better interact, and make you a more cultured individual--and who doesn't want that?

Oh, and the answer to my first question is...¿Cómo se dice...
Just in case you were curious.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Not Your Average Tour

Just last weekend, my parents, uncle and his girlfriend, came to visit me in Chicago. For my parents, it was an opportunity to see their daughter and spend some quality family time together. While it was also that for my uncle and his girlfriend, it was also a chance to see a new city, since neither had been here before. Of course, they asked me what they should see and do, and I ran off the usual list of attractions. They decided to do the Architecture Tour along the river, which I think is one of the better tours offered in Chicago. Not only is it a great way to see a lot of the downtown area, but it provides great backround on Chicago's history.

While I will always recommend this tour to first time visitors, I cannot guarantee that everyone will appreciate it, since each person has different tastes, opinions, and interests that could be fulfilled through other options. There's walking tours, bus tours, mob tours, ghost tours, museum tours, the list goes on and on. But even with all these, some people may still be looking for something different, unusual, off-kilter.

Enter the internet and its vast array of travel-sharing websites touting specialty tours, unique experiences and some pretty odd activities not generally listed on a tourism site. I learned about these through a New York Times article, which discusses a few of the platforms.

Tequila Adventure Rapel
What makes these sites work is the artists, chefs, students, writers, hobbyists, and musicians, who offer their services to those looking for a truly novel experience. Some websites are better than others about making sure guides can deliver on their promises, while other rely on peer reviews.

CanaryHop.com was co-founded by "Saturday Night Live" star Andy Samberg and launched in March. It is a searchable list of about 2,500 guides and service providers, which are referred to on the site as "canaries," while travelers are called "hoppers." Some examples of experiences are a circus training in Las Vegas; a fire engine tour in San Francisco; camping in the Mojave Desert with a botanist; New York City makeup and accessories tour; and home cooking and eating with a family in Delhi.

Gidsy.com is another option that has grown popular in the last year. With the tagline "do something different," the website certainly lives up to that mentality with its options. It features offerings in nine cities, with activities like a chocolate and grappa tasting in Hasselt, Belgium; a tango lesson in London; a street photography workshop with a professional photographer in Istanbul; and a challah braiding and baking class in New York.

East London Street Food Tour
The idea behind Vayable.com is to give travelers a deeper look into at a local culture through experts. The site has 1,500 guides on almost every continent--it hasn't quite made it to Antartica. Travelers can search ac tivities by city and then book their own experience or join a pre-arranged tour. Some of the options include a hookah and tea tour in Istanbul, fly fishing in Alaska with the may of Kenai, a tour of East London street food, and a Harley-Davidson motorcycle tour of Versailles and Rambouillet.

Another option if you are just looking for unique experiences in New York is SideTour. The founder, Vipin Goyal, said there are plans to expand, but New York certainly offers a plethora of exciting and intriguing opportunities. Most of the listings are updated weekly and sell out weeks in advance, so book early! Popular offerings include a street art tour and graffiti demonstration, urban beekeeping in Brooklyn, and creaft beer brewing.

As someone who is often looking for something different to do in my own city, perhaps I should see if there are any special activities/tours in Chicago. That way the next time someone asks me about what they should do here, I can offer something that's a little bit off the beaten path. And for my future travels, I will certainly give these sites a quick run through to see if there is anything I would like to take part in during my visit. Because what could be better than finding a hidden art gallery that isn't featured in every travel guide? Or tasting street food from the vendor that doesn't have a line around the block but is just as good--if not better--as that guy that was featured on the food network? Or having an in depth conversation with a local author while sipping regionally-made wine at an underground jazz club? It's these kinds of odd experiences and locations that make a city what it is, so why not take the opportunity to peel back the artificial layers and see the roots.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Pride Around the World

Pride Fest Chicago is one of my favorite summer events, mostly because it is one of the few times during the year where everyone tosses aside their inhibitions, proudly wears anything--or nothing--and comes together in a grand spectacle of joy, celebration, openeness and unity. I have participated in the festivities for the last two years, and I always have a good time watching the parade of flamboyant costumes, colorful floats and shirtless men--not to mention the crowd of people who are just as entertaining to watch. So far, though, Chicago's is the only Pride Fest I've experienced, and while it's certainly a great one, there are a number of other's I am eager to see.

Here in the U.S., New York and San Francisco are probably the two most well-known pride festivals. New York has been celebrating ever since the 1969 riot that sparked the gay rights movement, making it the oldest march for sexual equality in the world. The parade is usually held in June and is the finale of a week-long festival which can bring in as many as 750,000 people.

San Francisco's Pride Fest is held at the end of June and features 200 floats in its parade that travel along Market Street. The tradition dates back to 1970 and now more than one million people attend every year. Organizers said the point of the event is to "educate the world, commemorate our heritage, celebrate our culture, and liberate our people."

While these events are certainly noteworthy, Pride resonates throughout the world, and there are some international festivals that are definitely a must see.

Sydney's Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras is the largest Pride event in the world and lasts the entire month of February. The event was sparked back in 1978 when police revoked a permit for a Pride parade and arrested 51 people. The celebration is combined with the Mardi Gras holiday, making for never-ending activities, including a parade, harbour parties, mardi gras festivals, drag races, pool parties and much more.

In Amsterdam, they take the celebration to the water. The Pride Fest features a flotilla of 75 glittering boats. The festivities take place at the end of July or beginning of August, and events include street parties and club circuit parties, as well as the famed Canal Parade.

Brazil is known for its Carnivale celebrations, but is also noted for its Pride Festivals. Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro both have huge celebrations, so either city is worth visiting. Rio's parade is held on Copacabana Beach in October. Sao Paulo's event is acknowledged as the largest pride parade in the world, drawing nearly four million people.

Obviously, there are dozens more held all over the world, from Manila in the Philippines to Berlin, Germany, from Madrid, Spain to Montreal, Canada. There is no end to the possibilities to show your support for the Gay and Lesbian communities around the globe--or to find an excuse to wear flashy costumes and rainbow jewelry. I fully intend to hit some of the Sydney Pride Fest when I head down to Australia next February, and I will be sure to report back on all the insanity.

Until then, stay proud!!