Language: More than a Practical Portal

February 22, 2010


Dear Friends,

One of the greatest human urges is to communicate. At an early stage, our toddlers demonstrate the frustration they feel when their meaning or intents are not understood for lack of language skills—sippy cups are thrown to the floor; food is flung from the high chair.  The message is clear: we want to be understood!

So no wonder language, as every human being’s most expedient expression, conveys personalities, cultures, nuances and fundamental values the world over.

As many of you know, Academic Travel Abroad, Inc. is not only an educational travel company; it is also a study abroad organization.  We currently send approximately 1,000 US college students overseas every year to study in China, the Czech Republic, Italy, Spain and Vietnam (and as of this summer, Japan and Syria!) on our CET Academic Programs (

 CET’s education abroad philosophy is rooted in the value of cultural and language immersion.  It is clear speaking to anyone who has ever lived or studied abroad that immersion—a real break with one’s own cultural environment, contacts and language—brings understanding and broadens horizons. 

So while beginning the learning process early and undertaking a serious commitment to foreign language study is ideal in order to transcend cultural barriers, I firmly believe that the process is valuable at any age and at any level of engagement

Embarking on a trip to a foreign land, few dispute the value of picking up a phrase book before departure.  This is a practical step. Yet how many view a look at the language of the destination as an essential part of their introduction to that culture?  As important as the study of the country’s history, society, art, and politics is, a basic introduction to the language can teach us so much.

For example, few written languages paint pictures and convey cultural lessons as plainly as Chinese.  Some characters are logical, with the stone radical associating with hard, strong, fundamental concepts, the heart radical expressing feelings, and the hand radical describing actions and gestures.  Yet other characters betray social preconceptions: peace is a woman under a roof; home is a pig under a roof, precious is jade under a roof… And a woman with a son is just plain good.  It doesn’t take long to realize the rich cultural lessons hidden in every pictogram.

Then there’s French. How many nations boast an Académie Française dating to the 17th century in which “immortals” rule on all matters pertaining to the glory of the language?  Here is a culture that drills its young with daily “dictées” of complex paragraphs to test the subject-verb accords, feminin-masculin mastery and subjunctive conjugations, in addition to requiring excruciating “explication de textes”—pulling apart and analyzing a text, word by word, line by line.  So whether you master the classic lines like plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose (‘the more things change, the more they stay the same”) or the common exclamation ça va pas, non?! (“You are not well, are you?!”), some dabbling in French is not only fun but can reveal much about this rich culture.

On a recent business trip to Japan, I had the good fortune to be accompanied by two fluent Japanese speakers.  On the plane ride over, I asked that they review the basics of polite Japanese phrases for me: from dozo and arigato gozaimashita, to an often-used phrase—dozo yorushuku onegai shimasu.  The latter was translated for me as “please forgive me for any trouble I will ever cause you.” It’s a mouthful, and it’s spoken very rapidly by native speakers, but it is used constantly. To me, it revealed much about the culture I was about to visit. The extreme politesse and consideration the Japanese extend to each other are ubiquitous.

I still remember the delight one of my China travelers expressed when a phrase I had taught her had the desired effect—a smile and a grateful nod from a proud Chinese mother.  “Hen ke ai!”  this American traveler had said, admiring a toddler with rosy cheeks in Shanghai.  “Very cute!”

So next time you’re heading abroad, I encourage you to look at the language as more than a practical portal, but as a window onto greater cultural understanding and meaningful interaction.  As few as three syllables can make the difference between being a passive observer and being an active participant in your discovery of the world.

Thoughts on Family Travel

August 20, 2008

Dear Friends,

When I think back on the success of our family vacation this summer, I realize that there are key elements that contributed to our enjoyment. I wanted to share these with you:

1. My Children’s Ages

We’ve traveled to Europe many times before with Nick and Sasha. This time, at ages 10 and 14, their stamina, their sense of adventure, and their flexibility made it more relaxed and enjoyable.

Outside a mini glacier on La Tournette

Outside a mini glacier on La Tournette

2. A Variety of Activities

Let’s face it, in this day and age, neither adults nor children have long attention spans. Making sure to plan days that include both active and cultural outings helps keep everyone engaged. A museum in the morning (when everyone is fresh) and an afternoon of sailing, for example. In our case, we went to the Chateau Musee d’Annecy and then rented a sailing boat on the lovely lake that afternoon.

3. A Home Base–with good meals and a pool!

Moving around from hotel to hotel and spending long hours driving or traveling between points is not recommended on a family vacation. There is a reason why European families often return every summer to the same hotel. Settling in to one hotel for multiple days (in our case, five) allows the family to feel a part of the place, to get to know the hotel staff, to return after a long day with a sense of home. Even better, book yourselves in “demi-pension” (half-board), withbreakfast and either lunch or dinner included. Given our daily schedule, we opted for dinner. The children love the certainty of a full meal, with dessert, every night. Furthermore, it relieves the stress of finding an appropriate, good restauarant every night-one that your children will agree upon unanimously, especially.

Our Hotel Pool, Les Grillons, Talloires

Our Hotel Pool, Les Grillons, Talloires

A pool during the summer makes your home base even more appealing. On some days, when my daughter was dragging a little, I would hold out the promise of a swim before dinner as a reward for her perseverance. This carrot usually had the desired effect!

4. Experiential Activities

Whether cultural or active, the kinds of activities to plan for a family vacation must be interactive and engaging. This is, of course, fairly easy with active options like hiking, riding horses, kayaking, and zip-lining. When choosing a museum, for example, seek out any special visit days that involve more creativity in the presentation. On our trip, I waited for a weekend day to take the family to Chateau Menthon St Bernard ( because they featured a costumed tour done by actors who portray the various family members (including 11th-century St. Bernard himself) and introduce each room in the Chateau. The actors spoke French, and I am lucky my children are bi-lingual, so the experience ended up being doubly educational for them. They even translated for their father at times!

5. Flexibility

Any time you travel as a group, it’s important to gauge members’ energy and interest level, and remain flexible on timing and the order of activities. The first day we arrived, I reviewed the various options we had before us and had each member of the family state their priorities. It became clear that we wanted to: hike, paraglide, sail, see Annecy, take a cruise on the lake, swim, ride horses and do a forest parcourse. We managed to fit it all in, except for the paragliding (which my husband decided, after the 2300-meter hike, he’d have difficulty jumping off a cliff).

Ready for some zip-lining!

Ready for some zip-lining!

Though I know France and this region fairly well, I did feel that I missed having the more in-depth educational input in places like the cheese farm, the Chateau Museum of Annecy and elsewhere–context that we provide to our groups on our travel programs. And certainly, having someone else do the planning for such a trip would have been a wonderful relief. In short, even with my insider’s knowledge of travel planning, the value of an organized family program was not lost on me!

Bookmark and Share

La Tournette, Haute Savoie

August 11, 2008

Dear Friends,

A week after our Ste. Victoire adventure, I was fortunate to bring my children and husband to another favorite peak of my past–La Tournette, in Haute Savoie, France.

I had discovered this corner of France 15 years earlier when David Parry, ATA’s chairman, and I conducted R+D for a hiking tour I had designed for the Smithsonian. Few foreign travelers visiting France head to this region, nestled below Lake Geneva. Few French who are not Savoyard venture into Savoie. (My sister, who has lived in Provence most of her life, has never been nor even considered it!)

Talloires Bay

Talloires Bay

And yet there lies this turquoise jewel of a lake, the Lac d’Annecy, touted as the cleanest in Europe, set amid ridges and peaks, high verdant pastures, and ringed by inviting towns like Annecy, Talloires, Duingt, Menthon St Bernard, and more. The tableau created by this Tahitian-blue lake, its mountains and low lying, fast-moving cotton clouds evokes the South Pacific, not the Alps.

Turning our attention to La Tournette (or, as my son dubbed it, after our expedition–the “Never Retournette”), I did little to prepare my husband and two children for the rigors of the hike, knowing that the rewards would be great and seeing little value in discouraging them beforehand. A locally produced hiking guide rated it “pour randonneurs experimentes” (for experienced hikers) and my troops had only done Sainte Victoire. I am a firm believer in pushing the limits of what one thinks one can do. So all I said was, “This is a great 6-hour hike–you’ll all love it!”

La Tournette is a peak on the east side of the Lac d’Annecy, sitting high above the gorgeous lake. Towards the center of the peak, a rocky outcropping takes the form of a giant armchair (“le fauteuil”)–that is our lofty 2,300-meter goal.

View of La Tournette

View of La Tournette

After a winding drive up from Talloires, we reach the Col de la Forclaz, one of the main launch points for the avid paragliders that fill the skies above the peaks and the lake. Not far from here, we take a sharp left on to small country road and pass a chalet restaurant. Some hardy hikers disembark their cars here, adding another 40 minutes to their hike. I assure my crew that I am sparing them the extra steps and hit the dirt road that leads onward in our awful rental (a Citroen Picasso) to bump our way up the mountain to the Chalet de l’Aulps.

The Chalet is a cheese farm cum restaurant/bar on a piece of land that brings memories of the Sound of Music rushing to the fore. Walking past the barns, cheese-making rooms, restaurant and terrace, you find yourself standing in a green open pasture that juts out like the bow of a ship over the valley below. To the north are the Dents de Lanfon, jagged stone teeth that form a surreal frame to this idyllic scene. To the south are sloping fields full of wildflowers and moseying cows whose imposing bells resonate with a pleasing cacophony across the landscape.

I can tell from my children’s faces that they are already impressed. My son Nick was the first to walk out as far he could to the edge to view the scene below. He notes how high we are, and I refrain from pointing out how much higher we have to go.

We watch a group of fellow hikers start up the path. They have brought their silky-haired dog with them, and he lunges ahead with an ease that would make any human jealous.

Our turn: we begin our ascent. It’s 9:45am. The morning and altitude bring us cool, sweet air. Perfect weather for a hike. The path is a trench dug out of the pasture, with thick tufts of grass lining both sides and occasionally forming islands in the middle. The pitch is steep and the path is straight. We can see the hikers in front of us disappearing as they make seemingly easy progress upward.

After an hour and a half, the path has changed, and we have begun to climb wide, dirt paths filled with loose rocks that make us skid downward every once in a while. After a few long switchbacks, we come around a corner to behold a surreal landscape. A small valley is home to the Refuge de la Tournette where hikers can enjoy a refreshing “panache” (sparkling lemonade and beer) while taking in glorious views. Behind it lies a scattering of huge, truck-size boulders strewn across a meadow where some goats bleat in the distance. As a backdrop, an imposing wall of sheer cliffs isolate the scene, making it look eerily like a stage set. As we wind our way down and through this secluded vale at a happy pace, we note a large patch of white.

Nick & Sasha in mini-glacier

Nick & Sasha in mini-glacier

My children speed up–snow in summer! Their delight doubles when they discover it’s a mini-glacier that one can actually enter as a cave. The refrigerator effect on the inside is a hit after our climb, and the oddly shaped roof (as if a giant melon baller had scooped out chunks) makes the experience particulalry “awesome,” in the words of my daughter.

The hike continues, and the vistas and altitude do not fail to stun each one of us. The terrain becomes a little tricky in parts: narrow, rocky paths with sheer drops to the right; a huge steep slope of slushy, slippery snow that makes it hard to avoid hurtling downward; some rock climbing portions where loose stones pose a threat to those following too closely and more.

I knew we may be in jeopardy of not making it to the top when my daughter, who is a hearty soul, started trembling and shielding her eyes with her hand on the drop side of the mountain. Finally, she uttered shakily “I think I am going to die,” bringing our progress to a halt.

We took a rest, assuring her we could turn down. She looked to her father for guidance. He smiled and said encouragingly “I think we can do it, Sasha.” That’s all she needed. Up she got and onward we went.

Sasha's Close-up of a Chamois

Sasha's close-up of a chamois

Soon we were in chamoix country–where delightful mountain goats prance gracefully across vertical slopes and rocky voids. This is their territory, but they share it willingly, coming rather close to hikers. We picked a spot surrounded by the chamois in a field of “trolles d’Europe” (golden globe like wildflowers) for a picnic of jambon beurre sandwiches.

Looking up from our picnic site, my son Nick noted how unattainably high and far the “armchair” seemed. I reassured him that the hike really became fun now…

Sure enough, we embarked on a hike dominated by basic rock climbing, aided by chains and ladders nailed into the rock. The variety of challenges made this more of a game, so we all tapped into new energy and pushed upward.

Along the way, a hearty French “montagnard” descending the mountain stopped to address my daughter. He said he was proud of her for attempting the climb and spoke of the rewards ahead–the views of the Aravis chain, of Mont Blanc and even of Lake Geneva in the distance. Sasha smiled politely but clearly wanted to move on.

Finally, we reach the last leg of the journey–the base of the armchair. The children are delighted they’ve made it. We skirt a bank of snow and ice and some boulders and find ourselves in front of the final ladders. My daughter is reading one of three plaques on the back side of the gargantuan boulder that forms the “armchair.” Her eyes widen. She turns to me with a swish of her red-haired pony tail: “Mommy, someone DIED here?!” Well, yes, I confirm, “but they came here in March, which is really not smart.” Sasha points to the other plaque–“That person died in July!” Touche. I re-direct her and the gang to the ladders.

Up we go, and within minutes we are standing at 2300 meters, sitting in the grandest armchair of our lives. We head toward the cross and have to excuse ourselves as we pass across the picnic spread set out by a family with three children (there is limited room on this high armchair).. Stuart whispers to me “Did you notice–they roped their kids together?!” I shrug the comment off.  I pointed out there had been a couple of young children coming down the mountain who were not attached to their parents.

View of Lac d'Annecy from atop La Tournette

We breathed in the fresh air, soaked in the tininess of our once-extensive lake of Annecy, observed the insanity of the para-gliders filling the afternoon skies, and captured the majesty of Mont Blanc on our digital camera. We basked in our accomplishment.

The descent was speedy–a little too speedy at times, as scree created a conveyor belt of pebbles that carried us down several feet at a time. But euphoria had set in after five hours, and we felt like flying! So we did.

Only once did my heart stop, as I led the pack down and heard Sasha scream “Mommy!” behind me. I could hear the movement of rock and turned, fulling expecting a boulder to be coming my way. I felt something brush past my hair and looked upward to catch glimpse of a hoof. I had startled a chamoix who had been sleeping on a ledge to my left. He’d bolted up and over me, barely missing my head, and had landed on an outcropping to our right. He was trembling with fear and immediatley proceeded to empty his bowels, much to the delight of my son who announced I had scared the poop out of the poor creature.

We returned to the Reblochon cheese farm at the base of La Tournette and bought ice cream to reward our efforts and celebrate the day. As we passed the display of massive decorative cow bells on their studded leather belts, my husband resolved to possess one as a trophy for our ascent to la Tournette’s grand armchair.

Bookmark and Share

Montagne Ste Victoire

July 11, 2008



Dear Friends,

As many of you know, I was born in Marseille, France, and many of my childhood summers were spent enjoying Provence, with family and friends, from perches in cherry trees overlooking vineyards, swimming in the turquoise waters of Cassis’ calanques or picknicking in the dappled shade of the plane trees at Le Tholonet.

When I return to Provence now, as a mother, my mission is to share my affection for this place with my children and hope they will fall in love in turn. When my son Nicholas was 7, we made our first attempt to climb Provence’s peak of Cezanne renown–Montagne Ste Victoire–from the south side, early one morning. It was not to be, as poor Nick’s little legs were not up to the challenge and the scree soon sent him sliding down several feet in a cloud of gravely dust. Another time, I said, wiping away the blood from his scraped knees and the tears from his reddened cheeks.

That time finally came last week– after 7 years of anticipation. We have tried three times since the first over the years, but have been thwarted by weather or threat of forest fires, when the park service closes down the whole mountain.

We set out from Vauvenargues, a peaceful hamlet folded into a valleyside and dominated by Picasso’s castle and its extensive lands. We numbered six: my two children (Nick and Sasha), my husband Stuart, my French nephew Cedric, his father Didier and myself.

The trail was called Chemin des Venturiers and is classified as “easy.”  When we had trouble finding it at first, we interrupted the gardening of a lovely elderly lady in a sun hat and shell necklace to ask for directions. In her lilting Provencal accent, she assured us we were very lost and redirected us, informing us warmly that the hike takes only an hour and a half to the top and “you’ll be protected by the shade of the pine trees most of the way.” Lovely!

The merciful shade was short-lived. As we started to ascend, we noticed tracks of forest cleared, evidently for fire management purposes. The smell of hot pinewood perfumed the area, and our temperature rose as we passed through.

The trail was wide (5 to 10 feet) and for the first hour presents a substantial pitch, made all the more challenging by loose gravel and large stones. In three or four places, the slope is actually paved with rough concrete, marking particularly steep areas where ascent (and descent) was perhaps deemed too tricky if one’s footing was not on firmer ground.

The heat was dry and unforgiving. We stopped frequently to rehydrate and catch our breath. Those pines provided only partial shade on such a wide path. The smells of Provence sweetened the air–the pines mixed with rosemary, thyme, yellow broom, thistles, and a few hardy red poppies.

Three quarters of the way up, we lost two of our party. Stuart had broken his toe the day before playing soccer with his nephew and his discomfort had soared, and Didier may have been having bad memories of his time in French military service when a long hike without enough water cost him a kidney. Or he was simply showing solidarity to my injured husband. They decided to wait for us to return.

I gave the rest of the party the option to summit or remain, and was delighted to have all children vote to proceed without hesitation. En avant tous!

Twenty minutes more of a steep ascent on gravelly wide paths, now and then with the pines parting to reveal sweeping views of Vauvenargues and the ridge on its north side. Then a change of pace–the path widens to a clearing with a bench (where someone has written “2 heures de marche!” as if in warning that the widely held claim of an hour and a half is not accurate).

From here we step up into a narrow path through brush and white rocks. The children quicken their pace. Sasha’s spindly legs fly ahead: she’s giddy with the relative ease of the new path. We spy the cross atop Ste Victoire. It seems far and high-but within reach somehow.

Soon we are on easy switchbacks up the mountain, clear from obstruction, with views that make even monosyllabic Nick, a normal teenage boy, stop, stare, and utter quietly “wow.” To the west now we can see the Barrage de Bimont, a large reservoir that serves the area–baby blue water in a parched landscape.

Back and forth across the mountainside we go, gauging our progress by the increasing size of the cross above us. Nick takes shortcuts, scrambling and jumping ahead of Cedric, then Sasha.

We arrive at the old priory, where an ancient olive tree grove casts welcome shade over its stone cool entrance. The place is closed and a hardhat area and piles of stone tell a tale of renovation in progress. Another group of three (French) hikers is resting and sharing some bread and saucisson. They compliment us on our pace–it’s true, we had hit a second wind on those open-air switchbacks! They haven’t been to the cross yet-they tell us they are “restauring” themselves first, as the French say, revealing the origin of the word “restaurant.”

I check in on my young hikers–we have to pace ourselves on water. We are running low. They all vote for not stopping. They want to reach the cross before any “restauration” takes place. Off we go!

Around the priory, the hike becomes a rock scramble. Again, rather than discouraging the troops, we’re invigorated by the challenge and what lies ahead. Large white rocks provide uneven, unintentional “pele mele” high steps to the top platform and its prize: the cross of Sainte Victoire.

Nick is the first to reach it and throws his arms up in victory, singing the “Rocky” theme song, as the wind whips up the sheer rock of the south side and buffets his hair. Sasha gazes in awe over the landscape around us, staying safely away from the precipice. Surprisingly, we have cell phone reception (which we hadn’t for most of the way), and Cedric makes a call to his father and hour away beneath us to pronounce the mission accomplished.

The victory of Sainte Victoire is particularly sweet to me. The mountain has long been a familiar, yet distant, vision in my life, resurrected every time I stood before a Cezanne painting. Now I feel a certain intimacy with this massive rock, a closeness that was not there before. Most importantly, I have shared her beauty, her colors, and her smells with my children. This time we leave France with a little Provence in our pockets.

Kate Simpson
Academic Travel Abroad

Bookmark and Share


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 32 other followers