Monday, December 28, 2009

Photo of the Week: Dec. 28, 2009

The merry-go-round in Piazza della Repubblica.

So You Think You Want to Take a TEFL course.

After taking the TEFL course last month and having time to reflect and analyze the whole experience from a more distant perspective I want to share some of that experience to help inform anyone curious about it or considering doing something similar.

This course will take up all of your time.  ALL of your time.  Having just graduated from college last spring I thought that I was plenty prepared for the rigors of another month of schooling.  I had taken no less than 15 units while working at least 25 hours a week for the last several years, so another month sounded like a walk in the park.  Although it wasn't intellectually straining the course consumed my focus for the month.  From 8 a.m. til 5 p.m. you are busy with teaching lessons, peer evaluating, and lectures on various aspects of teaching and grammar of the English language.  Afterwards you go home and begin planning your lessons until you pass out roughly around one in the morning.  You would assume that after a month of lesson planning it would have gotten progressively easier.  You would be wrong.  Not completely wrong I suppose, it does get slightly easier, but it still takes just as long.  As the course continues you will become more aware of considerations that should be taken into account.  So with each successive lesson that you need to plan there is a new element to incorporate.

What is nice about this intensely focused course is that you genuinely do learn.  I spent 5 years in college and have a degree in accountancy, I spent one month in this course to get my certificate.  Which one do I feel better prepared to do as a profession?  Hands down, I feel more confident to start teaching.  I remember very vividly hearing many graduating accounting majors expressing concern about not knowing enough to go into auditing or to work as a tax preparer, many already had jobs lined up.  (And we wonder why we are in a recession.)  These are the people preparing your financial documents, and the people reviewing them.  After 5 years of schooling I felt exactly the same, I was in way over my head.  Now, after only one month of focused learning and practice I am very aware and confident in my ability to be a teacher.

What should seem like an obvious step is planning a budget for while you're taking the course.  If you didn't think about that then perhaps teaching isn't really going to be your thing, because forethought definitely isn't and that's a bit of a prerequisite.  What ever you think you're going to need for your budget add some extra money to that.  After spending all day taking notes and teaching, the last thing that you want to do is to go grocery shopping, cook, and clean all before spending the rest of the night planning your next lesson.  This is totally doable, we did it, but planning on grabbing a pizza for dinner or a quick plate of pasta is a must.  Not only to save some time, energy, and your sanity, but you want to experience some of the country you're in while you're here.

Another important consideration is how long will it be in between finishing the course and when you start working you'll have to budget for.  This can be a rather tricky aspect to estimate.  In the TEFL world, job guidance is basically as follows:

Advisor:  Where would you like to work?
Student:  (Fill in the blank) sounds nice.
Advisor:  Oh great!  That's a wonderful place.  What you should do is move there and THEN start looking for a the usually only start with maybe 10 hours of work, so try looking for multiple jobs.  And Good luck!
Student:  WTF?!

My point being, you should make sure to budget accordingly.  Plan for any moving expenses you might incur, because where you want to work and where the TEFL school aren't always in the same place.  Budget for however many months you expect it to take to find a job.  Note:  This varies widely by location.  In many parts of Asia, its sounds as if you show up with a TEFL certificate you are guaranteed a job.  In Europe it takes a lot of pounding the payment and knocking on doors.  Make sure that when you are planning your budget for the time you won't be employed that you don't include any income from what you expect to make your first month working.  Two reasons for this.  First, you won't be making enough to bother including in your budget.  Second, even if you do make enough to live off that first month (you won't, but let's stay optimistic) the industry standard is to pay only once a month.  So you won't be getting any income from your first month of work until your second month anyways.

The demand for TEFL teachers really is international.  If you are looking to take this course as a way to travel it is an excellent opportunity.  Students from my class are spread out all across the world.  You can literally go any where in the world an find a job teaching English as a foreign language.  Yes, the highest demand for these teaching jobs is in Asia, as soon as you begin researching that will become extremely evident.  That's not to say there aren't jobs in other regions of the world, I'm teaching here in Italy. 

If Europe is of particular interest, and you're American, you should be aware that there are some difficulties with working here.  First with jobs in the EU, EU passport holders are given job preference, I know that doesn't sound fair, get over it.  Secondly, it is very difficult to get the required paperwork to work and live here legally.  It shouldn't be very difficult for you, but there is a catch 22.   For most countries you need to have your future employer send documentation to the consulate so you can get your work permit, but most companies won't hire you without a work permit.  (I doesn't make sense to me either.)  What's funny about the work permit is that it requires almost no effort from the employer, they just don't want to do it.  There are several ways to get around this, but none of them are technically "legal."

If I haven't dissuaded your interest there are plenty of resources on-line to check for teaching positions, and schools to get your certificate all around the world.  Simply search for "TEFL" and more resources than you'll ever want will be at your finger tips.  For information about the certification course I took, there is a link at the very bottom of the sidebar of this page under Relevant Links.  Click the link to Via Lingua.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Bread of Toni?

This year I incorporated a little Italian culture into my Christmas traditions.  I had my first taste of panetone, its similar to the American fruit cake, only this is edible.  The bread is taller than it is wide, in a cylindrical sort of shape.  It resembles a chef's hat that mushrooms at the top.  Inside the sweet and fluffy bread are various kinds of dried fruits and nuts.

As the holiday season begins to come around you start to see all the classic signs that the holidays have arrived.  The streets draped in lights, the stores windows are decorated with Christmas decorations, and panetone can be found in every Italian shop around.  I originally read about this through some blog and I thought it sounded like a fun addition to the usual holiday traditions.  The writer went on an on about how delicious this was and how it makes such a great french toast, plus every person we see at the grocery store had at least one in their chart.

I had to give it a try, so we bought a little one from the 99 euro cent store on our way home one day, and set it under our home made paper tree for Christmas morning.  Finally, it was Christmas and time to open this little treat up.  We had the panetone with coffee while we prepared the rest of our Christmas brunch.  It was actually really good.  I had been a little skeptical, Rachael had tried some a long time ago and didn't recall that interaction with many fond memories.  It was fluffy and only slightly sweet with a hint of citrus.  It was a great accompaniment to coffee.  I can't wait to get another and try it as a french toast.

There are several stories I've heard about where panetone came from, the one I like the most is about a guy named Toni.  Now, Toni was in love with a nobleman's daughter, but the father apparently didn't approve of the two of them getting married.  Unwilling to give up on the love of his life, decided to win the father's approval by baking (I guess the way to a man's heart really is through his stomach?!)  The father was so impressed by this delicious bread that Toni had made that he allowed him to marry his daughter.  The bread was then named "pane di Toni" which as you probably guessed is the Italian way to say "the bread of Toni."  Other than that all I know is that is particularly popular in Milan.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Photo of the Week: Dec. 21, 2009

The Duomo during the snow storm on Friday night. In getting this photo my fingers nearly got frostbite. Cotton gloves only keep your hands warm if they aren't wet. I hope you enjoy.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Florence in the Winter

It was snowing last night in Florence for the first time in years.  I had been watching the weather reports religiously for the last week hoping that their forecast would hold and some of that fun white snow would come our way, and look what happened.  This is the first time in years that I've been in a city while its snowing, and I couldn't wait to go out and see it for myself. 

Dragging Rachael along, we put on all of cold weather cloths and headed out to enjoy the city.  Heading down the street towards the city center the first thing we noticed was the lack of people.  This place was abandoned.  There were the occasional group of young adults running about, but nearly everyone who was out was American.  Next in our observations was that all of the shops and many of the restaurants were closed up for the night.   The entire city had shut down on the account of the snow.  I have never been on Corso with that few of people out.  Usually it is littered with people all throughout the day, but apparently Italians do not have the same affinity for snow.  Granted it was rather chilly out, the temperature was floating around 1-2'C.

Wandering around it was interesting to see the buildings begin to collect a dusting of snow.  Seeing Brunelleschi's dome painted white was quite memorable.  The snow was extremely heavy and wet.  Falling in large chunks rather than flakes.

This morning I woke hoping to find the city buried under the snow.  Unfortunately this was not the case, but there was still some traces of the snow left on the ground and on the roof tops.  So, after getting ready we headed out again to see what there was too see.  What we saw was mostly our breath because it was freakin' cold out there.  It was still relatively empty for such a touristy city on a Saturday.

After a quick bite while we warmed up in Il Ghibellini I made the precarious journey up to piazzale Michelangelo to get a view of the city while it still had traces of snow.  The piazza was crowed with photographers, like myself, of all levels.  I'm certain that there are bound to be very similar postings on many facebook pages in the next few days.  I guess I'm no better though, and I can't blame them.  It was rather pretty.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Italian Coffee Shops

This is for all of you hard core espresso drinkers.  Running into a bar for a quick caffe is a whole different experience than what you get back in the States.  No flavors, no promotions, no overly friendly barista trying to up-sell some product (no offense, I was that very barista for years) you just walk up to the bar and order your drink.  Seconds later you are sipping down that wonderful elixir feeling better with every drop that touches your lips.

After spending my college years refining my skills behind the espresso machine you might be able to imagine my excitement to come to the holy land and see where it all began.  From the moment you enter into a bar you know that you're in store for a whole different experience from that offered at an American coffee shop.  There's no line waiting with a bunch of impatient customers to be rung up (unless of course fresh bombolini have just come out of the back, but that is completely worth the wait).  Why is that you ask to yourself?  Its simple, the caffe is prepared their way.  There are no major modifications, no milk choices, no flavors to be added, no sizes, you may ask for it to go from some places but you get a funny look from the barista if you do.  When you don't have to make a large, extra foam, nonfat, no sugar added 4 pump vanilla cappuccino its easy to make drinks fast, so there's no line.  You simply chose from one of a few simple variations of an espresso and that's it.

For those of you who have spent time behind the espresso machine you know how annoying it can be when a customer is always trying to reduce the price of their drink by having the barista add something extra after they've paid.  Is the extra 50 cents or so really worth constantly aggravating the person who is serving you?  Absolutely not!  They have solved that problem here in Italy.  First get rid of all size.  Now there is no possible way that the customer could "accidentally" order a small when they really meant a large, I don't even want to get into tall versus grande.  Next get rid of all additions to the coffee, and you'll never have to hear "whoops, I forgot to tell them that I want chocolate in that, can you add some for me?" again.  Finally, when getting a caffe here you pay after you have ordered and enjoyed your drink.  I particularly enjoy this part.  Now even if there were things to change about your drink, it wouldn't matter because you'll pay for whatever you order.  Additionally, I think its nice that they trust their customers to pay their bill after getting their drink.  Its a very respectful way of conducting business in my opinion.

Now if you like your coffee with all the frills that is absolutely fine.  I have no qualms with that, but when you get rid of them the prices of coffee drops dramatically.  While you're paying 4.50 each time you need a drink I have yet to pay over 2 euro, and that was even a bit of a rip off.

From a barista's perspective I think that this is the environment that we all hope for.  Where the customer is not always right, and where people who don't like coffee don't try and cover it up with all kinds of flavors and gallons of milk.  Its a place where the barista isn't challenged.  Ahh, wouldn't that be nice.

Rachael has found what she is calling best coffee she has had just yesterday.  Hopefully I'll be investigating this claim soon and I'll be able to give my professional opinion on its quality by the end of next week.  Check back soon to find out.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Photo of the Week: Dec. 14, 2009

The Ponte Vecchio at night. Not my favorite of photographs, but currently my camera is down until another battery can be found.
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Sunday, December 13, 2009

A Quick Word of Warning

To all men thinking about visiting this city with their significant other consider this your warning.  Florence is infested with small adorable babies.  I don't know where all this talk of Italy having a declining population is coming from.  This census clearly did not happen here in Florence.  The people here are doing more than their part to make up for the deficit.  Don't quote me on this just yet, but I'm fairly certain that this city has more babies per capita than any other city I have ever been to.

The first few weeks here Rachael and I were too preoccupied with the course to notice the unusual trend, but it didn't take long for her to pick up on the peculiar abundance of these cute little things that are over running the city.  Via del Corso is a virtual baby parade.  Mom's and Dad's are constantly meandering along this street pushing their babies in their tricked out strollers.  You may want to do some additional hand strengthening exercise before coming as you will be enduring plenty of hand squeezing because the one you are with will be constantly falling in love with another cute baby every few minutes, and frustrated at not having one of her own.

Europeans definitely got the strollers right though.   I'm not sure how they afford babies in this country.  They seem to purchase strollers for very specific periods of the babies life, periods that they will grow out of in a matter of days.  For the very small ones the only stroller that will seem to do is one where they can lie down in a bed then be zipped into a sleeping bag and then have the cover of the stroller zipped and snapped up so that the baby does not even have to know that its outside, sounds like a great way to travel. I would like to be pushed around in one of these strollers.

As of yet I haven't attributed a cause to this abundance of small children in the city.  It may be something in the water, more likely though it is something in the wine.  It could also be a combination of the beauty and history of this city, Florence is undoubtedly a mecca for anyone who loves food, wine, art, history, shopping, and everything else that makes Italy such an alluring country.  For those of you wishing to hold off the discussion of 'why don't we have kids yet,' you may want to consider holding off your visit until you are prepared.  You will have to give up a lot to avoid that, so its up to you to decide.  Consider yourselves warned.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Where to Eat: Restaurants - Part 1 of Many

Florence has some delicious restaurants.  Any guide book could tell you that.  What they won't tell you is that its really overpriced.  This place is expensive when you want to eat out.  None-the-less it is nice after a light apertivo to go out and have a tasty dinner. 

For the most part we have been eating mostly street food that you can find every few steps, there are some delicious find out there.  The only problem is after a month panini become rather dull.  To combat this we have been trying to adventure out here and there to explore the food options at our finger tips.  While living on a budget we have also been making an effort to find affordable eateries.  Two places have stood out in my mind thus far.

The first is I Ghibellini.  We stumbled upon this place a few weeks ago and were delightfully surprised with the results.  The restaurant has a welcoming charm and a friendly staff.  What earned this place the honor of being mentioned in this first edition of 'Where to Eat' in Florence was the table bread.  Straight from their wood fire oven, they brought out what might best be described as the Italian version of a soft tortilla chip.  Imagine the tastiest thin crust of a pizza you have ever had now kick that up several notches and you would be in the ball park as far as flavor.  From there I enjoyed their gnocchi which was everything I was hoping for.  On our second trip back Rachael and I decided to try out some of the pizzas they had to offer.  Sticking with my go-to pizza diavola I was not disappointed.  Rachael adventured into newer territory with a pizza topped with prosciutto cotto, mascarpone, e mozzarella.  Can I say delicious?  Absolutely.

Next up is Pizzeria Toto'.  This place some amazing pizza.  Like AMAZING!  For any of you in the know, this is vera pizza.  For those of you not informed this is a very precise way of making pizza (the best way.)  To see exactly what I'm talking about you can read what it takes here just to be qualified.  The have the best pizza the I have had since being back in Italy.  The crust is perfectly cooked with that combination of almost chewy/slightly burnt.  The sauce is simple yet delicious, and then they top it off with a showering of olive oil.  All of this for a reasonable price as well.  Definately worth visiting the next time you are in the neighborhood.

A map for the establishments, and all others reviewed by "Where to Eat," can be found by clicking here.  More editions coming soon...

Monday, December 7, 2009

Photo of the Week: Dec. 7, 2009

During our third week in school we went to school early to get ready for our classes and this is what welcomed us from the balcony.
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Sunday, December 6, 2009

The Battle is Won.

Do any of you know what the national bird is of Italy?

It is in fact the mosquito.  The shear number of them surprised me, as we were well into November when we moved here.  Yet still these little buggers were all over the place.  Luckily, we've moved into a new apartment that has proper seals on the windows and this has dramatically changed the outlook of the war against the mosquitoes.  The recent drop in temperature has also helped to reduce their numbers, but I've been trying to do my part as well.  While in our last apartment my one day record was 11 kills.  Over the month my total was around 30, the exact numbers are hard to say because some of the fighting went on at an indecent hour of the night.  It seems that with my help an the inevitable coming of winter we will be able to make it through with some reprieve from their incessant buzzing.

Next year I'll be ready for them.

Thursday, December 3, 2009


We have just finished the last component for the CTEFL course, and I'm super excited!  We were both offered jobs teaching at the American Language Center which we just accpeted yesterday.  The contracts officially starts in January.  Until then we are going to be doing some training in test preparation and in the materials they use at the school, also doing some substitutions and private lessons until our contract start with the next trimester. 

Its a little surreal still at the moment.  One month ago we were talking about moving here and would jokingly say that we want to both do really well in the course so that they will just hire us and we can stay living in Florence.  And here we are!  Its weird how well this has all turned out.

We are going to have at least the next week off from doing anything related to teaching.  Hopefully we'll find ourselves in a few of the museums with our free time.  The last month hasn't left many opportunities to explore all that Florence has to offer. 

Even walking around here is amazing.  The city is getting set for the Christmas season.  The streets are draped in white twinkling lights.  In the piazza where we went to school and where we're going to begin teaching they are setting up a Christmas trees and stringing up even more lights.  This city is absolutely gorgeous this time of year.  Its fun to call it home.

Ciao from Florence.