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Traveling overseas? Language lessons can ease the way

Standing on the open-air train station platform in Rapallo, Italy, with our two grandchildren startled by the noise and clinging to us, we peered out at the approaching trains anxiously, looking for the one to Rome.

There were no signs in English. Actually, we saw no signs, period. The only indication a train might be ours was the scheduled time of departure: 9:36 a.m. When an unmarked train pulled up at that very minute, no conductor in sight, I had already picked up the luggage to board when Georgina’s Italian lessons came to the rescue.

Ever cautious, she turned to an Italian couple to make sure this was indeed our train.

“No, regionale, regionale,” the man said, meaning it was a regional train, not the one to Rome, which was late. Who knows where we would have ended up if we’d taken the regionale, or how else we would have made the five-hour trip to Rome to join our daughter and son-in-law in time to catch the plane home?

Without some basic knowledge of Italian - Georgina in particular spent weeks studying and listening to tapes - we would have never attempted a family vacation in Italy this spring. Without a basic knowledge of French, we would have never found our way driving through the Loire Valley farmlands on an earlier trip.

Throughout our travels, knowing a bit of the language not only has kept us from getting lost - or at least, not getting lost so often - but it also has made the trips more enjoyable.

From a merely practical standpoint, knowing even just a few words and phrases can go a long way in helping you get around. And imagine how much more pleasurable activities like theatrical presentations, historical reenactments and fairs can be if you understand the language.

So let’s add another item to the typical trip preparation list. Aside from selecting and booking itineraries, securing visas or passports and packing, consider adding language lessons when going to a country where English is not the main language.

Georgina, for example, took conversational Italian classes while on Crystal Cruises’ Crystal Serenity in the Mediterranean last year. As part of its Creative Learning Institute, the line offers free Berlitz language lessons on days at sea. Another line, Cunard, offers language lessons on the Queen Mary 2.

After four lessons, Georgina was able to order a mineral water and a chocolate ice cream in an outdoor cafe in Taormina, Sicily, one of our ports of call, and to get directions to an Internet cafe and a museum in Venice, another stop. A fellow passenger and Italian class participant, Justin Williams, beamed as he told us how he ordered a whole meal, got it, paid for it and got change at a restaurant in Taormina, using only Italian.

“The power of knowing even the most fundamental phrases and key words of a second language brings with it a broader sense of understanding, familiarity and comfort when exploring a new destination,” said Bret Bullock, Crystal vice president of entertainment.

Before this year’s family vacation, Georgina brushed up on her Italian by checking out tapes and compact discs with Italian conversational lessons from our public library and listening to them for weeks. She was able to get directions when we got lost driving from Rome to our hotel in Fiesole, a few miles outside of Florence. We’ve found repeatedly that people are more helpful when you make an effort to communicate in their language.

Then, after getting us on the right train to Rome, she was able to communicate with two Italian ladies in our compartment. They told us to start getting ready to get off a few minutes before our arrival in Rome, and shared fruit and delicious chocolate with us.

“What better way to fully absorb the sights, sounds and cultures of the world than by learning a new language?” says Michael Palm, Berlitz director of worldwide marketing.

We cannot think of one.

Q: My father recently retired and turns 59 this June. His wife is still working and does not really share the same interests.

Now that it’s been almost a year, I’m afraid he’s getting stuck in a rut where he’s home most of the time reading the paper and watching television. Can you recommend an organization or some activities he could participate in to get him out of the house?

A: “It’s hard to think ahead about your own future, and it is not uncommon to get stuck,” said Ellen Freudenheim, author of the 2005 book “Looking Forward: An Optimist’s Guide To Retirement.”

“The Dad in question likes reading the newspaper. Pick up some clues from that,” Freudenheim said. “Is he interested in politics, local or otherwise? Gardening? Sports? Local crime activity and police response? Health news? And take it from there.”

For instance, if he’s interested in politics, he could go to a meeting of a local group or get online and get connected to a national organization concerned with his issues. If he’s interested in gardening tips, he can call the local botanical garden and inquire about classes or volunteer work.

Humberto Cruz can be reached at AskHumberto@aol.com and Georgina Cruz at GVCruz@aol.com.