Independence Day – a great time to visit the USA

The 4th July is a federal holiday that commemorates the adoption of the Declaration of Independence on 4th July 1776, an event which brought about the ‘birth’ United States of America and its independence from the UK.

Independence Day is a day of parties, picnics, barbeques, parades and fireworks, when people are proud to fly the American flag. Being in the US for Independence Day will give you a great insight into American culture, and a great chance to party!

Celebrations take place all over America, but these places will offer some of the best festivities. Taking an English course in one of these cities at the start of July will mean that you’re right at the heart of the action – it will be an unforgettable experience.

New York

New York is a city that many people consider the cultural capital of the US, and as such is home to some of the biggest Independence Day celebrations in the country. The renowned Macy’s fireworks display is usually held over the East River in New York City and has been televised nationwide on NBC since 1976. In 2009, the fireworks display was returned to the Hudson River for the first time since 2000 to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Henry Hudson’s exploration of that river, and in 2010 the display will once again be held over the Hudson.

In addition to the fireworks display, there are also numerous street fairs, historical re-enactments, outdoor concerts and plays to go and see. More information can be found on the website.


More than 200 events make up a week packed with activities during the annual Boston Harborfest, which begins in late June and continues through to Independence Day. Celebrations centre around the city’s strong maritime and colonial heritage, and therefore take place on the Harbor Islands, and in historic downtown. Some of the festival’s main events include the Boston Chowderfest, when some 12,000 participants choose the best chowder from Boston-area restaurants, and the reading of the Declaration of Independence from the balcony of the Old State House.

The Boston Pops Concert and Fireworks Display is also one of the festival’s main attractions, and is completely free.

San Diego

Independence Day in San Diego is always party central.  The shores of Mission and Pacific beaches are buzzing with people all day long .You can head to one of the many carnivals complete with fairground rides, the Freedom Days Parade or the San Diego County Fair on the Del Mar Fairgrounds, to name a few. The real action starts after dark though with the superb Big Bay celebration fireworks display.

San Francisco

There’s lots going on for Independence Day in San Francisco, but an undisputed hub of entertainment will be Pier 39 and Fisherman’s Wharf, where you’ll find music, dancing and a spectacular view of the fireworks. As you’d expect, the Golden Gate Park is also a great place to head to, where there’ll be a music extravaganza to celebrate the day.


Probably the biggest 4th July celebration in Seattle is the ‘Family 4th’ that takes place at Gas Works Park with the stunning backdrop of Lake Union. It has been labeled as one of the top 5 fireworks displays in the country and is well-known for being a particularly innovative display.

Another Independence Day attraction in the Seattle area is the Tacoma Freedom Fair on the Ruston Way waterfront. Throughout the day visitors can enjoy music, an air show, the International Marketplace, and, fo course, a firework display at the end.


If you’re in Denver over the 4th July you definitely won’t be short of things to do! The celebrations kick off with a new event at the Civic Centre Park on 3rd July – a free community concert featuring patriotic favorites performed by the Colorado Symphony Orchestra, accompanied by an innovative light show and fireworks display.  From 3rd-5th you’ll also have the chance to visit the Cherry Creek Arts Festival – an outdoor event which attracts more than 350,000 visitors who come to see the range of performing arts and exhibits.

On 4th July itself the Four Mile Park in Denver plays host to a true ‘old-Fashioned’ 4th of July Celebration, with festivities including visits from Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson and Uncle Sam; the reading of the Declaration of Independence and performances by the Denver Concert Band and other local musicians.

Cactus offers English courses at a range of levels in New York, Boston, Seattle, San Diego, San Francisco, Denver, Fort Lauderdale and Honolulu

Foreign language Oscar nominations for 2011

Below are the nominated films, and a brief synopsis of each.

“Biutiful” – Mexico

Biutiful is directed by Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu and is his first film to be set in Spain. The story takes place in Barcelona and stars Javier Bardem as Uxbal, a man with a troubled past and, thanks to a recently diagnosed terminal illness, a short future. The film follows Uxbal as he tries to make ends meet and to plan for the care of his two beloved children within their complicated family set up after he’s gone. The film could certainly not be described as ‘light-hearted’, but it’s an interesting film which has been critically acclaimed as a result of the fine acting and directing that went into it.

“Dogtooth” – Greece

Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos , Dogtooth is a compelling yet at times disturbing film that follows the story of three teenagers who live in rural ‘prison’ with their passive mother and controlling, manipulative father. They have no contact with the outside world and have even been taught a warped version of the local language so that they can’t communicate with outsiders. The family’s well-ordered life starts to fall apart when the father brings one of his female work colleagues home to fulfil certain needs…

Good, but not necessarily easy to watch, the film explores the concept that there is, in all societies, a desire to control what young people believe and understand.

“In a Better World” – Denmark

In a Better World is a Danish drama film directed by Susanne Bier and written by Oscar-winning screenwriter Anders Thomas Jensen. Its original Danish title is Hævnen, which means “The Revenge”. It won a 2011 Golden Globe award for Best Foreign Film, and is a film that explores both the complexity of human emotions and the issue of male responsibility, and what it means to stand up for yourself and others. The story plays out in African refugee camps, where the main character Anton spends time as a doctor, and back in his idyllic Danish hometown where his son is suffering under the tyranny of a vicious school bully.

“Incendies” – Canada

Based on an acclaimed play by Lebanese-Canadian Wajdi Mouawad, ‘Incendies’ is directed by Denis Villeneuve. It follows the story of a pair of twins who are drawn into the Middle East conflict when they begin to investigate their mother’s past. At the reading of their mother Nawal’s will, twins Simon and Jeanne learn for the first time that they have a brother, and that their father, whom they thought was dead, is actually alive.

They discover that as a young woman, Nawal fell pregnant out of marriage in her Middle-Eastern homeland. Although spared an honour killing, she was forced to give up her baby, vowing one day that she would find him…

“Outside the Law (Hors-la-loi)” – Algeria

“Outside the Law” is Rachid Bouchareb’s story of three brothers who lose their family farm in French-occupied Algeria and end up at the helm of the underground Algerian independence movement in Paris. The film takes place principally in the shanty towns and red light district of 1950s Paris and during the two hours the viewer discovers each of the three brothers’ reasons for taking on the cause. Hors la Loi is both a gripping, fast-paced thriller and an fascinating film that also offers a great insight into the history of the Algerian independence movement.

If you have seen any of the films, or have an opinion on which should win, please leave us your comments below!

Why language holidays abroad are great for single travellers

Whilst confident, independent travellers often enjoy meeting new people and having companions to spend time with, it’s not generally an essential element of their travels. For the many people who find themselves without a permanent travel companion, and who aren’t used to independent foreign travel though, heading abroad alone can sometimes seem either daunting, or just plain uninspiring.

Whilst there are holiday firms that specialise in ‘single’ travel, these holidays might not be what you want out of a trip abroad. For anyone who wants to combine their time abroad with really integrating into the culture, and learning some of the language, a language holiday abroad can be a great option.

Language schools tend, in general, to attract very friendly, sociable and open-minded people, and often students who enrol in a course will be there alone. Language courses abroad provide single travellers with:

1. A ready-made group of companions, including other people who are travelling alone.

2. Help finding accommodation and the option not to have to stay on their own- they can choose to stay with other students or with a local family.

3. Interesting ways to fill their days, including organised excursions to local places of interest, or specific sporting or cultural activities (included in the course).

4. Transfers to and from the airport to the accommodation – especially useful if they’re in a new country, or don’t feel confident about using public transport.

For single travellers over the age of 50, there is also the option to take a course intended solely for people of this age group, known as ‘young at heart’ courses. They are currently available at locations in France, Italy and Spain, and are designed to incorporate cultural rather than overly energetic activities, and to enable people at the same stage of life and with similar interests to enjoy each other’s company.

For full listings of language courses abroad, and information on prices and start dates, please visit the Cactus Language website.

The Times - 29 January 2011

This article in The Times Travel section is by experienced travel writer Will Hide and covers his recent trip to Cracow with Cactus to learn Polish.  He describes the ins and outs of getting to grips with the language and staying with a host family, giving him a much more authentic experience of the local life and culture.  Will comments: “My brain is under attack, my head throbbing.  For two hours I have been bombarded with a constant stream of Ps, Zs, Cs and Ys, plus those Ls with lines through them that actually turn out to be Ws.  I am in a classroom in Cracow on an intensive “learn Polish” course, the equivalent of mental bootcamp….Aneta, my teacher, takes me out for some hands-on lessons – shopping for vegetables in the market, ordering coffee and buying tram tickets, The Poles laugh at my mangled efforts, while the stallholder who listens to my faltering attempt to purchase half a kilo of tomatoes replies in broad Essex….The lessons forced me to use my brain in ways that I hadn’t since school.  And if you can order a few beers in the local language, then you have taken a small step away from being just another tourist. Na zdrowie!  Cactus (0845 130 4775) offers a week’s individual beginner’s Polish lessons from £359pp, including accommodation with a local family (you get a single room, breakfast and dinner).  EasyJet ( flies to Cracow from five UK airports.”

Top 5 Italian course destinations this spring

As a very religious country, spring time in Italy spells a number of religious festivals and events – the largest of course being Easter. Whilst being in large cities like Rome, Naples or Florence at this time can give you a great insight into the Italian culture, it can also mean that you have to battle the crowds and contend with shop closures and sky high prices. Here, therefore, are five alternative recommendations for springtime study in Italy and its islands.

1. Verona

Located in the north east of Italy in the region of Veneto, Verona is an upmarket and attractive city that has a long and interesting history. It has always been popular with tourists who come to see sights like the spectacular roman arena and the balcony that (if the myth is to be believed) featured in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Winters in this part of Italy can be very cold and quite misty, and summers can be scorching – the spring time is an ideal time to visit, when there are fewer tourists and the days are pleasantly warm and long. Verona has plenty of squares where you can enjoy a lazy early evening cappuccino or gelato whilst you watch the world go by. If you fancy a day trip out of the city, well worth a visit at this time of year is the mountain town of Merano – situated in the South Tyrol, and two and a half hours from Verona by train, the city is well known for the pretty apple blossom and wild flowers that come into bloom at this time of the year.

Italian courses in Verona

2. Palermo

As mainland Europe begins to warm up in April and May, the island of Sicily is usually a step ahead. During those months, the island’s capital Palermo can often see temperatures in the mid-twenties (Celsius), which gives visitors to the city a welcome taste of summer. This kind of warm, dry weather is perfect for enjoying those light spring evenings eating and drinking in piazzas amongst the locals, and soaking up the unique sounds and smells of this part of the world. image

Palermo has some stunning architecture that reflects of a unique mix of influences, although there is also some beautiful natural scenery in and around Palermo – Mount Pellegrino provides an impressive backdrop to the city and the picturesque rocky coast and sandy beaches of northern Sicily are just a short bus ride away. A great thing about visiting them at this time of year is that there won’t be the crowds you get in the summer – you can peel off the layers and expose those winter ‘white bits’ without being in the midst of a enviably bronzed crowd!

Italian courses in Palermo

3. Milan image

Milan may not generally be considered one of Italy’s most picturesque cities, but it’s well known for the lively atmosphere and cafe culture that exists there. The spring is a great time to spend a while in the capital of the Lombardy region – the weather is much milder than in winter, meaning that it’s nicer to take in the city’s sights and do a spot of shopping, and also that you can enjoy sitting outside one of Milan’s many bars and cafes. The navigli district of the city has become particularly synonymous with this kind of activity – it’s an area of pretty canals, that has kept its ‘bohemian’ image and emerged as a fashionable part of town in recent years. Here, there are plenty of places to enjoy a drink, and if you time it right, some early evening aperativi, which are offered free of charge to accompany your chosen tipple.

Italian courses in Milan

4. Algheroimage

As with Sicily, anyone looking for an early start to summer should consider spending a week or two in Alghero this April or May. Located on the north coast of Sardinia, Alghero boasts a mild Mediterranean climate and some beautiful blue waters that offer excellent opportunities for sailing and snorkelling. Sardinia remains a popular holiday destination, with the peak season starting in June and running through until September. Taking an Italian course in Alghero in April or May will give you the best of both worlds, you’ll have warm weather and long sunny days but relatively few people to have to share the beaches and eateries with. The Italian school in Alghero also offers Italian and sailing courses, meaning that you can take the opportunity to learn a new skill whilst you’re there. Flight-wise, you’re likely to get a much better deal at this time of year too.

Italian courses in Alghero

5. Bologna image

Bologna is the capital of the Emilia Romagna region of Italy, and is best known for its gastronomic prowess (many of Italy’s best-loved dishes originate from Bologna) and its old and prestigious university. As a university city, Bologna has a very lively buzz, which you’ll certainly experience if you visit during April or May before the summer term finishes. Although it’s well known for its culture and academia, the city of Bologna is also worth a visit in aesthetic terms…it has lots of historic, brick-red buildings, which although attractive at any time of year, will look even more impressive when basked in the light of a mid-evening sunset.

Italian courses in Bologna

Italian course in Rome: Cactus staff review

Over the Christmas Holidays, I decided to refresh my Italian by taking a 1-week Advanced Italian Course at the language school we work with in Rome, Italy. Upon arriving, I was pleasantly surprised by the attentiveness of their staff and the accuracy of their level test which placed me in the appropriate C2 classes. My instruttore, Giuliano, was warm, friendly and highly knowledgeable in Italian grammar and culture, helping me in my attempt to perfect my ‘Condizionale’ or Conditional conjugation of verbs. The class was a small group of 4 Italian-speaking foreign students, so my lessons were very individualized and tailored to each student’s specific needs.

image My morning (9-12) classes allowed for ample sightseeing in the afternoon and evening hours; as you might imagine there is plenty to see and do in Rome! I spent my first day visiting the grand Colloseo (Colloseum), followed by a quick ride on the line 2 Metro to the Fontana di Trevi (Trevi Fountain), which was by far my favorite Roman tourist attraction. Continuing on my journey, I encountered countless ruins as well as the Roman Soldati (Roman Soldiers), who guarded the ancient marbled structures in hopes of pitying the inevitable moneta, or coin, from the less seasoned traveler.

As it turns out, my trip to Rome was far more exciting than I could have ever planned. Halfway through my course, Italian university students decided to bombard the San Pietrini streets near Piazza del Popolo in protest of Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi’s proposed education and tax reforms which, according to my instructor, “benefited only rich and wealthy politicians and not the general popolo.” image My classmates and I were intrigued by the instructor’s thoughts and comments on confusing Italian political agendas; and I gained a great deal of understanding with regards to Italian politics.

During the weekend, I took the two-and-a-half hour train ride down to the waste-ridden, quaint, Napoli, my new favorite town. Naples was facing a Garbage Crisis (with some trash piles as high as small buildings) further emphasizing Italian resentment against Berlusconi and his inability to solve common problems. Aside from that I can confirm that all rumors about Naples are in fact true…that is, they do produce the most AMAZING pizza I have ever indulged upon! And by the way, if you’re planning on doing any shopping, I advise to save it for Naples, which will definitely give you far more bang for your buck!

To conclude my Roman holiday, Sunday was spent visiting the Citta’ del Vaticano (Vatican City) and although I arrived too late for mass, it was an inevitably spiritual experience. My first trip to Rome was a successful one, and it will definitely not be my last!

Be sure to book your language course at the school in Rome – you will not be disappointed!

Cactus offers Italian immersion courses in Italy, and Italian evening courses in the UK, the US & Canada.

Top 5 German course destinations this spring


Munich is one of Germany’s most visited destinations, and as with any such city, the busiest time of year in tourism terms in the summer. Visiting in the spring therefore will mean that there are fewer crowds and that that the cost of travel and accommodation won’t be as expensive. Munich’s mass of parkland and green areas also makes it a great place to learn German at this time of year – wandering through the English Gardens, or eating your lunch in the parks around the museum district you’ll be able to enjoy the newly green surroundings and watch the flora and fauna come to life.

In addition, you’ll be able to experience the Munich Frühlingsfest, a cultural festival that takes place over a two-week period on the city’s Theresienwiese (pictured).  Included in the festival offerings and attractions are beer tents, authentic German food, live music acts and scores of fairground rides to enjoy. This year (2011) the festival will take place from 29th April-5th May. 

German courses in Munich


Situated on the shores of beautiful Lake Constance, with the Swiss Alps as a backdrop, Constance is a historic and attractive city. Its proximity to Switzerland ensured that it escaped bombing in the Second World War, and that, as a result, its old town remains beautifully in tact to this day. One of the best times to visit the city is during April and May when fruit trees are in bloom, and the weather is temperate – you’ll be able to take in the beautiful landscape by enjoying outdoor activities like biking, hiking, kayaking and sailing.Constance is a university city, and visiting during the spring will also mean that you get to experience the lively atmosphere that exists during term time when all the students are in residence.

German courses in Constance

Dresden image

Dresden’s sheltered geographical position means that the city enjoys quite a mild climate. Generally speaking the spring time offers warm weather, which allows for lots of sightseeing and al fresco drinking and dining. Activities to enjoy could include a trip down the river Elbe on a paddle steamer, a stroll along Brühl’s Terrace (pictured) and a visit to the beautiful Zwinger Palace. There’s plenty to see and do in Dresden, and in April you’ll also be able to soak up the atmosphere of the Dresden Film Festival, an up and coming international event that is dedicated to short films and animation.

German courses in Dresden

Heidelberg image

With its picturesque setting and maze of cobbled streets Heidelberg’s fairytale feel makes it a lovely place to learn German at any time of year. In the spring time though, as the surrounding hills revert to green and the light evenings enable the city’s thousands of students to enjoy the lively café culture, it is a particularly pleasant place to be. If you’re there over the 30th April, you’ll also experience ‘Walpurgisnacht’, a ritual with pagan roots that stems from the warding off of evil spirits. It exists all over Germany, but in Heidelberg thousands of people from the city head up the wooded hillside to the ‘Thingstätte’ (an open-air amphitheatre) where they spend the night by firelight drinking, eating, dancing and singing with friends and family. It’s a popular event in Heidelberg that many people look forward to all year.

German courses in Heidelberg

Freiburg image

Freiburg is well known in Germany as a city that enjoys lots of days of sunshine each year, and the spring is no exception. As the capital of the Black Forest region, it’s surrounded by beautiful countryside – with hills and vineyards aplenty it offers endless opportunities for all kinds of pursuits, whether it’s wine tasting, hiking or even a spot of end-of-season skiing! The whole Black Forest region is understandably busy during the summer months, but the spring is much less crowded and therefore a fantastic time to go.

German courses in Freiburg

Top tips for Americans learning Spanish in Spain

While Americans tend to learn Mexican or Argentine Spanish at school, there will be some differences to look out for if planning on speaking and continuing to learn the language in Spain. 

While there is little difference in grammar between the many Spanish dialects, there are conjugations and accents that differ between the Spanish of the Americas and European Spanish.

While in Spain, firstly, notice that there is a big difference between the northern Castilian dialects and the southern Andalusian dialects of Castilian Spanish. The Andalusian dialect is the one that closer ressembles the Spanish of Latin America. The major difference is the fact that in Spain, the Castilian Spanish replaces any “s” sounds with a “th”.

While Mexican Spanish incorporates “tl” and “tz” in certain words because of a heavy Native American influence in their language, Spain too has localized intonations in their dialects.

When traveling to Spain, keep in mind there are regional languages. For example, if planning on going to Barcelona, then your classical Spanish will get you by, but the local language of Catalan is also used in street signage and sometimes in conversation. In other parts of Spain, Galician and Basque are spoken. Be sure to check which region speaks which local language before you go.

There are differences in vocabulary between Latin American countries and Spain as well, mostly with food products. Again, this is because of the Native American influence in Central and South America. But do not be too stressed if visiting Spain from America because in general, there is a wide cross-understanding of all dialects and most people understand that a large variant of Spanish is spoken throughout the world.

More about Spanish courses in Spain

TEFL courses – which one is right for me?

There is little more disheartening than deciding on a specific short-term project or long-term change, only to find that there is no concrete information available to you on how you can make it happen.

I imagine that this is often the case with people whose projects and life changes centre around teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL).

There are so many different courses available, and so much conflicting information on which are best and which will get you where you want to be, that it’s extremely difficult to know which one you should choose.

Included amongst the myriad of options, are four-week TEFL courses, weekend TEFL courses, online TEFL courses, combinations of online and weekend TEFL courses..the list goes on and on.

As is the general rule in life, the bigger the investment you can make, the bigger the reward will be. Anyone who is able to invest the time and money in doing a month-long (or part-time equivalent) course that will lead to either a Cambridge CELTA or Trinity Cert TESOL qualification is certain to have the most flexibility when it comes to where they can work and in what capacity. These qualifications have traditionally been the most widely recognised qualifications internationally, and are the only to feature within the UK national framework of qualifications (at level 4).

Anyone who is thinking of making a career in TEFL, of teaching in a range of different countries, or of teaching in the UK at any point would be advised to try to get one of these two qualifications if at all possible.

There are plenty of other, good-quality, four-week courses around that would provide you with a TEFL certificate too, but as a result of being moderated and examined in-house, they would not give you a Cambridge ESOL or Trinity College ‘stamp of approval‘. In many places, these would count as equal to the CELTA/Trinity qualifications, but amongst the more prestigious and traditional establishments you may still need to be prepared to justify your choice of course.

For those that cannot afford the time or expense of doing one of these month-long courses, the good news is that despite the general overriding preference for Cambridge CELTA/Trinity Cert TESOL or equivalent-length courses, the huge demand for teachers worldwide, and the lack of any real overseeing authority to dictate specific rules and regulations within the TEFL industry worldwide means that all is not lost. There are plenty of other options that will get you work.

Although online learning in the TEFL sense has its drawbacks in that no actual teaching practice is possible, there are definite advantages to doing your training this way. If you can couple this type of course with a weekend or short course to allow you some experience of standing up in a classroom, even better.

A lot of people who choose to take online, or weekend-type courses tend to be looking for a way to ‘dip their toe’ into TEFL waters, and for this purpose they are great. Starting off with a shorter and more flexible course to give you some basic knowledge will also give anyone hoping to do a more comprehensive course such as the CELTA/trinity Cert TESOL a definite head-start, and can be great for helping to achieve a really good grade on your final qualification.

Another category of people to be suited to courses like these, involves those whose TEFL plans are very short-term, and possibly even secondary to another project such as travelling or volunteering abroad for a few months. Weekend TEFL certificates and the like can be a great tool to carry abroad with you, just in case you need to top up funds along the way.

Although some TEFL courses are obviously more comprehensive than others, all will provide you with a variety of skills that will be useful not only within the TEFL sphere but in a more general context too. As long as you have the time, the money and the inclination, it’s also worth remembering that you can start with the basics and work your way up. The great thing about the range of courses out there means that you don’t have to take the leap and invest your savings in a comprehensive course until you know that it’s definitely for you.

German course in Brighton: Cactus staff review

Endlich ist unser Kurs zu Ende. We have just gone through 10 weeks of amazing mental agility (lots of challenges!) and – admittedly at times frustration – but it has all been worth it.  I can have meaningful conversations in reasonable German now … rather than “pidgin” German.

I had been dabbling with German for many years, mainly with German and Swiss friends, students and in-laws, and thought that I should actually get serious about it for once, particularly as it is the fourth-most important language in our company.  I have had enough of only really understanding bits of conversations, not really knowing how to ask for specific things in shops, and basically not really being independent when I visit. There is nothing like the kick of getting around in another country and another culture, and dealing with clients, on your own terms.

My Level 7 (“Advanced”) course was the continuation of the previous two levels that I had done in German – same teacher, mostly the same students, and the one new student was really an asset. We were also an international body – one German-British, one British, one Finnish, one Australian and one Polish – and of course our German teacher Regine. Even though abilities ranged from really advanced down to “intermediate”, nobody was allowed to feel too good or not good enough, and Regine has this amazing ability to be inclusive, which is so important for building self confidence when you want to learn a language. I had her rolling in her seat laughing sometimes with my “inventions”!

And, the best of all, we are going to continue!  These Cactus courses are really answering our needs.

Cactus offers evening courses in a range of languages around the UK, the US and Canada. Courses are offered in 5 or 10-week format, although intensive 1-week and weekend courses are aslo available. Please visit the dedicated evening course website for full course listings, to test your language level, or to book.