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December 5th: what is Nikolaus and where is it celebrated?

In many countries across central and eastern Europe, December 5th is a day when children prepare for a special visitor – Saint Nikolaus.

Origins

The image of Saint Nikolaus is similar to that of Father Christmas, with robes and a long white beard, although the origins of the figure are different.

According to popular belief, Nikolaus lived in the 4th century in what is now Turkey and held the title of Bishop of Myra. There are lots of miracles are associated with him – he is said to have been a very kind man who gave anonymous gifts to the poor.

Customs

On the eve of Sankt Nikolaus’ Day, people clean their houses, and children polish special boots known as ‘Nikolaus-Stiefel’. They leave them outside along with letters for Nikolaus, as well as carrots or hay for his horse. The children also recite poems and sing songs for Nikolaus and make presents for him. The following morning the shoes and boots will be filled with sweets, nuts and fruit, though if the children haven’t been good, they may get the more disappointing offerings of potatoes, twigs or coal!

Although he has a different name in each country, Nikolaus is usually accompanied by a slightly ‘unsavoury’ helper! In Switzerland, he is known as Schmutzli, and is said to threaten to take naughty children away to the dark forest in his sack. In Germany, this helper is called Knecht Ruprecht, and in Holland he’s known as Zwarte Peter.

Recollections

Former Marketing Manager at Cactus, Tinka Carrick, recalls her experiences of Nikolaus whilst growing up in the city of Dortmund.

“I normally got slippers, so if I forgot to put my shoes out, I’d find slippers outside filled with sweets. My mum as a kid once put her horse riding boots out, as they were bigger than normal ones, and ended up with boots full of potatoes in punishment for her gluttony!”

She remembers being terrified of Knecht Ruprecht, and on one occasion being so scared that she refused to come out from behind the sofa for the whole evening in case she was put in his sack and taken away!

Interns at Cactus Anne Blank and Susann Maring also remember some families ‘hiring’ a Nikolaus to come to the house and surprise the children, and primary school events with someone dressed as Nikolaus too. The celebrations were generally family-orientated, and didn’t involve big parties or community events, but Nikolaus was certainly something that was greatly anticipated, and that put everyone in the mood for Christmas.

German courses in December

The whole month of December is a great time to take a German course in Germany, Austria or Switzerland. Not only can you experience the tradition of Nikolaus (and perhaps even get a boot full of sweets!) but you can also get in the mood for Christmas with the fabulous Christmas markets and all their festive glory. Visit the Cactus Language site for full course listings, to test your language level, or to make a course booking or enquiry.

Experience the magic of Christmas in Cusco

The ancient Inca capital of Cusco, high in the Peruvian Andes, provides a magical setting for traditional Christmas celebrations, Nativity scenes and a sweet rum punch…

South America may not be the first place you think of for traditional Christmas celebrations, but anyone who has visited the mystical city of Cusco during December will know that it doesn’t get much more magical than this.

High up in the Peruvian Andes, Cusco is a hive of activity in the run-up to Christmas, as hundreds of artisans and campesinos (rural people) flock to the Inca capital for traditional celebrations and the Santuranticuy market on December 24th. One of the largest arts and crafts fairs in all of Peru, the market takes place in the Plaza de Armas, Cusco’s central square, and literally means ‘Saints for sale’, going back to the days of the Spanish conquest: Christmas figurines, Nativity scenes and hand-made ceramic objects are laid out on blankets, and large biblical animals are lit up with fairy lights, adding a festive glow to all the activity. The Andean version of Baby Jesus, el Niño Manuelito, is ubiquitous.

Locals wear traditional Peruvian dress and women carry their little ones on their backs as they would any other time of year. They might not have much money but the atmosphere is colorful and joyous. Chocolotadas are an important part of the gathering, whereby churches, patrons and businesses give hot chocolate, bread and toys to the poor. Street vendors also run a brisk trade selling ponche, a traditional hot, sweet rum punch that takes away the chill of the mountain night air.

Finally, at midnight, hundreds are fireworks are lit and campesinos, families and visitors embrace to celebrate the arrival of Christmas.

For all the activity of Christmas Eve, Cusco’s Plaza de Armas is once again clear on Christmas morning, as this is an important religious holiday and, as in many countries worldwide, a time to be with the family. Houses are decorated with intricately carved retablos, or Nativity scenes, and the Christmas feast is enjoyed by all: meat, usually turkey, served with apple sauce dressing, or pork or lamb. All decorations are kept up until the Bajada de Reyes on January 6th, the arrival of the three wise men.

If you are a visitor to Cusco during this time, you may be welcomed by the locals into their houses to enjoy traditional Christmas festivities with them and their families. Being inherently warm and hospitable, strangers are often welcomed into a Peruvian’s home and, if you are lucky enough to find yourself in this situation, you will experience Christmas as you never knew it before.

To immerse yourself in the language and culture and experience a magical Cusqueñan Christmas, simply book a Spanish course with homestay accommodation. This will be one Christmas you’ll never forget!

Language course review: a week of German tuition before Christmas

Ernesto Forner, Head of Corporate Language Training at Cactus, tells us about his German course in Berlin in December

This was probably the best time to spend a week of German immersion in Berlin, enjoying the celebrated Christmas markets around the city and all the winter delicacies like Lebkuchen, mulled wine, roasted chestnuts or Stollen to name a few. The school is strategically situated in the district of Prenzlauer Berg, just walking distance from Mitte, the centre of Berlin, and very near different means of transportation. When walking around the streets near the school, one gets the feeling of a vibrant young city which is orderly and designed to be lived in and enjoyed. Bicycles, trams, pedestrians and cars all share a very well defined structure in a harmonious and respectful approach. It is far from the madness, chaos and overcrowding that can be experienced in the bigger European cities of Moscow, London, Paris or Madrid. Berlin is a city made for its citizens: it is ample, green, quiet and harmonious.

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(Image: Ernesto’s favourite shop in Berlin – Ritter Sport chocolate!)

When you walk into the school, you also get a feeling of efficiency and harmony. The staff are very friendly, helpful and pro-active and I always felt I knew what I needed to do and be. The building is modern and quite original, with an inner courtyard (a common and famous type of construction in Berlin) consisting of gardens and residential buildings for students. The rooms are also modern, big and clean, creating the perfect environment for learning the language.

I took a 20 hour general language course. I had 2 hours of learning with a teacher, a 30 minute break and another 2 hours or learning with a different teacher. This exposed us to two different teaching styles, accents and approaches to language learning. I was placed in a level a bit higher than what my level really is, and even though this took me out of my comfort zone, I must say I learnt probably more than if I had been placed at my right level. Once you reach Intermediate level, it is easy to follow the language being taught regardless of whether you are placed higher than where you really belong. It’s a way to push yourself harder and it is important not to lose self-confidence when realising everyone else in the classroom has a better level than you.

After 5 full days of lessons, I was impressed at how much I had learnt and I would have loved to have been able to continue learning such an amazing language in such a great school with such fantastic teachers. Unfortunately, it was time to leave, but I will most definitely be going back to the amazing city Berlin is, and make sure I continue with my learning experience at that same school.

Ernesto took a German course in Berlin with Cactus. Cactus offers German courses in other locations across Germany, as well as part-time and evening courses in German in the UK and the US.

Spend this winter studying English in Brooklyn, New York

Winter in New York City can be a magical experience and Eva Kamer, from the Cactus US office, tells us why…

From the Radio City Christmas Spectacular, to ice skating in one of the city’s iconic parks, to watching the ball drop in Times Square on New Year’s Eve, there is no shortage of holiday and cold-weather activities in which to participate.

Studying in Brooklyn

While you’re in New York City to enjoy the winter festivities, why not take an English course at our brand new language school in Brooklyn Heights? Located just one subway stop from Manhattan and with stunning panoramic views across the city from every classroom, Brooklyn School of Languages is the perfect place to improve your English during your time in New York.

Brooklyn School of Languages has student-centered classes, locally-owned homestays and neighborhood-focused activities that will help you immerse yourself in the English language, the New York lifestyle and the unique Brooklyn culture. We offer Standard English, Semi-Intensive English, Business English, Combined English, and Individual English courses to suit all student learning styles and needs. Our native-speaker teachers use communicative methods along with state-of-the-art learning technology to help you and your classmates progress as quickly and efficiently as possible.

Quality accommodation in Brooklyn
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Being located in Brooklyn also means we are able to provide quality accommodation options close to the school. All of our homestays and apartments are easily accessible by public transportation, and the large majority are within a short subway ride or even walking distance from the school. We want your stay in New York to be as comfortable as possible, so we have spent time selecting the right families and apartments for our students.

The Enrichment Program

Our distinctive Enrichment Program is a truly unique way to integrate your English classes with activities involving New York culture. With topics changing weekly and ranging from “American Immigration” to “Food and Dining in NYC,” there is something for all students to enjoy. Students are treated to hands-on experiences with local experts in a variety of cultural areas. Language matters such as vocabulary and grammar are certainly addressed, but the teacher’s primary focus is on the content, increasing the students’ knowledge of the subject through the English language curriculum. The content-focused English lessons are complemented by two extracurricular activities per week, which give students the opportunity to use what they have learned in the classroom in the real world.

Things to do in NYC during winter

Those who choose to visit New York City during the colder months will find plenty of events to enjoy. Hop aboard the Downtown Brooklyn Holiday Trolley to see and experience one of Brooklyn’s most exciting neighborhoods. Each week, the trolley features new themes and activities, including a guided tour of Downtown Brooklyn, carolers from the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music, and even Santa Claus!

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The famous Christmas tree in Rockefeller Center is a must-see for travelers and residents alike, and ice skating in Bryant Park or Central Park’s iconic Wollman Rink is a fun and exhilarating way to take advantage of the seasonal colder temperatures (the above picture is of Brooklyn School of Languages students skating in Bryant Park). Be sure to check out the arts events at the Brooklyn Academy of Music or catch a sports game at the newly constructed Barclays Center for a truly memorable visit to the greatest city in the world.

The holiday season also means that there are several annual holiday markets to enjoy, including the local favorite Union Square Holiday Market in Manhattan. With over 100 merchants bringing in some of the most exclusive, handmade gifts, this is the place do your holiday shopping or just enjoy browsing! To add some eye candy to your shopping spree, make sure to head uptown to visit the well-known department store holiday window displays along Fifth Avenue.

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And don’t forget to bring in the New Year in style by going to Times Square on New Year’s Eve to watch the iconic ball drop. The Times Square ball drop is arguably the most well-known New Year’s celebration in the world; it is attended by at least 1 million spectators every year and boasts a worldwide television audience across multiple broadcasters.

No matter which activities and events you choose to attend during your time in Brooklyn and in New York, there will be plenty of people with whom to practice your English and enjoy the holiday season.

We look forward to making your stay at this magical time of year truly memorable!

For more information on learning English in Brooklyn, please visit our website.

Top 10 Christmas gifts for language & travel enthusiasts

If you’re buying Christmas gifts for anyone interested in travel and/or foreign languages, here are some ideas to help in your quest for the perfect present!

1. A language course

A language course makes a useful and highly original present for any friend/relative/partner who is interested in learning or brushing up a foreign language, or who has got their sights set on foreign travel in the new year. There are hundreds of languages to choose from, and lots of ways to learn – evening courses in the UK or US, general, intensive and activity-related courses abroad, or even tailor-made tuition. If you’d prefer to leave the choice of language and location to your loved one, Cactus gift vouchers are available to buy. Give us a call on 0845 1304775 (UK local rate) or 1-888-577-8451 (US toll-free) for more information.

2. Lonely Planet’s ‘Best in Travel 2014’

A great book for any keen traveller, this guide presents the best destinations, journeys and experiences for the upcoming year. Full of inspiration and the perfect antidote to any winter blues!

3. French lessons combined with cookery classes

Anyone who has visited foreign shores will have tasted new and exciting flavours. Present your partner or flatmate with the opportunity to learn French in Aix-en-Provence and study the art of cookery at the same time! The lucky recipient will learn about Provence’s delicious cuisine, including cheeses, pastries and wines, take cooking classes and visit both an olive oil mill and a local vineyard. Bon appétit!

4. Contribution to air travel

If you know someone with impending travel plans, why not help them out with the cost of their flight or even buy the flight for them? This is one present sure to provide memories of a lifetime.

5. A pocket translator

Anyone who is travelling to countries where foreign languages are spoken could find a pocket translator very useful in a whole range of situations…

6. An iTunes voucher for downloading language learning tools for your iPad/iPhone

If free time is in short supply, a flexible and convenient way to learn a language is to download learning materials on to your iPod or Phone. With iTunes vouchers, your friend or relative can download as much material as they like.

7. A travel journal

Lots of people like to write a journal whilst they travel, and it’s a great way to ensure that once-in-a-lifetime experiences abroad are never forgotten. A nicely bound journal to write in will make a great present for anyone about to embark on world travels.

8. A charity donation in their name

Donating money to a charity is something that a lot of people would like to do, but is not something that everyone can feasibly afford. Making a donation on their behalf therefore might make a fantastic present. Donations to charities such as World Vision and UNICEF can be made via the Donation4Charity website.

9. A dictionary/book of verb tables

They may not be as exciting as downloadable podcasts and other online resources, but dictionaries and verb tables are an essential tool for anyone hoping to learn a language.

10. A TEFL course

Gaining a TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) qualification is a great idea for anyone wanting to get out there and see the world. Teaching opportunities exist worldwide, and working in this type of capacity means that you can truly experience the culture of the country in which you are teaching. If this is something that your friend/partner/relative is interested in, why not book them on an introductory TEFL course?

Christmas in Rome: A magical festive getaway

The Italian capital is an unlikely winner when it comes to festive getaways…

Rome might not seem like the obvious place to head for Christmas, but for a sumptuous display of Christmas tradition within a unique religious setting, and a glass of mulled wine never far, it is an unlikely winner when it comes to festive escapes.

An obvious and deserved target for any visitor at this time is St Peter’s Square, in The Vatican. With its giant, extravagantly adorned Christmas tree and life-size nativity scene (or presepe) in front of the Basilica, it is for many a true embodiment of Christmas. This culminates with the Papal Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve and the Pope’s annual Christmas message on the day itself: to join the reunion of so many people, from Rome and beyond, is an occasion in itself.

Christmas in Rome is not just concentrated around these few days. In truth it really starts on 8th December, the festival of the Immaculate Conception, an important event in the Roman Catholic calendar. On this day, the Pope visits the Spanish Steps and pays homage to the statue of Mary, crowning her with a garland of flowers. He then goes on to give mass at the church of Santa Maria Maggiore.

From this day in early December the Eternal City begins to twinkle in festive spirit. Christmas markets open up – don’t miss Piazza Navona to scout creative additions to a nativity scene, as well as wooden toys and other Christmas goodies – and smaller nativity scenes than the one at St Peter’s are re-created in churches across Rome. Christmas shopping is less of a chore than a delight as shopping streets sparkle under fairy lights, buskers dressed as Santa play festive songs and some shops even adorn their pavements with red carpet. If nothing else, you’ll be spoilt for choice when it comes to choosing presents and wow your friends back home with some original gifts – fine Italian leather, stylish stationery, traditional local souvenirs and quality food items.

And the big plus? Rome’s relatively mild winter climate means less room needed to pack ear muffs and scarfs and more to fill with all your purchases. Perfetto!

Cactus offers Italian courses in Rome and other locations across Italy. Evening and part-time courses in Italian are also available in the UK and the US for those wishing to brush up on the language before visiting.

Cactus Worldwide Monthly Blog: December 2013

In our last blog of the year we’re bringing you some exciting new locations to look forward to in 2014. A very Happy Christmas from us all at Cactus and we look forward to sending you on more language learning adventures in the new year!

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Hello, and welcome to December’s edition of the Cactus Worldwide blog! My name is Ollie, and I am the Product Manager for our agency – Cactus Worldwide. Our team of experienced course advisors are here every day to discuss options with you and help set up a varied range of unique language-learning experiences, all over the globe, throughout the year, for all of our wonderful students.

This month’s blog is aimed at letting you know about what’s brand new at Cactus Worldwide for the year ahead, and if you have any questions about anything you read here, please feel free to contact me via oliver.donovan@cactusworldwide.com and I’d be happy to answer any questions.

1. Olinda Portuguese Language School – Olinda, Brazil

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For all of our students of Brazilian Portuguese we are very happy to announce a new partnership with the Olinda Language School, located in Olinda, Pernambuco, one of the most beautiful cities in Brazil! From 2014 (and just in time for the World Cup) we are pleased to be able to offer an alternative destination to the more frequently visited cities of Rio and Sao Paulo, and offer our students the opportunity to spend some time at this exceptional independent school and not only be immersed in authentic Brazilian Portuguese, but also have the opportunity to combine language classes with a variety of social programmes –including activities such as photography, percussion and football coaching with a local expert.

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The school is run by directors Justin McPherson and Norman Monteiro (as an Australian & Brazilian partnership) and all the teachers in Olinda are local native speakers and experts in teaching Portuguese to foreign students. The classrooms are comfortable and climate-controlled, and a reading room and break room are available to the students, as well as a large auditorium and a kitchen. Walking distance homestays are also readily available. If you need any more reasons, please feel free to get in touch, or visit the link below for more info!

Brazilian Portuguese Courses in Olinda, Brazil

2. France Langue Opéra – Paris, France

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France Langue are a small chain of quality language schools who have been teaching French to thousands of students from over 80 countries since their inception in 1976 and they still welcome students all year round at each of their centres: Paris, Biarritz, Bordeaux & Nice. Cactus and France Langue have worked together for many years, but new to us for 2014 is the offer of French courses at their elegant school in Opéra, Paris, in a lively neighbourhood between the department stores along Boulevard Haussmann and the fabulous jewellery shops in Place Vendôme. All in all, this is a perfect choice for the student looking at visiting Paris to study French, but seeking a comfortable and quiet school in a classy neighborhood. Class sizes here are limited to only 10 students as a maximum, and the average age is 32, so it’s ideal for the focused student for whom individual attention is of the highest importance.

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The school itself is in a calm setting, in a typically Parisian building on the Boulevard des Italiens, away from the bustle of the street. With several bus and metro stations close by, access to the school is very simple wherever you are staying in Paris.

You can visit the link below to see much more about what’s on offer:

French Courses in Paris Opéra with Cactus Language & France Langue

3. London Weekend IELTS – Kilburn, London, United Kingdom

Finally, new for 2014 is an intensive 2-day IELTS programme in Kilburn, London, designed for any students of English who are looking to rapidly improve their writing skills in preparation for the exam date.

The course is always scheduled to run 2 weeks before the official IELTS exam dates, and is delivered by our partner, Robin Ashenden, who has nearly twenty years of teaching experience and is a DELTA qualified English language teacher. He has taught IELTS regularly over the past five years and has specifically taught writing and creative writing for non-native speakers at the annual University of Westminster summer school, a course he has now delivered for four years running. Robin has an MA in travel literature, and has been a travel journalist for publications like Sunday Times Travel, Wanderlust and the Guardian.

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Nisrine Zaaraoui, from France, writes: “I really enjoyed my English lessons with Robin. He is a very good teacher – I can even say he is one of the best I ever had. His classes are very dynamic and interactive. He has very good communication and pedagogical skills. He is very open-minded and interested in others’ cultures, and he always brings new interesting topics to debate in class. You never get bored in class and he teaches you expressions used in the “real world”. So if you want to improve your English quickly, Robin will be able to make this happen. I guarantee you that you will really enjoy your English class.

To find out more about the weekend programme, please visit the link below:

London Weekend IELTS – Intensive Weekend Writing Course with Robin Ashenden

We hope this selection has been of interest, and may have even given you some ideas for study options for the year ahead. Any Qs, please feel free to contact me directly and I’d be happy to help.

Happy planning 😉

Best Wishes,

Ollie

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Oliver Donovan
Agency Product Manager
Email: oliver.donovan@cactusworldwide.com