Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Gats and perrs and cognates

NOT a remoto

Cognates are a language learners best friend. These are words that are written and/or pronounced almost identically in two languages. English speakers learning Spanish realize very early on that if they add a vowel, usually an 'o' to the end of words, their chances of reaching the Spanish translation are quite high. For example: directo, secreto, mapa, and correcto.

Sadly, this method doesn't always work. I have discovered that ¿Dónde está el remoto? is not an appropriate inquiry about the remote control and that a coworker noting that my breakfast of oranges and an apple is sano is not commentary on the mental soundness of either me or the fruit.

As to be expected, this process works in reverse as well. Spanish speakers studying English discover that translation can be as simple as removing the vowel at the end of their words. Sometimes this works, and sometimes it doesn't. As a native English speaker observing this process, the errors are quite amusing.

Me: ¿Qué era 'gato' en inglés?
6 year-old: ¡Gat!

Me: What's this? [holding up picture of a firefighter]
7 year-old: ¡Bomber!

Me: ¿Cómo se llama esta? [pointing to window]
5 year-old: ¡Ventan!

Me: ¿Cómo se dice en inglés 'sucia'?
9 year-old: ¡Suci!

Me: ¿Qué significa 'vaca' en inglés?
6 year-old: ¡Vac!

All of the above occurred after the quoted student had at one point been taught the vocabulary in question. But when memory fails, hoping for a cognate is your best bet. And it provides endless entertainment for me.

(If anyone is dying to know, a remote control is a mando, sano means healthy, gato is cat, firefighter is bombero, a window is a ventana, dirty means sucia, and a vaca is a cow. There. I would have felt irresponsible had I not included that)

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Who I am

I am a teacher; I know that much for sure. Right now I am a teacher of English as a foreign language, and I love it. I get paid to correct people when they speak and write incorrectly, a service I provide for free to my friends which is not exactly appreciated. This is the perfect job for the grammar/spelling/all-things-language Nazi side of me I often have to stifle for sake of social etiquette.

However, I am beginning to realize that maybe my two college majors (history and psychology) actually were a good choice. Choosing a major in college was quite an ordeal for me. I became all too familiar with the "Change of Major" forms as I annoyed my parents every few months with my latest idea. In the end it was history and psychology. When people ask why I chose those, expecting some sort of career path I have mapped out, my pitiful response is simply, "That's what I was most interested in."

Now in Spain avoiding getting a real job, I am sharing my language and culture, and I'm finding that my favorite lessons are the ones in which I get to incorporate American history. Who would've thought? I chose the major because I thought it was fascinating, and now I love love love teaching it to others. I'll share my two favorite lessons I've taught:

My second favorite lesson so far is Thanksgiving, and I'm not talking about the turkey dinner and NFL game part. My Spanish students here now know more about the story of the first Thanksgiving than the average American probably does. They've certainly forgotten the hard facts by now (1620, Mayflower, 100 people, 65 days, Plymouth), but they will likely remember the story of the harsh first winter, the 50% survival rate, and the generosity of the Native Americans who taught the Pilgrims how to survive. When they're older someone can tell them the rest of the story and teach them the meaning of mass murder, but for now they know why we celebrate the holiday.
My favorite lesson so far was just this past week for Martin Luther King Jr. Day. The Civil Rights Movement is one of my favorite periods of history, so I was excited to share that with my students. I was nervous to approach such a big topic with my sixth graders in a language they understand so little of. But the bigger the leap is, the bigger the potential reward is, and it paid off. I first showed them King's name and a picture of him, and asked if they knew who he was. They'd heard his name but had no idea who he was, so I got to start from the beginning.
 Using a very slow speech, gestures, and a powerpoint full of pictures I set out to tackle vocabulary like segregation, racism, nonviolent protest, sit-in, and freedom march. I have to admit that behavior is usually not the greatest in this class and I often feel like they don't learn anything from me. But this time was different. I actually got through to them, and if that miracle never happens again this year I'll be happy that it happened for the lesson that it did. They learned about what the South was like in the 1950s and 1960s; they learned how King used nonviolent protest to fight segregation; they learned about a little woman named Rosa Parks who sat in the front of a bus, and they learned that sadly, King never got to see his dream come true. But the best part of the lesson by far was when they successfully translated and understood the meaning of the following:

"I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."

 To end class we watched a little bit of King's "I have a dream" speech. I showed them the beginning and pointed out the symbolic location in Washington D.C. on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. I then fast forwarded to the last few minutes of the 17 minute speech and let them listen for a while. Like I was hoping, all ears perked up in recognition when they heard him utter those famous words now ingrained into their memories.

(Apart from everything else he did, I have to thank King for enunciating well enough that 50 years later English language learners can understand him)

I therefore think it's safe to assume that I have a future as a history teacher, and that I will love it. But for now, I can't wait until President's Day.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Sundays in Spain

 Just an ordinary Sunday afternoon in the South of January. With my towel, flip flops, Kindle, and water bottle, there's no beach I can't conquer.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Holidays and life on both sides of the lawn

I spent my holiday season the only way I can possibly imagine it: with my family. I flew home to California for my two week break, spending a total of about 48 hours in transit, but it was worth every minute.

The holiday season started long before my December 23 departure date, so I was still able to experience and learn a great deal about how Spain celebrates Christmas. Being a Catholic country (Wikipedia puts it at 76% Catholic), the politically correct mentality of the U.S. that acknowledges all religious holidays of the season does not exist in Spain. My class of teenagers had never heard of Hanukkah, and I didn't even try Kwanzaa or Ramadan.

Spain does Christmas, and they do it well. Take a look at Málaga:

Poinsettias, or flores de pascua, are all over the city
 Spain celebrates with traditions closer to the original story of Christmas than the commercialized holiday in the U.S.. Children get presents from the three wisemen on Día de los Reyes (January 6) rather than from Santa Claus on December 25. Instead of leaving out carrots for the reindeer they leave water for the camels (The wisemen are on the same cookie diet as Santa). Most children are familiar with both traditions and some celebrate a hybrid of the two, receiving some presents on December 25 and some on January 6.

Some of the highlights of my holiday season in Spain:
  • Teaching lessons using my favorite Christmas movie: the original How the Grinch Stole Christmas. I stopped the movie every few minutes to ask questions and make sure the class was comprehending. I knew I got through to them when, in the scene when the Grinch realizes the true meaning of Christmas, one of my kids exclaimed "¡Él tiene corazón!"

  • Teaching my first grade classes to sing "White Christmas." (Sorry for the horrible picture quality, I had to save it in a smaller file size to upload. I'll try a different one later)

  • The staff Christmas lunch at work, and all the teachers singing "We Wish You a Merry Christmas" to me when I had to leave. Hardly any of them speak English, but they all know the song.

Just two days shy of Christmas I finally worked my last day and went home (after a few nerve-wracking days worrying about flights and whether or not I would ever make it through the blizzards in Europe and on the east coast). I spent two lovely weeks at home visiting friends and family and eating copious amounts of the food and I deprived of in Spain. The number one item on the menu: Mexican food. My Christmas dinner consisted of homemade salsa, enchiladas, re-fried beans, and Mexican rice. When left-overs disappeared a few days later my Mom and I made more.

Going home for that short visit was just what I needed. When any little thing made me homesick the last few months, having that trip to look forward to put my mind at ease. It was a little pick-me-up, but coming back to Spain was still bittersweet.

Rolling my suitcase from the bus stop to my apartment felt like coming back home, but I was also leaving home. I didn't realize until leaving Málaga that this feels like home too. I have friends, a job, and an apartment here. I have two different places, a world away from each other, that I call home. When I am in Spain, I sometimes long for California. But when I was back there, I found myself missing Spain. I just finished reading a book called All Over the Map by Laura Fraser (which I highly recommend) and she sums it up pretty well: "It's not that the grass is greener, it's that you can never be on both sides of the lawn."

I may get frustrated sometimes at not being able to be on both sides of the lawn at the same time, but I asked for this, and I got it. I took great measures to make this happen, to come to Spain, get a job, and start a life here, and I wouldn't trade it for anything. I'm just learning that there are prices to be paid for getting exactly what you wanted.

Monday, January 10, 2011

My December Puente

The first week of December was a very lovely tradition that the Spanish call a puente. Puente means bridge in Spanish, but the term applies to more than just those things that get you across a river. If, for example, a holiday falls on a Tuesday, a theoretical puente is built from the weekend to that holiday so that everyone gets both Monday and Tuesday off from work and school. In the United States we move all such holidays to a Monday (Memorial Day, Labor Day, Presidents' Day) in order to minimize missed days of school and such. Not so in Spain. They use any excuse not to work.

December brought the puente of all puentes. Monday was Spain's Constitution Day and Wednesday was the Catholic holiday, dia de la inmaculada. Naturally the puente covered Tuesday, but it gets even better. My work week is Monday through Thursday, meaning that I would have only worked one day that week. I asked my school if I could take off that Thursday and make up for it in the future by working a Friday sometime. They were all for it. A simple change of schedule for someone to have a whole week off? Of course!

My friend, Caitlin, and I prowled the internet for cheap flights to and from Málaga and came up with an itinerary flying into Geneva and back home from Brussels nine days later. Sounds like a perfect plan, right? Wrong!

In all the traveling I've done I've been pretty lucky to never have any drastic delays or poor experiences. I guess all my bad fortune was being saved up for this trip. We showed up to the airport on Friday, December 3 for our 2:30pm flight. Geneva was working on clearing some recent snow so we were delayed 40 minutes. No big deal. They finally boarded us, we buckled our seat belts, and we sat and waited. And waited, and waited. The captain made periodic announcements that we were just waiting for confirmation from air traffic control and that we should be pushing back shortly. After sitting on the plane for two hours, they finally announced that there was a strike and that they didn't know when, or if, the plane would be able to take off. They had no idea what was going on, and there was an airport full of thousands of people looking for answers. Turns out it wasn't just Málaga, but all of Spain.

At 5:00pm, all of Spain's air traffic controllers went on strike; literally walked off the job. A few stayed to land the planes that were still in the air, but no planes were taking off. (I learned all these details later in news articles). These air traffic controllers, who are the highest paid in Europe and make an exorbitant amount of money, were crying about the fact that their employer was being partially privatized and they feared cuts in some of their benefits like maternity and paternity leave. They responded by holding the entire country hostage, disrupting, in some cases destroying, the holiday weekend of 250,000 people.

The first day we spent about seven hours at the airport, got no answers, and were told to come back the next day because the situation "should" have been sorted out by then. We showed up at 8:00am, found out there was a flight (!), checked in, went through security, the whole nine yards. We got to our gate (where the plane was still sitting from yesterday) and lined up with the rest of the familiar faces who we had spent all of the prior day with. But there was clearly no boarding going on. No planes moving, no one even getting on planes. We waited a few hours before the airline employees finally told us that today wasn't looking good either. Once again, I went to get our bag from baggage claim and Caitlin went to the customer service desk to see about scoring us a hotel for the night (They didn't need to know that I live in the city).

We both had waits of over an hour in our respective locations. Down in baggage claim hundreds of travelers were awaiting their bags, and it was here that I truly learned something about the Spanish frame of mind. All of these people, vacations ruined, not getting to go where they want (need) to go. But they're not yelling at any airport employee they can get a hold of. They're not clenching their firsts. They're dancing. Yes, dancing. You know the phrase "When life gives you lemons, make lemonade."? I think a Spaniard had to have written it. I witnessed an impromptu flamenco show on top the luggage conveyor belt. There were people who knew how to dance, there were people in need of entertainment, and there was a makeshift stage. Why not dance?

To shorten the rest of this, EasyJet put us up in a five star hotel for the night, gave us a delicious three course dinner, packed us a lunch the next morning, and finally put us on an 8:00am flight to Geneva the next day, delayed 42 hours from our original schedule.
5 star hotel
The Spanish military had been ordered in and was escorting air traffic controllers back to work at gun point on threat of arrest because what they did constituted a crime, according to Prime Minister Zapatero. Some called his actions a step back towards Franco and dictatorship, but I certainly appreciated it. Otherwise who knows how long it would have been before any planes flew over Spain? They signed contracts to work through the holiday season with promise of renegotiation after that point.

Luckily we hadn't booked any hostels or trains or made any other arrangements, so our trip wasn't completely disrupted, we just had seven days rather than nine. We stayed with a friend and her parents in Geneva, who were gracious hosts and completely spoiled us. We spent two nights in Geneva, exploring Christmas markets in Montreux, Roman ruins in Nyon, and getting educated at CERN.

Lake Geneva

Playing with science at CERN

Roman ruins in Nyon
From Geneva we took a train to Strasbourg, France, where we ate a true Alsacian meal at a 500 year old restaurant, found more Christmas markets, and a beautiful cathedral.

This city had some of the most beautiful lights I've seen

Vin chaud, or hot wine, a lovely escape from the rain

Crème brûlée, drool

After Strasbourg we headed for Belgium, where our first day was spent in my favorite city of the trip, Brugge. This bias could come from the fact that we had sun for the first time on the trip. But nonetheless, it is a gorgeous city. It is known as the Venice of the North because of its canals, which were frozen over at the time, making them absolutely stunning. We toured a brewery, visited more Christmas markets (see a theme?), and I ate a real Belgian waffle.

View from the roof of the brewery

Our last stop and departing point was Brussels. We went to a bar that carries 2,004 different beers and another bar that has 46 on tap. We ate delicious sandwiches whose name means machine gun in Dutch. We saw a light show projected onto a city building that made me feel like I was in Disneyland. We went to a natural history museum and played with dinosaur bones (Did you know that a giant duck bill, when placed on top your head, looks like a French military hat?).

Despite a bumpy start, I would call that a well spent puente.