Thursday, March 31, 2011

My favorite time of year

Me and my flip flops in the Alhambra

Flip flop weather has arrived! This Californian will always and forever wear flip flops when ever humanly possible, and that time of year has begun. I can finally go to work without a scarf and not be scolded by every other teacher for not dressing properly (Although most of them are still wearing scarves, they realize it's acceptable not to at this point).

I realize that my summer shoe choice will always brand me as a tourist. Yesterday I walked into a second grade class, wearing my flip flops, of course. A girl took one look at my feet, scrunched up her face in confusion, and asked "¿Has ido a la playa?" No, I laughed, I didn't come from the beach. Even at eight years old she knew something was a little strange.

This Andalucían sun, which I believe has settled in long term, calls me out to play each day, and begs me not to enter that cold building each time I go to work, reluctantly leaving such glorious rays behind me. I have actively changed my route I walk to work each day in order to avoid shaded walk ways and maximize my time in the sun. With day light savings time this past weekend (a few weeks later than the U.S.) the sun is rising earlier, and I purposely leave my blinds open so I can wake up to it in the morning.

Winter may have been wet and dreary, but this was worth waiting for. A thought came across my mind today as I lamented having to go indoors in order to teach a few classes. How can anyone possibly work when there is sun to be basked in? And then I realized, this might explain Málaga's 30% unemployment rate. It all makes sense. Temperature and unemployment seem to be directly correlated, and Málaga is at the top of that scale.

Some visual evidence of this marvelous climate I live in: I took full advantage of the sun this weekend, spending Saturday hiking in the beautiful Sierra Huétor near Granada.

Nothing quite like a siesta on top a mountain

I finally invested in a large bottle of sunscreen. Andalucía, keep bringing on the sun. I'm ready.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Lies my teachers told me

If I recall correctly I had six different Spanish teachers over all my time studying the language in the United States, and they all lied to me. Every. Single. One. A few examples of the atrocities imposed on my Spanish:

I learned that this is called a pluma,
which is just wrong. That is a bolígrafo, or boli for short. This is a pluma:
I can see how they're related. Pen--> fountain pen--> feather. But I got some strange looks when I asked someone to pass me a pluma.

A car is not a carro (that would just be way too simple), it is a coche. You don't manejar a car, you conducir. What I learned is a computadora is called an ordenador in Spain. Angry is enfadado rather than enojado. Don't even try telling a Spaniard that a tortilla is this:
 rather than this: (Okay, that vocabulary didn't come from a classroom, but it's still a difference I discovered here)

In retrospect, these are silly little vocabulary differences which reflect the differences between Castellano (Spanish Spanish) and Mexican or Latin American Spanish (Quite parallel to what I'm experiencing with English differences now). I grew up and studied Spanish in Southern California, which logically means most of the Spanish I learned was Mexican. I have to give some of my teachers credit for teaching both pluma and bolígrafo, among other examples, but it wasn't until coming to Spain that I thought about why I learned two words that mean the same thing. Here, one of them is the proper term they use, and the other is hillbilly language.

These little confusions are fixable. I retain one of the words and store the other one away for future use in a more appropriate location. I can forgive my teachers for this much. What I cannot forgive is providing me with incomplete grammar that affects the fluidity of my language.

By far the worst lie I was told: "No one uses the vosotros (second person plural) verb form and you're never going to need it, so we're going to pretend it doesn't exist." At the time I thought that seemed great. I only have to learn how to conjugate verbs in five ways rather than six. Sweet! Boy is that coming back to haunt me.

My Spanish grammar is, thanks to my education, horribly incomplete for use in Spain (You know, that place where the language came from). Spain definitely uses vosotros. I often get to really awkward points in conversations when my words are flowing, I'm carrying on nicely using preterite, future, and even subjunctive verbs. I might even sound like I can speak the language. But then, bam! Out of no where I reach a point where I want to use the second person plural, and I have to stop and think about how to do so, even in the most basic present tense. Teachers use vosotros all the time in addressing groups of students or the class as a whole, and I'm painfully conscious of my words when ever I do so. I've taught myself all the different forms of vosotros, but it will still be a while before they are ingrained into my head the way the rest of the verbs are. The chant in my head is still "soy, eres, es, somos, son" when it should really be "soy, eres, es somos, sois, son."

A plea to Spanish teachers all around the world: please teach your students vosotros. They just might find themselves in Spain some day.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

No Engish, No Service

I came across this earlier today. The gist of it is that a small diner in North Carolina posted a sign saying they will not serve you if you don't speak English. The reason? Two incidents of Latino customers who couldn't speak English, which made the staff feel "uncomfortable."

This infuriates me. It makes me clench my fists and increases my heart rate. It makes me ashamed to be American.

This was triggered by two interactions with non-English speaking customers. Count them. One. Two. Whew! I don't know about you but that was way too much for me to handle. Having people point to pictures on a menu and use fingers to indicate quantities is just too stressful. They don't really need to eat anyway. I mean, they don't speak English, so they're hardly even people, right? (Too far?)

The staff said that the interactions made them feel uncomfortable. That is one of the most insensitive, obtuse things I have ever heard. I guess when you never leave the state you were born in your comfort zone is comparatively small. I live in a country where I don't speak the language fluently, and have traveled to many where I don't speak the language at all, so I am in those customers' shoes everyday. Trust me, the staff were not the uncomfortable ones in that exchange. There is nothing more uncomfortable than not being able to express yourself, and the more mundane the task (like ordering food), the worse it is. I am grateful for every person who has ever slowed down their speech, used gestures, or any other communicative method to help me understand. My greatest wish for America is that it acquires such a patience and acceptance for things that are, well, not American. If anyone hasn't noticed, the world extends just a little bit beyond our borders.

The owner claims that this is not a racial issue, but merely a language gap. That's like saying "I'm not a racist, I hate everyone equally." The sign posted reads: "God bless America and All who protect and serve our great country. Our Staff are sadly not Bi-lingual. We only speak and understand American." First of all, learn some capitalization rules. Second, American is a nationality, not a language. I'll concede that it is a dialect, but if they want to get that picky I want to send some of my English friends there and see if they're refused for not speaking "American." Third, that's not racist? Bull-fucking-shit. God blesses America but not the country that you're from because we're better than you. P.S. We don't speak your language and can't be bothered to deal with you. Either learn English or go away (Just leave, it's easier for all of us). Yours truly, Uncle Sam.

I'm teaching English overseas so that people all around the world will be able to communicate. English is the closest thing the world has to an international language, but that's no excuse for Americans to sit back and let the rest of the world do all the work. Everyone else is learning our language. An English speaker can travel just about anywhere on the planet and get by just fine. There will be people who speak some English, but more importantly, there will be patient, understanding, tolerant people willing to help. America, let's please do our part to meet them half way.

Monday, March 14, 2011

The language I'm learning

 Every American teacher of English overseas encounters it: Why do you say "soccer" instead of "football?" I thought that word was pronounced this way. Why do you say "I have a pencil" instead of "I've got a pencil?

I came to Spain on the premise that I would be teaching English and learning Spanish. But that's not quite the whole story.

Here the majority of English I am exposed to is British. I have British coworkers in both jobs and I live with an Englishman now. The teaching materials I have at school are all British, which means that every once in a while when scanning over a page before I teach it, I come across a word that makes me go "Huh?" My British vocabulary is therefore expanding just as quickly as my Spanish is.

Flat has replaced apartment in my vocabulary, and I alternate between soccer and football depending on who I'm talking to. If I want my students to understand me, I have to say rubber rather than eraser. When writing on the board I am careful the write colour rather than color. Take a gander at these and see if you know the American equivalents:
  • aubergine
  • lift (as a noun)
  • trainers
  • trousers
  • mark (as a verb)
  • boot (hint: part of a car)
  • garden (hint: a little more than where you grow flowers)
  • courgette
  • pram
  • lorry
  • fly-over
  • windscreen
  • biscuit
  • candyfloss
  • chemist
  • sellotape
  • jumper
Other fun facts about the differences between American and British English (Courtesy of Bill Bryson's Mother Tongue): In Britain, the Royal Mail delivers the post, but in the U.S. the Postal Service delivers the mail.  In the U.S. to knock someone up is to get them pregnant, but in Britain it is simply to knock on their door or wake them up. In the U.S. to table a motion is to put it forward for discussion, but in Britain it means the opposite.

These differences make teaching English that much more interesting. Some want to learn distinct "proper" British English, some want American because most media comes from America. When it comes to pronunciation I don't have much choice but to pass on my own California accent (Just like they're imparting their Andalucían one on me). But with vocabulary I try to be as objective as possible. With the adults I work with, whenever I know that a different word exists in British English I'll write down both for them, explaining which is which and that they're both correct. When they use these words in conversation I can see the wheels turning in their head as their sentence approaches that word. They pause, internally debating which to use, and usually go with the American one to make their teacher happy. I have them trained well.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Clouds, couscous, and queens in the Canaries

As mentioned in my last post, I spent last week in the Canary Islands, Las Palmas de Gran Canaria to be more precise. Roxann and I were looking forward to packing nothing but swimsuits, towels, and sunscreen, and spending all week on the beach. It's a good thing we brought a little more than that. This was the view from our room's terrace:
Note the beach, then look up to the not-so-blue sky
We still tried to soak up some sun. Boy did we try. We plopped down in the sand and looked up at the sky, searching for gaps between the clouds, estimating the movement of the clouds, and getting excited for the ten minutes of sunshine we would get when the sun came through a particularly large gap.
Come on sun, I know you want to come out of there!

But the clouds couldn't damper our day. We had our good friends Ben, Jerry, and Don Simon to nourish us, an old man exercising in a speedo to entertain us, and this to look at:

Other than "sunbathing," the trip consisted of interesting food experiences including deaf and mute waiters, and excellent sushi but poor communication because the waiter really wanted to speak his less than fabulous English to us. There was Canarian puchero and Lebanese food with deceiving menus where "couscous" is a whole lot more than just couscous in both price and portion. Thank goodness the hostel had a fridge because I asked to box up my leftovers for the first time in Spain (something unheard of here).

We ventured down to the south side of the island one afternoon hoping for more sun, which we didn't find, but there was less wind, so we were able to enjoy sipping beers at a cafe with our toes buried in the sand. (My apologies, I forgot my camera that day)

One last very cool thing we were able to experience was a little bit of Carnaval. Apparently the Canaries are second in Spain only to Cadíz for their Carnaval celebration, but unfortunately we were only there Monday through Friday, so we didn't get to see any of the weekend insanity. Each night there was some sort of production or competition in the center of town. We saw what we decided is the Spanish equivalent of Miss America, but instead of a swimsuit or talent contest, they simply parade around in these ornate contraptions like peacocks with their feathers spread in display. The more glitz and glam, the better.
I, of course, didn't take that picture because I was no where close enough. Here's mine of the final dramatic ceremony in which the winner was announced:

And the winner in pink, who can't express her excitement too much due to being strapped to something the size of a car.

But my favorite part of Carnaval there was above and beyond the drag queen show. We only got to see the preliminary competition, as the final was the following weekend. We actually didn't even get to watch it inside the stadium because it was sold out. We, along with dozens of others, huddled around the perimeter where we could see the plasma screens inside, but that was enough of a view to be blown away. I am definitely adding drag shows to my list of things that the Spaniards do damn well (Right after fried food and napping). I'll bet you've never seen Darth Vader turn into a drag queen, accompanied by Jedi with light sabers. How about "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" translated into Spanish and a Mary Poppins drag queen? Here are some of the winners: (If you don't want to see men in banana hammocks I suggest you watch only the first minute or so of each one)

To top off it off we saw some of the dancers (maybe even a reina) after the show at a bar. It was strange seeing them in jeans and jackets, drinking and smoking, still in full bejeweled makeup, and it took all of my will power to not ask to take a picture with them.

I have to say I was pleasantly surprised by how universally enjoyed drag shows are in Spain. What many in the U.S. would call obscene and inappropriate is a highly esteemed art form here. The fact that the drag shows were the only events of Carnaval requiring a purchased ticket (and that they were sold out!) speaks loads of their popularity. In the videos above, take a look at the shots of the audience. We were in the company of men and women from all walks of life trying to get a glimpse of this show.

The verdict on the Canaries: Not the weather we were hoping for, but definitely a worthwhile trip that left us longing for a few more days.

One last benefit of the super cheap, 6am Ryan Air flight back home- getting to watch this in slow montion: