A yoga masterclass, this time in Spanish

By Posted on 9 min read
Sunrise across the salt lagoons at Mar Menor.

My father likes to say that I land on my feet. I like to think it’s the effect of my wonderful, charming personality. I compel people to be wonderful around me. Either way, when I arrived in Spain, I found myself falling straight into the safe hands of the Casera/Landlady.

Our first conversation, back in October, was the twenty-minute drive from the bus station to her house and was inhibited by our lacking language skills, neither of us could speak a sentence of the other person’s language. With another person, this might have led to a very quiet trip, but the Casera is an extroverted Spaniard who believes in good hospitality. We talked the entire way.

A few months on and we can converse in an almost fluid manner. Predominantly I speak Spanish and she speaks English, although we both regularly revert into our own languages for some clarification. Oddly this leads to us taking journeys together where I explain English grammar to her in Spanish and she explains Spanish pronunciation in English. Grammar is a good conversation topic. I like her to keep both hands on the wheel when she’s driving.

Anyway, the Casera is a woman full of life. She’s a national swimming champion, a professional coach and a pilates teacher. She’s also fascinated by some weird branch of yoga called Kundalini, which has some relation to yoga, but as she tells me on a regular basis is more spiritual.

Yesterday, she decided to go to a masterclass in Kundalini. Since she didn’t want to go alone she invited me. She made it more enticing by suggesting that I join her at her sister’s house and spend the afternoon in the large garden there with the puppies and 22 degrees of sunshine. She would cook lunch.

I’m not one to say no to such an offer. Plus, I figured I could write a blog post about it and that would amuse the Mother. I stuffed my book and my leggings in my bag and slathered sun cream on my legs and arms.

I could write about the afternoon, but you’d probably just be jealous. It was tranquil. And is rather overshadowed in my mind by the yoga. Now, I could write about navigational difficulties and getting the time wrong and the Casera forgetting her phone and my phone battery dying, but that would distract from the experience itself.

Eventually we arrived, early, having previously got the wrong time, and were welcomed into the yoga studio. Like other yoga studios, there was a place for depositing bags and shoes, a set of shelves holding mats, cushions, blankets and blocks, gentle music and dimmed lights. I was worried, initially, that the class was going to be just the teacher, the Casera and I, but soon another woman arrived. She looked normal, until she started getting changed into all white and covered her hair in a peculiar little white hat which reminded me of a swimming cap.

The Casera and the teacher clearly knew each other, and conversation was instant and voluble. I was introduced, and the teacher, smiling in a yoga-teacher-who-won’t-be-fazed manner, asked me if I could speak Spanish.

I told him a little. The cogs whirred in his brain. Then he started speaking in English. Not fluent English, but the broken English of someone who is a new but enthusiastic learner and has just realised that this is a grand opportunity to practice. I replied in my mixture of Spanish and English, smiling in a you-can-speak-English grin with regular encouraging nods.

In a gentle, unrushed style we found mats. The teacher made sure that I had everything I needed and asked me about my yoga experience.

The problem with my yoga experience is that I’ve never had a regular teacher. I first did yoga at the gym when I was at school. I did some yoga at university, but it was a large class and there was no specific feedback. I have been on a yoga retreat with the Mother, in which we did some different styles of yoga. I have frequently done yoga from the Mother’s over 50s DVD. And then there was a yoga experience in Germany, in German, a language which I don’t understand. I explained some highlights of this in Spanish, badly. Normally people frown when they don’t understand, but I’m not sure yoga teachers of deeply spiritual strange yoga practices, where they dress in all white, can frown. I was therefore uncertain whether I was understood at all.

The worry I think that the teacher had, I realised later, was that Kundalini yoga is not like other yoga. Asking me about my yoga experience was kind of irrelevant. It was the wrong question. The question they should have asked was about meditation, but they didn’t. The Casera reassured the teacher that I was a meditative, spiritual person, a description which in her English translates as ‘nun-like’ and involves her shutting her eyes and pretending to pray. It’s a subject to avoid when she’s driving.

I was given a card with the chants written on them, the teacher tried to explain, the Casera interjected that I didn’t have to chat, I asked for pronunciation clarification and we began. A gong hung on the wall. I sat on my meditation cushion and copied everyone else.

After a little strange chanting we began a few stretches. The teacher decided that this was the place to practice his English and so the Spanish instructions (which I mostly understood) were supplemented with English. When we got to ‘put your hands on your knees’, the yoga teacher couldn’t remember the word for knee and so paused to ask me. I successfully gave him the word.

However, the weird bending I was then supposed to do flummoxed me. The teacher came over to help. The Casera stopped bending and turned around to help too. The lady across the room kept bending, repeating what I found a strenuous challenge in an elegant manner. If I were her I would have been rolling my eyes at the commotion. The yoga teacher and the Casera wanted me to move my hips in a different way, but as nobody knew the word for hips the Casera resorted to some wild gesturing. Eventually I either got it or they gave up.

We returned to sitting on the floor. From then on, the session focused on meditation. There was no more strange stretching, just sitting very still. My posture was deemed acceptable for this and so we got going.

At this point it’s worth noting that I had no idea when the class ended. It started at half eight, but there was no clock on the wall and I had taken off my watch.

There was a gong. The teacher gonged the gong and I sat with my hands in front of my heart being still. The teacher gonged the gong again and again. I sat still.

A life of travel is very good at teaching you to surrender to the moment. It’s a life of train stations and airports, immigration queues and incomprehensible menus. I regularly don’t understand the conversations I have; the culture surprises me (we don’t greet our yoga teachers with kisses in England); and I’m frequently oblivious as to what I’m supposed to be doing – hence the earlier navigational difficulties.

The gongs kept sounding, every time I thought the chimes might be about to slow down, there would be another gong-g-g-g and after a long time I realised that I was going to be sitting here a while.

When I did Vipassana meditation, which my friends like to describe as cult-like and weird, I could barely sit straight for fifteen minutes. Feeling sorry for me, the people who look after the meditators gave me a back board. Since then I have not really done much Vipassana, it’s quite heavy-going meditation, but I have done some more ‘mindfulness’ style meditations and now have a daily practice. It turns of that if you practice mediation every day then your back does in fact get stronger.

This all might deceive you into thinking that when it comes to meditation I know what I’m doing. This isn’t true. Frequently, I find meditation rather challenging. My mind starts thinking about other things. When it falls into the trap of pondering the past I drag it back out, but when it is excited, creative, or fantasising about the future, I get swept up in my thoughts. Quite frequently I meditate with a little odd chanting meditation – although weirder it’s gentler than a more silent meditation – and instead of just doing what I’m supposed to I spend the time trying to roll an r at the end of every syllable. ‘Sa, ta, na, ma’ becomes ‘SaRR, taRR, naRR, MaRR’. I still can’t roll my r and it rather disrupts the meditation.

The book that I’m reading, Deep Work by Cal Newport, mentions the idea that sometimes, if you want to do something properly, deeply in fact, a good trick is to attack it with a grand gesture. He gives the example of J.K. Rowling, when struggling to finish the Deathly Hallows, moving herself into a hotel. I figure this is what enabled me to do ten days of silent Vipassana. I also believe that a serious Kundalini yoga masterclass, in Spanish, is a pretty grand gesture compared to my normal meditation practice which involves me sitting on my bed for ten minutes.

I think, that last night, kept myself going with the bewilderment that I could.

Then the session got weird. Instead of gongs or chants, which I do at least associate with more spiritually inclined meditation practices, I heard the teacher tell us that he would play a song in English. At first, I didn’t think I could have translated right, but nope, a few moments later, some feel happy some about flowers being reborn started playing from the speakers.

I was now instructed to put my hands on my forehead, and then a little later, just when my arms felt like they might drop off, on my head. Every now and then some English words would interrupt the Spanish, so I knew that I was clearing out my subconscious or whatever else I was supposed to be doing.

When I finally opened my eyes, I discovered that the lady in white had moved to lean against the wall and the Casera had stretched out her legs and moved around in her heap of cushions. I of course was still sat upright on my cushion in my elegant meditation posture.

More meditation followed, this time lying down. At first I didn’t understand the instruction but after a tangential conversation where the Casera explained to the teacher that it was past my bedtime already, and I rolled my eyes, I worked it out. The Casera thinks I’m strange because I still, even after months of living in Spain, insist on going to bed at dinner time. Personally, I’m quite happy with my ten o’clock bedtime and the more I encounter the zombie like Spaniards at work, the more convinced I become that I’m the one with the healthier strategy.

I stretched out my legs, lay down on my mat and covered my body with my blanket. There was another song, this time in some language that was neither Spanish or English, but which occasionally included a random line in English. I lay still, waiting, and then sometime later I started wiggling my toes and my hands, in the typical fashion that one reawakens oneself after such a yogaing, the teacher delighted in saying words like ‘toes’, ‘feet’ and hands’ in English. I smiled encouragingly and sat up. The lady in white continued to sleep and the Casera began making gentle noises to gently wake her.

We were finished. I was relieved to have survived. We expressed gestures of thanks, and then proceeded to, in a very Spanish fashion, leave. Spanish fashion because you can’t simple say thank you and leave in Spain. It is required that you first engage in a lengthy conversation in my case a discussion of why the English language has so many conflicting rules. We chatted about accommodation, rental agreements, the names in English of kitchen appliances, and the state of language learning in Spain.

Eventually, we left. When we arrived back at the car I glanced at my phone and discovered it was after 11.

I might have a tendency of landing on my feet, as my father so claims, but sometimes I have to admit, I land in the most peculiar places.

A wintery Sunday afternoon in Southern-Spain

By Posted on 3 min read
Not my window, but you get the idea. Murcia, December, 2018.

With reluctance, accepting that the sun’s gaze was now facing the other wall of the apartment block and it was only my bare feet, heels resting on the balcony railing, that were in direct sunlight, I decided to come inside. The cat, fast asleep on the concrete block between the balcony and it’s neighbour, was luckier. The concrete block remained sunlit. The cat, twisted on it’s back, one paw in the air, limp, didn’t know how lucky it was.
I reminded myself not to close the balcony door behind me.

Inside I switched my skirt for fleece-lined leggings, pulled on a cardigan followed by a hoodie, rinsed the few remaining grains of post-lunch coffee from my mug and flicked on the kettle for a fresh cup of tea. And to fill up my hot water bottle.

This is the south of Spain in winter. Outside the sky is very blue. I know good writing is not supposed to use the word ‘very’, but the sky is a very blue blue. In the mornings, I peer out of the window, crane my neck upwards at the small amount of it framed by the apartment block’s courtyard, and smile to see an absence of clouds. However, when I step out of the apartment building, wrapped up in scarf and coat, I wish I’d worn my gloves.

I’m told that the reason none of the buildings have central heating, or decent curtains, is that it’s not cold here; this week the temperature is set to drop below zero and all I’m armed with is a half sized hot water bottle. I’m glad that when I was packing I thought a hot water bottle was a good idea. It felt like a mad indulgence at the time. I only thought it was a good idea because I write, and writing is one of those odd tasks which results in cold fingers.

We do have a heater, a couple of them in fact, but if you put them on in tandem you blow the electricity. The main one, white, rectangular, you need no imagination to imagine it, makes an awful racket and so I avoid putting it on where possible. Sometimes I want to curl up on the sofa and read, so I position the heater close enough to my body that I can give it a whack if the fan emits a tantrum.

My hot water bottle is silent. It wears a pale blue woollen jumper with an embroidered rainbow and smiling cloud. The cloud is white and fluffy, you need no imagination to imagine this either as its shape is straight out of a children’s cartoon. The cloud has pink cheeks. Its black eyes look up at me from my lap as I write.

Leaning forward I tip my head back and look up at the very blue sky reminding myself that it’s still there. Yes, it’s January 13th and already my legs have seen the sun.

This is not a bauble.

By Posted on 2 min read
This is not a bauble. Photo Sicily, December 2016.

I was tidying up Christmas decorations in my grandparents house when I reached into a large plastic box, the sort my grandparents store baubles in eleven months of the year, up in the roof. And ouch. My finger hurt. Sharp pricks in my skin. A brush with something sharp.

I peered inside the box for a better look, and discovered, to my astonishment, a cactus.

Round, pale green and spiky, I carefully picked it up and showed it to the Grandmother

She wasn’t at all surprised. She knew there was a cactus in the box. She had already stuck her hand in and pricked herself that morning. And then she’d done nothing about it. She was mildly amused that the cactus had survived what she assumed was a full twelve months in the box, but otherwise unperturbed by the situation.

Personally I think she should have been more bothered, bothered enough not to leave it in the box with the baubles waiting for the next poor soul to reach inside.

“Put it in the bin,” the Grandmother said.

So, as a dutiful granddaughter, I placed the cactus by the compost bin.

A short while later I heard a commotion in the kitchen as the Grandfather discovered the cactus and decided to investigate. It was, he claimed, very much alive. Just in need of replanting.

The Grandmother insisted that the cactus be binned.

A short while later the Grandfather was seen trying to find a home on one of the overcrowded windowsills in the back bedroom of my grandparents’ house, a room filled with more plastic boxes, bags, cardboard and evidence of Christmas. The Grandmother, well, she was heard to be rather disparaging about his efforts.

Tensions were rising.

Which is when, as the dutiful granddaughter, I stepped in and volunteered to rehome the cactus. Now obviously, you can’t take a cactus in your hand luggage to Spain… so I wonder how it’s going to appreciate the care of its new warden… the Mother.

Belief sits at the heart of language learning (but fear is what rules)

By Posted on 4 min read
Street art in a neighbouring village to the one I teach in. Fear is ever present in language learning.

It’s not the most welcoming environment. Even when there’s a blue sky outside, the corridor remains cold. The child opposite me wears a coat. I say child. He’s fourteen, when I was fourteen I didn’t feel child-like at all.

 He tells me he hates history. I nod, I’ve heard this story before. It’s a symptom of one of the Spanish government’s ‘wonderful ideas’, as if Spain didn’t already have enough confusion about its own history already. This is a trilingual school so history here is taught in French.

How, the boy implores, is he supposed to write a page answering a history question in French? He can’t string together five French sentences. There is anger lining his voice, but also defeat. He thinks it is impossible. He believes he will fail history

The thing is… I don’t believe him

I listen and at no point say, ‘you’re wrong’. For him, this is a serious and painful topic, so I avoid smiling, despite finding it delightful how as he rants about French his English begins to flow.

I sympathise with his teachers

I doubt that they’re going to fail him in history. He’s bright. If he’s going to fail, then half the class is doomed. And the teachers don’t like to fail half the class, it looks bad on them.

Imagine though, training to be a history teacher, and then the job market changes. The best positions are going to those who can teach in a foreign language. You’re raising a family, working full time and add language classes in the evenings. You pass your exams, but when you’re teaching you feel the difficulty of expressing yourself. You can’t tell stories anymore. Humour doesn’t work. The classes struggle and get lost.

It’s not an easy role to take on.

But my focus is on the student in front of me

I don’t believe that he can’t write a page in French. He’s been studying that language for at least eight years. That’s seven years and seven months longer than I’ve been studying Spanish and if push came to shove, I could write a page on a historical topic in Spanish. If you gave me a few weeks I might be able to do it in French too.

I admit, I would need some verb tables if it was going to be in the correct tense, but I could write a page. It wouldn’t be pretty, but it would exist. I could do it. A handwritten page is only a few hundred words.

The boy however believes he can’t and that’s a problem

Without belief he’s going to sit, uncomfortably, on the splintering green chair in his classroom. He’ll stare at a white piece of paper, pen in hand, and write as little as possible. Tension will squeeze his stomach. A metallic taste in his mouth. He’ll grip his pen tight.

If grows up to be like the twenty-something-year-old Spanish young men I know, then this fear will follow him into the future. When faced with a live, fast-speaking, slang-using French person, he’ll panic. His fight, flight or freeze response will wipe out his French language skills. His brain will scream ‘abort’.

I know this feeling

I spent years learning French at school. Yet the only thing I can ever think of to say is ‘Je ratisse avec un râteau’ which I learnt working on a French farm. I can’t pronounce the phrase because I have never mastered the damn ‘r’. The sentence means ‘I rake with a rake’, and is, more or less, useless.

I’ve seen this same mind blasting fear make sweat drip from the foreheads of wide-shouldered, swaggering teenage boys. I’ve witnessed it time and time again. I’ve felt it myself time and time again.

The opposite of fear is belief

Shortcuts don’t work.

Yes, a few shots of tequila or a bottle of wine can help. I know some women who go from being unable to construct the present simple to being comfortable with future conditional after a drink. Men, typically, need a glass or two of beer, and for all the women to scarper. But these children I teach aren’t looking to only be able to speak whilst intoxicated. They need language skills for job interviews.

They need to belief in themselves

  • The child needs to believe he can speak French.
  • The teacher needs to believe they can teach in French.
  • Because without belief, everything becomes dredged in a thick gloopy fear.

Which would be sad, because this bright, articulate young man could do with a decent history education.

So, the next question is, where can you get belief from? (Or why is my Italian and Spanish better than my French)

Mid-winter blue skies (and dealing with disorientation like a grown-up)

By Posted on 3 min read
Rooftops. December 2018.

I’ve been in England a week and I remain somewhat disorientated.

Writing this, I sit at my desk. It’s an old-fashioned, green-leather topped desk with drawers (some of which lock) and the scars of a life spent existing full of things. It has history. I acquired it from a junk shop in the middle of a public carpark in some small unpronounceable Welsh town. It’s lived in four different houses under my ownership alone. And, whilst I admit that it’s not the ideal shape for perfect ergonomics, it makes up for it by being psychologically wonderful. It feels like a desk where one writes. It’s a comforting presence. Something sturdy and reliable. Homely.

A week ago, I was sweating as I dragged my tiny suitcase into the Spanish airport

I wore coat and a scarf over the layers I imagined would be necessary in such a cold country as England. The sky outside was bright blue. Straight from the tube bright blue.

But, when I arrived, three hours later in Yorkshire, I appreciated the layers. I pulled my gloves out of my pockets and tugged them onto my hands. The chap at passport control hoped I’d had a lovely holiday, I laughed and told him the holiday was yet to come.

Disorientating.

We went to my sister’s house for Christmas

Yes, the Midget (and the Blacksmith) own a house. That’s my baby sister. It’s got walls and ceilings and multiple toilets. They had just (and I mean just) had an oven installed. My baby sister owns half an oven.

I curled up on the corner of her sofa and started working through the Blacksmith’s library. In the past my very small baby sister would have asked me questions about the cooking or would have wanted me to give some sort of guidance, but other than a brief explanation of how Grandmére (that’s the French grandmother I once lived with) made soup, I found myself off the hook.

Afterall, if we’re being entirely honest, nowadays the Midget is the better cook. She (and the Blacksmith) made the Christmas dinner appear (other than the parsnips) on the table in a manner you might otherwise only believe was possible in photoshopped recipe books. Wise elder sister advice is unrequired. I know nothing of such grown-up activities as house ownership.

Once upon a time I would have got all hung up on the concept of home

I would have felt the disorientation and instantly felt a need to reaffirm my identity. I would have felt my role of bigger sister changing and compensated with bossiness. But sometimes the best seat is the corner of the sofa, and the best response to disorientation is to smile, with pride.

Now I’m back in my bedroom at my own desk. Well, the bedroom that sometimes I sleep in when I’m here. I have my records spinning, the music floats out of my speakers filling the room in a fashion I daren’t try in the ‘habitación’ I rent back in Spain. There are Spanish verbs on the walls and a piece of masking tape labelling the small cupboard inherited from my Nonna as ‘la mesa de noche’. It feels a long time ago that I read those words.

For the first time in a week, the sky looks somewhat blue. Not out of the tube blue, something somewhat mellower. A wintery, Yorkshire blue.

Mar Menor and the calamity of Maggie

By Posted on 5 min read
A sponge or a pinecone… what do you think?

The week before last, at breakfast, one of my colleagues told me it wouldn’t rain again until September. I couldn’t quite keep the disbelief out of my voice as I expressed my surprise at such a statement. It had, after all managed to rain almost every day for the previous fortnight, and the sky still looked cold and grey. I said it would rain tomorrow, which got me a surprised look back as a response.

Now, it did rain the following day, for about three and a half minutes early in the morning, but it hasn’t since. The clouds have cleared revealing a bright blue sky. After work on Thursday I sat in the park and basked in the sunshine, soaking up the warmth.

On the final day of November my parents and I decided to head out to the beach. This was not to sunbathe, although there was one couple on the sand in their swimwear, but for a walk in the sunshine. The sun felt gorgeous on my skin. The beach was almost deserted. In the sea we spotted a couple of divers, emerging in their black wetsuits, unhooking their flippers from their feet.

The beach we chose faces the sea, but behind it stand the salt fields at the north tip of the lagoon known as the Mar Menor. This name translates in English to the ‘smaller sea’ which is wat the Mar Menor is. It’s Spain’s largest lagoon. The area we ventured to was a national park, with soft sand, which piles up in dunes, a haven for birds. Although pollution is having a serious, and unignorable, toll.

That is one large heap of salt. The Father worried about what would happen if it rained, but since it’s not going to rain until September…

From the beach we headed to the port, and in the sunshine, facing out towards rows and rows of sailing vessels, we found a small restaurant. It was, according to Maggie, the cheery woman who played hostess, new. The chef was French. I asked what the best food was, and said yes to it. Wine was brought out.

Now the word of that last paragraph that you should most definitely have noticed was the word ‘played’.

As the afternoon progressed, in a sedate Spanish, sun-saturated pace, it became clear that Maggie was having a delightful game. In her high-heeled boots she sprang from one table of customers to another. Her confident, bright English ignited smiles on the customers faces. Every now and again she’d head back to a table occupied by her handbag and drink another glass of wine.

Abandoned building by the beach.

The first mishap was that Maggie, in all her excitement, forgot that she actually had to pass the food order to the kitchen. I sipped my rather large glass of wine, took some pictures of the reflections in it, and discussed fancy-dress costumes with the Mother. As other tables received their food, I began to feel hungry.

Then, seeing my perplexed face, Maggie tottered towards us, exclaiming that we needed to kill her, and asked us what we’d ordered. This time, thank goodness, the order did make its way back into the kitchen.

The wind however was getting up. Maggie appeared, tottering back towards us. In her hands was a board laden with bread, cheese and potatoes, accompanied by lettuce. The lettuce made a break for freedom. Maggie, who has never worked as a waitress in her life, squealed.

Playing with the camera. Wine at Mar Menor.

Despite the lack of lettuce, and the breeze, we were grateful for food. It was like heaven to tuck into the sweet roasted potatoes and dipped the crusty bread into the gooey baked camembert. The chef knows how to cook. The fish that followed, some time later, was also stunning. By this time Maggie was trying to persuade me that I needed more wine. She was on her fourth glass and couldn’t quite understand how one glass of wine in the afternoon might be quite enough for me.

She didn’t fall over, as she cleared away two of the boards that had come out with the fish. I thought she might. The pavement was uneven. But not actually being a waitress, or a person who works in any role in a restaurant, she’d decided to limit herself to carrying two boards at once.

My parents looked stuffed, so I asked what deserts were available. Maggie didn’t know, so she headed inside to investigate. The answer came back that it was a surprise. I said that sounded excellent. Some time later, a huge board arrived. It was laden with custard tarts, tiramisu and little cream cake things. These were like tiny cheesecakes, with an intense, fruit jelly top layer: lime, mandarin and raspberry. As we feasted on these deserts, coffees appeared. I understood that the coffee came with the desert as we hadn’t ordered coffee.

We had decided to go to lunch before two, and by now it was getting close to five. I asked for the bill, but told my parents that I suspected that the restaurant staff would not be able to recall what it was that we had eaten. This was the case. A French man, speaking to us in a mixture of Spanish and French, brought out a piece of paper and a pen. He took note as I explained what we’d consumed. The coffee, was, as assumed, included, however, it came with the fish, not with the desert. I sat and stared and blinked in confusion as I took in the word pescado again and again before accepting that it made no sense.

I didn’t care. The father paid. The total amount being more than reasonable for the quality and volume of the food. And with the winter sun low in the sky, bathing the orchards, lettuces and arid uncultivated fields of dust in a warm, golden glow, we drove back home.

Practicing for the Cambridge First Exam (or something like that)

By Posted on 4 min read
A striking wall in Cartagena. A bright burst of colour in a city of crumbling buildings held up by scaffolding.

“What is the most important thing you learnt in primary school?”

Blank.

That was the look of the teenagers faces staring back at me. After a second or two, they asked me to repeat the question.

They understand the English, but they were not sure that they had heard right. It was afterall a bit of an odd question. Not typical small talk, nor even the sort of question you might receive in a job interview. It was a practice exam question, and some of the exam questions are plain weird. To answer them you don’t only need language skills, you need an imagination too.

Take a question I had to ask today about a photograph

It was in reference to a picture of a smiling girl stacking supermarket shelves. She wore a green apron and had her blonde hair tied high in a neat pony-tail.

“What do you think this girl enjoys about her job?”

I smiled at the teenagers who looked up at me and blinked. It’s an expression I am becoming rather familiar with as I reach the odder questions of the Cambridge speaking exam list.

“I know, it’s a ridiculous question, use your imagination.”

They concluded that the girl in question did not actually enjoy her job, it seemed implausible that her career ambition was to stack shelves. However, she was smiling. So, my students hypothesised that she had plans for after work, a party perhaps.

I let my imagination go wild when I was faced with a picture of a man in a black t-shirt singing with great enthusiasm. I needed to encourage the students to spew out English words. Sitting dumbfounded by the awful photography won’t give them a mark that reflects their language skills. I pointed to a dower looking woman in the audience. This, I suggested, was the singer’s sister. I suggested that she would have preferred to be in bed, but instead she was at a rock concert supporting her brother. Furthermore, the event had come about as a result of a mid-life crisis. The man, fearing the best of his life was behind him, had decided to take to the stage. One of the students pointed out a nearby member of the concert audience, who wore a grimace, and suggested that this was the brother-in-law. We all laughed.

But back to the primary school question

Some students gave answers involving academic subjects.

“I think that the most important thing I learnt in primary school was basic maths.”

Others focused on describing their language skills. Particularly their foundation in Spanish and beginnings in English.

However, the ones who had more time to think tended to vie away from the subject orientated answer. They prefered something that was more orientated around social skills. One explained primary school had taught him to behave and equipped him with the skills to study. Others mentioned working with others.

Then there was the pair who decided to explain what, in their opinion primary school should have taught them.

“Emotion”

“No, not emotion… not my emotion, to understand your emotion… more… I don’t know the word… empathetic”

“Empathy?”

“Yes, empathy.”

The student’s concern was that there are too many extreme views in the world. People causing problems because of a lack of empathy and understanding of others. Empathy, she believed, was something that needed teaching at primary school. They should be learning to relate to one another and develop more moderate views.

I asked for an example

“I am,” she told me, “a feminist.”

And she proceeded to go on to explain that some people thought that by this word she meant that that she thought women were superior to men. She was adament that this was not her belief. Her tone was calm, but had an edge to it suggesting that this was personal.

Gender equality, and tackling gender based violence is a big thing here. The other week, the students went on strike as part of a campaign for gender equality. On Sunday I cut through a march against gender based violence as I headed across town with my parents.

In the school corridor we talked for a while about the word feminist

I explained how my father (I quote him often) is a feminist but that he avoids the word. He prefers, I explained, to choose a terms that are more obvious in their promotion of the equal value of both sexes and all genders.

The more I speak to these teenagers the more I find them remarkable

I’m lucky that I get to have this odd, privileged opportunity to hear the individual, intriguing, complex beliefs of these young people. Often, they fight with the limits of their English vocabulary to express themselves and their opinions. It’s impressive. I’m tired when I come home from work, because it’s not a job where I sit back and let it happen around me. That wouldn’t be within my character and the teenagers deserve more than that. They deserve empathy.

Fish, lost in the chaos. Cartagena.

Murica (con mis padres…)

The region of Murcia, taken on the train between the city of Murcia and Cartagena.

Murcia is still a city short enough that from a distance you can see the cathedral.

It’s an elegant cathedral, built in the 1400s with the later addition of the bell tower, the tallest in Spain, which houses twenty-five bells. The square in front, suggested in the Lonely Planet guide as one of the best places to visit in the region, is useful as an easy to find, obvious, meeting spot.

In our first weeks here, this was the central location where us English teachers used to convene for coffee. We needed to compare notes on our schools and rants about Spanish immigration procedures. It’s the most touristy location in a not particularly touristy at all city. But here, in the cafés on the square, there are menus and the menus are available in English. For me, this is a tad easier to deal with (or at least explain to my parents) than the behind the bar blackboards.

The cathedral in Murcia

Yes, this weekend my parents are visiting

Which means I’ve been thrown from the role of odd English woman in a group of Spaniards, to the role of ‘the only one who speaks some Spanish’. The pressure is on.

Whilst my Spanish is improving, to understand the meaning of the words on the boards behind the bars you need to order and eat the food. This will take me some time. The more words I learn in Spanish, the more I realise that you can’t use direct translation and maintain the same connotations and meaning. It’s way more complex and nuanced than that.

For now, I’m dealing with basic vocabulary

My ability to ask for an onion might be useful in the market, however isn’t so useful at a tapas bar.

I had to find stereotypical Spanish food that my parents were both happy to eat. One item on the list of starters didn’t involve an anchovy, but I persisted in explaining that anchovies are worth trying here, at least once. I did manage to persuade the Father to try an anchovy, as part of the typical starter called a marinera, despite his lifelong hatred. The Mother’s resolve is intact. She is against them.

Being a tourist is always an interesting experience

I am familiar with some stereotypes of us Brits. The binge-drinking, lobster-skinned party goers who occupy the bars at Alicante’s airport requesting beer as part of their pre-flight breakfast home. The retired folk, who live in clusters along the coast, learning Spanish at a snail’s pace. Content to continue their lives in the glorious sun, but in English. This perhaps the Spanish could all forgive if they could get their heads around the concept of a glass of beer that doesn’t make your hand freeze to hold it, but they can’t.

Then they think we’re weird when it comes to food

The feeling’s mutual. I find the Spanish strange when it comes to food, because of how they all eat the same thing at the same time. Ordering isn’t done based on individual desire, it’s done based on what the table wants. There’s a collective process, but one that I often find I’m not required for. With the exception that someone will remember I’m foreign and double check that I eat shellfish and octopus. Those things the British don’t eat.

I never used to eat octopus. It’s suckers always kind of creeped me out. And I admit, when I’m faced with a shell I am not nimble as I remove it with my fingertips like my Spanish friends. For me it’s an operation demanding my full attention. Otherwise I get fish goo everywhere. I want to say that I’m getting better at this, but that would be lying.

The gastronomic peculiarities of the British returned to conversation at lunch on Friday

In another country, mid-afternoon on a Friday people would be working. Here in Spain, it’s lunch time, and because of a broken swimming pool and some odd hours, my adopted Spanish family gathered for lunch.

It was my willingness to eat rabbit paella that was remarked upon. The Spanish belief is that us Brits don’t eat rabbit. A young Spaniard remarked to me that if you walk down a meat or fish aisle in a supermarket in England, everything is plastic wrapped and filleted. I nodded. Then added that there are people in England who buy meat from a butchers. Plus, in some restaurants, particularly some of the restaurants which are trying to seem a little more posh, people do eat rabbit.

Good work considering our limited language skills

This conversation happened in a mixture of my A1 Spanish combined with the A1 and B1 English of my companions. There was some hand waving and gesturing, but I didn’t have to do my rabbit impersonation. My rabbit impersonation is saved for school as the twelve-year-olds are doing animals in biology.

There was laughter at the idea of rabbit being a posh dish

Here they stick it in stew or paella as a cheap meat, something that is typical to the region. The main industry here is agriculture. The region was one of the last holding out against Franco in the Spanish Civil War, and as such wasn’t high on the list for investment during his long regime. Then there was the financial crisis which hit the whole of Spain but has been particularly hard in the south where property prices crashed. Many of the fruits and vegetables grown here are exported to England, and my acquaintances here include people who work for the British brand Tesco.

Walking through the market this morning however I was a little unnerved by the eyes looking back at me with their dull, dead stares. I think if you’re going to eat meat, it’s best to not waste the parts of the animal lacking visual appeal. And I don’t have a problem cooking any piece of meat I’m given, but I do feel uncomfortable being watched by a row of skin-less, soul-less rabbits. The Mother strode on past, refusing to look at anything, whilst the Father lingered. He wants rabbit, but I’m not sure he knows what exactly to do with one if he had one. I know I’d have to google it.

It wasn’t all dead animals

We went upstairs to the fruit and vegetable section of the Mercado de Veronicas, an architectually proud building. Built between 1912 and 1916, it stands beside some archaeological ruins, the remains of Arab fortifications, across from the river. In the seventies, an additional floor was incorporated into the design to increase the number of market stalls.

Away from the flesh of dead animals, the Mother breathed a sigh of relief. She slowed her pace and after gasping at the size of the cabbages proceeded to buy fruit and vegetables. Including some amazing, fresh dates from the nearby town of Elche.

What I like about the people here is how hospitable they are. This is not a rich area, but the people guide you and show you and try to help you. Their English is, for the most part, no better than my Spanish. Yet I am well looked after. When the greengrocer at the market sold us the dates, after first encouraging us to try them, the expression on her face was, for good reason, pride.

It’s a strange experience showing my parents around this peculiar little city, which is for now at least, my home. It’s rough at the edges, impoverished in places, but it’s growing on me.

Hablamos muchas…

Artwork passed on our walk to the sanctuary.

This morning I’ve gone back to talking to the pupils at school is a naturally fast pace. I’m not sure anyone has understood anything that I’ve said. The reason for this is that I’ve been holidaying this weekend with the Molecule-Artist. Other than when she woke up one morning (or looked vaguely like she had woken up) and proceeded to talk to me in German, it’s been none-stop English. Intense English.

We’re both people who use words, lots of words, to express ourselves. She however also managed to do things like take photos… I took my camera with me and proceeded to leave it wrapped up in the room.

We mostly sat in coffee shops or on park benches and talked, every now and again shifting in search of sunlight or food. However, we did:

  • Visit a market
  • Walk up to the sanctuary
  • Eat traditional food

I however don’t need to write anything about this because the Molecule-Artist already has done.

Sancturio de Fuensanta

Teaching the verb: to fall off (and other language challenges)

By Posted on 2 min read
A boat depicted on tiles on an ugly graffiti-sprayed wall in Cartagena.
Taken with my camera Sunday afternoon.

After resting for at least some of this last weekend, I am feeling much better.

And having freed up so much time and energy previously spent feeling sorry for myself, I can now speak Spanish.

I admit, it still involves a lot of waving my arms, but I’m speaking words without translating first from English. They spew out my mouth, sometimes nonsensically, often in a higgledy-piggledy mess, but they are vocalised. This I take to be a major achievement. It takes a certain willingness to make a fool of yourself to speak a foreign language.

Of course, I reserve my best acting for teaching my English classes. Today I was trying to explain to the twelve-year-olds how Guy Fawkes fell off the gallows and broke his neck… All I can say is that I blame my mother who has been my story telling mentor. I still have much to learn from her, but I’m putting in the hours of practice.

But back to Spanish. I’m fed up with my miniscule vocabulary and so I’m on a mission to learn the most common words in Spanish with great urgency. I need to learn everything twice because nobody here speaks like a textbook. I don’t blame them in the slightest. However, for a new learner the unique character of the local accent (and sometimes additional dialect words) provides an extra layer of challenge. For example, the textbook chapters on plurals are unnecessary for this region and studying them has been a waste of time. The people here don’t bother with the letter ‘s’.

Adios’ becomes ‘Adioh’.

So, whilst I can make myself more or less understood on an increasingly frequent basis, I still know nothing of what is being said around me. Occasionally I understand a few words. For example, I understood the other night that Charles Dickens had become a factor in the conversation, yet, all the same, I had no idea whether those around me who were passionately discussing him actually liked him or not.

But I’m learning, and I’m healthy again, and my students know that attempting to kill a monarch is a very serious crime. So everything’s good.