I keep returning to the pub that I visited on my disastrous first day in Spain, and it’s become one of my favorite places! I’ve met a good number of regulars, so it’s great for Spanish conversation practice, and the waiters are always very generous, giving me an inordinate amount of free food every time I come by and criminally undercharging me for drinks. Often, I end up staying for hours, talking to the waiters and listening to the loud, slangy Spanish being shouted around the bar.
“Helen, I want you to meet my wife,” said Ángel — a large, fit dude from the Dominican Republic, the kind of guy who would be intimidating if he didn’t smile so much — one evening as he worked as the bartender, filling up cañas, little glasses of beer. He gestured for his wife, who was sitting at the opposite end of the bar, to join us. “She works in the kitchen. Carmen, this is Helen, from the United States,” he said.
Carmen and I gave each other two kisses, a greeting I was still getting accustomed to. I liked her immediately — she was stylish, beautiful, and extremely friendly, like everybody in Spain.
We made a good pair, and the next day we ended up spending the whole evening together, walking around the mall and killing time at bars, eventually returning to the pub while Ángel finished closing up for the night. By that point, it was nearly midnight and I was absolutely exhausted — my brain refused to speak another word of Spanish — but Carmen was more than willing to speak for me.
I wonder which one of these girls has cataplexy???
“Helen, estás haciendo amigos!” Ruben exclaimed when he saw me enter the pub with Carmen. He switched to pidgin English for my benefit. “Makin’ frands!”
“She does speak Spanish, you know,” Carmen told the waiters as they finished cleaning the pub, sweeping the floor and rearranging chairs. I could feel my head starting to bob a bit, and Carmen grabbed my hand reassuringly. “Earlier we were talking perfectly, but I think she’s tired now!”
“She’s going to get a strange accent if she learns Spanish from you and Ángel,” said José, a regular and a friend of Carmen’s. Leaning towards me, he introduced himself in the Spanish way — with dos besos and flattery. “Look at those eyes. Guapísima, joder.”
“Really, though,” he said to Ángel. “She’s gonna start talking like a cross between a madrileña and a South American, don’t you think?”
“I’m Caribbean, coño!” Ángel said. “There’s a difference!”
“We should do something next weekend, do you want to go to el centro? Or to Segovia?” Carmen asked. “Helen hasn’t travelled at all yet.”
The rest of the night passed in a blur of rapid Spanish — I was having a hard enough time staying awake and upright in my chair, I didn’t have the mental resources to dedicate to interacting in a foreign language — but in the end, it was decided: Carmen, Ángel, José and I would go to Segovia.
And the next weekend, we went!
One of my history classes ran into a little English phoneme difficulty today.
Mid-lecture, a student raised her hand and said, “Yes, what is the difference between estate and estate? They are different words? You pronounce them differently?”
Juanra, the teacher I was helping — he’s young, fashionable, and constantly on the brink of despair about his badly-behaved students — replied, “Well, yes, you have estates like the land the nobles owned, and then you have estates like the United Estates.”
“And you say them the same way?”
“No,” I said quickly, hoping Juanra would forgive me for cutting him off. “No, they’re different words, they’re pronounced and spelled differently.”
Juanra helpfully wrote the two words on the board for me: ‘State vs. State.’
“One of them has an ‘e’,” I whispered.
“Oh,” he said, looking at the blackboard. “Joder.”
“So you say them differently,” I told the class as Juanra added an ‘e’ on the blackboard. “The first word, the land the nobles owned, that’s an estate. And the second word is just state.”
The entire class, in unison, made a confused noise.
“Can you hear the difference?” I asked.
“No,” they said.
“Estate,” I said, as clearly as I could. “State.“
“Ehm, that is the same word,” one of the students offered helpfully. “You are not saying a different word.”
“Yes, she is,” said Juanra. “She is saying first estate and second estate.”
“Uh,” I said. “Here, let’s all listen again. In Spanish, y’all don’t have this ‘s’ and ‘t’ sound together in your words, so it can be very hard to hear and make that sound in English. The first word is estate. The second word is ssstate.”
“Essstate?” Juanra asked.
“Sssstate,” said one of the students, and then the whole classroom was filled with hissing as they tried, some more successfully than others, to make the ‘s’ sound without adding an ‘e’ to the front of it.
I felt like an English-language superhero.
So far, I am loving teaching at my school — a bilingual colegio (public middle/high school) in Alcorcón, Madrid.
Here’s how the bilingual education program works:
All students at the school receive at least some of their education in English, with the more proficient students spending more time in classes taught in English — each grade level is divided into 5 different classes, depending on English proficiency.
Teaching core subjects in a second language creates an interesting classroom dynamic, which I will write about at length later, because it’s fascinating. Basically, though, class time is divided between teaching actual content and making sure the students are able to understand and process the English being used in the lesson, giving them plenty of opportunities to ask clarifying questions and practice new vocabulary.
I had expected to be teaching English language classes, but I am actually working in the Geography and History department, which I think I prefer. None of the teachers that I work with are native speakers of English — that’s my job, to be a native speaker — but they have a pretty good grasp of the language. Often, though, a teacher will misunderstand what a student is saying, and will then give an answer that the student was not looking for, which further confuses the matter.
I’m not allowed to speak to the students in Spanish, or even to tell them that I understand Spanish, so that they have no choice but to communicate with me in English. For the most part, I’ve been successful at playing dumb about Spanish, but I slipped up a bit today — I was trying to explain what a mace is (the medieval ball and chain weapon, right?), and as I was drawing a picture of a mace on the blackboard, one of the students said to another, in Spanish, “Is that a fishing pole catching the sun?”
Without thinking, I turned around and replied, “No, it’s a mace, I’m not done yet!”
So that was my bad.
The students have a decent grasp of English, kind of — their level of fluency varies from “age-appropriate” to “clearly just making random noises and hoping that it sounds like English”. I wouldn’t say that any of them are bilingual, exactly, but most of the students can understand me when I talk and can form simple responses.
One of the funniest things about the students, though, is that they all mispronounce the word “yes”, regardless of their English level. It usually comes out somewhere between “yisss” and “djesss” — they always drag out the “s”, which I find hilarious, because I think they’re imitating the way native English speakers make the “s” sound — it’s a much stronger sound in English than in Spanish.
So we have conversations that go like this:
Me: Does that make sense?
Students (in unison): Yissssss.
The fact that they mispronounce “yes” doesn’t exactly make me confident that I’m being understood, but it sure is charming.
First of all, let me say that I absolutely love the Spanish people. Everybody here is so friendly and so open, it’s wonderful. They are just the best.
I am starting to learn, though, that the Spanish have some strange ideas that seem to be ingrained into their collective psyche. For example, they believe that being cold makes you sick. Not in the American “you’ll catch a cold going out like that!” way, but in a serious, “why aren’t you wearing your slippers? You might get sick if your feet get cold!” kind of way.
Every time the temperature drops below 80 degrees here, people start to bundle up, I’m assuming so that they can avoid getting sick. I’m talking winter coats and scarves here — they take being warm seriously.
Today, I met a friend of mine — Ruben from the pub — on the street. It was about 75 degrees and raining a bit, and I was wearing jeans, a thick sweater and a scarf. He pulled at the sleeve of my sweater, concerned, and said, “That’s all you’re wearing? Where’s your coat? You never wear enough clothing, you’re going to get sick if you keep up like this!”
“Uh, I don’t think I’m going to get sick,” I told him.
He just shook his head. “You don’t care about getting sick? Crazy girl.”
I dunno, maybe it’s just me, but I really don’t think that’s how the immune system works.
A week after arriving in Alcorcón, I turned twenty-two.
I still was settling in, so I didn’t have anybody to celebrate with, but it was still kind of cool to walk around town that day knowing that it was my birthday and that nobody had any idea.
Eventually, I decided that my birthday shouldn’t pass by completely unnoticed, so I went back to the pub with the nice waiters to grab a celebratory birthday coffee.
The Andalusian waitress, let’s call her Mari, was alternating between smoking a cigarette and working the patio. She greeted me with a friendly “Hola, guapa! Sit wherever you’d like!” Then, turning towards the bar, she yelled in her rapid, barely-comprehensible (to my ears) accent, “I need a café con leche for the girl! And don’t forget a glass of water!”
I smiled. The last time I was at the pub, I had gotten a glass of water with my coffee so that I could stealthily take my meds. I guess Mari had assumed that having a coffee and a water was just my thing, and even though I didn’t need the water this time, it was touching that she had remembered!
I wanted to say, “You remember me!”, but I hesitated. I knew all the words, I knew the grammar, but putting it all together… It wasn’t difficult, but I doubted myself! What if I had gotten it totally wrong? What if it didn’t make sense? Or, worst of all, what if I said it right, but my accent was so thick that she couldn’t understand?
So, instead of trying a new sentence, I just smiled and said “Thank you.”
A few minutes later, Mari brought the coffee to my table and I screwed up my courage and gestured for her to come closer. “What’s up?” she said, leaning in.
“Um,” I said, suddenly nervous about speaking. “Today’s my birthday.”
“Ay!” she yelled, excited, and kissed both my cheeks. “Congratulations! How old are you?”
“Uh, take a guess,” I said, not sure if I had phrased that right.
“You want me to guess?” she said. “Alright, um, twenty-three? No, that’s too old, isn’t it?”
“Twenty-two,” I said, grinning
“So young!” she said. “Jovencita! And you’re here in Spain all by yourself? Totally alone?” I nodded and she swore, using a phrase that I will not repeat here. “Brave girl.”
She went back over to the bar and, leaning inside, said something to the waiter working the bar — the nice waiter who gave me all that food on my first day — and they both returned to my table.
“Helen!” the waiter (let’s call him Ruben) said, hitting the ‘H’ way too hard. “It’s your birthday? Congratulations! Do you want a shot?” He mimed taking a drink, in case I hadn’t understood.
“Uh,” I said. I hoped that they didn’t think I had told them about my birthday just to get something for free, but I didn’t know how to express that. “Um… Yeah, sure! Thank you!”
Ruben returned a few minutes later, balancing three shot glasses, filled with creamy liquor, on a silver tray. Mari joined him, and they clinked their little shot glasses against mine. “Felicidades!” Mari said.
“No, congratulations,” Ruben said in English, correcting her. His accent was so thick that it sounded like he had never needed to speak English before this very moment.
“Happy bird day to joo,” Mari told me in English, one-upping Ruben, and we all drank.
After I finished my coffee, I said goodbye to Mari and Ruben, returned to my newly-rented piso, and spent the rest of the night relaxing, thinking that maybe I had made myself some Spanish waiter friends.