Excursión to Madrid

Yesterday, I went with one of my classes to the National Museum of Archeology in Madrid.

On the bus ride there, I tried my best to stay awake and look at the ugly, flat scenery as we approached the city. As the roads narrowed and the traffic increased, Juanra, my best teacher friend, leaned over and told me we had about 15 minutes before arriving if I wanted to take a nap. He sees me every day and can tell, more than anyone, when I’m tired. I’m never sure what gives it away, because I always think that I’m being normal. My mom says you can see it in my eyes.

So I slept for a few minutes before we arrived at the museum. Juanra’s voice woke me up, and he apologized for waking me, but it didn’t matter because I felt slightly better.

At the museum, I was in charge of keeping the 12-year-olds from

1) touching the priceless artifacts

2) taking pictures of the genitals on the statues, and

3) running away.

I was only marginally successful at all of this.

I tried to pay attention as the teacher I was helping talked about the different exhibits, but even though the words entered my brain, they wouldn’t stay there. I listened to everything as best I could, but it was like I breathed the words in and out, like oxygen, and I couldn’t tell you a single thing he said.

We saw a cast of Lucy’s skeleton and statues from the ancient Greeks, and Egyptian sarcophaguses. In the Egypt exhibit, I turned around and suddenly all the wooden floors and all the hallways were slanting towards me, like I was at the bottom of a pit. A group of teenagers were coming towards me, walking down the steeply slanted hallway like it was a ramp, but they were huge, way bigger than any humans should be, and I stared at them because they were a strangely scary.

This isn’t real, I told myself. This is a dream. Museum hallways don’t have slanted floors. But I could still see the floors and they were very slanted. Think of all the museums you’ve been to. Weren’t they all completely flat? Museums don’t make uneven floors. This isn’t real.

My class was leaving the exhibit, walking up the floors, and I as I caught up with them I could feel under my shoes that the floor was flat, and in the next room things looked more normal.

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After the tour, I had a coffee in the museum cafeteria with Juanra and Esperanza, the young, beautiful, and extremely kind philosophy teacher, while the students ate outside in the rain. It’s the first year for all three of us at our school, so Juanra and Esperanza chatted about their classes and their impressions of the institute, while I listened. It’s very hard to talk these days, in both English and Spanish, so usually I prefer not to try.

Juanra said he was a disaster in the classroom, which isn’t true, and I know because I have class every day with him, and I wanted to say something but the thought of opening my mouth was overwhelming, so I kept quiet. I felt guilty, listening to Juanra speak freely to Esperanza in Spanish — we generally speak only in English, which is his second language, and it’s not as easy for him to express himself with precision.

I’d like to speak in Spanish, but my brain works so slowly. It’s hard to string together a sentence in English, let alone Spanish, and I’m sick of feeling humiliated when people hear my pauses and stuttering and assume that my level of Spanish is quite low. In reality, podría hablar fácilmente el español, si tan solo pudiese pensar con claridad y tener el cerebro que tenía antes.

So for the sake of my pride, I stick to English with Juanra, and miss out on hearing his unfettered thoughts.

At one point, Esperanza became very worried that my level of Spanish comprehension was quite low, since I wasn’t talking, and she had been speaking Spanish to me all day. I had to assure her that I understood everything — which is true — and that I prefer to just listen — which is not true, it’s not a preference, it’s a necessity. 

On the bus ride back to Alcorcón, I fell asleep, but this time I felt worse off when I woke up. When we arrived at school, I stumbled to the bathroom to take more medication, but it didn’t help, and when it was time for me to go home I found myself suddenly in the staff room, trying to leave, but I would blink and find that I had stopped moving after only a few steps, over and over, and I was very confused.

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Dear Spain, You Learned Wrong

Learning a foreign language is fascinating to me, and I am constantly surprised by the nuances that get lost in translation. I’ve been laughing a bit at the things Spaniards are being taught during their English classes — which are taught by other Spaniards, not by native English speakers — that are just flat-out wrong.

Most commonly, Spaniards learn to say things that are grammatically correct, but that no native English speaker would ever say. When Americans learn Spanish in school, we encounter a few of these types of things, too — for example, we’re taught to say “Encantado” when meeting someone. PSA, this word literally means “Enchanted”, and it sounds just as stupid in Spanish as it does in English.

The most common “technically correct but sounds weird” error that I’ve heard here is that, when you ask a Spaniard, “How are you?”, they respond with “Fine.” This happens 100% of the time, regardless of the English fluency of the person I’m talking to. “Fine” is a literal translation of “Bien,” which is the appropriate response in Spanish, but in English, if someone just says “Fine,” it comes off as a bit guarded, or even defensive, to a native English speaker, as if you’re dismissing their casual question.

Because I am a crusader for English fluency here in Spain, I’ve taken it upon myself to gently correct people about this, when appropriate, to varying degrees of success. One of my waiter friends has gone from saying “I am fine” to “I am very very fine”, and another has stubbornly insisted that there is no point in saying he feels “good” if he is only “fine”. I have had a few receptive students, though, who now say “I’m good!” while giving me a huge thumbs-up. This seems more sarcastic than anything, but I’ll take what I can get.

State vs State

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?” 

“Well…”

“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.”

“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.

Like Espiderman. 

Teacher, I Don’t Understand

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.

Me llamo… Helen?

A few days after my arrival in Alcorcón, I went back to the restaurant with the nice waiters who had taken pity on me during my overwhelming first day here. I’d adjusted to life in Alcorcón, somewhat, and I was able to recognize that while I had originally thought that they worked at a ‘fancy restaurant’, in reality it was just a pub that had a patio, not upscale at all.

The red-haired waitress was taking orders outside, on the patio, and she remembered me. “Hola, guapa!” she called in her thick Andalusian accent. “Sit down, wherever you’d like!” She ran inside the bar and returned with the waiter who had brought me free food.

“Do you have money this time?” he asked good-naturedly. I pulled out my wallet, embarrassed, offering to pay him for the other day, but he waved me off. “No, no, don’t worry about it. That was on us.” The red-haired girl nodded and brought me a café con leche without my even having to ask for it. 

I was so excited to see both of them that I felt a familiar heaviness at the back of my neck, rushing in waves down my spine and through my limbs. No, not now. You can’t have an attack in front of them. My face twitched from the effort it took to fight the cataplexy, and I wanted to get up and leave without finishing my coffee. I wanted to lock myself in my room where nobody could see me.

The free-food waiter came over to where I sat on the patio. “What’s your name?” he asked me.

“Elaine,” I said, trying to pronounce it with short Spanish vowels, Elén, and trying to keep my voice steady. Don’t have cataplexy. Come on.

Helen,” the waiter said, pronouncing the ‘H’ like a Castilian ‘J’ — from the back of his throat, strong, as if he was trying to cough something up.

“Elaine,” I said, trying to be more clear.

“Yes, Helen! In Spanish, though, you would be Elena.”

“I don’t feel much like an Elena,” I told him. “It doesn’t fit me.”

“We will call you Helen, then,” he said, still hitting the ‘H’ much harder than an English speaker would have. “It’s nice to meet you, Helen.” And with that, he returned to the bar where the other waiters were standing. They all leaned towards him as he spoke, glancing at me, and I was sure that he was telling them what we had just talked about.

I couldn’t see right, the patio looked blurry and unreal. I needed to go have cataplexy. I stood up, walking quickly and guiltily past the waiters, like I was trying to hide that I was drunk or on drugs or something. Act normal. Act normal. Do I look normal? Can they tell something’s wrong?

I made it to the bar’s bathroom, fumbled with the lock, and collapsed onto the less-than-clean bathroom floor. Breathe in. Breathe out. Relax. I was learning how to handle cataplexy. The moment of complete surrender was beginning to come as a relief, the fact that I didn’t have to fight it anymore, that I could give in — surrendering felt good. And of course, when my eyes opened, I felt worlds better than I had coming into the bathroom.

When I stepped back onto the patio, the waiters greeted me with “Helen!” I was right — he had told them my name, or what he thought was my name.

I didn’t know it at the time, but ‘Helen’ would quickly become my actual name here in Spain. I’ve been here for nearly a month now, and every single person I’ve introduced myself to has, without exception, misinterpreted ‘Elaine’ as ‘Helen’, adding a strong Spanish ‘H’ to the beginning of my name. I’ve tried to correct them — ‘Elaine’ doesn’t even have an ‘H’ sound! —  but ‘Helen’ has stuck. It’s growing on me a bit, and the horrible strong ‘H’ is actually kind of endearing. So, if we meet in Spain, I guess you can call me Helen.

Lost in Translation, Tinder Edition

Since arriving in Spain, I have spoken exclusively Spanish. Spanish is not my first language, so I have made a lot of mistakes. 

I have accidentally asked my Airbnb host if he was gay (I was trying to ask if he understood me. I have since learned that “Do you understand?” can also mean “Are you gay?” (Side note: He is, in fact, gay)).

I have also taken offense at my flatmate for saying that it’s a horrible shame that my dad’s side of the family is Polish (she was actually saying that it’s a great coincidence. My bad, Alti!).

But there is one mistake that tops the list so far.

Full disclosure: I have downloaded Tinder in the hopes of practicing my Spanish conversation skills via texts with Spanish natives. Obviously Tinder is the most shallow thing ever, and I had my reservations about downloading it because I do not want to be a shallow person, but fellow expats in Spain have recommended using it to improve your conversational Spanish skills. Over here, Tinder is used as a way to meet and talk to new people, and not necessarily as a dating app. Cultural differences, I guess!

(NB: MOM STOP FREAKING OUT TINDER IS NOT A HOOKUP APP OVER HERE. YOU CAN USE IT TO JUST CHAT.) 

Getting Tinder was by and large a good idea, seeing as it has given me plenty of opportunities to make small talk in Spanish, and I have not yet met any creepers or been propositioned. Actually, nobody’s even flirted with me. It’s all been astonishingly respectful.

(NB: IN CASE THIS WASN’T CLEAR, I AM NOT USING TINDER AS A HOOKUP APP. CULTURAL DIFFERENCES, MOM!)

Unfortunately for me, yesterday one of my small talk Tinder buddies told me that he has just graduated from college. The phrase he used was “terminar la carrera”, “to finish a degree”. Sadly, I assumed that “carrera” meant career, because that makes sense, okay, and that he was telling me he just got fired. My response, roughly translated, was, “I’m so sorry to hear that. It’s such a shame you went to college. I hope you get a different degree soon.”

The next time I went on Tinder, he had blocked me. Beautiful Tinder-based friendship over.

On the bright side, at least I won’t make that mistake again!