I KNOW LESS (OR MORE) THAN THEY THINK

October 20, 2009

Hola, Todos,

This past week was monumentally better than the previous one. I’m still dealing with interesting situations, and I guess that will continue the whole time I’m here.

I do have to tell you about one girl in my English class. She’s about six or seven years old, and she and the boy next to her say “Hola” to me, and I respond with “Hola,” and then they accuse me of knowing Spanish. “You speak Spanish!” they say…in Spanish.

My response is, “Everybody knows ‘hola’!” They insist that I know Spanish — they’re right, but their evidence is flimsy — and say so almost every class. Finally, today, at the end of class, the Spanish English teacher left me alone with the kids. They were running around, out of control, so I finally shouted (I do have a loud voice, which I rarely use, and know how to use it when I’m teaching), “Estoy esperando! [I’m waiting!]” They looked at me in astonishment and looked around at each other. At least I had gotten their attention. However, we English teachers are supposed to speak only English to the students, and I abide by that rule 99.9% of the time. Once in a while, to make my point, I’ll say one or two words in Spanish. Most kids are fine with that, but this one girl who accuses me cannot get off the topic.

Last week, we English teachers had a meeting about Halloween. Even though Halloween is actually a Saturday, we will celebrate it on Friday at school and we foreign English teachers have to be there. I don’t work on Fridays and will be able to take a day off the following week or whenever. For some reason, the meeting was conducted in Spanish, so I understood about 1/3 of what was going on. If they had slowed down the Spanish, I would’ve been able to understand about 1/2 to 2/3, but at the rate they talked, I was lost. I think they had a story in mind for Halloween, and one or two people wanted me to be the old witch. I said, “Why do you want me to be the old witch? I want to be a princess.” Then we all laughed. Right now, from what I have gathered, the idea is to have a story corner, a song corner, treats, decorated bathrooms and classrooms, and who knows what else.

On Friday, I had an interview for a part-time English teaching position, so I took the Metro from Opera station to Sevilla station and, since I was wearing heels, was delighted to discover that my destination was almost right at the Sevilla Metro stop. The address was c/ [this means calle or street — for Americans it looks sort of like in care of] Alcala 20, or Alcala Street #20. Don’t ask me why you need to know this.

What follows makes me often question myself and how I got to this particular so-called station in life. I can’t help but think, “Why am I not married to a fabulous guy? Why am I not raising polite, cultured children? Did I make the wrong turn at the Atlantic Ocean? Did I not absorb the right information when I was a child? How did I end up here…in this guy’s office?” My answer to these questions? I don’t have one that makes any sense.

I walked into the building and had remembered that “this guy’s office” was on the second floor: In Spain, the second floor is [for Americans, at least] the third floor, because Spanish people consider the ground floor the zero level and we consider the ground floor the first floor. The elevator [called “lift” in English here] looked complicated: it was one of those small ones that holds about two people and has an iron lattice door and, once it arrives, requires that the passenger to slide the door and do goodness knows what else. So I opted for the stairs, which wound around and had no rail. Up until about 1996, I gladly used the stairs, but after climbing Mt. Fuji in 1992, falling down the stairs in 1996, and jogging in Chicago’s 8K Shamrock Shuffle in 2002 — my knees have hurt ever since — I decided I hate climbing mountains and walking up stairs. I’m normally so energetic, my stepmother gets worn out just from listening to all the things I’ve done…or watching me do them all.

Afraid of the complicated elevator, I walked up the railing-less stairs and knocked on a door whose sign read “Viva Lengua” or something to this effect. This certainly wasn’t the name of the guy’s company, but at least it was something related to language. The Spanish woman who answered confirmed that I had indeed knocked on the wrong door, and some British guy wanted me to come on through, but I couldn’t tell if he was directing me somewhere or if he was, indeed, the interviewer. Finally, I said, “Oh, you’re not Richard.”

He said, “No, he’s here,” directing me to the adjacent door in the hall. I thanked them and waited in the hall…in semi-high heels. After they closed the door, I heard them laughing about the incident.

Richard had scrawled a note on his door: “Be back in 5 minutes. Richard.” “Richard” was illegible. It was one of those scrawled “I’ll sign my credit card receipt so no one on earth can read my handwriting” – and I always think, “I’m grown up! I should sign my name like that, too, so that no one else on the planet can read it.” But I always sign my name clearly, the way I’ve signed it for years. In addition to the scrawled message on his door, there was a drawing of an Indian and nothing else. What the Indian had to do with the English language was beyond me, and I majored in English and have a very active imagination, so normally I can find the symbolism, the underlying meaning, but I couldn’t cough up anything good here.

I stood there in those stupid semi-high heels, waiting for Richard and his illegible handwriting to appear on the scene. He showed up at 12:00 noon, the appointed time, wearing gray pants, a white shirt, and suspenders. He sounded British. He later informed me he was Scottish: I have a good ear and am usually pretty good with accents, so I think Spain has softened his Scottish accent to sound British. I gathered that he was a few years older than I and couldn’t discern if he smelled of alcohol or cologne…or if he just smelled.

Richard opened the door to his office – a dingy, gloomy, small space. I entered, amazed: His office was a nightmarish mess. The carpet was dirty, the lighting gloomy, and books and papers in disarray all over his bookshelves and floor. I tried to suffocate my shock, but I could hear Ms. Middlebury in my ear squealing, “You should’ve seen your face!” I kept waiting for him to apologize: “So sorry! I’ve been so busy, and I haven’t had time to clean up,” but that apology never came. I sat down, still looking around at the mess in disbelief, and he sat there, pulling up my “CV” on the computer, unable to print it out, telling me he needed to get a “technician” in there to fix his printer.

I said, “It was hard to find your place. Was there a sign? I didn’t see one.”

He responded, “Someone took it down, and I couldn’t be bothered to put up another one.”

“What a snotty attitude,” I thought.

I’ll run through his questions to me to show what I was dealing with. Keep in mind that I’m there to teach English to Spanish people — nothing more.

Him: So if you had to teach a group of elementary kids or 40-year-old businessmen, which would be more fulfilling?

Me: Well, it depends on how interested and motivated they are. Kids absorb information very easily, and sometimes it’s harder for older people to do that. On the other hand, sometimes kids don’t want to learn English and adults know that they have to learn it for their job.

Him: But if you had to make a choice.

Me: [I gave him an answer.]

Him: So what did you get your graduate degree in?

Me: English Literature.

Him: So why did you choose that?

Me: Because I think I’m a pretty good writer.

Him: What did you study in grad school?

Me: Shakespeare, Yeats, Hemingway…

Him: So what did you think of Hemingway, as an author and as a man?

Me: Well, I think he’s long-winded and he could’ve said what he said in fewer words. [And I realize I could write my blog in fewer words, but I don’t feel like it.] As a man? I don’t know.

Him: So, do you think that The Old Man and the Sea was long-winded?

Me: [Thinking: What in the world does this have to do with teaching EFL? Does he not think I possess a graduate degree in English? Should I send him a copy of my scanned graduate degree? Where is he going with this?]

Anyway, these were the types of questions I was answering. Either I was trying to answer questions that had no real answer because my answer depended on the situation, or else I was trying to respond to questions that had nothing to do with teaching EFL. Maybe he was just trying to see how I think off the top of my head, or maybe he was trying to make conversation. I don’t know. All I wanted to do was get out of there. Another American interrupted us, and my interviewer asked him to wait downstairs.

I was looking at my watch, so the interviewer asked me, “Are you in a hurry?” He was creepy.

I said, “No, but I do have some things to do this afternoon.” [Translation: I need to be anywhere but with you.]

After about half an hour, I was ready to bid him adieu…and did.

That afternoon, I stopped by the hairdresser, literally two doors away from Maite’s and my condo, and asked him for an appointment and for magazine pictures of hairstyles. He appeared with four magazines, so I sat there for about half an hour, looking through the styles. I showed him three pictures, and he agreed to keep the pictures for the following morning, when I would get my hair cut.

Later that afternoon, I noticed that an ad agency I edit for in Chicago had sent me work, so I spent four hours editing that material and then emailing them the finished product.

On Saturday, equipped with my Spanish-English dictionary, I walked about 10 feet to the hairdresser. I confirmed how much the haircut, shampooing, etc., would cost. I had checked the previous day, too. He said 31 euros. I wanted to make sure because sometimes in the U.S., hairdressers charge the customer for a blow-dry. Maite came to check on me before she went to work to ensure that Juan the Hairdresser and I understood each other. He cut my hair with a razor, and I came home and colored it too dark, but that’s the way it goes.

On Saturday night, Maite asked me to go to see the movie New York, I Love You, which was in English (not dubbed over) with Spanish subtitles. According to Maite, in Madrid, we get a specific seat at the movie theater, as if we were at the opera or at a play or a concert in the U.S. You know what that means: No movie hopping, not that I do that.

The movie was wonderful. Ms. Middlebury had told me that the dubbed movies use the same people over and over for the dubbing in Spanish so the voices are the same for different actors, so a young character might have an older voice. I much prefer watching a movie in English with Spanish subtitles.

One day Maite and I were watching a documentary about the Amish in Pennsylvania, only about an hour away from where I grew up, and I would hear the Amish person talking in English and then the Spanish voice-over simultaneously discussing what the Amish person was doing or saying. Imagine my confusion.

On Sunday, I spent the afternoon retracing some of my steps and taking pictures of places I had visited in Madrid. Maite and I watched a movie (dubbed over in Spanish) with Johnny Depp and Christopher Walken, and after half an hour, I realized that I basically had no idea what was going on. I try to understand the Spanish, but normally the characters are speaking so fast, I can’t catch everything. Then after a while, I start to space out and realize I’m gaining absolutely nothing by sitting there.

However, to my credit, I do understand more Spanish each day. In fact, one of the English teachers explained something she needed me to help her with, and she explained it in fast Spanish, and I said, in English, “You know? I actually understood everything you said!” I try to read some of the newspaper every day, and I study my Instituto Cervantes textbook on the train to and from school. My progress is slow, but I’m trying to study diligently.

Internationally yours,

Hallie

Posted By HALLIE to International Girl in Spain at 10/20/2009 01:47:00 PM

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