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At long last: Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes! November 30, 2007

Posted by Emily in Spain, teaching, working.

Perhaps my only real success thus far (although a few kids are very confused, namely kid right in the front, but this is nothing new.) On Thursday I got to teach the kids a number of words, among them “ambidextrous!”

So I’ll take my successes as they come. For your viewing enjoyment:



Colegio/elementary school November 23, 2007

Posted by Emily in Spain, working.
1 comment so far

I realized that a post relating to my job, how I spend every morning, is long overdue. The problem is, I’ve been toying for a while with where exactly to begin.

Some random facts about my school/education system:

  • Teachers here work for a number of years before getting a plaza, or a permanent position. It’s kind of like getting tenure. And everyone wants to be in the city, and not have to commute to a pueblo. But in the meantime, they are sent to different schools every couple of years, every year, or even every couple of months. They fill out a list with their top 300some odd choices and then keep their fingers crossed, which means they don’t actually apply to a specific school–they are placed at one. Most of the teachers with whom I spend my time fall into this semi-permanent category. It’s not a coincidence that they are also younger and have higher levels of English.
  • I teach 3rd years exclusively, or 8 and 9 year olds. There are two classes-3A and 3B-and they have vastly different personalities. I have four hours a week of Science, four hours of P.E., and then a couple of random hours of meeting (or not meeting…) with teachers and watching over recess. One day a week I watch over the recess of the 3 year olds. I wipe their noses and make sure they run to the bathroom when they say they need to. In Spanish, to pee is hacer pipí. I never really get over how funny this is.
  • The teacher’s lounge has a stash of hard alcohol, and recently some of the teachers have been mistaking “recess” for “happy hour.”
  • The other day, one of the girls in my class told the teacher (not one I have class with), that a boy had cards with naked women. So the teacher called said boy up to the front of the class and asked to see the cards. He slid some under the pile, as secretly as an 8 year old can do, but she pulled them out. They are cards of WWF-style fighters, and the women are all in some sexual pose, preferably with whip and black patent leather, some wearing pasties. I was sure this kid with the cards was going to get in trouble for having them at school, especially seeing as how he’s 8 YEARS OLD. But nope, the girl got yelled at “for telling lies.” “Are these women naked?” the teacher yelled at her. “Tell me, are they wearing no clothes at all? No, they have on something. And if they want to show their bodies, they can. If you don’t want to, you don’t have to.” This to a 9 year old. I’m not sure how I feel about the whole exchange.
  • The Spanish version of “shh” is “tssst.” The kids don’t listen when I try to get them to be quiet. Oh wait, they don’t really listen anyway.

So the thing is, the school was declared bilingual this year. Which is all well and good, except that the kids have had almost no English up to this point. Which means that in Science I am supposed to be teaching them the path of food/the digestive system–aka words like “esophagus,” “large intestine,” and “rectum,” but they don’t know how to say “I eat” or “I drink.” Prior to our “let’s make a supermarket” exercise this week, the only English food names they knew were “milk” “apple” “hamburger” and “lemonade,” mostly pronounced “limonade” and repeated endlessly by one specific child. When I asked them if they knew what “large” and “small” mean (you know, in the most natural context of intestines,) I was met with blank faces.

So. Sometimes it’s a little…challenging. So far my biggest hit is still “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes,” although I am still trying to break the “antos = feet” part. They have the same word for fingers and toes, so it’s very weird that we don’t. They also thought the “Hokey Pokey” was the most hilarious thing ever, and mostly I was singing it by myself, but they may know right and left thanks to that song. Time will tell. Parts of the body. Check. We’ve got those under control.

Lately a fair amount of time is wasted trying to get them to stop whining, stop fighting, stop pushing, and basically stop being brats/8 and 9 years old. There’s a lot of “she pushed me” “he doesn’t want to be my partner” “I was first in line” and my personal favorite from last week “He called me an asshole.” At least that one warranted a response from one of the teachers. Supposedly, I’m not responsible for discipline, but I quickly figured out that it benefited me to not just be a sitting duck, so I’ve got the stern look down pat and a number of other more effective techniques. Mwa ha ha. Mostly I just try to avoid the “let’s insult them to make them learn” tactic. Seems a little counterintuitive to me.

I’m really lucky in the fact that I have these two main classes with two teachers who care about me, the kids, and trying to get them to learn. One commutes by train everyday from Sevilla (for anyone counting, that’s about an hour each way, plus 30 min each walking to and from the station) and the other taught for a long time in a pueblo in Cádiz, in the southwest, but is here to help take care of her elderly parents. They are about as new to the colegio as I am, but not to the Spanish education system.

The thing is, I look forward to going to school most days. I (mostly) like teaching. Well, “teaching” is perhaps more like it in my case, seeing as how I work all of 12 hours a week. It’s sort of like being a camp counselor, but without the responsibility of dressing them, getting them places on time (no one does that), and feeding them. Of course, I also don’t see any overnights in my near future with these kids. Spending more than a few hours a day could be dangerous to my health, or at least my eardrums.

Sometimes I try to figure out why these kids are how they are. Spain went from being a 4, 5, 6, 7 kid per family country to having the lowest birthrate in Europe basically within one generation. So these kids get so much attention from their parents, their grandparents, and any random person they pass on the street, they are taught they are in control. That’s my theory anyway. They also don’t seem to get taught much at home–almost none of my kids know their addresses or even their parents’ phone numbers. This strikes me as odd, but maybe not. Really, I am not entirely certain what American kids of the same age are like. I do know they are more likely to have siblings, less likely to have such close relationships with their grandparents, and certainly less likely to be pushed around in a $500 stroller dressed like a doll from infancy. So it’s hard to say. But, like any good teacher, I have hope for them. I have hope that, at the very least, I am going to teach them some English, and maybe along the way some idea of how to treat one another. At this point, I’m not exactly sure which is the bigger challenge.

Now seems a good time to recommend that everyone read or reread Barthelme’s “The School.” It’s short, funny, one of my favorite stories, and strangely understanding of the otherworldly world of the elementary school.

Homework assignment – slang November 13, 2007

Posted by Emily in Spain, working.

Every Tuesday, I meet with the English teacher from my school and we have a beer or coffee and exchange languages, aka we talk in English for an hour or so, and then in Spanish, or vice versa. She speaks more English at the school than I do, for sure, and lived in England for a couple years, so her skills are good. Mine are improving, little by little. Starting today, we are each going to bring 5 examples of phrases or slang from our respective languages–things that are cool, current slang, or that are not easily translated or found in a dictionary.

These are mine for today:

It’s raining cats and dogs.

To die for (thanks, Kathleen!)

guilty pleasure


And I am going to give her the very important vocabulary relating to mullets, femullets, and rattails, including “Business in the front, party in the back.” Crucial here in Mulletland. We may also touch on “trashy” during this conversation…

So…suggestions? You can post them here in comments or email me directly.

Yesterday, I (re)learned a Spanish phrase–“no tiene pelos en la lengua.” Direct translation? to have no hairs on the tongue. Meaning? To say what’s on your mind, without thinking, without hesitation. Use it in context? Presidente Hugo Chávez no tiene pelos en la lengua. He was talking trash about the former president of Spain (Aznár), to the current president of the opposite party (Zapatero) and Zapatero was defending Aznár, saying he didn’t agree with his politics but he was elected by the Spanish people. Chávez kept yapping and Juan Carlos, King of Spain, leaned forward once to point at Chávez and say “You,” somewhat threateningly, and again to ask him “Why don’t you shut up?” “¿Por qué no te callas?” Juan Carlos is known as being really patient. Everyone’s talking about it and putting the phrase on their cell phones. It’s hilarious. See it for yourself:

Córdoba and the search for food November 8, 2007

Posted by Emily in Spain.

After a great weekend of eating in Sevilla, I returned to Córdoba with renewed energy. Having heard that Córdoba is possibly the best place to eat in Andalucía, I decided that surely I had just not been looking hard enough or in the right places. The cafeteria food I eat every day at the school leaves much to be desired (prisoners often eat better), and my roommates mostly eat a lot of pizza and the occasional pasta with ketchup. Figured a good dinner might get me back in the groove here, since many afternoons and many nights since my arrival have been devoted to (often unfruitful) searches for food.

Since I received my placement here, I’ve been dying to try an Arabic restaurant listed in my trusty LP Andalucía guide, close to the Mezquita. The streets of the judería, the area around the Mezquita, have been aptly described as labyrinthine, so finding a specific place is sometimes sort of a challenge. I passed the Burger King across the street from the Mezquita a couple of times in my search, which only increased my anticipation for couscous and maybe some tagine. At long last, I find the street–only to find that this once authentic locale has changed its name–to Burger Expres (with one s!). C’mon Córdoba, you’re killing me! The quest continues.

Weekend in Sevilla November 5, 2007

Posted by Emily in photography, Spain, Travel.

Sevilla is una maravilla (a marvel). I had heard that it’s “the most Spanish” of the Spanish cities, but didn’t really know what to expect. Seeing as how I have yet to receive my first check for teaching here and the euro keeps hitting all-time highs, over and over again, the fact that Sevilla is only an hour away by cheap train made traveling there a priority. Typically, Spanish trains are a little pricey, but since Córdoba is linked to Sevilla by AVE (high speed from Madrid), the slower (by about half an hour) Andalucía Express is the ugly sister and thus costs about as much as the bus. And oh, how I love the train.

This past weekend was a long one for me (even longer than normal!) since Thursday was All Saints Day, a national holiday, and I always have Fridays off. Wednesday night, I met up with some other teachers in my program at an Irish bar which was entirely decked out for Halloween–spider webs, flying witches, skeletons hanging from the ceiling. Most importantly, I heard “Monster Mash” and felt my night was complete. I was surprised by how many people were dressed up, as I spent the entire day explaining Halloween to various classes at school. Knocking on strangers’ doors and asking for candy is certainly a somewhat strange custom for people to grasp, but I didn’t really understand how strange until I was sitting in a cafe in the evening when two people in costume entered and yelled (in English) at the woman behind the bar, “Give us something for free! Candy! Ice cream!” They had American accents but had apparently missed the class on trick-or-treating…the woman behind the bar seemed frightened. There was a violent quality to the whole exchange, like a bank hold-up or something. No wonder some Spanish are unhappy about the rising popularity of the holiday.

Thursday afternoon, Patricio met me in Córdoba and we took the train to Sevilla. I started to have my doubts about the “most Spanish city” distinction when, on the walk to the hostal, we encountered one plaza with a Starbucks, a McDonald’s, a Burger King, AND a KFC. We could still be in Kansas, Toto. Our hostal was a little bare (NO art on walls anywhere) but ideally located and clean. We went in search of tapas and were lucky to ask directions from a typical sevillano who was out for a little stroll and some tapas with his wife. People from Sevilla are known as super social, outgoing, impressed with themselves and their city, and this guy was no exception. From my Lonely Planet Andalucía: “Matador Rafael Guerra (1862-1941), after a fight in A Coruña on the far northwestern tip of Spain, wanted to get back to Seville that same evening. ‘Maestro,’ they said to him, ‘Seville is very far away.’ ‘Seville, far?’ countered Guerra. ‘Here is far. Seville is where it should be.’ The man we asked for directions was quite similar and proceeded to tell us what a great city it is, how well one can eat, but that we had encountered it a little late (clearly, we were at fault, not the city). He pointed us toward a small bar that was still open, where we ate the best tapas I have ever had and our entire bill came to 7 euros, including drinks. We had jamón serrano, homemade croquetas (fried globs of mashed potatoes/cheese with bits of chicken, fish, or jamon–usually they sort of look like mozarella sticks, but these were different…I will never look at croquetas the same way) and chicken with bechamel cheese. After that, we went to a very Spanish style bar, crawling with people from 19 to 70, and had tinto de verano (cheap red wine and lemon spritzer or Sprite…really light and refreshing) and montaditos de pringá, little sandwiches with I’m not entirely sure what but it tasted sort of barbecue-y.  Chari, the long-term subsitute P.E. teacher I work with, commutes every day from Sevilla, so she gave me a number of great suggestions, among them these sandwiches. We finished off the evening at this strange futuristic bar, all white leather and silver lights, which had elevated white leather bed-like things to sit on rather than chairs. It was not exactly the same as sitting around a table at the Old Post, but was a sight to see.

Friday morning, we hit a great Art Deco café for café con leche and tostada (toast made with smallish baguettes that I find strangely appealing), followed by the cathedral. More than anything, the cathedral is HUGE. For those who want to read a bit about the interesting history, here are a couple of options, but like most Andalucian churches, it has both a Moorish and a Christian history, so the typical Christian-themed cathedral is topped by the very Arabic looking Giralda tower (which lacks stairs on the ascent…just ramps so [apparently very small and agile] horses could go up). It was interesting to wander a bit, check out Christopher Columbus’ tomb and the biggest altarpiece in the world, constructed over 80-some years and containing over 1000 biblical figures. Continuing on with the theme of conquest, we took a quick turn around the halls of the Archivo de Indias, which holds “80 million pages of documents dating from 1492 through to the end of the empire in the 19th century” (thanks again, Lonely Planet). We saw a letter to the king written in the beautiful hand of Hernán Cortez, among other cool documents, and checked out an exhibit about Mexican folk art. After the Archivo, it was time to get back to Chari’s list of suggestions of places to eat. One of the highlights of the afternoon was Bodega Santa Cruz, an old tavern within the shadow of the Giralda but packed with Spaniards. The bartenders were characters, our bill was chalked on the bar in front of us as we ordered, and the tapas were in front of us almost as fast as we could order them. There we had tortilla de patatas, chicken with mushrooms, and flamenquín (rolled up jamon and pork, fried). I know, there’s a certain theme here, but it’s therefore hard to understand why Spanish women all seem to be a size 1. They claim it’s because they use olive oil, so fried foods are healthy. I guess I’ll go with it…there’s little choice, since most everything on the menu is frito anyway. Anyway, after stuffing ourselves there, we needed a little detour from the Spanish theme and a little Swedish efficiency, so we took a bus to IKEA. I have a huge obsession with IKEA anyway, but in Spain, where nothing is really efficient and it would never occur to people to clean up after themselves in public, IKEA can sometimes be a welcome change. The bedspread that came with my room back in Córdoba is nasty and makes me cringe like something in a cheap motel, so I decided the 27 euros it cost for two new pillows, a down comforter, a bedspread AND pillowcases was so worth it. In fact, I am sitting in bed now, relishing the luxury of it all.

We got back in the evening, in time to eat a little something in the room, have a couple drinks, and head out with hopes of catching some flamenco. Like any self-respecting tourist trap, Sevilla advertises heavily for its unique entertainment options–flamenco and bullfighting topping the list. But paying 30 euros, or 60 with dinner, to sit among a bunch of anglosajones with no rhythm didn’t seem all that…authentic. I mentioned to the older man at the hostal that we were looking for a smaller place, and he recommended a bar across the river, close to the hostal. He said it was sort of hit or miss–some nights, friends gathered to play guitar and maybe some other instruments and we might catch some flamenco if we were lucky. It had no cover, and it turns out we hit it on a good night. We were also the only tourists there. It was awesome. The music was great, just a couple guys on a little stage, singing flamenco songs and playing guitar. When we got there, two women were dancing sevillanas…sort of like more approachable flamenco where people two people make turns that resemble a matador guiding a bull with his red cape. Well, one of the women dancing was in a wheelchair. She was lovely and moved with such grace. I got sort of emotional, watching her. She just seemed to be living her life completely, something the Spanish are really known for. She received a lot of praise–when someone does a gesture the people like, or when a turn seems particularly smooth or emotional, the people yell “Olé!” It’s rather addictive…I started saying it way too much, but I was enjoying myself that much. Other couples were dancing, younger people and older people, and it was fun to watch their style. Eventually, a guy pulled me up to dance and I am sure I made a bit of an ass of myself, but the crowd was friendly, smiling at me, and even threw a couple of “olés” my way. Around 4, we made our way back across the river, with one crucial churros con chocolate stop (more fried food…this time hot doughnut type sticks, dipped in thick hot chocolate in a salute to Hernán and his handwriting). It was a wonderful night.

The next morning, it took a strong café con leche to get me back on my feet. I envisioned a somewhat mellow day in Sevilla before catching the 6:45 train, but highly underestimated the size of the Alcázar. I had heard it was Sevilla’s much smaller version of the Alhambra in Granada, where, in 2005, I snapped at least 5 rolls of film in one afternoon. Yes, the Alcázar is smaller, but extremely beautiful, and whereas the Alhambra has basically lost all of its original color, the ornate walls of the Alcázar maintain their original paint. The floors also still have some original tiles and some gardens were only excavated 5 years ago from under a 16th century covering. It’s a real sight to see and free with a student card. The history is too complicated to even touch on here, but suffice to say, the Christian Pedro I (mid-1300s) got along with Mohammed V of Granada, who sent over many of his artisans. In one room, one inscription “announces in Spanish that the building’s creator was ‘the very high, noble and conquering Don Pedro, by the grace of God king of Castila and Leon,’ [while] another proclaims repeatedly in Arabic that ‘there is no conqueror but Allah.'”(LP) It’s too much to take in during just one afternoon, although the weather–in the 80s–couldn’t have been nicer. After that, we hoofed it to the Plaza de España, which was also bigger than I thought, not particularly crowded for a Saturday afternoon, and marked by many lovely tiles. It’s a semi-circle, with sections for each of the (many) Spanish regions, each one with a tile map on the ground, a tile scene typical of the area or the history, and the crest. I felt quite a sense of nationalism, only somewhat obscured by extreme hunger. A nod to the Moorish history–kebab!–and we were back on the train. It was such a pleasant weekend and Sevilla was such a pleasant surprise. I will certainly be back.