Wednesday, 28 December 2011

The Things They Say... (Part 1.) Un Cordial Saludo...

I've been learning Spanish during the five and a half years that I've lived here. It hasn't been easy, but then I haven't actually used the study methods that I remember using when I was a student (albeit not of languages), now about thirty years ago. People say it's easier to learn languages when you're young. Believe them.
Another factor which has slowed down my learning is the fact that I teach in English all day long. So, while the seven year-old Spaniards in my class are immersed in English, so am I. The children (unwittingly) don't help either. They seem to pick up English so quickly, remember it almost effortlessly, that my oh-so-slow progress seems oh-so-dishearteningly-slower in comparison. Hang a line of towels out during a shower of rain and some of the drops will miss, some will bounce off, but in the end, the towels will all get wet. This seems to be the way the children in my class 'soak-up' English in my lessons. I, on the other hand, feel like a sheet of plastic flapping in a thunderstorm; I get enthusiastically drenched, but by the next day, I'm bone dry.
Having said all that, I do learn a few things from them in class, especially when they occasionally(!) 'lapse' into Spanish. It's funny what you discover about the Spanish language when this happens.

It's noticeable how 'formal', almost archaic, Spanish sometimes sounds. "¿Ees obligatorio, I go out?" Manuel asks me one cold, December morning. By 'cold' I mean the children's definition. To me, it's a bright, sunny, (although slightly 'chilly') day. The thermometer in my car said 14 degrees on the way to school, so by now it must be nearer 18 or even 20. Can you imagine a seven year-old in an English class asking if it was 'obligatory' to go outside? Highly unlikely in the schools I've taught in back home. 'Ohhh, do I have to?' would be much more common.

"Pablo, heem ees castigado en espanish," María tells me with barely disguised glee, as I pass the frazzled-looking Spanish teacher exiting my classroom. I can't even imagine a member of staff in the UK saying they'd 'castigated' a naughty child. 'Told-off' would be more usual, although in my previous school (Norfolk) 'wronged' was an occasional (very regional) alternative.

The children in my school here are a pretty placid lot. There's not much scrapping in the playground. When it does get a bit heated, the Spanish equivalent to 'Calm down,' or 'Keep your hair on,' is '¡Tranquilo!' (Pr. Tran-key-low). It sounds even more ludicrous if I imagine the year fours back home shouting 'Tranquil!!' as they face up to each other over a disputed off-side decision.

Even the parents sometimes contribute to my education. I love it when they send me e-mails. I'm usually addressed as Estimado Señor Dean, which fills me with a foolish amount of pleasure. I'm also delighted at the end as I'm usually offered 'Un cordial saludo,' as a sign-off. I wonder if the English-speaking Spaniards get as much pleasure when I use 'Dear' and 'Yours sincerely'.

There's another slightly quaint usage I've noticed on the television, when I'm watching the football. The ball is usually called el balón or la pelota. Every so often, however, to spice things up a bit, the commentator will describe Messi dribbling with el esférico. I've never heard Clive Tyldesley roaring that Rooney has thumped the 'sphere' into the net.

It can have its uses though, this slightly old-fashioned collection of English look-a-like and sound-a-like words. On the bus one day, returning from a trip to the theatre, I heard a shout go up from the back seat. I only caught one word but it told me all I needed to know...
I won't post a photo with this entry. I hope you don't mind...

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Thursday, 15 December 2011

The Spanish lottery, ONCE bitten...

At Xmas time, even the BBC usually finds time to run a piece about Spain's el Gordo lottery. El Gordo ('the fat one') captures headlines around the world. The annual Xmas draw (run by Loterías del Estado) is held on December 22nd and (it seems) has all of Spain tuned in or turned on to hear schoolchildren sing the numbers as they are selected in a day-long ceremony. The three billion euro prize fund attracts huge numbers of players. Factories, offices, sports clubs, it seems as though everyone has a stake, often as part of a work-based syndicate. The Spaniards even make their gambling habits 'communal'.
But while el Gordo usually makes the headlines, due to the huge amount of money to be won, Spain has another, lesser-known lottery story, which deserves our attention.
As I entered my local centro de salud (health centre) the other day, I greeted the ONCE lottery ticket-seller with a cheery, "Hola." Then, I took a snap decision. I stopped, and bought my first Spanish cúpon de lotería (lottery-ticket).

Well, it was the 11/11/11 draw, which the TV adverts had been plugging all week, and it was a good chance for me to practise my Spanish with the ticket-seller...

ONCE is a rival lottery to Loterías del Estado, and it's their story that I'm going to tell. Let's start by getting the pronunciation of ONCE sorted out. If you're an English-speaker, forget your English. Try saying 'on-say' while stressing the 'on' part and lisping the 'say'. That's better. Now, let's see what it means.
Once is the number 'eleven'. But ONCE has a different meaning. It's an acronym for Organización Nacional de Ciegos Españoles, which translates as The National Organisation of Blind Spaniards. It's the Spanish equivalent of the UK's RNIB (Royal National Institute of Blind People). But that's where any similarity between the Spanish and the UK organisations ends. For while the RNIB is best know for its work offering support and advice to blind and partially sighted people in the UK, ONCE (while performing similar functions in Spain) is undoubtedly better known for selling lottery tickets and giving employment to its members.

Founded in 1938 (during Franco's dictatorship) to aid the increasing number of Spaniards blinded during the civil war, a decision was made to award ONCE the right to run a national lottery, and benefit from the profits. Its green kioskos and walk-about ticket-sellers are now national institutions. And due mainly to ONCE's involvement in the lottery administration, the unemployment rate of Spain's blind people is zero. In the past, blind people were often reduced to the role of beggars. Franco's legacy in Spain may not be a source of much national pride, but the decision to award the lottery to ONCE has certainly turned out to be something which modern Spaniards can be proud of.
I can't help feeling that John Major missed a trick in 1993 when his government awarded the licence to run the UK lottery to Camelot (a consortium of companies including Cadbury Schweppes). Despite the money pledged to 'good causes', I always found buying my lottery tickets in the local newsagent or off-licence, to be a slightly tawdry affair, smacking of a desperate urge to 'escape' from the rat-race with a bag of Hula-Hoops and a million pounds. 
Back here in Spain, as I chatted to the partially-sighted seller outside my local centro de salud, I could sense his own feelings of inclusion and worth as he offered me advice regarding which tickets might be lucky, and explained how I would go about claiming my prize... 

My new friend outside the centro de salud offers advice and information (and Spanish practice).

And, ¡sorpresa, sorpresa! (surprise, surprise) I'm a ganador (winner). The last number on my ticket matches the last number drawn so I win... 5 euros, exactly what I'd paid for the ticket in the first place. (Top prize for this draw was eleven million euros).
So what do I do with my prize money? Well, I have another chat with my new friend outside the centro de salud and decide on two, 3 euro Cuponazo tickets for the following Friday. He's helping me with my Spanish practice, I'm another friendly customer chatting in the November sunshine.
Isn't that what they call, "Win, win"?

 A punter tries his luck at an ONCE kiosco near Valencia train station. The advert on the side boasts, 'ONCE ticket. You win, we all win'.

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Sunday, 4 December 2011

Ready for battle...

Here's a Spanish tradition I heartily recommend. It's often called the 'Batalla de Flores' (flower battle) and usually starts with a parade of floats through the town centre. The floats are intricately decorated with tissue-paper (masquerading as flowers). They can be extremely complicated and colourful, but that's only half the fun...

When everyone has had enough of parading...

Sacks, huge, great, plastic sacks full of paper confetti appear from the backs of the floats and the town transforms into a multi-coloured snowstorm. Enough confetti for a South-Korean mass wedding is thrown about the place.
The TV will be there again and the municipal roadsweepers will be out in force later in the evening.

It's a truly stunning display of community spirit and littering. Everybody comes out to see it.
Well worth a visit if you hear of one in the offing. And don't be shy. If you're on the streets, you're fair game.
So... THROW!

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Thursday, 24 November 2011

The Castillos (castles) of Spain

Coca Castle.
You like castles? Spain is overloaded. A result of its tumultuous history. According to the (excellent) website, there are 3,168 castles (and fortified places), if you want to start ticking them off a list. is an alternative 'castles of Spain' site for anyone who doesn't speak the lingo. And even more important than quantity, lots of Spanish castles are the stuff of primary school projects: towers, turrets, moats... You couldn't ask for better!
We took a road-trip through Castilla y León a couple of summers ago and dropped in on two (impressive) examples. Coca Castle (15th century), just north of Segovia, looked like a giant, pink, birthday cake as we apporached it. In wonderfully typical Spanish style, the walk along the top of the walls would never have passed British health and safety regulations, but the view of the courtyard and the surrounding countryside was well worth the risk.
Be careful where you step as you glance down at the courtyard from the walls...
The walls of Coca Castle.
Not far away is Cuellar Castle (16th century), where we were fortunate enough to arrive in time to sign up for one of their visitas teatralizadas (theatrical visits). This turned out be be quite a jolly romp with plenty of opportunities for audience participation as we were led through various rooms (one hosting a 'son et lumiere' display). Luckily, the actors ignored us when choosing victims for the 'participation' bits, possibly taking their cue from the fact that we laughed slightly after all the Spanish spectators. .
Cuellar Castle.

There's no doubt, if castles are what you're after, then Spain should be high on your list. 


And if you've got the cash to splash, the Spanish Paradores organisation has a number of castles included in its list of hotels. Imagine that! You could sleep in a genuine castle. Even if the price for a room was out of your budget, you could at least pop in for a coffee and a slice of cake (in the dungeon!) Check out the Ruta de Castillos at which features three splendid castles in Castilla y León, Extremadura and Castilla la Mancha.
In summer you'll be treated to fields of sunflowers in this region...
...all preparing the millions of pipas consumed by the Spanish.
You'll also have little trouble spotting storks, nesting on high buildings.

But watch your back as you explore the castles. (Coca Castle).

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Sunday, 20 November 2011

Pídola. (Leap Frog)

The Spaniards go in for street sculpture in a big way. Well, at least they did until the economy fell off a cliff. This is one of my favourites. You'll find it by the Grau (port) of Castellón de la Plana (Valencia Community). I can't help but wonder how the artist managed to get such life-like (and life-sized) figures. S/he can't have wrapped real kids in plaster of Paris to make moulds for the hot metal...? Can any artists out there explain? I'm really intrigued.
I've seen teenagers leap-frogging over the figure on the right. It's a shame it's a bit too high for a 7 or 8 year-old to attempt. Why didn't they put in another child waiting to be leapt over, so that the younger children could play as well?  

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Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Blue meets Yellow meets Keane

Linda and I recently went to see Vila-Real take on the petro-dollars of Manchester City in the Champions' League. City were favourites to win, having beaten Vila-Real in the home match and with the 'Submarino' suffering a number of important injuries. (I know, excuses!) Well, it turned out as predicted, 0-3 to City and Vila-Real's Champions' League journey over for this season.
What interested me almost as much as the match however, was what happened when the players weren't on the pitch. Near the corner flag by which we were sitting, ITV set up their pre-match 'chat-zone', populated by Adrian Chiles, Martin O'Neill, Gareth Southgate and... Roy Keane. As I sat munching my pre-match bag of crisps, I couldn't help wondering why ITV had chosen Keane to comment on Manchester City. As an ex-United player, I guessed that anything he said would only produce fury from Sky-Blue fans. I didn't have to guess the reaction he provoked in the ground...
Luckily for ITV, Vila-Real's 'Madrigal' ground houses away supporters in a high, 'caged' section, behind the goal, at the far end. Unluckily for ITV (and Roy Keane) about a hundred enterprising City fans had managed to buy seats in the main stand, right next to Chiles and company. As Keane walked onto the pitch with Southgate and O'Neill you could sense the disbelief among the City fans, who were close enough to recognise who he was... and make their feelings known to him.
The individual vitriol screamed at him was staggering, although the City fans managed to lighten the atmosphere with a few amusing anti-red chants. A popular and very topical one (after City's recent 1-6 victory against United) was, "Who put the ball in United's net? Half the f*ç%in' team did!" sung to the tune of "Skip to my Lou, my darling." (Go on, admit it. When you were a child, did you sing, 'Skip to the loo'? Thought so. So did we.)
The blue hoards were really finding their voices now, and regaled Keane with, "There's only one Alfie Haaland," a reference to that 'tackle' in 2001.
Then, as if our corner of the ground wasn't already volcanic, Patrick Viera appeared from the tunnel to huge applause from the City fans. Another song started, to the tune of Sloop-John-B. I initially thought they were singing, "He's worn a black tie," but having consulted with Linda, we agreed that the taunt was, "He's won it five times." Later research on Google suggested that this was a reference to Viera's haul of F.A. Cup winners' medals (to Keane's four).
Still, amidst all the hatred, there was a spark of humour. At half-time, as the pundits were leaving the pitch, the City fans began singing, (Keano, Keano, what's the score?) Keane showed that there were no hard feelings by indicating to the pale-blue mob that it was 2-0...

What the Vila-Real fans made of this rabid, arc-lit, parochial side-show kicking off whenever the teams were off the pitch is anybody's guess. The people sitting nearest us did a lot of shrugging while the rest of the crowd contented themselves with a few verses of, "Amarillo, submarino es," (Yellow, the submarine is) but were unable to make much of an impression on City ears.
All in all, not the best night in Europe ever for Vila-Real. It's one thing to be beaten at home in the Champions' League by Manchester City. It's quite another to be overshadowed by a retired Roy Keane, wearing a suit and tie, having a chat with Adrian Chiles.

 Roy Keane (centre) faces Adrian Chiles at the Madrigal.

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Saturday, 12 November 2011

A load of young bull...

Not my favourite Spanish tradition by a long way. Before I came to Spain I thought that matadors fought bulls in bullrings while people ran with bulls in Pamploma. Not quite...
While matadors still fight bulls in a diminishing number of bullrings (Barcelona closed its 'Monumental' bullring to bullfighting in 2011), people run with bulls in a great many more towns than just Pamplona. Imagine our surprise when within a week of our arrival in our own small, (sleepy?) Spanish town, bulls were loose in the streets.
Notice the TV camera, top left.
It's all a bit tawdry, if you ask me. Local lads (it is mostly lads) taunt a bull, then run like sissies when it turns on them. I can't quite 'get' the macho bit when they're running like stink for the safety behind the (steel) bars.
Particularly distasteful are the 'burning bulls', where lighted balls are attached to the poor creatures' horns during night-runs.
The guy in the checked shirt, trakkie bottoms and rolled-up newspaper misjudges his run...

Not quite such a 'macho' pose as you tip past the horizontal...

It usually goes on for the best part of a week, so I guess you can see how it brings trade to local businesses. But, believe me, Spain has many, many other types of fiesta which are more worthy of your patronage. Even the 'tomato people' (see the 'Not the Tomatina' blog) seem to have more taste...
And yes, I was standing safely behind the thick, strong steel bars all the time (you can use the word 'hiding' if you wish), with a very long lens on my camera.

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Thursday, 10 November 2011

Not the Tomatina...

The Tomatina is the famous 'tomato-throwing' festival, held every year in the last week of August in Buñol, a town in the north of the Valencian community. Well, this isn't the Tomatina. In fact I don't think it's anything special at all, just the annual festival (fiesta) of another small town in the Valencian community (Alcocebre) which we happened to stumble upon.
Why were these people dressed as tomatoes? No idea. Perhaps just to have fun. And isn't that the best reason of all?

Ummm, mine's a Bloody Mary.

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Wednesday, 9 November 2011

What am I doing here?

Living the dream? Surviving? Usually depends on what day it is.
Six years ago I moved to Spain to teach in an 'immersion' school. The children are Spanish, I teach them in English. At interview, the head told me that the children in my class (6 and 7 year olds) were 'fluent'.
I wondered later if I'd misheard. Maybe he'd said, 'Effluent'?
After 25 years of successful primary teaching in the U.K. I suddenly found myself confronted by the biggest professional challenge of my career, how to teach Spanish children in English. Not teach them English, teach them in English. That's maths, science, history, geography... the whole primary bagful. 
'Immersion' schooling is a wonderful idea, particularly good when the children have made it as far as secondary and their English is coming along fine. But remember me, I've got them at 6 and 7 years of age...
If life inside my classroom is a 'challenge' then life outside is worse. Did anyone ever tell you that 'everyone in Spain speaks English'? Wrong. Sure, a lot of hotel and bar-staff in tourist areas will have enough English to get you a drink and a bed for the night. But I'm not in a tourist area and the average Spaniard's grasp of English is as poor as the average Brit's grasp of Spanish. (And I'm probably a little below the average). EU stats claim that less than 20% of Spaniards have 'conversational standard' English. If I struggle in the class, imagine what happens outside...
So, the stage was set for a life of confusion and frustration.
This blog is the current state-of-play. This is me, here, now. Six years on and finally able to explore the country a little. There are still crazy things to report from the classroom, but I've also been able to get to know a bit of Spain and an (embarrassingly small) bit of Spanish.
These are the things that I want to share with you through this blog. The less well-known parts of Spain, the strange fiestas and celebrations that surround Spanish life, a few hints and tips about the language, the difficulties to be faced living as a foreigner when your grasp of the language is slight and, of course, the joy to be found when teaching 25 mini-Manuels (and Manuelas)
If you ever consider doing something similar, I hope this blog doesn't put you off. What I hope it might do is prepare you a little better than I prepared myself.

If you like the blog why not read the eBook? Zen Kyu Maestro, An English Teacher's Spanish Adventure available from Amazon. 
For a free sample chapter, click HERE.