An English Alphabetic Guide To Spain

A – Accents and keyboards.

Learning a new language is a new struggle within itself. The Spanish alphabet has 27 letters – it adds the letter ‘ñ’ (en-nye), each of course pronounced differently to our own alphabet. When you add accents to this, however, it gets more confusing – even more so when Catalan hops along with its accents that don’t follow the same rules, or slant the opposite way to make a word sound different. When writing in Spanish, I’m used to not using accents; because my English keyboard, of course, doesn’t allow me to put these on without using ALT + a combination of numbers that I’m never in a million years going to remember. So, of course, I’m just getting used to writing Spanish without the accents. Something that might seem trivial, but remember words can change even with the slightest of pronunciations. I’m sure it’s not going to be too problematic, but all the same, it’s a nightmare to get your head round. Accents are useful, as it tells you where the stress is on the syllable, or the way to say the letter, but it’s almightily confusing for a girl who’s used to the altogether more complex English way of not pronouncing most of the letters in a word. I never realised how many sounds and letters in English end up being silent – give a sentence to a Spanish child such as ‘he thought he brought the boughs to the trough’, and they might end up in hospital with a mild case of concussion.

B – Bibi/Baby talk

Baby talk in Catalan and Spanish is something I’m picking up more than grown-up talk. Spend your evenings with a two-year old and you’ll probably find the same. The amount of times when I go to school, and repeat what the child has said the previous evening or morning, to ask what it means, and am met with blank stares. Excuse my spelling, but having never seen the words written down, I don’t know how to find out what ‘a goli’ or ‘la busha’ means. And I can’t exactly ask the child for the translation. I do know ‘el bibi’ is a baby’s bottle of warm milk, for instance, and the family call a bath ‘chif-chaf’, which is quite endearing. Anna is my Catalan corrector, despite being only two years old. On the rare occasions I speak Spanish to her (I’m not allowed to speak Spanish in the house when Marta and Maria are around for fear of spoiling the illusion that I have no idea what even the word ‘si’ means), I find myself reprimanded in Catalan. ‘Mira, Anna, un perro!’ (Look, Anna, a dog!) is met with ‘No, un gos’ (the same, but in Catalan). You can’t win them all, I suppose. Animals make different sounds in Spanish, too – for instance, a cockerel for us is ‘cock-a-doodle-doo’, and for a Spanish child, it’s ‘ki-ki-ri-kee’. A dog, from what I can tell, says ‘guau guau’, or ‘bouf bouf’. Cows, I’m afraid, are the same.

C – Cortados

The Spanish sure can make a cup of coffee. And the best thing about it, is that it’s so darn cheap. The only problem is that I got used to my long drinks of coffee in England – for me, a coffee isn’t correctly served unless it’s brought my mug full to the brim, with plenty to spare in the сafetière. Here, even a café con leche isn’t that big: four gulps and you’re done. It’s often not served piping hot, either. The closest you’ll get to our huge English lashings of caffeine related drinks, is a trip to Starbucks, but at roughly 4 euros a pop for the usual size coffee I have, it’s not really worth it. Also, it makes you feel like a traitor. Here, though, they do have a new way for coffee that I’ve never experienced in England. I’m sure this would take off faster than the flat white. The word cortado, literally translated, means ‘cut’. In the beverage sense, however, it’s a small shot of coffee, just as an espresso, but with a hit of warmed milk, often served with hot water on the side so you can elongate the pleasure if you so choose. You might be thinking, hey, we have that – it’s a macchiato. Sorry, but it isn’t. I’m not going to get all technical and moan on about milk to coffee ratios, but it’s something to do with that, and other sciencey coffee-related nonsense. Ask a barista.

Perfect for waking you up on an early morning.

D  – Dinner

Spanish eating times, as I’ve mentioned previously, are very late compared to us. The average lunch is at two to three o’clock, and the evening meal is usually around nine, to as late as ten PM. But what do they call their meals? Breakfast is ‘desayuno’, and is relatively small, not so important. Your lunch is where it starts getting confusing for Spanish kids learning English – they call it ‘dinner’, or ‘almuerzo’. The evening meal in Spanish is called ‘cena’, but in Catalan, ‘suppar’. The children in 4é are now learning daily routines, and they get especially muddled with the names for English mealtimes. I wonder if I should make it much more complex for them and throw in ‘tea’, as being from Yorkshire, this is what I’ve always called dinner. I tried to explain this to one of the teachers at school, and to this day I’m pretty sure he thinks I just have a cuppa on an evening and nothing more.

E – Elections

Last week in Spain, the general election was held, and they have a new president. Everybody knew that their equivalent of the Conservatives – the Popular Party – would gain power, because of the crisis. It wasn’t so different to our elections, with the campaigning, TV publicity, and debates, etcetera, etcetera. However, one thing I did find intriguing is that the Spanish usually vote on a Sunday. Never a weekday. I was explaining this to a Spanish woman, and she looked entirely baffled by the fact that we vote on a weekday. She said to me ‘nobody would vote if we had elections on a weekday’. The turnout for voting in Spain is even worse than ours. Which is highly surprising to me, seeing as it’s on a day where virtually nobody’s at work anyway. The voting starts at 10am and continues until 8pm. I feel sorry for the children, seeing as they don’t get to share in the excitement of voting – this might seem a strange sentence to you, children being excited about the election…until you remember a lot of schools are polling stations so therefore elections = day off school. Here, I didn’t even see anything that would remotely resemble a polling station – I don’t know where they go to do it: whether it’s a school, church, place of public interest, or otherwise. I am told, however, that they’re staffed by people under thirty, unlike our own, which are run by only pensioners.

F – Flan

This isn’t your typical English flan. Flan for us can be rather like a quiche, or a pastry related product that is mostly savoury. Flan here is quite different – it’s much like crème caramel, an egg based sweet sensation that I still can’t quite decide if I like it or not. It seems to be made solely from sugar, and when consuming I have the sensation that I’m going to overdose on a rush from the substance. On one particularly helpful package of the stuff, they’d translated ‘flan’ to English to come up with ‘egg custard’, which I did have to pick a bone with. To me, egg custard is what you’d find in a curd tart, and it’s very different to the dessert you’d call ‘flan’ here. It’s nice, of course, but like most Spanish desserts, it makes me want to reach for the phone and call the nearest Doctor just to check my heart rate’s not tripled in the last thirty seconds after eating.

Not quite the same as a curd tart, but it's getting there.

G – Guay

Work around children and you learn how to pick up ‘cool’ language – which is exactly what ‘guay’ means. The children often express ‘qué guay!’ when they see something they like (they often say this in relation to my nails, which change daily in the way they’re painted). Other words I hear often are ‘tio/tia’ which normally means uncle, or aunt, but in this case the children use it with one another in a relaxed sort of way that means ‘man’, if we were to translate it into our own language. Rather like ‘hombre’, which Spanish children also use a lot, but mostly in a mock-affronted way, when they’re disagreeing with one another – ‘ay hombre, qué pasa!?’

H – Ham/Jam

I have been asked several times by numerous amounts of people if I would like jam with my cheese and bread. No, this isn’t just some strange Spanish tradition – even though I would most likely believe it to be true – it’s just a word mix-up. The ‘h’ and ‘j’ sound for the Spanish is quite easily interchangeable when they write in English, just like ‘v’ and ‘b’, because in their alphabet, it’s said so differently. This can result in humour over the breakfast/lunch/dinner table at various points in the day. Maybe one day I’ll really ask if I can have jam, cheese, and bread, and really freak them out. Although, I suppose, it’s not that different to chutney, so why shouldn’t it work?

I – Insults

Similarly, whilst I pick up words about what’s cool and what’s not, I’m also picking up that most favoured hobby of all young children – how to insult others. Whilst I can’t ask if the shop has shoes in a different size, I can paint the air all the colours of the rainbow with my forked tongue. Want to know how to call someone bumface in Spanish? Come to me, si cabron?

J – Juegos

I’d been so long out of the loop of primary school, and school in general (more than five years now – sob – I’m getting on a bit), that I’d forgotten about crazes and games that children attach themselves to for weeks on end before changing to the next fad. At the moment, as far as I can tell, the crazes in this particular school are snake-like toys, not unlike a rubix cube in the way that they are moved around, but all the same colour, and just intended to change shape rather than match similar with similar. There’s one I also remember from my childhood – a moulded plastic-type substance that can be put onto the end of a tube and blown to form a large bubble, not unlike a balloon in the way that it stays inflated, unlike bubble gum. This, and skipping, is largely dominated by the girls – and I’ve yet to hear a Spanish skipping rhyme, as one of the English children that goes to this school has taught them all a few traditional English skipping songs, which they’re excited to show me they know. There is also a fad mostly favoured by the boys, and I don’t really understand it at all. As far as I can tell, it’s just coloured plastic discs in a net bag with pictures of cartoon heroes/monsters/transforming robots that aren’t under copyright. I don’t know if they trade them, use them like pogs, or what. All I know is they don’t want to part with them in classtime, even though I assure them they’re not going to be leaving the country any time soon: they’re bits of plastic. Boys and their toys definitely rings true.

K – Kneepads

It’s quite common for the young children (and some of the older, less co-ordinated kids) to have thick material sewn onto their shorts or trousers to protect their knees from scrapes and save the parents sewing up clothes at the end of every schoolday. On older children, it looks quite silly, but on the younger ones, it looks sweet beyond all measure, or at least for the kids that go to my school. Their uniform is green, so the patches are just darker green and blend in quite well. However, other schools aren’t quite so fortunate. There’s a particular one in Sant Cugat that has a bright yellow tracksuit uniform for the little ‘uns, but instead of having similarly yellow kneepads, they sport red ones. This still doesn’t sound so bad, but then bear in mind they get given elbow-pads too, in the colour of bright green, and another part of their uniform is bright blue. They look like an explosion in a paint factory, and one can’t help thinking when seeing them that they are making their way to a circus skills workshop.

The next step for Spanish school uniform?

L – Los Miserables

I was lucky enough to go and watch the touring company from Madrid perform the Spanish version of Les Miserables. First things first, I would like to say that the Spanish are the only people who have changed the title from Les Mis, to Los Mis, for reasons I don’t understand – probably because there are none, and they’re just doing it to be different. Whilst I really enjoyed myself, and am probably (definitely) biased in every way, the Spanish version lost something along the way, in my opinion. First of all, the songs don’t scan as well – largely because they have to cram long sentences into a specific musical structure, making it sound rushed, or odd, and out of place. A lot of the rhymes are lost, and when the lyrics do rhyme, it’s constructed in such a way that it doesn’t translate quite as well, and loses metaphor or deep meaning. For instance, take the simple line Fantine gives; ‘there’s a child that sorely needs me, please m’sieur, she’s but that high’ is just translated into Spanish and sung as ‘I’ve got a daughter called Cosette’. Not quite as tear-jerking, right? If I keep listening to the soundtrack, though, I’m hoping it’ll teach me how to use the formal ‘usted’ (polite way of speaking to people that I’ve been told nobody uses), seeing as they don’t use ‘tu’ as much in the lyrics, which I suppose you wouldn’t when you were speaking to a convict you’d been chasing for a long period of time. Formality is always best in cases like that.

M – Mullets

Every time I’ve come to Spain previously, I’ve been shocked by the amount of mullet-spurning people wandering around, looking like it’s not in the least weird. It seems to be something of a fashion here, that we grew out of in the 80’s, and quite rightly too. I’m told it’s those of a ‘hippie’ persuasion, which is apparently more favourable here in Catalonia than it is in the rest of Spain. Still, that’s no excuse to let your children have mullets. You get all sorts – the standard mullet, with the hair long at the back but short at the front, but then you have your deviants. The now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t, as I’ve come to deem it, for example, makes one look like a normal person from the front, and from one side, but then as the wearer turns – you’re hit with the sight of a plaited strand of hair that hangs limply at the side of the head, wishing it were somewhere else. You then have your mullet con dreadlocks – which makes me wonder how anybody goes about having a shower sporting this certain ‘do. It can be solely dreadlocks, or a mixture of long hair and matted tendrils, as long as you have it short at the front, and big at the back. Curly, straight, big or small, mullets are not a thing of the past here in Spain.

N – Nuts and seeds

As stereotypes go, this is rather an odd one that the Spanish have of us: we can’t eat seeds or shell nuts properly. At first, I disagreed, but now I’ve spent some evenings sat around Spanish people eating sunflower and pumpkin seeds, I have to agree with them. We have no idea. I thought you just broke awkwardly into the sunflower seed, and attempted to salvage the tiny goodness in the middle. They literally eat like parrots – they break the outer shell between their teeth and then use their tongue to ferret out the seed inside. It’s like watching a nature documentary unfold before your very eyes.

O – Olive oil.

It’s lathered over everything – beans, peas, salad, meat, cauliflower, bread, tomatoes: you name it, it’s oiled like a Johnson’s baby. Personally, I don’t quite get it. I like olive oil, but even I have to draw the line when it comes to smothering it over spinach with béchamel sauce. You can call it healthy as many times as you like, it still doesn’t mean you have the right to eat a vat of it every lunchtime.

P – Pickpockets

Crime, of course, occurs everywhere – there’s no difference between here and any other nation in that respect. However, Barcelona does seem to have a large problem with pickpockets, distracting tourists and sneaking off with their precious items, or being so light-fingered you wouldn’t have had the slightest idea you were being robbed. A few of my friends have been on the receiving end of this nasty crime, and it does put a dampener on things. Whenever I go to the city, which is quite often, I pull my bag towards me, always in front of me, so I can see it at all times, but I still don’t feel 100% safe. It’s become the norm for me to hold my bag, so now I am used to it awkwardly hitting my leg – even walking home in safe old Valldoreix, I have it in my sights. I hate that I have to be so paranoid, but it’s worth it – I don’t want to lose the little money I’m getting on this programme, I’m robbed enough as it is by the people I work for!

Q – Queen and King

I know that Spain has a King and Queen, but I keep forgetting their names. Luckily, it doesn’t matter, as they don’t seem to hold their monarchy in as much stead as we do. They mostly seem resented for the amount of money they earn, doing absolutely nothing, as far as I can tell. They aren’t talked about in such a celebrity manner – there’s no Wills and Kate equivalent. In England, the Royal Family have become ‘cool’ again, but here it’s quite the opposite. I’m told elsewhere in Spain they’re more highly regarded, but in Catalonia, perhaps because of their strong wish to be separate from the rest of the country, they’re not fans of the monarchy.

Who? No, I didn't know, either.

R – Road Rules, or lack of.

I still don’t understand basic pedestrian rules when it comes to what happens when you want to cross the road. When you come to a zebra crossing, apparently you have the right of way, and most people just walk out without a care in the world. Being English, I’m undoubtedly terrified of being killed, just like the girl at 40mph, or kilometres as it would be here. Just because I have the right of way doesn’t mean I’ll get the use of my legs back should the worst happen. I am getting more daring, but I honestly don’t know the way it works – most cars seem to speed up before these crossings, then abruptly brake as if to say ‘I was only joking, idiot. Cross now, I’ve got some place to be’, and give you an elongated stare full of hatred because you’ve made their journey ten seconds longer. Also, I keep trying to get into the wrong side of people’s cars when they drive me anywhere, which is always hilarious for them, but rather embarrassing for yours truly.

S – Speech marks

Yesterday I confirmed something I’d wondered about through nosily glancing over people’s shoulders on the metro – Spanish books don’t use speech marks as ours do, in fiction. A conversation would look something like this (I’ll give you extra brownie points if you can name the book):

-Ya está usted aqui –dijo el capitán, levantado su cabeza -. Siéntatese si gusta.

– ¿No va a dejarme entrar, capitán? –se quejó John << el Largo>>-. Hace una mañana muy fria para estar sentados a la intemperie y en la arena.

It’s very difficult for me to get used to, because it doesn’t look like a conversation to me, all these dashes and dots. I’m waiting for the speech marks to crop up, so I can tell it’s some people talking with one another. I never expected punctuation to be different. I suppose it’s something those learning English have to deal with as well – the amount of shortening we do with apostrophes in English sends the children round the bend due to the fact they don’t understand that it’s our basic grammar – ‘here’s’ means ‘here is’ and so forth – they just think the word ‘here’s’ stands alone, and is separate to ‘here is’. Come to think of it, I think English wins in being confusing.

T – Thomas Hardy

One of the things I’m finding more difficult to deal with is a lack of cultural reference for me to spatter into conversation. I don’t know who their equivalent of Hardy, Bronte, or Blake is. Who’s their Siegfried Sassoon? Their Cat’s Cradle? Who is it, instead of the lady who sells seashells on the seashore? Why don’t they know that not last night, but the night before, twenty-four robbers came knocking at my door? They don’t know who Bruce Forsyth is, or our stereotypes of several counties: they’re not aware that people from Liverpool in general are said to steal your tyres, or people from Yorkshire spent most of history down a mine shaft. It’s difficult, sometimes, when you realise we all rely on each other to reference our history, our culture. Sure, I can get on with people here, and pick up some of their experiences living here, but I never grew up in this country. I didn’t have the little mouse come to visit me in the night to come and take my tooth from under the pillow (it’s not a fairy here). I didn’t play the equivalent of jinx padlock – ‘TOMA!’ I never experienced having a Saints’ Day: you have your birthday, and then a special day for the saint you were named after, which you often get presents for. It’s difficult to know that nobody will have a clue what you’re talking about when you mention Compo’s love for wrinkly tights.

Not a well-known Sunday 'treat' here.

U – Upfront

Delicacy and tact aren’t things that the Spanish seem to be filled to the brim with – the message here seems to be, if it is that way, we’ll tell you it is. You can expect to be told you look rough, tired, or sick should you go to school without make-up, whether it’s by a teacher or the children. The children see a picture of you they don’t like? Qué feo/a (how ugly). You’re being an idiot? We told you so. Be quiet and don’t talk about things you don’t understand. We don’t like your hair that way or your rubbish English fashion? We’ll tell you, direct to your face. So just accept it and shut up about it.

That’s probably the reason I stopped wearing foundation.

V – ¡Vale!

This is probably the only word you’ll need to get by in Spanish. It means ‘okay’, and it’s said in roughly 75% of sentences/conversations, mostly more than once – think how often we say ‘okay’ and multiply it by ten, from what I can see. Whole conversations on the phone can consist of ‘vale, vale, vale. Si? Vale. Vale. Vale. D’accord (another Catalan word for ‘okay’). Vale. Adeu!’ It was one of the first words I learned – the others being biblioteca (library) and cerveza (beer), neither of which I’ve actually used yet. Coming to Spain on your jollies? Learn vale, and all will be vale.

W – William White, and the lack of ‘w’s.

A couple of weeks ago, in English class, the children were learning a tongue twister and practicing it. It won’t be one you’ve heard of, I promise, unless you study the Surprise! English textbooks for children in your spare time:

Does William White watch wildlife programmes? He watches wildlife programmes on Wednesdays.

Easy, right? For us. The children were amazed at how quickly I could rattle this off – because the ‘w’ sound isn’t at all difficult for me. They don’t really have this sound. ‘Double-yu’ is said as ‘uvay-doblay’, and doesn’t feature a lot in Spanish words. Most of the words that begin with ‘w’ are borrowed from other languages, and quite modern (see ‘windsurf’ and ‘walkman’). Look at this paragraph alone and you can see how many words we have which involve this sound/letter. The children in 1é are currently learning that trees are made of ‘wood’ – and all of them call it ‘ood’, including the teacher.

X – Xocolaté or chocolate?

I can’t get used to this ‘x’ cropping up in texts, when reading in Catalan. Remember, I’m still largely confused when reading or listening as to what’s Catalan and what’s Spanish. The ‘x’ is a big giveaway, however. Read in Catalan, and this will crop up instead of the ‘j’ seen in Spanish written text. The accents also go left and right in Catalan, whereas all the Spanish accents go the same way. It’s still difficult to tell, occasionally, but if you’re reading a ‘periodico’ (paper), you can usually tell if it’s written in Catalan because the day of the week will begin with a ‘d’ – all of them do (dilluns, dimarts, dimecres, dijous, divendres, dissabte, diumenge). If I see any of these key features, I’ve usually binned the paper or stopped reading, because it’s just likely to confuse me more. Catalan’s easier for me to read, being similar to French, but it just means I’m getting used to a language I want to be less familiar with than Spanish.

Y – Yuck!

Qué asko! This means ‘how disgusting!’ and it’s said by children most lunchtimes. The discipline in Spanish schools may be minimal, but they sure do know how to make their little ones eat things they don’t like. I don’t know if it’s a regular English thing, but I’m used to children leaving whatever they don’t like, and not being forced to eat it, or if they are, it’s a half-arsed forcing that usually ends up in only one bit of the offending article being put down their throat. I suppose that depends on the family, too, but from what I see, Spanish children eat everything on their plate or face the wrath of the scary dinner ladies, or a cross mami for days on end. I take this mentality too, and force down forkfuls of cold, disgusting, oil covered cauliflower, overboiled and oversalted, when I really should be saying ‘I’m sorry, but cauliflower makes me sick for hours, and tastes like feet’. But I just eat it. I don’t know what happened to my fussiness regarding eating, but Spain and the ‘eat-it-or-suffer’ mentality has clearly got through to me.

Disgusting? Yes, but I haven't put olive on it yet! THEN it'll be fine.

Z – Zapatos

I refer to a particular type of ‘shoe’ – the Ugg boot. I know a lot of people who wear them, and people who like them, but sadly I’m not a fan of these shoes. If you are, I suggest you finish reading now as you’ll just think I’m being rude. Thankfully this blight on my eyesight that I see daily on English children/adults, looking like they’ve forgotten to take off their slippers, isn’t as apparent over here. They just don’t wear them. The few people I’ve seen sporting them are either English or stick out like a sore thumb. Whether it’s the climate, or just their, ahem, superior fashion tastes (I wasn’t aware denim on denim was ever cool, but apparently it is here), they don’t go in for the Eskimo look.


A Day in the Life

Having been here now for over a month, I have managed to somehow settle into a routine of sorts. Of course, each day at the school is different – otherwise I wouldn’t enjoy it so much, but I thought I’d give you a taste of what most days are like for me in Spain. I also want to describe my first week’s experience with running a drama class for six year olds, perhaps so you can share my pain, perhaps so I can gain a little sympathy – needless to say, it’s no mean feat, teaching drama in a language the children have little comprehension of.

I usually wake at 7am, the sound of violins plaguing the morning air, as the children of the family I’m staying with practise every single day, come rain, come shine, come Sunday. I had expected a lovely long lie-in on Sundays, snuggled in the duvet, enjoying the last few hours of darkness and warmth. However, this can’t be the case for me. Instead, I get the screech of the bow across the strings, and the shout of the mother who doesn’t want the child to play that note, that way, thank you very much.

Breakfast is a scratched attempt of whatever is in the kitchen. Here, breakfast isn’t such a big deal – it tends to be rather small, maybe a biscuit, a yoghurt, oats with milk (but not hot – that would be porridge, and that would be disgustingly English), or cereal, eaten from what else, but a mug. The notion of having cereal in a bowl here, for kids, is as strange as we would find it drunk from a mug, with warm milk and chocolate flavouring. It’s essentially hot chocolate with corn flakes. Suffice to say, I don’t partake in this particular breakfast offering.

Fancy a cuppa? Cereal, that is.

School starts at 9am, and already by this time, my hand is aching by the amount of waving I have to do between getting out the car/dismounting the train, and walking up the stairs to the Sala Profesores (staff room). I usually have classes straight away – there’s a few lucky days where I can sit on my laptop and work in silence, preparing for the tutoring I’m doing, the Science in English (yes, you read correctly – Science classes in English) that I take twice a week with eight and nine year olds. Mostly, though, it’s class time. I’ve yet to observe a register being taken – part of me doubts that it exists as a process in Spanish schools. Class is supposed to begin at nine, but by the time the children have moved from their own classroom to the special English room, or in the case of the younger children, hung all their clothes, ‘mochilas’ (schoolbags), and sportswear on the pegs, then returned to their seats – it’s already around 9.15. Some lessons are only half an hour long, so this usually means that the class lasts ten minutes, and then the children return to their own classroom or get ready for the next lesson to begin. This continues until 11am, when it’s time for the first break of the day, lasting half an hour. It’s common for kids to eat a sandwich, what looks like a whole packet of biscuits, or even cereal in a tub, without the milk.

Certainly a thing of the past in this school.

Recently, it’s been raining quite a bit, which means the children stay inside on their break, and of course cooping them up like that makes for difficult behaviour in lessons. They’re pent up with play that they couldn’t get out the way, short bursts of energy taking over what they do inside the classroom. It doesn’t help that the discipline system here doesn’t seem to be that effective. The most ‘telling off’ I’ve seen is a list of the children’s names on the blackboard who weren’t sitting in the correct place at the correct time. It often seems that they can get away with murder: shouting, screaming, meandering around the room and corridors to their heart’s content. What I do in classes depends on the age group. From eight years old upwards, I take children out the class and practise spoken English with them. This can range from simple ‘I like hockey/swimming’, telling the time, posing questions related with ‘to be’, or starting basic grammar in preparation for ESO for the children in their last year. ESO is our equivalent of secondary school, and all the children in their sixth year here aren’t excited about learning English there – because they think it’s going to be page upon page of grammar conditioning. They’ve moved out of the ‘English is fun’ phase, because they no longer get to play bingo, or participate in a quiz show. I find them an interesting group to work with. They’re very difficult sometimes, because they don’t want to behave, but their level of English is relatively good, so it’s nice to see them put a sentence together, or the concentration on their faces when they’re struggling to get the words they want to use out their mouths. It’s also a lot more fun in other ways – they begin to understand you can have fun with English, which means we result in sentences such as ‘Miley Cyrus has got a potato nose’ when dealing with describing people, or ‘Pablo has fish eyes’. During this same ‘description’ session, I became affectionately known as ‘Blonde Giraffe’. I’m sure that they’ve called me that because I’m the only one tall enough to turn off the digital projector without using a ruler to press the button – Spanish women, and men for that matter, tend to be shorter than us.

Come to think of it, they might have a point with this one.

For the children younger than eight, I take the role of ‘button-presser on the computer’ or ‘skipper of the next track on the CD player’. That is, I walk around the class, and simply act as an assistant to the teacher. I rarely go out the classroom with these children, because they don’t have enough language skills to make oral expression practice worthwhile. Every morning, we ask for the weather, the date, and run through basic questions with the younger children. Whilst I appreciate they’re very young, and it’s difficult to learn another language, I can find this a little frustrating. Bear in mind they do two hours of English a week, from the age of three, and very little changes during the first few years. They start with reciting the date – which is usually quite easy for them, but then we get to the difficult part. ‘How old are you?’ ‘What’s your name?’ ‘What’s your favourite colour?’ Sometimes the children have no idea how to construct these questions, and often give the wrong answer even when it’s given to them word by word. Yes, it’s difficult – it’s another language, and I myself have problems with Spanish, but it can be frustrating repeating the same thing time and time again to no avail. Mostly the classes with the younger children consist of listening to annoying songs about crayons and toys, and reciting parts of the body like there’s no tomorrow.

So, then 1pm arrives, and it’s time for lunch. Now I come to the saga of the drama classes in English. When I suggested taking these classes, I imagined doing drama with children of around 9-10 or more, where the level of English is relatively good, and they are able to understand full sentences with good ability. Others had different ideas. It seems that the family I’m staying with were keen to get their children to do drama – considering here it’s not a curriculum subject, and they don’t get much chance to express themselves in this manner. I think this is problematic, and agree they should be doing drama classes – but not in English. Imagine doing drama with a group of nine/ten children who are six years old. This is quite difficult in itself due to the attention span, the time that the children are doing the classes (it’s 1pm and their usual time for lunch, so they’re hungry), among other factors. However, when you throw in the fact that they don’t speak the same language as me, this takes an entirely new level of difficulty. I can’t imagine being able to do this all year – sure, they can play games in English, but limited ones, that they already know. They can’t do drama with a basic vocabulary of primary colours, classroom objects, and farmyard animals. We wouldn’t get much further than three sessions, tops. I’ve been shocked at the lack of organisation on the school’s part, the parents’ willingness to leave their children alone in a laboratory (yes. Laboratory. That’s where you do drama now, apparently) with a woman who doesn’t speak Spanish or Catalan and isn’t CRB-checked, nor a qualified teacher. I’m essentially just a girl who happens to have done a drama degree, and that speaks volumes amongst Spanish parents apparently, as of course that means I am trustworthy, capable, and can work miracles with a group of young children who don’t have a clue what I’m talking about.

Suffice to say, the drama classes aren’t going to happen any more.

Alas, poor drama class, we tried you well...

Lunchtime ends at 3pm – yep, that’s right, two whole hours for lunch. Some children go home, leaping on their father’s motorbike, or trailing behind after mum with their nose streaming because they want to finish their painting of a squirrel. Two hours works for the kids that go home, but the ones who stay here seem to have it a little tougher. They eat at 1, so it doesn’t take them long – even though there’s three courses every day. I eat at 2 o’clock, with the rest of the teachers, and try to imagine I understand what’s going on, when really I have no idea. Usually it’s the wrong thing – the other day I was convinced they were talking for twenty minutes about pasta, when I think in fact it was football. The children, when finished at approximately 1.20-1.30, then have until three to run rampant and generally scream themselves hoarse or collide into each other until they’re exhausted by it. This is when it’s not raining. When it is raining, they’re back into the classrooms they’ve spent all day in, playing Conectar Cuatro or trying to dance on the tables.

3pm, and classes begin again, with little point, in my opinion. The children are excited from lunchtime and playing, and they don’t want to do anything that requires concentration for over five minutes. I have one of my Science classes straight after lunch, and whilst I love it, it isn’t half a slog to get the class interested enough to participate for the whole hour. It’s not really what you would describe as a ‘Science’ class, of course, being in English. Most of the complex vocabulary relating to that subject prevents learning about osmosis, the central nervous system, or photosynthesis, and so on, and so on. Instead, we learn about body parts, muscles, things we can feel, different senses, and parts of the skeleton for the older kids. I really enjoy it, and I think the children do as well – in my first session, they all moaned and groaned, but now when I come through the door they shout in happiness, and all of them tell me English is their favourite subject. So either I’m doing a good job, or it’s an entire class of teacher’s pets. It helps me pick up Spanish as well, even though I’m not sure how much ‘clavicular’ (collar bone), ‘caja torácica’ (rib cage), and ‘columna vertebral’ (spinal cord) are going to help me in my day to day life.

What a Science lesson in English amounts to. This is our big version of Adriá, a somewhat willing volunteer who allowed himself to be labelled poorly in the name of classroom displays.

The last lesson of the day begins at 4pm, and finishes at 5. The children watch the clock at this time, and are generally either asleep on their desks, or ridiculously overexcited because it’s nearly hometime. Most Tuesdays – my ‘small people’ day, I spend the last ten minutes of the day waking up a particularly sleepy little Natalia, who always conks out on the table and wakes up with a handprint on her tiny cheek, wiping drool from her mouth and looking especially confused at the girl who orders her to wake up in incorrect Spanish. Then we get the children dressed properly, as they’re still not able to figure out how to put on a rucksack the correct way, or notice that their ‘xandal’ (tracksuit) is on inside out.

Home-time, and I’m usually hard at work, preparing tutoring sessions, learning Spanish (and failing), and looking for new ideas for Science classes. I spend little time with the family, who remain rather closed off, and occasionally play with the children if I’m not too tired or in the mood to be ignored for a good two hours by the parents. Dinner time can vary – they’re trying to get the children to bed earlier these days, possibly because of the winter nights, and that means dinner is often at 7:30, a staggeringly early time for Spanish ‘cenar’. Sometimes, however, it can be as late as 10pm, if we don’t eat with the children, and the parents unsuccessfully call me downstairs. I’m getting used to the way of eating, and now I’m even at a point where I can’t decide which I prefer. My mother kindly brought some parkin over when visiting recently, and it was rapidly devoured in the staff room over comments that it was rather rich, but all agreed it was certainly nice. When describing that it was made with oats, some had been a little timid about trying it, but gave a good effort and listened patiently when I explained in bad Spanish about November 5th and Bonfire Night.

Parkin - northern, gingery, a nice homesickness cure.

No day, of course, is the same, but I hope that what I’ve given is a taste of my life in a Spanish school – sometimes difficult, often testing, but very enjoyable all the same. All I can say is, I’m at a stage where I wish I could speak Spanish, had a PGCE, or a qualification (despite the fact that Spanish teachers receive a lower pay packet than English ones for much more work in the school day) and I’d try to teach here in an instant.

La Castañadas

Picture an October without Hallowe’en. It’s pretty difficult to imagine, given that in England, it’s just something we ‘do’ – not as heavily dosed up as the Americans on sweets and tacky costumes, but certainly celebrated enough to rocket Hallowe’en spending in England up to roughly £4 billion this year alone. Yet here, Hallowe’en is something that goes relatively amiss. All week in school, I have been playing picture memory games with printouts of ghosties, ghoulies, haunted houses (‘hanteeed howze’), and pumpkins. The children absolutely love learning about Hallowe’en, because they’re already aware of it, but it’s just not done on the same scale here. Trick or Treating (Truco Trato) is a relatively new phenomenon, and most children don’t do it – they just have an American friend that goes in the next neighbourhood. I’ve also watched (umpteen times) a video of Jack, a young English boy from London, engage in the most civilised children’s Hallowe’en party on record. “Golly gosh, Jack, what scary pizzas you’ve made.” “Why thank you mama!” “Children, let’s partake in Apples on Strings!” “Oh, what super duper fun, hooray!” and so on, and so on, until you feel the need to visit Jack and burn his house down with a pumpkin lantern for being so smug in a witch’s hat.

How not to light your pumpkin.

This week, I’ve managed to learn new words in Spanish, though they might not be ones you want to add to your phrasebook. Writing out Hallowe’en menus with the kids is great fun, as of course, children’s fascination with the relatively disgusting means they are suddenly very keen to learn new English words. And the only way for them to learn, is to ask me – so, this week, my trusty diccionario has found the words for ‘sangre’, ‘ gusanos’, ‘piel’, and ‘moques’. I’ll give you a Rolf moment and ask if you’ve guessed what it is yet. Two I could legitimately use in an accident, and inform you there’s blood on me because I’ve cut my skin open – ‘sangre’ and ‘piel’. Now, the other two. ‘Gusanos’ translates as worms, which is handy to know, but not really as useful as ‘I’d like two stamps, please’, which I still haven’t managed to get under my belt. And the last, truly terrible one, doesn’t have a polite translation in English. I’ll just tell you that it’s produced when one has a runny nose, and we’ll leave it at that.

I imagine you always wanted to find out the word for these in Spanish.

Each year I take great delight in carving up my pumpkin, usually whilst indulging in a nice macabre film – that’s an oxymoron if ever you heard one. Whilst I’m sure you can get large pumpkins here, I haven’t actually seen any – they’re all piddly little things that would take two minutes to carve out and scrape. Naturally, when we took to carving these, the insides didn’t yield enough to make my usual pumpkin pie. I miss the smell of nutmeg and cinnamon wafting through the house as the candle inside the pumpkin flickers through the gaping mouth.

Here, however, the time around the end of October and the beginning of November is certainly nothing to be sniffed at and dismissed as boring, because they don’t do Hallowe’en. It’s the time to celebrate their own special festival – La Castañadas. This festival celebrates all that is autumnal, centring around something we also eat in this season: the chestnut. This humble little nut has sparked off years of traditional celebration in Catalonia. The school spent days preparing for this: in the dinner hall, their version of a Guy was set up and displayed. The children stuff clothes with newspaper to form a large ‘abuela’ – grandma. In our school, a stuffed old lady in what seems to be ragged or old clothing sits in a deckchair, frying pan smouldering on the fire, chestnuts dotted around the pan and floor accordingly. Select children dress up as the elderly lady, daubing rouge on their cheeks, adorning a headscarf, and pulling on ropey old skirts with a motheaten jumper. It’s become a happy celebration, much like Hallowe’en, instead of the sombre remembrance of the dead that it used to be. The children didn’t have lessons on Friday, and were hugely excited by the fact that thanks to the little old chestnut, they could spend the day playing games, watching films, and screaming in the corridor.

La Castañera - that old chestnut.

It’s not just chestnuts that are eaten on La Castañadas. When the festival was being described to me, I had difficulty not showing my inner disgust when they described some of the typical foods consumed. Now I’ve come to try them, I’m pleasantly surprised, but ask yourself what you would be thinking when you overheard dinner conversation (in Spanish) about recipes for panellets, one of the typical foodstuffs enjoyed at this festival. Here’s what I managed to piece together:-

– You take a potato, peel it, boil it, and mash it down, same as mashed potato.

–  You add ground almonds to the potato and mix it all together, to form a sort of dough.

–  Roll the dough into balls and glaze with egg. Cover in pine nuts and put in the oven, until golden brown.

Perhaps it doesn’t sound the most exciting of treats – the combination of egg, potato, and ground almonds didn’t really appeal to me, particularly when I learned you can flavour the mix with chocolate powder or similar to change the taste. However, I powered through my apprehension, and I’m glad I did. The taste isn’t like anything I’ve had before – somehow the almonds make it taste rather grainy and sweet, like a marzipan that hasn’t quite formed correctly or has gone wrong. You have lots of different types to contest with, also. Go to any Forn de Pan (baker’s), and you’ll see rows and rows of little panellets, all lined up and ready to be boxed up, tied with a ribbon, and taken to the family to share over the long weekend.

Panellets, accompanied with coffee, are the perfect weekend treat.

A lot of the recipes and foods I see here, I wish we had in England. I’ve rather taken to the ensaimada, a roll of sweet pastry curled up like a snail, and dusted with icing sugar, that can contain custard like a danish pastry, be eaten by itself, or be glazed with chocolate for that extra cheeky treat. Another treat is Cacaolac, that the children seem to live off, a rich milkshake type drink, so sweet that if you drink it quickly, your head starts to spin. They eat a lot of meat, of course, and the smoked sausages, cured hams, and chorizo, are wonderful, if a little on the salty side. Oil is daubed on everything – but it’s okay, because it’s olive oil, and that means it’s healthy, or at least they keep telling me.

Ensaimadas, the trick to a healthy Spanish diet...or not.

Then we have other things that I just know the English do better. A good pint of milk, a sponge cake, and, here’s one you might not have suspected – asparagus. Asparagus here is often seen in jars, like pickles, and it’s white. They have green asparagus, but it’s not as common. And heaven forbid that you should do the usual boil it in a pan, and serve alone, with a good slab of salty butter to dip the stalks in. I described this as one of my favourite childhood meal accompaniments, and was met with revulsion: ‘Asparagus! Boiled! But you can’t possibly! And with BUTTER! You crazy English.’ Normally I’ll submit and say their diet is healthier, and mostly better in every way, as it’s fresher and less laden with fat, but this one I’ve got to give to the Brits. Here, you’ll have asparagus fried in oil and salt, something that to me takes the wonderful taste of the vegetable away, and makes it just taste like olive oil – which they obviously enjoy, seeing as they lather it on everything from salad to green beans, to potatoes. They’ll be telling me it goes rather well with jam roly poly, next…