Originally posted Thursday, October 13, 2013
It’s been a pretty boring time in the Pacific Northwest, where I find myself these days. Not much to write about. I get up and go to work every weekday, I take a guitar lesson every other Saturday, and I’ve begun sitting in on flamenco cante (song) lessons on Sundays. I might write something in the future about trying to learn flamenco guitar as an old guiri (a pejorative term for a tourist in Spain, usually referring to someone who might wear socks with sandals walking on the beach in plaid Bermuda shorts and a striped shirt.) But I’ll save that for another time.
In the meantime, I thought I’d post an old essay I wrote after taking a three-week course in Spanish back in 2006.
Lessons in Learning – Spanish in Spain
From the time I was about eleven years old until graduating high school, a pair of reproduction paintings hung on my bedroom wall. One was of a finely-featured, dark-haired, beautiful flamenco dancer in a red dress. The other was a matador in his gold and red brocade uniform – his
A ten-year relationship with a woman of Spanish heritage and a native-speaker of Spanish fanned the flames. I watched in admiration and adoration as she danced Flamenco. Music of Gypsy
And pigs can fly.
When we eventually parted ways, I realized I had squandered ten years that I could have been learning Spanish with the opportunity to speak on a regular basis – a necessity for becoming fluent in any language. No problem, I thought, I’ll just buy a course on CD and a book or two and learn it on my own. I found Barron’s Spanish for Reading to be a very good source for self-directed study. But after going through it twice, I found I could begin to make sense of the written language, but couldn’t follow a word of whatever soap operas or news programs were on Univision. Obviously, I needed to turn up the thermostat on my study habits. I enrolled in an adult education class at my local community college. After a semester of three hours of class a week, but no one to speak Spanish with for the other 165 hours, I still had made relatively little progress.
I had spent two weeks in Spain with my ex-girlfriend where she was the tour guide and I was the dumb (in both senses of the word) hanger-on. A return trip to Spain took on the importance in my mind of another breath of air. But that old joke weighed heavily on my mind:
What do you call someone who speaks three languages? Trilingual.
What do you call someone who speaks two languages? Bilingual.
What do you call someone who speaks one language? American.
I was not going to go back to Spain as an arrogant, ignorant American, expecting everyone else to speak English or try to understand my hand gestures and pidgin-Spanish. It was time to get serious about learning this language. It was time for total immersion – language school in Spain.
Finding a language school is no problem. They’re about as common in Spain as Starbucks in Seattle. Googling “language schools
Having a daughter in a private college and trying to get back on my feet after a rough few years of un- and under-employment after the dot-com crash in Seattle, I was not a “man of means.” Price was important. But competition for the tourist dollar (or pound, or euro, or
So, how to decide?
My goal was to learn the language. I wanted class time and teaching by native speakers. On this
Next consideration: I’m going far, far away to a place where I don’t speak the language. Spending a lot of money for classes, lodging, and airfare – all paid up front. If I choose an unscrupulous, fly-by-night school, I’m likely to be up a creek without a paddle. How did I finally choose my school? Simple: I ordered some brochures and went to the school that had the most expensively produced, four-color brochure; the one that said, “We’ve been here, and we’re going to continue to be here. We’re not cheap, but you get what you pay for.”
Act One: – The Decision
I made the right decision: Don Quijote, with several schools not only in Spain but also Mexico and Peru. The school has a residence (dormitory) where you can have a separate room with bath, shared
My own experience in the residence, however, was somewhat different. Admittedly, I was nearing what used to be
The school itself was about a kilometer from the residence, which was an easy morning walk through the “newer” part of old Granada, existing only from Renaissance times, as opposed to the old part of town, dating from the middle ages, previously occupied by the Moors and Jews before they were evicted from Spain in 1492 by Ferdinand and Isabella. (One of the biggest mistakes in Spanish political history. But again, I digress.) Upon arriving at the residence by taxi from the airport, provided by the school, I was given a map of the city with the route to the school clearly shown. As it was only around 7:00 P.M. and much too early to go to bed, even though I was dead tired after traveling over 24 hours from downstate Illinois, I decided to walk to the school to make sure I would know where it was in the morning.
Act Two: Arrival
Street names in Granada, as in Sevilla and Madrid, the only two cities in Spain with which I’m slightly familiar, are on tiles on the sides of buildings. Sometimes you can find them, sometimes not. Sometimes they are covered by scaffolding and tarps for the ubiquitous remodeling that seems to be the national pass time. Sometimes they are covered by other signs put up for who-knows-what-reason. A joke? A type of vandalism? Preparation for a change of street name? On my next
After about an hour and a half of wandering, my confidence appeared more than slightly misplaced. I hadn’t found the school, and couldn’t tell where I was on the map. The sun had set and I hadn’t brought my reading glasses so I couldn’t read the streets on the map (remember the “old-
Most of the streets in that part of the city are little more than an alley between multi-storied buildings. I’m sure a horse could traverse them comfortably. In most of them, two horses might even pass each other without much trouble. In nice weather, as it was during May while I was there, paseo, going for a walk, is how families and friends pass the evening. People dress up for a stroll through town to see friends, or just spend time with others talking, having ice cream, sharing a glass of Rioja wine and a plate of tapas at the bar: basically being Spanish. The young people dress to be seen and there is no lack of beautiful Spanish women. I’m sure there are handsome young men with the women, but to be honest, I don’t remember seeing them. What I do remember is thinking, “These people are, in somewhat gentle, PC terms, height-weight proportionate!” I thought of the flights from Chicago to Brussels to Barcelona to Granada (yes, I took the round-about route and saved mucho dinero!). On each
I continued walking and, what do you know, came to the cathedral again. No, I wasn’t walking in circles and it I realized it wasn’t the cathedral, it was just the average Catholic church from the 17th or 18th century. I had thought that the church I was near, the largest edifice I had seen for some time and certainly larger than any church I was used to in the States, was the Cathedral of Granada. Wrong. In a town of a quarter million people, where, in centuries past, everyone had to be Catholic, and everyone had to attend Mass on Sunday morning to show that they were obviously Catholic (the Inquisition watched for anyone who didn’t demonstrate enough Catholicism), there had to be a lot of churches, and they had to be enormous. I was still lost in Granada. It was now completely dark, I spoke very little Spanish, I was dead tired, and I had no idea where I was except in beautiful, historic Granada, Andalucía, España. It was an exhilarating feeling. I’d wanted to be in Spain for decades, as long as I can remember, and here I was. The fact that I had no idea where I was or how to ask directions, even if I had known the address of the residence, was of no import whatsoever. I was walking the same streets Queen Isabella walked before anybody but the Vikings and Native Americans even knew my country existed. Narrow, winding streets presented a kaleidoscope of history and architecture everywhere I turned. I had no fear of any person, sensing an inexplicable feeling of personal safety. Granada. Spain. I was finally here.
I eventually found my way back to the residence around 11:00 P.M., and even found the school without any problem the next morning. Maybe a good night’s sleep helped me to think more clearly. Possibly the light of day, or the fact that I had my reading glasses with me and could read the tiny print on the map. At any rate, the school was right where the map said it was, in a four-story building on a narrow street near the Ribera del Genil – the bank of the Genil River that runs through Granada.
Act Three: The City
Spanish cities are noisy, and Granada is no exception. The Gran Via, or Avenida Colon(it carries both names), and the centuries-old buildings along it near the residence were undergoing major reconstruction and remodeling. Several building fronts were covered with steel scaffolding and the ever-present tarps for dust abatement. The street and sidewalks were being torn up in several places to lay conduit and drain pipes. The sound of jackhammers and the whine of two-cycle mopeds was constant. Still, the new faces on the buildings that had been completed were beautiful works of craftsmanship and décor that
Classes at Don Quijote are separated into 6 levels to serve those who know absolutely nothing about the language, to those who come to study the philosophical underpinnings of Spanish classical literature, and everyone in between. After a few years of attempting to learn the language through osmosis, I found myself, disappointingly, only at level two. I had learned enough to ask what time it
Classes were from 9:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. with a half hour break in the middle, five days a week. I had signed up for three weeks – my entire vacation for the year. My classmates all spoke English, even though they were from Holland, Romania, Switzerland, France, and other countries. (There were, of course, a few from England and the States also.) This was unfortunate because it allowed me to speak English outside of class, the one thing I did not want to do. I wanted to be forced to communicate in Spanish all the time; to get as much bang for the buck as possible. Total forced immersion. I found that the soul is willing but the flesh is weak. After three and a half hours of struggling to understand the instructor and speak a foreign language, the ability to actually communicate a complex thought was like a swim in a cool oasis after crossing the Sahara. After several decades of being able to speak fluently in past, present, perfect, subjunctive, and all other tenses and actually express complex thoughts and emotions, being relegated to the realm of “I like pizza” and “Please, may I have another glass of water” was frustrating
Classes are taught entirely in Spanish, even for the beginner classes. This is frustrating for some, but is necessary and proper. With students from any country in a class, explaining anything in one student’s native language is necessarily going to leave others out. Additionally, the instruction is advertised as being “total immersion.” You’re thrown into the pool and you learn to swim as best you can. Nothing terrible is going to happen to you, other than a serious trial of your ability to handle frustration. If you choose to spend a few weeks at Don Quijote or any other immersion language school, you have to go with the attitude that you’re going to get as much as you can from the experience of living in another language and culture. Mental and emotional preparation is key. Everything is different; comparisons are invalid.
The first day was as expected – taking care of administrivia, dividing the new students into the appropriate classes based on tests taken on-line prior to arrival, and the first class. I don’t know if the other students felt they were as fortunate with their teachers as I was; maybe they’re all that good at Don Quijote. But the teachers I was fortunate to be assigned, Laura and Montse for vocabulary and grammar
After the first class the new students were taken on a walking tour of the city where we learned among other things:
- There are more pubs in Spain per capita than any other European country, but fewer alcoholics per capita than any other. At least until the current generation, it was very socially unacceptable and considered very low-class to appear to be even slightly inebriated or out of control (borracho) in public: Honor is important above all. It is also considered poor manners – mal educada – to drink without eating, thus you will always be served appetizers, or tapas, when you order a drink in a pub.
- There is very little violent crime in Granada. (My feelings of safety the first night were well-founded.) You have to always be aware of the possibility of a purse snatcher or a pick pocket in the crowd, but that is about all. I wandered around the business area and the Albaicin all hours of the night and early hours of the morning and never had the slightest problem or even felt that I might.
- The central business area dates from the Renaissance era, after Ferdinand and Isabella evicted the Muslims and Jews. The Albaicin, across the river from the Alhambra is from the middle ages and was the home of the Muslims; The Realejo, the area just south of the Alhambra, was the Jewish quarter. The houses and other buildings are still standing and provide many interesting walks through the narrow streets, with whitewashed walls and tile roofs, still providing residences for many of Granada’s population. You can also find hostels, tea houses (teterías), and restaurants and if you’re lucky enough to happen upon it, the last home of Max Moreau which is a charming little house and now a free museum. If you have a good map you can find it at Camino Nuevo de San Nicol, 12.
- Columbus’ second voyage was financed with proceeds of the property of the evicted Jews and Muslims which was either confiscated outright or bought from them at
fire saleprices as they were forced to leave by the court of the Catholic Monarchs and then resold to wealthy supporters of the crown. This is truly a sad period of Spanish history and caused untold grief and death among the thousands of evictees, not to mention the loss of great talent, knowledge, and entrepreneurship from which Spain did not recover until the twentieth century. In fact, in my humble opinion, no matter how much economic, cultural, and social progress Spain may make, the losses of those four hundred years can never be recovered.
I have to admit one disappointment with my experience with
That’s not to say that I didn’t meet other people. I even found a great line to use when I wanted to meet a woman, however, inexplicably, it hasn’t worked as well since I’ve returned home. Normally I’d be in a crowd waiting for a flamenco performance to start (do not, repeat, do not miss the flamenco if you go to Spain), and I’d turn to the woman next to me and say, “Do you speak English?” If she did, we were off and running, having a wonderful conversation. If not, and she spoke Spanish, I would stumble through in Spanish as best I could. During my entire stay there, I didn’t meet one person who wasn’t very friendly.
Permit me to take a small detour. I can’t
Take some of those same performers, let them dance, sing, and play in a tiny, smoke-filled pub, the audience sitting and standing shoulder to shoulder, and you have a perfect educational juxtaposition of commercialism and art. In fact, that’s what happened the following evening. I nightlife on a pub that didn’t even open until 10:00 at night. (This is normal for Spain. Performances were at 10:30 and 1:00 a.m.) There was to be a flamenco performance with two of the male dancers, one of the singers and one of the guitarists from the previous night at the Sacramonte. ¡Ole! and ¡Hasa!and other exclamations of encouragement and sheer excitement were heard constantly. I’m sure there were some tourists in the audience; I was there, after all. But for the most part, this was a performance for the cognoscenti, for people who knew when to vocally encourage, when to applaud, who knew the difference between a
I went to Granada to study Spanish, but the truth is, I didn’t study enough, I wasn’t as diligent with my homework as I should have been. But it’s not my fault. Really.
After lunch, it was time to go back to the residence for a siesta. This is one custom that proves the Spanish have it all over the Americans and Northern Europeans. After only three weeks in Spain, I found it incomprehensible that I should be expected to go the whole afternoon without a siesta. Completely uncivilized. ¡Qué horrible! After siesta, there was more sightseeing to do in any direction I might choose to walk. I enjoyed mostly going up into the Albaicin, where every turn revealed a beautiful courtyard or building or spectacular view of Granada as I climbed higher and higher toward Sacramonte.
If you get the chance to be out late (by U.S. standards, not Spanish), say, until 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning drinking and dancing, leave the disco and give yourself another hour to experience a still, peaceful Granada. There will still be some people about and a few cars on the road, but the whine of the mopeds, the sound of cars and buses, the construction noise will have abated. Should you be fortunate enough to take your paseo under a full moon, the buildings will be illuminated by the same natural blue light you would have seen when King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella decided to take over the Alhambra as their “home away from home.” Stand silently in the plaza in front of the Cathedral and look up. The sight of her spires silhouetted against the blue-moon sky, the sounds of the night, the scents of plant life and building-life (for they seem to come to life in the moonlight) can be delicious and wondrous. At this time of
All is not peace, contentment, and beauty in Granada. One will not be able to ignore the problem of graffiti everywhere. If it doesn’t move, someone will paint on it. I have to admit, I did see two paintings worthy of a canvas, but most of it is straight out of the New York ghettos. I have no basis for
Postlude: If You Go
If you decide to study Spanish at Don Quijote or any other full immersion school in Spain, prepare yourself to meet uncountable wonderful people, who, like you, are adventurous in spirit, desirous of learning, well-read, worldly, conversant in many topics, and generally a hell of a lot of fun to be around. It takes a special kind of person to want to spend a hard-earned vacation in language school, and the camaraderie among the students is instant and strong. You’ll find no boring people among your classmates – everyone has a story or two to tell and the only problem in the whole experience is where to sneak in a few hours a night to get some sleep so you can concentrate on tomorrow’s lesson. Go ahead and plan to spend a few extra dollars (euros) on a cell phone so you can keep in touch with your new-found friends while you’re wandering the city. Arranging for the evening’s activities after your siesta is difficult when everyone goes their separate ways to whatever accommodations they’ve arranged if you don’t have a cell phone. The small price will greatly enhance your enjoyment of Granada.
I’m not a savvy traveler by any means. I’ve been to Spain twice for a total of five weeks, some other Western European countries once many years ago, Manila and Canada more recently. But I’ve learned a little and I love to give advice, so here goes. Mostly, I’ve learned to not compare. Looking for a roll of strapping tape my last day in Granada was an experience. In the States, I’d go to Wal-Mart or any grocery store and find what I was looking for. I couldn’t find the Wal-Mart in Granada (is it possible they’re not there yet?) and the grocery store sold (what else?) food. Period. I knew some kind of shop would sell
Leave your habits and expectations at home. Spanish society and customs were old and engrained many centuries before the United States was a twinkle in Thomas Jefferson’s eye. Some of the greatest philosophers of the middle ages came from Spain, as did the greatest novel