Monday, October 29, 2007

I descend into Hell

The alarm goes off at 8:00 am. It is still dark out. I roll out of bed, collect my clothes and computer and silently pad into the hall and get dressed so as not to wake Wendy any more than I have to. Then I heat up some two day old coffee, down it in one gulp, sit down for a couple minutes to read email and then the coffee starts to hit. I have a quick shower, dress and I am off to class. How odd to be worrying about being late to class again. I was sure I had left that long behind me. Will the dreams of showing up in class naked haunt my dreams? How about being late and unprepared for a test? Ah yes, the joys of returning to school after twenty years. Twenty years? Man I am old.

Wandering up the streets to the metro I see row after row of tiny Spanish business people in suits drinking coffee and eating churros in the same bars that are open longer into the night than anything similar in America. At nine a.m. only a handful of shops have opened up and the sun is still low in the sky. McDonalds is still closed. The blind guy is awake and on the corner selling lottery tickets though. "PARA HOY...."

The subway station is nearly empty. Only a dozen or so people waiting. The train pulls up comfortably crowded. Four stops later, a Red Bull, a chocolate donut and then I’m sitting in class.

With me is a fit, jolly, 48 year old English biciclist named “Dale.” We exchange greetings and then four young women come in, talking excitedly about their weekend. I had been warned about this on the boards. Too much energy and youth can make for a bad class for an old fart like me. A teacher sticks her head in, says a paragraph of Spanish and the girls respond in kind. The girls collect their bags and leave. Dale and I exchange laughter.

“Didn’t understand a word of that.”
“Me Neither. I was worried for a second there.”

Two more women come into the room. A slightly older than us woman named Marion and her friend Ann. They are from Wales.

Joining us last, is our teacher, Louisa. A tiny little Spaniard with short hair, a cute face and a skin tight dress that comes to the middle of her thighs. Without a word, she gestures for us all to rise. Then she picks up a ball, points to herself and says “Me llamo Louisa. Como se llama? and then throws the ball to me. After a moments thought I say “Me llamo Jamie. Come se llama?” and then I throw the ball to one of the women who stares at it blankly, says the wrong thing and throws it back to me. Louisa takes the ball from me. Repeats everything that just happened, except I toss the ball to someone else this time. He says “Me llamo Dale.” The woman says “Ah ha!”

Diferent phrases are taught to us this way, the person with the ball always being the one to speak. This so rocks. I actually understand what is going on throughout the excercises. Have I mentioned how much I hate feeling like a dumb shit? Well, I do. And today, the very first day of Spanish class, thankfully, I don’t feel like a dumb shit at all.

The next exercise is a handout. On one side of the page is a list of words, on the other side is a list of pictures with lines under them for writing those words in. Clearly, match up the words to the pictures. I so rock at this. My vocabulary is huge. Massive even.

After that another hand out and some crayons. I color within the lines and get a smile and a gold star. When that’s done Louisa tells us to get our little blankies out and everyone curls up on the floor for a nap. At 11:30 we’re woken up and told its snack time and we file downstairs to get liquid and food. I get a coffee and a hamburger and find out some more about my three classmates. A half an hour later, we’re back in class.

The afternoon session was more pictures, a small amount of her talking, then us repeating and learning how to say “Who are you?”, “I am,” “Where are you from?,” “I am from,” etc.
It was awesome and a lot of my trepidation about Spanish class is gone by the time I get home. I had a good time, met some great people in class, wasn’t filled with anxiety or shame. Good stuff.

Day two we had a different teacher. She comes in, introduces herself and then says ”Madrid es la capital de España y de la Comunidad de Madrid, en la que se configuró la antigua Provincia de Madrid. Es conocida habitualmente como villa y corte. Con una población según el censo de 2006 de 3.128.600 habitantes y 3.205.334 según el padrón municipal de 2006 (5.843.031 contando su área metropolitana), es la mayor ciudad del país y la tercera área urbana de la Unión Europea.

Como capital de la nación, Madrid alberga las sedes del Gobierno, Cortes, principales centros de la Administración pública central, Instituciones y Organismos del Estado, así como de la residencia oficial de los reyes de España. En el plano económico, destaca como importante centro financiero e industrial, sede de numerosas empresas nacionales y de varias de las más grandes corporaciones del mundo , mientras que en el plano internacional, acoge la sede mundial de la Organización Mundial del Turismo (OMT) y organiza la feria FITUR. Madrid es un influyente centro cultural nacional y cuenta con museos de referencia internacional entre los que destacan el Museo del Prado, el Thyssen-Bornemisza y el Museo Reina Sofía.

Ahora, JAMIE, dígame de dónde eres.”

What I just heard held about as much meaning to me as the sounds of two cats fighting. And now she’s pointing at me with an expectant look in her eye.

“Me llamo Jamie?”

Her eyelids lower. She shakes her head sadly. I slowly descend into Hell.

Current accepted theory of teaching a language is to only speak that language to the students. Never explain anything in the student’s native language. This works out great when the students already speak the language you’re teaching. For me, that doesn’t work so well.

The entire day is a nightmare. Somehow, Dale, Ann and Marion are all able to follow along with what the teacher is asking of us and then I am either able to pick up what I’m supposed to be doing after they do a few examples, or one of them explains it to me.

As we file out of the class, everyone encourages me to stick with it.

The teacher encourages us to buy a workbook for the class and we agree and she gives us homework for the evening out of it. The next day is slightly easier because we start to do more excercises from the workbook and go over the homework that I agonized over for hours the night before. I’m learning, but it’s really a struggle.

Thusday we have Louisa again and I am at peace. A great day. I say a silent prayer at the end of th day - Please God let her return to being our teacher. Thursday is the second teacher again. At lunch I compare notes with my wonderful, helpful classmates –

Let me tell you about them -

Dale made some money in the tech business and while he claims he’s not wealthy, admits that he probably will never need to work again. He is British, but spent the last year in Australia. He bikes a lot and is tied with Marion for being the most knowledgable in the class. He met a Spanish girl one night while on a bike trip, they corresponded for a bit and now he is living here for a month with her to see how things might work out. He laughs a lot and is very jolly. He is always in a good mood, always making subtle jokes and happy about everything.

Marion and Ann live next door to each other in Wales. Marion admits she could be in a higher level class but enjoys being in class with Ann and they are vacationing together. They play tennis in the summer and have been friends for thirty years. She is now divorced after a thirty four year marriage.

Ann is about my skill level as far as Spanish is concerned. She has a daughter in law from Argentina that now lives in Madrid and all her relatives-in-law speak Spanish and she wants to converse better with them.

Friday pretty much sucked. I can’t translate fast enough to understand the instuctions or the explanations. If you show me a picture, say the word that corresponds with the picture, I get it. Trying to explain a lesson about Spanish, IN Spanish, just doesn’t gel with me. I can't fathom how it gels with anyone. On Friday at lunch we compare notes. Ann and I like Louisa the best. Marion and Dale like the other teacher better and explain that Louisa is too slow.

Friday is Marion and Ann’s last day. The class all has a drink at a bar down the street to say farewell. Marion and Ann invite me to Wales and ask me to bring Wendy and promise we can stay with them and we’ll play tennis together. Lovely women whom I greatly enjoyed being with in the same class.

Monday we have a new student; Destiny. She is a tiny American who I assume is about nineteen or twenty years old. We soon find out she’s thirty, likes whisky, is living with her Spanish fluent American boyfriend in Spain and is on sabbatical from work for a couple of months. She is about equidistant from Dale and I in Spanish knowledge. Better than I, but not as good as Dale so it works out fine.

Horror of horrors, we also have yet another new teacher. This one speaks even faster than the last one, doesn’t use the same workbook, has an accent that fucks me up, and makes the mistake a lot of teachers make; she teachers to the level of the most learned student. Which means she’ll have us do an exercise, one of the other students will answer all of the questions, she’ll say “Good” and move along to the next lesson.

I continue to wonder how the people I’m with understand what she is saying. If I could listen and translate that fast, I wouldn’t need the class!

The timeline of things gets a little blurry for me here. We continue to switch teachers every few days and some days we use the work book I bought and some days we use photocopies handed out in class from other workbooks depending on the teacher. Each teacher has a different accent, a different speed of speaking and a different method of teaching.

No longer comfortable at all, each day is a fresh new Hell.

To make matters even worse, my anxiety is rising. Each day it gets harder and harder to force myself to go to class. I actually start to drink a beer in the morning before I leave the house to calm my anxiety. I start class bathed in sweat and for the first half an hour just wonder what the Hell is going on. Some days I make sense of it and other days it's just a nightmare. At night I write out flashcards of the vocabulary I’m learning and lie on the couch and flip through them. I spend each night learning the stuff I was supposed to somehow have known in class that day. (As I type this I have over two hundred that I go through about every other day.)

Class becomes a struggle internally of the good and the bad. Each day is unbelievably painful and stressful, but the knowledge I've gained is undeniable.

Remember that conversation I failed to have with the hair stylist in my last entry? I know that today I could have that conversation comfortably. When we watch Spanish TV at night, I understand a lot more. Also, thanks to the Rosetta Stone software, my vocabulary is immense.

I just can’t translate phrases fast enough to understand the teacher. I can write sentances very well given enough time. I demonstrate this daily in class. And I believe I know more nouns than anyone else in the class. But I still cannot understand the instructions or the explanations given each day.

For instance – the teacher will say a paragraph of Spanish and then start saying the names of Spanish cities and towns, pausing for about five seconds between each one. All the other students start writing, I sit there like a dumb shit. What am I supposed to be writing down?

Or, she’ll use (all the teachers have been female) Spanish to explain how a grammar rule works… in Spanish. Since I don’t know enough Spanish to know what she’s saying, the explanation means nothing to me. I see a word on the board, some arrows, and hear a lot of sounds that might be rap or thunder. Every five seconds or so I’ll hear a word I know, translate it into English and wonder what the other fifty words that just went by meant.

Not fun.

To make matters worse, I don’t know what to do about it. The other students have no problem keeping up, so it must be me, not the teacher. I could speak to the administrator, but like the rest of the teachers, she doesn’t speak enough English for me to feel confident that I am getting my point across.

Next - The thrilling conclusion.


  1. Great read dude. I'd trade places with you if I could. Heather and I are trying to find a place and a lot of people are just assholes. I really have a nice apartment right now. A woman called me back today, was a bitch about telling me about the apartment, was a bitch about me trying to set up a time to meet with her, and was a bitch about my cats and told me there is a $300 security deposit per cat. That's on top of the $1000 security deposit. I wouldn't be pissed if she was at least nice and business like about the matter rather then the way she was.

  2. Que?
    Felt the same way when I moved to Albuquerque for high school coming from Mississippi. You'll be speaking "sexy" spanish in no time.

  3. Jaimie, the most important thing is that you feel the progress (of course there will be enough days when you don´t...) Just remember, this is all good for you - great brain exercise and a big lesson - how else could you learn all those things about yourself, how to get to know all different people, how to communicate on a completely unknown level, and in the end a lesson in humanity and humility by being different and foreign... Its so enriching and ALL GOOD! hope I made sense...?

  4. Well done sir! You're doing the right thing. I bet you're dreaming in Spanish every night. That feeling rocks.

    Don't forget; No pain, no gain. Jamie, enjoy your world of pain. Savor it like a burning, aching muscle.


  5. I remember being 10 years old, thrust into a French school and feeling the exact same anxiety and frustration you describe. Grammar lessons taught in the unknown language were horrible, but for me the worst part was History class. French history, taught in French at full speed. I barely understood one word and felt so humiliated.

    I hope you can take some encouragement from the progress you are making. Week by week, month by month your brain will absorb and grow stronger. I highly recommend you keep up your "homework" on Rosetta Stone and TV and stick with it.

  6. Not fun.
    Reality check time J man

    Where are you?
    What are you doing?
    Who are you with?

    Where were you 2 years ago?
    What were you doing 2 years ago?

    Is feeling a little stupid important enough to worry about?

    Similar to Learning Martial Arts. No one is in class because the already KNOW how to do it. Everyone is there because they DON'T.
    Ask questions. Raise Hands. Make them tell you what is going on.

    I think that I will feel something of what you are going through for a brief second as the waves reach for the 20 ft mark and the winds are comeing from the wrong direction and the engine wont start. For like a second. Then I will laugh until i have tears coming out of my eyes. For the Doing of it. For the pain of it. For the joy of being alive.

    Your a struggling american writer living in Spain. How Marlin Brando of you. As you say.
    Persistance and Determination alone are omnipotent.

    or in language you can understand
    Less QQ more Pew Pew. kthxbye.


  7. Jamie, keep up with the study, it has to get easier from here! But I'd lay off the breakfast beer....

  8. Jamie I can feel your pain as I listened to my son talk on the phone to his friend last night comparing what they have learned in Spanish. I am sure one of the sentences translated into something really bad about the mom, but I couldn't tell.

    Keep going it will get easier.

  9. jamie..all the hurdles you have leapt across...please don't give up and for god sake lay off the morning booze!! Study hard and good luck....