Sunday, January 27, 2008

Angelina Jolie joins the class.

Spanish class goes in waves. It ebbs and flows depending on the teacher, the students and how smart my feeble brain feels like being that day. At the school I am at now, we have the same teacher in the morning but in the afternoon, we have a different teacher every two to three days to get us used to different accents and speeds of speech.

On a good day, I will be in a class of interesting, like-level students and my brain will randomly decide to remember everything I’ve learned about Spanish. The afternoon teacher will arrive with games and discussion that I find interesting, and I will have to rein myself in from speaking too much and dominating the conversation. I will leave with a smile on my face and will have had a great day.

On a bad day, I will be in a class with listless, boring students or perhaps students that have been studying Spanish for a decade and are only here for the next few weeks for a review. And when I say “for a review” translate that as “to make me feel as dumb as a donut.” In the afternoon, the teacher will come in and speak way too fast, the other students will understand (having studied Spanish for a decade) everything the teacher just said and I and three other students will sit there wondering what’s going on. Then all of us will be mortified in turn when the teacher calls on us. Or she’ll show up with a list of vocabulary words and write them on the board and there will be no discussion what-so-ever.

Two Fridays ago (Jan 18th) I had an awesome Spanish class. Montse was the vocabulary teacher in the afternoon and she is one of my top two favorite Spanish teachers I have ever had. She is a little younger than I, short, pretty, and not afraid to use English to explain a concept. What you might not know is that everyone speaks English. If Montse can’t act out a verb or phase, she’ll happily just resort to English and every nationality in the class immediately knows what she means.


I love that. Nothing frustrates me more than a teacher trying to explain a word that means some vague esoteric feeling using a bunch of Spanish words most of the class doesn’t understand.

When I first started in this school Montse was the teacher that I had in the mornings for grammar. That was a great class. She made me feel comfortable right away, and my classmates were excellent. Most of them were brand new students (like me) and only a couple were reviewing what they had done, which was very little.

There was the irreverent Weitze who didn’t take the teacher's request very serious ("Weitze, put the dictionary away!" or "Weitz, finish your beer!") and always had a joke. He was Dutch, spoke perfect English, was nicely groomed and wore an ascot every day because his "neck gets cold." He hated the quirks of the Spanish language and let us all know it. We had some fine bitch sessions.

There was Daniel from Germany. This was a repeat for him and like many Europeans, he used his vacation time to come to Madrid and learn another language. (What? How foreign is that from American?) Daniel is back for the third time and repeating the exercises he did last year. He was quiet, thin, and a little bit shorter than me.

A very pretty Italian girl whose name I don’t remember because I’m an awful writer and should have taken notes…

Emily from England. Rail thin, twenty, witty, cheerful and surprisingly beautiful.

Weitze’s roommate - another very nice guy whose name I don’t remember. Thin, polite, about twenty years old. In two months he was going to Central America for a job. A Spanish speaking job. Good luck!

Another German girl with a thick, thick accent that was the most experienced Spanish speaker of all of us but I couldn’t understand a word she said.

Masa, the tiny Japanese guy who is still at the school today, far ahead of me but we speak at lunch sometimes during break. Well, he speaks and I nod, secretly wondering if I should be nodding or shaking my head.

Most of them had very little Spanish. Like me, this was their first time or they were only repeating the lesson we were on once. I’ve found many times that I’ll be put into a class with people who test at my level, but have actually had years of Spanish or have been studying it off and on for a decade before attending this class. Not so this time!

Those were my first classmates in the new school. And Montse was the teacher. We had a blast. I loved Spanish then. The afternoon classes were a bit tougher since some of the teacher’s suuuuuuuck with a capital suck, but it didn’t matter so much because I wasn’t the only one lost, everyone was lost. Yay! I didn’t feel dumb as a donut because we were all just a big box of dumb donuts. There was solidarity to our big dumb donutness.

“Well, that sucked” I would say when class ended. And everyone would laugh and agree and then we’d go out for beers and pizza and talk about how awful the professor was.

The students in my current class are quite a bit different. Two German girls who are both pretty good at Spanish, but quiet and sedate so they don’t have long rambling discussions with the teacher I can’t follow. Then there are the three nuns. Literally. No joke there, they have head scarves and everything. One is from the Congo, one from Uganda, and the last from the Philippines.

The class is taught by Pilar. Another tiny Spaniard she stands about 4’11 with short black hair. She has two kids and likes to sing. So much so she sings a lot in class. She will sing phases in Spanish, address us in singsong, and sing verbs to us. She’s quite a trip. Sadly and badly she likes to assign us a lot of homework. Double or even triple the amount the other teachers do. When the vocabulary teachers enter in the afternoon, they will look at the board in wonder and comment on how many exercises Pilar has written on the board for our homework. I told her this on Friday and she explained that we were all doing review, we knew all this stuff and it was simple for us. Once it got hard (groan, this is easy?) she would lighten the load.

At the end of the class she assigned exercises 48-51, 67, 69, 72, 125, 187-194, and then went insane and wrote 199, 200, 201, all the way up to 210. Everyone in the class laughed at the absurdity and simultaneously groaned. None of us could believe it. Five exercises is an hour’s work. Then a notion hit me and I flipped to the back of the book.

The exercises ended at 198.

I smiled. “Pilar, Pilar, Pilar.”

She held a finger to her lips, shushed me and smiled.

Monday morning we all had a good laugh.

So, as I said, Friday was awesome. I left confident, happy and amused. I went to class Monday full of vim and vigor and that lasted until two new students joined us. Both Italian. Italians are the bane of my existence in Spanish class. Italian is so similar to Spanish it would be like me flying to England or Australia and taking an English course. The accent and local slang would throw me off, but I’m pretty sure I could understand what was going on pretty easily.

Thirty minutes into the class, it was already a nightmare. The male of the two would interrupt the teacher with some finer point of grammar and they would talk and laugh for thirty minutes and then the course would resume. In the afternoon, it was worse. When two people are so far ahead of the rest of the class, the teacher doesn’t seem to realize it. They think that everyone in the class is at that level so the professor will get done a twenty minute conversation with them and the rest of us will wonder what we’re discussing, what’s already been said, and whether to say if we agree or disagree.

I came home completely disheartened. Three nuns, two Italians, two Germans and me. Not a good class. I don’t see a whole lot of after school beer, pizza and kibitzing in my future.

Tuesday, the male Italian came in, picked his books off the table and moved to another class.

He was replaced by Angelina Jolie.

Her Spanish is almost the exact same level as mine. Her actual name is Katrina and she’s from England. She has the same type of features as people like Angelina Jolie and Chef / TV host Spankme Lickme. The thin frame, straight shoulder length hair, big eyes, thin face and impossibly pouty swollen lips.

It’s wonderful having another native English speaker in the class, because, honestly, we suck. In all of the classes I’ve been in, the people that struggle the most are native English speakers. Not a one of us is used to learning which nouns are masculine and which are feminine. Not a one of us is used to conjugating hundreds of verbs, or using accents above characters that change a words entire meaning. Many, many languages do this. Not English.

The next few days in class are excellent. Lily (German girl) and Katrina knew each other, so they opened up in class and it got more interesting. Lily and Hannah (the other German girl) started talking more, and the Italian girl that was still with us is much quieter than the male of the species so she talks enough to be interesting but doesn’t dominate and throw off the curve.

The nuns… still pretty quiet.

Thursday our afternoon vocabulary teacher changed and he was a kick in the ass. Andres is overflowing with life and energy and humor. And oddly enough, for a native Spaniard, spoke slowly and clearly. Pilar is my second favorite teacher and Andres is now tied for first with Montse. And he loved me. When I spoke of my love of Jamon, Rioja and Garlic (which is in every food in Spain) we bonded. ("How can you eat food without garlic?" he asked the class.) He kept the class talking, the subjects were interesting, he wrote down phases and explained things well and thoroughly and by the end of the class we had bonded even more. Friday was another excellent day in both the morning and the hilarious afternoon. Sadly, that was Lily and Hannah’s last day.

Monday will be scary. Will the class get more nuns? A couple more Italians?

Hopefully a few more native English speakers that can struggle right alongside me and Katrina.

Wouldn't that be nice?


  1. Do you know enough Spanish that you could write 1 paragraph in it next time you blog? Then translate it for us who don't know it. Just a thought, that way we can see the progress you're making.

  2. hey jamie,
    just found the page in my book where i'd written down your blog-www in class. katrina should definitely read this! she'll love this entry (so did i, great memories, i wish every spanish lesson could be as great as the ones we had with pilar & andrés in january)
    hasta luego