Thursday, 14 June 2012

Clases particulares

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So as I mentioned in my last post, I've been a bad blogger.  I'm actually home now, so technically I can't really give you adventures from Spain, but there are a few posts I wanted to do before saying adiós from cyberspace.


The first thing I want to ramble a bit about is giving private lessons whilst you're abroad.  Because it's a real hit and miss business. 

Generally, I think I've generally been very lucky this year, I've worked with some amazing families and students and really enjoyed doing private tutoring.  That said, though, I've had some bad/strange experiences  and should probably warn new assistants that it's not all plain sailing!

To begin with, you'll get the odd family who will cancel lessons on you at a moment's notice.  I had one woman who developed an annoying habit of texting me five minutes before a class was due to start, telling me her daughter had suddenly developed a migraine.  The final straw came when she cancelled because her daughter was 'tired' and I had to tell her that I was too.  Tired of eating my lunch two hours early so I could teach in my break, tired of preparing classes that I never got to teach and tired of factoring money into my budget that I never got paid.  *Grumpy face*

Then you'll have forgetful students.  You'll arrange and prepare a class and go all the way to their door to find they're not in.  This will frustrate you immensely, especially when said class isn't in the city you live in and on a Saturday.

You may also be frustrated by getting up out of bed, walking a mile, turning up to give a lesson and your student telling you they don't feel like speaking English today, thank you.  (Seriously.)

The weirdest thing though are the families that don't interact with you.   If I had a kid, I'd want to know exactly who was with them, what they were like and what they were doing.  So imagine my surprise when I turned up for the first day of a new class I'd arranged via email and a nanny who had never laid eyes on me before just left me to my own devices with two very young children.  When the mother eventually did turn up, the only thing she said to me was 'how much do you charge?'  Then she handed me the money and I left the house. 

I think what made this even more striking was that after this class, I went to another family who couldn't have been more different.  This one always welcomed me into the house, had a little chat with me, offered me a drink and then asked about their kids' progress when the lesson was over.  What a contrast.

So yeah, I suppose if you're lucky, you're lucky and if you're not, it can be pretty crap.  One good piece of advice I was given though is to make sure that you get paid a flat rate per month for private classes, rather than per lesson.  Most families will agree to this if you offer them a good deal, and the advantage for you is a steady income. Whether your student cancels/forgets/decides they can't be arsed, getting paid anyway often softens the blow!  



De vuelta al teclado

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I know that the logical title of this blog should be 'Semana Santa Parte Dos:  Un Hostal de Mierda con una Dueña  Esquizofrénica', but the holidays were so long ago that it now feels redundant to write about it all.  (I'm sorry I've been skiving so much from blogging, things have been a bit crazy of late!  This is actually a blog from the middle of May that I forgot to post and there's more to follow, os prometo!)


Anyway, I return to the keyboard tonight because I just booked my flight home.  I have only three weeks left here in La Rioja and everyone keeps asking me how I'm feeling about it.  This'll be an attempt to explain.

Put simply, I have mixed emotions.  On the one hand, I love being here, I've met some fantastic new people and I have a pretty cushy little number with my job, but on the other, it's time for me to move on.  There are lots of negative sides to this experience that a lot of people don't ever talk about, and although I don't want to complain, I'd like to clarify.

So firstly, of course, upping sticks and going to a new place involves leaving your friends, family and significant other behind.  That's not easy.  For all you may meet new people and get along with them brilliantly, they're no substitute for the people that know you best.

Secondly, I don't know if you ever quite get over your culture shock whilst you're away.  Some of it is immensely positive - I love the café culture here, the long lunches and the laid back attitude.  But I still can't believe that everything's closed between 2 and 5.  And the jornada partida (Spanish timetable of working 9-2, then 5-9, for example) will always remain an enigma to me.  


On top of that, even the most well adapted person sometimes has days when they wish they could have their home comforts.  I mean, I nearly had a mental breakdown in the supermarket the other week trying to find the right brand of tea and digestive biscuits.  It had been a particularly hard day, no-one at home was picking up the phone and the supermercado seemed to be my only salvation.  The awful realisation that it neither stocked McVities nor Tetley almost killed me.

Thirdly, the teaching does have its downsides. The first one, which you might roll your eyes at, is that it's easy.  By that, I don't mean that teaching is an easy profession, oh no, I just mean that teaching your mother tongue is not something that exactly requires you to perform intellectual somersaults.  I overheard an assistant the other day saying:  'I feel like I haven't used my brain all year' and that's kind of how I feel.  After 5 years of constantly challenging myself at university, spending my days explaining the difference between 'who', 'where', 'what' and 'when' makes me feel a bit restless.

And along with feeling restless, I'll admit at this point that I feel entirely dispensable.  I often wonder if I'm really doing anything that couldn't be done just as well in my absence.  Everyone tells me that I'm just being stupid when I say this and that there's no substitute for a native language teacher, but sometimes I'm just working from a textbook and the Spanish teacher's explanation of a concept is much clearer than mine.  You see, she's obviously had to learn all the rules of English grammar and knows why phrases are constructed in a certain way, whereas I've never really sat down to ponder when you should use what form of the future conditional...


Every once and again you do get the feeling that you're being useful though, if not for your insightful grammar explanations, but for being a young and 'fun' teacher and motivating the students to learn.  When you notice a 12 year old girl hangs on every word you say (demanding of her classmates to 'BE QUIET NOW, BECAUSE CLAIRE IS SPEAKING!') and tells you she wants to be an English teacher when she grows up, just like you, it's lovely.  Or I was telling one of my first years the other day that they would be getting a new language assistant next year and he said:  'Cómo se dice:  la nueva lectora no me va a caer tan bien?'  ('How do I say:  I won't like the new assistant as much as you?')  Unfortunately though, that tender moment was soon ruined by all his classmates shouting 'PELOTAAAAAAA!'  ('TEACHER'S PET!')  Good thing really, stops me getting too sentimental!



Sunday, 15 April 2012

Semana Santa Parte 1: Sevilla

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There are no chocolate eggs here for Easter, but I think 16 whole days off work was quite enough to compensate.  Here's the first part of what I got up to during las vacaciones.


A few weeks ago, I was trawling the websites of cheap flight companies trying to find somewhere exciting I could go without breaking the bank (although I must admit that now, the bank is well and truly broken) and the best idea seemed to be a weekend in Seville.  The Easter celebrations in the south of the country are the most famous and impressive in Spain, so I thought I might get the chance to see some of the processions in the streets whilst out exploring.  I was also hoping to put a bit of colour into my pasty skin, seeing as my idea of Seville was as a land of eternal sunshine!

I flew from Zaragoza on March 30th and the whole experience made me detest Ryanair just a little bit more.  I decided not to bother queueing to get on the flight because I was travelling myself and would probably end up sitting next to a weirdo anyway (besides, I've noticed that people begin queuing before the plane they're getting on has even arrived, which makes no sense at all) and got up just as the last few people were trickling through the gate.  It was about 10 minutes before we were due to take off when I attempted to board and  heard the dreaded words:  'Does your suitcase fit in there?', accompanied by a gesture towards that ridiculous, rickety basket that Ryanair like to use to extract money (50 Euro to be precise) from you.  Lifting my suitcase up and trying to squeeze it into the metal frame, I had that sick and sinking feeling that we all must have experienced at one point.  Oh God, it doesn't fit.  'Please go and pay your 50 Euro at the desk', came the voice of Mrs. Ryanair.  'Um, just give me a second and I'll make it fit,' came my reply.  Like hell I'm paying 50 Euro.  I must have looked like a prize idiot all flustered at the departure gate, but I was determined to arrange my things in such a way to avoid the surcharge, it was just about what the flight had cost me.  So the case was perched on the basket, jammed in the top of the basket and eventually, sitting smugly inside it, much to the disappointment of the airport staff.  Toma.

By the time the whole suitcase débâcle was over, I had about five minutes to get on the flight and ran to the stairs of the aeroplane, where I was greeted by a drunk Andalusian man.  'Weren't you in front of me?', he said.  'I was, yes,' I replied and explained the whole sorry story.  He then tried to strike up further conversation, but it was all pretty much incomprehensible jibberish to me.  I don't know if it was his drunkenness, the southern accent or a mix of both?

Happily, there were no further problems for the duration of the flight and I got off in Seville refreshed and ready to find my hostel.  The directions I'd printed out said I had to take two buses and then wander around aimlessly until I found the right street (OK, it didn't say that, but that's what I always do), so I jumped on the first bus and hoped for the best.  

Happily, the best actually happened for once.  Firstly, a nice, German girl came and sat beside me and we got off at the same stop.  As I was saying 'adiós' to her, two other girls saw our caras de guiri, heard our accented Spanish and uttered the magic words:  'Sois Erasmus?' ('Are you Erasmus students?')   'No,' I explained, 'I've just caught a flight from Zaragoza and I'm visiting for the weekend.  I'm teaching English up near Logroño.  What about you?'  
'Ahh, I know who you are!  You're the girl who was in front of us in the airport with the suitcase and then that drunk man was talking to you!  (Nice to see my ordeal was being observed...) We're Erasmus students in Zaragoza, here for the weekend too.  Do you know where the bus stops are?'
'Not a clue, which one are you looking for?'
'The 32.'  
'That's what I'm looking for too.  Where are you staying?'
'The Oasis Palace, I think it's called.'

Well, qué casualidad, we were all going to the same place.  So we all got lost together, which was a refreshing change from doing it on my own (I despise being lost on my own.)  And when we eventually arrived at our destination, it turned out we were all in the same dorm and one of the girls was in the bunk above me! ¡El mundo es un pañuelo! 


Minaret/
Bell Tower

Seville itself is a charming place, full of architecture that is a fusion of what you'd traditionally see in Spain and what wouldn't be out of place in Morroco.  For example, part of the cathedral in the heart of the city used to be a mosque, so the bell tower was originally used as a minaret.  It was nice to see the two styles, and the two religions, sitting so well with one another.




The Alcázar is also built in an Arabian style and is hugely impressive in its intricacy.  It's surrounded by beautiful gardens and houses paintings and tapestries that will leave you filled with wonder.  I stood gawking at those tapestries for absolutely ages wondering how anyone could possibly have sewed such enormous, detailed designs.

Being a 'flamenco dancer'



Unfortunately, my camera died after getting in the front door,
you'll just have to go to see more!








Another thing on my list to visit was the Plaza de España, an absolutely enormous square filled with tiled alcoves representing every province of Spain.  Of course, I had to get the obligatory picture in the Logroño one:








The only downside of my trip was the weather, as a lot of the processions I wanted to see on Palm Sunday were cancelled due to torrential rain.  And so much for getting a tan!

Empty chairs, no procession today...
Waiting for a procession that never started!  There is one advantage to the rain, though - it makes the whole city smell like an orange grove.  It's full of orange trees and legend has it that they were planted by a man (can't remember who, a king?!) who took his wife to Seville from the country.  She told him she missed the countryside and the snow, so he planted orange trees everywhere so that the white blossoms would fall in the autumn and provide the 'snow' that she missed.
Aww.
 

I did manage to catch one parade, though - a few guys from my hostel and I were wandering around at 1am and just happened to stumble across hundreds of people filing through the streets, holding candles and dressed all in white.  A slightly creepy, but very surreal experience.
Those in the procession play music and carry crosses
and ornate figures of Jesus.
The processions often look like rallies of the Klu Klux Klan,
due to the long, white, pointed hoods the people wear.
It has absolutely nothing to do with it, but a lot of
people think that the KKK probably copied the idea from
Semana Santa as the hoods disguise the face and are linked to
Christianity.



I want to keep exploring, do I have to go back to work tomorrow?

Thursday, 5 April 2012

Consejos para tener una buena experiencia en el extranjero

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Some tips for a successful year abroad that I wish someone had sent me when I was nineteen:

Figure out what you want to gain from your time abroad before you go.

It sounds like a really simple piece of advice, but you need to be clear about what you want to achieve from your time away before you get on the aeroplane. Do you want to learn a new language? Experience a new culture? Meet new people? Gain more independence? Or do you simply want some time away from it all? Remember that being clear about what you want is the only way you'll ever succeed in getting it.

Check that your goals are realistic and plan how you're going to make them happen.

It's all very well saying you're going to learn Spanish/ German/ Chinese whilst you're away, but how likely is fluency in 6 months? What steps are you going to take to learn as much as possible? Get on the internet, do your research, ask questions and then make it happen.  
And for God's sake, please don't make one of your goals 'finding yourself'. Surely if you lost yourself you'd look in places that you'd already been rather than running off to another continent? As the poster on my bedroom wall says: 'life isn't about finding yourself, it's about creating yourself.'

Go alone
It's always nice to have someone with you when you're doing something scary. Just like it's always preferable to have someone you know sitting next to you on an aeroplane (if only so you won't spend your dying moments clutching the clammy hand of a complete stranger if the engine fails). But at the end of the day, the only way to ensure your control of your experience is to do it solo. It might be the one time in your life when you don't have to compromise with anyone about anything, which is about the most liberating thing ever.

Live with locals

The most tempting thing to do when you move to a foreign country is to latch on to other foreigners. You discover your new environment with them, you party with them, you share your problems with them, so why not go the whole hog and live with them too? Bad move. No-one can give you more insight into a place than a person who has lived there for years, and you will reap the benefits of living with a native speaker if you're trying to learn another language. Try appartager.fr for flat shares in France and easypiso.com if you're looking for compañeros in Spain.

Keep in contact with the people who matter

In this digital age, there's no excuse for not keeping in touch with your friends, family and loved ones at home whilst you're off on a jolly. Chat on Facebook, video call on Skype (or buy a Skype phone subscription that allows you unlimited phonecalls to anywhere in the world for a very reasonable fee), send emails, start a blog, send postcards and write letters. Actually, write LOTS of letters.

Don't get romantically involved with anyone from your peer group unless - 
1) you're in love with them
2) you enjoy living a life similar to a soap opera.

Anyone who's done Erasmus/ language teaching abroad will know what I mean here. It's a completely unexplainable phenomenon, but the majority of people seem to transform into pigeons in heat as soon as their toes touch foreign soil. So A gets off with B on Friday night, B gets off with C on Saturday night, A is jealous and gets off with D, B gets off with E to show A that he doesn't care that he got off with D and then B and D are awkward around each other because they've both got off with A. And A and C want to fight each other because they both really want to be with B. Confused? Just imagine this were your life.

Network

The internet is a wonderful resource while you're away. Facebook will inevitably have a group for foreigners in the city you're living in, you can find clubs and language exchanges on meetup.com and couchsurfing.org is a godsend to meet awesome new people.

Don't get paralysed by fear

The one question everyone always asks me when I go to a new place is: 'What happens if you don't like it?' Well, it's quite simple, really. I get on a plane and I go home. There's absolutely no shame or weakness in walking away from something if you're not happy with it, there's only a problem when you don't try something at all or stick it out in order to keep up appearances.

Listen to Mark Twain

'Sail away from the safe harbor
Catch the trade winds in your sails.
Explore.
Dream. 
Discover.'

Wise words indeed.

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Quieren acabar con todo (con la excepción de las escuelas concertadas)

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On the way to Spanish class the other day, I noticed a big crowd of people standing outside the school with placards. ´What was all that about?´ I asked my Spanish teacher.  I'm glad I asked, as she spent the next hour and a half to trying to explain.

What she told us, some of which I already knew, was that there are serious problems with the Spanish educational system.  The thing that people are most angry about is that public money is being spent to fund private schools.  Yes, that´s right, public money is going to private schools, whilst the government continues to make aggressive cuts in the public ones.

It´s hard to believe that this ludicrous policy exists, but it actually started out innocently enough.  In the few years after Franco's dictatorship, there were relatively few schools in Spain to educate all of its children, so the government would provide subsidies for children to study at private schools when the public ones were full.  These were the escuelas concertadas, operating as a public-private partnership to ensure universal education.

Nowadays, however, there are plenty of schools for everyone and the only people who attend the private ones are those whose parents have made a conscious choice to send them there.  Personally, I think that there is no reason whatsoever that the government should have to subsidise this choice, not least when it serves to detract resources from the already stretched public schools.

Just to sidetrack for a moment, I didn´t agree with the idea of private/semi-private schooling before coming here and I´ve only grown in my conviction after talking to students, parents and teachers in Spain. I don´t know how it is in Scotland , but it appears to be quite normal here for privately educated people to be able to buy their way into university.  For example, in the private schools, there appear to be no qualms about raising exam results to boost league tables and one of my students even told me about a friend of hers who got into uni after her teacher changed her mark from a fail to a pass. (She had to drop out 6 months later, of course, as it´s not usually possible to study something you have absolutely no grasp of...)

Whether or not teachers fix exam results in the private schools, I also don´t believe it´s healthy for children to start their lives in an environment where all of their friends and classmates are from the same, privileged background.  I understand that many parents send their children to private schools in the belief that it will help them to get a better education and start in life, but I don´t think there is any better education than learning to interact with all types of people whilst you are young enough to be free of all prejudices. 

One set of parents told me that they sent their children to a private school because there were ´no immigrants´ in the classes there* , thinking that it was a good thing that their children wouldn´t be ´slowed down´ by having a child in the class who didn´t speak Spanish.  Sadly, though, they didn´t take the opportunity to think about what being in the same class as an immigrant might teach their children.  The important lesson in empathy it offers was demonstrated to in one of my classes just the other day.  A young Pakistani boy arrived at the school inequipped with even a word of Spanish or English vocabulary, making it all but impossible for him to follow lessons and interact with people.  It would have been easy for the other students to simply ignore him, but I was surprised to see them rallying round and trying to help him to adapt to the new environment.  I guess from seeing the boy´s lost expression, they grasped how difficult it would be for them to arrive in a school where everything was foreign.

Anyone interested in learning more about the Spanish educational system should also have a look at Chapter 4 (p.100) of a PhD thesis called 'God, gangs and grades: Constructing identity and difference among Ecadorian children in Madrid', which can be found on Google Books.

To get back to the problems which exist in both the public and the private sector, the way in which teachers are selected is another sore point.  The dream of every teacher in Spain (except my Spanish teacher because she's fantastically principled) is to become a funcionario, a teacher who is employed by the state.  These teachers are basically granted the status of civil servants, with better packages of pay and benefits than their colleagues.  They also have a far less precarious employment situation than ´normal´ teachers who are stuck on 6-12 month rolling contracts, as they are guaranteed a permanent teaching position and cannot be dismissed from their post.

The problem is how you are granted funcionario status.  In order to stamp out any discrimination, every candidate must sit an anonymous exam, but there is speculation about how 'anonymous' it really is, especially when you must do presentations to a jury in a small community like La Rioja.  My Spanish teacher told me that when she was taking her exam, a member of the jury actually went to a coffee shop to retrieve a candidate that hadn't bothered to show up.  If anyone else had failed to attend the interview at the allocated time, they´d have been crossed off the list, but it just goes to prove the old adage: 'it's not what you know, it's who you know.'

The results of the exam are calculated in a strange way, too.  Points are conferred for both knowledge and teaching experience, meaning that a young and extremely knowledgeable teacher who scores a 10 on the test might be ousted by an older candidate who got a 6, but has a few years of teaching behind him. I´m not disputing here that experience is an important factor, but the fact that you´ve taught in a school for a few years doesn´t mean to say you´re any good at it.  Also, in subjects like English, putting too much weight on experience can be a risky business, as it leads to teachers who don´t actually speak or understand very well blagging themselves a lifelong position teaching incorrect grammar.  And since they can´t be ousted from said position, is there any incentive whatsoever for them to brush up on their language skills?

I've noticed that people aren't just annoyed about the way the schools are going here, though.  Today is the eve of a general strike in Spain to protest against the introduction of the Conservative government's reforma laboral. It's a law that makes it easier and cheaper to dismiss workers in an already precarious job market and over 60% of Spaniards are opposed to it (see http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/regions/europe/spain/120327/nobody-likes-spain-labor-law-general-strike.) I'm guessing the other 30% can't get a job to be dismissed from...
Leaflet from the Union General de Trabajadores, the General Workers' Union.
'They want to scrap work and social rights.  They want to scrap everything.'
This is on a wall near my house - 'labour reform, terrorism by employers'

'Indefinite general strike'
Protest tomorrow at 7pm.

Sunday, 25 March 2012

Momentos graciosos en clase parte 2

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Here are some more of the highlights (or lowlights, depending on how you see it) of my attempts to educate los españoles. Happy Sunday!




Playing Scatergorries (a game where students need to think of words corresponding with a certain letter)

Letter C

Me: 'Girls, what's your verb?'
Student: 'Cock'
Me: 'Sorry, what?'
Student: 'Cock'
* I go over to the desk to see that they have written the word 'cook' *
Me: 'Ahhhh, you mean cook. Be careful with your pronunciation, “cock” means “polla”'
    *Cue 10 13 year olds laughing loudly, one girl gasping that she always asks for 'Cock-a-Cola' and the majority of the students shouting 'cock!', 'cock!', 'cock!' for the rest of the lesson. This was when I realised it's better just to correct and move on.*

Adjective: Close

I gave two students 2 points for the word 'close', assuming they meant to write the word for 'cerca.' But then it became apparent that they had wanted to say 'closed' and had written it wrongly. So the deal was they'd only get their points if they could tell me how to say 'cerrado' in English, which I told them was very similar to the word 'close.' The answer they volunteered was 'klose.' Nil points.

A girl's name:  Claire

This was accompanied by an extremely creepy 'porque siempre pienso en ti, teacher.'  ('Because I always think about you, teacher.')

Letter F

A verb – oh yes, of course two boys had written 'fuck.' I told them that there were plenty of other, more appropriate verbs they could write and that they had to change it. The response: 'I know there are other verbs, but this is the only one that's in my head.' Story of the adolescent boy's life, I suppose.

Teaching my 3rd years

The normal teacher of this class gave the students an essay to write for me because of their misbehaviour. One was entitled 'Class with Clare' (excusable), another 'Class with Clear' and another, most puzzlingly, 'Class with Cloe.' This is despite the fact that I have written my name on the white board about 5 times and emphasised that it is not pronounced 'CL-AY-REY.'

The other day, I was doing a fill in the gap exercise with different holiday verbs. One boy volunteered his answer of 'I like to come in the river', but instead of explaining to him what he'd said, I just told him that the verb 'swim' was more appropriate in this context. The constant sniggering which ensued when I told the class we were going to work on page 69 only confirmed that this was the right decision.

The textbook that we use has different phrase banks where the pupils need to translate English expressions into Spanish. One of them was 'you are right', which I explained means that you are correct and a person agrees with you. Tienes razón. Then, I asked what the opposite of that would be. 'If you are not correct,' I said, 'y si te equivoques, you are...'
Reply: 'Left.'   
Which would make more sense, I suppose.

                                                                                                                                                                 

Working with adults

I have a weekly conversation class with a group of teachers who teach in the bilingual section, where I don't have to really teach per se, just answer any language questions they may have. One of them was asking me about offensive words in English and I told him that the most offensive and taboo word in the English language started with a 'C'. He answered, “what is it, 'conservative'?”

Another of my adult students is expecting his first child soon and I asked him how his girlfriend was doing. “Ohh, fantastic,” he said, “I say her cariño, this is wonderful, you must be pregnant all the time!!'” Momentarily, my heart surged at his enthusiasm, paternal spirit and ability to find his girlfriend impossibly attractive despite the inevitable weight gain, tiredness and mood swings. Then he told me she's gone up two bra sizes. Sigh.

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Cinco cosas que tengo que hacer más en Escocia.

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Unlike the majority of my fellow language assistants, my current plan is not to stay in Spain for another year.  I'm not sure what the plan is exactly (hopefully it will entail a fabulous job a bit closer to home!), but I've been thinking about the things that are important to take away from this experience.  It has really struck me that there are habits that I have here that I don't have at home and I'd like to keep them.   Aquí están:

I couldn't even tell my students
if I thought the Loch Ness
monster was real!  Qué vergüenza!


One:  I'm much more spontaneous when I'm abroad than at home.  I know that this is partly because I have less work, more money and more free time now that I'm not a student, but the many times I have been bored at the weekend in Scotland, I've never even contemplated checking where the cheapest flight is going and just getting on it.  Here, it seems like a highly sensible idea.


Two:  I travel much more when I'm abroad.  I'm ashamed to say I've been to Zaragoza, Burgos, Pamplona, Barcelona, Madrid, Bilbao and San Sebastián*, but I've never seen Loch Lomond, St. Andrews, the Shetland Islands or Loch Ness, nor set foot in Edinburgh Castle.  It's definitely time I did some tourism in my own country.
*  I might have done that spontaneous flight booking thing earlier and will be adding Seville to the list in the next two weeks...
Beautiful Loch Lomond


Edinburgh Castle
Three:  I'm much more open to trying new things when I'm abroad.  Of course, it's much easier to forget your inhibitions when no-one knows you/ you're probably never going to see half the people you meet ever again, but I really shouldn't be embarrassed to try new things at home,  however crap I am at them.  So I'm going to make it my mission to sign up for a random class wherever I end up next year. 
























Four:  I'm also more open to meeting different people here, be it when I'm out socialising or through Couchsurfing, language exchanges and hostel-hopping.  I want to take that trait back home too.  Ideally, I'll find some cool conversation exchange partners and experience my country through the eyes of a foreigner!

Five:  I'm always informed about events that are happening in the local area when I'm abroad because I don't want to miss out on anything good.  But I happily will miss fantastic cultural, film, music and theatre events at home through complete ignorance of their existence.  Next year, that's not going to happen.

Now, someone send me the programme for the Fringe, pronto!

For those of you who don't know, 'The Fringe' is the
biggest arts festival in the world.  It is held in Edinburgh,
the Scottish capital, from August 3rd - 27th.  Come and visit!
                                                     
                                                     

Sunday, 18 March 2012

Lisboa

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For the benefit of a loyal reader who complained that my last two blog posts didn't have enough text (erm, that'd be you, David...), here is the promised lowdown on the Portuguese Capital!


Portugal is one of the countries most affected by the current
economic crisis, this piece of graffiti calls for a general strike.
I'd heard mixed reviews about Lisbon before I went, with some people saying it had a 'lot of character' and others describing it as a dirty, unexciting dump. I'm definitely in the former camp. I mean, it's true that Lisbon isn't exactly Paris and it isn't jam packed with tourist attractions, but that's really part of the charm. It has a slightly less-than-polished appearance in some places, many scrawlings of grafitti and yes, some parts of the city are a little dirty, but it was a refreshing change from the cities where everything is pristine but manufactured to extract as much money out of you as possible.



And some of the graffiti was cute!
There's also a lot more to see than you might imagine.  When you think of other European capitals, you conjure up images of many famous landmarks, but I didn't know what was in Lisbon until I went there.  It turns out that there's a 14th Century Monastery, a fortress built in the early 1500s, an old castle and a very beautiful main square just off the Rua Augusta.  There are also a number of miradores throughout the city which offer breathtaking views over a mish-mash of old and new architecture, often a rainbow of colour against the backdrop of the sea.




The Mosteiro dos Jerónimos
Me at the Torre De Belém


If that weren't enough, Lisbon has an amazing amount of museums, the vast majority of which are free!  It's perfect if, like me, you're interested in seeing a bit of everything, but admittedly, some of the collections are sparse and perhaps a bit too niche for everyone's taste.  Like my friend and I decided to have a wander round the Gallery of Modern Art, which had some really strange pieces, such as a blank canvas entitled 'Painting of A Ghost' - we didn't appreciate that very much!!  Happily though, there was also a great, free exposition on Second World War Propaganda which captured our attention a bit more.


This was my favourite!
I don't think I'd have liked the war very much...



I also highly recommend going on a daytrip to a place called Sintra, which is 40 minutes on the train from Lisbon.  A lot of hostels and tour operators offer this to tourists as a bus tour, but it's ridiculously overpriced and our friend from CouchSurfing advised us to go to the train station ourselves and buy a return ticket for 5 Euro.
All the trains are covered in graffiti too, I don't know why, but
I have a bit of a fascination with it!

Stepping off the train was like stepping into a fairytale.  Lord Byron wrote in 1809:  'I must observe that the village of Sintra is the most beautiful in the world' (and probably another 1000 lines of text if his poetry is anything to go by) and I reckon he wasn't far off the mark.  It's so quaint, beautiful, colourful and historical, I fell in love with the place after 5 minutes.  The only other time that's happened to me was in the Parc Güell in Barcelona.

The first thing we did was take a wander round the National Palace, which looks nothing from the outside, but is pretty magnificent on the inside.  It's all ornate ceiling decorations, fancy chandeliers and collections of those painted, glazed tiles that Portugal is so famous for.  Even better, you get free entry on a Sunday morning, so it's worth taking it easy on Saturday night and getting up early!

And if you think the National Palace is cool, just wait till you head up the road to the Palacio Da Pena.  It's a Moorish Castle built in 1840, which was unlike anything I'd ever seen before in my life.  The best part is that people have worked to preserve the inside just the way the former Portuguese royal family left it!  Definitely worth a visit.

Arty shot at the Pena Palace!


Thursday, 8 March 2012

Bienvenido a mi vida...

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Saw this and it made me laugh cos my students swear A LOT.  I actually found myself in a class the other day saying:  'Can everyone stop saying "joder" and "cojones" and just get on with it?!'

Sunday, 4 March 2012

No te preocupes por nada, porque cada cosita que haya, estará bien!

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Note to self:  listen to more Bob Marley.






Friday, 2 March 2012

'Cuatro Horas En El Autobús'

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I took a flight to Lisbon last weekend (blog on the trip forthcoming!) and my book of choice on my way to Barajas was 'A Week At The Airport' by Alain De Botton. I quite liked the idea of him taking up residence in an international hub, observing the people (I worked for a brief stint in Glasgow Airport and can attest to the fact that some of them are very, erm, interesting characters) and learning what their behaviour tells us about life. Unfortunately though, I didn't spend long enough in Barajas to make any witty observations about it, I just spent four hours on a bus getting there.

The PLM (Pamplona – Logroño – Madrid) bus line is the cheapest and most convenient option for me to get to the Spanish capital. At just under 30 Euros per a return  ticket, I can afford to hop down for the weekend or book flights from Barajas without breaking the bank, and the four hour journey is just about bearable if I'm adequately equipped for it.   



I equipped myself for my last journey with the following things:

  1. An uncontrollable urge to sleep, owing to having to get up at 6am to catch the bus.
  2. A book to read when it turned out that I would repeatedly wake myself up from bouts of fitful sleep by smacking my head against the window.
  3. A cheap new mp3 player which will never replace my beloved iPod, complete with a 'relaxing playlist' which (infuriatingly) cannot be played in anything but alphabetical order.
  4. A pen and paper, just in case I had any ground breaking ideas during the journey. (I didn't.)
  5. A nutricious breakfast of two magdalenas and a bottle of Lemon Kas.


We set off at 7.15 and the first thing I noticed was that the opening scenes of 'Apocalypse Now' were being shown on the screen in front of me. Slightly disconcerting. My hazy, morning brain then realised that my bus driver friend had given me a copy of the very same book to read, and I wondered if it was a strange co-incidence or if Spanish bus companies have some sort of affiliation with the apocalypse. Even more disconcerting.


So I shut my eyes to block out the scenes of destruction in front of me and managed to fall asleep for a little while, propped against a makeshift pillow fashioned from my scarf. Happily, I am fortunate enough to be one of those people who can sleep just about anywhere, but sleeping in places other than a bed often comes at a price. After an hour, I felt like I'd been beaten up – I had a crick in my neck, a pain in my back and a sore head from its repeated contact with the window.

When it became apparent that sleeping more wasn't a very good idea, I tried to eat my 'breakfast' without the bus driver seeing me in his mirror and without getting crumbs everywhere. That was a fail on both accounts.

Next, I got my book out and tried to concentrate on reading. Some of the information on Heathrow Airport I was learning was interesting stuff, but my little book had pictures and the woman next to me was reading the Spanish Penal Code. It was time to jump on a more intellectual bandwagon.

'I know', I thought, 'this crappy mp3 player does have one saving grace, it came pre-loaded with the “Complete Works of Shakespeare.”' Geeky as it sounds, I've always wanted to say I've read everything he wrote, particularly the sonnets. (I studied sonnet 18 in high school and fell ever-so-slightly in love with him.)


Sexy.
So I fired up the music player, searched through some folders and brought up sonnets 1-10 on the tiny little screen.

Sonnet 1

* scroll *

'From fairest creatures

* scroll *

we desire increase

* scroll*

 That thereby beauty's

                                                 * scroll *
                                                                  rose might never die...'


And that was about as far as I got before I gave up and went back to sleep again until we pulled up in Avenida de Americas.

Carnival

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So the past couple of weeks have been un poco locas, owing to lots of work, things to organise, trips and of course, carnival.
It turns out that people allow you to sit on
the Carnival Throne if you're foreign...

Carnival is a fiesta I had never celebrated before and to be honest, I wasn't very sure what it was all in aid of. One of my students told me that it's about letting your hair down and enjoying yourself before giving something up at Lent and it turns out he was right, it is something along those lines.

Basically, in the olden days, you had to use up all of your good food and drink before Lent came along in order to ensure it wouldn't be there to tempt you. And no-one could think of a better excuse than this to throw a big party and don some fancy dress, not least the Spaniards.

The interesting thing I found about celebrations here is that the fancy dress isn't an individual thing, whole groups of friends go out and buy exactly the same costume. So you'll see 24 bottles of San Miguel walking towards you, 10 Rihannas dancing along the street and 20 brides walking down a makeshift aisle. It's quite an experience.

And the fancy dress isn't very much like what you'd see at Halloween in the UK or the US, where everyone tries to be desperately sexy. Just check out our outfits if you don't believe me.

'Boy Scouts on Tour 2012'

Thursday, 9 February 2012

Un poco de gramática...

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I said back in January that I wasn't quite sure how the whole teaching thing was going and I admit I still have the odd moment wondering what the hell I am doing trying to explain grammar to a bunch of teenagers. Happily, though, I'm feeling a lot more comfortable in the classroom these days and an experienced teacher told me that she liked the way I taught, which really boosted my confidence! She also said something very interesting though, which was that it really shows that I've studied a language before.  A lot of assistants arrive into her class with no idea of how grammar works, nor what the main problems with language learning are, which is a real shame.  In my humble opinion, you can't really teach a language very effectively if you've never tried learning another one.

In fact, I often really wish I could speak better Spanish to understand why some of my students make the mistakes that they do. Sometimes the only way you can explain something well is by making reference to your pupil's mother tongue and I don't know about anyone else, but I get frustrated when I can't do it!

That said, there are some things that I'm beginning to understand better as I learn more about good old Castellano and I'm noticing some mistakes that seem to recur across all age groups and levels. So here, for the benefit of teachers, Spaniards and anyone who can be arsed reading it, I've compiled a list of the 10 most common, and thankfully really easily fixable, English errors.

Top 10 Really Easily Fixable English Errors en España

1)  Pronunciation of 'u' in the Spanish way instead of the English way ('oo' instead of 'uh'). Remember   you're not having a Boorger King after a game of roogby. You're having a B-uh-rger King after a game of r-uh-gby.

2)  Using prepositions lifted directly from Spanish. One that could cause some quite unfortunate misunderstandings is saying 'to dream with someone' (soñar con alguién) rather than 'to dream of/about someone.'

3)  Forgetting prepositions altogether. If I had a penny for every time I have heard a student saying 'I listen music', I'd be a millionaire. 'Escuchar música' in Spanish; 'listen TO music' in English. (See below for a further list of examples)

4)  This is a strange one and I don't know why it happens, but ALL of my students used to mix up 'trip' and 'travel' (not any more, of course, because they've been constantly reminded of the difference!) 'Trip' is the noun and 'to travel' is the verb. Simples.

5)  Making sentences with the verb 'to like.' Again, it's also very simple. The rule is that there are three things you can put after the verb – a noun, an infinitive and a gerund. So I like music (noun), I like singing (gerund) and I like to play guitar (infinitive). [Note here you play the guitar and don't touch it!!]

6)  Describing the purpose of something. Many of my students used to say 'a pen for write' rather than 'a pen for writing' or 'a pen to write.' Again, the gerund and the infinitive are your friends.

7)  Mixing up (one of those awful phrasal verbs which means 'to confuse') 'for', 'since' and 'during.' 'For' and 'during' describe how long something happens/happened for, the former with a period of time and the latter with a noun. So I have been writing this for 10 minutes (time period) during my lunch break (noun). 'Since' tells you the point in time at which the action started and can be used with either a noun or a verb. I have been here since the morning (noun)/ I have been here since you arrived (verb).

8)  Pronunciation of the letter 'z'. This is perfectly understandable because there is no equivalent sound to the English 'z' in the Spanish language, but to speak like a native, you must perfect the sound that LL Cool J makes in the 'Control Myself' video. Skip to 3.12 and repeat after Mr. Cool J - Z, Z, Z, Z, Z, Z, Z... http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l1CbL1Vxjzw.

9)  Superfluous 'thes' in sentences. For example, saying 'the last week' instead of 'last week' or going to 'the bed' instead of simply 'going to bed.' Remember you can usually omit the article in English unless you want to really emphasise the noun.

10)  Putting 's's on the end of irregular plurals. Children, not childrens. Sheep, not sheeps. Women, not womens. Et cetera, et cetera...

Verbs where preposition is used in English and not in Spanish

indicar – to point out                              quitarse – to take off
huir – to flee from                                   poner – to put, to place, to turn on
saber – to know, to know how to         yacer – to lie down
mirar – to look at                                     platicar – to chat, to talk over
llevar – to take away                              esperar – to hope, to wait for
pagar – to pay for                                   sacar – to take out
pedir – to ask for                                    entregar – to hand over
criar – to raise, to bring up                    averiguar – to find out
destacar – to stand out                         apagar – to turn off
caerse – to fall down                             encender – to turn on