Category Archives: Once upon a time in Spain

my travels and unravels on Iberian realms

No Love Lost for English in Spain

Yes, after several years of teaching English as a foreign language in Spain, and after months of trying to inspire my students to love English for its versatility, liveliness, richness, and even playfulness, I have come to terms with the hard truth: Spaniards don’t like English.

Maybe there is no likability there; maybe that is a moot point; maybe there are several reasons to it. But the fact stands. I am not trying to make it a general statement, to fly this slogan over all Spaniards, or to impose my opinion on just about everybody. Let’s just say I currently don’t see any love lost for the English language in Spain.

From what I could gather, English has always been what Spaniards call la asignatura pendiente – a booed curriculum subject of sorts that pupils and students alike had to stumble upon at some point and that is doomed to never be ticked off the list. For some, the rejection started with the very first primary school English teacher who did not speak English and yet forced irregular verbs and plurals, tenses and adjectives on their pupils. For others, the resentment grew when once on a highly competitive and at the same time relatively restrictive labour market, they found themselves served with the mandatory English exam. To some, English is just the foul-smelling pill they have to swallow to have a chance at a job for life in the public sector. To others, it is just something they have to have in their resumes, since you know… you never know.

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If you were a man, would you not be a misogynist, too?

This was the question I was asked by a loved one when I was telling him my recent trials and tribulations at work. The boss was a man, and he was probably a misogynist in the original sense of the word: he abhorred he had to deal with women, treat them with at least a feigned form of respect due to social norms, and thus show such consideration by implementing said social norms through deigning women with the occasional hello, good-bye, and thank you. Of course, all that turned up once you had the ill luck of getting to know him.

He was young, smart, and successful. He had travelled the world, he liked books and movies, and he was interested in the trendy-fashionable left wing politics, dressed highly casually, and was not least of all what would generally be considered a socially charming person: he was perfectly able to have a witty conversation, show interest in his employees’ personal lives, offer advice and even help to some extent. He did voluntary work, had his eco-friendly collective farmers’ group and was genuinely interested in all things hip and not mainstream. The glass house was a perfect mirage.

He could have easily fitted into a pro choice or women’s rights demonstration. Only he didn’t. You spend enough time with someone, the honeymoon is soon over and the haunting truth starts to leak out of the fairy tale and dawn on you with its ugly dark face. It took me longer to realize it all, and I like to believe it was because I had never come up against anything not even remotely like it.

My fall was steep. But my friend’s question – if you were a man wouldn’t you be a misogynist, too? – made me wonder.

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The Longest September

As the month draws to an end, I can´t stop myself from thinking that for the longest of times, I could not, for the life of me, remember what I did in any given September. Worse yet: looking back, I couldn´t even tell how the month had passed.

It had always been the month to come back to work after long and nice holidays; the month of plans and projects; the month of creativity and thoughts on new and exciting things to do; the time for looking ahead and foreseeing a good, ripe next couple of months.

Except for this year. I can´t remember sadder or voider holidays and I can´t remember that many days in a row thinking – and not the usual, dreamy thoughts. No, I mean scrambled thoughts, the painful type, the type that makes you constantly ask yourself: how did I get here? Could I have stopped to just back off, at some – at any point? Would it have changed anything at all?

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A Tearful Footballer and People Dressed in Flags

It was only after I came back from an amazing trip to Vietnam this summer and I was telling a friend how much I had enjoyed it and how I had just fallen in love with the country’s exquisite blend of modernity and authenticity, its mix of cosmopolitan touch and specific traditional nuances and colors that I realized I should come back down from my cloud-eleven holiday. Vietnam is beautiful, but I live in one of the best countries in the world.

And Spain being one of the best countries in the world makes this madness of showing off flags and giving out dramatically dense and yet sadly locked-in, narrow-minded, and immovable political speeches all the more absurd and aberrant. The mere fact that the drama-queen tears of a Catalan footballer made it to the headlines of news bulletins around Europe is ridiculous. That footballer maybe leaving Spain’s football team because of what he said on national TV – along with the utter nonsense of professionals actually showing interest in what he had to say on the topic as to allow him precious on-air time – is just bad journalism and definitely not news.

News is the situation where a political party currently in power seeks to capitalize its position of strength by antagonizing prospective voters a little over one year in office and with almost three years left till the next general election, diverting their attention from relevant current issues. News should be the bitter reality of a people that forgets how the same political party currently in power had surprisingly managed to survive an immense corruption scandal during which it had been direly revealed how members in its highest ranks used to cash in monthly cash coming from illegal commissions and plain-sight money laundering of public funds. News is that the same high-ranked members got re-elected. News is the ugly truth that politicians all over the world count on the electorate’s ridiculously short memory and nobody dares to go only three years back, when Catalonia had another referendum organized and there was no violence, no fights to get to vote, no major participation, no conflict, nor any repercussion for that matter.

Take a toddler’s toy and it will start crying; tell a teenager he or she is not allowed to drink and smoke and they will spend their money on booze and cigarettes; tell adult voters in democratic Spain they are not allowed to vote and there you will have the perfect ingredients for a major and gratuitous political conflict.

Of course, that is just stupid. Maybe a toddler or a teenager can’t stop to think for a second whether their lives will get better or worse with or without the momentously denied object of interest. An adult citizen should, though. It goes without saying that being for or against Catalonia’s hypothetical independence does not help Spaniards pay their mortgages or find decent jobs, make their small businesses take off or stagnate, feed their children or offer them better opportunities in life. Walking on the streets of beautiful Madrid wrapped up in a Spanish flag does not keep anyone from having to go back to work on Monday or taking their kids to school nor does it help them make ends meet.

Spain has long hours of sunshine almost all-year long, and one can feel how light literally enters the skin through its pores and makes its way to all the cells that quickly transform it into bliss, joie de vivre, and daily delight. Spain has nice beaches and great food, good wines and cool people to share them with, a rich history and amazing metropolitan cities, modern constructions and talented people who manage to get funding for arts and promoting literature, a language that makes its speakers emotionally wealthy people, a culture that supports tolerance and that zen-like sense of live and let live.

Spain used to be a country where people could not care less who ruled them as long as they could have all of the above and be able to afford nice holidays, have their children have a good start in life, and spend quality time with their loved ones. Spain has been my home for many years now, and that is precisely because I believed it to be a country that learned from past mistakes and was bound not to absurdly let aberrant and stupid confrontation perpetuate into this century.

Unfortunately, it is seemingly that much easier to forget all about that and somewhat just by watching TV, be persuaded that taking one side or the other could make anyone stand a better chance of paying this month’s rent, save up for the next holiday or be able to fulfill one’s hopes and dreams.

 

This Obsession of Labeling

There was this Woody Allen movie I once saw – Vicky Cristina Barcelona – where at some point, Scarlett Johansson’s character gets The Question popped after she confesses to her friend that she´s living with her lover and his girlfriend and she´s pretty okay with it. So the friend asks her something like “so what, you´re lesbian now? Or bisexual?”. And the answer is memorable – and not just because I remember it now for the sake of my latest blog entry – : “you know what? Why should I have to put a label on it? I don´t know what I am. And I don´t really care for naming it. I just know I´m happy and for now it just works out for me just like that” or something along these lines.

No, I´m not trying to get into a heated discussion on that topic. The point I´m trying to make is that ever so often I feel it´s just a sad little world we live in (by the  by, some food for soul: “what if our whole existence is some forgotten C-graded school science project gathering dust on the upper shelf in some alien kid´s room in another galaxy?”. A science blogger was asking himself that and I keep thinking of it whenever I just want to move to the Moon, hopefully, while it´s still unpopulated.) if people keep trying to put names on stuff and label experiences and thus necessarily corset any human possibility within the confined space of limits. I hate that word and everything it implies. Put a limit to thinking, put a label on what people are or are not and you´ve got a pretty full stop for just about anything.

Most recently, I get to be disappointed verging on furious when so many Spaniards who want to learn foreign languages (mostly English) because they suddenly realized they need to go out in an unfairly English-favoring world start by labeling themselves – “how would you assess your English level?” ; “a B1+”, comes the mind-blowing answer. As a teacher, I am always going and waiting, with this general question, for something less self-demanding, like: “I am pretty good at reading and writing, I come up short with speaking and listening and I have issues with understanding”, so, of course, my follow-up questions are around these lines. Then they label me, because “no matter how bilingual you may be, you still can´t master the language as a native speaker, and I can figure out from your accent that you are not native” – whatever that means. Most surely, they say that and they realize “my accent” is different only after they find out directly from my most sincere and foolish self that I, well… am not native. I am also not blonde, I am pale rather than fair-skinned, my eyes are black, I am not tall and most importantly, I am not just yet in possession of an American or Commonwealth passport. But I guess that doesn’t help either.

Let me share my limits with you, as well as the labels I supposedly have to carry along. Continue reading

The cities within the city

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View from inside the Alhambra to the Albayzín

Of course I got lost inside Alhambra. I felt overwhelmed from the very beginning, when it took me so long to get there by bus from the center of Granada, and then walk up to what I thought was the top, the palace, only to discover it was only the meeting point for thousands and thousands of tourists who had got up early in the morning to be sure they had a ticket. I got my ticket and braced myself for a big day.

And big a day it was, because I clearly saw why it´s called ciudad palatina, alhambra12a literally palatial city inside the small town that is Granada. Everything is about the inside: while the reddish outside is plain and seemingly austere, this fortress hides palaces and centennial richness, art, colors, and architecture. It´s so beautiful and impressive that I somehow didn´t even want to find out more than exactly what I saw: I didn´t want to know anything about the construction phases, about the meaning of the colors and the orientation of the rooms; not anything more about the history and the sad last centuries of the Moor presence in Andalucía.

I only saw what a marvelous combination is was: thirteen towers for observation and protection – today offering the most beautiful views over Albayzín; the huge complex built on a red hill – nowadays a rich museum that documents all that is left of a whole era of science, culture and civilization.

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Arabesques at home

Some five hundred years ago, it was just a pagan symbol of what was thought to be an unjust and un-Christian rule and occupation, what the Moors left behind when ushered out of Andalucía by the force of will of a Catholic queen. Today, millions of people want to see it each year, wait for weeks and months to get the ticket that allows them to step inside the courts and palaces and enjoy the sun and light and breeze in one of its gardens. Continue reading

Roughly a Year Ago

Memories are what we are: our lives, our moments, our truths, our beloved ones, our friends and our times; the air we breathe, the mountain tops we see, the books we read, the people we meet. I never thought I wanted to forget anything or anybody, be they as bad as they could get, because one way or another, it is all part of my life. Forgetting or pushing anything aside would be like deleting a part of me. I love my memories and every now and then, I enjoy remembering. It helps me think of what I miss or how far I´ve come. penarroya6 penarroya2
For now and this Sunday afternoon, I miss my travels. I miss the discovery feeling, the tiredness and the lack of sleep, the joy of writing of it all, the interviews, the travel mates and the infinite talks we had, the huge amount of life stories I heard… and the happiness.   morella castel2 horta san joan5
Roughly a year ago, I was happy because in little more than three days, I got to visit three different regions and I climbed up to a castle, Continue reading