17 September 2006

An Intensely English Summer

Below is a little diversion I wrote on return to the U.S., remembering the trials and tribulations of a freelance EFL (English as a Foreign Language) teacher trying to survive the summer months in Spain:

La jornada

Aaaahhh... La Jornada Intensiva or “the summer work schedule” in Spain. When it is actually possible to take a nap during the long, tediously hot afternoons, as most companies work 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. during those months. But not everyone opts for the national pastime, the Sacred Siesta. There are those who would sign up for an intensive English course. Many companies like to offer these courses during the summer. They figure their employees will have more time to study. The atmosphere around the office is considerably lighter, as well, since at any given time during July and August, at least half of the staff is roasting on a beach somewhere. Anywhere. Anywhere but Madrid, where, as the popular Spanish song used to go, “Vaya, vaya… aquí no hay playa,” which, loosely translated, might be something like “Dear, oh, dear... ain’t no beach here…”

The practice of offering intensive courses in English is highly compatible with the empty pockets and forlorn faces of freelance “teachers of English” who are confronted with the unpleasant challenge of looking for ways to pay the rent during the summer. And, if possible, eat. Or occasionally go to the swimming pool. Or, God forbid, buy exotic drinks for ten dollars each at one of the trendy, open-air, dusk-to-dawn chiringuitos (on the coast, they are beachfront eateries, but in Madrid they would be sprawling, open-air cafés) which, during the summer months, begin to sprout like mushrooms along Madrid's main thoroughfare, Paseo de la Castellana. Where everybody is livin’ la vida loca, while they secretly wonder where everybody else gets the money for it. Hungry teachers of English are especially filled with wonder. And awe. And envy. And the fervent desire to find lucrative work.

Summer work choices for “teachers of English” are limited:

(1) You can tutor someone’s ill-mannered brat. If the parents of the ill-mannered brat are well-to-do Yuppie types with live-in help, it’s almost worth it. The downside is: YOU and only YOU are responsible for little Borja passing his English make-up exam in the fall. Certainly little Borja is not responsible. He has not made the effort to study English at any time during his entire scholastic career because his parents always get him a tutor during the summer. The minute you ask him to show you his school work in English, he will ask you if you know the words to “My Bonnie Lies over the Ocean,” his absolute favorite song in English. You eagerly start copying the words into his notebook, forgiving his deplorable taste for at least an interest in the language. When you finish copying the lyrics, you look up to find that little Borja has been playing Nintendo in the room next door for the last ten minutes. When you attempt to lure him back into the rapturous world of his clase de inglés, he starts calling you names in Spanish that would fry the ear drums of the crustiest jailbird. This is only the first day of two more months. Do you really need those ten-dollar drinks?

(2) Another possibility is: Teach English at a summer camp. This experience is like multiplying little Borja by another 150 kids. You teach English by means of everything listed in the Camp Director’s fancy brochure: Arts and Crafts (with no supplies), Sports (if you’re lucky, there is a swimming pool), and Nature Walks (hiking over to the neighboring village to get ice cream). In addition to being a teacher, you are also a monitor, so you work 32 hours a day. You are free for 2.5 minutes a day. This is your bathroom break. If the bathroom is free and the toilets are not all clogged up with paper. Your best bet is to take a mini-shower. You will never get to do this at night because you will be too busy patrolling the grounds for kids sneaking off to the discoteca down the road.

Since the summer camp provides you “food and lodging free of charge,” the salary they offer barely covers buying the kids ice-cream in the neighboring village. It comes nowhere near covering your rent back in Madrid. So unless you live in a pensión, which you could move out of during these months, it is not a tempting or even feasible alternative. I don’t care if the summer camp is in Marbella. You will not even get a whiff of Khashoggi’s yacht; you will be nowhere near any of the international jet set hang-outs.

(3) This brings us to the option to which most teachers resort: The Intensive English Course. ¡Qué chollo! = What a deal! Small groups. Adults. Air-conditioning. Nice pay. Conference rooms with big leather swivel chairs where you can sit and swing your legs while your students are taking their daily quiz. Little Borja is a distant memory. Summer camp is light-years away.

And so here you are on the first day of class. Only FOUR students. Principiantes, beginners. Such luxury and such luck! You can spend the entire first week on colors, numbers, and “What’s my job?” games. But first you must determine their real level of English. These classes are often filled with false beginners. Time for roll call: [N.B. ni flores = translation in dialogue is literal, but it is like saying "clueless." The Spanish surnames are real, but the combination (hispanics all have 2 surnames) were deliberately chosen for the humorous effect of their juxtaposition and the literal meaning is evident in the responses from Beatriz, who constantly translates everything.]

TEACHER: Beatriz Manteca Boadilla.

BEATRIZ: Presente. I say, HERE! (giggles nervously)

TEACHER: Good. Gonzalo Hueso Delgado.

GONZALO: You can call me Zalo. Y de inglés, ni flores.

BEATRIZ: He have no flowers of English!!! (giggles helplessly)

TEACHER: Thank you, Beatriz. Um… Pilar Roble Partido.

BEATRIZ: She are the oak tree BROKEN!!! Ha, ha, ha!

TEACHER: Thank you, Beatriz. Um, Pilar… do you speak any English?

PILAR: Yoooooo... (chewing gum)… Sí. I HAHM Pilar.

TEACHER: Fine. And... Julio Redondo Negro?


TEACHER: Yes, I know, Beatriz. Julio?

JULIO: (yawning, half comatose) ¿Cómo? Ah, sí... “Chulius.”

BEATRIZ: He pass all the night in the chiringuitos, Teacher. For the morning, sleep in the pi-pi (= pee-pee) room! (giggles, pointing at Julio.)

Somehow, you know this is not exactly what you had in mind. But you live with it, because, after all, the jornada intensiva is only once a year. It pays the rent. And it pays for the ten-dollar drinks in the chiringuitos. Where you might run into Julio. Who is not at all bad-looking.
Ever had an off-beat summer job? Tell me about it!

Taking the plunge

So now I am out here. (There?) And it feels scary. And I have no idea what I shall write about, or how often I will even be able to write. And I probably would not have taken the plunge at all except that Wordgirl, whose writing I so admire, urged me to do this. So here I go (she said, pinching nose shut and jumping in feet first.)

So what does one write in one's very first post? Perhaps I should tell you about the blog title. As stated in my terse profile, I was an ex-pat for many years, during which time I lived in Madrid. Catalina is just the translation of my first name. The vecina part (vecina = neighbor/neighbour) stems from a popular rhyme that goes:

Catalina mi vecina
Mujer de mucho aparato
Que se come la sardina
y la culpla le echa al gato

Roughly translated, it might go like this:

Catherine, my neighbor
Woman of great means
Blames the cat
For eating the sardines

When, of course, it was Catalina who ate them. That's in the original little ditty, but it was hard to work into the translation and still have it rhyme in English. :-)

During my years in Madrid, I worked in a publishing company, amongst other places, and in the early days of doing part-time proof-reading work, it was my boss who used to sing this out every time I waltzed in to pick up the latest proofs. Eventually I wrote textbook material, supervised recording work, and became a full-time editor. But that's another couple of chapters... The point being that the nickname stuck. And as it was a large part of my life and who I am (a re-patriated ex-pat with not a little culture shock, even after almost eight years back in the States), I decided to pay homage to my moniker and name my blog title for that. It will also explain the frequent references to things Spanish, something unavoidable in my life, for I will always have one foot in my beloved Madrid.

P.S. The *handle* Ortizzle is just an extension of my current surname which comes from my husband. Women's rights activists: I took on the surname for professional reasons only, but maintain my maiden name as my legal middle name. (This is also another chapter.)