Seville Snapshots: The Sights of Alcalá de Henares

The Spain of my pre-Sevilla had one leading protagonist (perhaps loverboy?) : Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra. Spain’s most famous author is best known for his chronicle of Spanish knighthood, Don Quijote, Man of La Mancha, and he penned the book while living in Valladolid.

It seemed only fitting to make a day trip from Madrid to Alcalá de Henares, the city in which Cervantes was born and to which his name is commonly associated to pay an early homage to Día del Libro, a celebration of his death and contributions to the Spanish Language and its literature. My sister-in-law Nathàlia just finished up her degree at the famous Universidad de Alcalá, so I took the train early one Friday morning to Madrid and spent an afternoon wandering the old city.

The Universidad de Alcalá is considered to be one of the oldest universities in the world (and several of my blogging friends like Cassandra and James have earned masters degrees from the formerly named Complutense!). Taking a tour with a guide was the best way to learn about the long and interesting history of the campus.

Nath and I walked arm-in-arm through the winding streets of the city, gossiping while huddling together from a biting April day before dipping into a bar near the law faculty for a few tapas. Bars clustered around the university buildings typically serves free tapas with drinks, so we toasted to Nathàlia’s big move to Dublin and one more city to cross off of my list.

If you go: Alcalá de Henares is a quick cercanías trip from Madrid – it will take you 40 minutes on the C2 line from Atocha. Be sure to visit the Plaza de Cervantes, the Casa Natal de Cervantes (free, like tapas in many bars, too), and the university tour cost less than 5€ with a student card. 

How Much Spanish Should I Speak to Travel or Live in Spain?

One of the most common questions I’m asked about moving to Spain is the level necessary to be able to understand and be understood while traveling and working. This is a loaded question, as Spain is a place where English is both commonplace and rarely spoken. 

When I came to live in Seville, I had years of study and a few months in Valladolid as backing. Little did I know that Spanish was such a complex language, or that doing adult things like opening a bank account and settling claims would turn into such a frustrating task. After all of this time and the pummeling of different accents, my own manner of speaking is laughable.

Still, the importance of learning languages has hit Andalusia full-force, and English is much more widely spoken than five years ago. Here, your questions answered:

What Level of Spanish Do You Need for a Trip to Spain?

Spain is rightly regarded as one of the most exciting travel destinations in the world, but regardless of whether you decide to soak up the sunshine on a long, sandy beach or enjoy the food and exciting culture of cities likes Barcelona and Madrid it is a good idea to learn some of the Spanish language before you go. Of course, how much you need to learn depends upon what you intend to do with it and here are a few examples of to get you thinking.

I recommend having a working knowledge of transportation vocabulary and basic phrases, and the same goes for food and lodging. While many people in the travel industry will have some English, a little legwork goes a long way, especially if there’s a problem.

To Make Friends

The Spanish people are famously friendly and outgoing, making Spain a wonderful destination for anyone who is interested in becoming friends with people from a different culture. In this case, you will want a fairly wide vocabulary and to be able to speak in as relaxed a manner as possible. You probably won’t be overly worried about some grammatical faults, as you will iron these out once you start talking to your new Spanish friends.

Intercambios, or language exchanges, are becoming ever more popular with Spaniards and foreign residents alike. These weekly meetings are often held at bars or public spaces, and encourage language participation on both ends. In Seville, couchsurfing usually meets for an exchange on Thursdays, and there are several in the Alameda. You can also use University message boards to look for a one-on-one.

To Sample the Food

Spain is also famous for its magnificent cuisine. If you love food then you will want to try the likes of paella, tortilla de patata and other local treats. In order to get the most out of your culinary experience you might like to learn a good variety of food related words. This is going to be especially relevant if you plan to head off the beaten track and eat in small restaurants where English might not necessarily be spoken. If you are able to say, the best of my Spanish lessons in Miami is the bit where we talk about food for hours then you will be on your way to learning what you need.

Knowing regional dishes will not only enhance your visit, but also help you guarantee that you’re getting great service. I tend to shy away from places where English, French, German and a handful of other languages are present on menus, though I still have to learn parts of the pig in English!

To Look for a Job

Perhaps you are planning a dramatic change in your life and want to look to further your career in Spain. This is becoming an increasingly popular option in these days of the globally mobile workforce. There are some parts of the country with a high population of English-speaking expats and it is possible that you could land a job there with little knowledge of the Spanish tongue. Still, you’ll want to have a decent grasp of some formal Spanish phrases in order to make a good impression on the person interviewing you.

Yeah, Guiri Puss, aprende español!

Interested in studying for an exam to prove that you’re a Spanish crack? The DELE diploma is valid in nearly every country in the world, and I passed the C1 in November 2011. Check out my Do’s and Don’t post and what to expect on the exam.

This post was made possible by an outside source. As always, I reserve all rights of submission.

Do you learn any language bits before you travel?

The Rain in Spain

“I knew the weather was changing during my morning cigarette yesterday,” the Novio mentioned as he smoked his [fifth] evening piti.

That’s the problem with being a pilot, he confessed. You start to understand the weather patterns. His friends nodded, confident that we were about to enter the Veranillo de San Miguel. Like most moments in my life in Seville, I shrugged and gave them a puzzled look.

Alas, not three weeks after returning to Spain, I’m putting away my summer clothes and actually sleeping under sheets. We welcomed Autumn this week with spouts of drizzle, chillier temperatures and the need for a jacket in the evening. Now is the time people start chiding you for not wearing a scarf (reason for getting a cold), for sleeping with your window open (reason for getting a cold) and walk in stocking feet in your house (reason for getting a cold).

Spanish idioms about the weather are some of the silliest I know, and I’ve made a point to put them into my speech for a dramatic effect when talking about Seville’s 300 days of sunshine, and 65 days of cold, damp grossness (for the record, the only think I like about Fall is anything pumpkin-flavored).

Veranillo de Membrillo/de San Miguel – Indian Summer

The little summer of quince or Saint Micheal is what we Americans call Indian Summer – a deceptive window of time where summer returns for just a few short days, complete with high temps and sunshine. Currently, it’s been in the low 70s, and sevillanos are hoping to squeeze out one more beach weekend.

Hasta el 40 de Mayo, no te quites el sayo – Bring your jacket

Like the Veranillo de Membrillo, the above refrán refers to just the opposite: to not be deceived by warm weather, as there will always be a burst of cold. It literally means, until June 10th, don’t take off your light jacket. This old idiom begs you to consider covering up so as not to catch a cold.

Tiempo de perros – Foul weather

The weather of dogs means nothing more than bad weather – storms, blustery winds and the like. Use this idiom with the verb hacer to talk about the weird weather that descends on the land of sunshine and siestas to impress your Spanish friends.

Tener más frío que robando pingüinos – To be very cold

There exist dozens of ways to talk about cold, including the “cold that peels” or the cold that likens you to playing with seals. My favorite is to be colder than robbing penguins, conjuring up a winter wonderland at the North Pole. In Seville, it hasn’t snowed and stuck for over 50 years, so the blue skies that are ever-present in winter trick you into thinking it’s warming up. Nope. Get your penguin-catching nets ready.

Tener carne de gallina – To have goosebumps

Goosebumps are weird sounding, but the Spaniards go ahead and make it goose skin. Even weirder.

Estar calado/a hasta los huesos – To feel damp

I didn’t realize just how cold Seville gets in winter until the Christmastime rains came. All of the sudden, my clothes wouldn’t dry and I found myself shivering under the covers with the heat on, nothing more than my eyes peeking out over the top. Because the city sits in a river valley surrounded by mountain ranges, Seville weather is damp and humid at any time of the year, prompting old ladies to admit to being damp in their bones as the walk their carritos to the supermarket.

Similarly, Spanish employs weather terms to describe people and situations.

Darse ni frío ni calor – to not matter

Spend the last weekend of Indian Summer in la playa or the mountains? No me da ni frío ni calor, really – I’ll take a weekend outside of Seville and away from my computer anytime. Anyone who is wishy washy uses this expression with a shrug to reaaaally let you know that they don’t care, and it’s translated literally as not giving you neither hot nor cold. Cue Katy Perry music.

Cambiar más que una veleta – to be fickle

Speaking of which, you probably have a friend who tells you it doesn’t give him hot or cold, but then changes his mind. Someone who changes more than a weather vane is said to be fickle, and I could easily blanket stereotype with this one, but I won’t. Hey, we’ve all got friends like this.

Llover sobre mojado – When it rains, it pours

As I listen to the rain finally pounding down on a very dry Seville, it’s easy to envision this idioms: When one bad thing happens on top of another, it’s raining over what’s already wet. I made friends with another auxiliar when she was living in Huelva five years ago. As much as she loved Spain, she got dealt one bad hand after another, finally leading her to leave spain after one year. Her reason? It didn’t just pour, it poured over what was already wet.

Pasar como un nube de verano – to be short-lived

You know what passed by like a summer cloud? Summer itself! I have to admit, I’ve never planned my outfits around shoes, but when you haven’t got many options for Fall shoes on a sudden rainy day, it happens. Anything short-lived is remembered nostalgically as a summer cloud. The only problem is, in Andalucía we’ve got either zero clouds or sun protection, or the icky grey skies known as borchorno.

Que te parta un rayo – to go to hell

Straight out of Greek mythology? Damning someone means wishing they get halved by a lightning bolt. I like it.

This is by no means an exhaustive list. Got any other to share? Leave them for me in the comments – I love learning Spanish idioms almost as much as teaching them in English!

How to Learn English

9:15 am and my students are as listless as ever. Javi grumbles under his breath as he surrenders his iPod to me. I fiddle with the thing, feeling much, much older than my 24 years and trying to hide my utter terror as the screen flashed. David Guetta’s heart-pumping rhythms get some of their ears perked up, a few smiles spreading peeking out in the corners of their mouths. Silvia taps her pencil nervously to the beat, head no doubt tangled up in a tricky conjugation.

Their daily writing assignment was on the board. While my 15 students scribble in their construction-paper notebooks, I review my grammar assignment for the morning, sighing: reported speech. Between the time clauses and the backshift, our first attempt the day before had been a disaster. One of those throw-your-arms-up. pull-you-hair-out, where’s-my-end-of-the-day-beer kind of days. I close my eyes and remember it’s just summer camp, and that the kids were really there for the activities and their parents had actually paid for the native speakers.

One by one, the students close their notebooks and trudge to the front of the classroom to give it to me. As I am about to plunge in with a hastily prepared board game for reviewing, Javi jumps across his table as if it were a vaulting horse and runs to his iPod. Puzzled, I gave him my never-fail “sit down nooooow” eyes before he starts thumping his foot and head to the beat.

“Cat, I can have this very, very, VERY loud, yes?” he inquires, matching my stare with a big grin. Lara snickers, and I can’t resist.

“Sure, Javi, crank it up.”

I immediately know which song it is, and so do my students. Before the first chorus even starts, I’m scribbling down ideas for how to use it in my lessons. With two years of teaching high schoolers, I’ve learned that music is a surefire way to get students engaged and talking, and U2 and Pearl Jam and even Weird Al Yankovich have made their way onto my lesson plans. Billie Jean is going to help me teach reported speech this morning.

I text my boss, asking her to copy the lyrics as soon as possible and make a few copies. My students have fun decoding the reported speech back into direct and their sudden enthusiasm makes me think outside the four-skills box for the rest of the week’s lessons. As a class, we take Billie Jean’s claims to the tabloids and the case to court, write newspaper articles on the pending paternity test with other teachers and monitors as witnesses. They begin to use reported speech correctly in their journal entries, in their worksheets and exams, and more importantly, in their speech.

a tabloid report on the court case

When it comes time to do a creative project, the students set up a mock trial with audience members of the jury. Javi has no match as Michael Jackson and his howling “But the kiiiiiid is not my son!”

Silvia as Bille Jean and Javi as Michael Jackson in the talent show

Attention, fellow English teachers: Have you ever had a lesson be wildly successful? I wanna hear about it! Tell me the lesson,the age group and any materials you needed to make it happen. Or, tell me how you motivate your students to learn English? What interests them the most? 

A Glimpse Inside My Classroom

In thinking about leaving education and trying something different, I sometimes think that teaching may really be my thing. After all, I love kids, adore the ones I’m teaching this year,and feel good when I plan a fun unit and my kids laugh in the classroom (who wouldn’t show Kip’s Wedding Song from Napoleon Dynamite to teach “I love” in the classroom?).

For the record, I teach full-time at a bilingual elementary school. This kind of thing is de moda in Spain these days, and this is why I’ll have a job speaking English until the day I die, if I so choose. It’s both a blessing and a curse, as it also limits what people think I’m qualified for. So, I spend my daily grind speaking shouting over two groups of rowdy but adorable six- and seven-year-olds. They get half of their curriculum in English, so I divide my team between English, Science, PE, Art, Music, Math review and sometimes Values. Two classes, totalling 44 students, are at my cargo, so when one group of 22 is with me, the other group is with the Spanish teacher, ane vice-versa. It’s a good set-up when the kids actually remember to take all of their school supplies and books and bags and jackets during our once-daily switch.

I’ve had experience writing curriculum since my second year as an auxiliar de conversacón, and I have a TEFL certificate. In a language classroom, classes should be dynamic, with lots of recycling (asking students to reproduce material they learned earlier in the year, or even in earlier courses) and with plenty of motivation. Stickers, candy, or watching a video in English work wonders with young learners, and a daily question-and-answer with my high schoolers was always fun (if not revealing).

It also helps to have oodles of materials. As we all know, a student of any subject can learn in a multitude of ways, so I try and have plenty on hand to help my niñitos learn. The basis of my curriculum is a series of books for nearly every subject I teach, with the exception of PE and Values. Though I didn’t pick out the books when they were chosen, I have come to enjoy the methodology and have fun teaching them. For English, I use Kid’s Box 2 (Cambridge, ISBN ISBN-13: 9780521688079), which is packed with fun illustrations, plenty of filler and warmer activities, catchy songs and lots of photocopiable materials for me, the T. Science is MacMillian Natural and Social Science 1 (MacMillan, http://www.macmillanelt.es/Macmillan-Natural.2396.0.html), which I liked for its objectives and beautiful presentation in the book. A solid curriculum that focuses on oral and listening skills can make all the difference in grasping the concepts laid down by the school.

I also try to have a lot of visual cues around the room, though we can’t put anything on the walls. I use both doors, windows, the three cork boards and even my desk to display student work, prepositions, there is/there are and a character wall for my students to get an easy, visual reminder of tricky structures and concepts we’ve worked on this year.

My first graders are learning some basics of reading and writing in English, so we’re using the book Chicka Chicka Boom boom to review letters, and have a weekly spelling bee to reinforce letter names (again, recycling is important in young learners).

Each week, one student is asked to present the letter (in this case, J), and read three words we’ve learned with this letter. They’re a little more graduated in Spanish and refuse to believe there is no Ñ in English, but it’s helping them to learn that you don’t always read what you see. J and G are confused, Y seems like a foreign concept, and water is always spelled g-u-a-d-e-r to them, but we’re getting there.

I’m also trying to focus on using the English they know, similar to bit of intelligences. Please don’t tell me, seño, no tengo lápiz. You know the structure have not got, the word for pencil, and the first person, just the same as you know to say can+I+have. I flat out ignore kids who ask to go to the toilet in Spanish, which motivates them to use a few palabras sueltas. I also have a chart in the room for each class that tracks the oral English they use in class. Ask for scissors in English? One tick for you. After 15, they get a sticker page, and each month will have a small prize for the student with the most points. I did this with tickets for behavior during the first five months of the year to reinforce good behavior and being a good classmate (Spanish kids seem to be very selfish with their colors and erasers). My name is at the bottom of the list for the kids to police me speaking in Spanish.

The above activity I stole from Forenex, the Summer camps I work for. After listening to a story about animals, kids had to draw an invented animal and then describe it, thus recycling everything to body parts to how animals move to colors. I was pleasantly surprised at their enthusiasm and accuracy in describing them.

Though our values subject has kind of been thrown out the window, I’m taking the opportunity to talk about a different value every month. From respect to tidiness to cooperation, we do a small activity or read a book and have a short discussion about them. I used a house as the example, and that each one of us is a house. Which bricks do you choose? Greed and anger, or discipline and forgiveness? This visual reminder is right next to the board, so a simple finger point at sharing tells kids non-verbally that they have to share their rubbers and not distract the class by arguing.

Please don’t think this classroom is a tranquil haven for a frazzled teacher and her rambunctious students. I have my daily “hasta aquí” moments where I lose my patience and I sometimes slip into Spanish. I’m behind in curriculums and rarely have everything neat and organized. I should be at least on letter P by now. But it’s a fun environment that encourages speaking up and learning by moving and playing, which can make all the difference.

Please share any tips and tricks in the comments below, or ask any questions. As a five-year vet and teacher trainer, I know a couple of things about teaching at nearly every level, but I definitely am glad I did  a TEFL degree to help me with classroom management and lesson planning.

El Tintero – Pescaíto al estilo Subasta

I’ve learned a lot of things in Spain. Just ask Christine. Certainly one of those lessons has been to speak up. As Spaniards are candid about their opinions and not really all that patient, their bar language is a reflection of the gregarious personality that even my six-year-old students display.

And this is why I loved El Tintero, a malagueño restaurant that puts it all to practice.

Chipi! Chipi!

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