A Day in the Life of a Teacher, IV

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After the hour I have teaching the guys, I head to my last class of the week, two stops north, at AIG. My agency is on the way there, so I typically stop in to grab some teaching materials, sit down to eat a sandwich, and practice my horrible Spanish with our secretary who speaks no English. At 6:00 sharp I arrive to the AIG office and pull out my laptop to do some pre-class downtime writing. At 6:15, as always, my students show up, all smiles, ready for the long weekend. This class, like the one before, is elementary. Today we are learning how to give directions in English. But instead of learning how to give directions in English, all my students want to do is talk about their weekends, so I sit quietly and correct their mistakes on the whiteboard. One is going to visit family in Toledo. The other, to a park somewhere to enjoy the weather with his family. I tell them that sounds nice. I’ll probably just stay in Madrid and relax with friends. By relaxing with friends I mean we’ll go to clubs all weekend and stay out until the sun is up and cafes are open for breakfast. I don’t tell them the last part. They nod their heads and smile as I talk. I think they understand about 50% of what I say.

For the rest of the hour, as we stumble through prepositions and street maps, my eyes can’t help from darting to the clock every minute or so. The weekend is so close. I can smell it. It’s the Thursday ritual of waiting for that school’s-out-for-summer feeling. The rest of the week flies by, all four days stuffed together into one hour. It’s like the exact opposite of a kinked hose, but with time, not water.

7:30 does finally come, of course, and it’s all I can do to keep from flinging my textbooks into the air like graduation caps in celebration of my three day freedom. Another week gone by. Another set of satisfied students. Another job well done. After giving myself a great big pat on the back I hop on a bus with the rest of the rush hour weekenders and head home to drop off my laptop and textbooks – the old workweek ball & chain. Now with anchor up, it’s time to set sail once again on another madrileño weekend adventure. I’ve heard it quoted before, and I’m too lazy to check for sure, that Madrid has the highest percentage of bars and restaurants per sq. km than any other city in the world. I don’t know for sure, like I said, but I believe it. The possibilities are endlessly overwhelming. Visions of tapas and frosty mugs have been dancing in my head all week, and now is the time to make the dream a reality. With a belly full of olives, chorizo, and Spanish beer, who knows where the night wind will blow us? Who knows who we’ll meet? Who knows what we’ll do? Who knows? That’s the beauty of it all; this strange Spanish odyssey. And, well, that’s my Thursday for ya.

A Day in the Life of a Teacher, III

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So, four women students, all older than me, eventually all file in by 3:15. Unlike my morning class, when tardiness is more or less acceptable, this is a frustrating nuisance. Like a well planned attack, they strategically time their entrances by ten minute intervals. This causes me to stop teaching, say hello, ask how they are, pass them the attendance sheet, tell them what page we’re on, and restart. The Spanish salutation process takes about ten minutes. They come in every ten minutes. There are four of them. Therefore, I spend about half the class period studying Spanish and saying hello. Once again this has no effect on my paycheck. When we do cover a lesson, it’s most often from a textbook provided by my teaching agency (teaching agencies are companies hired by businesses to hire teachers to teach their employees, if you follow me). Everyone I know works for a teaching agency.

My next class, luckily enough, is in the same building, for one hour. Thankfully, my students are all on time today. They are three guys in their early twenties who do some type of computer work. I’m not sure exactly. Regardless, they speak a much lower level of English than the women, which is exactly what I prefer. See, teaching advanced students can sometimes be difficult because the students have studied English for so long. It’s hard to keep them entertained, and hard to teach them things they haven’t already covered a hundred times before. But for more elementary English, no matter what you do in a lesson, the students are going to get something out of it. You can also witness their progression, and even take credit for some of it. This makes you feel great, like you’re doing something useful with your life – spreading the English language, giving back to the global community. Basically at the end of the week, it makes you want to give yourself a great big pat on the back.

A Day in the Life of a Teacher, II

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My first class is at a sports newspaper called Diario AS. It’s my favorite class. By far. Not only are the students incessantly cheerful, but they are, without fail, at least 20 minutes late, every day. Now, this would appear to be a real inconsiderate hassle to the uninitiated. But you learn quickly that the Spanish do live up to some of their stereotypes – you can either take advantage of it or let them drive you nuts. I decide to run with it. During this down time I’m extremely productive. I plan lessons for the week, fill out my teaching paperwork, study Spanish, or write. Pre-class downtime: another weapon.

Class starts at 9. It ends at 10:30. My students arrive at 9:30. My paycheck doesn’t suffer. If anything, I’m just happy to be here rather than in Torrejon de Ardoz, the industrial armpit of Madrid, where I have my other morning class. But whatever. At 9:30, my students arrive, telling me that since today is “Friday” we should forgo the phrasal verb worksheets, and opt instead for a Spanish breakfast at the café next door. My favorite class again, like I said. So, while sipping coffee #2 (this one with milk and sugar) and nibbling fresh tortilla (Spanish egg and potato casserole – also another weapon) my students drill me, as they always do, with questions concerning every aspect of my life. They study me like a museum exhibit, prod and poke my mind like a concerned psychotherapist, and, hanging on my every word, are prone to fits of spontaneous laughter like fascinated children. I am, essentially, the court jester. Their bi-weekly morning entertainment. Kids have cartoons. My students have me.

When class/breakfast is over I have four hours to kill until my next group. Once again, another half empty glass situation. I choose to be optimistic and continue demonstrating my Spanishness by taking a siesta. Who doesn’t honestly love naps? Honestly? This type of thing would never fly in the Anglo Saxon world. Alas, Spain. Siesta: another weapon.

My next class is at 2:30. I struggle but win snooze button battle #2, and hop back on the metro to the Picasso Tower, 20 minutes travelling in total. The company is Merrill Lynch, their office on the 39th floor. Although I’m there, in their office, in the middle of the day, my students, still, are fifteen minutes late. So I commence with the wise spending of time by studying Spanish. For the record, my Spanish is offensively awful. It is however, functional enough to communicate basic needs (i.e. ordering and paying for beer and coffee). Nonetheless, it needs work. My students, four women of about 30, take English classes because they actually use English in their jobs. My first class is an all Spanish newspaper. My students from there never to my knowledge actually use English. Ever. But seeing as they have yet to catch on to this fun fact, I remain employed. When I walk into the Merrill Lynch office, my students are usually at their desks or at lunch. English is being spoken everywhere. It’s like a strange dream where I’ve been teleported home but everyone’s talking with a Spanish accent. I’m not certain, but this, I imagine, is what it must feel like to live in Miami.

A Day in the Life of a Teacher, Part I

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Both of my phone alarms sound simultaneously, startling my head from the pillow. I hit the snooze button on each, a quick nine minute siesta, until my bare feet actually have to touch down on the cold floor of my room. The sun’s just started peeking through my shutters. It’s Thursday. As an English teacher in Madrid, Thursday is the new Friday. Wednesday, the new Thursday. No one works Fridays – a constant string of three day weekends stretch throughout our calendar year. I’m not by any means a morning person, but the daily battle with my double snooze button is easier on Thursday. Everything is easier on Thursday – especially this Thursday because tomorrow is one of the dozen Spanish holidays so none of my students have to work. Today’s going to be a good day.

I dress and eat quickly and pop in to the café downstairs for a small shot of hot liquid energy. Spanish coffee is one of the most powerful weapons of motivation in my alarm clock arsenal. Delicious, fresh, quick, and strong – and black. The barmen downstairs don’t know me by name, but as soon as I pull up a stool at the bar with a groggy, “Buenos dias,” my coffee is already being poured. I feel like a local, like I belong. I feel like I’ve managed to elbow my way into having a place in this city. This feeling is another weapon.

Heart pumping with caffeine, I scurry along with the crowd across Plaza Colon to the metro station – a five minute uphill hike. The gigantic Spanish flag flutters with the light springtime breeze as the sun climbs its way over the skyline of downtown. There isn’t a cloud in the sky. The flag, the plaza, the immaculate blue sky like a clean slate – all weapons in the alarm clock arsenal.

The metro’s crowded, as usual. People all hustling, late, typical Spanish. No one speaks. I pop out my head phones while jogging down the escalator to better hear the daily morning metro performer of Alonso Martinez. With his karaoke machine and keyboard remixes of “Hey Jude” and “I Want It That Way” by the Backstreet Boys, his gold chains, sequined shirt, pot belly and bowler hat, he reminds me of a wannabe Vegas lounge singer. He must smoke two packs a day – again, typical Spaniard – but neither age nor lack of talent will stop him as he closes his eyes and belts out his hoarse lyrics for the enjoyment of all functioning eardrums coming and going this morning on line 5. Like so many other things in Madrid, none of this makes the slightest bit of sense – but it does give me a good laugh. And therefore, another weapon.

Toledo Take Two

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I did finally make it back to Toledo, as promised, to visit its main attraction that I’d missed the first time around due to that monetarily decided democratic show of hands. This time however, I came armed with a proper budget, or, in other words, I came with my parents.

Minus the sprint to the station from our last go round, this Toledo trip was very much the same as the previous – characterized by a lot of eating, a lot of photo snapping, and a lot of walking and wandering. Everything I failed to cover on the first leg, I more than made up for with the more proactive attitude of my parental units. And that includes, mainly, Toledo’s cathedral.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, that if you’ve ever toured Europe, you’ll know that it’s quite possible to get burnt out on castles, cathedrals, and art museums. Eventually, one statue starts looking like any other, all paintings blur into one, and the most intricately carved altarpieces warrant little more than an appreciative double take. There are however, the occasional exceptions, and Toledo’s cathedral, without a doubt, is one of them.

Hands down the most ornate cathedral I’ve had the privilege of visiting, the well preserved, colorful details of its hundreds of paintings, dozens of stained glass windows and strikingly shiny golden chapels, left a permanent imprint that will forever outlast the other cathedrals already fading in my memory. It was sensory overload at its finest, and I couldn’t help but imagine the generations of craftsmen whose lives had been entirely dedicated to its decorating, never living long enough to see its completion. This description in no way does justice to the real thing, unfortunately. An entire book could be written in attempting to capture the shear enormity and elaborateness of its cavernous halls and artifacts. So many other cathedrals have faded with time into dull, colorless slabs of stones and sculptures. Toledo’s cathedral, as I’ll always remember it, was still alive with colors of every hue and more gold than I’d ever imagined could exist under one roof.

So please, don’t make the mistake I made during my first visit to Spain’s former capital city – when you hop off the train in Toledo, make a break for the cathedral straight away and give yourself time to explore, soak in the sights, and appreciate this manmade medieval masterpiece.

Holy Toledo, Part IV

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Not nearly as graphic as our previous stop at the zombie art exhibit, the torture museum shed fascinating light on what life was like during the years of Spain’s Inquisition. And, judging from some of the hair raising instruments such as the Iron Maiden (a short, Spaniard sized, rusty iron box, complete, for the comfort of its unfortunate recipient, with carrot-sized spikes that, interestingly enough, were still sharp), the rusty chastity belt (don’t ask), and the worst of all by far – “la rueda” or the wheel. The simplest of all torture instruments on display, and by far the least imaginative, if you were unfortunate enough to fall victim to the wheel, then you’d have every bone in your body snapped like twigs, your broken limbs woven like a French braid through the spokes of a large wagon wheel, and your whole body raised with the wheel to put on a grisly display of what human pretzels could plausibly look like resulting from opposition to the throne. Among other things on display were “tongue looseners,” “finger-nail ripper-offers,” “skin shredders,” and “socket dis-jointers,” or human racks that go a little farther than giving you a courteous pre-jog stretch out. Luckily all the displays had (poorly written) explanations in English in case your imagination couldn’t take you where it needed to go, and after a good half hour or so of grimacing and goose bumps, we decided it was time to get back into the setting sun and grab some more tapas before catching the last train home.

At some point during the day, as our group dwindled from nine to seven to five to three, someone somewhere along the line, had conveniently wandered away with the only map. Toledo is by no means a large town, but with its roads strewn helter skelter in every direction, and our minimal knowledge of the Spanish language, asking for directions and following signs from one end of Toledo to the other proved to be an annoyingly inconvenient task. So it was that we found ourselves, nibbling olives at an outdoor café, that we came to the sudden realization that the last train was due to leave the station in half an hour – and we were on the complete other side of the city!

Gathering our things, paying the bill, and being pointed in the general vicinity of the station, we chose a street without thinking, and broke into a steady sprint. While dodging cars in narrow alleys and stopping stranger after stranger for quick, confused directions, we did manage to finally find our way out of the maze, and over to the edge of the medieval city. With clock counting down to the final minutes, we chose to stop for one last time and snap a couple pictures of the city lights below – an incredible twilit view of this desert oasis. And, picking up once more, tore off towards the station as fast as our flip flopped feet would take us. We got in with just a minute to spare, and plopped down panting in our seats, wiping the sweat from our faces and laughing nervously at the close call we’d just encountered.

Holy Toledo Part III

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It’s been a long time coming, I know, but what good would I be as a procrastinator if I failed to at least put the finishing touches on our autumn trip to Toledo? Better late than never I guess, so if you want to read the tail in its entirety, back on up a couple pages in the blog – and while you’re there, why not just read through the rest of the posts until you make it back to this one? Take a minute to walk a couple miles (or months) in the shoes of an English teacher in Madrid – from humble beginnings and rookie mistakes, to veteran’s wisdom on all the English language has to offer. You won’t regret it! Anyway, back to the story…

So, after all the effort to find a quiet café to ourselves, and after a couple pitchers of refreshing sangria, we were ready to head back into the deepening afternoon shadows of Toledo’s echoing alleyways. But, as always, there was one bump in the road. The seemingly friendly barmen, through mischievous intentions or bad calculating, had somehow managed to completely butcher our bill. The chicken scratch recording of our orders scribbled with all the carelessness of a doctor’s signature were no help as we argued our way through the menu of prices. This, I have learned about Spain: if you’re in a touristy town, in a touristy restaurant, speaking touristy Spanish to the camareros, then you may as well have a bull’s eye-dollar sign tattooed on your forehead. In other words, if you don’t speak Spanish well, then watch out because you’re bound to get taken for a ride. (Side note: my friend and I, when we got off the plane for the first time in Madrid, got charged 55 Euros for a 25 Euro cab ride – with no Spanish whatsoever it’s hard to argue, so watch out!). Anyway, after passing the calculator and doing our best body language communications, we finally managed to punch out a number that everyone could agree upon, wave goodbye to the apologetic (caught red handed) barmen, and commence with the explorations.

With no clear direction in mind, we decided to take what I refer to as the new-to-Madrid approach, and wander aimlessly through the labyrinth of zigzagging streets until we found a place worth stopping. Foolproof in its simplicity, this plan of attack soon found us standing, high fiving in front of Toledo’s hidden gem of a tourist stop – the Museum of Torture. Now, I like art and I like history and all that jazz, but really, unless you’re writing a book or have aspirations of pursuing a career in the curator field, museums in Europe are a dime a dozen, and they tend to get old (at least for me), fast. But this, for our now dwindled group of guys, was a perfect find. So we pooled together our change, paid the four Euro cover, and went skipping merrily through.

Folks in Town, Part II

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My parents did finally make it in okay, after all the months of planning and whatnot, and I have to say the weekend was a great success. It was fun to show off my newly acquired Spanish skills, or at least to boost my confidence in knowing that for once, my Spanish was better than the rest of the group, which left me in charge for the first time of the communication process. In the end really I realized that all the stress and worry was totally unwarranted. Having been here for so long, I’d forgotten how exciting this city can be to a fresh pair of eyes, and how the littlest things, from the dirtiest café to the intersection jugglers, to the dozens of fountains and plazas, to the busy hustling and drama of the Spanish themselves, is impossible not to fascinate.

Five days is quite a short amount of time to squeeze in all that Madrid has to offer, and as anyone who’s lived here can attest, five months won’t get you much closer to fully understanding and appreciating this city and its inhabitants either. As a friend of mine who’s been living here for a while related, “Even after five years here, after all the classes I’ve taught and all the nights out with Spanish friends, I have to admit that I’m not even close to understanding the Spanish people in their entirety.” It is indeed a complex and fascinating culture worth taking time to study and explore, but in five nights we did all we could do – walking and watching and stuffing ourselves with beer, wine, and massive varieties of tapas. The weather couldn’t have been more cooperative for early spring, and our day trips to Toledo and Segovia acted as pleasantly surprising contrasts to the modernity of Spain’s capital. In the end it was really more about enjoying each other’s company than sprinting from site to site, and I had to laugh at myself when they left for ever having worried that any sane person could ever be bored for five nights in this sleepless city.

Folks in Town, Part I

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Recently I had the pleasure of testing out my hand for the first time as a tour guide in Madrid. My clients were a lovely couple from Florida who were visiting Madrid for the first time. They spoke no Spanish, had no previous knowledge of the city, and no specified preferences as far as itineraries were concerned. Their stay was only a short five nights here, but this middle aged couple did at least indicate prior to arrival that they would like to visit the medieval towns of Toledo and Segovia, and spend as much time with their tour guide as possible. I was also able to gather from our email and Skype chat correspondences that they had two children in their twenties – the older, a female nurse; the younger, a male who’d just recently graduated college –  and that their favorite child by far was the male, due in part to his boyish good looks, superior intelligence, and impeccably witty writing talent. So, who was this mystery couple of whom I speak? Well, my parents, of course.

The planning began months in advance, with much speculation and guesswork going into deciding when Madrid’s wily weather would yield the most agreeable, cloud-free afternoons. We then chose a hotel, flight date, and our day trip destinations. It was obvious, as mentioned above, that Toledo and Segovia were to be the most suitable options for Spanish newbies. From there the ball was totally in my court. As a “local” it was completely up to me to take the information I had about these clients, and put it into a logical itinerary of restaurants, tapas bars, historical sites, and miscellaneous activities. And I will admit, being that Madrid is such a gi-normous city with seemingly endless amounts of bars and restaurants (the most per square kilometer of any city in the world, I’ve been told), that the more I researched, the more I realized how daunting this task would be. And the more recommendations I gathered from students and friends, the more overwhelming this task became, therefore causing this already easily stressed individual to toss and turn in sleepless thought and indecision for the few weeks leading up to their arrival.

Okay, so what’s the big deal exactly? Why all the worry? Well, I have my parents to thank for co-sponsoring my trip here, first of all, and I wanted to make sure that they’d have a great time. Secondly, I’m an OCD perfectionist. If someone’s coming to visit me – friends, family, or other – I’m going to make sure that their stay in my surrogate motherland is as pleasant and pleasurable as possible. There was another reason for this that spawned from more selfish pursuits though. There are many things I love in life, but sitting atop the list, as my friends make a hobby of pointing out, is most definitely without question, food. Cooking it, eating it, ordering it, whatever – there’s nothing better in my book than trying and tasting all the delicacies that the Spanish soil can dish out. And as I mentioned before, there’s no better place in Spain to do this. Madrid is a culinary playground of flavors – the melting pot of Spain in both its population and its cuisine. From the strange (tripe stew) to the simple (egg and potato pie, or tortilla), my taste buds are in this city like a kid in a candy store. So, tangents aside, the point I want to make is that having my parents in town was finally going to give me the opportunity to dine in the places I can’t usually afford. And there are many. So many in fact that I nearly fell victim to indecision.

The Story of How I Got Locked in the Metro, Part II

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Anyway, so regardless of this unwarranted look-on-bright-side attitude, I was, if anything, bored. All I had for company now was a half empty pack of Marlboro Lights, a cell phone with no minutes, and a waning buzz. It was in this moment that another thought popped into my head: having the station to myself had started conjuring up scenes from Home Alone, and I wondered for a split second what type of shenanigans I could get up to in the three and a half hours until it reopened. This is my house – I have to protect it! But this epiphany passed as soon as it came, and it was quickly obvious that no matter how optimistic I wanted to be, there was really nothing fun or exciting about spending the night inside the metro.

Heart beating once again with nervous adrenaline, it occurred to me that if the gate shut on a timer, maybe the lights would turn off, too. There was no doubt in my mind - it was time to pull myself together and find my way to freedom. So, with all other plans exhausted and no alternate answers in the idea box, I started sprinting around the station in search of an emergency exit. This was, after all, an emergency. Luckily for me, it didn’t take more than a couple solid metro laps before happening upon a set of double doors with a green sign reading: salida de emergencia. And then, thanking the lord with silent gratitude that the Spanish had actually prepared for such a situation, I braced myself for the sounding alarm, and busted through.

Met once more with still silence, I took a deep breath, let the cool air of what appeared to be a mineshaft-type corridor freshen my senses, and followed the hallway to its end. Or rather, to its dead end, I should say. Keeping within the spirit of my exponentially growing misfortunes, this miracle exit - this oasis in my desert of an abandoned metro station - was punctuated with a perfectly normal set of stairs – running straight into the ceiling!

As I stood stroking my chin in awe of this architectural cluster-fuck, I couldn’t help but laugh. We’d always joked that there are no rules or reasoning in this country, and this seemed to be Spain’s jeering way of joking back. I couldn’t really help from feeling like Ed Norton in Fight Club - hitting bottom. His name is Robert Paulson. His name is Robert Paulson…

Anyway, when I finally snapped out of this daydream/nightmare, I came to find that while my mind was wandering, my body had been leaning on a lever – quite a large lever, conveniently enough – with another sign reading: Tirar para abrir la puerta. And without blinking, I was on that lever with all my weight, giggling with involuntary childish glee as I watched the ceiling creak open; a great yawning metal mouth in la plaza de lavapies.

Wasting little time in premature celebration, I waited until the crack was just wide enough to squeeze through, and, crouched on all fours, crawled out into the night like a countertop cockroach and punched the free air with a fistful of victorious triumph. A group of terrified Spaniards were lucky enough to witness this event as well, and while they stood staring in shock, I brushed myself off, let out a heavy sigh of relief, gave them a half-smile and shrug, and blurted out the only word appropriate enough to summarize my thoughts on this ordeal: “Joder!”

Well, I thought, with a wipe of the hands, my mouth suddenly watering for whiskey, now where’d that damn Frenchman run off to?

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