Category Archives: Once upon a time in Spain

my travels and unravels on Iberian realms

This Question of Colours

So, L´Oréal decided to remove words like white, light and fair from its products – all in the aftermath of global anti-racist protests all over the world.

My very first reaction was on the fun side and I eventually read it on some Facebook post: then they should also remove words like bronze, tan, brown, dark, coloured – because that would be appropriation. Just to be on the very safe side and make sure we are all politically correct.

Then I thought that logically speaking, racism – or any other -ism – is not defined by words as semantic categories (parts of speech), but by their use and the significance it is given to them. So, in order to get rid of this nonsensical headache, maybe we should try to not put the cart before the horses:  you fight racism with information, education, explanations, communication. Basically, by using your words – not by eliminating them. Language shouldn´t have to adapt to the speech; it´s the complete other way around.

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Teaching English in Times of Pandemic

A far-away society where people are taught to avoid direct contact at all costs, necessary face-to-face interaction (such as when you have to procreate) is considered dirty business, communication is performed exclusively through enhanced technology – holograms, 3D screens and the likes of it – and a deep fear of human contact is so strong that some may even consider suicide to avoid it. This was the first imagined paradigm of social distancing I ever came across in a book (The Naked Sun, by Isaac Asimov), many years before reality beat the life out of fiction and made us all at least consider the situation, as well as its consequences.

I am considered to be a millenial, which basically means I have come to age along with the internet. I can still distinctly remember the first time we went to an internet café in the mid 90s in Romania – there was a group of us skipping some class – to go check what all the fuss about the internet was. I remember one of my classmates who had the privilege of having a computer at home (not connected to the internet, though) sat in front of it while we stood and watched how he typed the three magic Ws to get on the first webpage I had ever seen. Soon after, another colleague taught me how to set up a free email account to keep in touch after having met in different city while taking part in some high-school language competition.

I turned 18 in the last year of the millenium and even though I can still remember those two previous moments of my discovering the internet, I can´t remember a single milestone instance ever since when I didn´t somehow rely on the internet. From the applications I sent to universities abroad, the scholarships and job interviews, the emails and facetime sessions used to keep in touch with friends and family, up to the very jobs I have had – everything ultimately depended on online connections.

I am an English teacher now and what seemed to be the source of some extra income when I was a student turned out to be a profession of choice. I love teaching English, so when I was faced with the interdiction to leave the house because of this pandemic, I didn´t think too much into it. I didn´t even consider there might be anything to think about, or any difference, for that matter. I sent my students the invites to the virtual classroom and got on with it. Besides, I could also consider myself lucky: of all the jobs that could NOT be done remotely, teaching was definitely not one.

The fall from my zen-induced grace came soon enough: from the open mics and consequent partial loss of hearing because of the plain rustling of papers at the other end of the connection to the sheer lack of savvy of some students, everything opened up to a world of miscommunication, misdeeds, mistakes, misunderstandings, and misconceptions. I was blissfully (and shamefully) unaware, so I decided to get some inside information and facts.

What follows is the result of the friendly contribution of 59 EFL teachers from all over the world who kindly agreed to answer 18 questions on the effects of the pandemic on teaching English. Here are the raw data. And here goes my completely biased interpretation of it all.

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What We Should Learn from This

When you need perspective, you take a step back. What is right now probably not easily visible, because the foreground is currently centred someplace else, could become less so in the weeks to come. And it would be a shame to waste such an opportunity to make everything digital available to more people.

This crisis, that is as a health-related one, could soon turn out to have social intricacies. Barely had we survived a weekend under quarantine.  Next, we have been literally flooded with free online resources: courses and classes, theatre and opera plays, movies and books, advice and expertise on how to videoconference and take your business online.

I would like to think this was rooted in a sort of cultural and educational solidarity. When you have time to spare on your hands, what do you do? You read, you watch movies, you take up a course, you brush up on your foreign language knowledge, you sign up for a yoga class, you learn some tricks on digital marketing to boost up your client base.

Yet, when this time to spare is forced by circumstances, when you must stay in with this invisible sword hanging over your head, doubled up by counting the days before you can get back to your job, because this is not actually a holiday – then you can´t even be bothered to check what opera house has opened its virtual doors to all or what highly praised and awarded movies are out there free to watch from the comfort of your couch and secured by the speedy wireless internet connection in your home.

And even if you can be bothered: we all know this is going to go away as soon as we are all allowed to go back to our jobs. This is an exceptional situation and it´s all nice and generous we are all sharing and caring right now, but how is this going to work when we must all go back to charging and paying for everything, including education?

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Inglés B2 con temario a 100€

La primera vez que un alumno me comentó que se dice por allí que hay un cierto número de temas en la parte de Writing de un examen oficial de inglés y que talvez podríamos trabajar estos temas en concreto durante las clases, pensé que se trataba de un gran malentendido.

En un segundo capítulo, una alumna me preguntó en clase si tengo conocimiento de la validez de unos 10 temas de la parte de Speaking que una señora le ofreció vender en un grupo de Facebook por 100 euros.

La tercera parte baja el telón sobre una perfecta escena de teatro del absurdo. Una profesora me cuenta que verás… sus alumnas del grupo de preparación del C1 están en un grupo de Facebook. Oh, boy! —se me escapa. That´s what I thought —me comenta la profesora; y sigue: que sus alumnas que están en ese grupo de Facebook se han enterado que en la parte de Reading del examen toca uno de tres textos sobre (en este orden): los osos panda, Singapore y algo sobre los micro créditos. Y que si por favor ¿podríamos preparar estos temas, con vocabulario específico? Ah, y por cierto, ¿no habría una lista de vocabulario para exámenes oficiales?

La curiosidad me pica.

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What One Can Learn from Teaching

There is this book I have been reading, The Death of Expertise, whose pompous subtitle The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters initially made me think it´s going to be an <<unputdownable>>. The author argues that in times when everybody not only has an opinion, but that opinion also has to be respected as such by everybody else, here we are facing the situation where the lines between fact and opinion are awfully blurred and even more so, knowledge is something everybody has, on any topic whatsoever. Tom Nichols defends the expertise and experts, making a pretty convincing point that by sheer definition, it is that difficult to be an expert on any given field as it is easy to be the superficial owner of some very questionable degree of knowledge you can force on others to respect under the newly discovered virtues of tolerance and individual freedom of opinion. He blames among other factors the (American) higher education system that grants more people than ever access to a degree, thus invalidating the differentiation that the name itself bears. Okay, all good so far, at least good enough to keep reading. But then he goes on and says something that falls within the lines of downright shaming teachers who claim “I learn as much from my students as they learn from me”. He explains that “with due respect to my colleagues in the teaching profession who use this expression, I am compelled to say: if that´s true, then you´re not a very good teacher“.

Well, I beg to differ. This is when I do put down the book and can´t help but think that is not at all accurate. Leaving aside the “very good teacher part” — an utterly subjective matter of opinion nonetheless which asks for an entirely different conversation about peer review and student feedback (the author also argues in a bit of a questionable way that student evaluation is too subjective to be reliable enough) and the relevance and relativity of both when it comes to assessing educators — I do feel that I learn a lot from my students.

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When Hate Catches You Unaware

When I first decided to share my first post on several Facebook English teaching groups, little had I suspected I was already on a bitter path. The kind of path that you find yourself on when you ask for opinions and what you get is an open personal attack based exclusively on where you were born. One could also say I was looking for it, just by being there.

Did I not know there are people who still think like a century ago when it comes to language, race, culture or religion? Did I not at least suspect that there are people who are still willing to use nationality or birthplace to label, judge and condemn all at once? Did I really expect to have a decent conversation, however controversial? Absolutely. What I never intended was for a question about the appropriateness of teaching English as a non-native speaker or what and how native speakers feel about sharing a profession with non-native counterparts to lead to aggressive verbal attacks from some of the former.

However annoyed a native English speaker might have felt when reading my question, did that even begin to justify my being called “you and your people are the scourge of Europe and nothing will get the smell of campfire out of you”? Did that somehow explain my receiving private messages with pictures of poorly dressed people in front of an ATM, allegedly trying to rob someone and supposedly sharing my nationality, only to help make the point that my countrymen know nothing better than stealing as if that were somehow a fact? Did my question actually justifiably provoke people to lash out on my English accent, even though they had never heard me speak? Did that somehow logically result in a discussion about the wrongs of immigration, the reasons some voted for Brexit or what a mistake the EU was?

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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.