Wednesday, 27 January 2016

Sierra Nevada ski trip!

A few months ago, the PE teacher with whom I had the most classes mentioned that he was taking the 2ndo ESO class (Year 8) to the nearby Sierra Nevada ski range for a day trip, and I should come along (he did say he'd love to take me to Andorra with the Year 11 class for their ski trip, but that one was out of his power). On the first day back of 2016, Joaquín told me that the trip was coming up in about two weeks, so if I could pay the 40eu the following day, I was in.  My co-ordinator released me from the day's classes, I paid up and I was on the figurative bus.

After two weeks of frantically searching for borrowed  ski gear, I was up at 6am last Wednesday to dress and head to the bus station before 7am.  Two dark hours of noisy 13-year-olds later, we pulled up to the town of Pradollano, the main town of the Sierra Nevada Ski Resort. Our guide handed out lift passes, and it was onto the gondola and up the mountain.
Pradollano and the mountains
Winter wonderland!
Though we were all already kitted up, it took a while to sort out the actual equipment - helmets, boots and either snowboards or skis and poles for everyone. We were then split up into smaller groups for lessons with an instructor.
Lesson 1 - how to put on your skis (harder than it sounds.) Lesson 2 - walking. Then it was gliding, limbo, jumping and stopping. Once we'd mastered that, the instructor took us to a very small incline nearby and had us ski to the bottom before stopping.  Some of us managed the stopping better than others.  Some stopped into others.  In short, skiing with teenage first-timers is hilarious.  I spent most of the day laughing at them all falling over.
Walking on skis
Next it was on a small ski ramp to the top of the learner's incline, and then straight onto a longer one that dropped us about halfway up the nearest slope.  This time Manolo, our instructor, had us ski down bit by bit, working on stopping.  When skiing, you stop by turning your toes inwards to create a wedge shape, or 'cuña' in Spanish.  I spent a lot of time yelling "Cuña!" at my students, who equally spent a lot of time skiing right on past me 'til they ran out of momentum.  Again, so long as they weren't bleeding, watching my students whizzing past going, "I don't know how to stooooooop!" was pretty funny for me.  Call it revenge for tiring Thursday afternoons trying to make them stay in their seats and stop throwing paper around the classroom.
Halfway up the slope
Me and the kids
We stopped for lunch at 2pm, after a couple more sessions skiing down the small slope.  We also worked on turning, which, again, caused problems for some...

WHOOSH. "What was tha...oh, Antonio forgot how to stop again....cuña, Antonio!...yup, he's fallen over now."
THUMP. "Who fell over this time?" "Daniel.  Again.  No, Daniel, try standing up with your skis on this time.  Hey, Manolo, once you've sorted out Antonio, Daniel needs help again!"
THUMP. "Was that...". "Yup. Antonio." "How did he manage to fall over when he wasn't even moving?..." "I have no idea."
*This dialogue is not verbatim, but is 90% accurate.  I'm sure because this happened many times...many, many times.

After a quick sandwich lunch sitting in the lovely warm, comfortable snow, we had an hour of free skiing time until we had to meet again to take the bus.  I elected to go with our PE teacher Joaquín and some of the boys in my group, since they were doing the larger slope.  What I didn't realise was that they were taking the ski lift to the top of the nearest slope...ALL the way to the top.
On the main slope
After what seemed like a VERY long time on the ski lift, about a dozen of us marshalled at the top of the slope before setting off.  We lasted about 30 metres before we had a man down. In the 10 or so minutes it took to get Fran back on his skis, the snowboarders gathered underneath the chairlift and eventually took off without us, the rest of us skiers gathered a bit further up, and all the boys promptly fell down the nearest incline as soon as we started moving again.
Waiting on my boys...
Eventually I left the students behind, since they ALL kept falling over and I couldn't help them back into their skis, so I left them to Joaquín and went it alone.  The crowning moment of my day was skiing neatly to the bottom of the slope and braking gently from 200 metres up (ok, so I hurtled down in ever-increasing speed and terror until I ran out of momentum at the bottom, but hey, progress).  This was followed by a painful slog back to the hire centre to get out of those awful ski boots, and a two-hour bus ride home with an incredibly noisy, hyped-up bunch of kids.  How they had that much energy after the day we'd had I will never understand, but then that's niños for you.
Second ski lift from the right - top to bottom!
Bucket list #23: learn to ski - check!

Sunday, 24 January 2016

The Slave of Duty

I've been saying from the beginning that Baza reminds me of my own small town - a lovely, charming, healthy place to grow up - but it's a stifling place for young people to live, with little higher education, opportunities or excitement for those longing for a taste of the world.  This is hardly more evident than in languages.

I moved to Spain to learn Spanish, to immerse myself in the language so completely that I'd be oozing castellano out of my ears.  Well, sleepy, rural, monolingual Baza is the perfect place for me to fill my aural cavities with stuff that would bewilder an ENT, but for those trying to go the other way, Baza is a vast, hopeless wasteland.

Despite the number of British retirees kicking around in this part of the world, hoping for some sunny peace and quiet to finish out their days, Baza is very much a one-language town.  While, as in Australia, most of the more common languages can be found and used in the big cities, once you hit the countryside your chances of finding a second language start to plummet, and the young English-learners of Baza are a tad desperate.  My first few weeks in Baza were about finding ways to politely tell people that no, they couldn't book one of my private English classes because I wasn't running any private English classes.  This threw more than a few people for six.  In a town where native English speakers pretty much consist of the overseas language assistants (and those reclusive retirees), classes with us are in high demand.  I discovered during my first week at flamenco class that my teacher was the woman who'd sent a message via my high school that she wanted to host the school's language assistant, in exchange for said assistant (me) speaking English to her two girls at home.

While I quickly nixed that idea (and my coordinator promptly 'forgot' to ask me until I'd 'already' found my own apartment), she wasn't the only one.  Another teacher approached me on first meeting to ask about setting up an English-language play session with her under-10 daughter and her friends, and didn't seem to believe me when I said that sorry, I wasn't offering classes.  I was even chased down the street one night after leaving a shop because the shop girl wanted to know if I'd help her practise English every week.  After a very long chat in Spanish, during which she explained that she's undertaking post-secondary studies through a local high school and attending a private language school in the afternoons, I had to tell her that I've in fact come to Spain to learn Spanish, not to help all of Spain learn English.

In amongst all her pleading, though, she raised a really good point.  There are a lot of people in this town that really, genuinely want to learn English - far more than you'd find wanting to learn a second language in Australia - and almost all of them have no opportunity to practise with a fluent speaker, let alone a native speaker.  Even the English-speaking teachers in the bilingual program at my school don't speak English in class nearly as much as they speak Spanish.  Granted, the kids often need Spanish translations to help them follow the English explanations, but they get little enough English as it is.  I often represent the biggest English-language influence in these kids' lives, and for some of them it's all of half an hour a week.

So it leaves me feeling more and more guilty, every time I say no to someone and leave them to founder through their English studies at home. As one of Baza's only English speakers, I feel almost duty-bound to offer English classes not because I want to, but because so many people around here need them and they just don't have any other options.  It seems kind of hard to justify my efforts for one person to learn Spanish - me - when I could be helping 20 or 30 other people to learn English!  The problem is, I've paid $2,000 in the form of a return plane ticket in order to learn Spanish, and €8/hour for English classes can't even hold a candle to that.  Of course, guilt is so nobly above such mercenary considerations and nags at me all the same.

In fact, I had this entire conversation with one of the women in my flamenco class a while ago.  What's most remarkable is while I completely understand the perspective of all the locals here who are pestering me for lessons, it appears that not one of them can see my point of view!  Even when I point out that I work at a school speaking English to the kids all day long and don't want to trot off to even more classes in English every afternoon, everyone seems to think I'm making a funny.  Heaven forbid that I moved 16,000 kilometres around the world to live in a country that speaks the tongue I want to speak day in and day out - oh no, I must have flown for a over a day and a half just to spend all my time speaking to them in a language I can find back home!  Of course, that makes such good sense - at least, it does to them!

Sunday, 17 January 2016

¡Feliz Navidad!

Christmas in Spain has been quite the experience, and I've had to wait until mid-January to write this post, because that's how long Christmas takes in Spain. Let me give you the run-down...

Firstly, Baza got all dressed up for Christmas.  All the streets had giant fairy light murals hanging over them, and Plaza Mayor was awash with lights.  It was fun taking walks just to see all the lights around town.

I spent Christmas Day at home in my apartment in Baza, with my family on Skype doing trivia quizzes and opening presents.  I spent most of Christmas Eve cooking, so for Christmas lunch I put on a pretty dress and had a lovely homemade gluten-free, lactose-free spinach and capsicum lasagne, followed by a lactose-free apple crumble.  This was followed by three days of near-comatose lounging.  So that I didn't spend the whole holiday season alone, I headed to Seville on New Year's to visit a colleague from school (but that's a separate post).

Thing is, December 25th is not the big deal here in Spain.  They're less fussed about the birth of baby Jesus, and more fussed about when the Three Wise Men rocked up to celebrate.  In Spain it's all about the 12th Day of Christmas, January 5th - better known as Los Reyes Magos.  It's marked by a parade called La Cabalgata de los Reyes Magos, when the Three Kings arrive to give presents to baby Jesus and any stray children who might be hanging which I mean every child under 10 in town.

I was advised by one colleague to go to Granada to see their much bigger, better cabalgata, but I decided I'd rather stay home in Baza and see whatever the local celebration looked like.  I did not regret it.  Overlooking the steady rain which gradually drenched the parade (and all attendees), it was a much bigger, louder, more colourful and celebratory event than I'd expected.  Because of the circuitous route I actually got to see the whole parade twice - characters in costume, two bands, floats featuring popular movie characters, a dance troupe, and finally the three throned floats carrying the Three Kings into Baza, everyone throwing buckets of lollies to the crowd the whole time.

Mary Poppins and her chimneysweeps!

Donald Duck here is Blanca, one of my students

The parade eventually made its way to Plaza Mayor, where a stage had been set up with three canopied thrones, though by the time the parade arrived the thrones had been hidden from the rain.

The kings instead appeared on the balcony of the archaeology museum, and after Balthazar, Caspar and Melchior had introduced themselves and blessed the town of Baza, the sky suddenly exploded with fireworks right overhead in Plaza Mayor.  The square was illuminated by flares coming off the balcony, and for a few minutes the whole of Baza was transfixed in a show of light.  Of course, about five minutes later the soaking rain was enough to send me running home, so I never did get to find out if the kings ventured out to meet the children or not.  Still, a fascinating and lovely tradition to add to the yearbooks!

Thursday, 14 January 2016

10,000 Hours

That's how long science says it takes to master a new skill. Whether it's cordon bleu cooking, playing a musical instrument, writing computer code or learning a language, research says you need 10,000 hours of practice to really become a Jedi at something. For those of us learning a language, that equates to just over 6 months of immersion in a language, which is probably why we hear that so often quoted as the 'magic number'.

That was my plan in moving to Spain - just being in a place where everyone speaks Spanish 24/7 would help me rack up my hours pretty fast. Since my plan of finding a host family to avoid my French mistake of 'French at school, English when I'm home alone the rest of the time' ultimately proved fruitless (and probably just as well, because I think I would have snapped and done them all in by now), I put aside money to enrol in a zillion extracurriculars. Thanks to my weekly yoga class, not only am I more relaxed, but I know all my body parts in Spanish. Flamenco is not only heaps of fun, but I can intimately describe my foot in Spanish as well as different ways of moving my body. My monthly book club has so far not given me a lot except for better knowledge of Spanish literature, and an appreciation for the amount of noise generated when six people all speak at once. That happens at last three times per meeting.

These have all proved to be great ways to make friends, too. My flamenco class all went out for drinks after class some weeks back and, despite my best intentions, I rolled home three hours later stuffed full of every gluten-free vegetarian tapas they could think of (they were tasty, too). Earlier this week I dropped into the library to collect the lastest novel for my book club, ran into Ana and Berna, two older ladies who think the token Australian girl is adorable, and wound up having mint tea in a local cafe discussing I really have no idea what.

What's interesting for me is that perhaps my most fruitful interactions and relationships are the ones that shouldn't be bearing fruit at all. Every fortnight or so I see a local masseur for a shiatsu massage - it's 20€ an hour here and in Aus it'll cost you $40 for half that time, so I take it and run. Pako the masseur is a lovely, spiritual, philosophical guy, and he loves a good chat after I've woken up from my deep-sleep massage state. I'm pretty sure after four months of regular appointments we've solved world peace about three times over by now.

The other relationship that's been surprisingly helpful is Rosa. Keeping up the tradition of monthly manicures that I developed with my friends, I've become a regular at a local beauty salon. The things about small businesses like Rosa's here in Baza is that while your appointment might get interrupted occasionally when they go to answer the phone or door, your appointment gets full personal attention. No minions or lackeys here. Rosa herself does my manicures, and because I'm a regular we always end up chatting while she works, about the weather, about school, about my mum coming to visit, about what pattern we'll paint on my nails this week, anything and everything. It's a full hour of one-on-one chatting, which is much easier for me to understand than a multi-person conversation, and I usually get some good vocab out of my conversations with Rosa (daily vocab gets written on the back of the left hand, as Rosa well knows!)

So it's been funny for me sometimes, when I mentally tally up my hours of Spanish interaction for the week and think that yoga + flamenco + book club falls short, to realise that I have to factor in a massage (we chat with the receptionist, too!), or a manicure, or my walks home from yoga with my neighbour and teacher, Miryam, or lunches with colleagues from school...point being, I'm taking in a lot more Spanish than I sometimes think I am!