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Baxter, you know I don’t speak Spanish

September 18, 2009 2 comments

I decide to sign up for a week of intensive Spanish while I’m here. There’s only so much practice you can get by being immersed in the culture when you don’t know how to say phrases like “I’m not sure that’s a good idea” or “I’m a little out of practice, but let’s try.” I roll out of bed on Monday and head toward a school I’ve heard about. I’ve got a good feeling about it, having learned about it from a brochure someone left on the floor of my dorm in my last hostel. More importantly, they have classes starting every Monday. Rather than sign up online, I figure I’ll just get up whenever I can on Monday and head over. Of course, “whenever I can” means getting to the school around 10am. Classes start at 9:30, of course.

The school is about three subway stops from my current hostel, and it takes me a little longer to find the place than I had planned. But when I do, they buzz me up into a small administrative office, where I managed to convey my request in passing Spanish to the girl behind the desk. A nice bald gentleman about my age sits me down and explains the various programs and prices. We agree on a price for a 20hr a week program, with the option to extend if I decide I like the program. He looks me over and ask me when I’d like to begin.

As soon as possible. Today, if I can. My ambition to magically pick up Spanish by hanging out in the streets and going to movies having been thwarted by the realization that this will take FOR FUCKING EVER.

I’m a little worried that my presumption that I could just show up unshwered, unshaved, in a wrinkled shirt, and expect to be enrolled immediately would be looked down upon. This is a neurosis instilled by my father at an early age.

“Vagabond Jr!” he would yell at the school bookstore. “What is your student ID number and where is your requisition form for seventh grade textbooks?”
“Dunno,” I’d shrug. “I was just going to ask for the seventh grade books.”
“Damnit, Vagabond Jr! You can’t go through life expecting things to work out! You have to be prepared!”
Vagabond Sr. was a military man, you see.
And had this been Germany, I probably would indeed have needed five forms filled out in triplicate and a letter of recommendation from Angela Merkel dated a year ago before I could matriculate. But this is Spain, which means they’re happy to take my credit card and a passport number I make up off the top of my head (Yeah, like you’ve got YOURS memorized), they give me a quick test and push me into a room with the placement coordinator.

He stares at my test with a mixture of bewilderment and awe. Having studied the language formally in middle school and high school for about four years, then forgotten most of what I’ve learned, then studied haphazardly for years, having a native speaker for a mother, means that I have a strong command of how to say things like “Get off my back, mother” and “For chrissake get your hands out of your pants, son.” I know about some of the more esoteric stuff, like the subjunctive mood and the pluperfect tense, but damned if I know how to conjugate a verb in the past tense, or when you’re supposed to use ‘estar’ instead of ‘ser’. I make basic mistakes in agreement between the gender of pronouns and nouns, but I can use the conditional tense. The coordinator debates whether to place me in Superior, Intermediate, or For Fuck’s Sake Learn the Difference Between Por and Para, You Spanish Noob. He’s also mystified by my accent, which is a combination of gringo, Cuban, Mexican, and the nationality of every Spanish teacher I had in school. I probably come off sounding like the equivalent of Fez’s generically foreign accent on “That Seventies Show,” or Madonna’s mix of faux-Brit/Detroit speak. I contemplate adopting an Irish accent, just to make it easier for folks.

“Oh, he must be Irish,” they’d say. “No wonder his Spanish is terrible, and he drinks so much.” But frankly, I’ve been pulling the whole “Fake Irish Guy” thing for the last three countries, and I’m a little tired of it. Although it would be fun to try an Austrian accent (try to imagine Arnold Schwarznegger singing “La Bamba” or “Guantanamera” to get an idea of how tempting this is), it’s not an accent I can do consistently at a normal decibel level.

He finally decides to put me in the final week of a class just finish up the Beginner level, A2, in the argot of the EU’s language institutes, just on the cusp of the Intermediate level B1. I’m immediately thankful of the coordinator’s instinct to have me do some remedial work, for although I can understand everyone pretty well, I struggle to stutter out phrases akin to “I…question would have…bathrooms where (on a temporary basis) is?” During a class debate on whether Kennedy had the FBI kill Marilyn Monroe, my English brain thinks up the phrase “That’s stupid, Hoover would have loved to have embarassed Kennedy” while my Spanish brain laughs hystrically at the notion that it could even vaguely express the idea.

The class itself is an interesting mix of personalities. Most of the students are young, some haven’t started college yet. There are few Americans at the school, though several Brazilians, lots of Easter Europeans and Chinese, and a few French. After a few weeks, an older French gentleman joins us, the only student older than myself. I have a hard time understanding different accents, and on top of a thick Gallic back-of-the-throat brogue so thick it sounds like he’s operating a chainsaw, Jean-Michel has a severe, face-contorting stutter. It takes him about five minutes to say the word ‘hermano’ and when he does get it out, I can’t distinguish it from ‘Arghhmaneax,’ which is not a word in any language, but should be. Still, Jean-Michel knows more obscure history than I do, so I immediately like him.

The Chinese all study dutifully and religiously, and almost to a person refuse to speak in class. The Eastern Europeans all speak nine languages, all of them better than I can speak Spanish, which is frustrating. The Eastern Europeans are also all girls, and all attractive which is 1) nice but 2) weird. After a week or two, no one is really sure if the Brazilian girl is still actually attending class or not. She tends to show up half way through, hung over, and falls asleep on her laptop, then wakes up and speaks a language that I’m pretty sure is Portuguese in response to direct questions, but which we can all pretty much understand. Apparently, this is not uncommon behavior for the Brazilian kids.

Our long-suffering teachers, both women my age, roll their eyes at our difficulties with vocabulary and pronouncing verb endings correctly. Weirdly, given out divergent backgrounds, whenever one of us doesn’t know a word in Spanish, we immediately throw the English word out. Even the French students. English really is impossible to escape.

I’d like to end this post on a note about triumphing over the Spanish language after weeks of hard work, but the reality is that, no, I’m nowhere near fluent, although I can successfully ask for peanut butter in a grocery store and then talk about how uncommon it is in Spain, give a halting lecture on the Bronze Age, and give passable directions to passers-by.

Let me end instead by saying this: Arnold Schwarzegger sent his kid to this school, and he was kicked out after two days for being an excessive jackass. Given the heroic patience the teachers have here, I can only imagine Terminator Jr. must have been either fondling himself in class in order to get kicked out that quickly.

That doesn’t tie in to the rest of the post, but I just learned it today, and I think it’s funny.

Also, here’s a ridiculous song from the 80s I love. If you want to imagine Schwarznegger singing it, be my guest.

Are you dead or just being lazy?

September 17, 2009 Leave a comment

Yeah, I know. I got your posts. “Where are you and what the hell happened to you?”

Sorry. See previous post about being a bazard. We’re apt to disappear on you for no reason, with no warning ’cause, well, the whole bastard thing.

Also, I’ve been busy. And not busy in the sort of carefree, wind-in-your-hair, caution-to-the-wind sort of European adventure everyone wants to hear about. No, I’ve been busy in the sort of dark-teatime-of-the-soul, 3am-wandering-through-Madrid, existential-angst sort of adventures. The kind that finds you alone in the bar of a cabaret at 1am on a Wednesday having smoked a pack and a half of cigarettes, wondering what the hell happened and how you got the way you are.

Sure, it’s melodramatic and weird and dark and brooding and blah blah blah cue The Cure and the buy me a black trenchcoat. It’s the kind of busy that’s interesting only to the person experiencing it, and mind-numbingly boring to everyone else. I may be a bastard, but I’m not forcing y’all to read a journal of self-discovery. I hate those things.

I’m still alive, and still in Europe. I’ve got a few stories, anyway, that may be of mild interest to a few of you, and I’ll continue to post them. Also, I intend to do an after action report on the whole thing soon too. Other than that, y’all can take me out for a beer if you happen to be in NYC and want to hear more.

Also, here’s a funny story from a few weeks ago:

I’ve discovered an entirely new level of pain. I think I’ll call this new level “Gary.” Why Gary? Because my great Aunt Eunice said she always thought it was such a pretty name…
The pain is severe. It’s overwhelming, and almost debilitating. I can hardly move, hardly walk around Madrid. All I want to do is lie in bed with some hot water bottles and hard alcohol. But then, I’ve also always wanted to be one of those badass rockstar physicists the girls seem to love, like Brian Greene. Neither one is going to happen anytime soon. My thighs are screaming. My ass feels like it’s ready to fall off. My lungs are so overcome with exhaustion they want to leap out of my mouth and collapse dead on the sidewalk. My right knee has lost a significant amount of skin and my left knee has lost a chunk of bone.

I have been playing soccer in Madrid.

I’m not sure why I thought this was a good idea. Perhaps I had romantic notions of meeting new friends while learning Spanish in the stimulating environment of the soccer pitch. So when I sublet an apartment from a guy who offers to sign me up for his soccer league, I of course say yes. “Are you athletic?” he asks over the phone. “Or enjoy sports?”

“Of course!” I say with gusto. What I completely fail to mention is my total lack of hand-eye coordination. My inability to make my hands and fingers line up with any of the visual data being transmitted to my brain by my eyeballs has kept me from doing lots of things I think I might have otherwise enjoyed, like playing any team sport. On the golf course, I still land on the green after my tee shot, though it is invariably a green for another hole, or for the nearby put-put course.

I love athletics, but of the kind that require almost no skill. Running, hiking, swimming, weightlifting, rock climbing…these are my sports. They have very little to do with convincing the tips of your fingers to caress an oddly shaped ball in *just* the right way so that it spirals perfectly, rather than flops to the ground in front of you. They have everything to do with endurance, ability to live with pain, and sheer bloody-mindedness. I may never be able to catch a baseball, but I can keep running long after the ligaments have torn and the bones start cracking.

As bad as I am at hand-eye coordination, I seem to be even worse at foot-eye coordination, I guess because the foot is even further from the eye than the hand. My first attempt to attack the goal sends the ball a little to the right. Actually, it sends it perpendicular. For those of you unfamiliar with right angles, perpendicular is about as far wrong as you can get when trying to kick a ball ahead of you without actually kicking it behind you.

I try playing defense for awhile. I’m better at this, since I just have to play positionally and keep the guy in front of me, blocking his shooting lanes. Of course, any attempt to steal the ball from one of these guys has them actually, literally running circles around me. I get smoked on multiple occasions.

While I’m an okay distance runner, my body is completely unused to the freakish intensity that is the sprint-and-stop nature of soccer. I can run ten miles at a nice slow pace. But after fifteen minutes of sprinting up and down a soccer pitch and I’m ready to barf. I’d be quite happy to barf, in fact, since I could probably make a decent excuse for quitting the game at that point. But no, I remain frustratingly un-barfy, and have to man up for the next round.

Finally, they put me in goal. This is a position made for me as there is a) no running involved and b) no foot coordination required. It also appeals to the more nihilistic parts of my personality. Goalies require a very particular type of mentality, I discover. To have good goalie instincts, you have to have a certain appreciation of beauty: that sort of perfect, beautiful pass, the divine alley-oop play that allows the highly skilled player to launch that gorgeous kick that lands in upper right corner of net.

A beautiful goal.

You have to have a feel for it, be able to see it in your mind, understand the exact combination of skills and luck that go into creating such a perfect moment.

You also have to be the kind of sick bastard that enjoys destroying such beautiful things.

Hee hee.

I block with my feet. I block with my hands. Someone tries for a five hole (really? This isn’t hockey buddy, that ball’s not getting through) and I inadvertantly block it with my gonads. I come out to cut the angle. Nothing gets by me. I play the position for only ten minutes, granted, but this is clearly the only place I feel comfortable in a soccer game.

After two hours, the other guys all graciously tell me I did a good job. That’s a trait of Latin culture: they’re nice to the point of lying. They might as well have said I look surprisingly like Brad Pitt or sing like Sinatra. I’m convinced soccer is one of those things that simply isn’t in the American DNA. It’s just one of those things we don’t do in in the US, like two hour lunches, buying a small car, understanding complex moral questions and quitting. I might as well have tried buying a Mini Cooper and determining whether its okay to steal bread to feed a starving child.

It’s important to try things you suck at from time to time. It challenges you, and teaches you humility. But I think I’ll wait to play soccer again until I can go up against some Americans that suck as badly as I do.

What’s the national team doing these days?