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Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Languages of Word and Hand, or, How to Avoid (or not) Embarrassing Yourself


Wow, over a week since my last blog. As we get settled in here, I begin to hand out my hours like so many cards in a deck:  two for a painting class, two for Pilates, one hour a day plus two evening classes for studying Spanish, one morning to work in a soup kitchen,  and so forth.  If only I had 52 hours instead of 24! And then small things take more time when the environment and language are new. I needed to make an appointment to get orthodics for Iris and me. I tried to make it over the phone, but the receptionist and I could not make sense out of each other, so I made my way over to the office by metro, just to make the appointment.

Phone conversations are a challenge, but my Spanish is coming along, and I feel that I must publicly respond to those well meaning individuals who have read my blog and offered their condolences for my TOTAL failure to learn Spanish. This is NOT the case. True I did bomb that one test to pass beyond my Spanish School’s Book One. Clearly, I cannot keep up with a class of students who all ready know Portuguese or Italian, or who are from Holland (it is common knowledge that the Dutch have electronic translators implanted in their children's brains at birth). But NO, I have not given up.

Indeed, I have been delighted to make the acquaintance of other parents from the American School, who have been here for 1 to 3 years and don’t even speak as well as I do. Or, perhaps they are just less willing to go ahead and speak badly. But it is certainly possible to live in the suburbs and almost entirely avoid the need to speak Spanish indefinitely if necessary. And, while that is not my plan, I quite understand how it can come about. In the very international community of the American School, it is not uncommon for someone to have already learned their native language and English, and then have married someone from another country, so they learn that language. Then they have all ready moved several times and learned at least a working knowledge of one or two more languages. If now you move to Spain and Spanish is not part of your repertoire… Well, I personally would be throwing Book One in the fireplace.

But no, I am living in the city and I have but my own mother tongue and some very rusty French that I am trying hard to forget.  Being willing to speak badly in order to get better is definitely key. Last week I went to an area of the city called the “Rastro” which is famous for its second hand stores and bargains in general.

Here is the store I went to where I found a dining room table that I thought we could use when our rented one turns into a pumpkin and rolls away. I wanted to ask the proprietress if she could deliver it to my apartment, but judging by her shock and then merriment, I suspect that my not so trusty dictionary led me intoasking her if she would kindly give birth to the table in my apartment.

However, I had a small success today. The security at The American School is much more rigorous than we are used to. The designation of American does not endear a school to absolutely everyone, and the presence of children from embassies further increases its value as a target. Hence,  there is a security gate and a guard house, and you are supposed to make an appointment before going to the school. The guard, who only speaks Spanish, will then check your passport and make sure you have an appointment before allowing you to go in. So, today I talked my way past the guard, without an appointment! And using full sentences! Wrong verb tenses I am sure, but it worked.

On the more awkward side, I have this drawing that I made early in September as a cathartic exercise after an especially embarrassing meal. I was walking through this chic mall and I had become very hungry. It was still early by Spanish standards for lunch and no one was sitting in the dining room but several people were at the tapas bar having espressos. The dining room looked too elaborate with its linen and many glasses and the waiters standing about in their uniforms. At the bar I figured I could ask for some of the food that was displayed right there in these glass cases on the counter, as is traditional at a tapas bar.

So, I perched myself on one of the seats that turned out to be very slippery and uncomfortable, and I found that I couldn’t think of how to even ask for one of the small sandwiches in front of me. I motioned to one and made noises that seemed indicative of – I am starving could I please have that—but the bar maid just said something unintelligible and made no move to towards the food. I thought that with a menu I could read something out loud and ask for it that way, and –fabulous- I actually knew that the word for menu is carta—so I managed to say that. The barmaid looked surprised at this but dutifully handed me a menu. The only thing I was certain about was the Ensalada Cesar, so I asked for that.

Now she looked really surprised. She went over and spoke to one of the waiters. He took up all the many pieces of a table setting and carried them over and laid them on the bit of counter space between me and the tapas case. It did not fit and I was mortified to think that I had ordered a real meal that was meant to be eaten in the dining room.

I wanted to get up and offer to sit at a table, but not knowing how to explain myself I was afraid they would think that I meant to leave. So I stayed put, trying to balance on the slippery seat while consuming the salad and not knocking any of the place setting onto the floor which seemed about a mile below me. How is it that when you are embarrassed, you can feel so small and yet feel that absolutely everyone is noticing you. But that, mercifully was relatively long ago and many meals in restaurants have been consumed since.

Hand Signs (warning, some words and gestures are not approved for all audiences)

On the lighter side of learning a language, here are some important pointers, picked up from ex-pats at a dinner party, for anyone who would like to avoid, when in a forgeign country, making a fool of his/herself with what might seem like a harmless hand gesture.
Here we are at the party:

Though all the guests had children at the American School, Matt and I were the only US citizens. Others were from Spain, Mexico, Japan, Holland, Switzerland, and I have probably forgotten a few places. And everyone had lived in many different countries, so I guess they were qualified to counsel us on avoiding gaffs internationally. 

This gesture seems to have a lot of meanings. It is the symbol for the U of Texas Football team. Hence, George Bush got himself in trouble with it a few times. Rap stars have used it with some vague suggestions of Satan, but more definite suggestions of – Hey, its cool, I’m cool, the Music is cool, and kids from the States seem to like to make that sign in Facebook pics  to denote that they are having a super cool time, or some such thing.

But careful using it in Greece or Spain or a few other countries as  it means “cuckhold”, or your wife is cheating on you. Apparently it is a popular gesture by fans who disagree with the refs.

For layers of meaning, my favorite is this one: 

Winston Churchill first popularized the victory sign during the 2nd World War. But he had it wrong at first:

And was chastised by his staff --- Something like, “Er, Sir. You just told the entire population of London to F*ck Off.” He quickly turned the hand around and the gesture continues as the Peace Sign.

But it remains dangerously close to the two fingered salute, also sometimes referred to as the Longbowman’s Salute as (and this is according to several sources) it dates back to the Battle of Agincourt in 1415. Apparently the French had said that when they won the battle, they would cut from every bowman the two fingers they used to fire their arrows. When the English, against all odds won the battle, the bowman mocked their enemy with their two, very intact fingers.

Our modern day warriors, the sports stars, still use the sign to mock their enemies.

Mark Cavendish as he winning a stage for the Tour of Romandie. For the benefit of his critics who had doubted him. He was disqualified and had to apologize to the children.

Ashley Cole got in trouble for this one, as he leaves the field after Chelsea's defeat.

 So, go safely off on your world tour, knowing that you will both avoid faux pas, and have the necessary insult at the ready.

I welcome your comments, here or in an email: . Let me know if you think I got something wrong, or left something out. Or, just send me a note for the heck of it, cause I would (probably) love to hear from you.


Wednesday, October 13, 2010

A stroll in Madrid, plus update on Claire

First, an up date on Claire:
 Last seen, by us, at Logan Airport on October 31st.

For us in Madrid, Claire now exists as a disembodied head on Skype. Here are her sisters, just last night, taking her for a tour of our apartment:

For this school year, Claire now resides with an Italian family in a suburb of Rome. She reports that the house is a lovely villa, but the bedrooms are very small. Hers is tiny, and she now laughs to think that she ever thought her bedroom in Concord was small!                                                                                  

The language barrier is a major obstacle. Sitting in an Italian high school class and not having the first idea what the teacher is saying -- well, you just have to imagine. And classes are held on Saturday morning. Back in the States when Claire was catching up on her beauty sleep, she is now taking 2 hours of Latin. (hee hee hee, say her mother). But, most importantly, she really likes her Italian family, and the Italians in general are super nice.
Here she is holding the 5 of hearts. She is with her Italian sister and friends, at a conference for people who play games on line and then get together to enact them. She said it was totally silly and a lot of fun.

She is loving Italy, but misses Concord and her friends and family. She, and Adele and Iris have been really surprised at how much they have missed their home town, and all the things they have found themselves appreciating in hindsight: the trees, the stores, the houses, the smells, the people, the sense of belonging.

Claire is being a very good exchange student and not spending time on Facebook and on emails in order to immerse herself in her surroundings, and in the language. But she would love to hear from friends, and get things in the mail. If you would like to have her address, just send me an email and I will send it to you. A a matter of fact, if you would like our address and telephone number, you can get that too (if I actually know who you are!):

A Walk from Home 

This particular posting is aimed at those friends and family who might be on the fence about visiting us -- If only Matt and Margot were in  a spot with some decent site-seeing...
First we walk a few block down our street, Paseo Pintor Rosales. 

Till we get to a terrace that overlooks the garden of the Royal Palace.
It is Sunday afternoon, and the Madriolenos are out in large numbers to stroll about. Here are a few friends going about on segways. 
 As you walk into the garden you come across this statue of Madrid's beloved Charles III, 1716 – 1788, who oversaw enormous construction projects and the building of roads to lead to the city from all quarters of the country.
 Charles III was so unattractive that the artists did not even try to disguise the fact. I just love this painting by Anton Raphael Mengs. The king's homely and friendly countenance just does not match the regal and war-like attire, and yet he is looking so pleased with himself.

Adele wants me to add that, on the way to the palace Matt and I were shaken down by three gypsy girls. At firt they appeared to be perfectly nice teenage girls who approached us to sign a petition and make donations to a charity for deaf and dumb children. We gave them about 8 euros and signed the petition that asked for our names and addresses. The girls asked to see identification as well. They were not satisfied with our driver's liscences and were quite peristant. Matt and I both suddenly felt very distrusting of them and found it difficult to get away as they sort of glommed onto us. We were pleased to have escaped with our wallets and without having allowed them to see the numbers on our credit cards.

We have made it to the Palace:
  The King and family do not live in this palace anymore, all though state functions do still take place here. Such as a grand reception and celebrationfor the soccar team after winning the world cup.

Many people were out enjoying the grounds of the palace. The Spanish definately know how to relax and enjoy their days off. Very telling of the difference of style between the Spanish and British -- here are the palace guards in London:

At the Palace in Madrid, the gaurds and soldiers seemed as relaxed as anyone:

I include the following photo of a statue outside the palace as it is one of the few examples I have found of one that is well executed and dynamic:

Most statues are more like this one. They look like rather stiff and awkward pieces by students who are studying Roman sculpture.

Next to the Palace, for the convenience of the King, is a little church, Almudena's Cathedral. Having seen many (Adele will tell you many too many) cathedrals during our trip to Europe last summer, we were not inclined to be overly impressed. The interior is based on the Gothic style but is fairly modest and plain. The building replaced a previous church (which replaced a mosque) and was only begun in the late 1800's and completed in 1993.

 But the cieling is marvelous and well worth the visit.
Also, I am very curious about this nun. Easily the most lively painting in the cathedral is of her ascending. Her name is Pilar Izquierdo Albero. I haven't found anything written on her that is in English or I would happily tell you why she was canonized.
Do you see me and Adele in the lower right here? Perhap you can tell I am having to hold her up as her boredom of and antipathy towards Cathedrals has become so powerful that she is collapsing into the fetal position. Poor girl.

Okay, better get going. A few blocks away we come across the Mercado de San Miguel. Adele is about to feel much better. San Miguel is very reminiscent of Quincy Market in Boston. It was built in 1916 as a covered market and was recently renovated and closed in by glass.

                                                  The Spanish love to display their meat.      

                          Garlic is usually sold 8 or more heads together. My kind of cooking.

          This is an oyster and champagne bar. The liquor flows freely at Mercado de San Miguel.

Can you see the jack-o lantern face on the pumpkin? The Spanish do not celebrate Holloween, but there are the occaisional references.
                                                                  Choclate cake for Adele

                                                            And a Napolean for Iris
And here is the wine bar, with a very impressive offering of about a 100 wines. Guess who is gravitating in that direction...............
                Spanish wines are quite good and surprisingly inexpensive. I think this was a Rioja.

                                  This is what I brought home. There is so much great cheese here.
On from the market, we made our way towards Plaza Mayor. We were charmed by this corner building.

The entrance to Plaza Mayor
The present day Plaza was mainly constructed in 1790, after a spate of fires, but the site has been a gathering place for commerce and ritual at least since the middle ages. It has held markets, soccer games, bull fights, and, during the late 15th and 16th centuries, the Spanish Inquisition held Auto de fes, elaborate public readings of sentences, generally followed by executions.

                             Now, you can reliably find tourists gathered in the Plaza at all times.

By the time we left the Plaza Mayor, it was getting late and we had wandered about one and a half kilometers from home. So, here is Adele, looking out the window of our cab on the way back.

So, that is all for now!
Hasta Luego!

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Learning Spanish

Well, hello out there. It has been a longer gap than usual between blog posts. Two reasons for that, 1) I lost my camera last Friday or Saturday. (#@&*!!!!). and 2) I have been studying for the Spanish test that my class took yesterday.  
Big deal test, to determine whether you can move up to the next level. Those who fail must return to GO! So, here I am studying (thanks, Adele):

Alas, my efforts were of no avail. I was sent back to GO.

I never was the world’s quickest learner of foreign languages. Back in Madame Brouder's class 5th through 9th grade, I was only saved from being at the very bottom the class by Charles de St. Phalle, who despite his name, never seemed to pick up any French, but spent his time chatting with me (and was distractingly good looking). Well, anyway, I did finally learn French by actually living for one school year with a french family.

I thought I had forgotten most of my French. Happily I find, as I study Spanish, that I actually remember A LOT of it. Sadly, the Spanish do not accept French as a substitute for their language. My teacher definitely did not on the Spanish test.

Oh well, pass or no pass, it has been a good class, and I have enjoyed getting to know the other students.Here is a sampling. I don’t think we have had any two people of the same nationality – except for the two weeks that Matt was with us.

Except for a Korean woman, English has been the shared language that (much to the frustration of the Spanish teachers) the students always revert to out of the classroom. And much of the shared culture is media entertainment from the States.

To make conversation one day, the teacher asked each of us who the most famous contemporary person from their country is. Most of the students had some difficulty coming up with someone everyone knew.

The woman from Scotland, who like many Scots does not fully recognize Scotland to be a part of the UK, rejected people’s suggestions of John Cleese from Monty Python fame, or JK Rowling (wrote some to the first Harry Potter books in Edinburgh, but is English).

So she settled on  Sean Connery, but wanted it known that Alexander Graham Bell is also from Scotland.

The woman from Korea mentioned two people none of us knew and then tried Yu-na Kim, who I and another woman remembered winning the gold in figure skating last year. She was wonderful, so fluid and relaxed.

Roos, from Holland, suggested Cruyff and Bergkamp, two of their most famous soccer player.

The Dutch football team is sort of the Red Sox of Euro Football having come in second more often than any other team without without having ever won the World Cup. Only Robin  new of the soccer players, so Roos tried again with DJ Tiesto,

  Again, only Robin knew him. So she setteled on Van Gough. Not exactly contemporary.

Teresa, from Brazil, then also put forward a soccer player as the most famous person from her country, Pele.

 Even I (thank you, Matt!) knew about Pele, who played during the 60’s and 70’s, and led Brazil to three World Cups, and was a great spokesperson for the poor of Brazil. But he is not so contemporary, so Teresa also suggested a model, Adrianna Lima,
But we did not know her, So she tried another model, who a couple of people knew. Giselle Bundchen who married some guy by the name of Tom Brady. (Okay, I do actually know who he is)
Robin, from Switzerland, nominated DJ Bobo,

 but only Roos knew of him. Guess it is a generational thing. He could not come up with anyone else, so I suggested a couple of people from history, but only Robin knew of  Le Courbusier (Charles-Edouard Jeanneret-Gris), a famous architect:

Building by Le Courbusier
and even he did not know of a favorite artist of mine, Jean Tinguely

For Spain, our Spanish teacher, Olga nominated Javier Bardem

Close behind seeing Picasso's Guernica and anything by El Greco and Goya, seeing Spanish men who look like Javier is a perfectly good reason to come to Spain. (Adele disagrees, says he looks like a gorilla)
Even if you have been living in Madrid for just a few days, and you have to have seen the movie, staring Julia Roberts, "Eat, Pray, Love" you will know who he, as posters of the movie are plastered everywhere:

Behind the Statue of King Carlos III of Spain, are Julia Roberts and Javier Bardem in "Eat, Pray, Love"

Olga saved me for last, I suppose because, having done this exercise before, she knew what would happen. I suggested Obama as the most famous American. No one disagreed, but Olga wanted to nominate Michelle, because they love her here for her visit last summer:

Michele and Sasha, being greeted by Spain's King Juan Carlos I
In fact, Everyone wanted to nominate their own favorite American Celebs. This went on for quite a while, but I think the most strongly promoted were (enough with the photos)   Jennifer Anniston, Brad Pitt, Bill Gates, Michael Jackson, Tiger Wood and MC Hammer.

So, there we are. That is it for my language class, at least until I can become more fluent and return to book 2. I just can not return to Go. Meanwhile, I plan to work at a Soup Kitchen where I hope there will not be anyone with better English than my Spanish. It will be a cheaper, and more useful, way to learn the language. But that will be anther blog.

I do hate to offer a story without images! But here, for your amusement, read it if you would like, is one about me and the doorman: 

The language barrier makes for much awkwardness, many difficulties, but also some amusing situations. In the lobby is a very kind and solicitous doorman. He always seems a little sad and a little anxious. I believe he lives behind the door next to the elevator that reads “Servicio” and I have seen a young girl come out of the door occasionally who looks quite like him, of slight build with dark hair and dark, gentle eyes. I think he has told me his name but I have not understood it. It seems awkward after all this time to have to ask his name. He calls me Seniorita, or maybe it is Senora, and I don’t think he wants to call me anything else. So, we mainly smile at each other awkwardly.

One day last week, when I stepped into the lobby, he had a look of delighted anticipation and bowed me over to his small desk where he had a laptop set up. He had typed out a message, I assumed from the landlady. He proudly presented me with the message side by side on the screen with its electronic translation. The original I could not entirely make out, but the translation went something like this:

“Please to inform the Johnsons that I will talk to them over the oven. I hope to have them disposed of forth with.

The key of which they want is to be given for the compartment. But please first I must dispense with my son who is inside of it.”

I laughed till the tears were streaming from my eyes, but the poor doorman only looked perplexed and perhaps a bit wounded by my reaction. Just then a young couple with a baby strapped to the father, came out of the elevator. The doorman looked much relieved as he must have known they spoke English. He ushered them over to the computer and they read the original and the translation. They also broke out laughing, and were able to tell the doorman what the translation was. He then laughed as hard as any of us. It was a lovely moment as I don’t think either of us had seen the other do more than smile anxiously.

(BYW, the orginal letter was something like: Please inform the Johnsons that I will talk to them about the oven. I hope to have it replaced and disposed of soon.

The key to the storage compartment, I will give to them soon. But first we must dispose of what the things that are inside now. )

And that is all I have to say for now.

Hasta Luega! Margot