This week, like many, has flown by. However, this week, unlike many, was filled with some mind-boggling and at times entertaining Spanishness.
Last Friday, one of my American co-workers and I were invited to have dinner at one of our Spanish co-worker’s houses. Her name is Ana. She is my favorite. She is the sweetest, nicest, most helpful and giving person on the planet. Fortunately for me, I get to work with her in my preschool classes. I see her a lot and I’m really very grateful for that.
Anyway, moving on from the mush-fest. She recently bought and renovated a condo here in Madrid (she has a lot in common with my roommate.) She, like many Spaniards who don’t move out of their parents’ houses until their early to mid-30s, enjoys having the freedom and ability to entertain whoever she wants whenever she likes.
It’s a formal affair, going to a Spaniard’s house. They will ask you in advance what you like to drink (unless they keep a variety of drinks on hand, like we do in my house.) They will not let you bring anything to contribute to the meal. They will provide you with appetizers. And they will cook for you.
Now, cook is a relative term. I find that these Spaniards, after being taken care of by their well-meaning Spanish mothers for the past 30-something years, often lack cooking skills. I’m not saying they are bad people. I am saying they cannot cook.
Therefore, for dinner at my dear Ana’s house, we had toast. Yes. But, no not just any toast. And yes, it is actually normal for people to eat toast for dinner here. They just cover it with stuff. In our case: One had paté and raspberry jam. The other had mayonnaise, ham, pineapple, and mozzarella cheese melted to perfection (much like an open-faced sandwich). By the time I ate my toasts, I was pretty drunk so they tasted delicious. And I was just so happy to be doing something enjoyable yet chill on a Friday that I would have eaten anything she served me and kept a smile on my face.
But I like to imagine serving this to dinner guests in the U.S. And for the main course, two pieces of toast! Bon a petit!
Monday, my American co-workers and I (who are also students in the same program as I am) had a much-anticipated meeting with the directors of our school. I knew that it must be an important meeting, because they asked me in person to come with almost a week’s notice. See, last September (on my birthday actually) they only told my co-worker Alyssa about a meeting the morning of, and expected word to get around to me. It did, but I didn’t go because 1. Talk to me about it yourself, 2. It was my birthday and 3. I had to move out of creep-o’s house that day. Turns out it was the meeting in which they were introducing us to hundreds of people and since I wasn’t there, there was an awkward mix-up where the director introduced Alyssa as Julie.
So, being asked in person and in advance made me think this meeting would be just as or more important than being introduced to hundreds of people.
They said, “Hey. How are things?”
And we said, “Um, well they kind of sucked at first since you left us alone with poorly behaved children and told us to speak to them only in a language they don’t understand often without a suitable classroom to use and little to no support or guidance (even when we asked for some). But, since it’s May and the school year’s almost over, we can safely say we made it through and we consequently have learned a lot.”
And they said, “Let’s focus on the positive. And I’ll buy you all some coffee.”
Basically, what was supposed to happen was this:
Directors: “Hey guys. How are things?”
Us: “Couldn’t be better!”
Them: “Great! Let’s get some coffee.”
I’ve thought about this meeting a lot over the past week and I’ve come to a few conclusions. My co-workers and I were not received at our school at all in the way I thought we would be. And I think a lot of that is because this school is run like a business, as a lot of the charter schools in Spain are. We are at the school to make the parents happy and having half the class in a room with a native English speaker all year sounds a lot better than having the entire class in a room with the regular teacher and the native English speaker for the first few months while the native English speaker figures out what the fuck he/she is doing.
Also, and I think this might be a generational thing instead of a cultural thing, but I think my generation expects and requires lots of acknowledgement from their supervisors. The truth is, the directors at my school don’t have the time to think about what I do every day or to put themselves in my place and realize what a challenge it is to try to control children who can’t understand most of what I say and who come from a different culture. But I shouldn’t need encouragement from the directors. I should know whether I’m doing a good job or not. All they’re required to give me is my paycheck. This is something I hope I remember in the future. It’s easy to get hung-up on feeling unappreciated, when it’s most important to just do the best job you can (and play Head’s Up Seven Up regularly.)
As I was contemplating these cultural misunderstandings and generational differences, I popped in to my old favorite: The grocery store. After picking up a few mandatory items and grabbing some new “Relax” tea I wanted to try, I headed to the always slow-moving checkout line to wait my turn.
Twenty minutes later, as the lady is scanning my items, she takes my tea and tries to scan it a few times and then says, “This doesn’t work.” And sets it aside. She finishes my order, looks at me and says, “That will be seven fifty-five.” I look back and say, “Um. I’d like to purchase that tea, please.” She says, “There’s no price in the system. Seven fifty-five.”
I pay the woman and start muttering things under my breath like “What the hell am I doing in this godforsaken country!?” And “This is freaking ridiculous! I want that tea!” Clearly, I needed some “Relax” tea more than she realized. There was no apology. There was no alternative offered (“It’s not in the system yet, but should be soon. Sorry for the inconvenience!”) Nothing. Seven fifty-freaking-five.
Is it so difficult to expect a little customer service once in a while in this country!? I still am not relaxed.
However, on Wednesday, an interesting thing happened at one of the houses where I teach private English classes. At this particular house, the father of my students is very well-traveled and gives me advice (normally in a Debbie Downer sort of way, but also lots of tips on what types of pastry to try) on the places I go. Next week, I’m going to Brussels (which he doesn’t like because it’s dirty.)
Anyway, I had finished teaching/wrangling the children, was out the door, in the hall, with the elevator button pressed when he said, “You’ve got to see Waterloo while you’re there.” I said, “Waterloo? What’s that?”
[Ok, smartypantses who already know what he’s talking about. 1. We were speaking Spanish so I was automatically easily confused and 2. I blame the American public school system for all my shortcomings when it comes to history and geography.]
He said, “You need to come back in here.”
I followed him to his study where he pressed a button on the wall and from the ceiling lowered a giant 3D diorama of the battle of Waterloo (I got it after I saw the diorama, OK?) He then explained that he makes all the tiny figurines (soldiers, horses, houses, grass, etc.) by hand. It was like I was seeing him in a whole new light. You never know about people’s hobbies, I guess. As I looked more closely in the study I noticed things I never had before: Books on all types of battles and wars, freshly painted figurines drying by the window, a big “I’m a huge nerd” sticker stuck to the desk (just kidding about that one.)
But anyway, I can’t say he convinced me to go see the battle site or one of the EIGHT museums there, but it’s almost like I don’t have to since I saw the entire thing reenacted (in miniature form, of course.)