Yeah, right! - Writings by Brian Murdock

Archive for September, 2013

Travel

September 30, 2013

Dorset: North of Spain 7

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In fact roads and their peculiarities were beginning to engage me in a way I thought no asphalted network would.   After just a couple of days on the road, I was taking an interest in the lanes and their surroundings to such a degree that my daughters began to suggest that I either change the subject or leave the country all together.  But I couldn’t help coming to some general conclusions about English roads that went beyond just hedgerows and their fine trimming.

       Hills; that was another one.  You know England isn’t precisely what you would call the Himalayas of Europe, I think its highest point, Scafell Pike, doesn’t even reach 1,000 meters, which is almost laughable by almost any human’s standards unless you live on an atoll.  Then again, Bear Mountain back in my home state of Connecticut marvels at a hardly staggering 700 meters.  It’s more of a lump than anything of geological prominence.  Here’s a picture.

 

 

 

       That wooded boob on the right is it.  I was going to put an arrow, but I figure I would let you have some fun and try to locate it.  My goodness, that will sure cure your vertigo.

        The heights on the British Isles tell another story.  Scafell Pike, modest in altitude itself, does have a way of imposing rather impressively.

        It may hardly surpass the mighty Connecticut range, but it certainly has managed to look like little other than a yeti could survive on its slopes.  And the English like that.  Here’s proof.

        Aside from these pseudo-alpine landscapes, however, the rest of the England can be classified as hilly at best, wherever, of course, there are knolls and hillocks to back that up.

       But the English sure know how to make the most of them, especially when it comes to designing a road.  The concept of shaving and flattening seems unbecoming of British civil engineers, as if by doing so they would be cheating.  You could imagine some grumpy Englishman grouse, “That’s what the bloody hill is there for!”

        If the ascent has a gradient of 30º, well by God, who are we to ease it?  That results in some pretty punishing usage of the gearbox.  You can sail through towns in fourth, head into a climb as you depart, and scramble to downshift to 2nd before your vehicle starts to go backwards into the village bakery. There were moments when the ascent was so steep you could actually see the midday sun without looking up.  Luckily, rental car had maybe a thousand miles on it, so I figured I could do just about anything I wanted to the engine and it would survive the holiday.

        Once you reach the top, on occasion you are treated to a new challenge in the form of a sign that reads “Warning: Blind Summit”, or something to that effect.  It’s usually capped by a large and imposing exclamation point.  There was no doubt that the British Road Network Agency meant business when it hammered the post into the ground, but I had some doubts about how to decipher it because I could clearly see the top approaching.  It didn’t seem very hidden to me, so I couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about.

        What I hadn’t detected was the near vertical drop on the other side, turning the road into a makeshift rollercoaster plunge.  As your vehicle becomes airborne, you feel that the notice should have been worded differently.  Something, maybe, like “Hidden Cliff” would have more precisely foreshadowed my imminent predicament.  And as my two daughters and I yelped “Holy Shit!” in a variety of languages, I took a moment from the drastic descent to yearn for the softer lanes of New England.

Madrid,Uncategorized,What's happening in Madrid

September 21, 2013

A Relaxing Cup of Café con Leche

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I try to avoid getting involved in these matters, but sometimes I just can’t resist.  Madrid’s mayor, Ana Botella, made some recent remarks about the city when campaigning for its candidacy to host the Olympics.  Madrid got bounced in the first round of the final selection, and Ana Botella became the brunt of countless jokes regarding her seemingly ragged use of English.

      The catch phrase is now “a relaxing cup of café con leche (coffee with milk)”, and it has become so famous that even my little 3rd-graders know about it, and so infamous that you can now buy coffee mugs online with the sentence stamped on them in different colors and fonts.

      It has been ridiculed and parodied beyond belief, with jokes and videos spreading like wildfire far and wide throughout the social networks .  Such was the uproarious laughter that I finally caved in and decided to check out on Youtube the video and endure the suffering for myself and by myself, in the comfort of my living room.

      I’ll be as brief as possible, and resort to my expertise as a teacher to provide a fairly balanced opinion.  To be honest, it wasn’t great but it was a far cry from the disaster that I expected given the backlash it received.  Ana spoke with a heavy accent, had several fairly serious pronunciation issues, and clearly hasn’t mastered the language.  That explains the forced diction and the artificial gestures.  Basically she looked as if she was trying to pull off the tough task of speaking in public in a foreign language and she did the best she could.  For the most part the speech was standard, not very inspired, promotional garble which was delivered with difficulty.  And the famous Spanglish that everyone is laughing at hardly exists.  The speech lasts 2.50 seconds and more than halfway through it, she spits out the now notorious “a relaxing cup of café con leche in the Plaza Mayor.”  She mentions the Madrid de los Austrias, and immediately adds what that all means in English. The rest of the talk was given in English.

      First of all, you can call a cup of coffee “relaxing”.  Several “experts” from Spain have expressed to me their utter disbelief that Botella would use such an adjective to describe a cup of joe, but the fact is you can.  Just to clarify that one.  As for the use of “café con leche”, that was just a little friendly use of local language.  Probably not the best choice, but still, even I could see that.  Plus, it’s not that easy to translate.

      Verdict: the speech wasn’t topnotch, and Botella’s English needs work, but it wasn’t horrible either and certainly not worthy of the thrashing it took.

      So, after listening to two weeks of relentless criticism and watching the clip myself, I have come to the conclusion that the event has accentuated two very grave and present facts: Spain’s English level is still wanting; and God help you if you make a mistake because if you do you’ll become the laughing stock of the nation.

      As for the first part, there is nothing surprising about that. Spain has for years suffered from an inferiority complex when it comes to speaking this language.  It’s the famous “asignatura pendiente”, as they say here.  Back in the 90s, most parents came to me saying that they couldn’t help their kids because they had learned French in school.  Then came the gradual switch to English, which, though taught throughout a student’s life, produced poor results.  Poor teaching and general disregard for the language.  On top of that, as many will tell you, Spain dubs all of its TV programs and movies.  The industry is one of the finest in the world, but it does have its downside.  It prevents youths from picking up the language naturally, and, what’s worse, it fosters an aversion toward the language.  Few people spoke it, and not very well at that.  And I am talking about the capital.  Once out in the smaller cities or in the country, forget it.

       The effects of the past faulty educational setup and social antipathy are still being felt today.  A recent report rated Spain in the middle ground when it comes to competence in English, 18th, to be exact, and behind some 15 other European nations. That’s not so hot.  But I am here to tell you that, despite the rejection and the mediocre teaching techniques, it is heads and tails above what it used to be.  With the arrival of bilingual education (Madrid is nearly at the forefront of this movement) things are turning around considerably.  We are still talking about a change that will require a generation or two to come into its fullest fruition, but it will happen. I am not concerned.

      What does unsettle me is the vicious blasting over practically nothing.  I browsed through about the first 100 comments and couldn’t find a single one that had anything fair to say about it.  The chiding was merciless, but that behavior is as traditional here as watching soccer. The Spanish are often the first to admit that they don’t like to speak English because of their sense of embarrassment about saying the wrong thing.  This I find amusing because their love of swearing shows they don’t seem to have any qualms about blurting out in Spanish, “Holy shit! That motherfucker is really pissing me off,” in front of their grandmother.

      Then again, after the berating Ana Botella received, I don’t blame them for not wanting to utter a single word of English, because look what happens to you when you slip up.  I would shut my mouth too.

      So suddenly everyone is an expert in English.  In some cases even more so than the English themselves.  Take the Comunidad de Madrid’s standardized exam to check on the progress of its bilingual program.  The actually exam itself was Cambridge’s Young Learners of English tests which are recognized by the European Union as valid measurements of a child’s level of the language.  The exam has three parts – Speaking, Listening, and a combined part on Reading & Writing – which are graded from 1 (being the worst) to 5 shields.  That means a student can receive a total of 15 shields.

      Cambridge oddly asserts that there is no passing or failing in these exams.  However, if you receive ten or more shields, then you are ready to go on to the next level.  Hmm.  I’ll have to think about that one.

      In any event, if you can achieve that number, then you have what is considered to be an A1 level.  Cambridge does not specify a minimum in any one category, as long as you obtain ten.  This standard is admitted by the European Union.

      The Comunidad de Madrid has decided that it would use the Cambridge exams but assess students differently in two ways:

        1)    Evaluate just the Speaking and Listening, requiring a total of 7 shields to pass, and 4 have to be in speaking, and at least 3 have to be in listening.  So, in short, they require at least a 70% on a test, and, in some cases, that isn’t enough, since if the speaking is a three and the listening is a four, you don’t pass.  On one occasion, a student had a 5 on listening and a 3 on speaking (yes, that’s 80%), and failed.

        2)    They could also assess all three parts in which a pupil needed to obtain 11 shields (and at least 4 in speaking), to pass.  In theory, a child could get up to 13 out of 15 shields and still be turned down.  How’s that for motivating.

      Of course, none of this has anything to do with how Cambridge looks at it, and that’s considering it’s their test.  The Comunidad de Madrid simply decided that it was going to prove to the world that its standard was tougher than the rest without really justifying it at all.

      This kind of cockiness is known in Spanish as “chulería”, and in Madrid, it’s as common and typical as a relaxing cup of café con leche.

 

Madrid

September 14, 2013

The Gift of English

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I have always thought that as an English teacher, in addition to being a writer, there is a whole slew of imaginative ways to experience English.  Some are already out there, but every day new ones crop up, proving that just when you think you have thought of everything, some bright soul comes up with a different and original approach.

Here’s a great idea for people looking to both learn and, especially, enjoy English.  It’s called “The Gift of English” and it offers special events and unique gifts all done in that language which has been the source of dismay for the Spanish throughout the generations.  The first gathering is a breakfast coming up on Sunday, October 6.  Learn more about it and everything else that the Gift of English has available.  I don’t know of anything like it in Madrid, so give it a try.

Travel

September 5, 2013

Dorset: North of Spain 6

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You can say what you want, but I am still at a loss, and probably forever will be, at how the English manage to keep the hedges and tree branches that hang over the road so nicely manicured.  Unless there is some designated day in the year for carrying out this laborious chore, twenty-four hours in which every citizen stops whatever it is that they are doing and arms themselves with sheers, clippers and pruners, I cannot for the life of me explain how so many thousands, about 200,000 miles to be exact, of foliage are kept at bay…and here’s the thing, without anyone noticing it.  Just how do they do it?  We were on our third day of touring Great Britain’s greenest hills and dales and couldn’t quite figure it out.  The roadways had been carved into, no bored.  Not bored in the sense of boredom, but the participle of bore, to make a hole.  Back in Connecticut trees abound, but you’d be nuts to think that public money is going to be spent on making sure all those limbs are smoothened.  In Spain that’s not even an issue because there are so few trees around.

                In Great Britain, tree and hedgerow management is an important issue, and how it is financed may explain a thing or two.  It seems that on the minor roads, which make up 87% of the total, the responsibility falls upon the property owners.  Regulating appears to be handled on a regional level, but sites like Natural England give you an idea of what it’s all about, and it is clear that they are matters not to be trifled with.   Pdf files with intimidating titles like “Hedgerows and the law” are proof that if you are the proud owner of some overgrown shrubs, you’d better read up on your rights and obligations before to get the clippers out.  The website even facilitates some helpful hints:

  • You should avoid trimming hedgerows between 1 March and 31 July (as required by the guidelines) – the main nesting season for birds.  Exemptions apply if the hedgerow overhangs a public highway or public footpath, or if it obstructs the view of drivers.
  • It is best to leave trimming until the end of winter, but where it is impossible to get on the field at this time, trimming can be brought forward to early winter.
  • Ground cover at the hedge’s base should be retained over winter for ground-nesting birds.
  • It should also be noted that over-management – or trimming a hedge too severely – can have a detrimental effect on conservation. In general, taller, bushier hedgerows provide more wild life potential than smaller, thinner hedges.
  • If conditions are such that you need to trim hedges when berries are still present, only the hedge’s sides should be trimmed, as this will leave some fruit.
  • You should pay particular attention to the need to avoid spray and fertiliser drift into hedges, hedge verges and hedge bottoms.
  • Livestock should be fenced away from hedgerows, and a strip of uncultivated or ungrazed land maintained between the hedge and the adjacent crop.

         As you can see, this is business which is not to be taken lightly. So, maybe the fact that it was summer and prime nesting time explained the dearth of farmers in hats snipping away at green limbs, but it only made my awe greater as that meant the people had even less time to prime their properties for the general public.