No matter how many times I’ve floated over the Atlantic Ocean at inhuman speeds, in order to be ferried from Madrid to New York, and we are talking dozens of trips at this point in my life, the flight from continental Europe to the northeast corridor of the United States never ceases to bring me to the brink over either slipping into an irreversible bout of depression or doing something juvenile but nonetheless satisfactory like stick my foot out in the aisle as a young child walked by. And, what is worse, the flight crew simply don’t offer enough wine to ameliorate the situation.
It’s not just that extra hour-and-a-half difference in the duration of the crossing. That’s a lie. It pretty much has everything to do with the extra hour and a half. Sometimes it’s two. The increased time is a result of the direction of the wind, in this case it pushes against the nose of the plane with such force it literally prevents it from advancing easily; but a surprisingly large number of people believe that it is the turning of the earth that causes this difference.
On a very superficial level, this sounds as if it could make sense, but simple observation rather quickly dismantles this theory for a couple of reasons. One, and this is a big reason, is that objects that become airborne don’t separate from the earth’s rotation because the air in which they are sailing is rotating at the same time. If not, something as harmless as, say, a grain of rice, might suddenly become a potentially lethal projectile as it hurdles at no less that 1,040 kph against a wall or, what is worse, someone’s chest. And let’s not even try to imagine the effects of tossing pizza dough.
That doesn’t happen, obviously, and we can thank the troposphere for it. That is the name of the lowest layer of the earth’s atmosphere and it’s this concentration of mixed gases that, in addition to keeping our bodies from bludgeoned by simple beach ball, provides other universally accepted benefits such as the oxygen we breathe and or the protection needed to prevent our skin from falling off.
Most objects stick within the realms of the troposphere, even planes, though they often reach the upper edge that joins with the next level up, known as the stratosphere. Somewhere in the 10,000 to 11,000 meter range.
I mention this, of course, fully aware that if there is one thing that isn’t easy to determine, it’s the actual width of the troposphere. A quick googling for an image of the word evokes scores of charts that map out the different sections of the atmosphere, most of which also indicate their size in kilometers. At first glance, my impression was that the jury was still out on the matter. Experts knew just about everything on this matter except for what I had figured would be as standard as establishing the temperature at which water freezes. I mean, given the nature of the information I was looking for and the technology available at this stage, you’d think some kind of reliable consensus would be met, if only for the sake of pride in scientific accuracy, but apparently that was wishful thinking. A brief look at the numbers clearly illustrates this point:
Chart 1 – 11km
Chart 2 – 7 to 16km
Chart 3 – 20 km
Chart 4 – 10 km
Chart 5 – 12 km
Chart 6 – 11 km
Chart 7 – 7 km
Chart 8 – 10 km
Chart 9 – 9.5 km
So, according to this data, that means something in the neighborhood of a 65% variation in size, which personally seems a little unprofessional. It’s as if I told someone the distance between Madrid and Segovia is about 80 to 130 kilometers away. It’s actually 95.
Further investigation cleared up this disparity. It turns out there isn’t a fixed width of the troposphere, but rather it varies depending on, among other things, it’s position over the planet. It is svelter at the poles and more bulgy where the girth is widest…the equator. The makers of the charts just threw out a few figures, some more random than others.
I didn’t know this as we departed Spanish air space. All I was considering was whether or not I should watch my first episode of the Walking Dead or not on the tiny screen lodged in the back of the seat in front of me.
An entire ocean stretched out ahead of us. An eternity of time. It was like a massive River Styx whose banks had been pushed 3,000 miles apart. On the other side, in a small struggling New England costal city called New Haven, saved almost solely by the fact it was the home to Yale University, my father lay in a hospital bed in the intensive care unit and was hooked up to every possible machine that would keep him alive.
He had suffered a stroke two days before and had just three more to live.
The Puente de Diciembre is a time for planning. Planning everything you have to do for the next five weeks, and survive.
Got my long-distance Christmas cards out a week before for the first time in years. I did that right after throwing last year’s cards which I just happened upon underneath a pile of books and realized I had never sent out.
Presents are on the way. I haven’t bought one, but they are on the way.
But what I’m really concerned about is making sure I have all of my Christmas meals in order before they start, which is tomorrow. The take up a large part of any Madrid resident’s social life and budget, and now that everyone pretends the crisis is over for some reason, spirits are high. Unemployment is dipping below 25% (don’t worry, it never was that high to begin with, especially if remove the 18-25 year-old labor force, which never worked that much anyway) and word from abroad is that everyone is slowly pulling out of hole. The government is even going to return 25% of the 7.2% of my salary it took away from all teachers two years ago. Without interest, of course.
That’s why it is especially important to sort things out eating-wise. Here’s what I have line up so far:
Dec. 9 – Dinner with my gastronomic club
Dec. 12 – Dinner with other teachers
Dec. 16 – Dinner with the school teachers from the language school
Dec. 19 – Lunch with the entire school
Dec. 20 – Christmas party with the gastronomic club
Dec. 21 – Christmas dinner with friends
Dec. 24 – Christmas aperitivo with the gastronomic club
Dec. 24 – Christmas Eve dinner with my Spanish family
Dec. 25 – Christmas Day lunch with my other half’s family
Dec. 31 – New Year’s Eve Dinner with the other half’s family, if I behaved myself the first time.
Jan 1 – New Year’s Day lunch with my Spanish family, if I have behaved myself at Christmas
Jan 5 – Three Kings (The Twelfth Night) cocktail party
Jan 5 – Three Kings (The Twelfth Night) dinner
Jan 6 – Three Kings Day lunch
* Any last-minute celebrations have yet to appear on the agenda.
On a number of accounts, this was cause for worry, not the least being my health. But this was Christmas in Spain, and years of training had made me a hardened veteran. A new war was about to be waged.
I woke this morning to the sound a misty rain blanketing the sky. What a relief! Well, for once we had a Semana Santa without having to pull out the umbrellas every day, and the procession floats didn’t have to kick it into high gear to get back to the church. En abril, aguas mil (In April, a thousand waters), that’s the saying, the distant relative to “April showers bring May flowers”, though “hasta el 40 de mayo, no te quites el sayo” (Until the 40th of May, don’t take off your raincoat) hints that the wet weather might be around for a while…and often is. We got a break this time, we really did. All week they had been forecasting that damper cooler weather would be moving into the country and ruining the fun for everyone, but for the most part it just kept getting pushed off and off until about midnight last night, when I came out of the Círculo de Bellas Artes movie theater and felt the sprinkling begin. Bellas Artes is one of the oldest cultural centers in Madrid. It also owns a grandiose old world café with an outdoor section that spills out onto the Calle Alcalá. The inside, is all marbly and might be something you would see in those old fancy hotels. The rest of the building offers small but generally interesting art & photography exhibits, conference rooms, a large ballroom, etc., but the real reason most people come these days is for the chic rooftop bar, which was once just a rooftop, which was once only a rooftop with lookout of the center of Madrid, but now is a happening place for the hip, and not so hip, because I go there from time to time, taking that quality down a notch. Prices are up there with the height of the building, but nothing out of this world, especially for anyone who has travelled to London, Paris or New York.
On this occasion, I was at the movie theater (there is also a regular theater), which I hit from time to time because they usually have decent film cycles featuring different directors or actors or even themes. The best thing about it is that the same movie usually has three or four showings, unlike the filmoteca, meaning you don’t normally have to hipcheck some college professor in line to ensure you have a ticket. This month they were featuring the late French director Alain Resnais, who just passed away last month. It was Hiroshima, Mon Amour, his classic innovative film about, love, loss and memory. It wasn’t the easiest film to watch, one of the densest 90 minutes of celluloid I have taken in for some time which drags a little, and probably not for everyone, but an intensively beautiful and provocative film, all the same.
Let’s not forget these places in Madrid. Let’s not forget love. Let’s remember we have memories which teach us to forget.
First of all, just coming up with an acceptable equivalent in English seems to be a challenge for translators around the world. Go to linguee.com, a well-intended but often errant translating reference service which, instead of computing the word or phrase that you are looking for into another tongue, provides you with a series of previous attempts done by other human translators who have contributed their texts. It is an interesting approach because it can assist you in finding that elusive linguistic transformation you seek, but on more than one occasion, it helps you realize that there are a lot of incompetent experts out there, and reaffirms yourn faith in technology.
Here are some of the jewels the unwary investigator might get duped by: “entryphone telephone” (which is more of a definition than a translation); “little phone” (a half-hearted literal translation, especially since there little “little” about it); “telephone/monitor” (this time a physical description of the modern models); “portable phone” (there is hardly anything portable about this fixed fixture – your 50kg washing machine is easier to remove); and finally “intercom” (which probably stands as the closest relation).
Coming from residential Greenwich, Connecticut, I didn’t encounter a telefonillo at all in my youth, aside from a friend’s house which was so big one was used to communicate between members of the family. Ironically, one of the few homes I know in that town which actually use one of those systems from the outside gate is my original house, which breaks my heart. It was sadly transformed from a home which was so open that every living creature around for miles, children, dogs and cats, felt free to trespass as they pleased, to a kind of cold and uncharacteristic fortress of sorts. Alas! These things happen I guess.
You just never saw one, even on TV. From the movies I watched, I thought that in New York you either had a doorman do the screening, or lived in one of those neighborhoods where people shouted from the street, “Hey Tony! You home?!”
The telefonillo is a ubiquitous feature of every flat and many independent houses, and in my opinion is that their charm resides in two features: their apparent poor manufacturing and their sketchy reliability.
The first is apparent from the minute you hold the receiver in your hand. So light and airy, it seems to be hollow, and you are tempted to pry it open on one side to check if there is anything inside keeping things in order.
I suppose appearances could be deceiving if it weren’t for the fact that so many of these specimens end up working about as pitifully as you would expect them to. Such is the case, that for the most part, I consider these malfunctions to be a standard part of the device’s performance. Sort of like the scratchy inaudible speaker system on New York commuter trains.
One thing that almost never fails is the strident buzzing sound that raids the silence of your abode to announce that someone on the street wants to reach you. If your building doesn’t have a doorman, more often than not it some poor sod trying to slip into the building to mete out publicity into the mailboxes. You can usually pick up on that because the buzzing is short and it spreads throughout the building, as the brochure deliverer relies on the basic laws of probability.
Picking up the receiver and answering is no guarantee that you will discover who is on the other end, because, as you will be able to see, one of four situations may occur, and they all have an equal chance of becoming a reality:
1) You hear the person downstairs > They can hear you.
2) You cannot hear the person downstairs > They can hear you.
3) You can hear the person downstairs > They cannot hear you.
4) Neither side can hear the other.
As you can see, you have really about a 25% chance of communicating with the voice on the other end. Either that or you end up conversing with neighbor from the flat two floors down who has also picked up.
“Who’s this?” He replies with the same question because he isn’t given to shouting out his name to a total stranger. During this period, the commercial postman is trying to interject and get inside the building. “Can you open me up?” But the others aren’t listening. The round of questioning can go on perpetually, until one gives.
“I’m in 5B.”
“Well, I’m in 3A. Why can I hear you?” The neighbor is Spanish and after decades of cohabitating with these gadgets you would think he was more familiar with how they normally work; what he should have been asking was how we were able to hear the man from downstairs. “There is something wrong with this thing. We gotta get the maintenance guy in to fix it.”
“Can you open me up?”
“No!” cries out the other neighbor. Try later.
I hang up and wash my hands of the matter. The guy with ads will finally coerce someone into letting him in. It never fails. I have mixed feelings about those people. I know they are doing their job, but I just don’t like the fact they assume we have to open the door for them. Especially when there is a box outside.
The final obstacle is the button that actually lets you in. I would say that more often than not, it fulfills its purpose, but rarely without an air of mystery, since once you have let go and checked to see if they are inside, there seldom is a reply. Occasionally, you detect a distant echo as if they are calling you from a cave “I’m in!”, but generally, silence is the answer. And if you have decided to let in some stranger who claims to be a person only out to stuff mailboxes, you pray their intent was not something more malicious. Thank God Madrid is generally a very safe city.
Some friends of mine prefer the machine-gun method of pressing the button, requiring that I time pushing the door open with the moment. Statistics prove I often need to ring up again. I don’t know why they do it that way. Maybe tradition. That makes sense, because many of the traditions that we all hold dear make any sense at all, which eventually constitutes a dear part of their charm.
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.
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.