In Which We Go Over the Vocabulary of ‘Used To’

My landlady has a black binder filled with photocopies, each of which has been carefully annotated, highlighted and slipped between sheets of clear plastic. With great care, she reads out the title of one of the readings, “Christmas in Stanford.” She goes through the material they have just covered in her English class and points out a prepositional question she either did not have the courage to ask or which her instructor did not have the skills to answer. I consider it, answer with some confidence, and she asks another clarifying question. She notes down my answers and toys with a few possible arrangements of this new phrase, comparing it to Spanish grammar, enjoying the taste of the precise terminology in her mouth. I am aware, suddenly, of the horrible faultiness of my Spanish, the motor of my brain and tongue which now requires more and more coaxing to roar into gear, the unstudied if speedy sloppiness of my sentences. In my two years of language courses, I took notes in a ripped green notebook and on the backs of grammar exercises wrinkled and coffee-stained from my doomsday of a knapsack. I giggled my way through group presentations and raised my hand at half-mast, wearily, hungover, when I did at all.

We discuss English in Spanish, and I explain English in Spanish, and when I ask her a question she asks me to speak slowly so she can whisper a translation of each word to herself. In these moments of English, my inability to call her anything but “you,” our lack of a formal 2nd person, seems painfully obvious. I do not know how to best bend this language to present my respect, so I lower my voice and my head and present my corrections as though they are bills fluttering from her purse on a train platform. When she presents seven flawless sentences summarizing her demographics, I tell her they were perfect, and she beams. “Oh, that sounds so nice to hear, can you say it again?”

She is losing slightly more than three hundred euro on my apartment per month, and asks occasionally in her sweet, sad, voice if anyone has come to visit this week. Someone has, another auxiliary English teacher, and like those before her, she sends a misspelled facebook message declining to move in. We have been looking since February, and prior to each visit I mop the floors and open the windows and hope.

Today is May Day, and the unions have organized marches all over the city. Yesterday my paycheck pinged into my bank account as it always does, and J and I discussed the job, the school, the teachers. “I mean, some of them? They barely speak English at all!” he says, referring to the English teachers, referring to one of them. It’s true. He tells me how last year the school paid 90 euros an hour for refresher English lessons for the faculty. He was looking forward to taking over that gig this year, “but it seems they’ve run out of money for it.”

I look around at the room at the paper tray that has been empty for two months, the note assuring us that soon we will be able to order photocopies again. I have noticed my growing impatience with some students, a desire to teach them so well and so quickly that the oldest ones will soon be able to take my job from me and the thousands of other untrained Americans, Brits and Australians who receive stipends from this Titanic of a government to repeat vocabulary and correct pronunciation all over the country. On the auxiliares facegroup where I periodically repost the ad for the empty room in our apartment, an hour of one-on-one class with a native Spanish speaker goes for about five euros. Panicked posts urge all those who offer home English lessons to charge 20-25 “minimum!” in some sort of twisted plea for solidarity. “If people get used to paying less, it will be harder and harder for everyone to get by.”

Yesterday, al Jazeera and El Pais noted, unemployment in Spain hit 27%.

During protests, the image of dangling scissors is omnipresent, the recurring nightmare of recortes presenting a long bleak future the unemployed cannot wake up from. I tell a second-grader that I live in Madrid and she tells me her dad worked there, but now he doesn’t. We go over the vocabulary of “used to” together. My landlady doesn’t need this refresher.

“I used to listen to classical music–every day, but now I study English.”

“You don’t listen to classical music anymore?”

“No, I don’t.”

“Well, that’s sad. English is much less beautiful than classical music, in my opinion.”

“Yes, me too.”

When the lesson finishes, she pats the big white sofa in our big living room. “This sofa is so terrible!” she laughs. “I’m sorry about this sofa. I’ll buy a foam mattress to prop it up a little, see how the cushions are sinking down?” I tell her she doesn’t have to do that. I tell her that I’m so sorry I haven’t found anyone for the place, that I will do my best to find someone before I go in July. She slips 15 euro on the table for the class, and I put it in my pocket when she looks away.

  1. sue said:

    Another beautiful poignant portrait of your life in Spain.

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