The act of a non-introduction

Recently Amanda and I discussed how often we have been put in a very awkward type of social situation while in Spain. The scenario, at least for us, has happened without fail while in Laredo, especially while at our schools.  It occurs when you are speaking with an acquaintance or colleague. During your conversation or interaction, a stranger to you, but a friend/acquaintance of whom you were talking to walks up. Instead of being introduced to the stranger by your acquaintance, your friend fails to introduce you and leaves you de facto out of the new conversation with the stranger. It’s a total non-introduction.

Without a proper introduction, you’re left feeling awkward and slightly belittled. The person you know begins a conversation without you and you don’t know what to do. Do you step up and listen in on the new conversation, step aside and stay out of it, or just go on and leave your own discussion unfinished? Without that introduction I just usually go on and forget what I was saying. But then again, if I was in the middle of something important, I might wait around to finish it. Of course there’s always the option of just introducing yourself and casually blaming your acquaintance for not having done so, which can be pulled off pretty smoothly by someone slick, but proves (at least for me) rather difficult, especially in a foreign language. In English I can follow every word of a conversation and know the body language and social clues. In Spanish between two native-speakers, it’s still pretty easy for me to get lost in a conversation, especially when they are telling inside jokes or speaking in Cántabro (not a language, just local expressions or vocabulary). So I forget the idea of just butting into a conversation and pulling out my own introduction.

With the awkwardness of what to do, you also face a sense of insignificance. By not giving you an introduction, the other person has excluded you and thus intentionally or unintentionally said you are not that important to know this person.  I think this situation usually is not intentional. But it really is amazing how I can feel belittled by not being introduced and left out of a conversation.

What’s so sad is that this dilemma can be solved so easily by the person who is the common link between the two strangers. The common acquaintance can easily say, “Manuel,  this is Andrew, the English assistant this year. Andrew, Manuel teaches science.” With even that little, you can jump in a conversation and not feel weird about it. It doesn’t require much, but it does require being pretty aware of who you are around.

While this scenario has happened to us a lot in Spain, I’m not saying that the non-introduction is a Spanish custom or norm. I think it happens a lot in Spain, but I think it also happens in the USA. At any rate, it’s rude and usually won’t be forgotten easily by the person offended. It’s best just to introduce someone and continue.


on teaching…

I’ve noticed that I am finally getting the hang of how to plan an effective language lesson that lasts for about an hour, not an easy feat. Our lessons are supposed to be focused entirely on speaking and cultural activities, when appropriate. At first leading a class in front of fifteen to twenty blank faced teenagers was incredibly intimidating. I spent hours wading through the quagmire of information available for ESL teachers online, looking for ideas on how to lead a conversation oriented class. Later I tossed and turned in bed, wondering if I had figured out the secret formula. This unfortunate routine was mostly fruitless and always frustrating, since even the best game for one classroom is a total fail for the next, unless adapted to your current situation and students. Trial and error have since taught me the insights I have gleaned so far from this experience and I by no means think I am a master ESL teacher. On the contrary, I now realize how much there is to learn and what a challenging career being a teacher is, if done well and responsibly.

A truly basic revelation, but the most essential one to planning any type of class, is that any activity you have laboriously prepared will ultimately flop if your students have no background knowledge or vocabulary on the topic you have chosen. This might seem obvious and maybe it is, but I strutted as arrogantly as a useless peacock right into a number of lessons without having made sure that the students had appropriate background information on the activity (i.e., vocabulary, instructions, cultural differences and nuances of a situation clearly explained. Not to mention that if they don’t know the grammar involved, you’ll be stuck looking pretty idiotic to the teacher, who probably knows some rules about English that you only know inherently). For example, in a low-level administrative vocational class, I handed out a slip of paper stating that a group of students needed to write a role play that would imitate an office situation. A person walks into a place of business, speaks with the secretary, the secretary is then supposed to call the boss and finally introduce the “big cheese” to the third person who has come for a meeting. Sounds easy, right? I originally thought so, but there are a number of glaring problems with this situation. The set-up is way too vague for starters. The students need to know: why exactly is the first person coming to the business, what type of business is it, and how would a secretary actually even greet someone properly. Then, the specialized vocabulary in this activity needs to be taught, reviewed and then seen in context by the students before they’ll ever be comfortable using it in a modified dialogue. Finally, language students must listen to an example of this role play before they’ll be able to create their own effectively. No one ever mentioned any of the above to me, so I spent a couple of months frustrated and clueless, until I found a brilliant example of how a dialogue should be taught.

In the successful example, key vocabulary was first reviewed (in this case, chores and curfew were key vocabulary, plus we talked as a class about whether students had to help out around the house and what specifically they were required to do) and then the target grammatical structure was discussed, used in various examples and later written on the board. Finally, the teacher and I read a scripted role-play so the students knew exactly what they needed to do to complete their assignment. Not only was I rewarded with cooperative students, better yet, they were creative and engaged in the activity, in which we used modal verbs (should, could, would, must, mustn’t, have to, can, might) to convince their mother that they should be able to stay out late tonight, even though they hadn’t finished their chores. I was elated and overwhelmed when the class finished, satisfied with a lesson well planned and even more so with the efforts of the class.

Some other particularly effective lessons lately have looked like the following: a teacher indicates to me that her class is studying rooms of the house and furniture vocabulary. To start, we play a quick review game. The point of the game is to get a student who is sitting in front of the class with his back facing the board to say the vocabulary word I’ve written on the board. The class must give the student clues IN ENGLISH about the word without saying it. So far this game has been a big hit, with students mostly eager to participate and some really effective vocabulary practice. Following this game, pictures of rooms in a home (courtesy Southern Living!) are handed out to the students and they have to talk with a partner about the furniture they see. The teacher and I monitor language usage and the students have a chance to work semi-independently. To finish the lesson, students have to draw a floor plan of their own home, labeling the rooms and drawing their own room, along with its furniture. Of course, there are always a few audible groans for any activity from obstinate students, but when they’ve seen the target vocabulary consistently for 50 minutes; I’m guessing they are learning.

Role plays have been a blast in class, writing a recipe is entertaining, singing along with Celine Dion Because you loved me to learn the past simple tense has been stellar, and taking turns describing a photo on the projector screen while the other faces away and draws what his partner describes is good for a laugh. It’s an awesome feeling to know that a lesson was successful, but many times the lessons depend on the individual responsibility the students take to participate in class. My favorite times so far have been when students take the initiative to not only do what they are asked to do, but when they do it well and with a stroke of their own teenage creativity. For me, an effective learning period is when the bell rings, you weren’t consciously waiting for it and everyone leaves the class having learned something valuable.


We took a quick weekend trip to the capital of Asturias this past Saturday and Sunday. While there were fewer astonished adjectives spewed on this adventure (meaning Oviedo is pretty neat, worth a 24 hour visit, but not monumental) we still enjoyed the change of scenery. A big moment of the trip included seeing pre-romanic structures that were built in the 800s. Andrew explained their significance to me by saying that they are some of Europe’s first attempt at blending art and architecture after the fall of the Roman empire. He was pleased with his concrete and concise explanation, so I’d thought I’d include it. I think they did alright, considering these two beauties are situated precariously on the side of a hill and that they are still standing, solidly I might add.

I’ll be real honest. The rest of the highlights of the trip for me are, well, superficial.

To elaborate, Saturday night, after we hiked the hill to see the famous pre-romanic sites, of Vicky, Cristina Barcelona fame, by the way, I was hungry. 7pm is not a good time to be hungry in Spain. We bought a baguette and some dried meat and ate a hotel picnic. Which leads me to the first highlight: Our hotel was way nice and quite affordable, coming in around 22 euros per person. Sunday morning was time for real food, which was also tasty and affordable at the hotel bar. Yes, you can eat breakfast at a bar. Get with it.

We partook of lunch in a siderería on the famous calle Gascona, where all the cider bars are located. Cider in Asturias is a big deal, so along with our menú, we tried out the local cider. The manner in which the servers pour the cider is interesting and an art in and of itself. The server comes to your table with the glasses and the bottle of cider. She proceeds to serve your beverage by raising the cider bottle as far above her head as she can reach and by holding the glass the cider will be poured into as low (toward the floor) as her other arm will reach. Without looking up at the cider bottle or down at the glass the cider will land in, she carefully turns the cider bottle up and a long, thin pour of cider leaves the mouth of the bottle and splatters into the rim of the glass. I’m not sure how she managed to get the amber colored liquid into our drinking glass each time, but she was a champ. The cider is poured this way so it is allowed to aerate for as long as possible.

Our food was a bit exaggerated, if only because of the amount of food we unintentionally ordered. We each started with a cheese plate- Andrew with a variety board and some homemade membrillo (quince paste) and me with fried goat cheese and grilled tomatoes. Asturias produces around 60 different types of cheeses, so we thought it’d be a good idea to try it out. I could have stopped eating after course number one, but they kept coming, three more to be exact.  Next, Andrew ate a typical winter dish in all of the north of Spain, with an Asturian twist, Fabada asturiana:  huge, creamy white beans served with rich, fatty chorizo, morcilla, and a slab of pig fat. You can guess its tastes pretty darn good. I had a mushroom and shrimp concoction that sounds strange at first, but is also palatable. We were then served the “main” course- beef tips for Andrew and sirloin steak with a bechamel sauce for me. I could barely even look at plate number three I was so full, but we bucked up and did our best. Finally, dessert was arroz con leche for Andrew and a crepe with sweet apple syrup inside for me. Finished with a shot of crema de orujo and an espresso, we ate like kings. And all that for only 42 euros.  I can highly recommend Tierra Astur if you are ever in Oviedo.

We took the bus this time for our excursion transportation. Although the bus makes the trip at least an hour longer than it would be in car, we have nothing if time. Plus, it was nice not to have to worry about directions, navigating, parking and staying awake while Andrew drives. I avidly read The Hunger Games when not feeling queasy from bus sickness. It was a good weekend.

Pan y aceite + what’s been cooking

I hate that the main meal takes place in mid-afternoon. It messes with my psyche and with the overall productivity of my day, not to mention that the warmest, sunniest part of the day is lost to eating. The horror! With our morning school obligations ending between noon and 2:30pm and private classes starting between 4 and 4:30pm, we have, reluctantly, adapted to eating the largest meal of the day between 2:30 and 4:30 pm. A coffee is always in order to keep from succumbing to the dreaded siesta, but we’ve gotten pretty swift at the quick meal prep time, quick clean-up routine.

Lunch in Spain comes at the time of the day when I would normally be thinking about getting off work and heading home to prepare dinner. To keep our stomachs from growling audibly in class and to keep from becoming weak with hunger fatigue, a substantial breakfast is a must and even then, a snack at 11am is highly recommended. Oatmeal and cereal are always stick to your ribs options, but we have added a new recipe to the rotation. One of our favorite breakfasts/snacks in Spain is a traditional Spanish breakfast, the tostada. It is simple to prepare and the sum of its parts are much tastier than you’d imagine. First, you’ll need an artisan loaf of bread, preferably a French style baguette. Break off a healthy portion and then slice it lengthwise to reveal the soft, chewy, vulnerable, white crumb of the inside of the bread.


Pop both pieces into an oven heated to 400 degrees and let it toast for 5-7 minutes.  Turn on the broil setting and let the bread turn a golden brown. Once out of the oven, drizzle a rich, fruity olive oil onto the toast. Sprinkle just a pinch of sea salt on top. If you used a French baguette, the oil will pool in the holes that riddle the bread, creating green golden mirrors of flavor. Prepared in this manner, you’ll have a surprisingly satisfying breakfast or mid-afternoon snack. You could also add a thin slice of ripe tomato and a sprinkle of pepper or add a layer of tuna paté after the oil, then the tomato and pepper for a light lunch. Of course, the end product depends on the quality of the ingredients you use. The better the ingredients, the better your tostada will be.

Some other great main meals we’ve had lately include, for your Meatless Monday inspiration in the New Year: baked pasta, carrot-ginger soup, pasta with eggplanttomato and bread soup, red kidney bean curry, sweet potato and black bean tacos and red lentil-lemon-spiked soup.  Spoon food is perfect for January and also means only one pot gets dirty, so I’m all for it. Plus, soup is generally good to the waistline, which I’m grateful for after holidays full of extra time for me to cook and eat.  And, if you’re interested, a recap of some of our favorite holiday sweet treats: chocolate blocks, pumpkin bread, pumpkin cheesecake, raisin-walnut no knead bread, chocolate cake and a simple loaf cake.

Customer service

I want to share with you a key to enjoying Spain. A secret I just, only recently, discovered for myself, about sharing a mutually positive experience with someone who could potentially offer you customer service. It seems strange that it would take someone who has spent so much time in Spain to figure out, but listen up. My advice will be counter intuitive to the American reading.

Whenever you walk into someone’s place of business, be it a restaurant, bar or a gift shop, a clothing store or even a bakery, assert yourself. By this I mean, speak to the person working immediately by saying, when appropriate, one of the following: hola, buenos días or buenas tardes. This may go against your experience in the US or elsewhere, where shopkeepers are generally expected to acknowledge you first and ask if you need help with anything, but in Spain the rules are different. It is expected that you, the patron of the business, will initiate the business transaction. Once you establish rapport with the shopkeeper in this manner, I can almost assure you that you will be treated with much more respect that if you had waited for him or her to speak to you. In fact, I have naïvely, many times, waited to be helped in a shop.  When I left the store without ever having been spoken to, I took it personally, as an affront to the customer.  I also interpreted this to mean that customer service was viewed with complete disdain here on the Iberian Peninsula. Of course, I was the one to be faulted, according to Spanish cultural norms.

Since I have started saying hello whenever I enter a store, I have noticed that the person in question has a different attitude toward me. An open to helping me attitude, an “I’m happy you’re here,” attitude. As of result of practicing this cultural necessity, I’ve been complimented on how good my Spanish is (whoa), had excellent customer service (jewelry being cleaned before being boxed and wrapped, multiple items separately bubble and then gift-wrapped, I’ve even been showered with small talk!) and been overall more satisfied with the quality of life in Spain. Whether you speak Spanish or not, I encourage you to try this trick: to be direct, to be assertive and not to seem like you don’t know what in the world you are doing. And when you leave any place of business, speak to the person once again, telling them any of the following: gracias, hasta luego, adios. Or, if you want to fit in even better, say all three in succession. I promise, I speak from multiple self-conducted experiments. Let me know if you implement this technique and how it works out for you.

Incorrecto, El País

With the rise in prominence of long-time Congressman Dr. Ron Paul in this year’s primaries, the leading Spanish newspaper, El País, has finally decided to give him some attention in their election coverage. For weeks, I had noticed that the Spanish daily had simply omitted mentioning Ron Paul, instead reporting on challengers Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich, as well as drop-outs Michelle Bachmann and Herman Cain. But after Paul nearly tied for first place in Iowa, El País decided to do a little investigation and report on the Texas Congressman.

On January 7 El País published an article on Ron Paul that was at best overly simplistic and at worst, incorrect.  It may be that it’s just that difficult for a center-left newspaper in a welfare-state country to grasp a candidate who calls for an extremely limited constitutional government. After all, Spain is a country where both right and left accept socialized medicine, a welfare state, and a central bank.

Nevertheless, the author grasps that Dr. Paul presents a unique challenge to both the establishment left and right in the United States, by opposing both the expensive welfare state as well as the costly warfare state.  But he then goes on to offer up totally laughable and untrue reasons for why Ron Paul is an extreme candidate and thus unelectable.

Reason 1 is that all of Ron Paul’s supporters are white, male, and well-off financially. Well right off the bat part of that assertion is totally false, given that so much of Ron Paul’s support comes from students and young people. The last time I checked, most students and young people (myself included) have a lot more debt and lower incomes than the rest of the population. It would be Mitt Romney and Barack Obama that get the support of the big-money folks on Wall Street. In addition, the paper adds that Ron Paul wrote racist newsletters in the 1980s and is against abortion and immigration, thus he will not get support from black people and Hispanics. Again, this is terrible reporting. Ron Paul has said repeatedly that he did not write those newsletters and as a civil libertarian, he is incapable of being a racist. He, unlike statists, looks at people as individuals and not as (color) groups. Further, Paul is not opposed to immigration. He just sees that one legitimate constitutional duty of the federal government is border control, and that it’s a total farce to obsess with “homeland security” when the borders are left wide open. Finally, Paul’s philosophy is strictly pro-life. For some reason El País believes that this is unacceptable to black Americans. Yet as black babies are aborted in much higher proportions then white babies in the U.S., this is all the more reason that Dr. Paul and his pro-life stance should have the support of blacks.

Reason 2 that Ron Paul is unelectable is that he is “isolationist” in foreign policy and wants to eliminate domestic government spending and regulations. Al contrario, Ron Paul is not an isolationist. He just applies the golden rule to foreign policy, meaning he believes in non-interventionism and that wars should be declared by Congress. Then the paper alleges that Ron Paul’s America would have no air traffic controllers and people would be dying on the streets without healthcare. Anyone that has spent anytime dealing with the bureaucracy in Spain (or even the U.S. post office for that matter) knows that free markets do a much better job at regulating and providing servies than does government.

In the end, El País suggests that the Ron Paul campaign won’t gain too much traction or much of a broad following. I suppose their hopes are that the status-quo candidate Mitt Romney will be the nominee and that the Paul movement will quietly die. But I think that is where they err, because Paul supporters aren’t going anywhere. His message is already extremely popular with young people and will only grow as the country faces skyrocketing debt, high unemployment, endless wars, and seizures of liberties. Only the Paulian philosophy towards government will solve these problems, and more and more people around the world are waking up to it.

A tribute

I’d like to tell you a little bit about a city that I had previously, and erroneously, underrated. It’s name doesn’t slip off the tongue with an appealing ring. In fact, it is one of those Spanish words that I will always struggle to say correctly.  Burgos. It sounds, well, a little homely. It doesn’t ring as glamorously as Oviedo. Burgos doesn’t sound as exotic as Barcelona or Valencia, León or Santiago. For that reason, I think I decided to write it off. And, truthfully, Andrew talked about it with such a wistfulness in his eyes that I couldn’t bring myself to believe it was that incredible. But, against my prejudgement, I am enthralled with Burgos. With that, I am going to attempt to describe to you one of the most agreeable Spanish tourism experiences I have had in quite a long time.

We parked, purely by accident, but what a great coincidence it was, underneath the Plaza Mayor. Essentially the hub of the city, it is the perfect place to start a tour of this provincial capitol. We ventured over to the giant, soaring Gothic cathedral. We took in the medieval gate to the city, La Puerta de Santa María. We hoofed like billy goats up the side of a hill to an overlook of the entire city. We ate a typical Spanish lunch of ensalada mixta, pollo asado, patatas fritas, y flan. We shopped and gawked approvingly at each new sight.

That all sounds like a day we’ve had before, in any Spanish city you can think of.  But, there are quite a few ways that Burgos proved it is different from the rest.  First, the most perfect example of a Spanish Gothic cathedral sits in a plaza that feels empty next to its enormity.  Not only is it’s size impressive, but the restoration work that has been done is immaculate. Each spire, each dome, each relic and gold retabla, are cleaned, as if done with a miniature toothbrush, to the hilt. I couldn’t have done a better job myself, and Andrew knows I mean business when the windex and paper towels are brandished. Also, the tour of the cathedral is laid out in a logically pleasing order. The same can be said for the city gate’s cleanliness and majesty. Within the city wall, underneath the gate, is a smallish, contemporary art museum. It even merits a quick spin.

The casco viejo is also surprising in its orderliness. The buildings are quintessentially Spanish, but in good repair. The streets are void of dog poop. Most charmingly, the city of Burgos must have commissioned innummerable street statues to keep tourists entertained.  They pop up on every corner and in each plaza and they are, well, really great.  Some illicit laughter, others recall a difficult journey or a particularly introspective memory. A majestic bull, a puzzling young woman serenely holding her umbrella against the rain, two plump dwarf-like figures that exude the feeling of cheeriness that permeates, a battered pilgrim following the way of St. James. Also appealing were the historically important buildings we seemed to bump into; for example, a beautiful home where Isabella and Ferdinand received Christopher Columbus immediately after his second voyage to the New World or one of Franco’s homes during his fascist reign.

The sense of hospitality the citizens of Burgos showed us also impressed me. The server at lunch tried, good-naturedly, to joke with Andrew and I, (alas, humor is mostly lost on non-native speakers), the shopkeepers were friendly, warm, helpful, and even carefully gift wrapped our purchases. The kind woman who sold us hot chocolate asked where we were from.  The thick chocolate drink she served us defrosted our insides and the proceeds went to a non-profit organization.

I’d like to imagine that Burgos would be as spectacular on any day of the year as it was on January 5th, but I highly doubt you would find it as magical as we did. This was because January 5th is like Christmas Eve for Spain.  The Three Wise Men, whom bring children their gifts, parade through town on this day and the atmosphere is so festive and bright. We waited until dark so we could enjoy the lights and festivity with Burgos and it was the highlight of the day for each of us. The city morphed into a bustling fairy-tale land. And even if you can’t visit Burgos on this special day, I have a gut-feeling that any day of the year would serve you well.