Wines of last year

11 January 2019

This is a list of seven bottles of wine, two big groups of wine, & two small tasting pours that I drank in 2018. I made all sorts of rules for this list—that they all be full bottles instead of tastes, that I paid for all of them, that I drank them with other people rather than alone, that they not be chenin, etc—and then I ended up breaking all of them, in one way or another. The main thing is that they’re wines that taught me something, drunk in a context that mattered, and I can’t stop thinking about them.

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15 March 2018

[Working journal while I continue to obsessively assemble a project of dubious interest & limited appeal.]


“In the past, aligoté was planted at the top of Chambertin! Musigny blanc was half aligoté! It was half of Corton! After phylloxera, most replanted with easier-to-grow chardonnay and put aligoté on the other side of the road where no one ever planted anything but carrots and potatoes. This was the sad story of ruined aligoté.”
LAURENT PONSOT, to Alice Feiring *

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13 July 2013

Today I found notes for something I was going to write about Pedro Almodóvar’s Volver. Looking at unfinished pieces is terrifying: you start to wonder whether you’ll finish anything; you don’t recognize this stranger who’s writing; you begin to worry about the continuity of the self, mortality, etc.; worst of all you usually wind up deciding that even if you’d finished it when you still remembered what you were thinking the idea wasn’t all that great to begin with. So. I’m going to try to write this one. It’s more for my benefit than for yours.


The third time I saw Volver (2006) I checked it out from the Casco Viejo branch of the municipal library in Bilbao. This would have been three years ago, sometime in the spring: the fifth floor of an apartment with a balcony overlooking the river, grey-green light, lots of vermouth. There was a director’s commentary. Almodóvar, kind of using Penelope Cruz as a sounding board, started to talk about patios: “En La Mancha,” he said, “los patios son esenciales. Un gran parte de la vida se lleva a cabo en estos patios. … Son patios mucho menos alegres que los andaluzes, mucho más austeros, porque la vida de allí es una de interiores. Las calles … son calles vacios.” And a little later he repeats himself: “Otra vez: Esto es la típica que lleva manchega. No tiene nada que ver con la andaluza: blanca, con zócanos, aspiras en flores, sin ningún adorno.”

Back when it was in theaters Stateside I’d enjoyed the film in the same way as, I imagine, most cinephile international audiences: as another archetypical extrusion from Mundo Almodóvar, all eyepopping reds and darkhaired women with wild eyes and gazpacho and Madrid Madrid Madrid, the same kind of aesthetic place as Mujeres al borde de un ataque de nervios (1988). You know, Spain. (Here’s A.O. Scott for the Times: “The action in Volver moves back and forth between a workaday neighborhood in Madrid and a windswept village in the Spanish countryside. Really, though, the movie takes place in a familiar, enchanted land—Almodóvaria, you might call it, or maybe Pedrostan—where every room and street corner is saturated with bright color and vivid feeling…”)

And while I don’t want to suggest that this was a misreading, exactly, it occurred to me that day that Almodóvar was talking about a film that was much more particular and regional than the one I’d watched, full of signals that I wasn’t equipped to decode.

Pedro Almodóvar Caballero was born in 1949 in Calzada de Calatrava, Ciudad Real, “un pueblo de pocos ricos y muchos pobres.” [1] His mother wrote poems and read to him at night. She made extra money by writing letters for her illiterate neighbors. His father was an arreiro, a mule driver; he made wine at home and would haul barrels of it to market. Trucks and highways put an end to mules, and the family moved to a town outside of Cáceres, one of the two provincial capitals in Extremadura. None of these are places you want to be from: goats, high arid plains, hot as shit in the summer, cold as fuck in the winter, at the edge of all things. They call places like this (and places like Jaén) España profunda: “deep Spain.” But Cáceres had a cinema. Pedro watched movies, remade them in his head. When he was 18 he left for Madrid and never looked back.

Penelope Cruz’s Raimundo is, in fact, a kind of biographical stand-in for Almodóvar— she grows up in a baroquely-named pueblito in La Mancha, flees it for Madrid, severs ties with her past, estranges herself from her mother, who is literally a living ghost. Her escape from it mirrors his; so, too, her eventual reconciliation with her origins. The film basically dramatizes Almodóvar’s coming to terms with his own past. (Also it’s a Technicolor domestic pulp, a multigenerational family saga played for laughs, and a ghost story.) Almodóvar, as it happens, makes this explicit in interview after interview: “He vuelto a mis propias raíces y a la memoria de mi madre. Me baso absolutamente en mi vida, mis recuerdos, y los de mi familia.” And: “Este película me reconcilió con mi infancia.” [2,3]

This autobiographical trajectory, La Mancha to Extremadura to Madrid, intersects with no Spain I ever became fluent in. The center is a blank page; I lived in peripheries. When Volver travels from Madrid to Alcanfor de las Infantas, fictional wind-scoured pueblo with the highest rate of insanity in the country (literally: ‘mothballs of the princesses’) the dialogue suddenly starts picking up manchego inflections. I can just about perceive it, but I don’t actually understand. At one point in the commentary Almodóvar starts laughing with Cruz about how typical of La Mancha something Sole has just said is—está en mala cojónada— which is so colloquially rural I can’t even find an internet reference. (It means she’s in a bad mood, but it seems like the reason why is…her balls hurt?) It’s something like watching Fargo with no sense of Minnesota as a discrete place, a setting where regionalisms are being faithfully rendered and occasionally parodied. This film isn’t set in Spain, because Spain doesn’t exist; it’s set in La Mancha. What’s La Mancha? I have no idea.

When you’re foreign—and n.b., maybe this is only true or surprising if you’re in your early twenties and abroad for the first time in your life, maybe I’m naïvely stating the obvious, but this is how it was for me, back then—you’re suddenly blind to a thousand internal signifiers, coded images meant to be apprehended in an instant. They’re too obvious to articulate. (Here’s Barthes, in Mythologies: “For the Blue Guide, men only exist as ‘types.’ In Spain, for instance, the Basque is an adventurous sailor, the Levantine a light-hearted gardener, the Catalan a clever tradesman and the Cantabrian a highlander.”) Stereotypes are characters in the stories that cultures tell.

And it becomes important to be fluent in your local stereotypes—quick, show me Cantabria on a map—even if there’s a turtles-all-the-way-down quality to how typologies, more and more specifically-targeted, end up demonstrating their own incoherence. (Spaniards are like this, sure, but then Basques are like that and Andalucíans like the other, and then in Andalucía of course nothing could be more different than the sevillanos, who are all pijos riding like white stallions to the fería and swilling manzanilla and never leaving the capital, and the jiennenses, who are bent over backwards from spending all day in the olive groves and drink beer and…) You know those Levantines and their light-hearted gardening.

Accents display class and status: On mainstream Spanish sitcoms Andalucíans are country bumpkins, the comic relief. To speak in andaluz dialect is actually to already be setting up the joke. And because it’s (surprisingly?) tricky to hear accents in a language you’re learning—certainly almost impossible to notice, in a film with subtitles in a language you don’t speak at all, the different ways that characters sound—you’re blind to this signaling, to the joke being set up. You wonder why everyone in the audience is laughing. Which opacity can be interesting, in and of itself—you know something’s being communicated, but can’t see quite what it is…

(I’m reminded, though no good example comes to mind, of novels of a certain age or cultural remove—you get what’s clearly meant to be a telling detail, but have to kind of guess at what it’s supposed to signify.)

Almodóvar filmed in a pueblo in Ciudad Real fifteen miles from the one he’d grown up in. I’ve gone back to my roots, he said, and to the memory of my mother. And: In La Mancha, the patios are essential. Most of life takes place in them. They’re much less joyful than those of Andalucía, much more austere, because life there is one of interiors. The streets are deserted. Again, he said: This is typical of La Mancha. Nothing to do with Andalucía: white, with zócanos, you breath in flowers, without a single decoration. (Did I mishear? Was it that they were hung with flowers?)

When he was a child he’d sit with the women of his family in the patio—really more of a enclosed courtyard? is that the better translation?—of their home, like the Fellini alter-ego in 8 1/2. Pueblos in La Mancha seem as closed as fists. The film opens in a graveyard on Día de Todos los Santos, dozens of women shrouded in black frantically cleaning gravestones while the insane-making wind blows and the dust settles everywhere—something there, I suppose, about the nature of women’s work: domestic, undervalued, endless, like so many of the details of the murder of Penelope Cruz’s abusive rapist husband, which have to do with once again cleaning up after him. I don’t know, and haven’t been able to find, what on earth a zócano is— some kind of stock or wooden stand for a loom, I think.

This film reconciled me with my childhood, he said.

How much do you miss? How much does it matter? All I’m trying to say, I suppose, is that the me who watched this in college & liked it & ended up going to Spain & had to reconcile the actual country with the myth of that country he’d built in his head, he was getting a very different enjoyment out of it, seeing very different things, than a Madrid theater audience, or again the audience Almodóvar screened it for in his former hometown, or indeed Almodóvar himself, the resonance of language & gesture, the nostalgia, the reasons he’d made it in the first place. Perfect transmission is of course a fantasy. I like the bit in Barthes’ Pleasure of the Text where he asks rhetorically whether anyone has ever read Proust, Balzac, War and Peace, word for word. “Proust’s good fortune,” he adds in parenthesis: “from one reading to the next, we never skip the same passages.”


22 January 2010

The Christmas present my little sister (littler of the two) gave to me. Mid-60s, used; all it needed was a new ribbon.

I didn’t know where to find an office supply store in western Michigan, so I opened the Yellow Pages up for the first time in maybe six years. There’s one store under “typewriter repair,” an office supply place on the North Side. It was the day before my flight to Bilbao, via Gerald R. Ford, O’Hare, Frankfurt. Constant snowfall, too steady for the plows to clear. We were in a Mini Cooper with no snow tires; it felt a little like driving a slalom course.

We’d called earlier to make sure they were still in business. It happens sometimes now that the place you want to go to isn’t, anymore. For example: I went to the mall at the end of the summer with my family. We were looking for a Radio Shack — needed some kind of cord to connect two things together, I can’t remember what to what. At Westshore Mall these days, there’s an eerie quiet. Entire hallways are unlit, fronts of stores in various stages of dismantling. Some you can still see the outlines of the signs, some look like somebody had just walked out one day to get a cup of coffee or something. Thirty-six — while my mom asked at the Bath & Body Works whether Radio Shack was still around, I took a walk & counted — thirty six stores out of business. The Radio Shack too. I went to the website to check that I’d counted right, that I’d remembered.

As it turns out, Westshore Mall, according to the About page, was “acquired in 2006 by southern-California real estate investment and development firm Howard & Mills Inc.” The most advanced of the vacant units have been covered up with beige walls that feature a well-designed graphic in red & black: “Within Your Reach: Westhore Mall, New Stores, New Look Coming Soon . . . A Howard & Mills Inc. Property.” In a Holland Sentinel article from June, the mall’s general manager blames residents for not buying local: ““Every time you go and you shop the JC Penny store there [in Grandville or Muskegon], you’re hurting the JC Penny store here.”

Hell. Where was I? Right. The last typewriter repair listing in the Yellow Pages is on the North Side. With vintage machines you never know if there’s a ribbon in stock until you take it in, but we did call ahead.

It was quiet inside — paper advertising color copies for however many cents a page, an empty parking lot, tamped down enough that thankfully it looked like we wouldn’t have to shovel ourselves out. The man who runs the place told my sister & I that this was the third typewriter he’d seen that month. These things are coming back, he said. He popped off the top, spooled a piece of paper. That sure is faded, he said. Let’s try this — and got a generic Smith Corona black ribbon, took it out of the package, spooled it in. His fingers had gotten all covered in carbon, & there were smears on the top. He has those short, stubby old man fingers, surprisingly dextrous. He threaded the ribbon through the little clasps & spooled it to the beginning & hit a few keys twenty or thirty times in a row to make sure it advanced like it was supposed to, replaced the top, said — hold on — and went in back to get some cleaning fluid, wiped down the case to get the carbon off & even a little extra, closed it up.

“Well, thanks for coming in,” he said. The whole thing cost $5. He watched us from the window to make sure we got out of the lot into the street okay.

This is my second typewriter. 11 lbs. with the case, which makes it easy to carry through airports. To replicate what it does, you’d need a computer, a power source, & a printer. It’s only inefficient, an affectation, if you think about efficiency in only one way. Nice typeface, smaller & neater than my Remington, & a little louder too.

I meant to write about that — but here I am & I find myself thinking more about my town, about the mall & that office supply store on the North Side. It’s the sort of place, like where my dad used to get his shoes resoled, that charges so little for such profoundly helpful things & is so seldom patronized you wonder how on earth it stays in business. The cobbler, in fact, has left town.

The mall, on the other hand, is just a wreck & an eyesore. It almost destroyed the downtown in the 70s, but the Victorian storefronts are doing pretty well these days — Prince money saved it, the same Princes who run Blackwater & overlook contractors raping Iraqi girls & intimidate ex-employees (that would be the son, Erik, born in Holland in 1969) . . . — but in the meantime on 8th street there are thriving traces of community, a microbrewery-restaurant, coffeeshops, little boutiques, college kids, lamps & street musicians. Only someone like me, some depressive egghead five thousand miles away in a bar drinking local wine & getting melancholy about the hometown he barely comes back to, only someone like me would ever dream of drawing a straight line from one to the other.


17 January 2010

Letters received in Jaén, 2008-09.

“A succession of days is like a box of new envelopes. Each envelope is flimsy and can be treated as two-dimensional. But when you pull out all the envelopes from the box at once, there is a hard place in the middle — a thick lump — that you wouldn’t expect envelopes to have. The lump is created by the intersection of the four triangles in the middle of the back … as you reach around and squeeze them you feel the nugget, something that isn’t in the envelopes but is of the envelopes. I would almost say that there is a hint on the meaning of life there, in that revealed kernel.”

— The wonderful Nicholson Baker, A Box of Matches

Daily accumulation, considered after a certain amount of time, feels so much & so viscerally like Baker thumbing his stack of envelopes that it’s almost enough to dumbly contemplate the sensation — but instead, as someone who writes to account for his days rather than remembering them himself, I’d like to take Baker a little too literally, as I did one day in the summer when I took the stack of letters I’d received in Spain over nine months & spread them out on the carpet — envelopes, true, though hardly a box of new ones.

Letters, too, are flimsy things & antiquated, surprising in their accumulation, like snowdrifts. They’ve been written about in enough praise & nostalgia that I’m not sure what I can add except for Me, too. But because I like certain antiquated things, probably to a fault, and to a degree that looks like affectation, I wanted to work out for myself here what I like about letters, what I find particularly gladdening about being able to take a photograph like this one, about having an accumulation like this to take away with me from Jaén.

We write letters, in part, because we want to receive letters; an unanswered letter, while a nice gesture in & of itself, is a bit orphaned. Letters are a dialogue or a mutual flattery, a tap on the shoulder: Here I am. I remember you. But then, so is an email. Friends post on each others’ facebook walls instead of sending private messages in part to demonstrate not just for each other but onstage, for everyone else, the fact of their friendship. And letters are far less efficient than emails, which is why they’ve been overtaken entirely for anything practical.

Letters are impractical, but partly for that reason, for the extravagance of effort they represent, they’re things we can become excited about. When was the last time you were excited to receive an email?

Letters, too, have to be opened. Envelopes, stamped & addressed, handwritten or typed, in different colors & thicknesses of papers, stained or weathered, affixed with the seals & marks of different nations, handled & passed along, are aesthetic objects. Inside, the letter itself can be held, tucked inside a coat pocket, touched, carried with us. Handwritten correspondence implies pen to paper — we can see our friend’s letters dilate & contract, the words wander, the lines speed up & slow down. My own handwriting starts out small & crabbed and then begins to get bigger and rounder as I forget to concentrate & get carried away, sometimes by a factor of three or more. I myself don’t have particularly good or nice-looking handwriting, and it’s not as though people are routinely trained in copperplate today, but I don’t have to argue  that handwriting is necessarily pretty in order to make the point that it breathes. Typewritten correspondence looks attractive for the same reason that designers like vintage typefaces on their restaurant menus, and if this seems shallow it’s because I’m resisting the temptation to describe typewriting as objectively beautiful, even though I find it so. Run your hands against the back of a typewritten letter & too, unlike a laser printer, you can feel the nubbled imprint of the typeface on the paper, which has been imprinted, with a typeface whose imprecisions & smudges of carbon are unique to it, are a fingerprint as much as handwriting.

This is all to say, that letters might be nice things to receive even if they didn’t actually say anything, just for their incidental qualities — a colored envelope, the weight of stationary, my own name & yours on the same surface, the street names of places different than our own, the vagaries of handwriting. But apart from this, for me, is that letters, more than anything else I’ve hit upon, are a way to continue to have meaningful or interesting or personal conversations with people who, given the sort of things I’ve decided to do with my young adulthood, I may not see for years.

Some people prefer the telephone, & I can’t fault them, but aside from my own logistical disadvantages — the cost of an international call, the time difference — telephones require not just that both people to set aside time for each other, but that they set aside the same time. Now that everyone has mobile phones, it’s more likely they’ll be crossing the street or dancing salsa or at a concert than an home in an armchair, and anyway, cell phones, unlike landlines, cut out the bottom frequencies of the human voice & feature inferior sound quality, so that it’s harder now to imagine that you’re speaking to each other in the same room or hear exactly what they might be feeling, and so instead one’s unsure whether the person is impatient with you or not, or in the awkward position of wanting to talk with someone but being in a place where conversation is difficult or constrained, or riding a city bus.

I write things in letters I might never say otherwise, because aside from envelopes & stationary, a letter is a very particular kind of suspension of time, a deferral of intimacy. You are writing with the expectation not that you’ll have to look the person in the eye, as it were, as soon as you say what you have to say, but that instead in a week, or two weeks, the person you know, who could be in any kind of situation, will receive your letter & put it aside to read when they’d like to read it, when they have a quiet moment they can carve out for themselves, sitting at the kitchen table or later that night before they go to sleep or on the bus while they ride to wherever they’re going, and letters are usually written in those same quiet moments of isolation carved out from the busy, endless chatter of our days. I think I might even go so far as to say that letters, no matter how pedestrian, fulfill Wordsworth’s forever reused definition of poetry as “emotion recollected in tranquility.” You can of course write in haste, in rage, in surprise, but all of this is muted by the act of posting a letter, which is to take something and seal it up and address & stamp it, all the while perhaps reconsidering what you’ve written, and finally to cast it into something shaped very much like a trash can & forget about it for half a month, and I think this changes the way that we write to begin with, having to think about your sentences being read in an unknown and indeterminate future, as though preparing a paper time capsule.

(I find, incidentally, that after a week with the novel I’m unconsciously imitating the voice of Javier Marías’ narrator in Corazón tan blanco. My sentences unspool, become nostalgic, baroque, circular things, self-reinforcing. I shouldn’t have said before that the long sentence was the organizational unit of the novel — it’s the paragraph, which just happens to often consist of just one or two long, circling, self-emending sentences, teasing something out until it’s just about exhausted itself.)

And letters, because of the delay & the way they replicate, become an ongoing conversation with another person, something that can be picked up every few weeks and continued. Correspondences have their own internal logic, their own moods & subjects & natural resting places. A letter out of the blue written at a particular time is very much the same no matter who you write it to — indeed, it’s impossible for me to write more than two or three in a day without feeling like I’m on the verge of inventing a form letter for the date in question. But a correspondence is a unit of time composed of widely space days, usually fewer than we would have liked. It is, to take the word as excessively literally as I’ve taken Baker’s metaphor, a kind of congruence, a rhyming counterpoint, the creation of similarities. Fine — this is perhaps a conceit. But if nothing else, it leaves you with artifacts, with tangible proof of the time you’ve spent out in the world, even if it is only proof of the parts of it you spent in solitude & quiet, and only (unless we, like Proust, make carbon copies of our outgoing letters in preparation for their future publication) the parts of it told to you, not the parts you’ve told back. The slowly changing addresses of friends, because anybody my age moves repeatedly. A collection of days, which upon holding stacked we can imagine as creating a feeling not in the correspondence but of it, an accumulation of envelopes, a thick lump.

What is the what?

4 April 2009


This is the second in a series of posts about what my job entails, teaching a foreign language, and the Spanish educational system in general. If you’ve seen Season 4 of The Wire, just picture me as Prez in the first episode. Part I here.


One of the funny things about my job is that nobody can agree on what to call me. Kids call me “James” – they’re not confused. My first name is a self-explanatory category (there are teachers, there are students, and then there’s James.) Sometimes they’ll say “maestro,” or “teacher.” And generally that’s how I’ll introduce myself to people in Jaén – maestro de íngles. But my official title isn’t teacher – it’s some amalgam of ‘auxiliar de comunicación’ or ‘de conversación’, and ‘language & culture assistant,’ though few of the real teachers I work with could tell you which; the titles are all ungainly, lumpy with syllables. Often I’m just referred to as ‘giving’ (dar) clases de íngles, with the passive voice eliding just who exactly is doing the giving.

Because I both am and am not a “real teacher.” (This shades into methodology, as you’ll see shortly.) I teach full classes, plan lessons, & translate textbooks all by my lonesome, as I write about in part I, and I think of myself as a teacher to the extent that what I’m doing is teaching, which is hopefully often.

But on the other hand, I am not allowed to grade assignments or give tests. (Sensibly, given the implications of allowing foreigners to affect your country’s educational statistics). I am not allowed to write disciplinary reports. I only see each of my classrooms once a week, which means I don’t have control over the room itself, I don’t see my students respond to the curriculum on a daily basis, and I can’t, realistically, assign homework. No sticks, few carrots – I’ll talk about classroom management shortly.

And, of course, besides all of this, I have no professional certification, and no experience or qualifications beyond general intellectual curiosity & the happy accident of being a native speaker.

So am I a good teacher?

Well, actually, the question is first: am I a teacher at all? If not, what is my job – and am I good at it?


“No me entera el íngles de nada.”

Table the question of whether I’m a teacher for a moment. In theory, an auxiliar – which is an animal as yet undescribed by science – is a supplement – unnecessary to the working of the school, not integral, as we’d have to be, given that some of us wash out or don’t show up at all, that our abilities & preparation are as varied as the ways that we’re used. Anything you do helps, even if it’s as minimal as being careful to round your vowels while you repeat orange.

As a native speaker and – let’s add, for kicks – humanities major, you can spot-edit English text, smooth out irregularities & unnatural constructions in speech, provide your accent, all without breaking much of a sweat. You can function as a breathing dictionary powered by coffee, and simply by your strange mannerisms, odd attire, your foreign-ness, you can introduce the idea to your kids that there is a big old world out there, and that people, actual people, non-Spanish & everything, live in it. This is, arguably, better than nothing.

Speak natural, native-accented English to someone for a month, though, & this does not teach them English. It won’t even magically correct their pronunciation. In fact, speaking “naturally” is impossible if you want to teach effectively – you have to use teacher-talk, slow down, pronounce your t’s, contrary to what I’ve heard some of my colleagues claim, which is (I may be creating a strawman) that by talking to themselves, essentially, in native-accented American English, they’re exposing the kids to real English, which the kids are expected to pick up by osmosis.

I harbor the suspicion to the contrary that native speakers may actually be less effective teachers, at least when plucked raw & untrained. They don’t have any feeling for what would be difficult for non-native speakers learning the language, & points of grammar that simply aren’t used except in foreign language pedagogy are constantly being pointed out to them.

[I remember when I found out what phrasal verbs were – verbs whose meanings are modified by the prepositions that follow them (pick up is not pick out is not pick on). The difference between take care of (cuidar) and take on (enfrentar) and take up (asumir) seems natural, instinctive. It isn’t, of course, and it drives Spanish speakers crazy.]

And teachers who aren’t native speakers of the language used by their students are hobbled in another way – classroom management. I do not work in an academic environment where my students want to learn English (as in private classes, TEFL programs, or adult continuing-education schools). I don’t even work in an academic environment where the students are selected (presumably) for some kind of baseline interest in learning in general, like the small boarding school in Ojai, California where I was educated.

(In all of these cases, second language pedagogy remains difficult – even if you want to learn a language, even if you’re a good student, it’s still often frustrating, it can be scary, it requires memorization & feeling like you have much less mastery of simple, small things than you’re used to having in daily life.)

I work, instead, in a new-built government school in a pueblo; my kids are in class because they are required by law to be taught English, and the way that they are taught is almost exclusively through grammar recitations, direct translation, & fill-in-the-blank. Readings they don’t understand are read back to them in Spanish by the teacher. They do not speak English, and English is not spoken to them.

By the time I receive them in my 2º and 3º de ESO (8th and 9th grade, ages from 15 to 17 years old, depending on how many times they’ve repeated the year), about a third of them have given up on their education entirely, and their required foreign languages in particular, so that that the best-case scenario is that they sit, silent, their head out one of the windows, like Buddhist monks objecting to war, their backpacks unopened, without pencils or books, without touching the handouts to leave on their desks, letting the strange, foreign sounds become a squawking ambient buzz, nonsense, noise just loud enough to prevent them from sleeping.

This is the pedagogical environment I inherit in my 2º and 3º de ESO (8th & 9th grade) English classes, and it’s what, theoretically, the language & culture assistant program itself is supposed to modify, supplement, or reform. We are supposed to introduce communicative approaches, or comparative grammar, or games, or cultural specificity – but only one day a week, and without being able to use most of the tools that teachers use to maintain order in a classroom, or being able to speak Spanish well enough, especially at first, to control kids who cannot or will not admit to understanding what you are say to them in English if you ask, with hand motions, to sit down and stop hitting the other boy with his own pencil case.

At its worst (on the bad days) this means that, to these kids, I’m a rube. If they speak fast enough & with a thick enough accent & use enough rural slang, I won’t catch on to what they’re saying. My attempts to introduce games and activities that incorporate speaking & listening in English, or reading comprehension from context, are taken, because of their strange unfamiliarity, as cryptic & byzantine, and when it doesn’t work I’m ignored. The more studious kids work on homework for other classes; the otherwise take it as an opportunity to do whatever they’d like. If the game depends on the kids communicating to each other in English, it is particularly difficult to implement; why talk in English when they can clarify, amend, and repeat in Spanish? Why muddle through an imperfect & foreign tongue? I have had games of pictionary derailed because four boys in my 2º de ESO B wouldn’t stop mouthing the Spanish word for what they were drawing on the board to their team.


I am arguing myself, as I do when I try to write about education here, into a kind of hall of mirrors. I either am or am not a teacher, teaching either effectively or ineffectively, and that effectiveness or ineffectiveness is either a result or has nothing to do with my status as a native speaker.

The question I’d like to pose for my readers (I’ve asked it before, I’ll actually try to answer it in the third part to this series of posts) is, Why is English taught at all? (What I’m getting at is, to what extent are those kids slouching in the back of my class rational actors?)

The standard answer to this question is, Because English is a valuable skill on the job market – that is, because it has market value. And obviously, because it is the current lingua franca.

But what market value, and how much utility, does a lingua franca have in a rural pueblo outside of Jaén, among students who in many cases have never left the province, who will not necessarily even get a baccalaureate education, much less go to the university? And to what extent does anybody get any use out of a language they learn in high school only?

Part three coming quicker than this part two did. I get lost in the rushes when I don’t write it all at once, because time allows me to second-guess & complicate – but to present it as an unbroken whole would be unreadable, given the medium I’m using. A puzzle.

Job description

26 March 2009


Many of you have written to ask for a more complete picture of what my responsibilities entail, what the teaching is like, etc. This is the first in a series of posts attempting to answer those questions, to the extent that I have answers.


This is how my weeks are: I’ll arrive in Bédmar on the Jódar bus at 9:30 a.m., run by powder-blue Muñoz Amezcua (3,55€) or share a ride with a teacher at half past 7; the bus station in Jaén closed for renovations last week, and buses now leave from an improvised lot alongside the highway outside the city. It takes me an hour and a half to get to school from my apartment.

The days I have early classes I’ll make myself a cup of coffee with a stovetop Italian moka & stand in my bathrobe with the lights off, watching the gas flame while the sunlight pools in the window & over the clotheslines– the sun rises now at around 7. Otherwise I’ll have my first coffee, a cortado, in the school cafeteria, with a tostada with olive oil & tomatillo or a flaky, chocolate-filled pastry called a neapolitano, & generally I’ll wait to have breakfast until there are teachers in the cafeteria to talk to, and one person always pays for everyone else.

II. Lunes a Jueves.

I am required by law to teach 12 hours per week. This is what that means:

I have the two sections of 1 de ESO (7th grade), in small groups of six to nine in the library downstairs – long tables, a few locked glass bookcases, broken chess sets, a projector. I’ll be asked weekly to introduce specific vocabulary or grammar – present continous, household objects, food, modal verbs, prepositions. We’ll draw a map of a town together on a big square of poster-board, with buildings labeled with symbols & a legend in English, or play human darts, in which one kid directs a blindfolded partner (turn . . . left! No! No! Left! Little right! Up!) towards a dartboard.

Later, some, but not all, of these kids will be in the school’s two bilingual classes – music & natural sciences. The others, the non-bilingual 1 de ESO, are mixed in, so I cannot integrate bilingual lesson plans with my English sections. 

In this hypothetical week I’ll spend an hour tutoring the natural science teacher so that he can take a higher level English exam, mainly to accumulate enough points to leave this school and get a better job outside of Granada, where his wife is getting her doctorate. Another hour tweaking the English in the lesson plan on atmospheric properties he’s downloaded from the internet. I’ll co-teach about half of the music class, and translate chapter 6, “The Symphony Orchestra,” from the Spanish textboook into English, because we have no bilingual teaching materials.

At some point in the week, I’ll find one fact each in music & natural sciences and print out a bilingual Did You Know? – this week’s pictures a hurricane, an atom bomb, & Lisa Simpson playing the saxophone, to tape onto the English Corner in the front stairwell, above the News of the Week, which this week is still my St. Patrick’s Day printout, featuring the Chicago River dyed green.

This, and my weekly bilingual project reunión (in practice, a 10:15 a.m. Tuesday coffee break), adds up to eight hours – 1 de ESO A & B, actividades en íngles, música, music &  natural sciences lesson planning, natual sciences tutoring. Four more hours in 2 and 3 de ESO A & B, where I prepare worksheets, try to do more reading & writing, and play games like 20 Questions, Pictionary, and hold spelling bees – and that’s the twelve.

My days are filled out with more coffee, the New York Times online, & occasional miscellaneous chores. I’ll help the Polish Erasmus student with her homework – an English translation of Juan Ramón Jimenez, troublesome because his figurative language, worked through word for word, transforms a horse into a “round, boneless ball of cotton” and its eyes into “jetblack mirrors as hard as the black crystal shells of scarab beetles” – and spend a quarter hour talking with the castellano & science teachers about the pronunciation difference between horse & whores (there is no phonetic distinction in Spanish).

III. “A standard to which the wise & honest  can repair.”

The degree to which I plan lessons or teach classes depends wholly on the teacher. The science teacher has shouldered me out of class in favor of personal tutoring; 1st year English teacher, also the bilingual coordinator for the whole project, asks me to prepare specific lessons but leaves me alone with the kids (which is, strictly speaking, against the law); the music teacher has me prepare her lessons, but in classes uses me mainly as an explicator, a kind of human English speaking machine; in 2nd and 3rd year, I can plan whatever I like, while the teacher sits at the desk, fielding questions in Spanish & interrupting occasionally into debates over discipline with the back row kids.


At some schools, bilingual classes consist of a native auxiliar gnomically adding a single word in English to the lecture, otherwise conducted entirely in Spanish, or repeating, over and over, the word orange, being sure to round the vowels. In others, experienced Americans with TEFL certificates & communicative methodology sprain their ankles running physical education classes. Belgians with Midwestern accents hold personal conversation practice. Auxiliares sponsor showcase projects with names like “World Village,” film their kids making fake Super Bowl commercials, or hold peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich competitions. Every school is a world unto itself.

My world: A new, spare building, linoleum-floored, with green desks and big, empty classrooms. The school itself new, ten years old – before this, they bussed the kids to Jódar. They still do, for the baccalaureate. Frayed palms outside, windows with steel shutters. A little more than one hundred and twenty students. Subjects – math, history, castellano, sciences, french, english, plástica (art), music, physical education, and religion (practically speaking, under a socialist government, a species of comparative ethics). The primary school is right up against the building; I can hear children playing recorders through the wall. Two English teachers, two bilingual subject teachers, me, and the Polish Erasmus student compose the department, here, in the foothill of the Sierra Máginas – there is still snow on the mountains, purple flowers on the trees outside.

Why do we teach, & how, & do we do it well or poorly? Questions, a continuación, for tomorrow’s part two, which will pick up where this section leaves off.


From last fall (some repetition, unavoidably):

“Olives, & Pedagogy.” [12 November 2008]


13 March 2009

A little while back, I was made happy when a friend sent me a note signed, Miss you oodles.

Speak international lingua franca English long enough, and you begin to strip eccentricity & unusual construction from your speech. You learn to avoid folk sayings, dialect, obscure words, americanisms; the accent alone is hard enough for people to understand. Nobody but you cares about the difference between a picture hung & a man hanged, or that the collective noun for larks is an exaltation, for apes a shrewdness.

You lose too the semiprivate language we all develop with friends and family. I can’t remember the last time I said, Let’s blow this popsicle stand or See you later, alligator.

And so it becomes a rare kind of pleasure, finally, to speak or to hear or to read interesting English. Oodles — you smile. You’d forgotten you even knew the word at all.

“But what,” asks the Polish university student* at the high school, “does it mean?”

This is where things get tricky.

*(European students studying English philology at the University of Jaén through the Erasmus grant are offered three month stints, with shorter hours & reduced pay, doing essentially the same thing I’m doing: assisting in English classes, or tutoring bilingual subject teachers.)

One of the habits you also end up having, aside from avoiding nonstandard language, aside from learning to say sofa instead of couch, sweets rather than candy, chemist’s not pharmacy, is learning to think in terms of rules for usage – particularly with regards to words that are basically synonyms.

So what does it mean? I shrug. “Lots,” I say. But, of course, it doesn’t mean lots. Not quite. And why is it so funny? Oodles. It just sounds funny.

(As a native speaker, you are alone in this – in thinking words have this natural essence. And words that second language speakers like the sound of can be completely mundane or unremarkable to native speakers. A few weeks later, she & I will talk about an English-Spanish translation class she is taking, & she will tell me she’s frustrated – translating Spanish into Polish, she can tell when something is clumsy, or off – the taste of it. But even though she’s fluent in English, she still can’t tell just by the taste of a sentence if it’s right or not.)

So what is the rule for oodles? It means lots – it’s a collective noun, rarely used, a little quaint, used for humorous effect. Oodles of what? You can’t use it for just anything.

Sitting there, at the brasero in the teacher’s lounge, early afternoon – I’m stumped. Oodles of noodles. Of course. Nonce word, comes from noodles. Collective noun, used to describe . . . any noodle-y mass. Miss you . . . Or abstractions? Emotions? Hate you oodles. Impossible.

Is the difference countable/uncountable?, I’m asked. No – can’t be that. Noodles is uncountable, but so is, I don’t know, coal. And you just can’t say oodles of coal.

“Sounds right.” This is not a way to teach usage. And how many ways do we use oodles, anyway? It sounds strange no matter what word you add. The repetition alone begins to confuse me. Maybe it’s used more as a response? “Do you have any such-and-such?” “Yes, oodles of it.” There are no English dictionaries in the school – just English-Spanish references. None of them have the word “oodles.” We have no appeal to authority.

Oodles. It can’t be paired with serious things, except to deliberately undercut them. Emotions, yes, but positive ones. Silly things. In the end, I throw up my hands. Oodles. Nonce-word, from noodles. Means “lots.” Rarely used. Practically useless for a non-native speaker. An unusual word, but not anachronistic – just rare. (Spellcheck recognizes it.) Made me smile.

How odd, that there can be a word that any native speaker would recognize – not an obscure word, not difficult to understand, just rarely used – that, by virtue of being unteachable, without utility, uncommon, almost no non-native speaker would have ever heard or know to recognize. What a curiously unbridgeable gap.

I think of all the things that I will never know in Spanish.

A few weeks later, I realize another reason why I liked the note so much. Oodles, usually a collective noun, has been repurposed here as an adverb – How do I miss you? Oodles.

Words bent out of shape, plucked from obscurity & rearranged, parts of speech changed, nouns verbed – all of the things that you are taught makes good writing, that you enjoy reading. All of the things you don’t teach as a foreign language, things to be avoided, things that add nothing but unnecessary confusion, that do not serve tourism, nor the hospitality industry, nor international communications. Miss you oodles.

Children abroad

22 February 2009


At Unfogged a few weeks ago, heebie-geebie writes about passing out in a castle in Poland from jet lag & exhaustion, having just landed there that day for a conference, without sleeping on the plane:

I kind of caught myself as I hit the ground, and woke up, and I was so disoriented and confused. My big emotion was a wave of shame and embarrassment, in this really little-kid way. I felt like I’d thrown up in school, or wet my pants or something. It was a really odd, long ago feeling, that I hadn’t meant to violate some etiquette of a basic bodily function. It wouldn’t have been so intense except I was still half-asleep and disoriented, and couldn’t quite get a handle on what was happening.

Everybody was sort of perplexed, but sympathetic, and I was guided over to a bench by the gift shop to sit by myself for the duration of the tour. Which also felt like elementary school all over again: being led through a maze of a castle that was too complicated for me to understand, and then being parked somewhere for my own good. (“Am I in trouble, Mom? It wasn’t my fault.”)

A few of the 316 responses in the thread, which is where the body of Unfogged posts reside – and before the discussion turned to drinking it hot tubs & the effects of mixing heat & alcohol – returned to foreign experiences, which I found revealing. (Upon later inspection, most of what I was thinking of came from another thread that ended up being about the Peace Corps & alcoholism).

This feeling – of being in elementary school again, of having to be guided around, of not being in control – is something I’d almost forgotten about until I lived abroad. Not being able to speak the language, not being fluent in the culture. You’re taken where people take you, for the most part.


Here, I’ve been a child. I have needed the simplest things explained to me. I have lacked words for everyday objects, been reduced to pantomime. People do not necessarily ask my opinion about things, because when you’re talking with somebody who doesn’t have a full grasp of the language, it’s easy to forget that they’re a functioning moral agent.

I’ve thought many times, that if somebody didn’t want me to understand something, or wanted to deceive me, it would be pretty easy to do it. (My older students try this habitually – “No, James, you don’t understand. The teacher told us the test was cancelled. You’ll see.” – but you get used to not trusting 16 year-olds when they speak Spanish to you after a little while.)

(This feeling of dislocation & suspicion can really reach its apex if you get drunk in a foreign country with people you don’t know well, which is most people. After a certain point, it’s all you can do to follow the conversation, & for all you know they could be talking about you, or laughing, not at your jokes, but at something else, and you have no way of knowing. This is a queasy kind of 4 a.m. feeling.)

So much of fluency is about reading cues, catching things from context, is about having a conversation partner who’s willing to pick up a little bit of the slack. It’s like dancing; I speak better Spanish with some people than I do others.

Sometimes, particularly at the beginning, I’d have an entire conversation & be unsure the entire time what it was about, until the very end, and then something would click & I’d retrospectively understand the entire thing. And so a lot of apparent fluency is being able to smile & nod while you try to catch up.

I ask more questions now than I did at the beginning, because the number of things I don’t understand has diminished to the point where the number questions I have are few enough to ask.

… reading cues, catching things from context … – this is true even of my students. I recently put on a spelling bee, & it’s amazing how they flounder when you look at them with a notepad, straightfaced, and say, “Coffee.” They’re so used to getting cued along that they get really flustered when you just stand there, waiting. C . . . – es ‘c,’ ¿no? ¿No? ¿Sí o no? Vale, vale. C . . . o . . . f . . . f . . . e. Café.”


There is a surrender to fate that accompanies this radical powerlessness, this lack of agency. You don’t have a stake to lose; you can do or risk things you wouldn’t normally do or risk. And I’ve found, at least, that when I let things just happen, it generally works out better than when I try to plan; I don’t know enough to plan well, here. Even still.

And generally you just putter around & follow people, which sometimes leads to situations like when you’re six and you start holding an adult’s hand that looks like your mother from the knees down, and then after a little bit you look up & have that mutual moment of shock – Wait. Why am I here? With this kid/stranger?!

(Maybe one of the good parts of growing up is being on the other end of that, looking at the kid’s face change, and knowing exactly what they’re thinking.)


On Tuesdays, I stay in Bedmar for the afternoon, because we have a faculty meeting at 4 and, even though I’m not actually required to be there, the last bus leaves before my last class ends & the professors who would normally give me rides are all staying anyway. So I eat lunch with a group of between four and a half dozen teachers who all go, each week, to the Paraiso, a restaurant/bar near the center of town, by the first of the two bus stops & the fountain.

It’s owned by the parents of one of my students in 3º de ESO (thankfully, one of the smart ones). I now have a reputation for cleaning my plate. You order the menú del día – the fixed comida of daily specials, with a first & second course, a basket of bread, wine or beer, and dessert or coffee afterwards. The first plate is invariably cocido – a traditional stew with chickpeas & ham fat & vegetables – or tortilla, or lentils; the second plate always a cut of ternera a la plancha; pollo either en horno or a la plancha; a type of fish; or some other special, served with potatoes panfried in olive oil & seasonal vegetables on the side, like pumpkin stewed in oil, or green peppers.

We eat, take our coffee out at the bar (nobody really eats dessert with lunch in Andalucía), pay & come back in time for the meeting.

I no longer feel like such a child;  I can speak, more & more. And still –

Last week, I started walking with the castellano & history teachers, who live in the pueblo – we’d been talking, it seemed natural to walk out with them, and they were making jokes about chicken hamburgers. Five minutes went by, I realized we weren’t going towards the center. “You’re not going to the Paraiso?” I said.

They looked at me. “No, we’re having lunch at home.”

“Oh,” I said. I felt foolish. How was I going to explain this? I’d wandered off uphill to take in the view?

Emilio, castellano teacher, looked at my face & started laughing. “Here, come on,” he said. “You can eat with us.”

Navidades, & el año nuevo

13 January 2009

Mosaic Fountain (Better)

The twelve days of Christmas, whose gifts given to the sweethearts of traditional English song are golden rings, and milkmaids, and partridges roosting in pear trees, begin on the day of the birth itself and last through the 6th of January, the Epiphany, celebrated in Spain as the Día de los Reyes, the day the three Parthian kings or sorcerers arrive bearing gifts of gold, frankincense, myrrh, & the day too that Spanish children are showered with brightly wrapped presents & swell the parks and avenues of the cities in the morning and the early afternoon, bundled adorably in woolen coats, proving out their jugetes.

If my 1º de ESO are any indication, kids receive money in colored envelopes, clothing, some kind of electronic gewgaw – mobile phones, or a Wii, or robotic dogs, or walkie talkies. Local news films parents painstakingly arranging the gifts that come from the imaginary los Reyes, a civic myth more enduring than the imported Santa Claus, with a lot of reassuring discourse: the crisis, our announcers report, has not dampened the inimitable spending power of the Three Kings, thank goodness, who continue buying expensive consumer goods & wrapping them shinily. This is followed always by street footage of the latest winners of the lotería de la Navidad, waving their tickets & spraying champagne into the air, surrounded by a cheering crowd of people from the barrio. Commercials advertise perfume & sparkling wine (cava).

The night before los Reyes there are parades throughout Spain – big illuminated floats & marching bands rolling through the main streets of Jaén, closed to traffic, Santa’s helpers & costumed childrens’ mascots throwing caramels & candies wrapped in wax paper by the handful from bottomless sacks into the crowds, people holding umbrellas upside-down to catch the sweets. The avenues are paved in confetti, colored plastic wrap, popped balloons, candy wrappers, noisemakers, and paper hats.


Something like 9/10 of Spain self-identifies as Catholic, even though a vanishingly small proportion are church-going. This gives an odd quality to religious expression in civic life, very different from the States: the iconography & trappings are everywhere & taken for granted; the actual practice is rare. Zapatero’s PSOE government (Partido Socialista Obrero Español), in power since 2004, has had an uneasy relationship with the Church, as socialists tend to, & there are murmurs here & there over, say, crucifixes hung in government elementary schools – articles in El País or El Mundo, for example, about religion in public life, or the subject cropping up parenthetically in casual conversation, so you know something’s going on even though you can’t quite say for sure what. While Feliz Navidad is what you say to the old woman whose stroller you carry up four flights of stairs in your apartment building, & while ‘Navidades’ are used to refer to the entire season (almost the equivalent of ‘holidays’ in English), you will occasionally see ‘Felices fiestas‘ in a store window.

Still & all, my instituto had in the lobby an enormous nativity scene, seen also in storefronts throughout Jaén, with hand-painted ceramic figurines of Nuestra Señora and the infant Christ and the Reyes Magos and some of the animals, decorated with wood chips & other trimmings the older students had done in art class & surrounded by colored electric lights. On some terraces in the pueblos hang red cloth banners, almost the quality of beach towels, imprinted with a cherub-like infant Christ, painted with the same loving hyperrealism of a day-glo portrait of Elvis on black velvet, raising two fingers in blessing, a halo around his head, and beneath the exclamation, ¡He Nacido! , roughly equivalent to “He is born!” – both share the characteristic grammar of Christianity, where the birth & death of the Christ are in the eternal present, his return always imminent.

Navidades are celebrated with jamón, sold as whole cured legs with the trotters still on, cava brut, paté, turrón, wines & cheeses, giant luxury fish, cakes, sweets, & magdelenas. A Christmas turkey is typically served. Santa Claus is well-known because of global capitalism – he tosses sweets out from the floats, between Disney princesses & soaring orchestral versions of Jingle Bells, or hangs, a plush miniature figure, off of a rope with his bag of toys, dangling from apartment terraces, as though he were trying to climb up.


On Christmas Eve I attended a Catholic mass in the cathedral of Sevilla, the third largest in the world, a massive & soaring Gothic-Baroque building built on the ruins of a mosque taken when the city was reconquered in 1248; the minaret tower & certain portions were preserved, the tower stripped & hung with bells inscribed with biblical verses. Inside, innumerable chapels dedicated to saints, & saints’ bones wrapped in red cloth in the sacristy tied with string, with the name written on a small label & sealed with wax & mounted in a glass & gold.

The high altar was behind a high iron cage, and there were folding chairs out to either side of the pews for Christmas crowds, and for the tourists, which were many – French, southeast Asian, Italian, English, some Americans, from what I could see. The bishop sang the mass, & there was no choir, & the whole thing was mostly conducted in vernacular Spanish, the liturgy & structure roughly the same as the High Anglican [Episcopalian] service I was used to. The Nicene Creed, for example, was note-for-note the same – a strange feeling, to say the least, sitting on a folding chair in that cavernous buttressed nave, lit up by electric lights, listening to a Spanish bishop sing the same song I’d fallen asleep to as a four year-old in Michigan.

The mishmash of ancient Hebrew, old Greek, & Sumerian translated into Vulgate Latin translated into King James’ English is what, unavoidably, I think of when I think of the Word of God, so I felt a shock of almost Brechtian alienation to hear a different language retranslate translation into the vernacular. It’s all wrong, you kneejerk unconsciously, and then catch yourself.

Spanish, for instance, doesn’t distinguish between ‘meat’ & ‘flesh’ – it is all carne, and the Word Made Flesh is la Palabra hecho carne, the word made meat. ‘Our Lord’ comes out as Señor, the most basic term of address. The word for ‘people’ strikingly, is pueblo, which means not just the town, but a people, a nation, a comprehensive & communal group linked by mutual responsibility & obligation. “The people of God” becomes “el pueblo del Dios” (‘We the people’ in the U.S. Constitution becomes Nosotros, el pueblo de los Estados Unidos), so that there is an identification at the basic, root, moral center of the godly language with the village, and not the City, of God. There is no such word in a Spanish Catholic mass as elevated as mankind. We are all hombre, man at the most basic. The language of the mass as a whole seemed more stripped-down & everyday than that of the Anglican English, words at their simplest, without the archaic flavor of, for instance thee and thou, or forgive their trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.

I have a feeling of real communion, even though I don’t take it (being Protestant, after everything), seeing European & Asian & scattered world Catholics, rise, separated by language and culture and history, to take a communion wafer, and I reflect on the enduring power of this institution, the Church, even still. There are many tourists in the arcades & in the nave. We are made embarrassed by an old Spanish man, in a faded cardigan & three-day stubble & glasses behind us, who carries a black, well-thumbed hymnal & knows the words & responses & is the only one in this section of folded chairs singing back to the bishop.


You return to a city you visited once a different person, in a different capacity, & it’s like coming back to a completely different city – one that, even more disorientatingly, has the same important landmarks, has fragments that out of the unfamiliar will leap out at you & be suddenly, unmistakably home, in the midst of the rest of things, which have unfolded in a slightly different way & rendered themselves strange. The city you live in & the city you visit in a four-star hotel with your entire family & the city you bum through with a ragged crew of students and expatriates & the city you are shown by someone who grew up there are not the same city. Jaén during la Fería de San Lucas*, and Jaén shivering under the wet, slick onslaught of late November rains*, and Jaén* at the Navidad are three different places, and it seems to me you don’t know a place until you’ve seen it in all seasons, and maybe not even then.


I ate two Christmas comidas this year. The first, the instituto’s Christmas dinner (lunch doesn’t quite serve, even though it started at 3; think of it as a Sunday dinner) was a prix fixe, four-hour affair before the break in a typical (there’s that Spanish again: típico) restaurant in the pueblo, el Mirador, with a private dining room & panoramic views of the infinite multitude of olive groves in fruit below the snowcapped Sierra Máginas & old rural tools, butter churns, ploughs, saddles, hanging from the ceiling or mounted decoratively in the corner. There were endless bottles of house rioja, & a succession of platters in the center of the table: a variety of cured hams, aged manchego, whole prawns, fried calamari, croquettes, four different kinds of olives, other bits & pieces, before the main plates arrived – chops of pork, a cut of beef, or fish, if I remember correctly. Every place setting had a full set of silverware, a wine glass, a beer glass, and a small loaf of bread wrapped in cloth, set to the left, which in Spain is practically a utensil.

A teacher had brought his guitar & made photocopies of the lyrics to villancicos, Spanish Christmas carols, which are adapted from popular preindustrial working songs (villancico comes from the same root as villain, or villager) – peasant hymns, harvest songs, centuries old, appropriated & laden with religious lyrics. A classroom full of my children taught me “Los Peces en el Río” (the musical characteristics of your typical villancico are, for lack of better English words, unmistakably flamenco in rhythm, the melody Moorish or gítano or Iberian).

American carols: I’d taught them “Santa Claus is Comin’ To Town,” written in 1934 for the NBC variety show, “The Chase & Sandborn Hour,” led by the famed comic Eddie “Banjo Eyes” Cantor, & “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” made up five years later by an ad man working the Montgomery Ward department store account.

Afterwards: flan, café, cigarettes, obscene improvised flamenco songs about people from Cadíz, chupetos of dark, sweet rum, and dense, nutty cakes wrapped in wax paper with white frosting & cinnamon.

My second comida, on Christmas day, was with the family, at the impossibly posh five-star Hotel Alfonso XIII in Sevilla, built over ten years and finished in 1929, with its glassed-in atrium, its vaulted dining room, the mix of Moorish & romanesque or Gothic motifs common in newly Catholic Spain between the 13th and 17th centuries and in vogue again at the end of the 19th. There, again, a small loaf of bread wrapped in cloth at every place setting, and again, a fixed menu for the holiday. A different wine paired with exquisite precision to each course. The prices had been lowered, slightly, to accommodate the crisis. I wore a tie. I never go out to eat in restaurants in Spain; in this, too, the city is different when your family comes, knowing no Spanish, and suddenly you are a group of 6, & sitting down at siesta. You can barely squeeze everyone in at the bodega de Santa Cruz, where, in the grand & overwritten tradition of Sevillano tapas bars, they really do chalk up your tab on the wood bartop with a kind of wet nub of chalk, lines splitting the clusters of people crowded around the cups of wine or beer, so that the bar is segmented radially, like a sundial.


I had a fever at New Year’s, in Granada, where the graffiti is cryptic & the interior of the cathedral is painted a blinding white in place of bare stone. But fever & all, I still found myself on a street off the end of the Gran Vía, running past the Reyes Católicos seated on their marble throne dedicated to Columbus, running because everyone else was running, towards the plaza de Carmen, so that we wouldn’t miss the New Year.

My black oxfords seasoned with champagne & confetti & broken glass. Cinders from the low rooftop fireworks in my hair. Having dodged corks, a bottle in everyone’s hand, going off with their hollow, muted pops at the start of the New Year, champagne spraying through the air. In Spain you eat grapes for luck (uvas de suerte), one for every toll of the bell striking twelve. There is no countdown. The night is not New Year’s Eve, but la Nochevieja, the Old night, and you do not shout the seconds until the new tips over & supplants the old – you swallow the last twelve tolls of the bell, the indeterminate place in between the ending & the beginning, the moment that midnight has struck but before it is finished striking, the moment of suspension. There’s no countdown – it’s a sendoff, not a waiting game.

In the plaza, there, packed with people, all of them holding a bottle of champagne & a handful of grapes, we didn’t even hear the bells. Nobody did. We started eating grapes, the seeds in, swallowing them anyway, when the champagne corks started to pop, & by the time we were done & drinking champagne the fireworks had started & they were exploding so low you could feel the heat. Me, black tie, sweating out my fever, seeds in my teeth, I had a swallow of cava with everyone else – ten days with my family & my Spanish had already depreciated, I was thinking in English – and I took in that familiar & unfamiliar city, Granada, the city that had been new before & would be new to me again, and I still don’t know what the new year’s going to bring or where I’m going, I think I know less than I did when I came here, if that’s possible, but still and all:

When you come back to school after the New Year you are greeted by every single teacher you see with a handshake or a hug or a kiss on the cheek, you take your coffee with them & they pay, as per usual, and they wish you & you wish them in return, “Feliz año nuevo.” This – you can’t help yourself – this feels like a homecoming, too.