To: People on the old mailing list
Greetings from Hinojosa del Duque (the pretty fennel of The Duke?!)
I hope you’re all well!
I’ve been here for about two months now, and thought it time to send an update on my life in the middle of nowhere. Except that it no longer feels like the middle of nowhere, it feels like home! Not in the way that Melbourne feels like home (nothing can compete), but in that I feel very comfortable here, I’m enjoying myself and I’m looking forward to the next few months, and hoping they don’t go too quickly.
Except for the weather. That couldn’t change soon enough. When I first arrived it was scorching, and being a reptile, I was loving it. But a few weeks ago someone flicked a switch somewhere, and suddenly we were in winter (it’s technically Autumn, but the seasons here are so extreme, the in-between ones don’t really happen). It’ll stay cold (bitterly) until the next time someone decides to flick the switch back, which won’t be for months. My flat is an icebox, the ‘heater’ is useless, the windowpanes are like tissue paper, and I’m pathetic, so it’s going to be a long long winter.
The kids have changed a bit too. They used to love me, but now I’m just plain old boring Jeans, and they talk over me just as much as the other teachers. Perhaps I’m blending in, or they’ve finally cottoned on that I can’t discipline them in Spanish.
Anyway, before I get stuck into the wonderful world of Hinojosa, I really should back track to my first week in Spain, and tell you about an amazing program I participated in…
VAUGHAN TOWN: is an intensive English program, run specifically for Spaniards in Spain. It involves an equal number of Spaniards and ‘Anglos’ living together for a week of English immersion, in an isolated (but luxurious) country hotel. We had hours upon hours of one on one conversation, theatre and music every evening, group activities, telephone interviews, and public speaking presentations. At every meal we sat with two Anglos and two Spaniards to a table, to keep the flow of English going. All food (buffet breakfast, and three course lunch and dinner with unlimited wine) and accommodation was provided. For Anglos, the entire experience is free, from the welcome drinks on Saturday night to the moment the bus drops you back in Madrid on Friday evening. The Spaniards paid a small fortune to attend, but it was no doubt worth the trouble, as over the week the improvement in their English was incredible. With so much talking, we got to know each other pretty well, and it was a great way to meet some very interesting people. We had everything from nuclear scientists and civil guards, to masters’ students and full-time nomads. The Anglos were a deliberate mix of accents and nationalities, and the Spaniards were from all over Spain (though the majority lived in Madrid). I learnt so much about Spain, the regions and the customs, and had such a beautiful introduction to the people – it was the perfect way to begin my stay here. If I have the time I’ll do it again, and I’d recommend it to anyone who’s interested. You just need to be friendly, talkative, and a native English speaker.
If any of you are interested in participating, check out the vaughan town website. The application process is easy, and there are many dates and locations to choose from…
Back to my little village.
MI PUEBLO: According to Wikipedia, Hinojosa del Duque is a town of 7,000 people, in an area known as La Valle de los Pedroches, in the north of Cordoba province, which is in the northwest of Andalucia, which is the southernmost region of Spain (of tapas and flamenco fame). So I’m more or less in the North bit of the South.
During Vaughan Town, I tried to find out as much as I could about Hinojosa, to little avail. The only people who had ever heard of it were nuclear-something-physicists, who occasionally do tests on a nearby waste facility. Excellent.
The only other information I could gauge about the region was
- The accent is horrible
- The people are backward, but lovely
- The women are very beautiful, and feminine, and curvy, and take great care over their appearance. Great.
This last point came to mind when I finally arrived in Hinojosa, late on a Saturday night. I was sweaty and sleep deprived (and hungover from Vaughan Town festivities), and had to lug my backpack from end to end of what appeared to be a very dusty, industrial, and unattractive town. But I passed a number of people milling around the streets. They were in formal attire, impeccably groomed, and totally incongruous with the landscape. The women were really dressed up, with professional hair styling and make up, high heels and little clutches, and everything sparkling and matching and expensive looking. All I could think was that if this is how the townsfolk dress for a regular Saturday night, then I will surely be a fish out of water. Then I noticed a few little girls in matching frocks, and realised (to my relief) there was a wedding on. Unfortunately, the reception was in the restaurant below my hotel. There went my reception. That night the staff were run off their feet, so they just shoved a key in my hand and left me to my airless room, to listen to everybody else having fun for a few hours. At 5am I heard the sound of tables being dragged across the floor, and thought ‘oh good, they’re finally packing up’. But of course they were just making room to dance.
Sunday, worse for wear, I stepped out to explore my new surroundings. The town was totally dead. I walked and walked through lanes of whitewashed concrete houses. Nothing was open, the air smelt of burnt rubbish and dirty livestock, and there was not a speck of green to be seen. Even the flowers in the flower shop window were plastic. The fountains were empty and marked ‘undrinkable’, and dead oranges were scattered about the footpaths. I could hear hoons on dirt-bikes burning through distant streets, and occasionally passed bars where seedy looking men stared at me from the doorways. The snatches of conversation I overheard were unintelligible. I felt like I’d moved to the end of the earth, and started to despair at the eight months looming ominously in front of me, and felt a bit silly about the decisions I’d made over the past few years, and a bit sorry for myself and having got myself into a situation where I’d be wasting eight more months of my dwindling youth in such a forsaken place. It all felt very melodramatic. I probably just needed a good night’s sleep and some vegetables.
But then, after a bit more walking, I came to meet Pepi, the owner of the refreshment stall in the central ‘park’. We started talking, and I managed to convey that I was here to teach English at the primary school, and of course it just so happened that her daughter is a student there. She closed her shop to show me the way to the school, so I wouldn’t get lost on my first day of work. This made me feel all warm and fuzzy inside, and from that moment I knew everything would be all right :-)
Being a city girl, the ‘small town’ culture shock has been more of a shock than moving to the other side of the world, but every day I’m getting better at it, and loving it more. It is weird walking into a bar at 3am and running into my boss and my students, but aside from that aspect, this ‘small town’ doesn’t seem so small anymore. It keeps opening up for me, I’m still finding shops and streets that weren’t there before, and there are parts that I haven’t even been to yet. For the size of the town, I’m pretty impressed with the nightlife. It’s nothing fancy in terms of music/decor, but there are plenty of bars and discotheques which are open til about 6am (maybe even later, I haven’t pushed it further yet!). From the outside they’re closed shopfronts with roller doors, but inside, they’re packed! And smokey, unfortunately Spain’s new No-Smoking law doesn’t apply to isolated towns.
The houses are colourless and unadorned from the outside, but inside, they’re full of life and beautiful courtyards and exquisite Arabic tiles and patterns all over the walls. I want one.
The streets are spotless. Every morning there are women out sweeping, and literally on their hands and knees scrubbing the pavement, curbs, doorsteps, and the fronts of their houses, with their hair in rollers and dressed in a comic mix of pyjamas, scarves and winter jackets. A little bit weird if you ask me.
LA GENTE: The best thing about living in a small town is the people. They’re friendly, welcoming, generous, and just. so. laid. back. If I had a euro for every time some told me ‘tranquila’ (relax, slow down…), I’d be able to fly home to Australia for Christmas! And the warm fuzzy acts of generosity just keep on coming…
- Whilst house hunting, the owner of one property gave me a lift to the next inspection
- My real estate agent (who is also the insurance broker, travel agent, tax collector, and local photographer) picked me up from the hotel and helped me move into my flat, and bought me cake from his sister’s birthday
- My land lady (who’s about eighty) bought me milk, biscuits and a watermelon when I moved in. (I would have preferred functioning amenities but that’s another story).
- The hotel I originally stayed at served as my address for visa purposes (months ago when I was in Melbourne), my business hours delivery address, and twice paid my customs fees out of the til (I did pay them back), weeks after I’d checked out.
- I asked a teacher in the staff room for a plastic pocket, and left the school carrying an assortment of folders big enough to open a shop. Ditto with every other request for stationery, and all my trivial enquiries are met with the same overwhelming helpfulness, to the point where I’m almost afraid to ask for a post-it note, lest they saddle me with a roll of poster paper.
- The bartender at my WiFi pub spent ages searching online for flights for me
- One of my students brought her older sister to come and meet me and take me out for coffee, because she was concerned I might not know anyone the same age in town. I’ve had a number of similar offers, to the point where it’s a bit much meeting everyone, and the truth is I’ve got plenty to do and no shortage of people to speak to
- So many people, ranging from my students to the supermarket check-out chicks, have said to me very seriously, ‘if you ever need anything, anything at all, you can come to me…’
- A random little old man gave me a detailed lesson on the stonework of the church, and then invited me to his house to introduce me to his wife and grandkids. I don’t usually follow strange men into houses, but, what the hell! His (twin) grandchildren were adorable, and he gave me a stack of pamphlets on the history of the monuments about the town, and two copies of a map – one for me, and one to send to my family… apparently I have a friend in him, if I ever need anything, anything at all. and his business card states Rafael Gil, Gentleman. Love it.
As for my social life, when I’m not busy with work and weekend holidays, I mostly hang out with other teachers. There are two more language assistants (a Scottish and an American girl) at the secondary school, who live one street away from me, which is really nice. The teachers from the secondary school are a younger crowd, from all over Spain (something to do with credit points and the way teachers are allocated to Government Schools), which is great except that many of them go back home on weekends. So it’s all about Thursday nights now. We had a massive Thanksgiving dinner last night (my first), and of about 20 people, only 3 were from Hinojosa. In contrast, many of the teachers from my school have lived in Hinojosa their whole lives, went to the same school, and have now taught there for 10, 20, 30 years… So they’re a wealth of knowledge when it comes to local customs and Spanish history, and they keep me in the loop with all the cultural stuff that’s going on (such as free theatre on Friday nights). It’s a good life.
LA ESCUELA: Looks like a military bunker from the outside, with concrete playgrounds and no grass. The classrooms sometimes smell of jamon, depending on which way the wind is blowing. But of course, once full of students, the place comes alive and has a warm and welcoming feel to it. Now that there’s been some rain, the little courtyard is looking gorgeous, thanks to the four and five year olds who have been planting flowers and vegies, and lugging around watering cans as big as themselves.
Technically it’s a bilingual school, but in reality everything is taught in Spanish, with dribs and drabs of English vocab thrown in, depending on the whims and ability of each teacher. The students are between 3 and 12 years old, and I have an hour per week with every year level. Having had little experience with kids or teaching, I was apprehensive to begin with, but the moment I entered the classroom it was fine. Although I feel like a giant, the kids are so entertaining that I forget I’m standing in front of a class and just enjoy the spectacle that is everyday life in a primary school.
- The toddlers are absolutely adorable, and class usually consists of colouring in, acting like a fool with puppets, and playing with plasticine. At first I was dubious about the use of teaching English to kids who’re still learning to speak their first language and can’t yet read or write, but after nearly two months, ‘red’, ‘yellow’, ‘apple’ and ‘thank you’ seem to have stuck. We’re getting somewhere.
- The kids (from age 5 upwards) aren’t allowed to go to the toilet unless they ask in English – but usually desperation gets the better of them and they stammer ‘Ca I…ca I… puedohacerpee-pee? Preas!’ before darting out the door. Well I can hardly stop them.
- The middle sized ones (6-8) are my favourites. Every day is a drama. The teacher will spend half an hour reprimanding them, yelling at them to sit still, and explaining very clearly that for the next activity they need to work in silence and under no conditions is anyone to get out of their seat. For a minute or two they appear to understand and sit there like little angels, diligently copying the blackboard. But then someone will spontaneously fall off their chair, another will bursts into tears because their writing doesn’t fit on the same line, and three or four will have jumped out of their chairs to ask if they can sharpen their pencil, show me their wobbly tooth, or invite me to their sisters birthday party in December. A pencil case tower comes tumbling down and suddenly the whole class is AWOL. This is ritually followed by another half hour of castigation. You are bad! What do you think Maestra Jeans thinks, coming all the way from Australia to waste her time with such naughty children?! (she thinks it’s pretty funny)
- Despite the silliness, they are actually learning, and it’s a fascinating process to observe. I’m jealous of their ability to mimic and form totally foreign sounds (that older students just can’t get their mouths around). Hopefully by the end of May, Hinojosa will be full of kids speaking English with cute little Aussie accents… and nothing like my disastrous Spanish with it’s bizarre Australian/Hinojosa accent
- As a language assistant, my job is merely to help out. I’m not expected to supervise or plan lessons, I only ‘work’ 15 hours per week at the school, and I rarely have any extra ‘work’ to take home with me (except for making posters on Halloween, Australia, Christmas etc). Which is all very wonderful, but not particularly challenging, and I feel quite underutilized in terms of the amount of speaking we do in class (there’s a lot of colouring in and copying from the blackboard going on). I’m trying to slowly push for changes, as diplomatically as possible!
So to crank things up a notch, I put the word out for private students. I also printed some posters, which proved totally unnecessary.
CLASES PARTICULARES: are now the bane and joy of my existence. It’s great being able to do things my way, have some adult students for variety, teach smaller groups, have some extra cash, and feel like I’m running my own little (booming!) business… but the lesson planning eats up the bulk of my spare time, and the enquiries keep on coming, and it’s so hard to say no, and it’s all getting a bit intense! Especially with ‘emergency’ situations like ‘I know you’re fully booked but my daughter needs to learn English for her very important speaking exam next Tuesday could you possibly squeeze her in for five hours this weekend’ (true story). Especially when the student in question has been learning English for 13 years of schooling and has never had speaking practice in class. I’ve also got two groups of students that have a mixed bag of learning disabilities, which is proving to be a challenging but no doubt character building experience. Originally I was to be helping them with their homework after school, with the assistance of a Spanish supervisor. But often the kids ‘forget’ their homework, and the supervisor seemingly ‘forgets’ to come, and I’m left trying to teach/control a class of mostly hyperactive kids, in Spanish, whilst simultaneously tutoring those who did bring their homework and genuinely need help. I’ve never had to multitask this much since waitressing… but, I’m getting better at it, and none of them are actually bad. And I know that once I get into a groove, the lesson planning won’t take so long, and I’ll be able to reclaim my siesta time…
MI PISO: my little apartment. It’s been my dream for ages to have my own apartment in Spain, and now I do! Admittedly, I imagined something a little closer to the seaside, or the hills or Granada, and a little less bloody freezing in winter (actually winter didn’t factor into my dream), and perhaps owning, rather than renting from an eccentric landlady. But, I love it! Now that I’ve figured out how to light the hot water system and boil water without a kettle (who’da thunk it could be done?), I’m feeling very happy in my own space, cooking in my own kitchen, and not having to share a bathroom with twenty other smelly backpackers. I know it would be better for my Spanish if I lived with a Spaniard, but it doesn’t seem to be the done thing here. (But if I ever want to talk to one, I just have to step outside, and they’re everywhere!)
LA POLITICA: Well, the elections have been and gone, and there’s been a change of government… but I don’t really understand what’s going on (I don’t think many people do). From what I can gauge, things aren’t looking too good for Spain. Unemployment is a huge problem. Most people are fed up with the old party but don’t have any faith in the new one either (like most countries I suppose). Fortunately Hinojosa is miles away from all the drama and protesting, and although it’s not a wealthy town, I think the industry is fairly robust, so we’re buffered from the major ups and downs. But really, I don’t know what I’m talking about, and I should probably keep my mouth shut on the topic of politics, it makes most Spaniards look like they’ve eaten something rancid.
EL FIN DE SEMANA: This weekend is a big one in Hinojosa! It’s the inaugural Ruta de la Tapa competition, and everybody is very, very excited. Every restaurant in the town is entering 3 tapas, and it’s up to los Hinojoseños to decide the winner. All participating tapas are 1€ (or 2€ tapa y bebida), and you have to go to at least five different restaurant before you can submit a vote. I’m thinking of voting twice.
So that pretty much sums up where I’m at! I’ve done a little bit of travel (to Cadiz and Cordoba, and I’m going to Granada next weekend), but I’ll save that for another day, you probably all have work to do!
I’ve also uploaded some pictures of Hinojosa and the school. I’m the girl with the scarf, in desperate need of a haircut. I took a lot more, but these were the best of a bad lot, as I’ve broken my camera and can’t actually see what I’m taking pictures of…
Anyhow, I hope you are all well! Believe or not, I do really miss Melbourne, and all of you, so give yourselves a big hug from me, and send me news!