A lesson at Christmas
“Ees to beat eet and sock eet eslowly”, said Manolo as he handed over the brightly-festooned box, its sweet label decorated with a three-kings motif that carried a handwritten verse written by my dearest student, which touched my heart and, somehow, covered all his recent deafening linguistic clangers in a rosy glow, making for one of those moments when a teacher feels – despite everything – well, you know, it really has all been worthwhile:
For joor first Creesmas chere, may joo pass many thing good
Joor friends, joor presents, and joor food.
You could fault the rhyming, but his concern for my digestion was admirable. It was, thus, with a smidgen of concern that I eyed the contents of the box. “Turrones de España” was written on the outside; I quickly rejected the idea that this might be a Spanish cover video of Señores Barker and Corbett in a Navidad special. It smelt of vanilla and marzipan, was cut up into small cubes, weighed a ton, and had the colour and consistency of polyfilla. I swear I could feel my teeth shouting: “Brace! Brace!”
“Ees espeshal food at Creesmas in Espain. In my callings*, it refir to “New…gat” or somethings like dees”.
Christmas, my first, was indeed one to remember in Granada. As the outsider that you inevitably are, you have a straight choice. Be a Brit and spend a BritChris by closing the door, going all gooey listening to your King’s College tape of best-loved carols, getting in supplies of a local pastry, filling it with dark lumpy jam and imagining it is a mince pie, and then moaning that nobody invites you for a nibble at their parson’s nose. Or go local.
Since, as you may now have gathered, I never willingly admit to being the cause of my own disasters here, I have singled out Isabel, the nine-year-old daughter of – as I now learnt – the long-since-divorced Sr d’Avila, who must shoulder the blame. The corridor inevitably became the channel of communications in the hostel and, equally inevitably, I was on one of my excursions down the flight of stairs to the first-floor ablutions centre (see previous episode for flowing details):
“Meester Crème, I hef oorgency to speak with you sumthink.”
I had my own urgencies, but he was a pupil and business is business. As always on these occasions, it was with much reluctance and tightened downstairs sphincter that I made a hiatus in my trip.
“Do joo know de Creesmas estory?”
You really would have thought that seeing a descending fellow-lodger with toilet roll in hand and evident suffering on face would have suggested leaving evangelical excursions to a more opportune time.
“Um, the stable, the mule, the kings, and the star bit…you mean?”
Forgetting my diligent student had only reached unit four in his BBC English course with me, I registered the poor man’s look of horror.
“…Mah dochter teeshirt asks her for joo go to learn dem some good Eenglish Creesmas tunes”
“You mean, carols?”
“Is no matter for dem. Joors, jor seesters, Carol’s, or choo joo want. Dey want joo to learn dem. Dees is orl.”
And yea, so it came to pass that, some three weeks later, I found myself the unwilling scriptwriter, director, conductor, and prompt in the dress rehearsal for the “Sagrada Corazón” 1997 school production of the Nativity Play, en inglés. Once again, it did not take me long to realise I had bitten off far more newgat than I could chew. My presence was brazenly taken advantage of as an excuse to show the parents on the night that their offspring’s English knew no bounds as they effortlessly gouged their way through carol after carol. Indeed, as long as these parents had no idea about what the carol was supposed to sound like, we were on to a winner.
In practice, however, I was now to be faced not just by one straining English pronunciation, but two hundred and thirty-seven, in assorted angel and shepherd attire, with abilities ranging from upper-intermediate, through beginner, and down to a one-off viewing in a friend’s house last June of a pirate Teletubbies video.
“Now, listen everybody, try to think of the metronome. BOm, BOm, BOm, Be-BOm, Bo, BOm-Bo. So it’s “ONce In RO-yal DA-vid’s CI-ty. Now everybody, uno, dos, tres, and…”
“Once… a… royal… dave… hees… seeting
Stood… alone… een… cattil… shit”
“Perhaps we could move on to that solo, just before the final scene in the barn. Nacho, could you perhaps find that music on the disc…mmm?”
Nacho, who you may have chosen to forget worked as a waiter in the “Seex Penis” bar, had been roped into being sound manager as he was the only one with a portable CD set and a working remote control. Up from the little ‘uns row stepped a sweet little thing with sprouting foil annexes:
“Welsh heaps wash der flocksed night, arse heated on de grown…”
The big night arrived and, now elevated locally to the status of invited director, I was running about like Almodóvar on sherbet-dabs. As is often the case on occasions like these, an over-thoughtful parent decided to video the whole spectacle. And then, caring nothing for my state of mind or future legal wrangles, to sell copies to other unsuspecting parents at 10 euros a guffaw. On days/months when I feel things could surely not get worse, I still pull it out of its dust-jacket, pop it in the Panasonic, pour myself a double Martini, and realise just how easily they can. I still shudder to think that somewhere this Christmas, in at least one Granadinian home, after a hearty meal of suckling pig with all the trimmings, followed by tooth-terminator nougat, some of the parents present that holy night might well gather round the radiator with, say, the new English au-pair, or that sweet American family they met on holiday just over for the Crimble break. They snuggle down – tapas in hand – to behold this final barnyard scene, now immortalised on Video 8. I do so wish Betamax had stayed on for just a few years more.
The artistic concept I was striving for in writing this last scene, do you see, was to leave the audience with something to remember, to mull over, to bring up around the table on Xmas day after everything else had been brought up….I was, in short, being Brechtian, wouldn’t you know. Didactic theatre at its best. Make Christmas local, give it a Granadinian hue, bring it back to the people, and all that. As the lights fade up, we see a bare stage, only the outlines of some familiar buildings can be seen on the back projection: the Alhambra and the Generalife. Off stage left and – as if by divine intervention – Nacho finally came in on cue with a recording of a solitary flamenco singer drawling out a painful lament. Good, eh? Silence falls on the scene, the papier-mâché palm tree lovingly licked together by Class 5c having done so seconds before. A spotlight focuses on Mary (Sr. D’Avila’s daughter, now bent double with baby Jesus under fallen tree), and the audience – for once – went silent in awe of the scene before them. Those that hadn’t already gone could not fail to be moved. Slowly, and again right on cue, two follow spots picked out the humble Balthasar (aka Sr. d’Avila; enter stage left) and the angel Gabriel (well, Gabriella, as it turned out, since the headmistress insisted on playing her; enter up stage right). Then, the culminating moment, just four lines to set you thinking, to ponder in the bosom of the Spanish family Christmas, to send us all home with that rosy glow of Christmas, warming our cheeks and softening the nougat:
Balthazar: O deer lord…may der be luff and gucchi at de end of dis jeer…
Mary: May der be presents for mudder and farder…
Gabriella: May der be toys for de pupils and rest for the teeshirts…
(FX: music rises to crescendo)
Balthazar: …And pis…orl over Granada.
* This was the way Manolo referred to his pocket Collins tourist dictionary, his firm companion on many an English mystery tour.