I had, without my knowing, become something of a speciality act in the barrio. Manolo, my newly acquired student-cum-“deeplomat”-cum-PR had seen to it that not only my neighbours in the pensión but also all the surrounding businesses were made aware of my presence and the services offered:
“Today, ah haf announced you een de meatshop and de restaurant.”
So, I thought, my least linguistically-talented private student appeared to have close contact with the butcher’s. For a split second I saw myself hanging from a skewer over the bull’s testicles which regularly festooned the front slab in the butcher’s shop downstairs, with “Good Eengleesh romp” dangling from my neck. Manolo’s press announcement continued: “Dees days iverybody needs Eengleesh, …ees sential for sooksess. De peelots een de planes, de cosheers een de hippomarket…” “And the butcher?” I enquired. Manolo had to think about that one – but not for too long: “Boosher…?” he queried. I suddenly realised I had unwittingly quantum-leaped to Unit Seven in the book I had only started with him the week before. “Er… sorry, I mean the…er…meatman.” “Ah… bueno,… he need de Eengleesh for not buying crazy cow with their feet…een…de mouth”. It was useless to protest. The few exasperating lessons Manolo had digested had already endowed him with that most desirable of virtues in talented foreign-language learners – and the most perilous in Manolo. Confidence.
“Tomorrow joo go to restaurant and ask for Chechu or Nacho.” I knew little Spanish at that point but assumed these were interested students rather than recommended dishes. “Dey are manejer and waiter and dey must learn Eengleesh to eet.” Such desperate needs touched my heart and, presumably, my brain for, before I could make further enquiries, Manolo was confirming the date on his mobile.
It was, indeed, to be a novel concept. Not for the first time, I was faced by students who knew exactly what kind of class they needed before I ventured any suggestions: “We are olways on de job,” explained Nacho, “meny turists come for eet and we haf no time to estudy. Joo come here and eet, Chechu and Nacho we sirve joo een Eengleesh, joo order een Eeenglish, we learn, and beel ees free.” I groaned inwardly. So, no money again, then. I came to call them my “Russian classes” – goods in exchange for knowledge, consommés for consonants in the present case. Expanding my stomach rather than my wallet. So far I had been offered a charges-free current account from Jesus, the banker, free flamenco lessons from Maite, the feisty Señora from the dance school, and – most alarmingly – weekly cleaning and ironing of my underwear from Conchi the cleaning lady if I took up the challenge of her daughter.
And so that is how I found myself sat at what was to become my “own” table on a free meal ticket for nearly a year, ready to partake in English-while-you-eat in Restaurante Seis Peniques (Manolo, the-ever-helpful-translator, provided clear directions: “Joo cannot meess eet. He lie on de corner right turn out of pensión, on de behind post-office, name ‘six penis'”). I had inevitably overtaken a wheezing Sr. Jesús María d’Avila on the way down the stairs: bad luck was followed by bad omens. “Have a nice time,” I’d ventured, foolishly. “Hchabout…hchelven o’ clock,” he replied.
I still have the serviette where I made the rough drawing of the helpful billboard stuck outside the restaurant that day. It says much about the English-learning fever gripping Granada at the time. Intense motivation for upward movement accompanied by fatal linguistic limitations. I must also have figured the drawing would come in handy one day if a psychiatrist ever wanted to get to the roots of my depression:
My lessons clearly couldn’t have come a moment too soon. Had I been even only slightly hungry, I’d have dropped in just for the novelty value of giving my gut a good spring-clean with the starter, seeing a bright, or even less-gifted, carrot in the main course, or encountering a flavoured and irritated animal doctor by dessert. Much later, and after extensive revisions were recommended and implemented, I learnt that this masterpiece of gastronomic gaffe was cooked by Chechu himself with the sole aid of a tiny pocket Collins French-English Dictionary, which some well-meaning tourist had left on the table (was it a tip?) one night. It appears Chechu (“my frensh ees efluent”) had simply translated from Spanish to French to English via the dictionary. And where that didn’t work, he just improvised. A brave act of linguistic and culinary prowess, a dog’s dinner of a result. If I’d been just slightly compos mentis that lunch-time, and not have let my stomach do the negotiating, I’d have kept some semblance of sanity. Mind you, I’d then have missed out on the most glorious Mediterranean fare which followed that year.
“Waiter, can you take down my order, now?” I began lesson one with Nacho, leaning over expectantly, notepad in hand, pencil freshly-licked.
Ah me, how many times had I seen that look before. The phrasal verb syndrome. Did you know that “go on” has literally hundreds of meanings depending on whether you stress the particle, separate the parts or keep them together, “take on” even more? You see, Spanish is one of those annoyingly logical languages where each word means something. I mean some thing, one thing. For something else, well… you use another word, don’t you? Not the same one. If you did, that could lead to confusion. It now did. In English, we rely on phrasal verbs, but they are a minefield for the learner. Poor Nacho had just been launched on his first minesweeping manoeuvres, walking backwards across the field, with his pencil as his only protection.
I explained: ” ‘Take down’ means write it down on your list.”
He took this well. Indeed, as I later realised, Nacho picked up phrasal verbs like dust up a Dyson: “So”, he said, “‘take up’ and ‘write up’ mean opposite… to take eet away from leest?”
“No, ‘take up’ means…well…’begin’, for example. So you are taking up English, do you see?”
He didn’t. I foolishly battled on, taking Nacho and his trusty pencil further into enemy territory. “As you’re listening to me, you are taking English in.”
He was eager to help: “And den ah em taking down de list in de keetchin, no?”
Nacho was clearly going to prove far too logical for his own good. “Er, sort of,” I corrected, “now you take the list away, take it down to the kitchen, and bring me the food back up here. Simple really.”
He also seemed to think so and away, up, or down he went. Twenty minutes later, out of the corner of my eye, I saw Nacho approaching with a glorious Poussin of a paella. Colours that made the eye water: fluffy white rice piled high, bright red peppers, moist orange shrimp, diced brown mushrooms abounding, and juicy green peas popping out from everywhere. A burst of colour for a groaning stomach. I leaned back in expectation as Nacho separated the utensils on the place before me to make way for the feast.
“Meester Grammer,” he announced proudly, “jor dinner that ah have just brought up.”