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Lesson Number One

‘But…you see…Manolo…what I don’t understand is what I would DO with a potato clock?’

My private student eyed me with that curious look-squire-I-am-only-the-guy-who-paid-for-these-English-classes-so-don’t-come-to-me-for-clarification expression that had become so familiar to me since I had begun to take in private students from the neighbouring bedsits in the Pensión Los Girasoles. I now have a rich and varied assortment of Spanish eager-to-learners. Manolo’s had been the first timid knock on my door. That was as far as his timidity went, however. He had come—as have the rest since—in a state of statutory pleading:

‘Joo mus hilp me,’ he threatened. ‘Ah haf ingleesh ixam for entering Deeplomatic sirvis in Joon. Ah mus pars.’ His accent was as engaging as the content bewildering.

I immediately had this ghastly vision of Manolo leaping out of my lessons and negotiating his way through, into, or—most probably—out of the Spanish contribution to the 2005 SALT talks—perhaps leaning across to Mr. Putin and confiding: ‘Mister Bootin…joo jus leef Boosh to me…pissoff cake…he has a beeg truss on me.’

I came back down to earth as my next-door-but-one neighbour repeated the order.

‘But that’s in five months’ time!’ I ventured. ‘You’ll never make it!’ As I was to learn in later encounters, the last thing you should do with this wannabe deeplomat is challenge him.

‘Ah dam neer pars las time…ah was…ah was…’ I recognised what was happening now way down there in Manolo’s only one pulsating second language cell. I had seen its manifestation on many a student’s face in a previous teaching life. It said: ‘Sit back, magister, I am going to impress you now with an idiom, so sit back and enjoy.’ Or something like that.

As I have come to learn since, there clearly exists somewhere in Granada an ur-teacher. Some decrepit, wizened chalk-enveloped teacher trainer who—apparently armed with a set of Dickens original folio editions—is the father or mother of all English-as-a-foreign-language teachers roundabouts and whose principal teaching axiom to all seems to have been something like ‘Teach ‘em the idioms, pueri, they can’t get enough of ‘em!’

Most of my older pupillary neighbours appear to have passed through the hands of an ur-teacher disciple, for all seem to have a set phrase or two ready to lob into a conversation with a native at just the wrong moment, lightly sprinkled with imprecision, and always ever so faintly passé.

Manolo wound up for his like a triple-jump athlete preparing to let fly; he eyed me intensely, and I could sense the hopeless desire to impress: ‘Ah…cum…witheen…a…hare’s breast.’ As always, its production was succeeded by an expression of triumph and a pause for the full effect of this ineptitude to sink in to the listener. He needn’t have paused—I was suitably affected. ‘Ah did no learn vocabulary of troopical beerds for de ixam and ah only reconize “Canary” becos it espanish beerd.’ I toyed with the idea of probing this geo-ornitho-political assertion but reckoned a future diplomat might just have an answer prepared.

Negotiations continued. Apart from pesetas, I would be rewarded with the promise of further clients from my neighbours in the pensión who, he assured me, were in just as desperate need of my services. Manolo was the longest-serving inmate, and the landlady, Señora María del Socorro (in answer to my request for a translation, Manolo offered the plausible ‘Muther off God, hilp me’), had suggested on my arrival that Manolo ‘wol hilp joo in all what joo need’. Ne’er a truer word.

‘Ah know ivrybody eer,’ he had boasted, ‘what need ingleesh claases with native man…and joo know…a good teeshirt eez har to find.’ He was an acute observer of learner needs, too, and told me about Paco—’flat tree bee, on de floor nomber two’—who would need work on ‘ees bowels aah, eee, and ooh’. Then there was Señor Jesús María d’Ávila—’bassmint six, turn on joor left side pass keetchen sink’—who is an assistant bank manager. He and I would get on just fine, apparently, as he was a jocular type like myself ‘…as mad as much hairs.’ I couldn’t wait. Poor Señor d’Ávila (‘plis, jus coll me Jesus’). He has turned out to be one of those eternal foreign-language strugglers. A nonbiodegradable beginner. I say, ‘What is the weather like today?’ and he says, ‘Yes, I like.’ That type.

There are less amenable clients in Los Girasoles, however. Manolo continued to feel me in with the details of one who, at first, I thought might share my fondness for budgies. ‘Take care, Señor, dis man he has a cheep on eez shoolder.’ The cheep was—as I was later to learn—a result of Anglophobia. He firmly believed England was instrumental in all Spain’s recent human and bovine diseases and from our very first fleeting brush in the lift insisted on calling me ‘Meester crazy cow’. As it turned out, even he needed to get some second-language learning in, too; his needs were rather more alarming, as I was to find out some time later. But back to diplomacy.

It turned out that Manolo had got the deeplomatic exam cracked. He had, it seemed, more knowledge of past papers than the setters themselves, having sat and failed five times over the last three years. However, our Manolo was not the kind of guy to have taken this lying down.

When I asked him ‘How did you fail each time?’, he replied ‘Good…ah feel verry good…dis was no a problem for me. Evry time ah study de words of transpoort, ecocomics, keetchin, biznis, and daylee abits, but itch time dey no appeer. But itch day, jes, ah feel good.’ Apparently, Manolo still had faith and told me he had ‘a honch’ that vocabulary about everyday life would come up this June.

He suggested we should set about preparation by focusing classes on dictation about ‘daylee abits’. I had recently had it drilled into me in teacher training that dictation was démodé but soon learnt the first lesson of private teaching: the customer is always right, and I have had as many methodologies as students in the years since in Los Girasoles. All I had to do with Manolo was a dictation per lesson and a translation. ‘Pissoff cake,’ I thought.

And, indeed, it would have been—had Manolo been a follower of the traditional ‘I dictator, you student’ line of class. Unfortunately, he likes to turn each one into a debate of the foreign-language toss:

‘Eez what joo say. Eez wot ah eer. And dis ah write—a potato clock.’ His argument was reasonable. ‘Ah theenk…eez normal sutch clock on Ingleesh bed.’

‘Look, why don’t you read it to me, Manolo, and see if it really fits in with the rest of what I said. I’m sure you’ll see that…’

I was interrupted by that look. This time it was of defiance. The triple jumper was cranking up again: ‘OK. Now…ah…make joo eet crumble pies.’ I braced myself before the next ominous announcement. ‘Ah am going to repeet.’ He began to declaim and simultaneously followed each word on the paper with his finger: ‘Joo say, ah rite “Ivry…day…​my…ilarm…clock…​reengs…at…kwater…to…sivin. Ah…switch…on…radio…​den…ah…get​…a…potato…clock…​and…wash…my…hairs.” Eez joo daylee laif. Eez normal…where eez der problem heer?’ He was, as always, completely right and the first lesson had been learnt.

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