Memories of Madrid: Please don't eat my doggie

You know how New Year's is...you want to do stuff that brings you into the future, but sometimes you get things that remind you of the past...

About ten years ago, I wrote a story for a website called Tales from a Small Planet, and I described a situation where an exercise from a textbook took an unexpected turn. Thanks to Stefan C. for rescuing it because it's not on the website any more.


The ESL textbook we use in class is called “Cutting Edge” but the material is purely traditional: Talk about yourself. Tell us a story about... What would you do if...

It’s the second class after the Cynical Weasel and the Class Meanie drop out, leaving Icíar, Gaspar, Remedios and Santiago, four Spanish civil servants, none of whom are particularly adept at English. The classes are arguably mandatory, even though none of these four will ever use English in their jobs. Television in Spain, even here in Madrid, is never in English. They don’t listen to songs with English lyrics and their exposure to English speakers has been limited to their English teachers, who they see twice a week. 

They’re all interested, but gun-shy. Why even try to learn English any more, especially after twenty years of failure?

Because Human Resources and the Spanish government have decreed, using European Union funds for language learning, that these four must gain some kind of competence in spoken and written English. That’s why. So I am trying to teach them, to be cutting edge. Or at least different and vaguely interesting, so that they damn well learn something by the end of the year.
Today’s section seems straightforward: Write about your first... DVD. Boyfriend/girlfriend. Day at college or work. Outfit you bought for yourself. Pet. Time you travelled abroad or by yourself. It seems straightforward enough when they all decide to write about first pets.
Paper out, pens ready, heads down, they crouch over their nut-u-BOOK-es, absorbed in storytelling, which they’re very gradually getting better at. Ten minutes of scribbling, erasing. (“¡Down! How say cachorro en ingliss?” “¿Y mancha? What is mancha in ingliss?")

I bring out the squishy miniature football we use to control speaking in English. Ah, what the hell. If they mess this up like they mess up some of the other writing assignments, there’s only another, what, five weeks of classes?

I toss the football to Remedios. She’s the stereotypical middle- aged Spanish woman given to fighting the aging process with every fibre of her being (and every Euro in her wallet). Her cachorro was called Morito (which translates as “Little Moor” but is closer in intention to “Black Boy” or “Sambo”.)

“How say? POA-pee?”

No. PUH-pee. Sounds like “cup”.  
The inappropriately-named POA-pee was a Spaniel who lived to the ripe old age of sixteen.

Then, over to Icíar, a Basque head banger with a passion for purple blouses and an infectious giggle. Another puppy: Pulgas (“Fleas”, or “Fleabag”) was a Golden Lab with a fear of staircases. Lived to seventeen. Then the ball goes over to Gaspar.

Gaspar, pobre Gaspar. He’s the class’s hanging chad, the Great White Hope. Taciturn, self-conscious, he left school at twelve to become a botones, an errand boy for the Post Office, to support his family. At fifty-three, he’s the head stationery guy. He’s got a thirteen-year-old son he doesn’t understand, a marvellous memory for individual words in English and a hangdog look that intensifies every time he has to say something in English. 

Gaspar stares down at his paper and starts to speak in a voice so soft that even Remedios, who’s sitting right beside him, has to tell him to speak up. POA-pee? No. It was a rabbit given to him on his birthday, June 15th. Many Spaniards don’t pronounce the “s” sound of plural nouns: it takes a bit before the class realizes that this wasn’t a one- time rabbit, but a series of them. Some were soft and cuddly, one had sharp teeth and an attitude problem, but all of them were fluffy and cute and, with alarming regularity, would appear in the paella Gaspar’s father cooked to celebrate the holiday for the Assumption of the Virgin on August 15th.

How many rabbits, Gaspar?

He starts counting on his fingers: Seven. Seven revoked rabbits, seven double-duty rabbits: birthday present AND celebratory meal. Given that Spain’s food industry was literally blown to bits by the Civil War, a rabbit was a valuable commodity in a protein-poor nation.

Gaspar smiles wanly and hands the ball to Santiago.

A chicken.

A what?

Santiago looks at me like I’m daft and tucks his hands into his armpits. “You know! Brak-brak-brak-brak-brak!!!!”

Icíar looks at Santiago. “But where you lived? You in a flat lived, ¿no?”

“Yeah. We call her Manchita. Like on your clothes, you know?” Little Stain. He points to his eye. “White here but everywhere else black.”

Remedios: “But was how big the flat?”

Santiago does some quick mental math: “Forty square metres, I think? Two bedrooms.” 

Santiago is the middle child of five.

“How say cariñoso in English? Affectionate, yeah. Was very affectionate and loved when people visited.” Hands out of his armpits, arms outstretched, he stands up and lumbers towards Remedios. “New person visits, Manchita running!”

The others can ́t hide the guilty grins on their faces: Traditional Valencian paellas use chicken as well as rabbit meat.

“How old when died?”

Santiago shrugs. “Dunno. She broke leg behind sofa once so she couldn’t walk. We taught how to fly.”

You what, Santi?

“Yeah! Here, me, this side of sofa, my brother Alvaro there.” He takes the ball and lobs it underhand to Gaspar. “Whoop! Whoop! Back and fort, back and fort and after two hours, Manchita flies! My mudder was cabreá (pissed off)! Feathers everywhere! But Manchita flies.”

“How long did you have Manchita in your house?”

“One year. Too big from eating the garbage, so we gave her to my uncle.”

“She finished [ended up] in paella?”

Remedios laughs so hard that rivulets of eye shadow and mascara run down her cheeks, jagging every so often when she hiccups. Icíar gives herself hiccups, too. Gaspar tries to stifle his laughter and goes red with the effort. Santiago just grins and shrugs.

“Next time, it’s boyfriends or girlfriends! No more pets.”

We now have four classes left. The thought has crossed my mind that we should go for paella for the last class. Seafood paella. Squid, mussels and shrimp make pretty lamentable pets. 

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