It’s Time to Learn Spanish

Here is a sneak preview of the second book in the Andalusian series A Hoopoe on the Nispero Tree: Our Andalusian Adventure Continues. In this excerpt, you can read about our experience of learning Spanish and figuring out how to host our first Spanish speaking guests.    

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Having only Spanish guests in the winter was a linguistic challenge. The previous October, Robert and I had taken a series of Spanish classes in Alcalá la Real in anticipation of having to do business in Spanish. Except for a Belgian woman, Céline, and myself, the group consisted of Brits who would happily spend most of the class time deliberating the best translation of a Spanish sentence into their local dialects. The progress that our group made was slow. The main reason we did not seem to move past the verbs ser and estar — which both translate to the verb BE — was that most of the class was held in English. So instead of practising Spanish, I learned a lot about the nuances of the Yorkshire, Brummie, Mancunian, Scouse, and Scottish patois. There were times when Céline and I would look at each other across the classroom table and roll our eyes in despair. On seeing our exchange, our lively teacher Blanca would try to save the lesson and start bombarding the class with sentences to translate.

Blanca was a maverick; she was well-admired and respected throughout the little expat community. A farm-girl with a vast estate of olives, a trained vet, a winner of olive tasting competitions, and a mother of two young girls — one would think that her plate was full, but no. In her free time, she taught Spanish to expats in Alcalá. While she was a lot of things to many people, she was not a trained teacher. She was enthusiastic and encouraging, but her teaching methods were somewhat medieval. The little black notebook that she frequently referred to on her desk contained a copied syllabus for a Spanish course from the esteemed Cervantes Institute. The teaching methodology consisted mainly of the grammar-translation approach, namely lists of verb conjugations and sentences that we had to translate in class.

We spent most of November translating comparative sentences with different levels of usability.

‘A grasshopper jumps higher than a ladybird.’

‘My brother’s crippled dog is cuter than my sister’s blind cat.’

‘The squirrel has many more nuts than the otter.’

What’s ‘an otter’ in Spanish? a whisper would go around the class.

Most of the class activities consisted of Blanca going round the somewhat wobbly study tables that we sat by and having us translate the sentences one by one. While I have some talent for languages and was able to write the translations directly into my notebook, those students in the class who had never mastered any language other than their mother tongue, English, were getting frustrated. First, they needed time to write the original sentences in English and then even more time to figure out how to say it in Spanish and then write it down.

‘The man with a broken leg is not as fast as the one in a wheelchair,’ she’d repeat the very long and complicated sentence a few times.

Tensions were high. As I sat waiting for my turn to translate, I could see my classmates’ flushed cheeks and watery eyes. A Scottish woman, a retired trauma nurse, would visibly shake each time it was her turn. Often enough, some of the students would refuse to answer, with tears in their eyes.

‘The broken car on the street is cheaper than the brand-new car in the shop,’ Blanca read aloud one torturous sentence after another from her black notebook.

Once we had ‘mastered’ the comparatives, Blanca decided to bombard us with the conjugation patterns of EVERY Spanish verb. Each lesson was an endless list of verbs and their conjugations. By December, my notebook was filled with neat columns of verbs in all persons in the present tense, but I still could not say ‘Have a nice day!‘ or ‘I’d like to order this, if possible?‘. Despite these limitations, we attended these classes primarily because we learned a lot of local information from our casual conversations before each lesson.

Before we started each class, it became a tradition that someone would ask Blanca to explain something that they’d heard or were told. From these inquiries, I learnt to ask: ‘¿Quien es último?‘ on entering the bank or post office. It’s one of the most important phrases to know if one is to survive in rural Andalusia, where waiting in an orderly queue is an unknown custom.

As a foreigner, you might enter a bank, a post office, or a hospital reception area and notice that instead of a queue, people are wandering around, chatting on sofas and chairs, and not worrying about their place in the line. You might be misled into thinking that they are not expecting to be served at all and dash to the counter to be attended. That will inevitably anger the crowd and may even lead to hostile exchanges about how rude, or maleducado, foreigners are. To save yourself from engaging in a fight with an angry mob, you just have to ask: ‘Who’s the last one?‘.

The system is straightforward and much more civilized, in my opinion than standing in a line. Upon entry into an establishment where many people are waiting to be served, you simply ask ‘¿Quien es último?’. Whoever was the last person to join the queue will wave or nod, your eyes will lock, and from then on, all you have to remember is that a red T-shirt is in front of you. Now, you can pick up a magazine and sit down and wait until they are served. Your only job is to inform whoever comes after you and asks ¿Quien es último? that they are after you.

We also learnt ‘¿A quién es le toca?’ This is what a cashier or post office worker might ask the waiting crowd, which is the cue for the customer whose turn it is to come to the counter. Blanca insisted that we learn to say ‘Es mi toca‘, ‘It’s my turn!’, with force and conviction, in case someone tries to use the foreigner’s lack of knowledge about the queueing system and cut the line.

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Despite the odd lesson where we learned practical phrases used by everyday people on the street, Blanca remained oblivious to our needs. Once she explained whatever we asked about, she would open her little black notebook of horrors and proceeded to elaborate on the difference between reflexive forms of incendiarse and encenderse, and their regular counterparts incendiar and encender. Unless we were all training to be bomberos or firefighters, the semantic nuances of lighting a fire and starting a fire went well over our heads. It was no wonder that student attrition was high, and by Christmas, only the most diehard of us remained in class and kept on filling up our notebooks with translations. I struggled to imagine the contexts in which I’d ever use any of the sentences that we laboured over.

‘My friend and I often go to a discotheque on Friday night.’

‘My parents don’t like reggaeton, but they love pop music.’

‘She doesn’t like cake, but she loves doughnuts.’

‘My mum cooks spaghetti while I’m doing my homework.’

I watched whoever was left in our group scribing away in their notebooks, hiding their efforts from the prying eyes of their classmates to avoid embarrassment. We looked like a bunch of Victorian children learning Latin by copying meaningless sentences onto their tiny chalkboards but never having the opportunity to use them. Needless to say, unless my guests were going to ask me about my parents’ musical preferences or my discotheque habits, I was pretty clueless about how to be a gracious hostess in Spanish.   

Luckily, our first guests happened to speak excellent English and, as soon as they heard our broken Spanish, they switched to communicating in English. But the next couple were from Antequera and didn’t speak a word of English. A reader outside of Spain might think that I’m exaggerating. Surely, they must know a few words of English? It’s a global language. But no! Many middle-aged Spaniards in Andalusia live in a linguistic bubble, which means that even common technology words like computer, email, or even laptop words that have become part of hundreds of other languages around the world are incomprehensible to them. The main reason for this sorry state of affairs is that these loan words do not meet the approval of the purists at the Royal Spanish Academy, who fervently guard the language from ‘corruption’ and insist on using ordenador, correo electrónico and portátil.

Flipping, on the other hand, as in freaking out, has slipped through the cracks and made it to mainstream Spanish as flipar. I was hoping this knowledge of Spanish wouldn’t come in handy when dealing with my local guests. But unless I was planning to offer them bistec with beicon washed down with a cóctel while reading them a panfleto, then play some fútbal or a session of face lifting, I realized that I lacked the rudimentary vocabulary needed to engage with paying guests in their native tongue.  

Since Blanca’s classes were on hold over Christmas (which in Spain starts around the twenty-third of December and ends after the sixth of January, as soon as the Three Kings have visited all the towns and villages in the country), I went to seek help from Dr Google Translate.

I hope you enjoy your stay.’ I typed a phrase that, for some reason, had escaped me in the first two years living in the country, but then I didn’t have neither money nor time to go on holiday.  

Have a nice day!‘ I was surprised I did not hear it more often in the shops.

Did you sleep well?‘ this, however, would have been strange for me to have heard from strangers on the street.

I wrote the translations down dutifully and repeated them in my head from time to time, but unless I had the notes right in front of me, the phrases were not sticking. I practised different scenarios in Spanish in my head. I knew that I had to show the guests the apartment and explain a few things to them. I wrote down there’s an extra blanket in the wardrobe, the hot water is on the right, let me know if you need more firewood, do you need help to start the fire? — the verb encender became useful after all, what time would you like your breakfast, and a few more sentences related to their stay.

There were two problems with memorizing odd sentences in a foreign language. The first was that I had no idea whether I was pronouncing them correctly and if they even made sense. The second was that I had no idea what the answer would be. It’s all very well to ask people questions in a foreign language, but you also need to understand their responses. I could only hope for the best.

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Pili and Paco, our first non-English speaking guests, arrived just before lunchtime. It was a glorious January day with cloudless skies and pink almond blossoms everywhere in sight. They seemed happy to be among the olive groves and far away from the crowds. Pili got a bit confused when I offered to help her with her crutches. I thought it would be a nice gesture to help her carry luggage upstairs, but instead of maletassuitcases, I asked if she needed help with her muletas crutches, which she didn’t have or need.  

When I showed them the apartment, she was delighted and repeatedly announced ¡que chulo! and ¡que precioso!, which is always a sure sign that a Spaniard likes something very much. I remembered the Spanish words extra blanket and towels and managed to demonstrate how to start the fireplace in Spanish. I’m sure I made many mistakes, but Pili and Paco were patient, and since most of the things that I was telling them were self-explanatory, they nodded their heads to show that they understood.

This excerpt comes from : A Hoopoe on the Nispero Tree: Our Andalusian Adventure Continues is due to be released in 2022. In the meantime, you can read The Crinkle Crankle Wall: Our First Year in Andalusia which available in all Amazon stores as e-book and paperback:

Amazon UK:

Amazon Spain:

Amazon US:

Amazon universal link:

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