Now we're off to sunny Spain

9th November 2007 at 00:00
With one last viva Espana, Jeremy Dean heads off to the land of paella and bullfights. Here is his first report from the front line.You must be so excited!" Everyone says that, and they all seem genuinely excited themselves. Their eyes gleam, their mouths gape. They look like hungry goldfish.

But we don't feel it. We're simply too busy. We'd like to be excited, but we don't have the time. There was a moment, when the phone call came to offer us the jobs, when my wife and I leapt around the hall, squealing like two five-year-olds who'd discovered the way into a packet of chocolate biscuits. But within the hour, we'd started doing what I guarantee any teacher on the planet would start doing given the circumstances ... compiling a list of things to do.

I like to be organised. Most teachers do. We like things in their proper places. At home as much as in school. Knives in the knife tray, forks with the forks. Pencils in the pencil tray, scissors with the scissors. So I hunt out a little book and write Espana on the front. (We've started learning a little Spanish.)

A few weeks later we fly to the east coast of Spain to look for a place to live. We've done our homework. Our English-Spanish dictionary tells us that flats are pisos and estate agents are inmobiliarias. We've contacted cuatro estate agents and got a reply from ... er ... uno, the only one who could understand our basic Spanish.

Our estate agent, Rafael, has some good news and bad news. The good news is that he now has cuatro pisos to show us. The bad news is that he doesn't speak any English.

The first place we view stands in the centre of a virtual building site. The estate agent buzzes the intercom and I catch "Hola", "Rafael" and "Si", but fail to make sense of any of the hundred or so other words exchanged.

While Rafael shows us around, the family conducts an animated debate, which seems to be concentrated on whether we are German, French or Italian. The one time we catch a whispered "Ingles" (from the girl), her parents authoritatively shake their heads and laugh dismissively as if she's suggested we're from Mars.

On my first day at school, I am given a list of 24 names, including four Marias and two Pablos, and an appointment with them in the playground (or patio as it's called here) at 9.15am.

The kids are Spanish, we teach them in English. Simple. Spanish teachers give them an hour a day of Spanish lessons but apart from that it's just like back home. The head said in the interview that their English was "fluent".

I step out at 9.14am to find the patio buzzing. I am accosted by a well-dressed woman hanging on to two uniformed children, aged about five and 10. I understand "por favor" but the rest passes in a blur. Eventually she hurries away, tugging her children behind her, staring at me like I'm a halfwit. I shout: "Right, can my class line up in front of me please?" but nothing happens. The basketballs carry on bouncing, the children carry on chasing and the designer parents carry on chatting.

Meanwhile, a serious hug-fest is going on between a bunch of six-year-olds and a male teacher that would get him jailed in the UK, but which doesn't seem to be an issue here.

Then there is a tug at my trouser leg. She has brown hair, brown eyes and a school bag strapped on her back that looks big enough to hold her older brother. She says something to me but I have no idea what so I smile and do a sort of non-committal shake-nod of the head and start walking inside. Behind me I can hear the basketballs bouncing, at least they sound like they're following.

My first week in the classroom. It's 33degC outside. Inside it must be 34. There's no air-conditioning. The windows are open but I can't tell whether that's making it better or worse. There's a river of sweat flowing down my back, and my shirt, trousers, pants, socks, hair - everything, is stuck to me.

My new class is "lively". You know the code. The one or two parents who have a smattering of English have smiled knowingly and told me it's the "Latin blood" when I've appeared, dishevelled and exhausted at the end of the day. This morning I've decided to give them a spelling test. The head said their English was fluent, but I'm beginning to wonder if I misheard and he said effluent.

"The first word," I announce slowly and clearly, without a trace of Estuary, "is mud". Six hands are in the air before the "d" has echoed off the tiled floor and bare walls.

"What ees mud?" Pablo (whose hand isn't in the air) shouts.

"Ees mad," Maria (also no hand) responds. I can't tell exactly whether she's insulting me or if she's misheard the word.

"Loco," Maria number two yells from the far corner. "Mad ees loco."

"No, ees crazy," Pablo shouts to no one in particular.

The noise is suddenly at special measures level. Everybody seems to be having a heated debate about whether I'm crazy, or Pablo is loco or Maria is mad, but I can't be sure because most of it is in Spanish.

"Listen!" I shout, trying not to yell too loudly, as the windows are open and my room is opposite the head's office. It has no effect at all so I let rip: "Listen! Mud. The first word is mud."

We've been told to speak in normal, everyday English because the children need to get used to it. But somehow, within seconds of entering the classroom, my vocabulary has shrunk - all tenses except the present have disappeared and definite and indefinite articles have vaporised in the blistering heat. I hear myself talking like Basil in Fawlty Towers when he tries to speak to Manuel. "You get pencil, you sit down, you write words in book, yes? You understand what I say?"

I also flap my arms around a lot and do pathetically inept mime gestures, but we haven't been told not to do this so it can't do much harm. (It might even provide a bit of a breeze). There is a dissatisfying silence as they seem to understand that they're not getting anything else so they scribble (relatively) quietly.

"Number two," I announce hopefully. "Van."

Twenty six hands shoot up. "What ees fan?" asks Pablo (no hand).

I point out of the window towards the car park.

"I write car?" asks Pablo.

"No. You write van," I nearly yell. "Vvvvaaaannnn. V. A. N. van."

And Pablo spreads his hands in the universal "Why didn't you say so in the first place?" gesture. "V. A. N. van," he repeats as he writes. "Ees easy."

And they all write "V. A. N. van." Then they look up at me, waiting for the next word. And I look at my list. And there are 38 words to go. And out of the corner of my eye I see Maria lean over to Pablo, raise her eyes and whisper, "Loco."

Pablo nods his head. "Ees mad."

Look out for Jeremy Dean's regular columns after Christmas.

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