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Thursday, November 27, 2003

Two evenings ago -- Tuesday, right about this time (late afternoon/early evening) -- the weather in Madrid took a sudden turn. From fresh w/a cool edge, to brisk. Then cold. Then colder still, a stiff breeze springing up, forcing everyone to pull coats closed, walk faster, hunch shoulders. The change didn't register for me until I was in the middle of a long walk to meet a Spanish friend, dusk settling in, me wearing the same clothing I'd had on earlier in the day -- light pants and shirt, jacket over that. At some point, I realized my hands were getting stiff with cold. Then I realized my nipples were getting stiff with cold and were not happy about it. (That may be more information than you wanted, I admit. But there it is.)

The kind of weather that gives the simple act of walking into a heated building an extra kick of pleasure.

The friend is named Daniel -- technically, it's more of an intercambio than a friendship (intercambio: when an English speaker and a Spanish speaker get together for conversation, talking half the time in English, the other half in Spanish), though one that seems to be leaning comfortably toward something friendly, relaxed. Part of my ongoing Spanish studies. Which also include classes three nights a week.

The instructor I had for classes this last spring was a 30-year-old named Jesús -- a good guy, extremely bright, knows how to teach Spanish. My current class is presided over by a young woman named Fátima. Genuinely nice, but newer to teaching, and at times it's shown.

Currently in class with me: Tracey, a bright, enjoyable 30-something from California, in Madrid for a few months to experience life in another country and study Spanish. Brian, a 30ish fella from Ireland -- relatively quiet, not revealing much, at least in the classroom, and as soon as class is over he vanishes; there's clearly stuff going on in there, but so far he's mostly kept it to himself. This last Monday evening, a young Japanese woman named San joined the group. Diminutive, very sweet, lives in Germany.

So. Monday. Fátima decides to inflict the indirect style on us -- el estilo indirecto. When one talks about things that have already happened or been said -- "Go to hell" becomes "He told me to go to hell." Or, in Castellano, "Vete al infierno" becomes "Me dijo que fuera al infierno." Or "Cuando salgas, ven a verme" becomes "Ella me pidió que cuando saliera, viniese a verla." I think. It's complicated, with bunches of possible verb changes, including instances of the subjunctive verb form, an element of the Spanish language possibly created during an especially nasty phase of the Inquisition. Enough to get one feeling fairly incompetent, all of this.

From the moment we began work on that bugger of a usage the evening became a messy downhill slide, compounded by Fátima being less prepared than she should have been. San, thrust into it all with little apparent prep., had a particularly hard time. When 9 o'clock arrived, we all bolted, everyone appearing a bit stunned at the class's implosion. Except Brian, who disappeared instantaneously as usual, so that there was no knowing what was up with him.

As class ended, I asked Fátima for exercises to do at home, she had none to give us. I tried going over the material on my own on Tuesday or Wed., not succeeding in generating anything but dread at the prospect of another class on the topic, which Wed. would surely bring.

And it did. And Fátima was far more prepared, actually had a handle on the class. As did little San, who clearly had hit the books and found enlightenment. The rest of us were a bit more fifty-fifty. I understood some of it, remained clueless around other parts, didn't seem to be getting any clearer. And could not get there by peering at the explanation sheet Fátima had given us, though I had the growing feeling there was a mathematical simplicity behind it all, so that my inability to get it resulted in rapidly-inflating frustration.

Not a happy boy, me. And when it seemed like everyone else but me had gotten it, when it might have been better to back off, let it go for the night, I could not take my teeth out of it, and got Fátima to make one more attempt at clearing it up. Which, in keeping with the other attempts, did not get through to me. (Not the fault of her explanations, believe me.)

At this point, I'd reached an intense enough emotional state that the rest of the students grew quiet, seeming to lean away from me. Or at least Tracey and Brian seemed to. San began nodding her head in agreement with Fátima's explanations, a happy smile on her face. Which made me, feeling thicker by the moment, mighty unhappy. Until San -- wanting nothing more than to be helpful -- extended her little hand to my copy of the explanation sheet, pointing out to me something she thought might make things clearer. Which pushed me right over the edge for a moment, me letting San know clearly and sharply that her help was not helping and not wanted. She pulled immediately back, Fátima asked what had just happened, I said, "Nada, nada, nada," we finished out the last remaining minutes of the class. My frustration now compounded by guilt, embarassment, humiliation.

What a ball, huh? As soon as class ended, San and I turned to each other, she started to apologize. I assured her she'd done nothing wrong, she had nothing to be sorry for, I was the one who needed to apologize. She showed me a flashcard she'd made, laying out the various elements of el estilo indirecto in reasonably simple style. I -- making flashcards at home this last week for vocabulary -- had thought about doing just what she did for this usage, but didn't get around to it. Leaving me feeling particularly stupid.

Oh, the drama.

So. The good part of it all: I did apologize right away, I let San know she was without blame, got all that over with immediately instead of letting the moment pass by. And I'm aware that my strong reaction to the whole sitch indicates that it matters to me, that the learning-Spanish thing is important to me. And after class, I walked with Tracey and San for a bit. Then came home, made something to eat, watched the second half of a Champion's League game, with some pretty dynamic fútbol being played between Real Madrid and Marseilles.

It all passed, today I'm my usual brilliant self.

And frankly, this being Thanksgiving, I give thanks for being alive in the middle of all this, for being conscious, awake and fully human, for putting myself out there, making the occasional mess, and cleaning it up as best I can afterwards. I give thanks that I'm where I am, doing what I'm doing. I give thanks that I care, that some things matter to me with particular urgency. I give thanks for it all.

There's been a strange distance to the whole idea of Thanksgiving for me this year. (Logical, me being some distance from the place where I've observed Thanksgiving so many times.) I would have had no sense of the American version of the day if not for contact with friends Stateside in the throes of holiday prep. One of the things I like the most about Thanksgiving Day is how the world settles down, how quiet the streets become. How little traffic, how little activity outdoors. Life here goes on in normal fashion, and I like that, too, the life here being something I enjoy being surrounded by.

They both feel good to me. I hope wherever you are is feeling fine to you, and that the abundance of this life is apparent to you on this day of giving thanks.


Today, dusk, near the Bilbao traffic circle in the Chamartín district of Madrid:

(Thanksgiving Day in the States, just another Thursday here in Spain.)

rws 1:18 PM [+]

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