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Learning Spanish in Cadiz


I have decided to be very demanding of my three-week trip to Spain. I want to take Spanish lessons and experience the culture, but I also want to relax, enjoy the nightlife and read trashy novels on the beach. On a Spanish friend’s recommendation, I opt for Cadiz. It’s situated on the Costa de la Luz, the Atlantic side of Andalucia, where foreigners are outnumbered by Spanish tourists. Spain’s oldest port, it’s from here that Christopher Columbus sailed to explore the Americas. I’ve also read that it has a dilapidated feel to it, a friendly population, and a tradition of liberalism and tolerance.  

A search on the Internet pulls up several Spanish schools, and I’ve chosen Centro Melkart because it’s not expensive and the website looks friendly and straightforward. They are helpful and quick to confirm my email booking, a deposit of 120 euros is required. They can arrange accommodation, and I choose to share a flat with students from the school, rather than share with other Spanish students or take full-board lodging with a Spanish family. 

Cadiz is built on a thin peninsula. Arriving by Taxi from Jerez Airport means driving through the industrialised suburb, and then the new town, a boulevard of sixties apartment buildings, before reaching the far more appealing cobbled streets of my final destination: Cadiz’s old town. 

Olga, my Russian flatmate, has been asked to wait up and introduce me to the flat. Although it’s functional and clean, I am disappointed to find that my room is small and has a window that looks out onto a corridor. We stroll down to a nearby square where more students from the school, Lars from Germany, Katarina from Switzerland, Katia from Slovenia, are hanging out. I had been warned that if I lived with other foreign students it was likely that the dominant language might be English; fact confirmed, with a dose of German thrown in. But at least I can order my food in Spanish.

The next morning Olga accompanies me to the school, a three-story house with a friendly atmosphere. I am greeted by Israel, a roman-nosed charmer who points me to the right class. Like most houses in the old part of Cadiz, there is a central corridor with rooms leading off, and as the school bell rings the bustling stops and students scurry away like rabbits into their holes. I have chosen the Standard course, which consists of a daily dose of two one-and-a-half hour lessons, with a 30-minute break in the middle. My school day finishes at 12.30pm, after which I am free to do as I please.
Classes are limited to seven students, and I am to study with a mixed bunch, from Germany, Switzerland, Denmark, Ireland, Norway and Austria. We have two teachers; they are both called Carmen. To differentiate between them they have been christened Carmen Futbal and Carmen Canta, the former a Seville fanatic, the latter impressive on karaoke nights. Carmen Futbal rigidly drums Spanish grammar into her students, while Carmen Canta teases and coaxes conversation out of us. I realise that things are serious. Whilst struggling to remember the plusquamperfect I ask myself, did I cheat in the test they asked me to send back completed, and now I’m in a class that’s too hard? Well a little bit, I have to admit, but I grit my teeth and get stuck in.

Settling into Cadiz is not difficult. The old part of the town is built right on the end of the peninsula, and consists of a square mile of narrow streets only wide enough for a single car. Not many people bother to drive in so the place has a pedestrian feel, a bit like Venice without the canals – and more dog poop. The buildings are tall and terraced, with handsome balconies and small, beautifully-tiled courtyards. The many pretty squares make up for the lack of trees, and the dilapidation only adds to the charm. The sea is never far away, and a smallish beach, Caleta, is close to the flat. A much larger stretch of sand, worth the extra 20-minute walk, runs along the length of the new town. It’s crowded with locals of all shapes and sizes: families, lovers and youths playing football. Grandmothers are abundant, I hear children screaming for them, “Abuela! Abuela!”. I am perfectly comfortable going there on my own, the only downside is the notorious wind that helps the fine white sand get everywhere.

At school, lessons are fun, and the mornings go quickly. Carmen Canta, who is charismatic and has a wicked laugh, proudly tells us that Cadiz is the only town in Spain where the audience would rather walkout on a crap performance than clap politely. For some strange reason many of Spain’s top soap actors come from Cadiz, and Antonio Banderas is from Malaga! There must be something in the air. We are treated to nuggets of information about local habits and traditions, including the famously wild Cadiz carnival in February, stories about Julio Iglesias and the Royal family, and discussions about religion, wife beating and bullfighting.

Cadiz is cyclic. In the morning when I leave for school the air is fresh, the streets are sparkly and clean, the Cadizians walk furiously to the sound of shops opening and dustmen cleaning the streets. At lunchtime there is activity, browsing and chatting while babies wait patiently in prams. But there is still an air of going somewhere, and by two most people have shut themselves in their windowless rooms or are dining in hidden restaurants. In the afternoon the shops are closed, the atmosphere is still and hot, it’s a ghost town. In fact even at six or seven Cadiz is only stirring, and it’s not until later in the evening that the streets are suddenly full. By 11pm the accumulation of noise, rubbish and the smell of a long hot day make for a unique atmosphere. I watch five-year-olds run around a square while their parents relax, and think of London where the pubs are just closing, and if there were any five-year-olds on the streets, well, we’d call Social Services wouldn’t we?

Lessons continue, we’ve moved on to the subjunctive. It’s easy! (we are told). It’s a running joke in the class, every new tense we learn is easy. In between memorising the grammar and practising conversation, we pick up and digest details about the language or the culture. To reinforce a description we can say an adjective twice: ella esta inglesa inglesa. She is English English. To differentiate it from the new town, the locals refer to the old town as Cadiz Cadiz. The conversation turns to property and I discover that many of the flats in Cadiz Cadiz have rooms with no windows: I have not been badly treated after all. How much, I ask, for un piso con ventanas, a flat with windows?  Prices are outrageous, I can barely swap my London one-bed for a two-bed on Calle Sagasta.

Israel is the school’s social organiser, and he provides the students with plenty of opportunities to socialise and discover Cadizian nightlife. We find ourselves at the Peña de Flamenco, which looks like a local hall, the audience is packed into rows of tables and chairs. On a very kitsch looking stage, decorated with ornaments that look like they’ve been bought from a souvenir shop, a boy of around 15 with a guitar and a seventies haircut appears and then slumbers into a cross-legged position on one of the chairs, as if he’s about to practice Pink Floyd riffs in his bedroom. He strums his guitar a bit while three teenage girls take their positions, nattering and giggling to themselves. One of them keeps waving to her sister, or perhaps it’s her best friend. There’s also a percussionist, with broad shoulders and a baby face, who keeps looking around like he’s waiting for the number 38 bus.

But then Guitar Boy launches into full-throttle flamenco and the others follow so quickly you’ve got no idea how they knew it was coming. We are being treated to a teenage flamenco show. And they’re having a good time, clapping and wailing like old women, feeling the rhythm, breaking into spontaneous dancing and feet stomping, and best of all, sharing it with us. The mums are joining in, “Ole! Ole!”, they cry.

The second week of class and I am frustrated. I don’t seem to be making much progress and although my comprehension is improving, I wonder if there is any point learning the future imperfect if I still can’t speak in the tenses we learnt last week. Outside of class, the only opportunities to practice are when buying or ordering anything, although Israel’s friends sometimes turn up to evening activities, and if you’re lucky you might get chatted up in Spanish.

I get to my flat one day to find the old lady next door in the hallway, half-dressed, trying to open her front door with a two euro coin. Her keys are on the floor along with the rest of the contents from her bag, she looks confused and lost. I pick up the keys and help her open the door, I try and offer soothing words but she doesn’t seem to understand. I wonder if it’s me or her.

I spend the rest of the day worrying about her. Is she always like that or did she perhaps just have a stroke, coming up the stairs? Should I have called a doctor, or tried to find someone to look after her? The next day I ring her doorbell. She opens the door with a big grin.

Como estas?” I ask, “Bien?

Vale, vale.”

Vale. My favourite Spanish word. It means OK, and so much more. You can add it on to practically any sentence, or use it on its own.

Vale,” I reply.

By the third week I am becoming addicted to the streets, the sound of mopeds and the Andalucian light, the morning freshness that evolves into hot sticky nights. I have learnt to shout confident Spanish at the shopkeepers and camereros, so that they no longer ignore me or pretend that they don’t understand. After class, my routine includes a trip to the beach, followed by evenings spent strolling and browsing in Cadiz’s many boutiques, where handbags and shoes are abundant. I’ve discovered how to eat Andalucian-style: the trick is not to sit at a table, where you can only choose from a menu. Sitting at the bar and ordering “tapas” with the locals, in the noisy bustling thick of it all, is far cheaper and much more entertaining. Newly acquired Spanish words and phrases float around my head, they are there but difficult to use.

It’s my last day of School. Coincidently, it’s El Dia del Carmen, the name day of the Carmen’s. Both teachers talk about San Fernando, a few miles down the coast, where Carmen is the Patron Saint of the town and where there’ll be a fiesta all weekend.  I am quietly jealous as other students, who are lucky enough to be staying longer, get the lowdown on how to get there and what time to go. But my time has come, and as well as congratulating both teachers on their day, I thank them for their patience and say my goodbyes.

Later on, at the barbecue on the beach that Israel’s organised, I reflect on the last three weeks. It’s been a bit like Auberge Espanol, that French film that’s set in Barcelona, only the actors are not quite the same. The Cadiz version has more variety, such as Elena, a Danish lady of a certain age, who drinks and play cards until late in the night; Kurt, a Norwegian doctor who haunts El Corte Ingles, Spain’s equivalent of Debenhams, and buys endless Spanish films on DVD;  Susan, a dry-humoured American from Berlin, who I plan to meet up with when she comes to London; Sebastian, a gentle German who always knows where the fiesta is and gets laughed at when he is late for class, eyelids heavy.

At three in the morning the younger students are talking about heading off to a nightclub, the rest of us end our evening speculating on whether we would come back to Cadiz to study more Spanish. The general consensus is that second time it probably wouldn’t be as good. Half the fun was discovering the charms of Cadizian life, and the details that made you feel like you were part of it, even if only for a short while. But we will definitely be recommending it to all our friends.

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