Sunday, October 25, 2009

Cerro Pedro Lopez

We had perfect weather this weekend for another Llega Como Puedas hike in the Córdoba Sierra. Since the excursion was so close to home, there were a lot of people in the group. Not that I don’t like having lots of people come, but it tended to make the trail a bit crowded. See the pictures at

Theoretically this hike was shorter than last week’s (15km, versus 20km), but it felt longer. That may be because it involved a lot more ups and downs. I was happy to have my ski poles on some of the steep cross-country inclines.

The nice part about this hike was that we got to see some ruins: a Roman bridge dating from the first century A.D., and a Caliphate bridge dating from the 9th century A.D. It’s interesting that after a year in Andalucía, I can identify a Muslim bridge just from the shape of the arches.

Now, the Roman bridge isn’t the well-maintained one that people usually associate with Córdoba. Both of these bridges are remote from the city, and have been left to fall into ruin over the centuries. As you can tell from the pictures, the Roman bridge is doing better than the Caliphate one. The fact is that structures do not stay looking pristine over long periods of time without a consistent program of maintenance. In previous centuries, people weren’t necessarily interested in keeping the original design of the structures when doing upgrades. As a result, most of today’s well-preserved medieval (or earlier) buildings are curious mixtures of styles spread out over multiple centuries. When you see something that hasn’t been maintained…like these bridges…you can see what they must have originally looked like. Of course, you need some imagination to see past the ravages of time.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Bob the Octopus

You can use the strangest things as teaching tools. When I began teaching younger kids this year (outside of Gran Capitán), I went looking for appropriate visuals. I found Bob the octopus at a little shop, and bought him for 3€. He’s turned out to be one of the better purchases I’ve ever made. I use Bob while talking to the young kids; whoever is holding Bob gets to talk, and everyone else has to listen. The kids love him.

Bob seems to have become something of a celebrity. The other day, I was teaching a class of Gran Capitán students that I hadn’t met before. At the end of the class, I asked if they had any questions. I was taken aback when one of the students asked why I hadn’t brought Bob. “How do you know about Bob?” I asked in surprise.

It turned out to be complicated. One evening, I had come directly to Gran Capitán after teaching a group of younger kids. When I opened my backpack in the teachers’ lounge, some of my colleagues saw Bob, and so I told them the story. Ana, a French teacher, was apparently impressed. So impressed, in fact, that she told one of her classes that I was using Bob the octopus. And voila! Bob was suddenly famous. He’s in great demand; I may have to hire an agent for him.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Naked in your own home

From here in Spain, we’ve been following with some amusement the story of the guy who was arrested in Virginia for being seen naked in his own home. This morning, I had an interesting conversation with one of the other teachers. He was completely mystified by the story, for two reasons. First, what was the big deal about someone being naked? There are nude beaches all over the place in Europe, and for a child to see a naked man is just not unusual. Second, why were all those windows uncovered? Here in Córdoba, not only are all the windows protected by heavy grates, but they are covered by persianas (flexible metal coverings). Spanish people have a perfect horror of people being able to see into their homes, and they seem to think that the streets are crawling with robbers. (I haven’t seen any particular evidence of that.) Of course, all this has the unfortunate side effect of making most home interiors rather dark.

Ah, cultural relativism!

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Vereda del Pretorio Hike

I officially kicked off the new season with Llega Como Puedas, the hiking club that I’ve been enjoying so much over the last year. My first hike was to Vereda del Pretorio, in the Córdoba sierra. I enjoy all of the LCP excursions, but they generally mean a pretty long day: one to two hours on the bus each way, and an extensive drink-beer-and-chat session afterward. It’s not unusual to leave at 7:00 in the morning, and not return until 8:00 in the evening. Since we stuck close to home this time, there were no long bus rides. I had a very pleasant hike and was back in my shower by 4:00.

The city of Córdoba extends a little way up into the sierra, so the trailhead was actually within city limits. The first part of the hike follows the path of the old Roman road (the Praetorian road) which ran from Córdoba to the mines in the sierra. The landscape is very reminiscent of southern California; lots of oak forest, and pretty dry. Some of my hiking companions found it a bit hot, but I thought it was perfect hiking weather. Though I neglected to apply sunscreen, I didn’t get sunburned at all.

Though enjoyable, it wasn’t one of the more scenic hikes I’ve done in Andalucía. You can see the few pictures at

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Language Exercises for Students

During the last year in Spain, I’ve been making lots of use of teaching tools. Books, newspapers, videos, Internet pages; there are lots of possibilities. There is an amazing amount of video resources available on YouTube. Songs are good for the children. Bingo is a big hit (“There was a farmer had a dog and Bingo was his name….”). Kindergarten games like Simon Says, more advanced games like Twenty Questions or Scrabble…all of these offer a teacher opportunities to make students learn without realizing that they’re learning.

The one seemingly obvious resource that I don’t like to use is Hollywood movies. From a technical standpoint, they use a lot of slang, and the actors don’t tend to speak very clearly. Students who try to watch American movies usually come away feeling discouraged when they can’t understand what they’re hearing. And as for the content….well, the next time you’re watching a Hollywood blockbuster, think about how it sounds to someone who is trying to learn English. If you want to learn how to swear, of course, they’re a great resource.

Recently one of my students watched the movie American Gangster (about black criminal gangs in New York City) and came back with lots of questions. Now, how do you explain a sentence like “Ain’t y’all n----rs never seen no hoochies before?” That led to an interesting discussion about inner-city language, and how there are some words that you just don’t use in America under any circumstances.

I do not propose censorship of movies. Still, I’m afraid that our movie industry isn’t doing us any favors in how America is viewed in other parts of the world.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Teaching small children

The new school year has begun, bringing with it a whole crop of new children. In addition to my formal teaching at Gran Capitán, I have a number of new private students. These include a group of seven-year-olds and a group of ten-to-thirteen-year-olds. I’ve been getting unexpected enjoyment out of teaching the small children; up until now, I’ve mostly taught adults and older teenagers. Of course, the private groups are much smaller, with five or six kids. That seems to be an ideal class size.

There are also unexpected pitfalls. The other day, I was reading “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves” to them (a considerably tamer version than we read in The Thousand and One Nights). The kids were getting serious cases of the giggles whenever I’d mention Ali Baba’s name. My mind was in English mode, so it took a little time for me to catch on. “Baba” in Spanish means….drool, or slobber. Sigh. You’d think that after a year in Spain, I’d be more sensitized to these sorts of things.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

The Submerged Economy

Recently I read a very interesting article in the Diario Córdoba, the local newspaper. The economy is bad all over the world, but Spain is second only to Italy in Western European unemployment. In certain areas, the unemployment rate is around 30%. When unemployment gets this high, governments begin to worry about increasing crime and social unrest. But none of this is happening in Spain. Why?

As an emergency measure, President Zapatero (PSOE, Partido Socialista Obrero Español, or Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party) extended unemployment benefits. The unemployed people can receive an additional 420€ per month, an amount widely considered to be a joke. In Spain, it is estimated that there are over half a million people who qualify to receive the additional payment. However, only 28,000 people have signed up. Why?

The answer, according to this article, is that the “submerged economy” is booming. Even though unemployment is very high and the economy is in the tank, there is actually more money changing hands on the streets. People who accept the symbolic 420€ per month must also attend employment training classes. However, most workers choose to spend their time working in undocumented jobs which actually bring in money….money which is not subject to the high Earned Value Taxes.

This illustrates what can happen when a government becomes “too” socialist, but maintains a free market. Businesses will choose to operate under the radar, rather than going out of business because they can’t afford the high taxes. The people who really pay the price for this are the workers. By working in undocumented positions, they are much more exposed to abuse by employers. Of course the government attempts to enforce the labor laws, but the sheer number of workers and businesses makes it a near-impossible job.

Is there a lesson for America in all this?