From Penny Lane to Pretérito

Of course, I am 15 minutes early. “Hola, cómo estás, bienvenidos.” The friendly secretary at Christian Spanish Academy (CSA has no religious affiliation- it used to teach missionaries and has an excellent reputation) greets me by name as if we’ve met before. Well, in a way we have since we’ve been emailing back and forth for months about my attending their Spanish immersion program and living with a Guatemalan family. She has been incredibly courteous and very patient in answering my many questions — including whether she and her co-workers were okay after the Fuego volcano violently exploded and erupted last June. Fortunately, they were. However, Antigua was covered in lots of volcanic sand since the volcano is less than 10 miles away. (Many people here have told me that they thought it was raining only to go outside and suddenly realize that it was actually volcanic sand, not water or even ash falling from the sky and covering everything!)

A few minutes later, I am introduced to my teacher or “maestra” who is smiling warmly and greets me in Spanish. She is petite, pretty and professionally dressed in a smart looking uniform bearing the school’s logo.  She enunciates so clearly and slowly that I start wondering whether I’ve actually enrolled in adult Spanish kindergarten. Maybe I have. She seems to be a bit like a female version of Mr. Rogers but much younger. As I stumble to greet her in my very broken Spanish, she instantly starts correcting me and I erradically struggle to find the right words but my brain’s auto-correct is “no funcionando” (not working)!” This one’s gonna be fun” she is surely saying to herself en español. I feel a slight irritation begin to percolate inside me as I wonder whether she is going to continue correcting every few words that I’m trying to say. I keep smiling and remind myself that this is why I’m here. Fortunately, her corrections slow down and I find her both pleasant and likable. We’re off to a good start.

We move to our table- a small 2 by 2 foot table with a white board on an easel next to us. The school is very nice.

Christian Spanish Academy, Antigua Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.

Numerous tables just like ours are scattered around the first floor in a garden-like setting surrounding a central open courtyard (like many of the buildings in Antigua) sprinkled with a few wooden patio tables and chairs shadowed by large red umbrellas. Many students just like me are facing their teachers busy at work. A low murmer of unrecognizable Spanish sounds fills the area. This is one-on-one instruction. So I find myself facing my teacher at this tiny table. I’m a little uncomfortable and self-conscious, but it eases after a while. We continue talking in Spanish. Refreshingly, she has never heard of Starbucks or “Hamilton.”

Courtyard at Christian Spanish Academy, Antigua Guatemale. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.

I feel her assessing my abilities and level. I come up with a few words and sentences that even impress me. I’m sure she’s not. She’s been doing this for years.

Prior to arriving, I had to take two on-line assessments or tests. One was to assess my learning style. The other was to assess my level of proficiency. For some reason, they were unable to find the second assessment. I tell them that I did it several weeks earlier so they look again. They are placating me. I think to myself that maybe the test never went through – I know our home’s Wifi isn’t terrific. They look skeptical but they smile anyway. I feel like I just told them that my dog ate my homework. They apologize and tell me they can’t find it. I will need to take it again. Damn. Fifty questions. Now. My first day.

School Desk at Christian Spanish Academy. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.

So I re-do the assessment as my maestra patiently waits. I’m done and we go over it. I am told that I am in grado (grade) “A.” I’m a beginner- I hope I’m at least an advanced beginner (my term, not theirs). There are 7 grade levels, A through G. I feel a little embarrassed but I’m not sure why. But grade “A” turns out to be a good thing. It’s meant to lay a solid foundation for what’s to come later. Solid is a good word for it as I have come to find out – it can be very hard.

School started for me on Monday, September 10th after arriving in Antigua the previous Friday. Going to school again feels a bit like a second childhood. And you can see why. I get up, shower, get dressed and make my bed. I go downstairs for breakfast at 7:30 a.m. After eating a good breakfast, I walk to school- it takes about 10 minutes. I carefully cross the streets after looking in all directions. I attend school for 4 hours, 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. We get a 15 minute break (recess-my word, not theirs) at 10:00 a.m. After school, I walk home. (I don’t stop at “Rudolph’s drug store” on the way home – only a few people reading this will understand what that means). I change my clothes and then I hear my name being called that lunch is ready. Lunch is at 1 p.m.  I come down stairs and have a nutritious hot lunch. After lunch, I go out and play. (Usually a walk to the mercado (market) or el parque central (the central park square, look around and often strike up conversations in Spanish). Then I come home and do my homework. Do you see what I mean?  Melrose Avenue elementary school all over again. But as you will see, that’s where the comparison ends.

Walking to school is very enjoyable and always different!  I realize I have actually developed my own version of “Penny Lane.”

Penny Lane, Liverpool, England. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.

I walk by the bank and say good morning to the armed guards standing outside. (I don’t see the banker with a motorcar.) Their friendly smiles strongly contradict the fact that they are both holding extremely lethal-looking rifles in their hands.

Appliances, Computers, Stoves and Motorcycles for Sale, Antigua Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved

Then I say good morning to the guy who works in the corner store- he sells an unusual assortment of things such as computers, stereo equipment, stoves, televisions, washing machines and motorcycles! I pass a tiny panaderia (bakery)which tempts me but I resist. Then I pass a couple of barber shops, one of which is named “Hunx” and another called “Elegante VEGAS Barber-Shop” with a sign trying to copy the famous “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas” sign (Both are closed this early so the barber isn’t showing photographs of every head he’s had the pleasure to have known.)

I proceed to pass my favorite coffee store, “Guatejava” (cute play on words) across the street. And I pass the Antigua gym. I turn up the street and walk by a pharmacy, a school, and a lavanderia (laundry). Sometimes I drop off my laundry at a different lavanderia near the school. I pay Q45, or less than $6. My laundry is ready by the time school is over and comes back neatly folded and tied with ribbon!

I also pass a  a tiny butcher shop.

Elegante Vegas Barber Shop, Antigua Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.

The butcher is busy cutting some part of an animal as very large irregular portions of unrecognizable reddish-brown meat hang unrefrigerated over the front counter. Who knows how long they’ve been there. One morning, a whole beef carcass was hanging in the back of the little shop as the butcher was busy cutting it into manageable-sized pieces. I’m not even sure how he was able to fit the whole thing into such a small space. I cringe slightly and decide against taking a photo. Now I regret it.

As I walk, I keep checking behind me to see if the nearby volcanos are visible (since it has been cloudy) and whether Fuego is erupting as it does fairly often. I pass a fancy pastry shop appropriately named “Ganache.”

Further down the street, I greet a friendly woman with a big smile named Glinda who is making homemade tortillas over a hot griddle near the front of a small restaurant. She has attractive Mayan features and she is wearing the traditional floral woven clothing. (She’s the only Glinda I know besides the good witch of the north.) One morning, after passing her and smiling a few times, I just walked in and introduced myself telling her that I was a student at the school up the street. Now we say hello every morning and sometimes we chat a bit.

I proceed to pass a veterinary clinic, a fresh juice shop, another pharmacy, some cool ruins of una vieja iglesia (an old church- there are a number of these types of ruins around Antigua along with some beautiful churches) and another bank (still no banker, motorcar or children laughing at him).

Church Ruins with Fuego Volcano Erupting, Antigua Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.

Up ahead, there’s a larger panaderia across the street which is just down the street from my school. I resist going in knowing that I will probably go there during the morning break. And then I enter the school saying hola to everyone at the front desk.

School for me starts at 8:30 a.m. I decided against starting at 8 a.m. because it brought back haunting memories of all those 8 a.m. chemistry, biochemistry, physics and other horrendous classes that I took in college as a zoology major. School ends at 12:30 p.m. I walk home usually by a different route. I enjoy seeing everyone out and about – tourists, school students, street venders and  locals. I periodically stop in a shop and look around or converse a little, or take some photos even though by this time I have hundreds.

So how is school? As I am just competing my fourth week, the short answer is-there are some days that are fine, but then there are those other days which are very demanding and challenging. Without complaining, which I’m not, and in the spirit of honest blogging and journaling, I feel it is important to capture my reality. And for me, at times, school is going well but there are those times that it is hard, frustrating and very challenging indeed.

Guatejava Coffee, Antigua Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.

My teacher reminds me “Spanish is not easy.” She’s right! And at the same time, somehow I’m enjoying the process, I like the challenge and I look forward to school each day. But there are those days that I question what in the world was I thinking. Like today. I was overwhelmed, discouraged and lost. My teacher assured me that everyone has difficulty with conjugating reflexive (reflexivo) verbs (verbos). It was difficult enough dealing with present (presente), past (preterite or pretérito) and future (futuro) verbs. So after days like this, I take a walk, catch my breath, have a little something sweet to eat and take time to regroup. I’m determined. I know that once I sit down with this stuff, it will start to come together. So far it has.

After my first two weeks, I started to question whether my teacher was the right fit for me. Although she was very bright and nice, she seemed to be looking up a few too many things on Google translate. One day, she had given me homework that was a word search puzzle. It was a waste of my time and taught me nothing. We talked about it and she agreed it probably wasn’t a good idea- I think she thought it would be fun for me to have something different to try. (The other homework she had given me was worthwhile.) Also, I felt as if we were proceeding a little too slowly. But I had nothing to compare it to.

As it turns out, right around the time I had these questions, she was absent one day after she unfortunately burned herself while cooking at home. I was given a different teacher until my regular teacher returned. It didn’t take long for me to realize that this new teacher was a much better fit for me so I asked the school to change  and they gladly accommodated my request. (They make these changes all the time.) My new teacher is wonderful. She is very professional and extremely bright. At the same time, she is very pleasant and fun, has a great sense of humor and has made our sessions very tolerable and enjoyable. She even rides a motorcycle to school! (Motorcycles are very popular here in Antigua- they’re relatively inexpensive, use little gas and are easy to park.) We get along great. She’s so happy and bubbly all the time that I hope that some of it will rub off on me. She also talks about the local McDonalds a lot especially because she has young children.

McDonald’s Patio (with Ronald McDonald statute at left edge of photo) Antigua Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.

(This has to be the nicest McDonalds on the planet. It has a beautiful garden patio with a central flowing fountain. Also, the food is supposed to be much better than in the U.S. – much fresher and local. The food does look better although I haven’t tried it.) My teacher knows when I’m having a tough day and she tries to encourage me. Fortunately, she’s very nice and extremely patient. And we enjoy some good laughs together.

I get homework every night including the weekends. I have been making flashcards for the hundreds of new vocabulary words and verbs I need to learn. (Can you believe that I sit and make flashcards?) We spend the time in our sessions having detailed conversations, doing written and oral exercises, reading short stories and answering questions about them, taking down dictation and learning massive numbers of new words and verbs along with their seemingly endless tenses and conjugations. And I found out that need to pass a 2 to 3 hour written and oral exam to make it to the next grade level. This clearly puts some skin in the game and set my nerves a bit on edge. This is obviously a no-nonsense program. I admit that I didn’t exactly know what I was getting myself into when I enrolled. But I knew it wouldn’t be easy. Again, I’m not complaining- I’m really not.

I’ve made some friends with other students but the students here are very transitory. Some are starting while others are leaving. Some come for just a week, while others like me are here for several months or longer.  Most students seem to be beginners but there are a few more advanced students or those who have been here for a longer time. I enjoy meeting other students from all over the country and other parts of the world. We share our experiences about school and about living in Guatemala. And yes, most of the time, I admit we speak in English as our brains need a break, at least for a few minutes.

On a few occasions, my teacher and I leave the school and go on a “field trip” (my term) to places like a nearby church, the public library and we plan to go to the local open mercado. We only speak in Spanish and of course, there are lots of new vocabulary words that arise during our field trips that, of course, result in many more flashcards. These outings are very enjoyable and fun. And it’s nice to get out of the school setting for a while.

Hombre and Perro, Antigua Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.

There’s a phrase in Antigua that everyone here seems to say: “poco a poco” or little by little. When I meet people and tell them –in Spanish– that I’m studying and that it’s difficult, they almost always say this to me. The family that I’m living with continually remind me of this- especially when I share with them — in Spanish–the challenges that I’m experiencing in school. No me gusta los verbos (I don’t like the verbs). Poco a poco they keep telling me.

At times it’s great. At times I’m discouraged. At times I’m overwhelmed. And at times, my brain is on overload and it feels like there’s no more room on my hard drive. And at times, I’m thrilled when I actually remember the Spanish work for something — like today– the word “peach” is “durazno.” Thank goodness for flashcards! And most of the time, I’m really glad to be doing this.

So there you have it. Each day, I go from Penny Lane to Pretérito.  They both have something in common- they both involve things in the past. I’m looking forward to the day that my current struggles in Spanish are also a thing of the past. And to help make that happen,  I’ve got to get back to my tarea (homework). Poco a poco.