January 29, 2011

The third part of an ongoing series on how we’re learning the language.

You pick up certain things while you’re watching programs in Spanish.

You tend to watch shows you would never otherwise.  For instance, there’s this show on Nick with one chubby high-school kid and his friend who’s not as chubby and thus more popular.   There’s a lot of physical comedy and overacting and plots ripped from Saved by the Bell.

In English, I would only watch it with my brother Dan, the connoisseur of bad films and television.

In Spanish, it’s a learning tool.   We watched five episodes over the course of three days in Cordoba.   The plot doesn’t necessarily advance as much as it dizzies itself, but we did learn a few expressions. ‘Es mejor que me vaya.’

There’s also a popular show called Glee.  For those who don’t know, it follows two teenagers from Chicago’s west side over a period of four years in their quest for glory on the court.  It’s difficult to watch at times.  They are gifted players- one preternaturally so- and their smooth and uninhibited play is tragically paralleled by brutal trauma in their private lives.   For anyone who wants a look at urban America- without the unforgivable moralizing of that Hillary Swank movie where she’s white and the students are black- watch Glee.

Just joking that’s Hoop Dreams.

Glee exists in an alternate universe where Justin Timberlake becomes a high school Spanish teacher and coaches the most gifted glee club ever.  Its cast is diverse in a way that appeases Huffington Post liberals, but subtly condescending in a way that upsets The Nation liberals.  The students can sing for real though.  I don’t think my dad watches it, but if he did: ‘Sue can you believe it? These kids have effin’ pipes.’

It’s pretty fun to watch in dubbed Spanish.  On good days, you understand fifteen percent of it.



Spanish Podcasts

January 27, 2011

Second of a 86-part installment on ways we’re learning Spanish.

My mom loves a lot of things.  The ocean, church, reading, helping people.  She really likes that movie Waking Ned Devine about those old Irish guys.  What might not fit in this profile of love is ‘Google,’ the search engine.   She really admires its speed and utility.  Respect you mom because I do too.

I was thinking one day, how can I listen to Spanish on the metro?  Then I remembered podcasts.  Podcasts- for the uninitiated- are when two people get inside a spaceship or a pod and record it.  You can even download them to your I-Pod (get it…?).

So I searched on my mom’s beloved site:


I clicked on the first link and got hooked up raw with one of the best websites on an internet full of really good websites: the website  It’s run by the outstanding Marina Diez and Ben Curtis.  Take a bow, guys:  you really provide a service for the Spanish language-learning community.

Marina and Ben are famous to many an extranjero.  They have hours and hours of free podcasts and video available on the site, with accompanying worksheets (if you want) for a reasonable price.  Benny is an English import, and speaks with Madrid native Marina about a range of topics. There’s material on the difference between por and para, climate change,  and even women in the age of Franco.

Interesting stuff.  Ben makes errors- many times with masculine/feminine, the subjunctive, etc.  Marina is there to gently nudge him in the right direction.  As the third party, you’re eavesdropping on conversations about relevant themes, all in conversational spanish.  Marina is a real delight, as it is akin to overhearing a native, only being able to rewind what that native says over and over and over.

I’m about to invest in the worksheets because B and I are really trying to make this happen, Spanish-wise.

Lastly, Dad, you should start a podcast.  It would be wild funny.  You’d get into it: the assassination of Lincoln, how to win friends and influence people, living in the Bronx.


January 25, 2011

Man the internet has so many websites.  Sometimes they do these features where they revisit a certain point over the course of a few weeks.

Want to do one about different ways we’ve been trying to learn Spanish.  Today we look at Intercambios.

There is a great hunger to learn English here in Madrid.  There are probably close to 1000 or so academies, loads of private classes, in-company contracts, and just the spirit of wanting it, badly.  Some folks either can’t afford class or don’t have a timetable to accommodate one.  They set up language exchanges.  I’ve seen ads for Swahili-Catalan swaps, but mostly they’re English-Spanish.

The idea is to practice Spanish and English equal parts.  As I’m not quite in the mode to have uninterrupted, non-stuttering conversations in Spanish, we’re at about 40-60, or more precisely 37.5/62.5.

intercambio gone wild

Many times they have a romantic subtext, but that’s not what the seanandbacrossthesea brand is all about.  We both found someone that is a) middle-aged and b) the same sex.  It’s worked out terrifically.  B’s exchange partner, in addition to teaching her how to order tortilla properly at a restaurant, recently gave her a haircut.  Girl looked fresh when she came back that day; crowd went wild.

My guy is cool, a lawyer, disciplined and proud of his country.  We take different approaches to correcting each other.  He once said that a restaurant in Madrid was one of the great ‘gastronomic’ experiences he’s ever had.  As he was in the flow of conversation, I hesitated to suggest an alternative word.

Later that night, B made a killer potato/zucchini/mushroom combo.  I held back my usual ‘best meal I ever had’ in favor of ‘man that really the gastronomic spot.’  Boom- crowd went wild again.

On the other hand, as my errors  can be far more egregious, he is quick to correct me.  Let’s just say my knowledge and use of the different tenses is not, well, grounded. Prepositions often fall by the wayside.  I say the same things over and over and over (the dreaded ‘y tu?’).  He’ll teach me something- you should use ‘ver’ and not ‘mirar’ in this context– and I’ll forget it sometimes seconds later.  It’s fun as ever though, because sometimes you do get into a flow, even a minor one.  And you’re like, wow, I just said a full sentence that didn’t contain ‘me gusta.’

Strong recommendation for the experience, especially if you’re brave and unafraid to make mistakes.  Even if you’re neither- don’t worry, fellow coward in the night.

good meeting place for intercambios


January 23, 2011

A few spots around Madrid that I’d recommend.

Templo.  If you’re in to temples that are 2400 years old, this is your best bet.  3 stops off the metro and you’re there.  For Lost fans, it was like that Temple in Lost: out of place, intriguing, magic healing water, questionable relevance.

Cine Dore.  We went there with our students and Academy director recently.  Providence natives, think a more charming Avon cinema.  Chicagoans, think Music Box, but Spanish and with more leg room (although still not much).  There’s a fish market to the right of it, with fish hanging in the window that are arguably still alive.  Don’t let that deter you, adventurer.  This theater shows an wide range of great films.  They’re in the middle of a Woody Allen retrospective, and I think a Chaplin one is on the way. Bonus: it’s only 2.50 a ticket.

Museo Romantico.  This is a strange museum that allows you to get in the physical space of an upper middle-class 19th century Spanish resident.  Come for the paintings and stay for the gun of Spain’s most (in)famous romantic, Mariano Jose de Larra.  Mariano shot himself after a love affair went wrong.  When I first read the story, ‘dag’ was my immediate reaction.

Museo Sarolla.  This guy went off.  Another museum that gives you a feel for atmosphere.  They structure it like his actual house, and you can see the man’s incredible work.  Bonus: Not many people there and lots of opportunities to fist-pump unwilling participants.

Cafeteria near our crib.  Every place has tortilla de patata, but few places dress it up like this hole in the wall.  Their tortilla con queso transcends usual comfort food.  It becomes a work of art when combined with cafe con leche.  Bonus: one time we had it while watching ‘Homeward Bound’ dubbed in Spanish on the cafe’s television.  Double Bonus: The otherwise hard-nosed bartender was dying laughing at the last scene in Homeward Bound when the dog goes wild for the pepperoni pizza.

Mallorquina Bakery.  Yeah this place has the goods.  I guess it does, actually.  Haven’t had anything besides the napolitana con chocolate, which I’ve had 14 straight times.  It’s so perfect I can’t tempt trying anything else.   B goes off though.  She gets like 3 truffles with different colors and flavors and some other cookie or cracker like thing.

Reina Sofia.  Often ranked third of The Big Three of Madrid museums, this is my favorite by a mile.  Sculpture and space and one of the best elevators, if you’re into elevators.  Also, Guernica is there, and if you see that thing once, you feel awe at its power and a sense of connection to the city, the country, and Pablo himself.

Walking around. A city that offers lots and lots of things to see for free.  Best of all, of course, it the presence of the beautiful mayores, senior citizens exercising their right to vibrance..

When I no longer live in Spain will I still think it’s okay to…

eat a half a jar of olives every day

drink Sangria at lunchtime

go to the bakery for miniature pastry 4 times a week

wake up at 2 pm

I’m guessing not. -bl

Cordoba, Spain- lovely

January 23, 2011

Last weekend we went to Cordoba and were in awe. Our hotel was directly across the street from a mosque, which contains one of the most important cathedrals in Spain (mosque + cathedral, perhaps a bit strange). The architecture of the cathedral was like nothing I have ever seen. There was a tapas restaurant outside the mosque and people brought their tapas to the wall surrounding the mosque (the wall served as a table or seat). It was a unique dining experience. The food was delicious and cheap. We ate there four times in three days. To top the trip off, the weather was spring-like and the streets were lined with lemon and orange trees. I wanted to pick one to eat but street water probably doesn’t make tasty fruit. All in all, we saw the mosque etc, a very old synagogue, a palace, and a castle of the Christian monarchs. -bl

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Around Town

January 3, 2011

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On New Years we participated in a very important Spanish tradition involving grapes. We went to Puerta del Sol with thousands of people wearing goofy wigs. When the clock changed to 12 a gold ball dropped about 5 feet above the tower and a bell rang 12 times. For each ring, you had to eat one grape. I was nervous that I would choke so I bought the grapes in a can (gross, I know… but they were seedless and skinless). Everyone had a little baggy of grapes and vendors sold extras in case you needed a snack. It was funny watching everyone frozen with a grape positioned near his or her open mouth, waiting for the right moment. Unfortunately it was more of a challenge to hear the ringing of the bell than I had expected. In the end, I shoved about 7 grapes in my mouth at once. It made New Year’s kisses comical. -b

Ruin, Italy

January 2, 2011

When we arrived, a man told us that, ‘Rome isn’t just ruins and buildings falling apart.’  He was right, as Rome also had:

  1. An absurd amount of Roman Holiday and La Dolce Vita posters
  2. A dirty river
  3. St. Peter’s Basilica.  My mom would like the this Church, it had spectacular nativity scenes and lots of room for contemplative roaming, a Sue G. staple
  4. One night I had this pasta with this sauce that was so salty and good and it made me reconnect with the Almighty.  It was like Tilda Swinton in I am Love
  5. The Sistine Chapel was intricate.  It was painted by Renaissance man and celebrated Half-Shell Michelangelo.   There was a man screaming, ‘NO PHOTOS.’ I broke his law, but not God’s, by taking a few
  6. Ruins were excellent.  So much so that they infused themselves into my brain.  Everything began to get ruined.  ‘Wow I just ruined that dinner…’ ‘We’ll take two tickets to My Fair Ruin…’ ‘Man I really enjoyed Ruin, Italy…’
  7. There was one statue of a man nobly stabbing another man through the skull with what looked like an ancient axe
  8. We walked around a lot and got lost several times. As B mentioned, we got faked out by a fake Colosseum and also by a fake Parthenon. The real Colosseum was crazy and made you wonder who would fare well there in today’s NBA.  Kobe, potentially. For all his faults, he rarely gives up.  Tim Duncan, no, too sarcastic.  The champion would be KG
  9. I can’t inoffensively describe the way the Italians speak.  It will sound like I’m stereotyping.  Please trust me when I say  that their normal inflection always sounds like tears are about to flow.  A passionate and vibrant people.
  10. The metro was beautifully unkempt.  Years worth of dirt buildup made me connect with this train in a way I never quite can with the elitist and impeccable Madrid Metro

'i'm here, man.'