The portero

One of the most interesting things about Spain is that whilst it is incredibly modern in some respects (hello, superfast trains!), it is quaintly old fashioned in other ways. And nowhere is this more obvious than in the case of porteros

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A portero or portera is a type of doorman or doorwoman, who sits at the entrance to a building, typically an apartment block. They are not a concierge, because they don’t do things like making reservations for the guests or helping them with their luggage. And they’re not a security guard, either, because whilst they watch the doorway to the apartment block, they don’t prevent people from gaining entry.

So, you’re probably thinking, what exactly does a portero do? Very good question, to which I don’t know the answer, although my observations suggest the best response is “Not a lot.”

Case in point. The apartment block where I live has a portero. From what I can gather, his daily tasks are:

  1. Taking out and bringing in the rubbish bins;
  2. Putting the mail in the correct letterboxes;
  3. Sweeping and mopping the floor if it’s dirty;
  4. Watering the two pot plants in the foyer;
  5. Letting visitors and any repairpeople into the building;
  6. Acting as an informal and unofficial supplier of privileged local intelligence (in other words, gossiping).

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How long do these tasks take him? About 30 minutes is my guess, except for the last one, which can go on ALL DAY if you’re not careful. And yet the portero sits at his little desk for (wait for it) 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, doing pretty much nothing, except reading his book and playing on his iPad.

!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Talk about a good wicket (hello, Australian idiom! And hello, photo of Steve Waugh!).

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I’m not sure if the portero is paid a salary. I don’t think he is. But I know he is supplied with an apartment in the building. Said apartment has three bedrooms, and is exterior (so it’s nice and light), and would probably cost about 1,400 Euros a month to rent, so I guess this is a pretty good deal.

But I can’t help feeling that the days of porteros may very well be numbered. It simply doesn’t make economic sense to have a guy sitting in the building all day, doing virtually nothing.

And I’m still not certain if I feel incredibly jealous (Hey! I want to sit all day doing my own thing and being paid for it, complete with free apartment!) or incredibly sorry for him (Bloody hell, I would be bored out of my wits sitting in the apartment building all day, pretending to be busy, and I seriously don’t know how he lasts an hour, let alone a day!).

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But I’m glad I got to see this quaint spectacle, even if its days are well and truly numbered.

Dogs in Madrid

One thing which has become very obvious to me since I arrived in Madrid is the somewhat privileged position of dogs in society…

Although the majority of Madrileños seem to live in apartments, they absolutely LOVE their pet dogs. This adoration manifests in various guises, from the dogs walking around the city in coats emblazoned with “cutest pooch”, to others whose head fur has been coloured and put up in little ponytails. Or, my personal favourite, the Great Dane, which is the size of a small pony, whose owner religiously takes him for a daily walk through the city centre…

Kind of like this.

Except better.

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Put simply, Madrid is a paradise for dog lovers. But perhaps the most interesting part of this canine friendly city is the places where you can take your pet pooch.  I’ve seen dogs on the Metro, in the shops, and even in restaurants. Quite a few cafes across town have little signs in the window saying “Well-behaved dogs welcome.”

This is all well and good if you like dogs. But (and I expect the defriending to start now) I’ve got to admit that I am not a fan of canines. I have always preferred cats to dogs, because they are smaller and less frightening and they don’t have big teeth.

But I seem to be in a minority here. Dogs are everywhere!

Case in point…

One day I went to a bar with a friend. We were having a great time, until I heard some creepily persistent heavy breathing beside me. Ugh! Looking across, I expected to see some sleazy individual staring at me. But instead, I saw a dog, seated uncomfortably close by, slobbering and drooling on the floor…

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Dog in bar.

Or the time I visited my favourite store, and found a beloved perro standing right in front of the cash register (surreptitious shot below…).

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Unfortunately, the strong presence of dogs has a rather unpleasant counterpart.

Namely, the strong presence of dog droppings…

Although Madrileños are supposed to pick up after their hounds, this rule is somewhat, well, laxly enforced. Consequently, an early morning stroll through the city becomes akin to an obstacle course, as the unfortunate pedestrian attempts to dodge the piles of poo on the footpath.

This has led to the appearance of graphic signs such as these…

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Roughly translated, this means “Good luck is having a clean suburb.” And let me just say, after I’ve stepped in the hundredth pile of dog droppings, and I’m not even at the end of my street (seriously, it’s THAT BAD!), cats are starting to look better and better by the second!

But perhaps I’m a little biased…

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(One) Spanish school compared to (one) Australian school

A few times, I’ve been asked how school in Spain is different to school in Australia. I’ve thought about this a bit, and decided that I should write a post about some of the key disparities.

BUT (here come the caveats…), at the very start, I want to say that this post is based solely on my own experiences of a public primary school in Australia, and a public primary school in Madrid. This is not exhaustive. It’s a one person, subjective sample. And I certainly appreciate that things are likely to be VERY different in other types of schools and areas. Additionally, I am not making a value judgement- the fact that things are different doesn’t mean that one is “better” than the other.

This being said, hopefully, it provides an insight into some of the differences. And I’d love to learn what others think!

Key differences between the Spanish school I work at and the Australian school I attended:

  1. Uniform.

There’s no uniform in the Spanish school. I’m still not too sure what I think about this. I appreciate that it allows students to express their individuality, but I also think that it can be problematic for those whose economic circumstances are less privileged.

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2. “Grading” of classes.

In the Spanish school, all the students are together. There’s no grading (or streaming) of classes, as opposed to the Australian primary school I attended, where the more academically inclined students were grouped together. The reasoning for the lack of grading in Spain is that in the workplace and in life, you will be expected to interact with people with different abilities, and so it’s appropriate at the school to be in a mixed class.

OK, so this is true. But I do wonder about how effective this method is. In the Year 3 class, there are some students who are a few grades behind, and a couple who are way ahead. So there’s students at a Year 1 level with students at a Year 5 level. And I’m not sure how useful this is for anyone.

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3. Use of textbooks.

In Spain, all of the classes follow a textbook. And by “follow”, I mean religiously. There is no deviation. No experimentation. Rather, it is a word for word regurgitation of the chosen text. In my opinion, this can make for lazy teachers and lazy teaching. Some teachers make a real effort to make the lessons interesting and fun, but others don’t. This makes me so, so sad. In the Year 5 class, I see the pupils are SO much more interested when the teacher discusses what she and her boyfriend did on the weekend (in the past tense) than when they learn the grammar rules (third person singular past tense of “went” is….).

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4. Level of studies.

In Spain, the impression that I get is that students are exposed to material much earlier than in Australia. For instance, in the Year 2 classes, the kids are currently learning about the troposphere and the layers of the earth. This seems to me to be WAY more advanced than at home. I can’t remember learning this stuff until Year 4 or Year 5!

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5. Language learning is technical.

OK, so my language learning consisted of two semesters of French (what can I remember? “Open the window”) and two of Japanese (memories- “I am the teacher!!!!”). But in Spain, the kids are learning really technical stuff REALLY early. The Year 4 class are studying modals, and they call them “modals.” I didn’t even know what a modal was until last year, but I could use one just fine…Seriously, is this the best way to learn?!

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6. Punishment

I feel a bit uncomfortable writing this, but I think it’s best to be honest. In Australia, the focus is very much on positive reinforcement, and encouraging students to do better. In Spain, it is on punishing students who have done badly. So, if a student hasn’t done their homework, they are told off in front of the class, and they are deprived of their playground time. OK, homework is important. I understand. But to me, such punishment seems excessive. It’s better to see WHY Juan hasn’t done his homework for the past week, and try and solve this problem, rather than punishing and humiliating him. This is something I find REALLY hard to cope with. When the students are embarrassed in front of the class, and made to look foolish, I want to go and give them a hug, but I’m not allowed. This breaks my heart, because there’s often MUCH more to it than lazy students.

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If someone has tried, but simply CAN’T do the task, I can’t punish them because it’s cruel and unfair. OK, I might be a pushover. But I can’t do it. And I won’t.

So, these are some of the differences between Spanish and Australian public primary schools. If you have any other ideas or questions, let me know!

Umm, what’s the word for that?

One of the few things which I actually feel reasonably confident about in Spanish is my vocabulary. Although I make heaps of mistakes conjugating the verbs, I am usually able to remember the words for things, or to at least describe the concept in enough detail that the listener gets what I mean.

But not everything, as I recently discovered…

Late yesterday afternoon, I realised that I had run out of what can euphemistically be described as “feminine hygiene products.” I was meeting a friend at 9p.m., and I didn’t have time to go to the supermarket, so I decided I’d drop in at the chemist down the road.

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I had a look on the shelves, but I couldn’t find what I was looking for, so I joined the queue to speak to one of the pharmacists.

It was only when I reached the counter that I realised that I didn’t have a clue how to ask for said items. I had absolutely NO IDEA.

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“Umm, I don’t speak much Spanish,” I began, hoping desperately that the pharmacist would say “That’s OK. I speak English.”

But she didn’t.

“I’m, umm, I’m looking for, err, things for women. If you know what I mean,” I continued valiantly.

“No. I don’t understand what you want,” she shook her head.

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“You know. Ladies’ things!” I continued, raising my eyebrows. “I don’t know the word.”

“No. What ladies’ things?” the pharmacist answered, looking puzzled.

By this time, I was bright red, and the queue behind me was growing by the second. Desperate times call for desperate measures, so I decided to abandon any subtlety. “Blood. Women. Month.” I stuttered.

“Oh! Yes!” she beamed. “I know!” She reached behind the counter, and produced a box of tampons.

“Yes, yes, exactly!” I exclaimed, willing this experience to be over. “And can you tell me, what’s the word for these in Spanish?”

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“Tampones” she said.

That was just the icing on the proverbial cake. I had made a complete and utter idiot of myself when I could have used virtually THE SAME WORD the whole time!

Still, I wasn’t the only one having problems. The man next to me was wanting to buy a packet of condoms. These were also stored behind the counter, necessitating another needless conversation with the pharmacist. The unfortunate gentleman was being given the third degree about what size he required, and if he preferred a particular colour, when it was clear that he just wanted to get out of there ASAP!

All I can say is, I have never been more motivated NOT to run out of things again. Although, this being said, I guess I do know the word for next time…