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Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Teaching English


This is something I wrote in March 2012 and just finally got around to polishing up now.

My only friend might be having an extra marital affair with a guy from Hong Kong who is 24 years his younger.

One month ago, Sarah and I went to a design fair that sold fancy, cool, mainly unnecessary pieces of furniture and home accessories. I couldn’t afford a single item there and on top of that I had even less a need for anything as I didn’t own a home or even rent an apartment I planned on being in for beyond 90 days.

None of that stopped me from becoming grossly fascinated with a modular shelf unit. It was composed of seven different sized wooden boxes that each hung in perfect chaos by seven brown leather cords connected to a central rod. The cherry on top was its ludicrous 
price point of 300 euros.

This boxy shelf thing led me to Sergio, the Catalan shelf-seller who would become my first Barcelona-based friend/employer. Two minutes into our conversation I learned that his brother lived in Scottsdale and that he himself had once lived in a Philadelphia suburb that’s next to Sarah’s hometown. The small-world connection helped me score a gig teaching his kids English.

I had been struggling with having entirely too much time on my hands, so I was elated about the prospect of having something to do and a few euros coming my way, even if that something to do was for only 2 hours a week, and those few euros were in the low double digits.

The morning of my first scheduled tutoring session, I realized I had zero clue how to teach the English language. I frantically emailed my friend and asked her to condense everything she learned from her TEFL course and year’s experience of teaching English in Costa Rica into a 250-word email for me. She tried her best.

Armed with that wisdom and a few ESL workbooks I’d found laying around my house, I headed to Barcelona’s wealthy Tres Torres neighborhood for session number one. 

The meticulously decorated house was similar to what I envisioned a modular-shelf-unit-seller to have. The entry way featured four large Andy Warhol prints. A 5'x5' iron working of a finger print hung on the family room wall just over a perfectly arranged orange sofa. 

At the retro-chic kitchen table I met Sergio’s 14-year-old son Andres. He was a brilliant kid who spoke fluent English in addition to speaking Catalan, Spanish, French and a fair amount of Russian. His English was way beyond anything I had planned to teach him and after 5 minutes of listening to him speak I was wondering what the hell I was doing there.

Fortunately, Andres was obsessed with New York City. He’d been there a few times, he knew all the boroughs, half the Manhattan streets, and as a result of his gadget obsession, he could tell you the location of Manhattan’s three Apple stores. However, he didn't know who Jay-Z was, so I taught him the basics. He's a rapper, who has been famous for almost 20 years and he is married to Beyonce. I didn't get into any of his songs because if Reasonable Doubt was just on the other side of his level of English comprehension.

After an hour with Andres, I tutored Sergio’s 11-year-old daughter Eva. Her English wasn’t nearly as good as her brother’s and she was understandably shy about speaking her fifth language to a stranger. I tried to keep things simple and break the ice by talking about the movie she had just came back from, Journey II the Center of the Earth, but I think I went off on a tangent about The Rock (the film's start) that really confused her.

I also taught Sergio himself. Sergio’s English was even better than his fluent son. During our sessions, I would often talk to him for 30 minutes without correcting him once. 

On the rare occasion that he made a mistake it went like this:

Sergio: This summer I'll have a girl internship.

Me: You mean, you'll have a girl intern, who will complete an internship.

Sergio: (sincerely grateful) Ah. Yes. Thank you. See this is why I need you to potentially come twice a week.

Each week I looked forward to the tutoring session, my only instructions were to work on their conversational skills and occasionally help them with school assignments. Truthfully, I would have gladly hung out with them for free as they helped me learn about Barcelona and they offered me tips on things to check out.

One day Sergio emailed me asking if I knew any cheap places for his friend from Hong Kong to stay.

After a few back-and-forths via email, and because I was selfishly hoping that Sergio would find me a full-time job, we decided his friend could stay with us.

I was told the Hong Kong traveler, Savant, was close to my age. At first I figured Savant must be the son of one of his business partners, but then I learned that Savant and Sergio met via Facebook and they'd never actually met one another.

I pretended this wasn't weird and as I often did, I chalked it up to a “European custom” that I didn't understand. Even though European friends I would meet later in life, have told me that welcoming a 20-years-younger stranger into your home is in fact weird.

Savant was supposed to stay with us for four nights. However the day before he was scheduled to stay with us, Sergio told me that his wife and kids were out of town and that Savant would spend his first two nights in Barcelona at his place in the now-empty space. I never understood why Sergio didn't just invite Savant to sleep on his couch, but I guess that is another "European custom" that alluded me. 

When it was time for Savant to stay with us, we met Sergio and Savant at a burger restaurant near our apartment. Then things got weird.

Savant barely spoke English and spoke zero Spanish (nor Catalan). Yet Sergio acted like Savant was his best friend. Sergio blushed every time he spoke of Savant, he always gazed into Savant's eyes, and he kept scratching the back of Savant's head as if he were a puppy.

I let the awkwardness of lunch pass because the burger was amazing and Savant picked up the bill.

When it was time for Sergio to say goodbye to Savant, the two embraced, let go, hugged again, and Sergio gave again gave him the back-of-the-head rub/scratch thing that's normally reserved for cute pets.

Sarah was instantly convinced that Sergio had been sleeping with Savant, while I was willing to give Sergio the benefit of the doubt.

Because I was a good host with bountiful amount of free time on my hands, I offered to show Savant around town. We hit up Parc Guell and on the way Savant showed me pictures of him riding on the back of Sergio's motorcycle. He also told me that Sergio took him to a FC Barcelona game and the two spent a night by themselves in Sergio's beach house, where they shared a bottle of wine.

I also quizzed Savant on his name asking him if he knew it meant “genius.” He told me he knows now, but didn't know it when he picked his English name in grade school, which he told me was the tradition in Hong Kong. He just liked the sound of the word. He also told me that his two brothers both picked the English name “Kevin.”

The two days of his stay dragged by, Savant was nice, but his broken English and vast cultural differences were just too much for Sarah and I.

After Savant left, Sergio was more distant towards me. When I first met him, we spoke frequently via email and I would tutor his children once a week. Post Savant, I would go 10 days without hearing from Sergio, only to have my tutoring session canceled at the last moment because of a “family emergency.”

Almost a month later, I went to Sergio's house to tutor his children. I'm pretty sure half the reason he had me over was because I had once brought him some cookies and he wanted to return the tupperware. 

I spoke with his son, then with Sergio and he didn't have a whole lot to say about Savant. He did tell me that my Spanish was horrible and that I needed classes.

After he'd returned my tupperware and shattered my Spanish-speaking confidence,  Sergio never responded to my emails and never talked to me again.

Sarah is 100% convinced it's because I didn't sleep with him. I think that could be it. Or it could be that his wife found out about his Hong Kong love affair, and his family needed time to work however you would work that situation out.

Then again it could also just be that I was a horrible English tutor.

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