The last few week have been spent in the slow lane over here on the wrong side of the world. Most days I am taking Spanish classes, going to the gym (well, almost everyday), watching a lot of Buffy, slowly working my way line by line through Strathern’s The Gender of The Gift, and spending too long on the internet. Having realised that my Spanish was not yet up to the task of doing the research I wanted to, I set aside the last month of this year’s trip to taking classes and actually doing all that verb conjugation and vocab practice I don’t usual have time for. Its been oddly peaceful, which is handy because as soon as I get back to Chicago next week the world will explode again.

My Spanish teacher is a rather nervous young woman. We are getting to know each other quiet well, though I tend to find that’s often the case with such classes: you spend an inordinate amount of time having to talk about your personal life or express your personal opinions. We have argued over Bolivian politics, discussed our views on globalisation, ranged over my thoughts on my colleagues, my family, my love-life, my research and my recipe for moussakka. It makes me a little uncomfortable. (especially the moussakka part)

It doesn’t help that we’ve been covering the subjectivo, something that doesn’t seem to exist in English but is used to express doubt or opinion in a sentence. So I end up with exercises like the following:

Express whether it is/is not important/just/necessary that:
– we have much work
– parents discipline their children
– we help the poor
– children respect their elders
– there is contamination in the air
– that Man is civilised
– the US helps other countries
– the US makes peace with Russia

(Yeah that last one was a bit of a give away about the age of the textbook.)

The pedantic anthropologist in me can’t help but squirm. Alas I can’t give “well that depends on the context and how you define the concept of justness or civilisation” as an answer every time, even if I do use the subjunctivo to say it. I know, I know – they are just exercises. But until my Spanish is good enough to explain the concept of cultural relativism, these exercises are going to be tricky.

The number of personal questions can tend to make you start feeling like you’re in a therapy session. I remember one doomed introductory German course I took as an undergrad where even the basic statements, coming as they did at a rather complicated time in my love life, reduced me to tears. My poor study partner soon learnt to stop asking the marital status question and to stick to asking how many brothers and sisters I had.

Last week we were using a lot of airport based vocabulary, and I ended up trying to convey my airport rant (see a few posts below) in Spanish to my poor teacher. She got an even more confused and blabbery version than I wrote down there, given that it was in Spanglish. Recently airports and the mystic alchemy that is buying plane tickets has been somewhat on my mind though. Having followed the various rules for finding the cheapest fare (look before a tuesday because that’s when the prices go up, don’t use the same website too often for the same fare because they raise the price depending on how often people search for it, check out the secret student discount fares on the secret student website, pick an odd day to fly, stand on one leg bathed in the light of the full moon singing “she’ll be coming round the mountain” backwards while searching) I finally found a flight. And then of course it went up by $100 in the space of the 5 hours I was waiting to hear back from my relatives in the UK.

(Here’s an interesting maths question while we are on the subject. If a flight on Virgin Airlines between Chicago and London is advertised on the first page after searching as $630, but then when you click on the link to buy it, the cost break down on the next page is $288 fare each way, $462.31 tax and $750.31 in total, how much of the original price was tax, how much fare, and how much bullshit?)

But I brought it anyway. Sadly I was too late to make it back to the UK in time, and given that airlines don’t even like to give refunds when its their fault, I don’t think I will be getting my money back. So all I can hope for now is that the funeral can be arranged to coincide with the flight I brought. Its left me a bit up in the air about where I’ll be once I leave Bolivia – another reason to savour the calm here this last week.

The thing about a language class other than a normal conversation is that you the student tend to do most of the talking, rather than the teacher. So they get to learn a lot about you, but its hard to gauge what their personal reaction to your opinions is as opposed to their professional assessment of your grammar. The last class I had ended with a discussion on Bolivian politics in which I asked my teacher to tell me what she thought instead. She started to tell me how corrupt Evo Morales is, and how he is ruining the country, how the poor people in the countryside need to be taught and led because they can’t make decisions on their own in their best interests. Makes me wonder what she thought about my inarticulate replies to her questions on globalisation, international travel and politics. And makes me a bit more reluctant to try and express myself and my personal opinions in the last few classes.

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