YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


In Avila, Relearning Espanol Essentials

THE WANDER YEAR / WEEK 32: SPAIN, * A yearlong series following one couple's journey around the world.

September 17, 2000|MIKE McINTYRE

AVILA, Spain — Like any language, Spanish punishes imprecision. Take the word for ham: jamon. Get one letter wrong and order a sandwich de jabon, and the waiter will look at you funny or bring you a soap sandwich.

As finding something edible several times a day is a key part of world travel, Andrea and I were motivated to study Spanish. After leaving London, we enrolled in a two-week course at the Instituto Espanol Murallas de Avila, a small school in this city 68 miles northwest of Madrid. Eight months of gallivanting had prompted us to tackle a task more productive than filling our passports with visas. We also figured that whatever Spanish we learned would help us in other countries we may visit, not to mention back home in California.

We found the school through the Internet (, choosing it for its location and intimate, relaxed teaching style. At 3,700 feet, Avila enjoys pleasant summers while most of the rest of Spain bakes. The old quarter of the city, birthplace of the 16th century mystic St. Teresa, is ringed by one of the best-preserved medieval walls in Europe.

Classes of three to seven students meet in an old house in the pedestrian area of town. Students are mainly from Europe and the U.S., ranging from teenagers to senior citizens. Tuition works out to less than $7 an hour.

Andrea and I last took Spanish in college 20 years ago, learning enough to ask simple questions but not enough to understand the answers. In Avila, we overestimated our previous studies and joined an intermediate class. It was like learning to in-line skate before learning to walk, but it was fun.

We attended Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Our teachers, Jose Luis, Ester and Gloria, kept classes lively. Rather than the boring exercises of my youth ("My name is Mike. I am from San Diego"), we discussed topics such as crime and nuclear weapons. Andrea got a big laugh the day we talked about the environment, confusing the word for grandmother (abuela) with the word for tree (arbol), telling the class she recycles her grandmother every Christmas.

Many students rent rooms from local families. The hosts we were assigned were nice, but they smoked and their apartment was a 40-minute walk from school. After one night there, we moved inside the city walls to the Hosteria las Cancelas, one of our favorite hotels so far. The small inn sits on a narrow lane once known as Calle de la Muerte y la Vida--Death and Life Street--the place where men would come to settle disputes with swords. Our large, sunny, $47 double room had a terra-cotta tile floor and an exposed brick wall. The view from the balcony took in the nearby 13th century cathedral, atop which migrating white storks build nests 2 feet tall.

We eventually adjusted to the Spanish clock, eating lunch at 3, dinner at 10. Every morning we'd join classmates and teachers for coffee in one of the cafes lining the adjacent Plaza de la Victoria. The teachers were generous with their time, often inviting us out with their friends for tapas, the snacks served in most any bar in Spain.

Ester introduced us to Elena, a court reporter, and Angel, a nurse, who were preparing for their final exams at a local English school. We met the pair several afternoons for chats, them practicing their English, us our Spanish. Our conversational skills improved, and it was a treat to talk to ordinary people not involved in the tourist industry.

Toward the end of our program I had a breakthrough. We stayed in to study one night, and I made my first phone call in Spanish, ordering out for a pizza. The deliveryman arrived, and I swelled with pride when I saw that he carried a pizza topped with ham and not soap. I looked at the juicy, messy pie and thought it a pity I'd yet to learn the word for napkins.

NEXT WEEK: The ballet and the bullfight.

Did you miss a Wander Year installment? The entire series since it began in January can be found on The Times' Web site at

Los Angeles Times Articles