Thursday, December 15, 2016

It Makes No Difference

‘Would you rather be attacked by a lion... or a tiger?’ I asked my students the other day. Beats, ‘Do you prefer tea or coffee?’ for an opening gambit any day, doesn’t it?

Can you tell the difference between a lion and a tiger? Which would you rather be attacked by?

There followed an embarrassing minute’s silence while my students debated whether it was too late to ask for their money back and, if so, who would be the brave soul to lead the way? Much to my relief, however, one of the ladies present took up the gauntlet:

‘I have a friend who can’t distinguish between a lion and a tiger,’ replied Garbiñe the Gauntlet Taker.

One of the greatest things, if not the greatest thing, about my job is that, every morning when I crawl into work, I have no idea whatsoever as to what conversations I can be expecting over the next ten hours or so.

‘A tiger, probably. If I’m going to be killed, I prefer to die as quickly as possible,’ said Jabi the Jungle Watcher.

Fair point, but I was still trying to come to terms with the fact that there are people out there, apparently, who can’t tell the difference between a lion and a tiger.

‘Did you see that video on YouTube?’ asked Lucía the Thread Spinner, as the discussion wove its way in competing directions. And talking of competing directions...

Is my wife the only person who can’t tell the difference between an up escalator and a down escalator in a department store? To be fair, they look much the same, though there are usually a few clues to be found if you are paying attention.

Can you tell whether this escalator is going up or down?

Reasoning to herself, I suppose, that she has a fifty-fifty chance, my wife heads for the first gap that she spots within a five-yard radius. Meanwhile, her loyal husband tags along, ready to chip in with, ‘Let’s try the other side, shall we, darling?’ in the event that some idiot has programmed the stairs to be moving in the wrong direction on my wife’s approach.

Interestingly, my wife’s mother adopts a similar strategy every time I give her a lift to or from home: On stepping outdoors, she simply stops at the first vehicle she sees, then waits for her chauffeur to open the door. Mathematically speaking, her chances of success are about one in twenty (of hitting on the right car, I mean; her chances of having the door opened for her are exactly one in one). Well, it’s worth a shot, isn’t it?

Black car or red van? So long as it’s comfortable, who cares?

Incidentally, and irrelevantly, my mother-in-law’s inability to distinguish a Mini from a double-decker has nothing to do with failing sight – she can spot a church, chemist’s or cake shop from a mile off.

‘Hang on a minute, clever clogs,’ I hear you objecting. ‘If you’re so smart, how come you brush your teeth with shampoo and wash your hair with toothpaste?’

Ouch! That was a bit below the belt, wasn’t it? I’m sure you’ll agree that we all have our little bathroom battles first thing in the morning. And I’m not just talking about bowel movements here, you understand.

Would you be able to tell these apart at 5:55 in the morning?
Having showered and dressed, it’s time to hit the road, where I notice that many of my fellow motorists are quite incapable of distinguishing between Stop signs and Give Way signs, red lights and yellow lights, continuous lines and dotted lines...

Once in class, I discover that nearly all my students are prepared to answer, ‘Did you have a good weekend?’, while my follow-up question, ‘Did you do your homework?’, draws blank stares all round. Hardly anyone appears to understand that “eight o’clock” and “ten past eight” do not mean the same thing. One hour later, however, as our class draws to a close, everyone is quick to ask me, ‘Is nine o’clock, no, Mike?’.

To hear my poor prisoners students, you would think they have better things to do with their time than be discussing the relative merits and drawbacks of being attacked by a lion or a tiger. So do I, now that we mention it, so I think I’d better sign off here.



20 Reasons Why I Should Be Allowed To Teach English

1.        I know the difference between singular and plural nouns.
2.        I know what “uncountable” means. I think I know what “countable” means too.
3.        I know all about verbs, tenses, stuff like that.
4.        I even know the difference between a gerund and an infinitive.
5.        I’m not so clear on the difference between a gerund and a gerundive, but I’m pretty confident I could find out if necessary.
6.        I’m well up on prepositions.
7.        I can spell words like “accommodation” and “correspondence” correctly (most of the time).
8.        I can be unreasonably pedantic: anyone who can’t distinguish between “fewer” and “less” should be shot (even if fewer students means less money).
9.        I know my articles and I know my particles.
10.    I can underline the adverbs and adjectives in phrases like, “He’s pretty jolly” or “She’s jolly pretty”.
11.    I can distinguish between idioms and idiots.
12.    I know how to use words like “whom” and “whose” correctly.
13.    I can churn out more phrasal verbs than you can take in.
14.    I can make a coherent statement without using moronic interjections such as “you know”, “like”, “sort of” … that kind of thing, right?
15.    I use commas, full-stops and semi-colons correctly; most of the time.
16.    I know the difference between “I hate English” and “I hate the English”.
17.    I know loads of silly jokes and puns – ideal punishment for silly students!
18.    I can bluff my way out of any difficult language question.
19.    I’m very good at making up ridiculous rules.
20.    I am English.

Numbers 18 to 20 were a bit of a cop-out, but Colin couldn’t stand odd-numbered lists, in much the same way that he would never understand people who, having started a perfectly good sentence, couldn’t be bothered to

In the end, Slapper had relented, even if this was more to do with Looniversal Learning’s resident English teacher having gone down with postphrasal depression, as opposed to any genuine confidence in Colin’s teaching ability.

‘Thanks, Miss Slapper, you won’t regret this.’ (‘You’ll be sorry.’)
‘We’ll see.’ (‘I know.’) 

dayrealing, Chapter 5, “Heart Of Gold”

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Miles From Nowhere

I did a very naughty thing yesterday: I slipped out of the office and went for a walk in the woods. Traditionally, teachers are only supposed to leave the office to give a class or go for a coffee. Sometimes, however, I think it’s good to break with tradition, don’t you? And this is where I ended up:

Four o’clock on Friday afternoon, and I had the whole park to myself!  For a fleeting moment, I felt rather guilty: Was I the only person in the town who had decided to knock off early for the weekend? Supposing an irate client called and I wasn’t there to listen to their complaints? What if a poor student needed to consult me urgently about which preposition to use in their report? Well, it was too late now and I would have to live with my reckless decision for the rest of my life. Besides, I was enjoying myself; all the more so because not a soul was to be seen:


My one and only companion in the park was a rather tame dragon who, according to local legend, used to terrify the locals – taking a keen interest in newly weds in particular –, and whence the town, Mondragón, takes its name.

Makes you think, doesn’t it? If the offending beast had been a zombie instead of a dragon, the town where I work would have been called Monzombie, and my school would most likely have been called Monzombie Lingua. 

Well, I’ve known quite a few dragons in my time, all of them far scarier than this one. At a guess, the actual dragon was somewhat bigger than the council’s budget could stretch to. I paid Mr. Dragon my respects, then drifted over to the far end of the park to enjoy a breath-taking view through the trees of Udalaitz, the mountain overlooking Mondragón.

Five minutes later, I was back in town, taking in our litter-strewn streets and lop-sided towers. That’s one of the many reasons why I love the Basque Country so much: no matter how big an eyesore you might find yourself in, simply head for the hills and, in a matter of minutes, you’ll be thinking to yourself, “Eat your heart out, Julie Andrews!”


Colin hadn’t waited to be introduced again. Instead, he ran, and he ran, and he ran. He was headed for the woods, wherever they were. In the films, the fugitive always ended up in the woods sooner or later. There was usually a river in there somewhere, too. So was this how Harrison felt with Tommy’s men on his trail?

Having run 25 miles up and down corridors every day for the past 25 years, Colin was delighted to discover that he was in far better shape than he had ever imagined; or looked. Eat your heart out, Dustin! Indeed, it was one of life’s best-kept secrets that most teachers – lazy sods excepted – are Olympian athletes just waiting to be discovered. That said, most of them would rather be left alone to finish their pint in peace.

dayrealing, Chapter 41, “Don't Fear The Reaper”

Monday, October 31, 2016

Read 'Em And Weep

“Awful. One star.”

Thus begins yet another satisfied customer after listening to my audiobook, Spanglish for Impatient People. And that’s just her parting shot. Egged on by the ever helpful review staff at, my assailant opens fire:

What would have made Spanglish for Impatient People even better?
“Any instruction, clear structure or organization to these random sentences would have been helpful. This is just Mr. Church saying something random in Spanish and then repeating in English. Most of the phrases aren't even things the average person would ever have the need to say. Plus they are not very understandable at all.”
Ouch! Just as well I don’t let the bad reviews get to me, isn’t it? Yeah, sure. Who are we kidding? Bad reviews sting like hell, and any author who claims otherwise is a liar. That said, I think it’s time we introduced a little objectivity into our analysis, don’t you? But to do so, we’re going to need some raw material to work on, so how about this unit?

Lección 7: en el banco / Lesson 7: at the bank

–Quisiera cambiar estas libras por euros, por favor.
–Ya lo siento, señor. Nos hemos quedado sin euros.

–I’d like to change these pounds for euros, please.
–I’m sorry, Sir. We’ve run out of euros.

¿Me está tomando el pelo?

Are you pulling my leg?

¿Un banco sin dinero?¡Eso sí que es bueno!

A bank with no money? Now there’s a fine thing!

Si abres una cuenta con nosotros hoy, te regalamos una sartén inoxidable.

If you open an account with us today, we’ll throw in a stainless steel frying pan.

–“Frying pan”? Es una palabra, dos palabras o con guión?
–¿Qué mas da?

–“Frying pan”? Is that one word, two words or with a hyphen?
–Who cares?

Pues resulta que no quiero abrir una cuenta. Y tampoco necesito una sartén.

Well, as it happens, I don’t want to open an account. Nor do I need a frying pan.

–¿Puedo ver su pasaporte?
–Lo dudo. Lo dejé en el hotel.

–Can I see your passport?
–I doubt it. I left it in the hotel.

–¿Qué solución me propone?
–¿De cuánto dinero dispone?

–What solution can you offer me?
–How much money have you got?

Coge un calendario si quiere. Son gratis.

Help yourself to a calendar. They’re free.

Gracias, señor. Que tenga un buen día.

Thank you, Sir. Have a nice day.

Well, dear reader, what do YOU think? Do you agree with our reviewer when she complains that organising my sentences by topic (at the airport, at the supermarket, at the bank, etc.) is no way to present a phrasebook? And how do you feel about my decision to repeat what I have just said in Spanish, only this time translating into English? Or what about her claim that “the average person” would never need such invaluable phrases as, “I’m sorry, Sir. We’ve run out of euros”, “Are you pulling my leg?” and “If you open an account with us today, we’ll throw in a stainless steel frying pan”?

Personally, I would argue that if we take the first dialogue and tweak it a little, we have before us one of the most essential phrases for human survival in the third millennium:

–Necesito dinero.
–Ya lo siento, cariño. Me he quedado sin euros.

–I need money.
–I’m sorry, darling. I’ve run out of euros.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Rucyru – for that is her name – continues to let rip:

What was most disappointing about Mike Church’s rubbish story?
"The complete disorganized random rambling of spanish sentences, no rhyme or reason to their order at all. I have been studying Spanish for two years, have gone through all the Pimsleur phases and feel I have a pretty good grasp on the language, but could only make out an occasional word of Mr. Church's phrases (I do not have this problem with other Spanish audiobooks at all)."
Aha! Now I get it: She doesn’t like my book because she found it too difficult. And she is fuming!

Welcome to the real world of language acquisition, Rucyru! I’m sorry to tell you that there’s a limit to how far you can travel on, "Perdón, señorita, ¿entiende inglés?" – “No, señor, no entiendo.” (“Excuse me, Miss, do you understand English?” – “Piss off! No, Sir, I don’t.”)

But never mind all that! The best is yet to come:

Who would you have cast as narrator instead of The Other Mike Church?
"Someone who sounds either more American or Spanish, his accent almost makes it sound German or British at times which is not convenient when you are trying to pronounce Spanish words correctly."
Help! I’ve been rumbled! In fairness, Rucyru has a valid point: I really should have found a native speaker to record the Spanish phrases. (And possibly a German to record the English ones?) Then again, how was I to know that some poor sod would actually end up buying my silly audiobook? It’s so easy to be wise after the event, isn’t it?

Clicking on Rucyru’s profile, I discover that, to date, she has bought or borrowed 125 audiobooks, only one of which actually drove her into such a state of despair that she felt compelled to let off steam.

Furthermore, I see that, since registering on Audible three years ago, she has accumulated “0 helpful votes”. Not that I wish to rub it in, you understand.

In a moment of weakness, I find myself warming to the enemy and wondering whether this might be my first and last opportunity to use the phrase “Stockholm Syndrome” in an appropriate context? Only time will tell.

Thanks, as ever, for reading. And thank you, too, if one of you readers happens to be the kind soul who posted the following review back in June, 2014:

"The British economy is lousy, but Brits still escape British weather (which has ALWAYS been lousy) to vacation in the sun. Most end up in Spain - close, cheap, hot, with miles of beaches. Spanish culture ("Manana! Manana!") and British culture ("Where the hell's my bacon butty?") have little in common. Culture clash starts at the airport arrival desk and ends at the departure desk. The one thing the two sides agree on is that both hate German tourists more than they hate each other.

The author has lived in northern Spain for thirty years, is married to a Basque woman, teaches English, and writes a very funny blog ("readable rubbish at reasonable prices!") With years of watching British and Spaniards butt heads (and participating in more than a few inter-cultural exchanges himself) he has written this series of books to introduce the English speaker to the basic Spanish needed to survive a vacation. Of course, there's only so much he can do for you. If you go to a night club and hit on the cleaning lady, no handy phrase in any language will save you from looking like a fool. And if a local hooker rips you off, the policia will NOT be on your side.

This guy is hilarious. I'm now on to the second volume in this series. I just hope he keeps them coming."


–¿Qué asientos tenemos?
–Diez B y veinticinco E
–¡Nos han separado!
–Y encima nos han dado los peores asientos.
–Más no volamos con esta línea. ¿Quiénes son?

–What seats do we have?
–Ten B and twenty-five E.
–We’ve been separated!
–And on top of that they’ve given us the worst seats.
–We’re not flying with this airline again. Who are they?

–Apague su móvil, por favor.
–Ahora mismo estaba apagándolo.
–Y póngase el cinturón, por favor.
–Sí, señor. ¿Algo más?
–Sólo cumplo con mi trabajo, señora.
–Y lo hace magníficamente.

–Turn your mobile off, please.
–I was just turning it off.
–And put your seatbelt on, please.
–Yes, Sir. Anything else?
–I’m just doing my job, Madam.
–And you do it brilliantly.

–¿Tiene miedo?
–La verdad es que sí.
–¿Es su primera vez?
–No. He tenido miedo muchas veces.

–Are you frightened?
–As a matter of fact, yes I am.
–Is this your first time?
–No. I’ve been frightened many times.

–¿Viste Aterriza como puedas?
–No. ¿Y tú?
–Once veces. La tienes que ver.

–Did you see Airplane?
–No. How about you?
–Eleven times. You have to see it.

–¿Qué estás haciendo?
–Estoy rezando.
–Relájate, hombre. No nos vamos a morir. Hoy no, por lo menos.
–Sí, ya lo sé. Rezaba para que quiten esa maldita música de fondo… ¡Ha funcionado!

–What are you doing?
–I’m praying.
–Chill out, man. We’re not going to die. Not today at least.
–Yes, I know. I was praying for them to turn that bloody Muzak off... It worked!

–¿Qué tiene?
El País y El Mundo.
–¡Si no hablo el español!
–Ya es hora de empezar, ¿no?

–Newspaper, anyone?
–What have you got?
El País and El Mundo.
–But I don’t speak Spanish!
–It’s about time you started, isn’t it?

–¿Quiere tomar algo, señor?
–¿Se nota tanto?

–Would you like a drink, Sir?
–Is it so obvious?

–¿Cuatro libras por una copa de vino peleón? ¡Qué timo!
–¿Quiere o no quiere, señor?
–Más que querer, lo necesito.

–Four pounds for a glass of plonk? What a rip-off!
–Do you want it or don’t you, Sir?
–More than want it, I need it.

–Disculpe, ¿vamos a aterrizar pronto?
–Eso espero, señora.

–Excuse me, will we be landing soon?
–I hope so, Madam.

–Señoras y señores, gracias por volar con Big Bang Airways. Que tengan un buen día.
–¡Lo que nos queda!

–Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for flying with Big Bang Airways. Have a nice day.
–What’s left of it!

Spanglish for Impatient People 2, Lesson 1, “on the plane”

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M.

Actually, it was Friday Morning, 4 A.M., but try telling that to Paul Simon. Besides, you get my point: nobody in their right mind should be up and about at such an unearthly hour, should they? Unfortunately for yours truly, however, my son had been accepted for this year’s Erasmus Programme at Howest University in Belgium, and what seemed like a good idea at the time felt like an altogether different proposition when the Big Day finally reared its ugly head. 

Rehearsing for the early morning airport run. Please note actual size and weight of cases may vary considerably

And so it was that last Friday we found ourselves racing through the beautiful Basque countryside at the dead of night, headed for Bilbao airport where my son’s 6 o’clock flight to Brussels awaited him. (Or so we thought, but that’s another story.) As it turned out, we had a wonderful journey: the roads were quiet; the cyclists were still in bed; the police had taken the night off; and there were no kamikaze cats to be seen or flattened anywhere.

That said, the main reason why I say we had a great journey is that we talked to each other non-stop for the best part of an hour. We covered all those topics that only we modern men of the world can fully relate to: the weather – did you pack an umbrella? I asked ... beer – this is not the year to go teetotal , we agreed ... football – did you see the match last night? I wondered ... girlfriends – I no longer have the time or energy for them, I confessed ... geography – do you know where you’re going,  Daddy? ... drivers – did you see that idiot? ... money – it doesn’t grow on trees, we concluded ... break-ins – where are the police when you genuinely need them? ... music – I expect they have guitars in Belgium, I speculated  ... breakfast – I’m feeling a bit peckish, he said ... endless lists – any list is better than no list, I argued ... And so on and so forth, I wrote.

Having deposited my son at the airport and wished him a safe flight to Brussels (via Barcelona, a heated chicken check-in and an overnight hotel, I discovered later), I returned to the car, though not before paying €1,05 for my hour’s parking. Now that’s what I call a bargain! Is Bilbao the only airport in the world that doesn’t rip off its clients? But I digress. And not for the first time. Nor will it be the last, I fear. But where was I?

I soon found my car. It was in parking space 1361, between parking spaces 1360 and 1362, exactly where I had left it. (Tip for chauffeurs: make a note of your parking space before you enter the departures lounge. Tip for daughters: it’s also a good idea to remember what your car looked like.) I put on Rattle That Lock – the first track being 5.A.M. by a happy coincidence –, and drove a ridiculously long lap of honour around the car park, obediently following the direction of the arrows. My law-deriding wife would have been furious had she been there to witness my momentary lapse of reason.

Eventually, I chanced upon an exit barrier. I thought long and hard about smashing through it at three kilometres per hour, but I’d already paid, so there didn’t seem much point. And as I drove home,  rattling that lock and racking my brain, it struck me that I hadn’t had such a good conversation with my son since ... since when we’d bought him that blasted iPhone! In a rare moment of enlightenment, the penny dropped: my son’s friends have got better things to do than send smiley icons and thumbs up to each other at four o’clock in the morning.

In the absence of anybody else to chat to, my son decided, reluctantly or otherwise, to give me his full undivided attention.  Had we been travelling at any other time during the day, I would doubtless have had a zombie for company. No disrespect to zombies intended.

‘Did you see the match?’
‘I said, Did you see the match?’
‘The match. Did you see it?’
‘What match?’
‘Sorry, Daddy, I’m chatting to Mikel.’
‘Which Mikel is that?’
‘Eh?’ ...

‘Thank goodness for meal times!’ I hear you exclaim.
‘If only we had them!’ you hear me complain.

Personally, I blame the parents for letting things come to this. Well, parents and the inventors of WhatsApp, let’s say. Especially the latter. Either way, the conclusion is clear, at least as far as my own family is concerned: we need more of these early wake-up calls if we are ever going to defeat the dreaded iPhone Zombie Syndrome. I wonder if my daughter fancies a trip to the coast tomorrow to see the sunrise? 

I’ll let you know how I get on.

One of the advantages of getting up at an ungodly hour is you can enjoy a full Basque breakfast before crawling into work.
Freshly squeezed orange juice, toast, tomato and coffee for a very reasonable €3.50.


‘Daddy, you have to give me ninety-seven euros.’
‘I don't have to give you anything.’
‘Yes, you do.’
‘What for?’
‘Sixty euros for the ticket, seven euros for—’
‘What ticket?’
‘For the concert. Social Distension. Don't you remember?’
‘Are they any good?’
‘Of course. All my friends are going.’
‘All five hundred of them? And the tickets cost sixty euros?’
‘That's a good price, Daddy.’
‘Where is it?’
‘Bilbao. That's why you've got to give me seven euros for the bus.’
‘I don't have to give you anything.’
‘Yes, you do.’
‘Anyway, that still only makes sixty-seven, not ninety-seven.’
‘Plus twenty-five for the sweatshirt.’
‘What sweatshirt?’
‘A Social Distension sweatshirt. All my friends are buying one.’
‘Why don't you buy a T-shirt?’
‘I've already got the T-shirt.’
‘Did you ask Mummy?’
‘What did she say?’
‘ “No way. Try Daddy.” ’
‘Look, I'll think about it. OK?’
‘OK, but I need the money tomorrow morning, so don't think too much.’
‘Right. So that’s sixty euros for the concert – they had better be good –, seven for the bus, twenty-five for the silly sweatshirt—’
‘It's not silly, Daddy.’
‘That's ninety-two, not ninety-seven.’
‘You're forgetting my pocket money, Daddy.’

fifty shades of Spain, chapter 15, "Father And Son"