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Puntos de vista - a personal Spain blog

Musings about Spain and Spanish life by Paul Whitelock, hispanophile of 40 years and now resident of Ronda in Andalucía .

The "Accidental Spaniard" - Part One
27 April 2021 @ 01:45

Pablo de Ronda is an honorary Spaniard. He has lived and worked in the Serranía de Ronda for more than 12 years. Yet it was all an accident really. He explains.

At school I was good at languages. I did German, French and Latin at GCE “O” Level (older readers will remember fondly those exams taken at age 16). My grades were pretty good (A, B, B respectively), so I did German and French at “A” Level, alongside Pure Mathematics and Art.

When the time came to apply for university, it seemed evident that I would study languages, so I applied for places on one of the new-fangled degree courses that had begun to appear, courses with more emphasis on communication and less focus, or none at all, on literature.

My first choices were the universities of Bradford and Salford, both former Royal Colleges of Advanced Technology, which were enjoying a growing reputation for the excellence of their modern languages courses in the late 60s.

I was called to the University of Bradford for a rigorous series of tests and interviews which took up most of a day, after which they put me on the “waiting list”; not an offer as such.

The next interview was a couple of weeks later at the University of Salford. Similarly rigorous interview process, followed by a final interview with two professors, Juan Sager*, Argentine-born and bi-lingual in German and Spanish, and Anthony Layton, English-born and fluent in Russian.

After some probing into my background – son of a South Wales miner, born in rural North Devon, no graduates in my family background, Dad a labourer and Mum an office clerk – the two professors threw a curved ball at me.

“Would you consider dropping either French or German and starting a new language ab initio?” asked Professor Sager.  I’d done Latin “O” Level so I knew that ab initio meant “from scratch”.

“Wouldn’t that be a bit daft?” I replied. “I’ve already invested seven years in learning French and five in German.”

“We would make you a lower offer.”

I was beginning to feel the pressure a bit. Bradford had only put me on their waiting list and this was my last chance to get a place on a modern course. The other unis on my list, like Surrey, were somewhat more traditional with compulsory literature, which I wanted to avoid.

Enthusiastically I said: “Oh, really? Which languages are on offer from scratch then?”

Italian, Russian or Spanish.”

“OK. Can I think about it for a couple of days and let you know?”

“I’m afraid not,” said the other interviewer, Professor Layton. “You have to decide here and now or we shan’t make you an offer at all!”

Bloody hell! It’s like double-glazing salesmen. You know the drill: “This price is only available for the next five minutes. After that it’s back to full price.”

“Oh! Well, can I have a minute, please?”

I was completely on my own, about to make a decision that would have repercussions for my entire life.

I went through each language in my head.

Italian first. Back then, aged 17, I had an irrational aversion to Italy, to Italians and to things Italian. So, Italian was out.

Funnily enough I’ve never yet been to Italy, but I do like a lot of things Italian now. Sophia Loren and Gina Lollobrigida; Ferraris and Lamborghinis. I even had a Lambretta scooter for a while. The Italian Football team won the World Cup four times. Pasta and pizza are delicious and my Ferroli boiler is bloody good! It’s only ever not worked when I forgot to order oil!

Russian. I started a Russian “O” Level course as a subsidiary subject in the Lower Sixth, but gave up after a few weeks because the teacher was hopeless. He told the class that he was only a page or so in front of us in the course book, as he sought to add a string to his teaching bow by learning Russian.

So, that left me with Spanish. To my eternal shame I knew absolutely zilch about the second most important language in the world after English. I knew the capital was Madrid and that they had lots of tacky holiday costas, but that was about it.

“I’ve come to a decision. Can I drop French and do Spanish instead?

“Yes, of course,” they piped up in unison. “Instead of the normal two Bs and a C, you just need a B and 2 Cs. Congratulations! We look forward to seeing you in October.

It was 1968 and I’d just changed the course of my life – by accident!

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