To earn extra cerveza money, English assistants like myself teach private lessons, clases particulares, after school. These classes mean I get a glimpse into the lives of Spanish families—buzzed into apartments, dos beso-ed, shuffled into a tiny room where I share a desk with my student and observe what’s on the walls. The perks of teaching clases particulares come in the form of euros, café con leches, and lomo (a traditional cured pork tenderloin that isn’t jamón).
As my 17-year-old student Irene writes a practice essay for the university entrance exam, a giant poster of herself holding a trophy frames her hunched figure. In order to enter her university path, carrera de medicina, she must receive a high mark on the university entrance exam. However, the comunidad de Madrid has deemed her an exceptional athlete, meaning she will be accepted into the university with a lower mark than the non-athletes who apply. Among 17-year-old paddle players, Irene is ranked eighth in Spain. So when she invites me to her match, I am ecstatic. Inquiring about fan food, her dad asks me, “Te gusta cerveza? Queso? Jamón?”
“Claro, hombre,” I reply. In Spain, drinking a caña, a small glass of beer, in the afternoon or after work is custom, so drinking beer at a youth sporting event with my pupil’s father doesn’t seem odd.
On Thursday, game day, Irene texts me to remind me to dress warmly, maybe even bring a hat. We meet at the Oporto metro stop at 21:30, where her father illegally parks his SUV and I jump in. I have been living in Spain for seven months and this is the first time I have sat in a car. He asks where I am from. “Tucson, Arizona,en el oeste de los estados unidos,” I say.
His quick, smart reply surprises me: “Ahh sí sí, Butch Cassidy y el kid, no?” I wonder how his mental image of Tucson differs from mine. On our way, Irene texts her boyfriend and her dad points out the gated community where Christiano Ronaldo lives.
We park outside of a Wal-Mart sized corrugated building. Irene’s father carries her paddle-shaped backpack inside. We walk into the largest paddle facility in Spain. Glass cubicles stretch from one side of the warehouse to the other. It’s quieter than I expected. A booth serving free Estrella beer greets us. As Irene gives the man with the clipboard her name, her dad asks what size pants I wear. “Cómo?” I reply with a baffled face, trying to understand the scenario—did I mistakenly express a desire for paddle pants? Is this a souvenir? Am I going to play in a match? “Ehh medio,” the clipboard man knows my size.
I find myself in the bathroom with Irene and a pair of stretchy pants. “My dad thinks you should try these on to make sure they are the right size,” she clears things up. “Vale,” I switch to Spanish so she can rest her brain before her match. The pants are actually a skirt/pant combo, connected and branded with the Estrella beer logo. Maybe I’ll be a paddle player next Halloween I think. I thank her and her father. He explains that Irene can’t wear this pant/skirt thing because she has different sponsor.
Her match starts in 15 minutes, but we wander and dos beso last year’s champion and Irene’s coach who she hasn’t seen in a week. At 10:25 p.m. we make our way to her court where she meets her partner and opponents. The court is a smaller tennis court surrounded by glass walls. All four girls have played together before, so they warm up like friends saying things like “Bien bien, Irene” and “Joder” when they wiff one to the back wall. As her dad sets up camp, three chairs, two for us and one for our jamón, and retrieves two free beers, I wait for the referee to start the match. He never shows. The girls will call their own faults and apologize for hitting the ball too hard at one another.
During the match, her dad explains the rules and tells me when to yell “Vamos!” and “Muy bien, Irene!” At one point, the match is tied and even I can feel the tension. A girl from the opposing team misses her serve twice—the ball hitting the top of the tape and rolling down the net—“Toma,” Irene’s dad intensely whispers while shaking his fisted hands close to his body. Reading his reaction as an appropriate moment to cheer, I let out a “VAMOS!” this time with fisted hands above my head only to be pulled down by Irene’s father. “No, no, no,”—he continues to speak softly and tells me that cheering when the opposing team screws up isn’t cool. I don’t cheer for a while and instead sip on my beer. “No te preocupes, estas aprendiendo (do not worry, you are learning),” he reassures me. Irene’s team wins.
I clumsily apologize to the opposing pair for inappropriately cheering and call them strong girls. We hop into the car. It’s midnight. Irene’s dad praises her and she texts her boyfriend to tell him about her victory. We stop at McDonald’s on the way home because it’s the only thing that is open and she’s starving. “Quieres algo?” her generous dad offers.
Sitting in the drive-thru, I am reminded of my 17-year-old self crammed in the backseat of our Jetta after a day of volleyball matches—my stinky feet out the window at an In-N-Out Burger between Tucson and Phoenix, not willing to share my fries, exhaustedly accepting my parents’ praise.
Starting at age ten, I learned competitiveness. Intense training sessions, blunt criticism, and my constant effort at earning my parents’ approval fed my determination and desire to win. After the guidance from Irene’s father, I decide I won’t push my children into athletic environments where parents and teammates celebrate someone’s mistake. Maybe I’ll encourage them to take up paddle.
Irene’s dad drops me off with the remaining jamón, “para una merienda (afternoon snack)!” he says. I wear my new pant/skirt combo to bed that night.
Zoë Calhoun, a recent graduate of Hendrix College in Conway, Arkansas, was raised in the desert of Tucson, Arizona. After graduating with a major in Spanish and Digital Writing & Photography, she moved to Madrid to teach English.