Musings of an English teacher at the Universidad Complutense – Part II

Here is part 2 of guest blogger Clea’s post about the Universidad Complutense in Madrid. this part focuses on life at the university on a Summer day – the last day of class. You can read part I here.

The campus, as campuses are wont to do, is a world unto itself. City noises are not even a distant muffle here. There are no traffic jams, no speeding cars, no impatient honking. Professors, staff, students crowd the sidewalks, sit on the grass reveling in spring weather, talking, eating, playing guitars. The shuttle buses are dependably regular, and I have yet to see them close the doors on late-comers running up to the stop at the last minute. Early morning crowds never fail to squeeze impossibly on with no pushing or jostling; the drivers never hurry these mini-masses along, and somehow there always seems to be room for one – or three –more.

But, unlike many US colleges, the Complutense has fairly defined boundaries that don’t run into a city or town. And, possibly because education in Spain has, for hundreds of years, been written with the capital “e” of elite, on campus there is no whiff or taint of commercialism. There’s no campus bookstore selling t-shirts, keychains or pens with the university logo. If you get a headache or heartburn on campus, you’re out of luck, and you’d better buy your newspaper before heading for the Ciudad Universitaria. Because you won’t find a news stand or a drugstore or any other sort of convenience out there. The one thing you can buy is food, plentiful and inexpensive. Oh, and you can make photocopies, no questions asked.

The bus passes the deserted Ciudad Universitaria metro stop. There’s a bus stop right outside, and I crane my neck for a farewell glimpse of the University’s Homeless Man. (I was going to write “Resident Homeless” but that wouldn’t make much sense, would it?) This almost toothless gentleman is invariably in one of three places: he could be just inside the metro station, in which case he is in begging mode, standing patiently, almost indifferently, with his hand extended for whatever he might receive. I’ve taken to giving him some coins when we coincide, and he invariably replies, “May the Virgin Mary repay you.” He can also be seen sometimes sitting at the bus stop smoking a cigarette that I assume some kind person has given him. And occasionally he’ll be sitting, all by himself, in the little canteen having coffee. Rain or shine, hot or cold, he wears the same shapeless faded-beige sweater. He usually has a lost distant look.

One day I saw a student (journalism?) talking to him and taking notes. It was odd to see him in a different role, interacting, almost chattily, as opposed to standing alone and silent. I wonder where he sleeps and why he chose the university as his begging base. He’s nowhere to be seen today. Maybe he’s on vacation too.

The bus rolls on, passing the last of the traffic lights and the Botanical Gardens, to start its smooth unbroken curve around the Paraninfo. This could best be described as huge lollipop on the avenue-stick, if you remember that it’s lozenge shaped rather than round and of course adjust the proportions. Turning right, we leave behind one of my favorite buildings, the School of Law. This is one of the oldest and it shows all over. My classroom was at the very top of the oldest wing of the building. Getting to the class involved walking down wide halls to a dim corner and the backstairs, up broad shallow steps of pale smooth stone, and down more halls to the back of the school. The lone bathroom on the top floor is tiled in tiny white octagonal chips that are surely the Fifties originals. The classroom was large and airy, heated with clunky iron radiators set beneath large windows that time and painted-over frames have made difficult to open. The wooden doors, ill-fitting windowpanes and squeaky seats, the bane of latecomers, give the place a decadent, melancholy air. There’s a long blackboard, the old-fashioned kind; chalk sprinkles fingers, clothes and floor, and erasing leaves behind a fuzzy off-white blur.

The view from up here is lovely. Thick white blankets the distant peaks from November to April. In spring, spectacular thunderheads trapped on the highest rocks provide a brilliant backdrop to patches of snow lying arbitrarily on the slopes, combining artsily with the rich deep green of the Montes de El Pardo in the foreground. Sometimes sheets of gray rain and heavy cloud obscure the scene entirely. Up there, one breathes air and space. I could stare and stare at the changing weather for hours, like one stares at a fire or waves breaking against rocks.

Back to earth. We continue on our way, past the quad enclosed by the physics, chemistry and maths buildings. In short sleeves and sandals and glad for the air-conditioned bus, I look at the grassy space squared off by wide dirt paths set with stone benches and remember the January morning when I traipsed through brand-new snow, one of the first people to make tracksthere. It had been (unusually) snowing all night and the tree branches of the magnificentcedars were bent heavily with the lovely weight. My feet crunched in the snow-muffled silence.

The bus circles the Paraninfo and drops me off at the other side. I take a winding path through pine trees. I still have plenty of time so I can appreciate the early morning pine-tangy air. Crickets hidden among purple and yellow wildflowers are noisy in the untended scrub on bothsides of the path. The mountains are brown and bare.

Class is over until September. My students and I wish each other a nice summer; I gently remind them to read, practice, watch films in English so they won’t be too rusty when we meet again. Nods, “of course, of course”, they reply. But of course, September is a long way off.

I turn out the lights and glance around to make sure that no one has left anything behind. The halls outside the classroom are empty; the building is wrapped in that particular aura that school buildings have at the start of vacation. There are no students hurrying to class. No clutch of kids sitting in the halls, tensely revising last-minute before an exam. No one but the janitor mopping the floor at the other end of the corridor. My students have disappeared, the last noisy chatter echoing just out of sight at the foot of the stairs. In a flight of fancy, I think of the building standing useless, like an old man when the young have left for a party, sittingalone in his armchair, a book open on blanketed knees….

Outside, the summer heat, already pressing, rises languid and sharp, and I’m glad for the patches of shade with their illusion of cool.

(Part I)

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7 Responses to Musings of an English teacher at the Universidad Complutense – Part II

  1. Pingback: Musings of an English teacher at the Universidad Complutense – Part I | Blog About Spain

  2. Ian Curtis says:

    So curious to know there are convenience stores at US colleges… never heard about it. Maybe that’s my Spanish bias (to be impressed with it, I mean); if you think about it, it must be, no, definitely is very useful.

    PS: Forgive all the language errors you may see. I’m not Anglo, my name is just an alias…

    • clea says:

      Hi Ian (Alias) Thanks for your comment. I certainly don’t know about every one of the many universities in the US but usually there is a college bookstore where you can get notebooks and t-shirts and pens and keychains with the logo – and the newspaper too! And generally the proximity of a mass of students attracts plenty of stores and restaurants. By the way, your English is fine…

  3. mercedezhart says:

    Thank you for this post! I am thinking about studying art at Complutense, and I love all the details you gave about the surroundings. Usually when your looking at different pamphlets or browsing online they neglect to include the small details like the wildflowers, the homeless man and such.

    • clea says:

      I’m glad you enjoyed this – thanks for your comment. You’re right that the official pamphlets leave out these sorts of details, but I guess it’s because they wouldn’t consider that sort of information as being especially practical for the future student! Silly, isn’t it, when surroundings are so important. Although I have to tell you that the homeless man is no longer around; no doubt he found a really nice apartment somewhere with great views of the Palacio Real………….. Good luck with your decisions about college!

  4. Steve says:

    There is a bookstore in the middle of campus that sells clothing key chains, notebooks, etc, with complutense logos.

  5. Clea says:

    Hi Steve,

    I’d heard that there was a bookstore in the Jardín Botánico, but I believe that it’s now closed.

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