Sept.27 - Oct.2
First week with the sewing students at Escuela Taller has been equal parts un-nerving, bemusing, exhausting and gratifying.
Monday began with a lesson in 'spandex time' as it's known here: although we were told several times that all arrangements had been made for the driver from Escuela to come and pick us up, along with all our gear, at Es Artes sharp at eight when the students begin their day, and we had to scramble to get there, because El Tejado doesn't begin its leisurely breakfast service until 7:30, it took several conversations and a couple of phone calls to determine that the driver hadn't come because he didn't know which hotel to go to. And it was raining - did we still want to be picked up? Yes, we were all at Es Artes and supposed to be at Escuela, please come. At 8:40 the driver arrived, and as it was no longer raining so hard, but the bed of the truck was quite wet, it was decided that all the bags of fabric and supplies should go on the back seat inside, I would get the front seat with the driver, and John, Tito, and Coky would ride al fresco in the back. (Chivalry is not dead...)
Arriving at Escuela we found all the sewing machines, tables and chairs being moved to the new larger room we'd been assigned, which has lovely high ceilings, a raised stage at one end, and windows lining both sides for as much light and air as possible. As only about half of the fluorescent light fixtures were working, however, with the season's perpetual overcast, it was still too dark to see well, so when Hector came by to ask if we needed anything, I repeated my plea for mas luz (more light), and he promised us electricians the next day! Coky reminded him that he had agreed to have the holes in the unfinished rooms behind the stage plugged to keep the bats out, and that was done almost immediately. It turned out that our students were still otherwise occupied, so we gathered the chairs into a circle for our meet-and-greet presentation while Tito began servicing the machines.
About 9:30, the students and their teacher, Abigail (pronounced Ah-be-hi-el), arrived and, true to our SKWID training, we began by inviting everyone to introduce themselves (with Coky translating) and tell us what they liked to sew. Then John and I talked a bit about what we did in the theatre, and John told them how he finds his images and ideas for what the characters in the play will wear and how they will look. Then he told them a bit about the story of the play and who the characters were and passed the sketches around - the girls promptly began to identify themselves and each other with the personalities portayed in the sketches ("that's you - no, that's you - this is me - that's her ...etc."), the same as teenagers all over. After that, I explained how we would begin to make all these different clothes and what we needed to do first; that they should not be afraid to ask any questions about anything, and not to worry about mistakes - we all make mistakes all the time - I just need to know about it when it happens so we can fix it.
This seemed to reassure them a bit and we divided them up into pairs to do several different tasks to prepare different stages of the work: sampling the fabrics to the sketches, tracing markings, zigzaging edges, making labels, cutting trims and fabric for ruffles - all of which allowed me to get a few more pieces cut out. Then the sewing began and I introduced the apparently hitherto unexplored concepts of matching the edges, sewing on the lines, sewing straight lines (una linea recta) and pressing as you go (planche,... planche primera!). There was some initial surprise and reluctance when I asked them to do things over more carefully, but most of them quickly responded to the praise and encouragement when they did better the second time. Different levels of skill and confidence soon became apparent, so I tried to organize the work to allow each one to do what she was most comfortable with, but still keep busy - hand sewing, using the zigzag (electric) machines, using the straight stitch (treadle) machines, measuring and pressing. And at the end of the day, I asked them how they felt about what they had done - they thought it was hard work but that they had learned something new and interesting! (Even Abigail was impressed because she'd never seen a tracing wheel before or done machine-baste gathering , and when I asked her if it would be alright to have them baste the seams by hand first (hilvana) instead of just pinning to keep them straight, she agreed that that was how she had taught them to do it.)
Although I'm sure they were terrified of me the first day, by the second day they were warming up and getting a bit bolder about trying new things and showing each other; by mid-week the first fustanes were (mostly) ready for their fittings, and when I told them the next day how well the fittings had gone and how pleased the ladies had been, there were beams all around! By Friday, they had eight petticoats assembled and their ruffles (revuelos) in various stages of attachment, three more of a different style begun and half a dozen panuelos (something between a dishcloth and a hankerchief) fringed, and they were laughing and joking with me, asking for music and sugary treats to get them through the afternoon. Abigail pointed out that she and I were wearing almost identical clothes that day (blue striped shirts and jeans), and declared that we were hermanas (sisters), and two of the girls asked me (in English!) if I wanted ice cream when they all ran out as the ice cream truck came by. They even opted out of a scheduled session they were supposed to have with their guidance counsellor which would have taken them out of the class for two hours in the morning. (I was amazed and felt somewhat honoured at this choice until Coky brought me down to earth by telling me this was a lecture on family violence they had several times a year, and they didn't get any snacks with it, so they weren't that keen to go anyway, but still... they did choose to stay and keep sewing!)
Coky, as translator, is learning all the construction steps and techniques along with the girls, and we kid him that he could go into business as a shop foreman, as he picks up on the order and repetition and tells them when the line isn't straight, they'll have to do it over. At first, they would go to him to ask him to ask me to check it, but by Friday they were coming to me or calling me over directly, and we were communicating by a combination of key words, demonstrations and gestures and calling on him only when more complex clarification was needed.
One of the oddest things I'm finding about trying to learn Spanish is how my mind keeps defaulting to French for some reason. I didn't even realize I knew that much French (and I'm sure I couldn't speak it with any degree of coherence), but every time I try to put a sentence together with all my new nouns and uncertain verbs, the articles and prepositions more often than not come out a la francais - very confusing for all concerned!
The second difficulty in trying to acquire an ear for the language is the local tendency to slur or swallow a lot of consonants - 'z' becomes 's', 's' becomes 'h', and 'b' and 'v' are totally interchangeable. Coky, in turn, tells us of the Latino struggle with 'th', 'sh' and 'ch', combinations like 'rl' as in 'girl' or 'world', and 'n' endings like 'mountain'. His English is quite impressive and he works hard at it. He's between semesters at university here, studying for another year at home, before returning to the States for another year on full scholarship. He seems to know everybody in town and has several sidelines going - occasional tour guide, computer servicing and sales, and cell-phone marketing, as well as the translation gig for Es Artes.
I'm not sure how his time will be split once Frank and Eric arrive on Monday to supervise set and prop building - he's been 'all mine' this week since Mabel bailed out on us on Tuesday with no warning for reasons that aren't entirely clear, but seem to be time/commitment related. She was bilingual as well, and was supposed to be working with John as a buyer and design assistant, and with me to learn the building process and carry on as Wardrobe Mistress for the run of the production, but now Tatiana is scrambling to find someone else for that position, in addition to all her other pressures and concerns.
All in all, though, great strides have been made, first fittings have happened, we've found a laundry service and a dyer, Tito has installed not only mas luz but also ceiling fans in our new Wardrobe corner, and tomorrow I have the day to myself to prepare for my first group of ladies from the Casa de la Cultura (I got it wrong before - the Casa des Mujeres is another group) on Monday.
This was the first day with no rain, so things actually began to dry out.
We heard that the Stratford/Suchitoto fundraiser back home last night was a big success!
And, there was a handsome young man with a very good voice and an impressive collection of classic big band/pop arrangements (a la iPod plugged into the sound system) trying out his repertoire at dinner tonight - possibly for a wedding or party coming up? Anyway, 'a nice note' to end on. :-)