Life after the CELTA - an update from our 2010 Suzanne Furstner Foundation Scholarship winner

It’s been a hectic summer, after finishing work in Italy in July, I travelled to Girona, Catalonia with the intention of helping a friend out with a summer course – however things didn’t go as planned, so I was in Girona with some time to kill, ten days to be exact, and time to consider my options for the Autumn.

After contacting a few school’s in Catalonia and northern Spain I decided to try my luck elsewhere, eventually finding work in Lisbon. I’ve been here for just over two months now, and with the sun glaring through the window behind me and bouncing off my screen, in what is the end of November, I can’t help but think there are certainly less attractive locations to be earning a living.

The city itself is a charming one, not huge in terms of capital cities which helps it maintain a good level intimacy and provinciality while still being a functioning capital. Presently, I’m living in Santa Apolonia, part of the Moorish old quarter directly overlooking the Rio Tejo. First impressions and generalisations are facile as we all know and they are the only things I have to offer thus far; so I won’t bore you with insights that are probably redundant or will be by the time this blog is posted. However, as obvious as it may sound this is not Spain and natives share less in common with their Iberian neighbours than you might think, or at least than I thought.

The people and especially students are a lot more reserved and reticent than their Spanish or Italian counterparts – which admittedly, has taken some adjusting to. It’s cheap here though, for Europe especially. My stay in Lisbon isn’t for a full nine-month term, and will be over by Christmas. But in the meantime I’m living like a king, well, a grammatical, one wide-eyed, slightly Italian-missing, grass is always greener, earning an English wage in a european economic quagmire, Giginha sipping, king.

Cactus offers CELTA courses in destinations all around the world.For more information please visit

Cactus announces winner of 2011 Suzanne Furstner Foundation Scholarship

Introduced in 2007 in memory of a friend and colleague who was tragically lost in a road accident, the Suzanne Furstner Foundation supports language and educational training across the world. Every year since its introduction, the foundation has funded a scholarship enabling one budding TEFL teacher to take a training course to help them on their way.

The TEFL course has been offered in a different place each year, with destinations including Seville, Playa del Carmen, Milan and San Francisco. This year, applicants were vying for the opportunity to take a CELTA and Spanish course in the beautiful city of Barcelona.

All scholarship applicants are assigned a task, involving both a language awareness exercise and some creative writing based around the TEFL course destination. Although the standard of the applications that we received was exceptional, Sarah’s entry was engaging, inspiring, intelligent and relevant, and leaves us in no doubt that she is, and will continue to be, a fantastic English teacher.

We all loved reading Sarah’s piece and hope that you will too.

Congratulations Sarah!

Six Weeks in Barcelona

I love my purple rusted bicycle, brakes screeching as I cut through the rain. It is my saviour which delivers me from the commuter-crammed tube, the words ‘Freedom Tiger’ branded in yellow on the scratched-up frame.

The posh bikers look me up and down. Theirs are of smooth gears, wicker baskets and upright posture.

Drum-and-bass thumping in my ears, my brain sifts through potential discussion and vocabulary topics as I swerve between red double-decker buses and shiny black cabs.

‘Don’t forget it’s Diego’s birthday. Don’t forget it’s Diego’s birthday’. I chant along to the beats which turn over in time with my pedals.

I feel a smile inside as I walk briskly into the building which houses my school, greeted by the chh-chhh-chhh of the photocopier and a smirk from a coffee-hungry colleague. It’s 7:45 and classes commence at 8am. My first class, Intermediate fluency, poses the challenge of extracting conversation from a group of students whom I predict will be half-asleep.

‘Good morning everyone! Your teacher is away so I’ll be taking your class this morning. My name is Sarah. Can anyone guess where I come from?’


‘Good try, but no, I’m sorry.’




There it is. My heart sinks with one word. Spain. It’s hard to bring myself back on track.

‘Ok guys, I will give you a clue. Think…kangaroos.’

‘Australia!’ There is a chorus of voices now, and it’s clear that more than one or two students are awake. The keen questioning begins.

Have you ever eaten kangaroo? Do you know Sydney? Is it always hot in Australia?

I allow five minutes of Australiana Q and A before we move into learning some new vocabulary and how to use it in conversation with others.

‘Today, we’re going to learn how to talk about films. Movies you’ve seen, famous actors, that sort of thing’.

We laugh together as we spit out words like BAFTA, director, producer and protagonist and elicit a variety of questions to do with films. We practise pronunciation, drilling words and sentences until the students are confident they can take their new vocabulary out into the world.

‘Have you seen the blockbuster film The Titanic?’

‘Yes,’ the students drone. The class discusses well-known English-language films and I discover that aside from the one with the famous iceberg, most students have seen very few films in English. I tell Diego that his regular teacher made me promise not to forget his birthday and an international rendition of Happy Birthday follows.

The bell goes and the students vacate the classroom. As soon as the last student has gone, the feeling returns – the pain – of Spain.

‘Imagine there’s no country…it isn’t hard to do…’ – John Lennon’s lyrics recite in my head as I imagine that my passport would allow me to live and work as an English Teacher in Spain. But it doesn’t.

My mind plays tricks on me and I begin to smell the salty air of Barcelona. It’s as though I’m there again, the wind blowing my long, thick curls as Alejandro and I, on our ‘freedom machines’, duck and weave our way through the crowds of tourists to find our afternoon spot on Barceloneta beach. Last night’s paella was amazing; homemade and matched perfectly with Catalan red wine. As we cycle along side by side, Alejandro puts his arm around my shoulders and asks me what I thought of the meal. ‘The p…….’ – I abruptly cut off my sentence in fear of mispronouncing his national food. ‘Delicious’, I add, acknowledging the meal as the cause of my long sleep-in, one which London life does not afford.

Later that night, it’s Gracia Festival and the people smile and dance to live music in the streets. I meet a man from Zaragoza, who is surprised I have been to his town, which he calls boring.

I am so in-tune with this city, this country, its people, the food and the smell of positivity in the air. Amid the local employment crisis and global recession, families still meet regularly for a home-cooked meal fit for a king, and people continue to smile at, encourage and kiss each other, not neglecting both cheeks.

Due to the effects of the recession, it’s too expensive for Language Schools in Spain to hire teachers from outside the European Union, and I ask myself, why do I have to come from so far away? Why does Australia have to be on the other side of the world? What good is this useless passport to me now?

Accepting my fate, I begin to scrawl through websites for a teacher training course which will allow me to both upgrade from my Aussie TEFL certificate to a CELTA and spend time in Barcelona.

In the classroom I return to thinking about immigration policies around the world, particularly the rules for residency and study which have become much stricter in recent times. I consider my students from Colombia, Libya, Peru, Mongolia, Mexico and even from Spain, some of whom have fled war, unemployment and financial strain to come to London in the hope of building a better life. I think of Andreas, whose parents have worked their whole lives to save enough money to send him to London where he can complete his English studies and graduate as a Medical Practitioner in England. Students, who with the weight of the world on their shoulders, represent their entire families and generations to come. They often work one or two jobs whilst studying in order to pay the hefty London rents. Young people expected to use their parents’ precious, hard-earned money wisely. Not to buy clothes, or McDonalds, or to travel to Paris or Copenhagen or Barcelona as I have. But to do one thing and one thing only – to learn English, and to learn it well.

All of a sudden the school bell rings again. Into my consciousness floods a new awareness of my own responsibility and a sense of urgency to complete my CELTA so I can better lead my students in the English language.

I arrive at pictures of the students in their own blockbuster films, budding protagonists, each reaching for a solid-gold Oscar. And then there’s me, the teacher, who is determined to help them get there.

Suzanne Furstner Foundation Scholarship 2011: Shortlisted Entry Number 3

Six Weeks in Barcelona – The Fulfillment of Many Dreams

Growing up in a city where people usually greet each other with “qué tal” instead of “hello”, I have always been fascinated by the country that has left so much of its mark in my native land.The Philippines was under the Spanish rule for more than three centuries. During this period, Spain has shared its language, culture and traditions to the Filipinos. We may not have gained much from Spain in economic terms but it has left us a rich cultural heritage that defines so

much of what we are as Filipinos today. Even until now, the Spanish heritage is still visible in many places in the country.

I grew up in Zamboanga, a city that was originally a Spanish headquarters in 1634. It was established as a quaint little Spanish town that the Spaniards can call their “home away from home.” Even today, this city still has narrow streets, calles as the Spaniards would call them, that are typical of many old Spanish towns. Fort Pilar, the fortress that was built as a defense against the pirates, still stands even up to this day. After the Spaniards have gone, the front area was transformed into a chapel where masses are held daily. When I was a child, I remember attending masses with my father in Fort Pilar every Sunday. With my small hand in his, I would confidently walk though the aisles of the chapel knowing that I was with the“strongest and most loving man” in the whole wide world. I knew that my father would never let go of my hand. He will always be there for me. It has been more than six years since I last held my father’s hands. He has gone on ahead of me but I know that he has never let go of my hand. Whenever I go back to my hometown and pass by Fort Pilar, loving memories of my

father fill my mind. It is there in that Spanish fortress that I am reminded of my father’s kind and loving nature.

When I was in high school, we were required to study two novels written by our national hero Jose Rizal. Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo were written by Rizal in the 1800s to awaken the Filipinos to the true state of the Philippines while under the Spanish rule. Although the novels were supposed to breed hate for Spain in the hearts of Filipinos, what I felt was fascination for the rich cultural heritage that Spain has brought to my country. It was amusing how the Filipino characters in the story conversed in Spanish even when they were just here in the Philippines. Studying these two books stirred up a longing in my heart. I vowed to myself that one day I will travel to Spain and visit as many places as I can in that country so I can learn its language and experience its culture. So when I had the chance to visit Intramuros, a walled city in Manila built during the Spanish period, I was excited. I knew that this was the

closest that I can get to Spain – for now. Upon entering Intramuros, I was amazed to see that the Spanish influence is still very much visible here. I walked through the city’s streets taking in as much history as I can. But in my heart, I knew that one day I would be walking through the streets of some of the cities in Spain where I will be able see so much more than what I was seeing in Intramuros. First it will be Spain, then the world.

For me, seeing the world entails learning as many languages as I can. I can say that I have a knack for learning languages because when I was just in First Grade, I already knew four languages. When I lived in Indonesia, I learned one more language in just a few months. I can truly say that language is such an amazing “invention”, if I may call it that. By just combining different sounds, one is able to convey messages to other people. Just by changing the tone of your voice, you are able to express different emotions. Every language has its own intricacies. Each one is unique and interesting. Although some languages are easier to learn than others.Being able to express oneself in more than one language is a wonderful experience. But some people are not as flexible as I am. These are the people who think that learning a new language is torture. I want to help them discover the joys of language learning.

I have ventured into teaching before but due to my lack of training, there were many instances when I became frustrated with my students and with myself. I hope that I will I get this scholarship so I can help others learn English in a more effective manner. My dream is to be able to empower the Filipino youth by giving them an opportunity to learn a global language

that will make them more competitive in the marketplace. English may be one of the official languages of the Philippines but many students in public schools are not receiving quality English language teaching. As a result, their level of English competency is very low. I want to do something about this. But before I can do something significant, I need to be properly trained.

So Six weeks in Barcelona is the fulfillment of many dreams: the dream to see Spain; the dream to learn Spanish; and, the dream to get proper equipping as an English teacher so I can positively impact the lives of many people. I hope that you will be an instrument in fulfilling these dreams. To Barcelona I say, “Hasta que te vea, Barcelona!”

Suzanne Furstner Foundation Scholarship 2011: Shortlisted Entry Number 2

Six Weeks in Barcelona

The year:1935. The place: Barcelona, Spain.  I am one of a handful of newly recruited English teachers who have come to work with a group of Spanish immigrants before they are scheduled to ship off for work in the United States.  I have experience working with immigrants in England, mostly in the job centers, but this is an entirely new experience for me.  Love to the family. Wish me luck!

I turned over the page of the handwritten letter, still barely legible all these years later.  It was signed, Elaine Frances Miller, August, 18, 1935.  It looked like it had been torn out from a book of some kind, maybe a diary?  There had to be more information about this somewhere in all these boxes Mom had kept up in the attic.  Grandma Miller had died ten years ago in an elderly care facility, deteriorating daily from a long and difficult battle with Alzheimer’s disease. 

Unfortunately I had never known her before the disease struck, and so my relationship with her had always been one of connecting pieces here and there, rare moments of illumination as she recognized her now fully grown granddaughter, but then just as quickly slipped back into a darkness that had become all too familiar to the both of us. 

After some more digging in the box I finally I found it – a small, dusty but still clearly purple diary.  Purple had been her favorite color.  There was a clasp in the middle that had long since been broken, and immediately upon opening I recognized the page I had just read had in fact come from here.  The title page read, “Barcelona Travel Diary:  August 18 – September29, 1935”.  What could this be?  The only Grandma Miller I knew had spent the better part of her life raising nine kids in the rural backwoods of eastern Michigan.  After that, there was the Alzheimer’s, and a lot of mystery in between.  I began flipping through the pages, all in the same, perfectly neat handwriting.  It seemed there was an entry for every day of those six weeks.  Grandma Miller had been an English teacher in Europe before immigrating to the U.S. in 1939?  Why had no one ever mentioned this to me, given I was also an English teacher? 


The first time I ever taught an English class, I honestly didn’t know what I was doing.  My director for some reason assumed that I already knew what a worker center was, what a day laborer was, and what the realities of life as an undocumented immigrant were in Chicago.  I didn’t have a clue, I just nodded my head and agreed to check out the local worker center and see what would happen next.  I was shocked when they asked me if I would like to start an English language program.  I wasn’t even sure if I’d heard them right, did I mention I had never taught a class before, in anything? 

Two years later I left Chicago, and sadly left that worker center and the people who I had come to know as my students, when they were at the center waiting for work, trying to figure out how to improve their English while their attendance was inevitably inconsistent.  I mean let’s face it; the worker center was a place to go for work, not for an English class!  Yet some did come just for the class, and over time, a community was built. Many students became more than students to me, and became the first friends who told me of their experiences crossing desert to reach the United States, or of how many times it took them to finally get into the country, or even the ones who would bring people across the border in the middle of night’s darkness and somehow ended up in Chicago on the often frozen, early morning streets waiting for work.  This was a community of friends learning English, sharing struggles, and striving to live better lives. 

Now years later I live in Mexico City, working maybe to try and erase some of these inequalities that force people into such conditions in the first place.  Working with public high school students and migrants in local shelters, I use English as a means to erase some of the invisible barriers between us, to offer people a different choice that will empower and better their lives.  If I can play even a small part in such a thing, I have done my service to the world.


I decided to open up the diary once more, and for some reason flipped to the last entry, dated Saturday, September 29, 1935:

So sadly this whirlwind of a trip has come to an end.  We are returning to England tomorrow and the students are about to be shipped out to New York.  This teaching experience has changed me forever, made me realize the gift that teaching anybody anything truly is.  It can also never be taken for granted, because I was not the only one teaching in that classroom.  I believe that in the exchange between a teacher and her students, a synthesis happens that leads to the ability to really learn something.  If there is respect, there is exchange, and then anything can be learned, and no one will leave that classroom the same person they were when they first walked in.  When I think about the question my students asked me on our last day yesterday, about why I became an English teacher in the first place, I suppose the only answer I have had and will ever have is that at this point I simply don’t know how not to be.  And even if they considered me to be their teacher, they taught me so much more than I ever realized that I needed to learn.  May I keep what they have taught me in my heart forever.

Well said, Grandma Miller, my sentiments exactly. 

Suzanne Furstner Foundation Scholarship 2011: Shortlisted Entry Number 1

Six weeks in Barcelona

Click! Click, click! Click! A hundred seat belts are being unfastened. “Good luck with the course!”

“Thanks. It was nice talking to you.”

We have landed: Barcelona Airport, “La Prat” apparently, and the adventure is about to begin.

Emotions, memories and images are all chasing around inside my head. My stomach is tight with excitement and apprehension.

I remember the first time I climbed down from a plane in Spain, the hot air hitting us like a physical blow.

Torremolinos, 1969. The start of the package holiday phenomenon. A barely finished hotel surrounded by a dozen building sites of other hastily thrown up, multi-storey concrete cubes. Sand too hot to walk on bare foot, but dirty brown and despoiled with litter. A rotting carcass. Buying mini Toledo swords in a ‘gift shop’, that, even in 10 year old eyes, screamed “Tat’. Watneys’ Pubs. Fish and Chip Shops. Stunning views of looming mountains and the iridescent Mediterranean.

I have always thought that at the right time and, if circumstances allowed, I would head boldly off, split an infinitive or two, and seek out new lands in search of adventure. I had to close my catering business a couple of years ago. It had been building nicely for a number of years: I had managed to secure contracts with many of the leading financial institutions in Guernsey, had expanded and taken on more staff and the future looked good. Arrive the collapse of Lehmann’s, the ‘Credit Crunch’, the slashing of finance company budgets; my business is devastated almost overnight.  I tried to continue for a couple of years, looking for new sources of income, but was eventually forced to close and lost everything. Life turned into a soul sapping limbo, but now I have the chance to fulfil a dream: six weeks in Barcelona and the start of a new chapter.

An experiment. A crash two year Spanish ‘O’ Level course. The teacher more exotic than the subject: lanky, greasily long-haired, John Lennon glasses. Excitement at learning the first sentence: “Ramon tiene un burro”. A phrase that has helped in many a sticky situation since! Being taught colloquial terms for women’s body parts and boys being given ‘girly’ magazines as end of term prizes. Thankfully, sacking avoided until the end of the course.

Here is my chance to exorcise the ghost of the engagingly inappropriate Mr. Gillespie and time to build on the most solid foundation of Ramon’s burro.  My own experience of formal language learning, then, was no template for good teaching practice. As well as Spanish and German, I learnt French at school, but my ability only became passable when I set up a study and activity centre. We had a high proportion of French school groups staying and I soon learned that for them to use the centre as I wished I had to learn a whole new vocabulary. This related to domestic tasks and rotas, outlining programmes and timetables and not throwing Gauloises’ butts into the neighbours’ gardens. One might say that, as far as vocabulary goes, ‘necessity was the mother of retention’. An important lesson for the classroom: make it relevant to the lives of the students and it will stick so much quicker.

Before the disaster of the catering business I had many years teaching and training. As I sit waiting for my turn to disembark an image pops up of a group of muddied, blindfolded ‘brown owls’, mostly plumpish and middle aged. I am taking them through some confidence building exercises. They are dutifully following a rope through a wood, giggling and shrieking like the brownies that they would put through the same ordeal the following week. Another lesson to take with me: make it fun and you carry the most unbiddable student with you.

My mind is all over the place: flashes of a different me in a different Spain force themselves into my consciousness.

Eating sardines on the grubby wooden deck of a fishing boat. The fish glimmering in the evening rays, plucked from the still flapping, waiting-to-be-unloaded catch and tossed on a long-blackened cast-iron brazier. Licking oily, fishy, smoky fingers and tossing the cartoon skeletons over the gunwale as a huge orange globe dips inexorably below the horizon.

Apprehension comes flooding in again: tightness, pulse quickening, palms moistening. My anxiety demon is whispering in my ear: “It’s so long time since you did any proper studying. You’re going to fail. You’re too old- they’re going to laugh at you, Grandad. They’re going to think you’re an old f….”“STOP!” Ok, so I am worried about the studying. And I am anxious about being older than the other students.

I try to bolster myself with a line from Paul Coelho: “People need not fear the unknown if they are capable of achieving what they need and want”.

“You may be an old dog”, I tell myself, trying to brush the demon off my shoulder, and wondering when I started sounding so corny, “but you’ve always loved learning new tricks”. Age is an issue though. I always have a shock the rare times I look in the mirror. Who’s that old bloke looking back? When did I stop being 20? Back home I prefer to be with my children and their friends, than friends of my own age. Is that strange? It never feels it. They accept me as ‘one of the boys’ or, more disconcertingly, ‘one of the girls’. I am used to it and so are they. I had something of an epiphany a few years back when I took my son to start university. We found ourselves in the union bar. I felt right at home until I looked around. It was full of very young looking ‘freshers’ and old-looking parents. I was one of the latter. I wasn’t one of the boys. I was an old dad.

So, how will I get on with my new course mates? Will I feel like one the boys/ girls or will I feel like a dad in a bar full of rosy cheeked freshers?

It’s nearly time to disembark. Stop worrying. Think of something else. I wonder if I’ll have a chance to go and see Andy and Pauline in Ronda.

“You’ve bought a hotel in Rhondda?” “No, Ronda!” So, not scrubbed and besuited miners belting out Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau in beautiful harmonies, nor leeks, coal, rain and the veneration of Sts. Gareth, JJ, JPR and Barry; but vertiginous cliffs, awesome bridges, Hemingway, bleating goats, sausage factories, the energy sapping heat of a searing sun bounced off a thousand naked rock surfaces and the blissfully reviving chill of a spring-fed swimming pool.

“Thank you. Bye-bye”, I say to the stewardess, thinking “I should really have tried that in Spanish”, as I pass through the door hatch and place my foot on the top of the boarding steps. Six weeks in Barcelona. The adventure is about to begin.

Cactus named ‘Agent of the Month’ by IALC

Each month, IALC nominates a school and agent of the month, and we’re happy to report that Cactus has been named ‘Agent of the Month’ for October!

We are delighted to have been awarded this accolade, especially given the number of partner agents that IALC works with globally. We very much enjoy working with our IALC partners, not only because of the professionalism and efficiency of the staff, but also because of the high quality courses that they offer. IALC schools ensure quality through minimum standards, regular inspection, a code of ethics and a commitment to continuous improvement. On top of this, they provide a high level of attention to students, and a large range of language courses with accommodation and cultural activities included.

Currently, Cactus works with IALC schools in a range of locations, including destinations in the UK, the US, France, Germany, Austria, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Ecuador, and Australia.

Read more about Cactus’ foreign language course locations

Read more about the International Association of Language Centres

10 great contemporary Spanish films to watch

Here we give you our top 10 Spanish films of recent times – but would be interested to hear your suggestions too!

1. Como Agua Para Chocolate (Like Water for Chocolate) – 1993

Adapted from the novel by Mexican author Laura Esquivel, Like Water for Chocolate tells the story of Tita who, when forced to look after her mother rather than be with her true love Pedro, pours all her emotion into her cooking, affecting all those who unwittingly eat her delicately-prepared dishes. Set during the Mexican Revolution with family feuds and strong passions a central theme, this film is a visual and thematic delight, a true feast for the senses. Until the release of Pan’s Labyrinth, it was the best selling Spanish-language film of all time.

2. El Laberinto del Fauno (Pan’s Labyrinth) – 2006

Early in 2007 the Mexican fantasy film Pan’s Labyrinth became the most successful Spanish-language film of all time in the US. Rich in visuals, the film takes place in the fascist Spain of 1944 and tells the story of a young girl who is sent to live with her cruel stepfather, a captain of the Spanish Army. Fascinated with fairy tales, she escapes one night into an eerie yet captivating world which plays out as part fantasy, part historical drama and part family melodrama. As much as the film astounds, the costumes, set design and special effects are just as breathtaking. In all a compelling and truly original Spanish-language movie.

3. Y Tu Mamá También (And Your Mother Too) – 2001

Arguably the film that launched Latin actor Gael García Bernal’s career, Y Tu Mamá También is a coming-of-age story about two teenage boys setting off on a road trip with an attractive older woman who is escaping her marriage. Set in Mexico in 2001, the film draws attention to the country’s then economic and political issues, in particular the situation of the poor in rural Mexico. It was received with a certain amount of controversy due to its sexual content yet it went on to gain nominations for Best Original Screenplay at the Academy Awards and Best Foreign Language Film at the Golden Globes.

4. El Mar Adentro (The Sea Inside) – 2004

Javier Bardem is perfectly cast in this true-life story of Spanish quadriplegic Ramón Sampedro, who fought an emotional 30-year campaign to end his life with dignity. A film that leaves you thinking about it for some while after, The Sea Inside touches on weighty moral issues such as the desire to end one’s life and the legal issues that surround euthanasia. Yet Ramón has an incredible gift of love, and through this he inspires the people around him to appreciate the precious nature of life and accomplish things they never thought possible.  I personally cannot recommend this film highly enough.

5. All About My Mother (Todo Sobre Mi Madre) – 1999

Since the early 1980s, Spanish director Almodóvar has been hugely influential in world cinema, no more so than with his 1999 masterpiece Todo Sobre Mi Madre. An emotional tale of grief, love and friendship, this film follows single mother Manuela who, after her son is run over and killed, heads for Barcelona in search of his father, developing a number of rich relationships along the way. All About My Mother won Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards and the Golden Globes, as well as countless other awards for direction, costume, acting and more.

6. María, Llena Eres de Gracia (Maria Full of Grace) – 2004

Even knowing what this film was about before I saw it, Maria Full of Grace shocked me as I’m sure it well intended to. Released in 2004, it tells the story of a 17-year-old Colombian girl, María, who becomes a drug mule, dangerously transporting illicit drugs into the United States in her digestive system. With plenty of scope to sensationalise drugs trafficking and the violence that goes with it, this film is actually very much underplayed, yet the fear felt by María and the reasons that have driven her to risk her life doing this are palpable. Compelling in the uncertainty of how it will end, shocking in its honesty and somber in the reality it portrays, Maria Full of Grace is one of the best Spanish-language films of the last decade.

7. Abre los Ojos (Open your eyes) – 2000

Another masterpiece of Amenábar (who also directed Mar Adentro), Abre los Ojos is the original and, in many people’s opinion, far superior version of the Hollywood film Vanilla Sky. Starring Penelope Cruz and Eduardo Noriega, this film follows a handsome and wealthy man who meets the love of his life and then finds himself severely disfigured following a car crash. With subtle effects, engaging music and clever twists, Abre los Ojos is both an ingenious thriller and a compelling love story that keeps you hooked til the very end. 

8. Diarios de Motocicleta (The Motorcycle Diaries) – 2004

This is the daring and sensitive dramatisation of 23-year-old Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara’s motorcycle trip through South America in 1952 with his friend Alberto. Riding from Argentina up to Venezuela, the pair discover much about the world and themselves, forming rich relationships with the people they meet, breaking down barriers and highlighting the continent’s inequality and poverty along the way. Gael Garcia Bernal gives a thoughtful and striking performance as the young Che, a fascinating character who has since had significant influence across Latin America as a whole.

9. Fresa y Chocolate (Strawberry and Chocolate) – 1994

Nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, this Cuban film explores the treatment of gays in Cuba in the early days of Castro’s regime. Diego, an educated and homosexual young man, falls in love with a young heterosexual communist, and what grows from this is a story of great friendship and love that manages to triumph over intolerance and misunderstanding. In addition to this, the film is a valuable insight into Cuban life: it is littered with references to famous Cuban writers and musicians and touches on Cuban history, politics and everyday life. Less a ‘gay’ film, it is more about accepting differences and learning to appreciate other points of view and ways of life.

10. Amores Perros – 2000

Based in Mexico City, Amores Perros tells the story of a horrific car accident that connects three stories involving characters of very different backgrounds. Together these stories show the darker side of life in contemporary Mexico, and as such the film is very real, complex and thought-provoking. Nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, Amores Perros was the first of Mexican director Alejandro Iñárritu’s ‘trilogy of death’, succeeded by the equally excellent ’21 Grams’ and ‘Babel’.

Did we miss your all-time favourite Spanish-language film from our list? Please add your suggestions by leaving us a comment!

Cactus offers language courses in more than 30 languages, in 60 countries and 500 destinations worldwide.

Congratulations to Linguaviva- LTM Star Italian Language School Winner 2011!

The Awards ceremony took place on the 3rd September at London’s Park Lane Hilton hotel and was attended by hundreds of people from the language travel industry.

With many years experience of working with language schools in Italy, we were very pleased to be able to sponsor the award for Best Italian Language School this year. Whilst all nominees were more than worthy, we were delighted to hear the 2011 winner named as Linguaviva.

We have worked with Linguaviva for some time, offering a variety of their Italian courses in Milan, and have always enjoyed our working relationship. Cactus’ Italian course specialist Neil Stawarz was especially pleased with the announcement of their win and commented:

“Congratulations yet again for another win for Linguaviva at this year’s LTM awards. We always work well with Linguaviva and they help us greatly with fantastic communication – our students are always happy at the end of their stay.”

We look forward to many more successful years in partnership with Linguaviva and would like once again to congratulate them on their achievement.

Learn more about Italian courses in Italy

Cactus sponsors the Italian Language School of the Year Award at the 2011 LTM Star Awards

Cactus was established over ten years ago, and since then has established a wide range of trusted school partnerships, many of which are in Italy.

Currently, we work with partner schools in twenty locations around Italy and its islands. This allows our customers a variety of course types, and of destinations, and ensures we have options for all tastes. From large cities and cultural centres like Rome, Venice and Florence, to seaside favourites like Alghero, Viareggio and Tamorina, there is something for everyone.

We send hundreds of students each year to learn Italian in Italy, and have always enjoyed working with our Italian partners. Italian people have a reputation for being very friendly and welcoming, and we have always found that to be the case, both from our student feedback and from our personal experiences of working with, and visiting, our partners in Italy.

We are proud to be sponsoring the award for Italian Language School of the Year, and wish all of the nominees the best of luck!

Find out more on Cactus’ Italian course locations

Spanish film review: ‘The Skin I Live In’ by Pedro Almódovar

You don’t need a profound knowledge of Almódovar’s films to know that his work is extreme, fantastical and somewhat controversial. So it will come as no surprise that his latest release, ‘The Skin I Live In’, has been greeted with both scepticism and awe. There is no denying, however, that it is sleek, stylized and unmistakably his.

‘The Skin I Live In’ tells the story of a successful plastic surgeon, played adeptly by Antonio Banderas, who has a private operating room in his opulent home. Kept prisoner within his house is a beautiful woman called Vera, who he uses as a guinea pig as he carries out experimental work to create a new kind of skin. Vera is similar in looks to his late wife, who was burned in a car crash twelve years before – and who could have been saved by the very skin he is now creating.

To add another quirky and almost implausible twist, Vera also has something to do with the surgeon’s raped and dead daughter – to reveal more would give the game away but, needless to say, it is a twist that only Almódovar can get away with, the plot expertly executed with superb set design and cinematography as well as an atmospheric score by Alberto Iglesias. Lesser directors would not get away with the feat that Almódovar has achieved with ‘The Skin I Live In’, yet somehow this Spanish veteran has created a thriller that combines horror, insanity and parody in a way that is compelling and almost believable.

Almódovar has based the latest of his thrillers on the 2003 novel ‘Mygale’ by the late French writer Thierry Jonquet. It was filmed in Madrid in 2010 and this year premiered at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, to much expectation. It will be released to Spanish, US and US audiences later this autumn and, personally, I can’t wait to set eyes on this much-talked-about movie.

Cactus offers evening and part-time Spanish courses in the UK, US and Canada, as well as in-country Spanish immersion courses across Spain and Latin America.