Free Week in Spain Looking for a way to explore Spain at a low cost? Going to Europe with more time than money? Can you speak English? Yes English. That’s the only requirement needed to take part in the Englishtown program sponsored by Vaughn Village.
Well, actually there’s another requirement. You need to be willing to speak English for 14 hours a day with enthusiastic Spaniards. Here’s how the program works: Each week-long session, 20 Spaniards wanting to improve their conversational English, pay to spend a week fully immersed in talking with 20 Anglos from around the world. The Anglos simply need to pay their roundtrip airfare to Madrid. All meals, lodging and other travel expenses are then covered by Vaughan Village. Since the program runs year-round, it’s ideal for people able to visit Europe during the off season.
My husband and I spent a week in Valdelavilla, Spain, an 18th century village with authentic cobblestone streets and stone houses. The last sheepherders left the isolated town in the early 1960’s where it sat deserted and quiet. Quiet until a Savings and Loan Association took over and renovated the village to authentic modern day charm. The rooms were immaculate, with food prepared by Basque chefs. Most people have private rooms and baths. Watch the low-ceilings. The first few days found several men gingerly rubbing their heads after hitting the low door jambs. 18th century Spaniards didn’t have the height of people today. As an extra bonus, the village is situated next to Europe’s largest vulture colony. We took a mini-field trip to the ravine where a government-paid farmer throws carcasses to keep the vultures happy and away from local livestock. At any time, ominous looking black birds swooped overhead, prompting plenty of conversation. And conversation is what it is all about.Part of the day is spent rotating for one-on-one sessions with the Spaniards. Our Spanish group consisted of a lively mix of teachers, 3 PhD’s, and business people. Spanish executives from Microsoft, BMW, and Deloitte and Accenture frequently attend as a crash course in improving their English. Our liveliest Anglo was a retired 72 year old teacher that had everyone playing 20 Questions with her electronic game. Several Americans were returning for their third or fourth time, anxious to repeat their experience helping Spaniards understand nuances such as “Don’t go there” and “bottom line”. A program director posts schedules and leads group activities. During the one on one times, pairs frequently talked while leisurely walking the miles of paths around the village. One participant stated, “This week, I talked for many, many miles.” Others rode bikes together or simply sat next to the butterfly garden in lawn chairs. After a morning of conversation followed by lunch with local wines, siesta was a welcome diversion. No worry about oversleeping, since the ringing telephone in each room signaled the end of siesta and the beginning of more conversation. On some occasions, a mock tele-conference helped Spaniards understand English without the benefit of facial and hand gestures. As three Spaniards sat around a speaker phone, my husband, (in another room) told them, “Hi. This is Bill Gates. I’m coming to Madrid tomorrow to check on your computer system. I like Thousand Island dressing with my salad and I want all the computers dusted so there’s no dirt on the keyboards. Oh yes, make sure the printers are filled with beige paper, not white.” The Spaniards then met with Mr. Gates and confirmed what he told them. In this case, one Spaniard thought Bill Gates wanted to order one thousand computers. At the beginning of the week, the Spaniards are a bit hesitant to use their English. By the end of Day 3, the conversation level at dinner reached a crescendo as Anglos and Spaniards talked and laughed as if life-long friends. “How can you sell your personal things in front of your house?” asked Juan in amazement as I tried to describe the All-American garage sale. Maria Delores, a college professor, told us she had never participated in team building activities until attending Vaughan Village. “I can’t show my boss pictures of me doing that skit because he won’t believe it helps me learn English”. she told us. “Our Spanish culture says we should be serious at anything work related.” Poor Maria Delores and the rest of her Spanish counterparts. Not only did they find themselves doing teambuilding activities, they created balloon animals, dressed up in crazy costumes to present infomercials and sang simple songs. Everything we did centered on speaking English so the Spaniards could understand “normal” conversation rather than textbook perfection. My husband said to Raphael, “You’re really dragging this morning.” Raphael, (who had partied until 3:00am) looked worried. “Dragging?” he asked. “You mean I need to drag something? I don’t feel like hard work right now”. To complicate the Spaniard’s learning ability were several Anglos with heavy accents. Juanita, settling in for a one-on-one session with me said, “Oh my. I am SO tired in my head. My first session was with Helen from Ireland. She speaks a funny English. Then I spoke with Frank from Texas. His English is very strange. And you…you talk very fast!” It all works out at the closing night program when awards are given to “The Anglo Hardest to Understand” and “Most Improved Spaniard”. Yes, it’s all like summer camp for adults.
We found out more about each other’s culture than any month-long organized tour could provide. As we got to know each Spaniard on a personal basis, e-mail addresses were exchanged, as well as personal invitations to visit their homes. By last count, my husband and I have open invitations to visit our new friends in Barcelona, Seville, Toledo and tiny villages off the tourist-radar. They, of course, are most welcome to visit us when they get to the Nashville area.
Anglo volunteers select from three locations throughout Spain. Gredos, Avila is a 4 star hotel close to the Gredos mountain range. Some Anglos prefer La Albera, Salamanca, where participants stay in a four star hotel with mountain views.
Location isn’t as important as what takes place around the lunch table or on casual walks through the country side. I learned to enjoy stewed tomatoes on toast for breakfast while the Spaniards learned Americans frequently eat in their car. “What?” asked a Spanish mother. “Your children eat their dinner in the car? What about the crumbs? Why don’t you eat at home?” I tried to explain American’s obsession with fast food devoured while on the road. My husband pantomimed driving up to a McDonald’s Drive-Through window. He took everyone’s orders and then pretended to eat burger’s fries and shakes in the car…crumbs and all. The Spanish mother looked shocked and confused.
An added benefit of the program is a similar camp for teens. Our daughter Sondra spent a week in a location several hours south of us, speaking English with 20 Spanish teens. Instead of one-on-one sessions, the teens swam, played volleyball and put on skits. During a casual conversation with several teens, Sondra found out they didn’t know what cookies were. “Let’s bake cookies!” she suggested and the Spaniards followed her into the kitchen. Our daughter, in true American fashion showed the Spanish teens the art of eating raw cookie dough as well. Those corrupted teenagers are probably eating cookie dough in the back seat of their parent’s car this very minute! She still e-mails the Anglo friends she made from Australia, England and Ireland, as well as her Spanish friends.
In our case, the program was a perfect family vacation with a teenager. The three of us spent a few days exploring Madrid together, and then went for seven days to our respective English speaking programs. Sondra enjoyed the freedom of being away from her parents and we enjoyed our “couple time”. Afterwards Allan, Sondra and I spent another week exploring France. One retired couple did a similar program with their 16 year old grandson. They traveled together for several weeks, then “took a break” as he attended the teen program. Afterwards the three reunited to share experiences while enjoying a few last days in Spain.
Vaughan Village proved to be a perfect, low-cost component to a European vacation. We may not have visited all the tourist attractions of Spain, but we gained an insight into Spanish customs, traditions and made international friends.
Vaughan Village http://www.vaughanvillage.com Phone: 34-902-10-37-37
Fax: 34-91-391-01-12 Rafael Calvo 18, 4A, 28010 Madrid, Spain