How does a week in Spain, all expenses paid, sound to you? How about eating fantastic Spanish food, learning about (and trying) local customs, and understanding Spanish culture through conversations with Spaniards? At first I thought it was too good to be true. But it’s real, and I lived it.
As I planned my spring journey through Spain, I remembered a trip an acquaintance took with free lodging and meals. All she had to do was get to Madrid and be willing to talk. Heck, I can do that! So I looked it up.
This offer is Pueblo Ingles, a program for Spaniards wanting to polish their English through full immersion and interactive classes, with 100+ hours of conversation during a week. The company, Diverbo, invites English-speakers from all over the world to interact with their students. And they had a program that fit my schedule at the end of March, in the tiny village of La Alberca in the province of Salamanca, 170 miles west of Madrid. (They also have other locations.)
Seventeen of us volunteers (they call us Anglos) represented England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, Florida, Indiana, New York, Pennsylvania, California, Rhode Island, and Hawaiʻi (with a Wisconsin accent). We have sixteen students from Spain and one from Venezuela. The day before the bus trip to La Alberca, our Program Leaders, Sam and Sabela, hosted the Anglos in Madrid with a traditional paella meal, followed by flamenco entertainment.
Then they answered our questions: it will be cold in the mountains where we’ll be staying at this time of year; the bus trip there will be about four hours; our daily schedule has us eating breakfast at 9 am, lunch at 2 pm, and dinner at 9 pm. This traditional Spanish dining schedule was a challenge for me. I was ready to chew someone’s arm by 2 pm, and nod off in my dinner soup. On the good side, I could sleep in.
We’re staying in a resort, housed in villas. Each Anglo shares one with a student, them in the upstairs bedroom, us on the main level bedroom, with separate locks.
The atmosphere was casual. For the breakfast buffet, Sam told us not to queue up because we’d be here all day just waiting to eat. “Think of this more like a Spanish market than a British bank. Just elbow your way into the section of the buffet you want.” But the curriculum was rigorous.
The students are mostly younger professionals who need to converse in English on occasion with overseas bosses and English-speaking suppliers: marketing people from multinational companies, IT technical folk, designers and engineers, accountants, business strategists, and people in distribution, sales and retail. They came from a broad range of companies: a national sports team, insurance, local governments, pharmaceuticals, beer, toys and more.
Because the program was full immersion, each student was sure to get practice speaking English in the situations most important to them. One was an MD who presents technical papers in English at professional meetings, but needs to improve his fluency in casual conversation, such as during lunch. Others have regular teleconferences with English speakers who are hard for them to understand. So volunteers with experience rehearsed with them using actual equipment.
The volunteers skewed a bit older than the students. Several are perpetually on the move. Dave and Merete from Manchester, England, sold their business, rented their house out for three years, and are now traveling to far-flung locations and staying for a month at a time in Cyprus, Denmark, Myanmar, Cuba, Spain, China and the Czech Republic. I asked them how they prepared for such a life. Dave told me they contacted every agency with whom they correspond and requested electronic communication for everything including insurance, taxes, and bank statements. For the rest, they contracted with their tax preparer to receive and open all of their mail, dispose of the trash, scan the remainder and send it on to them.
A couple of the volunteers settled in Spain for retirement, like Brian and Colin. Brian has been in southern Spain for 12 years, living quite well on his pension from the British Navy because the cost of living is low compared to England. Colin, a retired officer in the British Army did likewise. He’s a cheeky Welshman, who settled in Galatia, one of the three areas of Spain that speaks a completely different language than Spanish. Both participate in multiple Diverbo programs every year, thoroughly enjoying the transformation of the students as they gain confidence over the seven days of the curriculum.
And it is a well-planned curriculum. Rule #1 is “English Only,” even in private. Using the setting of a remote resort, the students can be isolated enough to create an environment where they hear only English. The day is segmented into 50 minutes sessions from 10 am until 9 pm, with 10 minute breaks between, plus lunch and a siesta. (Thank God for nap time!)
Each day we covered English phrasal verbs (I had never even heard of that concept – it is so ingrained into English) and idioms. We Anglos were often asking other Anglos what the idioms meant before the one-on-ones with our students, and we had many discussions on their origin – true fun for a word geek like me.
Besides one-on-one chats with a student and a volunteer, we participated in teleconference practice, group discussions where teams of two Anglos and two Spaniards complete a task (have you ever try to stuff a raw egg into a balloon?) or solve the problems of the world, and “theatre” entertainment (voluntary) where program participants put on skits for the rest of the group.
Students were required to make a five-to-seven minute presentation, which was the culmination of their week. Anglos could also volunteer to present. I spoke on how “Iberia shaped Hawaiʻi.” I hadn’t thought about it much until then.
Everyone eats together, two Anglos and two Spaniards to a table. This social interaction allowed them to practice a more casual form of English, often on a topic where they were experts: Spanish food! The food was fantastic. I ate so much of it that I am sure I put on weight.
Lunch and dinner consist of three courses: soup or salad, main course, and dessert, with unlimited wine (red and white) and water. The main course is rarely accompanied by vegetables, only a carb such as potatoes or rice and meat (very often pork). And while my normal breakfast is a banana with peanut butter, here, I ate ham (so many types), two eggs, cheese, yogurt, pastry, a half pear and juice. I also learned to drink my coffee Spanish style, with half the cup being warm milk instead of a bit of cream.
After dinner (10 pm), Sam and Sabela offered optional activities such as group word games, singing competitions by country (despite an awesome performance, the Americans came in last!), group quizzes and a party with dancing music. To my surprise, almost all of the Spaniards and volunteers were willing to dance. The day is very long but rewarding, and despite my normal bedtime of 9:30 pm, I stayed until after midnight some evenings. I’m jet-lagged anyway by a full 12 hours, so what the heck – I might as well have fun.
While the stated purpose of this program is for students to improve their English fluency, it becomes so much more after sharing these experiences. One-on-one chats lead to sharing our lives with each other, first small bits, then stories with deeper significance. The Anglos not only correct the students’ English and help them with finding the right word to express themselves, but we begin to understand and appreciate their lives and culture. Likewise, they learn about life all over the English-speaking world. By the end of the week, the students’ English had improved so much that we could even share jokes. We all came away (a phrasal verb) with new friends.
If you’ve ever thought about traveling to Spain (or Germany – Diverbo has a similar program there), and want to meet locals beyond waiters and shop-keepers to have real conversations, sign up for Pueblo Ingles. You won’t be disappointed. They even have a program for teens. Or if you want to improve your Spanish, try their Pueblo Español Program.
See also my essay, In love with rural Spain – the village of La Alberca.
To learn more about the traditions we experienced and the food/drink, see Firewater, witches, black pigs and bota swigging in La Alberca Spain.
For the rest of my adventure in Spain, see:
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