“I am exciting to meet you. Please to sit with me,” pronounced Antonio in his very best English as we boarded the bus in Madrid. He was one of 20 brave, determined Spaniards who’d signed up for a weeklong program of speaking English 24/7 with 20 Anglos. We Anglos had volunteered our time and vocal cords in return for a free week in Spain. Bus, hotel room, meals with wine– everything but airfare was provided. But the biggest freebie was far more precious—the opportunity, lacking to most tourists, to get to know—really, really know—individuals in the country they’re visiting.
Most of us vacationing abroad can interact only with taxi drivers, waiters, and hotel clerks. Here, in the Pueblo Inglese program, the conversations quickly make the leap from “Where do you live/What’s your job?” to politics, religion, abortion—and those are merely the safe topics. Anna, single and in her 30s, shared her feelings about being a professional woman in a man’s world; Pablo, about his new baby. Jose agonized over the Afghan war and the economy, and Luisa about raising a rebellious 14-year-old daughter.
When I first heard about the program, it sounded too good to be true. I kept waiting for the time-share promo, but it never came. The only requirement for a volunteer is to be gregarious—and speak no Spanish. Another bonus: The 20 Anglos came from Britain, Australia, Ireland and Canada as well as the U.S., so we also got to make even more international friends. We ranged in age from 22 to 72—everyone from students on college break to retired teachers, a fireman and a construction worker.
The Spaniards were mostly middle-managers or company owners. All were proficient in textbook English, but terrified of talking. They needed practice in listening and speaking in order to advance in their jobs, which ranged from architect to IT security and solar energy, a Pepsi exec, a magazine editor, the owner of a hair salon, an event planner, and a former government minister.
As the bus bounced through the mountains, it started to snow. Our Australian aboard went bonkers: her first snowfall ever. Meanwhile, the Spaniards reacted like deer in the headlights to our conversational attempts. They simply nodded their heads and responded, “Yes, I think so,” trying like crazy to figure out what the guy with the Irish accent was saying, or what lingo the lady from Texas employed.
But a glass or two of wine at dinner promoted proficiency. “A-MAZ-ing!” declared Antonio, a 30-something Energizer Bunny when he learned I was from Minnesota. “Teemberwolves!” he shouted, leaping from his chair with a bucket shot demo and a high-five.
Our days began with breakfast at tables of four—two Spaniards, two Anglos. Then, a series of hour-long, one-on-one conversations. After discussing the verb phrase of the hour (hang on vs. hang out vs. hang in) and an idiom (“I’m all ears”), we rambled along mountain paths to La Alberca, a tiny medieval village a mile away, or cozied up by the fireplace to discuss, well, whatever we wanted: music, movies, jobs, opinions on everything under the Spanish sun.
Once a day two-on-twos were scheduled. Suggested topics—always controversial—included “English should be the universal language” and “Families should not have more than one child.”
After lunch, a siesta from 3 to 5 p.m.—the only free time of the day. I’d walk into La Alberca to marvel at its half-timber houses, their stone lintels carved with dates from the 1700s. Others would snooze or hit the Internet. At five, we reassembled for a group activity. Divided into eights, we worked together to complete a creative (and competitive) assignment to present to the others, such as arriving at three questions to ask God; formulating a marketing campaign for a new perfume; or enacting a fairytale in mime.
More one-on-ones until theater time at eight, when, after an hour of rehearsal, groups would present hilarious skits, which the program director had lifted from Monty Python or Saturday Night Live, complete with outrageous costumes from the prop box. Finally, dinner at nine—early for Spaniards, not so for us Anglos: always a choice of two appetizers and two entrees plus dessert. Then bar time and/or a dance party or show, such as the night each nationality was asked to sing a group song. Ours was “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” (duh).
As the week wore on, the Spaniards loosened up. But the language challenges became more complex when telephone conversations were added to the mix in order to negate the clues of body language. First, a one-on-one from adjoining rooms; later, a conference call involving one Anglo and three Spaniards. The “real life” scenario I led was as pretend-exec of an American company proposing to open a restaurant in Madrid with a “team” of Spanish experts: banker, lawyer, and designer. These exercises were guaranteed to drive home the day’s idiom—“Think on your feet.”
Finally, graduation for the Spaniards and a lot of kissing (once on each cheek) for everyone as we exchanged email addresses, set up a Facebook page, and said fond goodbyes. Already, a reunion is being planned among our new best friends.
Pueblo Inglese has operated for over ten years. For information, dates and applications, visit www.morethanenglish.com. Then, get set to have fun!
The program starts and ends in Madrid, so do take a day or two to explore this dynamic city. The website suggests well-located, budget-friendly hotels as well as must-see sights. The metro is easy to navigate, and shopping is a joy (think: shoes, shoes, shoes).
Check out the neighborhood around Calle Leon for indie designer shops and antiques; Calle Huertas for intriguing neighborhood places to eat; tapas bars such as Lateral, with a menu in English, close to Teatro Espagnol. Stroll through the upscale, modern Mercado San Miguel, just off the iconic Plaza Major (talk about people-watching!). During the annual Madrid Fusion festival, late January to early February, participating bars offer a drink and a tapa for 3 euros, and museums provide food-oriented tours of their works. Stroll through Retiro, the Central Park of Madrid, catch a bullfight or a flamenco show, or laze away your day over a cup of hot chocolate and churros (long doughnuts) amid the locals. Rinse and repeat. For info, contact www.ineedspain.com.