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Immerse yourself in Spain -- but here, no speaking Spanish is allowed

Email|Print| Text size + By Judy Kugel
Globe Correspondent / August 1, 2004

VALDELAVILLA, Spain -- It is a July morning in a mountain valley four hours north of Madrid. Crystal clear sky, temperature in the 70s. I am walking up a quiet dirt road with Cisco, 35, a rising executive at Spain's second largest telecommunications company. I am a middle-aged college dean from Massachusetts. We are discussing the European Union's impact on the Spanish economy -- in English.

Cisco, who is from Corua, and 18 other Spaniards are spending 10 days in a tiny 18th-century village in a remote valley in the highlands along with 20 native English speakers ("Anglos"). Only English is allowed to be spoken. The Spaniards will leave with the much-improved English they need as citizens of the European Union, and the Anglos will understand Spain and at least some Spaniards in a way not available to ordinary tourists.

Like most people who hear about Valdelavilla, we were skeptical at first. Go to Spain to speak English with Spaniards 16 hours a day for 10 days! Are we nuts? Not according to several former participants who promised us the experience of a lifetime. And they were right.

The program, run by Vaughan Systems, a US-owned English language school based in Spain, brought together a diverse group of Spaniards, including 12 from Vodafone; one pharmaceutical representative from Schering-Plough; the chief of security with Diageo, a huge liquor distributor; a professor of urban studies; an optician; a high school mathematics teacher; and two university students. The 16 men and three women ranged in age from 20 to late 50s.Of the 20 Anglo participants, 16 were single travelers, and the program provided them with a ready group of companions in a beautiful place where their only responsibility was to talk and listen. Valdelavilla is perfect for a single traveler, even a shy single traveler.

The Anglos, who volunteered their time in exchange for room and board (and whose only cost for this immersion in Spanish life was getting to Madrid) were from Britain, Canada, and the United States and ranged in age from early 20s to early 70s. They were a mixed bag of teachers, students, and travel junkies, mostly women, some single.

A talented American expatriate named Greg Stanford, who served as master of ceremonies-impresario, and his Spanish colleagues Alvaro Medina and Gloria Blasco made it all work.

Except for a 90-minute siesta every afternoon at 3, we spent most of our days one Spaniard talking with one Anglo, rotating partners every hour. We ate our meals at tables for four, two Spaniards and two Anglos. When we got past the first day or two of "where are you from, what do you do, tell me about your family," the conversations become more substantive, and the true learning on both sides began.

Our daily activities included walking the valley and mountain paths, playing Trivial Pursuit, Scrabble, or other board or card games, ping-pong or badminton, or seeing sights from a mountain bike. One afternoon, groups of four made up stories (often off-color, but always funny) based on cartoon pictures, and then presented the stories to everyone. Every evening before our 9 p.m. dinners, there was a program for the whole group in the Meeting Room. Most nights, under Stanford's direction, we acted in scenes from plays (always equal numbers of Anglos and Spaniards). Other nights, we presented 10-minute talks about anything, some serious, some amusing, but all receiving a rousing ovation from the crowd. We even watched videos of a couple of classic Johnny Carson bits from "The Tonight Show."

We had a paella-cooking party, a flamenco-dancing evening, and field trips. We hiked up the hairpin-turn road to see a flock of vultures enjoying three pig carcasses left there for them by a local farmer. There were lots of laughs, whether it was listening to a Spaniard mangle "She sells sea shells by the seashore" or a spoof of Shakespeare during an improvisation evening.

Sound like adult summer camp? A bit, but the Spaniards know that English is an essential tool for them to succeed in their work, and their companies have invested a hefty sum to send them to Valdelavilla. They leave their families behind for 10 days. This is work for them.

On field trips, we visited some off-the-beaten-track spots. Numancia, a Celtic-Iberian village destroyed by the famous Roman general Scipio Africanus in 133 BC after a long siege, contains remains of the Roman village and model adobe buildings of the early Celtic-Iberians. We also visited a tiny village where an endearing, 75-year-old, rosy-cheeked little woman in thick cotton stockings and a sun hat proudly showed us dinosaur tracks and fossilized dinosaur "ka-ka" (to use her Spanish word). She refused to be interrupted for a translation, but we non-Spanish speakers were able to get the picture as she tapped an outline of the various remains with her cane.

Another field trip took us to the town of Soria, an hour away from Valdelavilla, so we could spend a day in the real world at the half-way point in our stay. It was a chance to check our e-mail, do our banking, or sit in a cafe. We were treated to a late lunch in Soria's best restaurant, a nice change from the not-always-impressive chicken a la Valdelavilla.

Most nights after dinner, partying went on into the wee hours, although we were urged to be in bed by 1:30. One night, Alvaro and Gloria mixed a brew of four bottles of aguardiente, a grappa-like beverage, lots of sugar and lemons, and set it on fire (outside, of course) while an "incantation" was read in the ancient Galician language, modern Spanish, and English in a Galician custom called Queimada.

A lot of people were late to breakfast the next morning after that potent drink.

Often, Anglos had to stop mid-sentence to explain colloquialisms or phrases such as "the bottom line," "ATM," or "subsidized housing." We were forbidden to use Spanish, which was easy for me with a Spanish vocabulary of about 10 words. One time, I tried to explain to Juan Pedro the meaning of "over the hill," referring to a woman past her prime. He told me that the Spanish have a phrase with the same meaning, only they say, "her rice is overcooked" (in Spanish of course). On the other hand, they say "touch wood" just as English speakers do.

The Spaniards had an insatiable appetite for learning about the structure of the US government and our opinions of George W. Bush or Bill Clinton and their policies. And this Anglo, at least, filled in some huge gaps in her limited knowledge of Spanish history and learned a lot about families and social life in Spain. I even became accustomed to having dinner when Spaniards eat, which happens to be at my usual bedtime.

Most participants have a private room and bath at Valdelavilla. There is plenty of hot water, and the beds are comfortable. Each little house has a small living room, a refrigerator, and usually three bedrooms. The ceilings are low, and we banged our heads going downstairs the first couple of days. We did have a bit of trouble adjusting to the shower: When you step in, there is no room to turn around. We are not talking luxury here.

If you require five-star hotels, Valdelavilla is not for you. If you can't stand to be around smokers, forget it. But if you're worried that you'll run out of things to talk about, it just doesn't happen. Everyone gets a list of 50 suggested topics for conversation, but I don't believe anyone uses it.

After 10 days, the Spaniards had made remarkable progress in English, but the Anglos possibly had the better deal: a breathtaking setting, new friendships, and vast information about the Spanish people and their country. Stanford told us the first day that something magical would happen. The magic was the friendship and trust that developed between the Spaniards and the Anglos, discussing the personal and the political, and learning so much from each another.

On the last day, I asked Pedro, the high school math teacher, to tell me the most interesting thing he learned from 10 days with us Anglos.

"We are more alike than different," he replied.

. . .

Vaughan Systems sponsors about 40 English immersion programs a year in Valdelavilla or the new Gredos location near Barco de vila. For information, visit www.vaughanvillage.com or call 011-34-915-914-840.

Judy Kugel is a freelance writer in Cambridge.

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