The Spanish sun shines brightly overhead and glints off the cool water of the hotel pool. Two girls sit in recliners, leisurely talking about their lives, their work, family, friends; anything that is on their mind. Set in La Alberca, roughly four hours from Madrid, this scene could take place anywhere, just two friends enjoying an afternoon off. Yet this is no vacation scene. This is the week long English immersion program, Pueblo Ingles.
While traveling through Spain I had the good fortune to be able to participate in two English immersion programs, Vaughan Town and Pueblo Ingles, respectively. Each week was magical, and nothing could have prepared me for the emotions I would feel after working so closely with these inspiring Spaniards.
My week in Pueblo Ingles began like a scene from a summer camp drop off. The Madrid bus pickup location was full of suitcases, uneasy looking people and enthusiastic staff. I felt transported back to my own days spent in the New York Catskill Mountains each summer. As the departure time neared, the "Anglos," as English speakers were called, were instructed to "grab a Spaniard and sit together on the bus." As we nervously paired up and took our seats, I wondered yet again what I was getting myself into.
The bus trip from Madrid to La Alberca, the town where we would spend the immersion week was about four hours with a stop in the walled city of Avila. I turned to my chosen Spaniard and began to speak. Instantly, I was impressed with the level of English being spoken. I had anticipated broken sentences and immediate frustration, but the Spaniards seemed quite capable of discussing their lives, jobs and families. "Perhaps this week won't be such a struggle," I dared to hope.
We arrived at our hotel, a complex of bungalows set in the mountains and I became cautiously optimistic. The grounds looked beautiful and there seemed plenty of paths for walking and exploring. Our Program Director (PD) and Master of Ceremonies (MC) immediately started giving out the room numbers and we discovered that each Anglo and Spaniard would be sharing a bungalow, one per floor. We were then given time to settle in, before the day's activities would begin.
Apparently we would be hitting the ground running.
Our schedule each day would consist of three or four 50-minute one-on-one speaking sessions plus group activities, entertainment hours (during which everyone would have a chance to "volunteer" to participate), meal time discussions and of course the iconic Spanish siesta.
Each day was a regimented affair, so as to utilize every single minute of the week's English immersion. The Spaniards were thrown in head first and you could see their brain working, constantly translating and thinking. The Anglos had a tough adjustment as well, adjusting to a new environment, many still on their home time zones, while being expected to lead discussions during a 10-13 hour day. By the end of day one, everyone looked exhausted and it was an early night for most. The week loomed ahead and everyone looked like they were regretting their decision to come.
The first full day of the program began bright and early with a wakeup call at 8:15 a.m. Meal times were mandatory during this week, as they provided another essential hour of speaking and socializing. With a night's sleep behind us, the Anglos looked more refreshed and ready to embrace the week, while many of the Spaniards looked as if they had not had more than a few hours rest. At breakfast we were instructed to sit Anglo, Spaniard, a rule that would become a ritual over the long week. As the coffee was poured and the toast was buttered (or in the Spaniards case, covered with crushed tomato), the conversation naturally began to start. Topics ranged from introductions to vocations to families, but as the basics were covered, the conversations began to take on a more varied shape. Cultural differences were noticed and discussed, the economic crisis in Spain was a constant subject and even the occasional joke was exchanged. An ignorant observer could easily have mistaken our group for old friends.
The schedules were posted for the day and each Anglo and Spaniard found their one to one partner and set off for the first of many 50-minute conversations. The only requirements during these talks were to cover the daily phrasal verb and idiom and to speak only in English. Other than that, the floor was open to our discretion. Walking with Marco, my first Spaniard of the day, I discovered that he was a well of knowledge on European travel. Having been to almost every country in the continent, he showed me pictures and videos from his trips, and we shared our love of travel and culture. The allotted time sped by, and I was shocked when I checked my watch. I had just had an interesting conversation with a Spanish professional, sitting on lounge chairs with a view of the nearby mountains. Boosted by my first session, I eagerly ran to the schedule board to find my next partner.
As the day turned to evening, I made my way to the dining room for dinner. My throat was slightly dry from the hours of speaking, but my mind was buzzing. I had just had some of the most interesting conversations of my life, with a group of Spanish professionals whom I typically would not have the chance to speak with. The other Anglos looked just as relieved and excited as me, while the Spaniards looked drained from the day's activities. Their level of English was impressive to me, but they still had a lot of work to do.
At dinner I discovered that I had been chosen to participate in the next day's performance.
Each day brought new experiences, and I was shocked to find the hours flying by. While the one on ones had started out as introductory conversations, they slowly evolved into deep and personal revelations. I no longer took the siesta hour to rest, but instead joined my new Spanish friends by the pool or for a game of Padel, a combination of tennis and racquet ball. The nights were no longer welcomed as a break from the day's activities, but as a chance to gather around the bar, learn new Spanish traditions and dance until the sun came up.
The days were long and hard; we still had much grammar to correct and social customs to explain, but I felt happy and fulfilled in a way that I had never expected. Each of these Spaniards was so brave to put themselves forward in such a vulnerable way. Many of the attendees were managers, directors and important people in their profession. Yet here they were, acting silly in the nightly plays, asking questions in basic English and firmly not speaking Spanish, even though it was the easier option. The respect that these Spaniards gave to the program was inspiring; I felt shame at myself for not trying half as hard to master the Spanish language.
By the morning of our last day, friendships had been forged, a few romances had blossomed and all of our lives had been changed forever. The power of this one week took everyone by surprise, and there were quite a few tearful goodbyes. As the bus was loaded up, I couldn't help but notice the stark contrast between our arrival one week earlier. The bus ride was full of animated English conversation, some between just Spaniards, and emails and numbers were exchanged to keep in touch over the year.
One week, 50 participants and 100+ hours of English speaking all combine to create a change that I truly believe will impact the entire world.
*Please note that Pueblo Ingles has now changed their name to Diverbo*