“Free”, “holiday” and “Spain” are three of my absolute favourite words, so I made notes while the presenter explained that Pueblo Ingles is a ‘language immersion course’ in which native English speakers (‘Anglos’) are given free bed and board for about a week in return for lots of conversation with Spaniards who are keen to improve their English. It sounded great, but then life got in the way and I pushed it to the back of my mind.
Jump forward about 10 years; the Travel Agency I’d worked for went into liquidation, and the cheap (or free) travel that I’d relished for so long suddenly dried up. For the first time in years I was faced with the horrendous prospect of Not Going Abroad, so the time seemed right to look into Pueblo Ingles again.
Now that Pueblo Ingles had spread to teaching in Germany as well as Spain, the company is known as Diverbo (www.diverbo.com), with the name Pueblo Ingles still being used to cover the programmes in Spain. I found the website, read the details, gave my choice of 3 preferred dates, and clicked ‘apply’. Simple.
It took a while for Diverbo to reply, because they take care to ensure that there’s a good mix of Anglos to keep the Spaniards on their toes. They want all ages and different nationalities on each programme, so that the Spaniards can get used to different accents and idioms. I was offered a place in October 2011, and a couple of weeks before the programme all the Anglos were sent group emails so that we could get to know each other a bit online prior to meeting in Madrid.
The programme is not cheap for the Spaniards, whose employers often pay for their places on the course. The Anglos, however, only have to cover the cost of getting to Madrid, and a couple of nights accommodation, if they want, at the beginning and end of the programme. I was amazed to see that among my fellow Anglos were people flying in from the USA, Canada and even Australia; and several were coming for their second or third time. Although some were fitting it in as part of a longer tour around Europe, one man had flown all the way from Philadelphia in the USA just to take part in Pueblo Ingles!
Most of the programmes start from Madrid on a Friday, but Diverbo arrange a Get-Together meal at Casa Patas (www.casapatas.com), a popular restaurant in Madrid, the day before, just for the Anglos to meet each other and put names to faces. My flight got me to a bright and sunny Madrid at midday on the Thursday, hot and sweaty in the rainproof jacket I’d needed as I left a grey and drizzly Stansted earlier that morning. I just had time to check in to the Hostal Santillan on the Gran Via (and have a brief shower) before rushing off to the restaurant.
A small group had already congregated outside Casa Patas when I arrived, and as I sidled up nervously I was immediately made welcome; “Oh, you’re Paula! Hi, I’m Julia, we chatted by email….”. Everyone introduced themselves (“Oh, my God, you’ve come all the way from Sydney…?!”) and by the time we’d all sat down at the tables inside, everyone was laughing and nattering like long lost friends. Of course – this is why we were all here: naturally talkative people, eager to meet new friends and have new experiences! We met Jez (our MC – Master of Ceremonies – for the week) and Alan, the Programme Director, who wandered between us making jokes and getting to know us all.
After a lovely meal and plenty of wine, we wandered upstairs to watch a brief flamenco show (for which Casa Patas is famous). We were given coffee while Jez and Alan filled us in on a few more details and answered any questions. Having made sure we all knew where to pick up the coach the next morning, we were free to explore the streets of Madrid.
There are some people you meet in life that you instantly click with. A little group of us ambled (or should that be ‘staggered’!) off towards the Prado, where entry is free after 6pm (it was a long lunch!), and a queue was already snaking around the building. As we wandered around one of the greatest art collections in the world, I realised that Debbie (from Canada) and I were going to get on like a house on fire – maybe it was the wine, but we both collapsed into fits of giggles in front of some of the more earthy exhibits, made worse by the fierce ‘shushing’ from the (mostly female) security guards! We learnt each others’ backgrounds and shared photos of our children, and within a couple of hours it was as if we’d been friends for years.
After the Prado Debbie, Ari and I walked through the darkening streets as the city came to life. Ari (short for Arianwen) is amazing, and she now writes a fantastic blog about her adventures around the world: Beyond Blighty (www.beyondblighty.com – probably the best travel blog name I’ve ever heard!). We found a little restaurant for another bite to eat, then made our way through the crowds of Madrilenos off for a night out, back to our respective hostels for an early start the next day.
Terrified of over-sleeping, getting lost on the Madrid Metro (difficult – it’s very user-friendly), or not being able to find the meeting point for the bus, I set two alarms for the crack of dawn. I trundled my suitcase down the Gran Via, past the aroma of fresh coffee and bread wafting from nearby cafes, and through puddles where the pavement had been swept and washed as the sun rose. The metro journey was easy, and I arrived at the meeting place early enough to drop into a nearby café for a bit of breakfast. Two of the Anglos – Carolyn and Clive from Australia – were already there, and I had to admit to feeling a brief moment of relief that I was in the right place at the right time!
Soon after 9am, we took ourselves off round the corner of the street and were met by a throng of people; all the Anglos we’d met the previous day looked relaxed and cheerful. The Spaniards, on the other hand, looked mostly terrified! Most of them didn’t know anybody. A few had identified – and were talking to – previously unknown colleagues from their companies, but most had come alone. Jez and Alan took charge as the bus arrived, ticking off names and telling us that each Spaniard had to sit next to an Anglo. Once we were on the bus, absolutely no more Spanish was allowed. Sitting behind Debbie, I was joined by Peng, a very friendly Spaniard from a Chinese family, and once we’d got the basics out of the way (‘what’s your name?’, ‘where do you live?’, ‘what do you do?’, ‘are you married?’ etc) we discussed favourite films, Spanish food, British TV, holidays….and before we knew it, we were pulling into a service station just a short distance from the beautiful walled town of Avila.
After our ‘comfort break’, the Spaniards were told to swap to a new Anglo for the remainder of the journey, but Peng was having none of it. “I feel safe with you!”, he said, putting off the inevitable moment when he would have to face a new and no doubt terrifying Anglo. By the time we were winding around the gentle mountain slopes that surround the little medieval village of La Alberca, we were firm friends!
We were given name badges and allocated our villas: one Anglo and one Spaniard in each. Every villa contains two twin-bedded rooms, one upstairs and one downstairs. I was to share with Javier from Seville; we each had our own keys to the communal stable door (leading to a large lounge and small kitchen area) as well as to our own rooms.
My ground floor room was accessed from the lounge, and I had a neat little bathroom with a shower, two single beds and a tiny terrace area outside. There’s no TV or radio, so it’s very peaceful – the only sounds were the constant ‘plops’ as another chestnut dropped heavily to the ground from the trees outside, and the bell in the clock tower which chimed on the hour. Occasionally I heard snatches of conversation from people walking along the footpaths which wind from villa to villa among the beautiful chestnut trees, and I opened my bedroom window to the warm afternoon sun.
Lunch first. After a few minutes to freshen up, we filled the restaurant – always two Anglos and two Spaniards at every table – and had our first taste of the wonderful food that we were treated to at every meal.
There was plenty of wine available, too, so it didn’t take very long for everyone to relax. After we’d eaten, Jez explained a little more about the week ahead, including the meal ordering system – we pick what we’ll want to eat the following day from a menu put up each evening.
When we arrive for lunch and dinner the next day, we take tokens colour-coded to match each dish we’ve chosen; then we display our tokens on the table so that the waiters can serve us without disrupting the flow of the conversation! Jez also announced an ice-breaking activity in the bar area after lunch, and by the end of the afternoon we’d all spoken to each other and knew most peoples’ names. Everyone was really friendly and gradually I started to remember who was who without having to look at their badges first.
Dinner that evening was followed by a game in the presentation room above the restaurant, and the day officially finished at 10pm, when several of us headed to the bar for a last glass of wine or a hot cup of coffee. Spain was having a late blast of sunshine that October, but up in the mountains the nights were a bit chilly. That night I slept deeply and snugly in my comfy bed.
Every day at Pueblo Ingles is timetabled, and it is stressed to everybody that punctuality is vital for the programme to be a success.
So, at 9am each morning we were all queuing for breakfast (fresh fruit, pears poached in cinnamon, cereals, eggs, bacon, bread, yogurts, cheeses, French toast….and best of all, wonderful slices of warm tortilla).
At 10am the ‘One-to-Ones’ start: each Anglo is paired up with a Spaniard, and they are free to spend the hour wherever they want – and talk about whatever they want – but they must ONLY speak English. A chart in the bar tells you who you will be talking to for each hour-long slot, and a few people have to either give (or watch) a presentation. Some people are timetabled to have free time. The Anglos are also given a phrase or idiom that they have to explain to their Spaniard (“raining cats and dogs”, “a leap of faith”….).
Almost every One-to-One conversation starts with the usual questions about family and work, but soon you are talking about all kinds of things; about travel, shopping, medicine, music, children, local traditions…..sometimes the conversation becomes very personal. Someone you’ve only just met will tell you how sad they are after the break up of their marriage, the death of their mother, their fear of never finding the Right One to share their life with…..
A few of the Spaniards were almost rigid with fear at the start of the week. They could all speak basic English, but one girl in particular (I’d hate to embarrass her, so let’s call her Veronica) clammed up completely. “So, Veronica…where do you work?”. Veronica looked at me as if I’d simply screamed at her. “Are you married?” – I think she was about to cry. “Have you ever been to England?” was almost enough to have her running back to her villa. But slowly, slowly, over sharing meals, playing silly games, walks through the hotel grounds and lots of dressing up, Veronica blossomed. She overcame the sheer terror that had enveloped her at the beginning, and was soon joining in with everything with the same enthusiasm as everyone else.
Carlos was another surprise. All the Spaniards have to give two presentations during the week. They can be on any subject, but often they focus on their jobs, as did Carlos. He had a very responsible position with the Spanish army, and part of his job involved buying equipment from the UK or the USA. Up until now, this was mostly done in writing, with the help of a huge Spanish-English dictionary; but now that he was expected to contact English speaking suppliers by phone, it was clear that his spoken English needed to improve. Carlos’ first presentation (in front of Jez, a few Anglos timetabled to watch, and a few more Anglos foregoing a free hour to support Carlos) was not very successful. He’d had a chance to prepare his presentation, but between the stuttering, the brow-mopping, the apologies “sorry….so sorry…!” and the inaudible mumbling, it was painful to watch. Everyone clapped encouragingly, but it was clear that he’d gone through sheer hell.
A few days later, Carlos gave his second talk, in which he had worked on his speech, pronunciation and presentation skills. It was like watching a different man; no longer hiding behind a sweat-stained page of notes, Carlos spoke clearly, confidently, in near-perfect English, and the improvement in his presentation brought the room to tears. I was lucky enough to be at both his presentations, and I felt so proud of the progress he’d made. We’d all helped him; all the Anglos and all the Spaniards, just by constantly talking to him, gently correcting his mistakes, laughing at his jokes, understanding that this mild-mannered, middle-aged man just needed a little support and encouragement.
At the other end of the spectrum there was the OTHER Javier (‘Javier V’, to distinguish him from the more sedate Javier from Seville who shared my villa).
An adorable, big-hearted and completely hilarious man, Javier V simply lit up the room when he walked in. A natural joker, he was full of life and could have us all in hysterics within seconds. He wanted to improve his English as he was moving his wife and young children to London at the start of 2012 while he worked as part of his company’s team at the London Olympics. He was constantly moving, talking, singing, dancing and laughing, and he really threw himself into every activity, never caring if he made a fool of himself, and I’ve no doubt that he made every day of his family’s stay in London completely magical. He was a showman, and the (few) mistakes he made with his English didn’t matter – his personality made him a natural communicator in any language!
The One-to-Ones and conference calls (it’s harder to understand a foreign language when you can’t see the speaker) were interspersed with sessions of completely off-the-wall stupidity….
We were encouraged to delve into the gigantic ‘dressing-up’ box, filled with pink wigs, sequinned dresses, feather boas, jackets, boots, make-up…on several occasions we were split into groups for improvisations, little theatrical scenes and daft role-play, looking like leftovers from ‘The Rocky Horror Show’!
One evening we took part in the Galician ritual of the Queimada, a potent drink with the addition of coffee beans, concocted in a clay pot and set on fire. As it is stirred, an incantation is chanted, calling the elements to purify the drink and to bring closer the spirits of families and friends who are far away. Then little cups of the smoking brew are passed around to be sipped as we listen to the incantation.
This incantation was read out by three ‘witches’: in English, in Castilian Spanish (allowed for this special occasion) and Gallegan (the language of Galicia). Late at night, outside in the dark, with the blue smoke rising from the flaming pot, and our hands wrapped around our cups for warmth, we felt part of something ancient, magical and spiritual.
The nearby village of La Alberca is a 2km walk away, either through little pathways behind the hotel, or along the main road. Jez rounded up a small group of us to start the days with a brisk walk before dawn. Not being fond of very early mornings or any walking that could be described as ‘brisk’, I did manage to drag myself out of my cosy bed and out into the still-dark air on two or three occasions.
We all whispered our ‘hello’s’, as we tried to recognise each other in the dark, not wanting to wake everyone else still sleeping soundly. We walked very briskly along the dark road almost as far as the village, crunching chestnuts underfoot, and hearing wild dogs barking from the other side of the valley, our breath visible in the crisp morning air, before turning back to the hotel as the sun rose from behind the mountains.
The timetable each day went something like this: breakfast was served at 9am. The day’s ‘work’ usually consisted of four ‘One-to-One’ sessions, finishing at 2pm, which was lunch time. Lunch, like dinner, was always a relaxed affair involving three courses, bread, wine and coffee. After lunch we had free time until 5pm, when we had an hour of group activities – games, improvisations and challenges.
From 6pm to 8pm there are more One-to-Ones or telephone sessions, followed by an hour of presentations or theatre before dinner at 9pm (including a hilarious presentation about Halloween customs in the U.S.)! After dinner there are ‘social activities’ – quizzes, games and so on, usually held in or around the bar, usually involving lots of noise and quite a bit of banter. The bar closes around midnight but there are usually quite a few people sitting at the tables outside, still chatting (and drinking) until the early hours….
One of the things I really love about Pueblo Ingles is listening to the Spaniards talking English to each other. Early in the week, you see them groping for words, searching their brains for the translation they need before they speak – and they don’t cheat! You can creep up on them when they think there’s no-one around, and there they are, struggling to find a way of saying what they want using English …..but they persevere! They get there in the end! And by the end of the week they are joking in English, singing in English, swearing in English….and you realise that somewhere around the middle of the week they have actually started to think in English!
In the free time after lunch, little groups of us would sometimes stroll into the village through the footpaths, passing happy goats and pigs snuffling in an orchard; I walked back one day with Javier V and two of the other Spanish men. Javier explained why the Spanish National Anthem has no lyrics – it used to, during the Franco regime, but the nation chose to forget the words after Franco died. We all skipped, arm in arm, back to the hotel, singing the tune at the top of our voices (“La la la….”), with Javier occasionally substituting his own lyrics!
We spent a day at the village, visiting a bodega full of dusty wine bottles and bullfighting posters, where we ate freshly sliced Serrano ham and drank wine from a bota; we bought local honey and sweets made from chestnuts at a little market stall, and all the women swarmed a tiny jeweller’s shop, where they sold the traditional ornate silver rings of the area. We visited the beautiful little church, and heard the legend of the mysterious bells above the ossuary, which, legend has it, rang out all by themselves on a dark, stormy night many years ago. We saw the seashells carved in wood and stone on buildings signifying that we were on part of el camino de Santiago.
The village is full of timber framed buildings, with balconies dripping with brightly coloured flowers, looking more like Bavaria than Spain. We had lunch in a village restaurant owned by our hotel, and then returned there at the end of the week for a final evening meal in its beautiful cellar.
There was one last formal activity before the programme ended; the Farewell ceremony. One by one, all the Anglos stepped forward to accept a certificate (and the applause of the other participants), while Jez and Alan thanked us for our ‘generosity’ – for giving up a week of our lives to talk and play with a group of Spanish strangers. Then it was the turn of the Spanish. They, too, stepped up to receive their certificates, proof that they had been completely immersed in the English language for a week, and proof that their English had improved in leaps and bounds. As they shook hands with Jez and Alan, the audience clapped, and the Spaniard had to face the audience and say a few words. When Carlos turned round to speak, the entire audience was on its feet; there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.
The bus ride back to Madrid felt very strange; for a start, the Spaniards were finally allowed to speak in their native language. Hearing people (who so far we had only heard speaking in faltering English) suddenly speaking in rapid Spanish was really weird! We all swapped phone numbers and emails, and a little group of us arranged to meet later that night for dinner in Madrid. We were deposited back at the starting point, where we’d all met as strangers a week before; as people hugged each other and collected their suitcases, before wandering off to the metro, it felt like we were losing our family.
That evening, Debbie and I met up again with 9 other new friends from the week, Anglos and Spaniards. We spoke in English AND Spanish, and reminisced about what a fantastic time we’d all had over the previous week. The Spaniards had all, without exception, improved their English no end. Veronica was with us that night; no longer terrified, Veronica told jokes, laughed and chatted happily – in English.
I have kept in touch with many of the wonderful people I met from all over the world at my first experience of Pueblo Ingles. There were so many special moments, with so many special people, and I can’t possibly mention all of them here…..but here’s a few:
…sitting outside the bar until 3am, drinking wine and watching the stars, long after the bar had closed and the lights had all gone out….
…watching the sun set over the mountains, with the smell of woodsmoke hanging in the air….
…sharing a dinner table with the stunningly beautiful Rhoda (from Ireland), the gossipy and hilarious Lourdes (from Seville) and the witty and laconic Rocio, with her deep, husky voice. We’d had plenty of wine, and something trivial (a comment Lourdes made about her soup, I think) made us laugh…and we couldn’t stop. Each time we all tried to calm down, Lourdes would catch sight of our faces, snort with a mouthful of food, and we’d all start up again, tears streaming down our faces, laughing like drains and feeling like naughty children….I honestly can’t remember many other times in my life where I had laughed so completely uncontrollably! I can’t remember what we ate that night, but I will always remember the laughter….
…watching the Spaniards sing together; one night, each nationality had to perform a group song. I think there were four of us Brits; we sang Monty Python’s ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life’ very nervously and fairly badly. The Spaniards – all 22 or so of them – sang an obviously popular Spanish pop song originally performed by a male/female duo. They belted it out passionately, girls singing at the men, the men singing the chorus back at the girls, with lots of arm waving, stamping feet and hand gestures….
…dancing Sevillanas at the party night….
…the Quiz Night; I can still hear Jan shouting to Jim: “…The zipper, Jim, the zipper…!!” (Don’t ask!)
…sitting on the terrace of my villa in the sunshine late in October….
…watching Canadian Kristina’s presentation where she told us of her life as circus performer. She was one of the first Canadians to enter the Olympic stadium to perform at the closing ceremony, as Canada took over the role of welcoming the world to the next Olympics….
…the wonderful breakfasts and three course meals cooked just for us every day, with plenty of wine….
…”Peng!!” Peng was always the last to arrive, and we’d all shout out his name as he entered the room….