Well, here we are again….Pueblo Ingles – same routine, different location. And many different Spanish faces; some with beaming smiles, eager to make friends, jumping in at the deep end. Others looking like they’d rather be having teeth pulled – wondering what happened to all those years of English tuition and terrified at the thought of seven whole days of talking to around 40 complete strangers in a foreign language.
We arrived at El Mirlo Blanco, our home for the next week, were given our name badges and were allocated our rooms – most of us in little villas dotted around the gardens, and a few in the main hotel building. My villa – number 15 – had twin beds, a decent bathroom with a good shower, a small fridge, and plenty of storage space. I flung open the large window to one side, and the French doors which opened on to a little terrace with a table and chairs; the sun streamed in, along with the sound of birdsong and the gentle clinking of cowbells from the field behind. From my patio I could just see the hotel’s pool between the trees, and to the right the stunning Gredos mountains rose majestically beyond the hotel gardens.
But this is Pueblo Ingles, the English Immersion programme for Spaniards which takes around 20 English speaking volunteers (‘Anglos’) from different parts of the world and the same number of paying Spaniards and mixes them together for a week. Every day is strictly timetabled, and Day One, although fairly relaxed (to ease us all in gently), is no exception. And first thing on the timetable was lunch……
The English conversation at Pueblo Ingles never stops; each table generally seats two Anglos and two Spaniards, and enjoying a meal and a glass of wine with new friends is a great way to get to know each other better. We were still waiting for a few Spaniards who were driving to the venue, so there were just three of us on our table for lunch: two Anglos (myself and Chris from the USA), and a lone Spaniard – Carlos M.L. (sometimes called ‘Lope’ as there was also a Carlos M.S…..). I felt sorry for Lope; he was the lone Spaniard on a table with two Anglos….it must be hard for him, poor guy!! But I really needn’t have worried – Lope clearly wasn’t the shy, retiring type! The food wasn’t great but the company was, and as I glanced around the restaurant, I could see that at every table there were animated, happy conversations going on.
After lunch we had a little more free time to unpack properly, and then we had to meet in the gardens for a game of ‘Human Bingo’ – a good chance to put names to faces and find out a bit more about everyone. We were all given a sheet of paper divided into squares – in each square was a statement which related to at least one person (Anglo or Spaniard) in the group, and we had to try and tick off every square: “Doesn’t like pizza”, “Has acted in a play”, “Has more than three siblings”… by the time we’d spent 20 minutes frantically asking each other the questions on the sheets, we’d learnt several names and had spoken (briefly) to everybody else on the programme.
Later that day we had another meeting, explaining a few more details about the week ahead. Our Programme Director, Sabela, and our Master of Ceremonies, Amelia, told us about choosing our meals from a menu each night for the following day (and using colour-coded tokens at the table so the waiters knew what we’d ordered). They told us how each day’s timetable would be posted on the notice board every morning and after lunch, and of the importance of punctuality. They explained to the Spaniards that they would each have to plan a presentation for later in the week. They asked if any of the Anglos would be prepared to take part in some theatre, and if they’d volunteer to take part in some conference calls. They told us that we would be having a party on the Monday, an excursion on the Tuesday, and ‘something special’ on the Sunday evening…..Most of us had a fairly early night that night, ready for a busy week ahead.
The next morning – our first full day – we awoke in glorious sunshine, although there was a bit of a chill in the mountain air. Sheila (my Californian friend who I’d met at Pueblo Ingles last year) and I met in one of the little wooden pergolas just outside the restaurant to compare notes on our respective rooms – Sheila’s was in the main hotel building, with a huge window looking out across the mountains. Gradually people started drifting towards the restaurant, where a buffet breakfast had been laid out, and already it was obvious that everyone was much more relaxed now. After breakfast we gathered around the notice board to look at the morning’s schedule: one-to-ones from 10am to 1pm, then a group activity before lunch at 2pm. By now, the initial coolness of the day had given way to blazing sunshine, and as we each went off with our assigned partner, many of us were looking for somewhere shady to sit. Olga and I decided to take a walk along the lane outside the hotel, through sparse oak woodland where purple crocuses and tiny white flowers pushed through the mossy ground. We talked about theatre, about our work, about our families….all in English, and soon it was time to wander back for a 10 minute break before our next partners. After the one-to-ones, the group activity had us all in the conference room, sitting Anglo/Spaniard/Anglo/Spaniard, where we were put into pairs (although I was in a group of three with Olga and Ann) and given about 10 minutes to find out three interesting facts about each other. Each group then took it in turns to stand up and tell everybody what they had found out. This was the first proper chance I’d had to talk to Ann (a tall Spaniard with an American father); I’d seen her standing in the hotel entrance the previous day and thought she looked quite scary – tall, with a slightly haughty expression; just goes to show how wrong you can be! Ann had a wicked, dry sense of humour, and a good enough command of the English language to use irony and sarcasm in a way that had me in hysterics on many occasions during the week! We all learnt a lot more about each other in this activity – what an amazing group of people!! There were Spaniards who worked in the Nuclear Power industry, in publishing, in packaging, in medicine, in telecommunications; among the Anglos was a retired college Principal, a bass guitarist, a tour operator, an actor…there were Anglos from Canada, the USA, Australia, England and Wales, and ages across the board ranged from mid twenties to early seventies. By the time we stopped for lunch at 2pm, I think all of us were feeling completely relaxed in each others’ company. Having chosen our lunch menu the previous evening, we selected our coloured tokens and sat down to dinner for some more Anglo/Spanish conversation.
Meals at El Mirlo Blanco were….interesting! Our three waiters, a young Spanish married couple called Ruth and David, and an older man called Andres, were completely professional, very friendly and always smiling. Unfortunately, the food itself was not the exciting, delicious cuisine we’d experienced at La Alberca when we were at Pueblo Ingles the year before. But we weren’t here for the food; anyway, even the most mundane meals were vastly improved by the free-flowing wine and interesting, funny and stimulating conversations. The afternoon timetable didn’t start again until 5pm, so after a leisurely lunch we were free to take a siesta, swim in the pool, go for a walk, play cards or catch up with emails and Facebook (I posted quite a few photos of the sun-drenched view from my patio on Facebook to family and friends back home in grey-skied England..!). Then it was back to the notice board to check the afternoon’s timetable, and another round of one-to-ones and group activities until dinner at 9pm. Each day ended with social activities after dinner, generally in the bar, and finished when the last person shuffled back to their room, usually in the early hours of the morning. Our activity at the end of that first full day was a game of ‘Taboo’, Spaniards versus Anglos (with slightly more…’relaxed’ rules for the Spaniards!), involving one person trying to get their team to guess the word at the top of a card without saying any of the other related words printed below it. “The Spaniards ALWAYS win!”, said Amelia; I’m not sure if it was a comment or an order, but, sure enough, the Spaniards won! After the game, a few people went to bed, some bought drinks and a group of smokers sat outside in one of the pergolas – nicknamed the ‘smoking hut’ – and eventually I walked back to my villa through the gardens, looking up at the clear sky splattered with stars, listening to the crickets and the occasional ring of a cowbell as the cows behind the villa fidgeted in their sleep.
Most days of the week at El Mirlo Blanco followed the same pattern; through one-to-ones, two-to-twos and group discussions we got to know each other incredibly well. Some of our chats were funny and lighthearted – discussing favourite actors/actresses, talking about films that made us laugh, learning about Spanish customs or how to make a proper paella. I had a wonderful conversation with lovely Manuel, who told me with great pride about his three young sons; without exception, all the Spaniards LOVE talking about their families – particularly their children. Amparo told me about her complete despair when her son was very ill and she didn’t know if he would pull through. Concha told me how proud she is of her Turkish daughter-in-law and the beautiful grandson she had given her. We all talked about everything: I heard about the best places to eat in Cordoba, about a divorce, about the impending birth of a first child. About someone’s love of singing, and someone’s love of literature. About a special anniversary trip to Paris, about a hope that a new relationship would last. Somehow it didn’t seem at all odd that we were sharing our feelings with people we barely knew.
Group activities were always my favourites. These could involve discussions among groups of 4-6 people about all sorts of pre-suggested topics. Or we’d play games: chairs set out in a large circle under the trees in the garden – one fewer chair than the number of people; the person without a chair stands in the middle and says “All those who…..are wearing a watch/are younger than 40/have brown eyes…” – at which point there’s a mad rush as everyone fitting the description swaps seats leaving a different person in the centre to call out the instruction.
Sometimes a small group of us would be timetabled for theatre rehearsals. Me, Ann, Ana B and Elena were all given a script (Monty Python’s ‘Argument Clinic’ sketch) and access to the dressing-up box, and we had about two hours (with a bit of direction from Amelia) to produce a performance for the others.
Other groups performed a silent skit based on couples watching a film at a cinema, and a take-off of the Pueblo Ingles experience. There was even a performance of Roald Dahl’s ‘Cinderella’ – Raul and Norman looked wonderful as the Ugly Sisters in their wigs and sparkly dresses!
We had a special treat in store on the Sunday night, when we took part in a Pueblo Ingles tradition involving an ancient Galician ritual – the Queimada!
Queimada is a traditional ‘witches brew’ made with Galician Orujo (a spirit distilled from black grape skins) and flavoured with cinnamon, lemon peel, sugar and coffee beans. This strong punch, mixed in a huge clay pot, needs to be made outside in the open air, on a dark night; the lights from the nearby buildings go out and the Queimada is set alight as brandy is slowly added. The burning liquid is stirred while three witches chant an incantation – in English, Castilian Spanish and Gallego – banishing evil spirits and bringing peace and special powers to those gathered round to share the brew…
“…And when this beverage goes down our throats, we will get free of the evil of our soul and of any charm. Forces of air, earth, sea and fire, to you I make this call: if it’s true that you have more power than people, here and now, make the spirits of the friends who are outside, take part with us in this Queimada.”
Three mysterious witches appeared to recite the incantation, while Sabela stirred the Queimada; the burning liquid is held up in a ladle and poured back into the pot, the blue flames dancing on the surface of the brew….. We’re invited to dip a finger into the flames and lick off the burning drips as we make a wish. Eventually, the flames die down, and the drink is ladled into clay pots and shared among us. It’s strong stuff, but warming in the cool night air. It all feels very primitive, very special, very spiritual….
With the Orujo helping everyone to relax, it was time for a change of mood: each ‘country’ had been given a little time in the afternoon to practise a song (which was vaguely representative of their homeland) and the songs were performed after the Queimada. The performances ranged from a (very brave) Lisa, representing the whole of Australia all on her own by singing ‘Waltzing Matilda’, to all the Spaniards throwing themselves into ‘Y Viva Espana’!….
Monday was memorable for two reasons: Monday night is Party Night, but Monday lunchtime involved a meal that became a running joke for the rest of the week. There were two menu options for Monday’s lunch, one of which was calamares (squid). As the main course was being handed out, I gradually became aware of stifled laughter around the room…and glancing to the next table, I could see why: the squid had arrived….
I’m not sure if anybody ate it, but the salad bar suddenly became very popular!
After dinner, we all put our glad rags on for Party Night!! Lots of wine at dinner and Spanish measures at the bar meant we were all very mellow and merry, and all the cheesy music sounded so much more fun when everyone was singing along with their different accents! I remember, at one point, beautiful Montse buying a bottle of Spanish cider for a few of us to try, and she explained to us how it should be poured from a height into small glasses,….but then the lure of the ‘Macarena’ proved too much….! I think I returned to my villa around 3am…
On Tuesday we had an excursion to Las Cuevas del Aguila, a massive and beautiful cavern 20 minutes drive away. The cave remained undiscovered until 1963, when five boys, sons of local farmworkers, discovered a column of what they thought was smoke rising from a small hole in the ground; the condensing air was escaping from what turned out to be the entrance to a huge cave, and the boys decided to explore, with just one small flashlight and a small length of rope.
They were lost in the cave for five hours before finding their way out and telling everyone what they’d found. Now the caves have become a popular tourist attraction, where you can amble along the designated walkway in your own time or with the help of a guide.
Afterwards we were dropped off at the little town of Candeleda, which we had only glimpsed briefly as we’d passed it on the way to our hotel.
The town centre was draped with bunting from a fiesta which had taken place over the weekend, and when we arrived late on the Tuesday morning, most of the shops were still closed after the festivities. The streets were quiet, with just the odd car cruising past the old men sitting in the shade beneath the palms, a statue of a mountain goat looking down on them. As we looked along the empty streets, we could see the mountains in the distance, washing hanging from windows and geraniums spilling from pots on balconies. A few of us Anglos had decided to look for local jewellery, and Montse offered to help us, asking the locals where we might find somewhere open. She led us to a lovely little shop – the shopkeeper must have thought her ship had come in when four eager tourists descended on her, desperate to buy rings and earrings! It would have been nice to have had a little more time in the town, but we were expected back at our hotel for lunch.
There were so many things about the week that I’ll remember: the scorpion on the floor of Lisa’s villa; the sound of music coming from Kaz’s early morning zumba classes; shouts and splashing coming from the pool in the early hours; Caitlin and Calvin’s dance class (poor Chris had the bad luck of partnering me when Calvin decided it was time for the men to ‘dip’ their partners!); talking to Ann about our favourite books; watching Lyn literally crying with laughter one lunchtime; watching Calvin and Kaz dancing together; listening to the songs each group made up on the last day – many mentioning the scorpion and ALL of them featuring the calamari; the vast, clear, starry night sky; Elena singing a beautiful song to me in Catalan; walking along the lane with Montse watching a herd of goats being shepherded from one field to another, and then being greeted by two men riding by on beautiful black horses; playing ‘Spoons’ late in the evening; the sight of Raul, Manuel and Donald dressed as women……
All too quickly, we were approaching the end of the week and it would soon be time to go home. On our last evening – the Thursday evening – we were told that it would be wise to pack our bags before dinner, as our final meal was to be a barbecue outside, followed by more music and dancing to celebrate the end of a fantastic week.
We’d need to vacate our rooms when we came to breakfast on the Friday morning, pay our bar bills and have our suitcases ready to load on the bus for the journey back to Madrid. I’d done a brilliant job of fitting 13 days’ worth of luggage into a single cabin bag when I flew to Spain, but I struggled to get everything back in! Then it was time for our last dinner together: long tables were laid out in the gardens, set with water, wine and flickering candles. To one side, the hotel cooks were grilling sausages, chicken portions, chorizo and pork ribs, and another table was laid with salads, potato mashed with paprika, bread and corn on the cob.
There was the wonderful smell of sizzling, seared meat, and smoke was rising from the barbecue into the darkness. There was lots of chatter, a bit of boozy singing and plenty of laughter above the sound of clinking glasses; and sitting among all these people who were now my friends, it felt odd to think that the next day we would all be going our separate ways.
After we’d finished eating, we went back inside the bar for a bit of a boogie and lots of silly photos before the bar staff decided it was time for bed, and those of us who still didn’t want the night to end were banished back to the garden where we sat talking until the cold finally got the better of me and I dragged myself back to my villa for the last time.
I was up early. I packed away my last bits and pieces, checked the cupboards and under the bed, locked the door and trundled my cabin bag along the garden path for the last time, saying goodbye to the cows as I passed them. Our last breakfast. Andres, Ruth and David were presented with the money we’d collected for them as a ‘thank you’ for all their hard work throughout the week. Finally, after breakfast, we all congregated again in the conference room, where our final activity involved making up and performing songs based on our experiences of the week. Hilarious!
Then it was time for the ‘Graduation’ ceremony; one by one we were invited to collect a certificate acknowledging our efforts throughout the programme, and to say a few parting words. This is hard – very hard; we’ve all shared so many memories over the week: incredibly good times, very happy times and hilariously funny times, as well as some moments of deep sadness (one of the Anglos found out that she’d unexpectedly lost a family member the previous day). There were people here who we would never have met (and probably would never have thought we’d get along with so well) had it not been for Pueblo Ingles, and although most of us will keep in touch – through Facebook and emails – we may never see each other again. During the Farewell Ceremony there were a few sniffs, a few eyes being wiped, a few sad faces….I can’t remember what I said as I collected my certificate, but I think it echoed what everyone else had said: that we’d met so many wonderful people who we could now call friends, and had a week that we’ll never forget.
We said goodbye to some of the Spaniards who were leaving before lunch, driving themselves back home or to work. Hugs and kisses all round, promises to write, to share photos, to meet up next time we were in Madrid. Then lunch – my last meal shared with Ruben (soon to be a first time father, who reminded me of a young Gary Sinise), Amparo (who is going to Brazil in the new year to dance samba in the Rio carnival) and Adam (a tall Canadian with the most gorgeous, deep voice). Finally the coach arrived. Spanish was no longer banned, and the Spaniards could turn the tables on us! It somehow sounded so strange to hear all these Spaniards, who up until now we’d only heard speaking English (albeit with a lovely Spanish accent), suddenly speaking in their native language! Lope came and sat in front of me at one point and asked me some questions v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y in Spanish, enunciating every syllable super clearly – which I thought was extremely funny before it occurred to me that maybe that’s how we Anglos had spoken to many of the Spaniards during the week!
And then we were back in Madrid, drawing up by the Diverbo offices on Calle Agustin de Betancourt, our suitcases deposited on the pavement. A few of us arranged to try and meet up later that night for dinner, we all hugged and kissed cheeks some more, and gradually, one by one, everyone disappeared into the Madrid rush hour.
Well, not quite; Sheila, Lyn, Kate and I went back to the café where we’d had breakfast on the day we left Madrid for Candeleda the week before. We reminisced about Pueblo Ingles over coffee and pastries, and then Sheila, Lyn and I headed for the Metro while Kate went to search for her B&B nearby. Lyn came with us while Sheila and I checked in to the Hostal San Isidro near Sol, and left her luggage in our room while we went to wait by the bear statue for Marissa, a friend from last year’s Pueblo Ingles, before heading off for dinner. So that night, back at La Bodega Bohemia, six of us (me, Sheila, Marissa, Lyn, Chris and Lisa) had a wonderful, final meal together. Then Pueblo Ingles really was over, as we all hugged goodbye and Sheila and I finally turned in for the night in our little hostel room……
…until we do it all again next year!