There were heavy grey clouds over Stansted as Sheila (my amazing Californian friend who I met at Pueblo Ingles last year) and I took off, buffeted by crosswinds and blasted by the rain.
According to the Spanish pilot, it was a bit drizzly in Madrid, too – but the temperature was about 12 degrees higher than in England. Having only one cabin bag and an EU passport, I breezed through security on arrival (yay!), and we then began the 20 mile trek (or so it seems) from the arrivals hall to the metro.
Madrid’s metro system is clean, efficient and very easy to use; the station names sound so exotic to English ears…..Rios Rosas, Acacias, Cuatro Caminos, Pacifico, La Latina…
We emerged, hot but happy, at Puerta del Sol at about 8.45pm, the bright Tio Pepe sign shining down on the bustling plaza, and crowds of people posing for photos in front of the statue of the bear (the traditional meeting point for a night out in Madrid).
Our hostel (the lovely Hostal de Nuestra Senora de la Paloma – which was on the floor directly above a hostel I’d stayed at the previous year!) was just a short walk away, halfway between Sol and the Plaza Mayor. Our twin bedded room had a teeny bathroom with a shower, and shuttered doors opening onto a little balcony festooned with geraniums.
I was desperate to eat once again at the cheap and cheerful Bodega Bohemia (opposite the Mercado de San Miguel), where the year before we’d had the most delicious spit-roasted chicken and chips (I know… not exactly a local speciality!); it was less than 10 euros, but
the chicken was succulent and garlicky, the waiter (Nicolas) very friendly and the food was accompanied by cheesy keyboard music and elderly Spanish karaoke singers – sounds awful but it really added to the atmosphere (as did the very large and very welcome glass of sangria)!
We left the restaurant around midnight, just as other diners were arriving for dinner….
Madrid can be very noisy, and especially so in the early hours of the morning, when you’re desperately tired and even earplugs won’t muffle the sound of revellers, motor bikes, police sirens, more revellers, refuse lorries…so we woke, bleary-eyed and brain-dead, and set off for coffee and breakfast…
…which we found in the Mercado de San Miguel. The food there really is a feast for all the senses. There are stalls selling seafood, fruit, pastries, tapas, coffee, cheese, olives, jamon, smoothies, paella, tortilla……
..we toured the hall about three times before deciding on what to eat (café con leche, a creamy nata tart, and a tiny spinach quiche for me).
This popular indoor market is busy, lively, full of chatter, clinking cups and rattling cutlery; all kinds of delicious smells waft from the different stalls: fresh coffee, spicy chorizo, pungent cheeses, briny seafood, sweet vanilla from the bakeries……and every single stall presents their wares as works of art.
We were due to meet the other Anglos (English speakers) at Casa Patas – a famous flamenco club and restaurant, at 2pm. It seemed that many of them were already Pueblo Ingles converts – some having already been at least five times. The Anglos who’d not done the programme before must have been reassured by the number of people who regularly give up a week of their lives just to take part – it must be good, right? We all got to know each other over paella and dessert before heading upstairs to watch some very good flamenco; the restaurant runs a highly regarded flamenco academy. Then the Pueblo Ingles leaders (Jez, Jason, Amelia and Sabela) took it in turns to talk to us about the meeting point for the bus the next morning, what to expect from the Spaniards, what kind of activities we might be doing during the week, and how hard it may all seem at first. Then we were free to head off around the city. Having visited Madrid four times before, I feel very comfortable here, and I know my way around the centre reasonably well. I love watching the street performers in the Plaza Mayor and the Puerta del Sol; I love the architecture, from the famous buildings to the tiny architectural details; I love the shop signs and the window displays and the street signs. I love the people – Spaniards are cheerful, exuberant, opinionated, noisy, lively, friendly and helpful. Apart from the fact that I can’t walk around Madrid without a camera in my hand, I don’t really feel like a tourist here any more. Even so, I know that I’ve barely scratched the surface of this vibrant city. But for the rest of the afternoon and evening, we took it easy, strolling around the shops and having dinner with some of our new Anglo friends.
We left our hostel early the next morning for our metro ride to the bus meeting point at Nuevos Ministerios. We just had time for a croissant and coffee at a nearby café before joining the crowd of people waiting to join the bus. Sabela and Amelia, our Programme Director and MC for this trip, were ticking names off a list and welcoming the Spaniards who, as usual, looked somewhat nervous. “Spanish stops here!” said Amelia, inviting us all to board the bus, and reminding us that Spaniards had to sit next to an Anglo. Quite a few of the Spaniards had chosen to drive directly to the venue, so there were a few empty seats; I ‘shared’ Sheila’s Spaniard, Miguel, who (in very good English) pointed out various famous sights as we drove out of the city.
As bustling Madrid gave way to rolling countryside scattered with olive trees and castles, the Gredos mountains gradually came into view. We continued through acres of oak trees, home of the black pigs reared for their Iberico ham. We crossed narrow bridges over rivers, the water fresh from the mountains, sparkling clear and freezing cold. Small groups of bulls languished in the sun, and about two hours after leaving Madrid we turned into the entrance of El Mirlo Blanco, our home for the next week. Let the fun begin…..!!
Info: We stayed at the Hostal Nuestra Senora de la Paloma in Madrid (www.nuestrasenoradelapaloma.com ).
“How would you like a free holiday in Spain?” asked the TV presenter.
“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’!
We had quizzes, played games, acted out scenes from famous films, invented new religions, and had a party (the Spanish REALLY know how to party)!!
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….
…having One-to-Ones in the hammocks by the pool, or walking along the path towards the village, or sitting on a bench in the gardens overlooking the mountains, or in the bar with a coffee….
…”Peng!!” Peng was always the last to arrive, and we’d all shout out his name as he entered the room….
…The last day. Unless you’ve experienced it yourself, you can’t begin to imagine how emotionally attached you’ve all become to each other. Everybody hugs each other; everybody cries…..
Don’t you just love that moment when, having left behind a dull and breezy spring day in the UK, your flight Captain announces that the local temperature is 39 degrees?
We landed in Marrakech-Menara airport at 8.40pm. It was already getting dark, but the heat that hit us as we stepped off the plane was almost tropical. The muffled voices echoing around the Arrivals hall were mostly speaking French, and signs in French and Arabic added to that lovely feeling you get when you’ve just arrived somewhere new and exciting. After the compulsory visit to the loo, we joined the queue for passport control (had my passport stamped – yay!) and went to collect our suitcase from the carousel. Then changed British money into Moroccan Dirhams, and headed out to our transfer driver, Faisal, who had been waiting patiently.
The roads of modern Marrakech are wide and busy; while Faisal told us all about the trips he would be happy to arrange for us, we watched as modern buildings, billboards and palm trees sped past in the dark, and we clung on to our seats as Faisal cut up every vehicle that tried to pass us on either side. Marrakech – so far – looked nothing like I expected, until Faisal pointed out the approaching walls of the Medina (the old town) looming in front of us. We pulled into an entrance to the city at exactly the same time as about 3 other vehicles, all with horns blaring, but Faisal, un-phased, just continued his commentary, narrowly missing a parked donkey cart. This was the Marrakech I’d imagined: increasingly narrow streets, tight corners, roads lit by lights radiating from tiny shops and stalls, boys on bikes, old men sitting on the pavements, dark doorways, and noise – everywhere, noise: car horns, bicycle bells, cart wheels, motor bike engines, shouting…..
Suddenly we stopped, and in the same breath as pointing out his ‘Travel Agency’ close by (“…where I will meet you first thing in the morning to book all your excursions…”), Faisal was barking instructions and passing our luggage to a teenage boy who turned and started walking off down a smaller lane, among several cyclists and people pushing carts along through the dark alleys.
We hastily tipped Faisal and followed after the boy, turning into smaller lanes and then yet smaller and darker ones. A group of young children crouching on the corner watched silently as we passed.
Finally we were at an impressive, open doorway. The sign above showed we’d arrived at the Riad El Youssoufi, and a young man of about 27 was standing in the warm light just inside. “Welcome,” he said, “and mind your heads!” Julien took our luggage from the boy and stood back to let us stoop carefully down into the calm, cool oasis that was to be our home for the next 6 days…..
There’s something very magical about that first couple of hours when you arrive at a foreign destination. Something extra special about that first sniff of foreign air, that sensation of being in a different climate, the sound of a different language being spoken; seeing signs in different alphabets, faces with different features, cafes serving different food. As you leave the airport for your hotel in a car, taxi, minibus or coach, you see different shops, different brand names above petrol stations, unfamiliar road signs and place names, buildings that could be schools, clinics, libraries, police stations. Or you take the metro, watching locals get on and off, immediately recognising you as a tourist with your map and suitcase, as you pass through stations with unfamiliar names.
Then you arrive at your hotel or lodging with a feeling of trepidation. Will it be as nice in real life as it was in the photos? Have they given you a decent room? All the other guests know their way around and look at your untanned skin and travel-crumpled clothes (flight socks under sandals – good look!) with curiosity as they amble through the lobby on their way to the pool/the nightclub/dinner.
You spend half an hour unpacking the essentials, finding places for everything, checking out the bathroom, reading any guest information, logging on to wifi, locking and unlocking the safe (if you have one) – not sure how much cash to keep on you for your first night, not sure where to keep your camera/ipod/documents….Within a couple of days, it will all be familiar; your room will feel like home, and you will know exactly where to go for a bottle of water/the best spot by the pool/some great local street food.
But for now, it’s all out there, waiting to be explored, waiting to be discovered…..exciting, uplifting, exotic; and you relish that tingle of expectancy that runs through you as the adventure begins.
I had dreams that our 30th wedding anniversary would involve my husband whisking me off to an exotic island –I have been hinting about Bora Bora for an awfully long time, after all! But deep down, I knew this was never going to happen – for several reasons:
Bora Bora is VERY expensive to get to.
Despite leaving suitable travel brochures laying around, with pages turned down and hotel descriptions heavily ringed in black biro, my husband has not noticed that Bora Bora is El Numero Uno on my bucket list. I suppose the fact that there are always numerous holiday brochures, travel magazines and guide books covering every surface in our house may make it easy for these to be overlooked….
Bora Bora is VERY, VERY expensive to get to.
My husband – bless him – readily admits he would have no idea of where to start when it comes to booking a holiday, even though I have travel agent friends who would hold his hand and gently guide him through the whole process! My fault, I know; having had a travel-obsessed travel consultant as a wife does rather mean he has had no involvement in organizing any of our travel plans…
My husband would be terrified of Getting It Wrong….he knows there would be dire consequences if he booked the wrong flights/airlines/hotels!!!
Bora Bora is NOT CHEAP.
An expensive trip to a tiny speck in a distant ocean on the other side of the world merits a stay of at least two weeks; Hubby would have to clear it with my employers behind my back and it wouldn’t be easy for him to take time off (he’s self employed…)
So…..it was up to ME to surprise HIM.
And now the tables were turned, I realised that it’s actually not quite that easy to organise a surprise holiday; I asked him if he’d be happy for me to surprise him, and gave him some rough dates. Yes, that was fine, he said (with a slightly worried expression).
So; where to go? Bora Bora is out of the question until we win the lottery. We couldn’t be away for more than a week due to work constraints. We both hate the idea of spending all day, every day on a beach. I didn’t want to stay in a bland hotel.
My first thought was Madrid. I love Madrid with a passion, and I’ve been there several times, although Hubby has never been. But I’ll be going again in September – maybe better to look at somewhere I’d never been before. Cordoba? Granada? Seville…?
I looked at Seville; cheap flights, some beautiful, Moorish hotels….which made me think of Morocco. Marrakech – perfect!! Both our son and my aunt have been to Morocco and loved it. It’s very cheap to get to, it’s a perfect destination for a shorter break, it would be a new experience for both of us and it would be full of colour and noise and smells and…..well, exotic-ness!!!
I found the flights. I found a BEAUTIFUL Riad within the walls of the Medina – small and romantic, so perfect for the occasion. I booked the airport parking. I organized the travel insurance. I checked our passports…….Oh dear: Hubby’s passport would expire less than 3 months after our return date, and the Moroccan websites all told us that he’d need at least 6 months remaining. I told him he’d have to renew his passport.
I spoke to a nurse at our local GP surgery to check that we were up to date with our travel vaccinations. Although not compulsory, she strongly recommended that we had the appropriate jabs, although she couldn’t fit us in for the same appointment. I had to explain that my husband had no idea where we were going, so she was under strict orders not to give the game away! So off he went, bless him, to be prodded and pricked….he came back with a glint in his eye, though; “Well, that rules Madrid out!” he said.
Then, as the holiday got nearer, I asked Hubby to get together some clothes that he might like to take; I could help him decide what would be suitable and what else he might need to buy. “Will I need beach clothes?” he asked. “…..Possibly,” I told him, mysteriously (I knew we might have a day trip to the coast). “Will it be hot?” he asked. “Hmmmnn…hotter than here, I expect,” I said, trying to look as though I’d had to think very hard about that one. “How much money will I need to take?” he asked. “Well, just enough for food, and a little extra in case we take an excursion, and some more for bits and pieces, ice creams, souvenirs, postcards……” “OK; Euros….?”
In Morocco the currency is the Dirham. It is possible to use Euros in a few places over there, particularly in Marrakech, but it is expected that visitors bring Dirhams – which you can’t get until you arrive in Morocco. “Maybe you should just bring all your currency in Sterling?” I told him. “But you always tell me it’s not safe to take too much cash on holiday,“ he said; “Will I be able to use my cards while we’re away? Shouldn’t I advise my bank in advance…?”
With just a few days to go, I realised that it wasn’t so easy to keep everything secret. Perhaps, if we’d been going off on a standard package tour to a Mediterranean beach resort, it would have been simpler. Regardless of which country you’re in, you kind of know what to expect from a beach package. But I was beginning to realise that he needed to have an idea of the destination; even though I could tell him what clothes, toiletries and currency to bring, he needed to mentally prepare for where we were going – just as I would have wanted to. It also gave him a chance to read a little about Marrakech, to get an idea of what he might not want to miss when we were there. Perhaps keeping the whole thing secret was more for my own benefit – it gave me total control, and I had an excuse for not sharing the planning and the details with anybody else. But it can’t have been easy for him. So, two days before we left, I told him that we were going to Morocco. Which he’d already guessed, anyway.
I still had the satisfaction of knowing that the location inside the Medina walls would be a surprise, as would the tasteful, romantic and exotic Riad that I had chosen. I knew the holiday would be special, because of the occasion it was celebrating. And to an extent, it would be a surprise to both of us – however much I’d been told by other people, however many photos I’d seen, however many books I’d read, I knew Marrakech would be different to anywhere I’d been before, so I hoped and expected that it would still surprise me.
And I’m still hoping that, one day, he’ll tell me to book two weeks off work and to stock up on sun cream, ready for when he whisks me off to…….well, hopefully it’ll be a surprise…!!!
We never had lots of money when I was young – we certainly weren’t poor, but family holidays tended to involve staying with relatives, or in a caravan on the south coast. I never felt I was missing out as a child; until I was in my teens, I didn’t really know anyone who went abroad on holiday.
When I was very young, we lived for a few years in my grandparents’ home. This was great – I had wonderful aunties and uncles around who spoilt me rotten – and a Nana and Grandad who were EXACTLY what a good Nana and Grandad should be; Nana would take me to the bottom of the garden to feed the chickens and collect the eggs, and Grandad would sit me on his knee, and tell me about his travels. He smelt of tobacco and I used to love looking at the tattoos on his arms.
My Grandad, and his eldest son (my Uncle Dave), were both in the Navy, and the house was full of special treasures from all over the world: carved ivory (I know, I know – not something any of us would want to buy now), dark wooden tribal masks, and my favourite of all – a tiny, delicate Chinese tea set, made with china so fine that it was almost transparent; when you tipped it up, the face of a Chinese lady appeared in the base of the cup! Grandad must have told me about the places he’d been to buy such treasures, and although I don’t remember any stories in particular, I think he must have unlocked something deep within me.
I was also an avid reader, and my favourite books of all were tales from other lands. Tales from Scandinavia, where it was always twilight and the silent, snowy land was ruled by evil Ice Queens. Oriental stories of dragons and pagodas, and Folk tales from central and eastern Europe, full of tiny villages nestling among forested mountain sides inhabited by wolves. Stories from Africa or South America, where witch doctors danced around fires, and concocted strange herbal potions; and tales from the Middle East, where a dusky-skinned princess gazed out across endless deserts, waiting for an Arab prince to come galloping up to her marble palace (on a jet black stallion, of course), where he would summon a Djinn to create a magic carpet and whisk her away to a sultry oasis (I particularly liked this scenario…!). In my mind I would imagine myself there, the warm breeze playing through the leaves of the date palms, a subtle hint of incense carried across the sand, and the dark sky pierced by millions of the brightest twinkling stars….
At junior school, my somewhat romanticised view of All Things Foreign was brought down to earth by a series of geography programmes on TV, which we watched occasionally during lessons. They showed us what life was like for children living in dusty villages in Africa, in jungle clearings in South America, and in Inuit communities in the Arctic. I was fascinated by how similar – yet how different – their lives were to mine. I wondered what it would be like to have to catch or gather your food each day, to wear heavy animal skins to keep warm or to wear as little as possible to keep cool. I tried to imagine having to keep an eye out for tarantulas, snakes or polar bears all the time. Their lives were worlds apart from mine, but I found every detail and every difference fascinating.
The Great Big World Out There suddenly came within my grasp when a schoolfriend’s next door neighbour, who was a teacher at another school, was taking a group of pupils on a trip to Paris. My friend and I were offered places on the trip to fill up the seats, and this meant that I would leave England for the very first time in my life. For a 13-year-old with a serious motion sickness problem, the journey (by coach and ferry) was horrendous. But every second of heaving into paper bags was worth it as we drove along the Peripherique – the Paris equivalent of the M25 – and I experienced a life-changing moment: there, in the distance, if I craned my neck and squinted through the sunlight, I could – just – make out the iconic shape of the Eiffel Tower….
THE EIFFEL TOWER!!! I had seen hundreds of photos of it, seen it represented in paintings, and watched programmes on TV about it. But this was the Real Thing – I was in France – in Paris – without anyone else from my family – and I could see the real, actual, proper Eiffel Tower!
It was a great trip, full of little experiences and discoveries that completely overwhemed me: they call chips ‘frites’! Their money is different! They drive on the other side of the road! Their policemen wear funny hats! Everything about Paris impressed me so much that when I returned home I announced to everybody that I was going to live there when I was older…
In the seventies, package holidays offered a relatively cheap and easy way to visit the sun-drenched beaches of the Mediterranean, and suddenly people we knew were jetting off to Spain, returning with suntans, sombreros and almost life-sized straw donkeys. My parents seemed to be determined that we would continue with our annual family holidays to a beautiful seaside village in Devon, a little slice of English heaven called Branscombe, which I will always love;
but I was beginning to realise that there’s an awfully big and exciting world out there, and I desperately wanted to explore it. A family holiday abroad would cost more than my parents were willing to spend, but I saved up money from my Saturday job and put it towards another trip with my fiend’s neighbour’s school (this time to Belgium, with day trips to The Netherlands and Luxembourg), and then a Spanish exchange trip organised by my own school. Having now visited France, Belgium, Holland (we never called it The Netherlands in those days!), Luxembourg and Spain – and all without my parents – I felt like a regular little globetrotter!
When I was growing up, there was a TV advert that just got to me. It showed beautiful people arriving at the rooftop of a castle by hot air balloons, where they watch the sun go down across a beautiful landscape as they sipped their Martinis. The song hinted at a lifestyle full of the promise of luxury in special places: “Any time, any place, anywhere…there’s a wonderful world you can share…”. That was the life I wanted. There was an even better ad for Martini showing at cinemas – instead of balloons, the Beautiful People were meeting for sundowners on a secluded, rocky beach by seaplane. You saw the seaplanes skimming across a sparkling azure sea and soaring over a little archipelago before bobbing gently on the darkening water as the Beatiful People clinked their ice-filled Martini glasses and the sun slipped lower in the sky. Oh, heaven! This is how the Jet Set live!
I never had a hope in hell of belonging to the Jet Set while (a) I was still at school (and my Saturday job at the local greengrocer’s didn’t quite give me the millionaire’s lifestyle I wanted), and (b) I had never yet been on a plane! And then….”Why don’t we all go on holiday?….” said one of my friends, “….before we get to our final year and have loads of exams to do..?” So then we all started saving, all six of us – all girls; and we started planning The Best Holiday Ever…..(but that’s another story)!