By: Lynne Christen, Mary Esther, USA
2006 Travel and Transitions travel story contest participant
It is a bone-chilling and gray March day in Madrid.
My husband and I are huddled together on a busy corner with twenty
other English speaking volunteers from around the globe. Huddled
nearby, an equal number of Spanish executives eye us with looks
ranging from timid to terrified. We are waiting for a bus that will
take us three hours from Madrid to a hotel near the ancient village
of Barco de Avila in a remote area of the Gredos Mountain Range.
For the next eight days our two groups will be sequestered
together for an intense English immersion program called Pueblo
Ingles (formerly Englishtown). The Englishtown program is the brainchild
of American businessman, Richard Vaughan, who came to Spain in 1972
to teach English and never left. Dissatisfied with traditional English
language school curriculums, Vaughan developed Pueblo Ingles to
bridge the gap between classroom English and real world English
conversations. He accomplishes this by pairing an equal number
of English speaking volunteers with Spanish executives for an intense
eight days of non-stop conversation. The program is expensive for
the Spaniards. The English speaking participants are volunteers,
paid only by room and board.
Come along with us on a rich and rewarding journey
that will transform our two distinctly different groups from shy
strangers to cherished friends. Our Anglo group is a model of diversity.
Composed of an almost equal number of men and women, our ages range
from early 20’s to 70’s. We are writers, musicians,
chemists, artists, executives, students, and retirees from the United
States, Australia, Ireland, and the United Kingdom. A father and
son from Hawaii are touring Europe on bikes for one year on a fellowship,
teaching wheelchair tennis. A young woman originally from Nigeria,
now living in Boston, just completed her PhD in organic chemistry
at Harvard. There are a few couples and many single travelers. The
Spanish group is equally diverse; an even mix of men and women ages
late 20s to mid-50s. They are mid-to-upper level executives with
companies like Vodaphone, Microsoft, Oracle, Mercedes-Benz, Cemex,
and the Bank of Spain. They share the common need to understand
and speak English in their careers. For them, this week is
serious business. Their professional success depends on their ability
to become fluent in English.
Boarding the bus, we each sit with one of our Spanish
counterparts for their first Englishtown conversations. The next
three hours prove long and arduous for our Spanish “victims”
as they call themselves. Although they all speak intermediate classroom
English, they quickly believe we must be speaking some other unknown
dialect. Not only do our individual conversations sound unintelligible,
the various Anglos don’t even speak the same English. There
are drawling southern accents (like mine), northern accents, West
Virginia nasal hill country accents, Irish brogues, clipped and
proper British accents, and more. Some Anglos speak slowly and distinctly.
Others speak fast; their conversation peppered with slang and words
like “gonna.” Isabel asks, “What is a gonna?”
Later, Beatriz tells us all she could think about during that long,
long bus ride was, “What am I doing here? Please get me out
of here. This is an impossibility!”
As our bus turns into the tall gates of the Gredos
Gate Hotel everyone falls silent. The late afternoon sun paints
snowcapped majestic peaks on all sides in breathtaking hues. Gredos
Gate is nestled in a farmland valley with panoramic views on all
sides. It is an unspoiled region known by few visitors to Spain.
Over the next seven days, we walk, talk, and explore trails made
by local shepherd’s centuries ago and we trod many miles on
rough-paved roads dating back to Roman occupation in Spain.
Meanwhile, there is no rest for the weary and dazed
Spaniards. We quickly settle into our rooms and head for the Meeting
Hall for a welcome orientation by Richard Vaughan. Spaniards
and Anglos are all somewhat skeptical when he tells us that over
the next seven days a “magical metamorphosis will take place”
between us. He also warns us that over the next seven days
we will speak over 64,000 sentences, averaging 11 sentences per
minute. Everyone looks dazed. Can we really talk that much?
Immediately after Vaughan’s welcome, we go
right to our first get-acquainted exercise. We each have the name
of a famous (or infamous) celebrity attached to our back and we
must guess our celebrity’s name by asking each other yes or
no questions. Anglo Carol is “Monica Lewinsky.” Amidst
innuendos and giggles, the Spaniards provide the clues and she finally
guesses her identity.
The next morning is our first typical day at Pueblo
Ingles. Think of it as a “musical Spaniards” talk-a-thon.
Wake-up calls come promptly at 8:15 a.m. and we all head to breakfast.
There is no assigned seating, but each table for four must include
two Anglos and two Spaniards for breakfast conversation. The potent
Spanish café con leche wakes us up and give us a jumpstart
on the day.
Following breakfast, it’s off to check our
morning schedules. Beginning at 10 a.m. for the next four hours
we are paired off each hour for one-to-one conversations. Pueblo
Ingles Director, tall, dark and handsome Alvaro Medina keeps both
groups on track and focused. There is levity and laughter, but no
time for slacking here. Schedules are rigidly structured and maintained.
The Spaniards love to walk so most of our talks are outside walking
the pathways of the past in the crisp and invigorating mountain
air. We average walking about three miles each day.
There are no assigned conversation topics,
virtually anything goes. During the first day, conversations are
superficial, primarily about jobs, families, and program expectations.
We quickly learn that just because our Spanish partner nods and
says yes, they do not necessarily understand what we are saying.
As the week goes by topics become increasingly more meaningful and
intense. Discussions include sharing thoughts on the threat of terrorism,
the war in Iraq, religious differences, gay marriage, and personal
problems, hopes and dreams. There are also many hours spent discussing
the intricacies and inconsistencies of English verbs, nouns, and
slang. How do you explain why you wind a clock, but the wind blows
A late lunch at 2 p.m. each day and dinner at 9
p.m. follow the same format of four per table and new partners at
each meal. Spanish wines flow freely with meals. Perhaps the wine
helps loosen our tongues and reduce inhibitions, but there is no
abuse in quantity consumed. Following lunch, a welcomed siesta
from 3 to 5 p.m. gives our vocal chords a rest.
Then, late afternoon finds our entire group convening
at the Meeting House for group activities. Greg Stanford, our incorrigible
and entertaining Master of Ceremonies, leads us through group discussions,
improvisational skits, and impromptu performances with humor and
There is no break in the evening. At 6 p.m., 7 p.m.
and 8 p.m. there are three more one-to-one talk sessions before
dinner at 9 p.m. As each day passes, dinners become longer
as we linger with our new friends over coffee and (of course) more
conversation. Bedtime is rarely before midnight and with younger
Anglos and Spaniards, interaction often continues until the wee
This may sound somewhat grueling and the days are
long and often intense. But, around Day Three the magic that Vaughan
spoke of begins to emerge. We discover that the Spaniards are extremely
intelligent, warm, polite, and generous. They discover that we are
sincerely interested in their success and that we all have much
in common in spite of our diversity.
In addition to our paired conversations, there are
telephone conference calls with business scenario role plays.
Each of the Spaniards must also do a five minute presentation for
small groups of Anglos. I will never forget the poignant presentation
by Miguel. As he tells about a terrible family tragedy that has
affected his life over the past five years, we shed tears and share
his sorrow and his dreams for a brighter future. Later, Lucia brings
tears of laughter to our eyes with her description of a very different
personal journey that went awry.
Surprise activities keep days and evenings from
becoming monotonous. One evening we were treated to a Queimada ceremony.
Queimada is an ancient potion of potent brandy and other liquors.
It is mixed in a large vat and flamed to the tune of ancient incantations
in Spanish and English to “drive away evil spirits.”
We decide that possibly the next morning, the Spaniards will speak
perfect English and we will awaken speaking Spanish. A few nights
later at the sangria party, our Spanish friends attempt to teach
us the Flamenco and the Paso Doble. It is amazing to watch
as each day their English fluency becomes more pronounced.
Mid-way through the week we take a field trip. As
a group, we walk into Barco de Avila for guided tour of this 12th
century walled city, a visit to local cafes and shops, and to view
gigantic stork nests atop the churches. We are introduced
to Spanish chocolat and churros…a hot thick rich hot chocolate
and a fried doughnut-like pastry. The bravest among us sample Pig’s
Tail, “guaranteed” to improve sexual performance. Our
students become our teachers helping us negotiate and purchase souvenirs
and mementos of our trip.
Too quickly, the final day of our program rolls
around. This is a sad and happy day. Today, March 11th is the first
anniversary of the Madrid Train Bombing. We have a moment of silence
at the hour the tragedy occurred. Tears are shed and memories are
shared of friends and family lost that day. Victor’s son and
his three friends always rode that train. His son was not on the
train on March 11, 2004. His three friends all died that day. The
day ends with a Graduation Celebration. As each of our Spaniards
receives his or her certificate we cheer like proud parents. As
we receive our Certificates of Appreciation, our Spanish friends
cheer with equal pride and affection. As we board the bus
for the trip back to Madrid, there were tears, hugs and promises
to stay in touch.
The magic that Richard Vaughan promised was tangible.
One of our Spanish friends expressed the Pueblo Ingles experience
perfectly saying, “We came together as strangers with many
misconceptions about each other and our diverse cultures. We ended
the week as friends with the realization that we are much more alike
than we are different.”
Since we returned home several times each day I
find myself wondering how Jose Antonio’s big English presentation
in Orlando went, whether Fernando ( a Captain with Iberia Airlines)
will get a route to the U.S., or how Elena, Gemma, Pepe, and the
others are doing. How is their English progressing? Emails
and photographs flow back and forth daily from around the world.
Thanks for the recipe, Joaquin, we will think of you each time we
prepare it and we’ll be sure to put in the cups of love and
Gredos memories you included in the ingredients.
Would we like to participate in Pueblo Ingles again?
Absolutely! We have traveled throughout the world and enjoyed
many memorable travel experiences, but our week in Gredos with Englishtown
was truly the most rewarding travel experience we have shared.
The days were long, tiring and often frustrating for both Anglos
and Spaniards. The rewards were great. We feel we left Spain with
much more than we gave and we heard that sentiment expressed by
many of our fellow Anglos.
If Pueblo Ingles sounds intriguing, be certain that
you are truly a flexible person who enjoys talking for hours with
different kinds of people? During the remainder of 2006 the three
venues for Pueblo Ingles will require several hundred Anglo volunteers.
Pilot programs are also underway for a similar Italian program in
Tuscany. For more information about Pueblo Ingles venues and programs,