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Pueblo Ingles

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 your hair?

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 flair. 

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 hours.

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, visit www.vaughanvillage.com.  


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