When I went:
What I did:
Speak a lot of English!
In a medium-sized room, above the hotel reception a group of 41 adults are moving around and saying goodbye. It’s a bit chaotic – dozens of chairs have been pushed back against the wall – and it’s certainly very loud as the group try and say goodbye. There are tears, big hugs and email and phone number swapping. What’s unusual is that this group had only met just seven days ago, and luckily for me, I was part of it.
Rewind backwards eight days. I woke up early in my hostel in Madrid, got quickly dressed in the dark, and grabbed my heavy suitcase and backpack to figure out how to get to the meeting spot where the bus would pick me up. Hungry and, running a little late, I manoeuvre my way through Madrid’s underground during peak hour (always, always avoid peak hour) and finally appear at the meeting spot, which is not that memorable – aside from the large cluster of people, holding coffees and chatting away. Feeling a bit awkward, I look around and spot a woman with a clipboard (always trust the woman with the clipboard) and let her know that I’m here and board the bus.
My first problem – do I sit by myself for the four-hour journey to the small village of La Alberca, or do I start my experience early and sit next to someone? Deciding to dip my toes into the water, I sit by myself, but just in front of two women chatting away. Behind me, a group of people have claimed the backseats and are talking animatedly. Uh oh – have I made the wrong choice? Luckily, a lovely American woman sat next to me, and we talked for most of the bus ride – roping in a young Spanish man in front of us. We talked about everything – from travel to Game of Thrones and Harry Potter to work to the snow falling outside (yes, really! In Spain!).
By now, you must be thinking what the heck am I doing? I mean, getting on a bus with all my worldly possessions (well, everything I’m travelling with) with a bunch of strangers in a country where I don’t speak the language, going to… well, I wasn’t 100% sure, to be honest. That doesn’t seem safe for a solo, female traveler.
I was on my way to Pueblo Ingles, a week-long English immersion experience for Spanish businesspeople who are looking to improve their conversational English. Pueblo Ingles (meaning English village) is run by Diverbo – a company that specializes in teaching languages. Spaniard pay to attend the week (or sometimes their employers pay, or it’s part of a degree). English speakers (known as Anglos) apply to be volunteers – in my group were people from Canada, the US, Uruguay, the UK and me – and have their accommodation and food covered. In return, you spend your week just speaking English!
Two of my friends told me about Diverbo and the Pueblo Ingles program a few summers ago. They told me how much fun it was, about the people they met and recommended that I sign up if I was ever in Spain. So I did, without really thinking about it (I really trust my mates!). But the closer it got to the start date, the more apprehensive I became. As someone who doesn’t feel that comfortable talking to strangers, could I spend a week doing just that?
But, as you know, I loved it! Yes, there were some awkward moments at the beginning of the week and predictably some language barriers that just can’t be crossed (can anyone that’s not Australian fully understand and appreciate the word ‘bogan’?). But even from day number one, and my first formal conversation with a Spaniard, I was having fun.
I won’t lie – the week is intensive and full-on. The days are split into several different activities – from talking one-on-one with the Spainards, small group discussions and taking part in games, large group activities and scenarios. And of course, one of the most important elements – mealtime (So. Much. Food). By the end of the week, I was ready for solitude (or so I thought!), but each day we were given a few hours of ‘siesta time’ (something, I’ve since learnt that is not that prevalent in Spanish culture!), which I used to walk to the village with some of the group, or just be by myself and have some down time.
The location was absolutely stunning, and several of my one-to-one’s were spent walking into the woods behind the resort. Our lively MC took us on a walking tour of the beautiful La Alberca village. Winding, narrow cobblestone streets were lined with crooked old houses – stone at the bottom, wood at the top. I later found out, the reason for this was to protect against earthquakes – the wood provides flexibility and movement, when the ground is shaking. Stores line the cobblestoned path – selling a variety of products from the usual tourist fare, leather boots (oh my goodness, the shoes!!!), and locally made produce like honey and ham. And Spain sure loves it’s ham.
La Alberca is well-known for its ‘jamon’ – which is delicious! In fact, there’s a pig that roams around the village – if he’s at your house at nightfall, you let him in and feed him. Once a year, on the feast day of St Anthony/Antonio, the pig is raffled off by the villagers. Whoever wins him has a choice – let him roam free for another year or eat him. If you’re unlucky, like I was, and don’t see the pig, then you can at least see the famed pig statue that our MC pointed out.
By the end of the week, I felt like I’d known some of these people for years. One of the volunteers described it as having a new ‘Spanish’ family, and that’s exactly what it felt like. Of course, when you spend time with someone (or a group of people) 24/7, special bonds and friendships are formed. I met so many interesting people and learnt so much in my week at Pueblo Ingles. I also feel like I learnt a bit about myself in the process. Before I’d even left La Alberca, I was already thinking of when I could do another week – and I think most of the Anglos felt the same.
One of the other volunteers, Meg, wrote an excellent summary of the trip – which you can read at her blog.