Most volunteer opportunities come with the requirement that you possess a special set of skills: masonry, IT, strength, or musical talent. So when I came across a volunteer opportunity whose only requirement was that you speak English and promise not to speak Spanish for an entire week, I was intrigued. I’ve been practicing for just such an opportunity for my whole life! Since I’ve had 29 years experience speaking English and am so good at not speaking Spanish, I was chosen to participate in Pueblo Inglés, a week-long English immersion program in Spain.
I was joined by fellow native English speakers from Canada, Germany, Israel, the UK, and US, including two Texans, who arrived in Madrid for a working holiday, ready to speak English, correct grammar, and learn more about the Spanish culture straight from the source. We started the program on a Thursday afternoon, meeting all of the Anglos for a lunch and welcome reception. On Friday, we hopped on the bus from Madrid to La Alberca for one week of English immersion camp…. But don’t let the word camp fool you.
Our ‘camp’ was located in Doña Teresa, 4-star hotel in La Alberca, a National Historic Landmark town just outside Salamanca. With only 1,200 residents, it was a good place to get away from the constant sound of Spanish. In addition to the 4-star location, we ate a fabulous breakfast and 3-course meals (wine included) for lunch and dinner in the hotel’s restaurant. It was a great way to learn about all the typical Spanish meals– paella, cuttlefish, blood sausage, anchovies, fried milk, and curdled milk. I made sure to step out of my comfort zone to try them all!
I can’t give away all of Diverbo’s Pueblo Inglés’ secrets (believe me when I say that you need to come to discover them for yourself!), but I can share the basic format of the week. Each day contained several one-on-one conversations. During these 50-minue periods, my Spanish partner and I would either sit on the terrace of the hotel or walk around town or on a hiking path, learning about each others’ lives. I learned about the Falles festival in Valencia and the Patios festival in Córdoba, heard about all different types of careers (doctors, lawyers, professors…), and took photos with the town pig. Yes, pig.
In La Alberca, there is a pig which is fed by the townspeople, given a place to stay by City Hall (although legend says if the pig shows up at your door and is sleepy, you must give it a comfy place to rest), and in January the pig is raffled off by lottery. For only 1€, you could own the pig or the sum of its parts in food products. Unfortunately, the lottery doesn’t open until November, or I would have thrown my hat into the ring to win a guard-pig for my travels.
Back to the schedule: During the week, we participated in conference calls and telephone sessions so the Spaniards could practice business skills without the help of body language. The Spaniards also prepared presentations, and being in the audience was a great treat for the Anglos. We also had discussion groups, where we were given a list of topics to discuss… which sometimes became a full-fledged debate. This was the most difficult part of the week for me, since I’m not usually one to willingly argue. But the 50 minutes always contained good viewpoints and ended with smiles, so all-in-all, it was a success.
After siesta, we did some fun group activities to wake us up before more one-on-ones, which meant more exploring of the beautiful town.
Next up was theatre hour, which consisted of anything from Monty Python skits to presentations on Australia and beautifully sung songs to presentations on how to relieve knee pain. I brought a little Texas with me and taught the group a line dance to Boot Scootin’ Boogie.
If you’re looking for a way to stay Spain for free (there is no cost to the volunteers except getting to Madrid, and hotels before and after the week– don’t forget my article on how to travel for almost free) and learn about the culture, I can not recommend Diverbo’s Pueblo Inglés more highly. Paul, the Master of Ceremonies and Sabela, our Program Director were the best, keeping us energized and on time while maintaining enthusiastic attitudes all week long.
After we arrived back in Madrid, I thought I’d need a break from talking (Spaniards completed over 100 hours of English interaction), but just 2 hours after arriving back in Madrid, a big group of us met up for dinner. We missed each other already! It was fun to watch the Spaniards slip back into their native tongue…. One was so used to communicating in English that she kept forgetting that the waiter only spoke Spanish! I think that’s a great testimony to the way the week was set up.
Before this experience, when I thought of Spain I thought bullfights and flamenco. Today, I think of the most kind, generous, funny people I’ve ever met.
To find out more and submit your application, visit Diverbo’s website: http://www.diverbo.com. They have programs to volunteer in Spain and Germany, and if you’d like to participate in a Spanish immersion, I know about 20 Spaniards who are looking for
revenge an opportunity to volunteer at Pueblo Español.