How about a “free” trip to Spain? And you don’t even need to speak Spanish. In fact, you are prohibited from speaking Spanish, not even a word of it. You’ll be given room and board in a four-star resort for six days and will be satiated with delicious Spanish food and wine.
Sounds like a dream? What’s the catch?
All you need to do is speak English with Spanish business people, party with them for the six days and maybe even make some lifelong friends with Spaniards and Anglos from around the world. Your only cost will be round-trip airfare and any expenses outside of the program.
Does that sound like a fair deal? Wanna go to Spain?
A few years ago, I was looking for an opportunity to teach English abroad. I was especially searching for a chance to teach in Tuscany. On the Internet, I stumbled upon an article about volunteers who taught English to Spaniards in Tuscany through a company called Pueblo Ingles. Unfortunately, the article was outdated and the program in Tuscany no longer existed, so I did a Google search for Pueblo Ingles, and that led me to VaughanTown.
Richard Vaughan, an ex-pat from Texas, fell in love with Spain and moved there in 1974. In 1977, he formed Vaughan Systems which has grown to become the largest corporate English language training company in Spain. Vaughan Systems provides English language training in more than 520 international companies with offices in Spain.
English is the language of international trade. It’s the global language of business, and more and more multinational companies are mandating that their employees speak fluent English. Even meetings of the European Union are held in English.
Surprisingly, many people in Spain speak little to no English. This puts them at a great disadvantage when it comes to world trade. That’s where Vaughan Systems and VaughanTown come in.
In April 2000, Richard conceived the idea of VaughanTown, an English language immersion program in which native English speakers from around the world would converse with Spanish business people over a period of six days in a remote location near Madrid. No Spanish speaking allowed.
The first VaughanTown program was held in Valdelavilla, a restored medieval village in the mountains, four hours east of Madrid. Valdelavilla was reborn as an English-speaking village in the heart of Spain. Since then, the program has blossomed into several locations within a few hours drive from Madrid, and they always need the help of Anglo volunteers.
You don’t need any teaching skills or experience, but you do need to be a native English speaker, or at least have an excellent command of the language. Anglos come from around the globe to participate in this unique program, in exchange for room and board and a whole lot of fun.
I arrived in Madrid in July 2012 and rented a one-bedroom apartment for one night in the building that was the meeting point for VaughanTown participants. Because I was in the program, I got a considerable discount on my lodging, and stayed there a couple more nights after I returned from the program, so I could explore Madrid.
The first evening, all of the Anglo volunteers met with the program directors at a meet-and-greet party in Madrid. We enjoyed Tapas, Sangria and good conversation. Then the organizers introduced themselves and gave us specific information on when we would leave for our locations, what to expect for the week and how much fun it was going to be.
My “job” started the next morning, when I boarded the shuttle that would take us to Valdelavilla. I sat with one of the Spaniards, Laura, who had an excellent command of English. She was one of the few Spaniards who took the shuttle. The rest would meet us at Valdelavilla. On the drive, Laura and I struggled a little bit to find some common ground, but we managed to keep the conversation flowing.
Halfway to Valdelavilla, we stopped for coffee and a bathroom break. The coffee made us both feel better. I was a little jetlagged, and she confessed she had been out partying very late the night before. We had a good laugh about that. The Spaniards are famous for being partiers, but they don’t usually get drunk.
We finally arrived at Valdelavilla. What a beautiful location. The little village was nestled deep in the mountains of the Soria region, quite isolated from other towns. The buildings were all made of stacked stone, with terracotta roofs, and were dressed up with flower boxes and well-maintained landscaping of rosemary and lavender. The narrow streets and walkways were paved with cobblestones.
Before going to our rooms, we gathered in a newly-constructed hall where the Anglos met the Spaniards, most of whom had driven to the location. We had wine and Tapas and got to know each other a little.
Although I was a bit nervous about communicating with the Spaniards, my hesitance quickly melted away. The levels of English ability varied considerably. Some were quite fluent, and some struggled, somewhat embarrassed by lack of skill. But all of the Spaniards were so sweet and gracious it was easy to talk with them. Then we were off to our rooms to settle in before we met again for lunch.
My room was on the top floor of a narrow stone house. The ceiling was vaulted with original beams that even carried into my private bathroom. The walls were stucco and the floor, terracotta tile. I had a little window that overlooked the treetops. My habit over the next several days was to rise early in the morning, shower, open the window to let in the chilly air, and sit on a little bench by the window to write. Then I would head off to breakfast at the main building. There was no cell phone service, but you could get WiFi connection at the main building, so I would download email onto my phone before going inside for breakfast.
The mornings were chilly, but the days grew hot and dry. Then they cooled off again in the evening.
Mealtime was not break time. Participants were required to sit at four-person tables and alternate Anglo-Spaniard-Anglo-Spaniard, so we could converse during the meal. But that was part of the fun. The conversation was delightful, the food fantastic and the delicious local wine at both lunch and dinner flowed freely.
Every evening before dinner, which was not until 9:00 pm, we gathered in the hall for entertainment. Both Spaniards and Anglos were selected at various times during the program to perform skits in English or show their various talents, such as singing or dancing.
After breakfast each day, we had one-on-one sessions Anglo to Spaniard, for 50-minutes each until lunch. We’d have lunch at 1:00 pm then return to the one-on-one sessions, or rehearse for that evening’s entertainment or do conference calls with the Spaniards and pretend to be an irate customer or an uncooperative customer service agent. Since they always scheduled more Anglos than Spaniards, there was some time for Anglos to take a break and explore the town.
Every day at 3:00-5:00 pm during the height of the day’s heat, we broke for a siesta. We could take a nap, get personal things done or just relax. Then we would do some more one-on-one sessions before we gathered in the hall for the evening’s entertainment.
At 9:00 pm, we’d have dinner. After dinner was free time, but most of us hung out in the bar and chatted, Anglos and Spaniards alike. We were forming relationships and the language barrier was breaking down. It was especially fun to see how much the level of the Spaniards’ English grew in the course of the six days.
On the last day, the Spaniards had to do presentations in English to the Anglos. Some of them were very nervous about doing that. The Anglos helped them prepare and rehearse their presentations.
After the presentations, the Anglos received certificates of achievement. Then we retired to the main building for our final dinner together.
When dinner was done, it was time for the Anglos to experience a Spanish tradition. We gathered outside on a dark patio around a flaming caldron.
Double, double. Toil and trouble.
Strange incantations in Spanish echoed in English. Double, double. Toil and trouble.
Orujo and sugar were stirred into the cauldron. Double, double. Toil and trouble.
Stir, stir, stir.
In went more orujo, like Italian grappa and just as potent. Double, double. Toil and trouble.
The incantations grew in fervor. Stir, stir, stir in…
Coffee beans, more sugar, lemon peel and cinnamon. Double, double. Toil and trouble.
The incantations built to a climax. The Queimada was almost ready.
There are many myths and legends that surround this ritual, the making of Queimada, the fire drink of Galicia. It is thought to have originated during the time of Celtic occupation in Galicia. Now, Spaniards enjoy this drink when they gather for parties on the beach.
A lid went onto the pot and extinguished the flame. It was time for us to drink.
Though much of the alcohol was burned off in the cauldron, it was still potent and warmed us in the night’s chill. Shortly after, I retired for the evening and slept like a stone.
In the few short days I was in Valdelavilla, I crossed paths with people who will remain my friends for life. Though many of them, both Anglo and Spanish, are half a world away from me, we still communicate on facebook. I hope to see them again someday.
Valdelavilla is not on the schedule for VaughanTown 2014. But if you want to participate in this magical program, there are other great locations: Gredos, Rascafria, El Rancho and Pedraza.
I’ve signed up for the program in Gredos in July. Perhaps I’ll see you there.
For information and to apply to the VaughanTown program, visit their website at http://volunteers.grupovaughan.com/vaughantown.