Thursday, January 22, 2009

Spanish Interlude

On a murky London evening, I was happy to recall the unusual week I spent last September in Spain. I went with Vaughan Town, a company which introduces Spanish business people to mother-tongue English speakers on an ‘immersion’ week. Regular 'Sangria evenings' take place in Dirty Dick's, opposite Liverpool station. Vaughan Town veterans renew friendships and answer 'newbies' questions.

I’d been studying Spanish for a while, as a kind of antidote to Chinese. Spain's a lot more accessible than China, too. We’d had a few home-swaps and a few cheap package holidays. It’s not easy, though, to plumb the Spanish psyche, when all the people you meet are waiters, couriers or shop assistants. I craved more in-depth conversation, even in English.

Last year, a classmate told me about Vaughan Town. A week of speaking English to Spanish business people, on a one-to-one basis, sounded like hard work. Still, all I had to pay was the air-fare to Madrid and two over-night stays there at either end of the week. Easyjet and a hostel made it affordable.

In fact, I loved it. We were driven to a 4-star hotel at Monfrague in the Extramadura region, all stone walls, rows of dusty olive trees, and distant mountains, about three hours from Madrid. The hotel had the biggest bedroom I’ve ever stayed in, plus excellent meals with wine.

For five days, the rule of speaking only English was observed even at meal-times. Almost all the Spaniards worked for international companies in Madrid, but one ran hot-air balloon flights near Valencia. We talked as we strolled down to the village or near the pool or on the hotel terraces.

I learned a lot, and enjoyed working with the 14 or so friendly ‘Anglos’. Activities and entertainments in the programme were all designed to help the Spaniards achieve fluency. Many of the Anglos, including Americans, Australians and even an English couple living in Spain, had done the programme before, some several times. It seems to be addictive.

Venues are now Gredos, for those who like a rural locations, and the medieval city of Salamanca.

I’d never been to Madrid before, except to change planes. I loved the Tapas events at either end of my stay. On the way back, I had time to wander around before my flight back to London. Madrid reminded me of London, with its tree-shaded squares and back-streets. My companion was a Texan lady I’d bonded with over Spanish-size gins and tonics in the hotel bar every night. So I learned nice things about Texans, too.

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