Sunday, June 23, 2013

So how was Vaughantown??? 

Time flies when we're having fun....and I can't believe I've neglected my blog for two months!  We had such an amazing time in Spain and then came home and got caught up in the world of reality and needless to say, I've had a hard time getting back to normal (whatever that is!).

Everyone I've talked to about my trip to Spain has asked about the Vaughantown experience and I wish I could capture it for you in words, but I can't.  Not entirely.  So much of what we experienced there was feelings - connections with others, Spaniards and Anglos, and the start of beautiful global friendships and for me personally, it was a life changing event.  My local newspaper asked me to contribute an article about my experiences, so here it is.  It's a bit lengthy, but I hope you enjoy and get a flavor for the time Tom and I spent in Spain.

“What does it mean to say, ‘you’re in the doghouse’,” Pilar asked as we walked along a beautiful mountain trail in Rascafria, Spain.  I thought about her question, frowning as I considered how to explain this American phrase to the lovely Spanish woman from Barcelona.  I was in Spain participating in a volunteer English language immersion program for Spanish adults with an organization called Vaughantown.  The program partners native English speaking adults, (referred to as Anglos), from around the globe, with Spaniards seeking to improve their English language skills.  The Anglo volunteers travel to Spain at their own expense, and spend six days in a remote location with the Spaniards, many of whom are there for professional development, speaking and engaging together all in English.  Many people have asked if I speak Spanish – the answer is no, not really.  But that’s the beauty of Vaughantown - the only rules of the week are, “No Spanish may be spoken”, and “have fun and learn in English”.   The goal of the program is to help the Spaniards improve their English, which in turn will benefit them in their personal and professional lives. 

My husband, Tom, and I learned of this program last summer and applied to participate. We were accepted to attend a session in May, 2013 and we began planning our Spanish adventure -- we would participate in Vaughantown for one week and tour Southern Spain the next week.  We flew to Madrid and met up with our group on a warm Sunday morning.  There were 17 Anglos, including us, and we hailed from England, Wales, Ireland, Australia, and the US.  Some of the Anglos were repeat volunteers, having enjoyed their original experiences so much.  The 13 Spaniards were from all across Spain and the group included Lawyers, Engineers, Business Directors and University Professors, all attending to expand their careers  We traveled two hours by bus to a Sheraton hotel that was attached to a 700 year old functioning monastery.  The hotel grounds border a natural park, ringed by snow capped mountains and filled with winding nature trails that lead to ponds, rivers, meadows and the rural village of Rascafria, two miles away.  This beautiful but remote location would be our base for the week and we would spend each day immersed with one another; talking, eating, working, and experiencing life together, all in the English language.  We boarded the bus as strangers, but we ended the week as tight friends who will never forget one another or the time we spent in the beautiful Spanish mountains.

Our days were full, beginning with a wakeup call at 8:15 and ending with dinner at 9:00 pm.  We ate all of our meals together, and the tables in the large dining room were set for four – two Anglos and two Spaniards at each.  We were asked to “mix it up” during the week, sitting with new people at each meal.  Not only did this allow us to get to know one another better, it also allowed the Spaniards the opportunity to hear a variety of English accents and terms, helping them to become more proficient at speaking English.  During our first couple of meals together, the conversations were fairly formal as we became acquainted with one another and the Spaniards practiced their English, but as the week progressed we all became friends and soon meals were a noisy and busy affair, all of us eating, chatting and laughing amiably.  After breakfast we would receive our schedule for the day.  Anglos and Spaniards were partnered for 1:1 conversations and pairs rotated every hour.  Lunch and siesta was from 2:00-5:00, and more 1:1’s or organized activities occurred between 5:00-8:50, ending with dinner followed by free time.

The 1:1 times, when a Spaniard and Anglo were paired together, created a unique learning opportunity for the Spanish, with the goal of becoming comfortable speaking English in a casual and relaxed environment.  This was my favorite activity – getting to spend time truly getting to know my Spanish partner.  The first days we were new to each other and sometimes unsure of what to discuss but as we walked on the lovely forest paths or sat in the hotel courtyard sipping coffee, we would each become more relaxed and soon, we were comfortably discussing a wide variety of topics.  Evening activities were designed to stretch the English comfort levels of the Spanish and often included organized skits or plays.  We all learned to overcome shyness at performing in front of groups and we often ended the evening practically in tears, laughing hard at each other’s antics.   

As the week progressed I learned more and more about each Spaniard’s life -- their interests, families, jobs and the culture of their beautiful country.  My respect for the Spanish participants and my fellow Anglos grew immensely through our time together.  The hours were long and difficult, but the Spaniards were dedicated to learning and as I watched their confidence grow and English improve, I was glad to be a part of helping them achieve their personal and professional goals.   On the final day during the closing ceremonies, one Spaniard summed up the experience for all of us.  He stood before the group and, speaking genuinely from his heart, he addressed the Anglos.  “Thank you for doing this.  I don’t understand why you gave up your time or came so far to help us learn, but I am glad that you did and we love you for it." 

When Vaughantown was over, Tom and I spent another week touring southern Spain but we never stopped talking about the things that had happened in Rascafria and our new found friends.  It was one of the most unique and rewarding vacations we’ve ever taken and we are already planning for when we can return to Spain and volunteer with Vaughantown again.


Wednesday, April 17, 2013

How do you prepare for an experience with Vaughantown?

As I shared, I've been receiving newsletters with "what to expect" from the Vaughantown staff.  Each is unique, and focuses on different aspects of the experience.  I just received newsletter #4 this morning and found it interesting, and thought you might enjoy reading it, too.  I particularly noticed the part about playing Spanish Trivial Pursuit with the Spaniards in our class!  Oh-oh.  I have some serious studying to do - I can be a bit competitive myself, and I don't want to fall down flat with no answers!  Good thing the newsletter provides links to study Spanish history. 

A few weeks ago, quite by accident, I found a woman named Christine in the UK, who had participated in Vaughantown on four previous occasions.  We held a Skype conversation a few days ago and she shared some fun stories about her experiences in Rascafria.  But it was when she advised me to "begin preparing my skits for the evening entertainment hour", that I had a brief moment of doubt about my decision to go.  My skits??  I have no talent!  What was I supposed to do?   Tom looked at me like I had lost my mind when I shared this new information and for a moment, I was afraid he was going to say "no way! We're not going".  But then he shrugged, grinned and said, "Sure, why not?  This will be fun!"  I had to laugh.  What a sport!  And now, I need to get back to planning my skits....  any suggestions, anyone????

Vaughantown Newletter #4

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

How did you learn about Vaughantown?

That's a question that I've been asked numerous times since announcing that Tom and I are heading to Spain in May and participating in a Vaughantown English class the first week we are there.  Well, here's how it happened.

I'm always interested in travel and last July, I attended a special interests class at my local college.  The class was about "Travel Careers", and creating your own future in travel.  Yes, I have a great job and a great career, but I'll admit, travel has always been my first love.  So, I signed up for the class, purchased a Subway sandwich for my lunch, and arrived in the classroom, eagerly waiting to learn how I could start a new career, or at the very least, supplement the one I have (like I don't have enough on my plate!!).

The class was actually quite informative but one thing that stood out to me was the instructor's introduction of "free travel in Spain".  Now, with the words "free" and "Spain" in the same sentence, how does one not pay attention?  The instructor explained the Vaughantown program and it intrigued me - visit Spain, spend a week with international Spanish business people and practice English with them all day long.  All expenses paid.  Hmmmm........ of course I was interested and as soon as I got home,  I convinced Tom to apply with me, and we were both accepted to the May 2013 class!

So, in three weeks, we depart for Madrid.  I'll keep you posted on how this goes!  We've received several "what to expect" letters and I'm really looking forward to this experience.  We are staying in a hotel that was, at one time, a monastery, in the mountain town of Rascafria.  To my understanding, the monastery is still there and monks live and work on the hotel grounds.  I am so intrigued and excited by this opportunity.  Clearly, I'm planning another chapter in Extraordinary Travels on an Ordinary Couple, book 2!

Sunday, April 7, 2013

A visit to Spain

We leave for Madrid, Spain on May 8 - a month away!  Somehow, I managed to talk Tom into joining me on a trip that is half sight seeing, half volunteer work, but undoubtedly, all FUN!  We're going to volunteer with a group called Vaughantown the first week, staying in the mountain village of Rascafria, and teaching English to Spanish Business people!  I can't wait - I've heard so many good things about this program, and when Tom and I applied last August, we were accepted.  I will be sending updates to this blog and my Facebook page as we work - it's going to be fun, new friends shall be made, and most certainly, I'll gather the content for a new chapter in a second book of "Extraordinary Travels of an Ordinary Couple"!!! 

Has anyone been to Spain?  Have you ever participated in a program like Vaughantown?  Let me know if you have, I'm open to your ideas and thoughts!  In the meantime, I'm planning the itinerary, reading through the contents of my Spain travel guides, and scrambling to put it all together!  How time flies when we are having fun.