Friday, October 30, 2009

Gredos - Anglos in Spain

Saturday I got back from a week away, having been one of the participants in an English language program for Spaniards called Vaughan Town. The 10 Anglo volunteers and 14 Spaniards, plus the master of ceremonies and program director, were all housed for six days in a resort hotel in the province of Avila, in the Gredos mountains, near the village of El Barco de Avila. We volunteers were not paid (obviously) but we did have free room and board and transportation between the program hotel and Madrid. So the only costs involved were drinks at the bar, getting yourself to Madrid, and lodging before and after the program if your transportation schedule and desires required it. Basically, for me, it was a cheap and unusual vacation.

Friends of mine had told me about the program and suggested several times that I should go, that you meet some nice and interesting people and that since I was fairly social, I would like it. They were right. I was also hoping to make a professional contact for editing work.

It was a bit like going to camp, everyone riding on the bus together from Madrid (except they didn’t sing), having all our meals together, scheduled activities throughout the day, the evening activities with amateur theatrics and skits. The meals were far better than any food I had at camp, the theatrics and skits were fabulous (our masters of ceremonies is a pro), and although we spent a lot of time together, we each retired to our own private luxury hotel room (with Jacuzzi in the tub). This was definitely not like camp. The wakeup call was a phone ringing instead of a bugle, although the ring was so loud it could cause a heart attack, and actually I think I would have preferred the bugle.

I was a bit worried that I would be the oldest one there, but that wasn’t the case; in fact, there were several Anglos hovering above and below my age. Others had worried that this would turn out to be some sort of cult and they would be trapped. They were even more pleasantly surprised by the program than I, who had no such fears. What had really worried me was surviving a twisting mountain road on a bus.

Activities varied, but mostly they were one-on-one’s to give the Spaniards practice in speaking and comprehension with partners who were native English-speakers from different parts of the world (we were from USA, England, Ireland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong, Greece/South Africa each with a different accent, making use of different expressions). We would tell the other about ourselves, ask questions, talk about all sorts of things. There were also some foursome discussions and some practice on the phone (the hardest part of conversing in a new language for many people, including me when I have to do it in Catalan).

The one-on-one conversations that dominated were an opportunity not only for the Spanish to practice their speaking and comprehension, but also for us to learn about each other and for the Anglos to learn a lot about Spain and Spaniards. I can think of no better way for someone who travels to Spain to meet Spaniards and find out something about their culture and their country. Generally when you travel, you might have very short conversations with hotel receptionists, waiters and possibly tour guides. You rarely have entry to people’s homes unless you have friends who live there. It isn’t easy to meet people when you travel except, perhaps, other travelers. On this program, you had fourteen friendly Spaniards just waiting to tell you all about themselves, their families, the city they come from, their country, and their hopes and aspirations! It was a fabulous experience that I hope to repeat, maybe next year.

I arrived in Madrid just the day before, so I didn’t have much time to explore although from the walking I did, I could tell that it was a very big and beautiful city. That evening there was a wine and tapas get-together for the Anglos who wanted to meet each other. Early the next morning some of us showed up before departure time at the café across from the bus stop and found we were already old friends. A few minutes later we were on the bus with our group of Spaniards and off for Gredos.

When the program was over and we were back in Madrid, most of the Anglos met up in the evening to go out for tapas. Luckily we were hosted by Silvia, one of the Spaniards, who came with her husband Ivan. We met at the bear in the Puerta del Sol and they took us to a tapas bar in the beautiful Plaza Mayor. I had wandered over there earlier that afternoon and was struck with the size and beauty of the plaza, so it was nice to go back and spend some time at a table in the plaza, watching the Madrilenos go by while eating tripe and drinking beer (favored in Madrid over wine).

The next day I met up with Jack, Pauline, and Oscar at the Prado. I had very little time and the others were in no rush, so after a while I said goodbye to go off on my own. I had already seen Velazquez’s Las Meninas before I met my friends, but I wanted to see as many of the Goyas as I could before I had to leave. I don’t think the Prado is a user-friendly place, but I wasn’t shy and asked many guards and finally found the Goyas (which are actually spread out over several floors and two different buildings that are connected). I’m afraid I didn’t give them (or the museum in general) the time they deserved, but I did get to see the few I that had interested me, including most notably the two Majas (clothed and nude), The 3rd of May 1808 in Madrid, The Colossus, and his black paintings, with the Dog half-submerged being the one that struck me the most. It is amazing to me how his style and feel could change so much in his paintings, from what seem like carefree country scenes, to one of the strongest outcries against war and brutality.

There are many more paintings to see at the Prado, and many more Spaniards to meet and get to know, so I think I will have to go again. Maybe next year.