A valuable and unusual week in our travels almost got lost in the commotion between house sitting in Cantabria, Spain, and our return to the States. It was very simple: we spent a week in Segovia, talking. For 15-16 hours a day for six days in early February we conversed in English with Spanish adults who were in the midst of a 5-month English program at the Vaughan Systems school in Madrid. One week of the Vaughan program is a retreat (in our case, held at Hotel El Rancho in the small town of Torrecaballeros near Segovia) for intensive talking and listening to native English speakers.
That’s where we came in. We were among the ‘Anglos,’ a volunteer group designed to match up one-to one with the Spanish students. Our batch of volunteers consisted of five Americans (one Texan, one Korean-American from Atlanta, one Californian, and Tom and me), three Irish, one Welsh, one South African by way of New Zealand and Scotland, and four from England. Two more Spaniards filled in as native English speakers, contributing their fluent, though accented, English. Our program was led by Vaughan employees Daryl of Chinese descent from Singapore, and Carlota of Spain. The hodgepodge of accents among the Anglos made it difficult for me to catch everything being said, so you can imagine what a challenge we presented to the Spanish.
While we were threatened with public hanging if we spoke Spanish, we were at least able to talk to a bunch of great (and well-educated) people about the state of affairs in Spain. This was our motivation, and also a relief for us to make a couple dozen new friends immediately.
Just talking in your native tongue for a few days doesn’t seem so demanding. But once you’ve run through six to eight “one-on-one” hour-long chats a day, intermixed with meal conversations, word games, and miscellaneous howdy-dos, everyone is bound to tire. No, please, not another one-on-one! Please don’t ask me where I’m from!
As the week wore on, I tried to whittle down my own talk time by asking more and more questions. Then I could just sit back for a listen. This group of professionals could talk about anything. I had discussions about the bribery scandal coursing through the top tiers of government. We talked about soccer, regionalism in Spain, architecture, sales management, top restaurants in Madrid, hotels in Asturias, women in law and business; about families and children and daily routines, universal slang words and idioms, international business models, education, media (from the venerable El Pais to the Spanish version of Huffington Post); about olive oil, skiing in the Pyrenees, cooking in the north and dancing in the south.
If there is anything better than a firsthand account, it’s more than a dozen firsthand accounts. Spain is in the news a lot these days, with the economic crisis and unemployment commanding the headlines. Friends visiting Spain for the first time last year, wondered ‘what crisis?’ when they saw people out having drinks in the evening. One Anglo in our program marveled at the lack of garbage on the streets of Madrid. (Really? That was your impression of Spain?)
For their part, our Spanish students wanted to know why we were there volunteering. That’s a simple question with a variety of answers. For Anglos who flew to Madrid specifically for this week, it was a chance to get out of the rain, to escape a boring marriage, to travel, or to be alone in the midst of others.
In our case, the room and board for a week was nice, but the prize experience was just listening. Spain’s a complex country in a complicated era. Getting to know Spain, like any other destination, only comes about through conversations – with real people.
My friend Jeannine Ouellette quoted this passage from Sing Me the Creation by Paul Matthews in her post titled “The Necessity of Absolute Rubbish.” Although it is about the inhibitions that stunt our writing, it took me back to Segovia. The idea can be applied equally to learning a language or encountering a new friend or culture.
…taken to an extreme this insistence [that language be properly constructed and a tool for meaning] can crush all life and play out of the language, so that writing and speaking must always be the expression of what we know already, not the result of listening, not the discovery of what moves here in the moment. Thus our word-hoard gradually gets locked up inside us, our true voice stifled.