Who’d have thought that being a native English speaker could get you a free trip to Spain? Not me.
But thanks to a little research I discovered a program that does just that, called Diverbo. They set up weekly English Immersion experiences between “Anglos” (native speakers) and Spaniards in quaint Spanish towns almost all year. Read on as I breakdown my memorable one week as an English speaking volunteer with Diverbo.
Picturesque La Alberca, Spain
About a year ago scrolling through the site workaway.info I stumbled onto the Diverbo one week English Immersion programs in both Germany and Spain. It seemed fascinating to me to get a free trip (all lodging and food) just to talk English with eager students. But I didn’t have the time.
Fast forward to this past May and I knew that I was going to do a 6-week trip to Europe. My friend mentioned visiting him in Valencia, Spain and then my mind clicked back to this program. I figured why not apply before I go see him. I filled out an application on their site for two different weeks in July. Around 10-days later I received an email I was accepted and assigned the week of 07/06-07/13 to participate.
The program runs from Friday to Friday (7 nights) and begins with a morning bus pick-up from Madrid. Generally, there are an even amount of English speaking volunteers and Spanish students (we had 18 Anglos and 16 Spaniards). The goal of the week is to participate in various activities that involve speaking English. For hours. Many hours. I’ll break that down in a bit.
Back to the bus, the volunteers and Spanish students are taken 3.5 hours west to La Alberca, Spain. The exact location varies by week, but I was put into the rather pleasant Dona Teresa hotel. I was given a my own room with a private garden. Curious what’s included for the volunteers?
Hotel Dona Teresa; my lodging for the week.
The following were included as part of the program to all the volunteers:
1) A room at the Hotel (everyone got singles who requested one).
2) Three meals a day (BIG ones).
3) Transportation to and from the hotel on an air-conditioned bus.
4) A tour of the city, and other surprises throughout the week.
Ready to see what a day was like in the program? I’m going to go back to the day-in-a-life style that I used for my blog on Spanish Language School in Guanjuato, Mexico to paint you a picture of exactly what is involved.
Ding. Ding. Ding. My alarm goes off on my Iphone. I have set it for just about the latest possible moment that I can get away with. I hurry to get dressed, brush my teeth, and of course put on sun-tan lotion. Before leaving my 1st-floor room I make sure to grab my name-tag. It’s the last time I will be in my room until the afternoon.
I head downstairs into the bar/lounge area that precedes the dining room. I say hello to fellow program participants, both Students and Anglos. There is a bit of a nervous energy going around as some students are doing last minute preparation for their oral presentation (in English of course). All spanish students are required to give a five-minute presentation on the topic of their choice. Today is the first of two-days where they will give them to an audience of participants.
Part of the breakfast buffet.
At 9:00 am sharp, the dining room opens and all 34 of us scatter in and find seats at the various tables. Each table must have two Anglos and two Spaniards sitting at them. I put my name tag down and walk toward the Buffet. A good morning Alan is passed between me and Alyn from the U.K. (a running joke throughout the week). I take my usual eggs, yogurt, and fruit. Many of the students attack the ham, which the region of Salamanca is quite well known for in Spain.
Back at my table I am seated with Amie, ironically another New Yorker. She is a life-coach and stopping through Spain before heading to Sweden. The two Spaniards are Laura, a computer programmer and Ramon, a gym teacher. The conversations vary from the usual pleasantries, to preparing for their presentations and even a discussion on the park behind Laura’s home in Madrid where you can feed pigs asparagus. The key is that we freely converse in English for the Spaniards to have as much immersion time as possible.
I’m two cups of coffee in and ready to get rolling with the days activities.
The Morning schedule.
Right around 10:00 AM every day, Jason, our Program Director, posts the morning schedule on the door leading outside. It can be amusing to see both the Anglos and Students taking photos of it so they don’t forget who they are supposed to meet with or what words they need to go over.
Generally, you start the day with one-to-one chats. This is the bread and butter of the program. You have one hour to spend talking about whatever you’d like (in English). It is always between an Anglo and a Spaniard and I am assigned Tatiana. We meet up by the door and head into town.
The beauty of the location of the Dona Teresa hotel is that it is a less than 5-minute walk into the quaint village of La Alberca. It has National Historic Heritage status and provides an amazing backdrop to the English Immersion process.
One of the beautiful streets of La Alberca, Spain.
Tatiana and I begin our walk by going over the only required topic of conversation, a quick grammar explanation. Each hour you are assigned a phrasal verb and Idiom to go over. For the Anglos they come as second nature, but for the Spaniards they don’t always make sense. The phrasal verb is “Take Over”, which I explain means to take control with some examples (take over the world anyone?). Then we go into the Idiom, “Sit on the Fence”. I always knew it as to be on the fence. Still it means the be undecided or unsure of a decision. After clearing up the definitions we just go into regular conversation.
Tatiana is one of the younger Spaniard participants at 24-years-old. She came with her boyfriend Fernando to the program from the town of Soria, Spain. Tatiana is studying Bio-energy and tells me why it is a good field to go into in her hometown. Our conversation shifts to me growing up In New Jersey, and how the Jersey Shore is back on the air. I find out that Spain has its own version! Its called GandÍa Shore.You learn something new every day.
One of the many streets leading through La, Alberca.
We loop through the town center a few times and Tatiana brings up how she spent time in Oregon, with a friend of her father who created a runners app. I mention how I know the University of Oregon has a history of great track programs. She then shares that her father was a four-time Olympic Distance runner and had won the London Marathon. Sometimes It amazes me how much information can be shared in just a one-hour walk.
GROUP PRESENTATION PARTICIPANT
I am assigned to be a group participant for the first-round of student presentations. We all gather in the meeting room and sit as the students get ready to present one-by-one. Paul, our entertainment director, is in charge of running the presentations and evaluating the students. They have had a few days to prepare, and today is one of two-days that the students will present to small groups.
Leading off is Ramon, the gym teacher. He gives an interactive demonstration how he teaches his young students to use their non-dominant hand. We all sit in a circle and pass an orange around with our non-dominant side (I use my left). In the process, we have to try to keep it hidden from someone in the center. It is like returning to first grade and pretty amusing and insightful.
Ramon and I during our one-to-one.
Next up is Nekane. She is a grade school teacher from San Sebastian, Spain. Her discussion goes into the merits of sending your child to the USA in an exchange program. She raves about her daughters experience in Ohio and the cultural benefits of doing it.
A few more presentations follow that cover: the health benefits of EFT tapping, the life of a Zombie (hilarious) and how Isostatic beams can be used to rebuild the Eiffel Tower. (Of course by an Engineer).
Students and Anglos both are encouraged to ask questions after each presentation, which keeps the presenters on their toes. Finally, Paul gives a quick evaluation on some of the English that could be corrected. I would say by and far the students are very prepared and present with a fearlessness that impressed me.
I return to the hotel and meet up with my Maria-Jesus for a one-to-one session. The sun is starting to get strong so we decide to head to the main plaza to sit in the shade and have a drink.
Antonio chilling in the main plaza.
En route we pass by a large brown pig who is roaming freely. His name is Antonio. Every year a different pig is given the title of Antonio and let loose in the city. He will eventually be given to a villager who will determine his fate (sadly it usually means being turned into food). We snap the obligatory photo. He strikes me as a hipster sporting a nose ring.
Maria-Jesus and I settle at a table overlooking the plaza and order cokes. She works as an Attorney in Madrid and her company has sponsored her Diverbo trip. We talk about her job a bit and the travel involved. She mainly works with Spanish Infastructure and handling the legalities of its implementation. Maria-Jesus has went to Peru for her work, and we talk about Lima and other cities I have visited. At one point a little English grammar lesson spurns from our chat. I explain the difference between pear, pair, and pier. Who’d have thought English can so confusing??
Me, Amie, and Maria-Jesus relaxing after our tour of La Alberca the day before.
Every day at 1:00 PM we gather for group discussions. In groups of two Anglos and two Spaniards we are given a sheet of paper with suggested topics. They vary from the abstract: “Mankind’s ultimate downfall will be a result of our short-sigtedness” to “How should the facts of life” be explained. We don’t touch that topic.
Anglos and Spaniards sitting on the terrace outside the hotel engaging in the group discussions.
One of my favorite topics is: “If you were allowed too trespass into one normally off-limits location, where would you go?”. Answers at the table varied from the Roman Coliseum to celebrities homes to Yankee Stadium (my reply of course). Other conversations we partake in include: “how would you capture planet earth in just 24-pictures” to “how old would you be if you didn’t know how old you are” (this is still stumping me..). Another hour is in the books with plenty of insightful conversation from Anglos and Spaniards alike. Time for Lunch.
Lunch and Dinner Menu
Every evening we have to order the next day’s meals. Usually we have to pick from two choices for a first course, two for the main course and also desert. I don’t think a single meal I left feeling hungry. You get LOTS of food.
I learned early that the fish dishes were the best (in my opinion). For lunch I went with the Endive and Roquefort salad along with grilled Hake in green sauce. The food sounds fancier than it tasted. All though by and far it was good.
The Endive and Roquefort Salad.
During lunch I am seated with Paul. He is the entertainment & activity director for the week. Originally from the northern U.K., he left a career in finance to become an English teacher in Spain as well as a program & entertainment director with Diverbo. We talk about teaching English in Spain (it can pay surprisingly well) as well as different neighborhoods in Madrid for me to check out when I return on Friday.
Making the rounds at the end of the meal is Jason. He is seeing if anyone is interested in going to the other Diverbo hotel (which is hosting a teen camp this week) to go to the pool. While the offer is enticing, the idea of being around screaming kids during my “siesta” time is a hard pass. Finally after Paul clanks his wine glass and saying a few words to the group we are free until 5:00 PM. I race to my room to take advantage of the 1.5 hour “siesta”.
My room (shockingly clean)
The private garden outside.
I make it back to my room and collapse on the bed for some much needed chill time. A few emails are checked and I work on booking a train from Madrid to Valencia (my next destination). I squeeze in a quick shower before a 30-minute power nap. Soon my alarm is going off at 4:50 PM and I’m back at it again.
I head out of the main hotel down the street to the meeting room. This is where all the group activities as well as theater hour take place (more on that soon). We are all seated and await a few stragglers. The group activity varies by the day. For instance, on Tuesday we had to come up with a two-minute commercial pitch to present. During another we create a board-game and let the other groups play it.
Paul announces we are going to break into groups of 5-6 and do a photo scavenger hunt. This involves taking a sheet with directions of different kinds of photos to snap. Most situations are pretty humorous. The first one to finish wins.
Our group has three spaniards and two Anglos. Tony is the other Anglo representative, hailing from Chichester, U.K. He is retired and his voice reminds me of Aflred from the Batman series. Soon we jump into some silly photos. I’ll include a few below:
Everyone balance on your leg.
Punch someone (lucky me).
Take a siesta.
We must have snapped 15 photos or so before the photo scavenger hunt is over. Alas, we did not win. But the photos shall live on. At the end of the hour Paul announces for everyone to head to the afternoon one-on-one sessions. Except.. if you were assigned to Theater Prep. Gulp….
My big mistake was speaking. You see the day before during the commercial group activity, Paul was impressed with my radio-like delivery of our pitch (A La Alberca find the pig mobile app!).
I was approached at the end of my first one-on-one to see if I’d be interested in participating in that night’s theater sketch. He mentioned I’d be perfect as the Director of a wedding scene. As I am a good sport I accepted. I wasn’t really sure what I was getting myself into.
Flash forward to 6 pm and it is just five of us left. The group consists of two Spaniards, Fernando & Christina who will play a groom and bride walking down the aisle. Alex, a Texan who teaches English in Madrid, will be a pregnant woman in the audience. Bill, a retired American who lives in New Mexico will be the priest. That leaves just me as the Director.
Future Steven Spielberg?
My job is to first sit back in the audience and let the scene play out. The premise is that the bride and groom almost get married. Then suddenly the pregnant woman jumps up and says the groom is the father of her baby. This stuns the audience and the bride as she storms out. I am to then suddenly jump out of my chair and say “Cut, cut that was awful”. I then go into different versions of the same scene that they will act out. This includes a Telenovela and Quentin Tarantino style scene.
I admit, I am a little nervous/hesitant to take on this persona. But after a few rounds of practice I feel like I get into the flow of things. The group is supportive, and its great to see the Spanish “actors” using their English to really get into character. We set the chairs up to mimic an actual wedding ceremony. Here comes the bride is put into que. It is almost show-time. But first we do what any amateur actors on a vacation would. Go to the bar and have a pre-show drink.
The program participants file into the room and are greeted by the Groom and Priest on arrival. They are all seated and I am a spy amongst them. I wear my hat and sunglasses on my shirt, but hide my director clapperboard under my chair. I even casually engage other Students and Anglos so they think im in the Audience. Eventually the wedding procession begins and the scene plays out. Many laughs are shared and I think I do a solid job jumping into the scene as the Director. We eventually play the scene out three times, before my final instruction is to try the whole thing like the T.V. show Friends. The actors are finally fed up and storm off with me left alone in front of the group with the clapperboard. I am pleased with my return to “the stage”.
The “pregnant” actress enjoying a pre-show drink.
Afterwards, we all sit back down and are treated to a few more presentations. Tony and Amie co-read a poem to everyone. Then both Paul and Jason perform a few magic tricks. Paul’s involves reading the mind of the room and guessing what number is touched on a large sheet of paper (still not sure how he did it). It’s time for dinner.
Course One- Vegetable Soup.
Course two- Grilled Seabass.
After a few hours of practicing and performing I am ready to eat. Each table always offers both white and red wine, and I quickly enjoy a glass of white. If you want more premium items (Beer, other wine, etc) you can buy it at the bar as well.
Sitting with me at the table is Dee, whose husband Bill played the Priest during our theater sketch. She is a chatty and sweet great-grandmother that learned about the program thanks to a presentation given at her Senior Center in New Mexico. I find out she has been on six different Diverbo programs. To my astonishment, some of the Anglos have done close to ten trips! Dee and Bill are big travelers and enjoy participating together. I hope my travel spirit is still as alive and well when I reach my golden years.
The Vegetable Soup and Seabass entrees are quite tasty. All though, I would say my favorite meal of the week was the Salmon stuffed with veggies served two nights earlier. The lights go down for a few moments as the chef brings out a Flambe and lights it in front of everyone. I indulge in a piece along with a little coffee.
Paul mentions a card game will be taking place after dinner by the Bar. A few people talk about going to a bar in town for a drink. It is 10:30 PM and I am exhausted. I enjoyed a few late nights earlier in the week, but decide the best course of action is an early night’s rest. After all, another long day awaits me tomorrow. I quickly go to the menu and select my food choices for Thursday and head to my room. Chill time on the computer quickly leads to me passing out by 11:00 PM.
My certificate I received for 100 hours of of volunteer service.
On the final Friday afternoon all the participants received a certificate for completing the week. It felt like a graduation ceremony, and in a way it was. The Spaniards all came in very tentative and hesitant to speak English. However, after a week of non-stop talking and making new friendships you could see their confidence and conversational skills improving. To me they are the real stars of the program.
We all returned back to Madrid on that Friday and said our good byes. Many I will keep in touch with over Facebook, Whatsapp, etc. A few Spaniards even offered to do English/Spanish exchange with me over Skype! The connection and new friendship potential from the week-long immersion is great.
As I now reflect back on my one week with Diverbo – I am glad that I did it. While it can be intensive and super structured at times, the group and team dynamics of many of the activities helped build a bit of confidence in myself. It’s also great to give back and help others speak a language that comes so naturally to me.
I’d recommend the program to extroverted (or motivated introverted) people who want to have a fun and surprisingly insightful week speaking non-stop English in Spain. Tell me in the comments if you think you’d do this in the future?