Spain: Conversations worth having

Originally published in the July 2013 issue of Lake & Sumter Style Magazine.  Photos by Tony & Mary Ann DeSantis.


Imagine my surprise when I checked out of a luxury resort in Spain after a week’s stay and the final bill was less than $2 — and that’s only because I had a bottle of water from the minibar.

I had become so immersed in my experience as a VaughanTown volunteer that I had forgotten my stay was in exchange for English conversation. When I first heard about VaughanTown, a program in Spain that pairs Anglo speakers with Spanish executives who want to become more fluent in English, I thought it was too good to be true. A week in a four-star resort just to talk seemed like an Internet myth.

After some online research and a face-to-face conversation with Fred Weldon of The Villages, who has volunteered with the program 27 times in the last nine years, I was convinced this “working” vacation could be an experience of a lifetime.

“It’s always interesting to meet the local people who have many stories to tell,” says Fred, who recently married a fellow volunteer he met at VaughanTown’s Gredos location in 2011. His wife, Ann, now lives in The Villages and, like her husband, plans to volunteer again in the future.

Fred’s enthusiasm for the program was contagious, so the next day my husband, Tony, and I sent our applications to volunteer in early May. We were a little worried about our Southern accents and lack of teaching credentials, but the program is not about teaching grammar. We quickly learned it is more about listening and exchanging information. And those Southern drawls? The Spaniards loved them.

Vaughan Systems, Spain’s largest language training firm, provides seated language classes to Spanish business executives from international companies, doctors, lawyers, and independent business owners. Founder Richard Vaughan recognized that students needed to understand a variety of accents — British, Canadian, U.S., Australian, Ireland, and yes, American Southern.

In 2001, the Texas-born Vaughan transformed an abandoned Spanish village into a secluded town where the official language was English. Today, Vaughan Systems hosts more than 70 VaughanTown programs around Spain each year, reaching about a 1,000 Spanish students annually who spend a week in total English immersion. The number of non-paid volunteers, known as “Anglos,” is slightly higher.

After meeting the other volunteers in Madrid, we boarded a bus on a Sunday morning for El Rancho de la Aldegüela in Torrecaballeros, a small town near Segovia. Each Spaniard had to sit with an Anglo, and the conversations began. My seatmate was a young businesswoman, Pilar Sanchez, who was leaving the following month for a nuclear energy meeting in China where the language of business is English.

The 9a.m.-to-9p.m. days — and sometimes even longer — were tiring, yet fulfilling. We had one-on-one meetings with each student followed by group activities. There were skits, mock conference calls, and formal presentations. Conversations, of course, began with polite questions about jobs, families, and hobbies. By the end of the week, we had firsthand knowledge about Spain’s economic situation, the royal family’s woes, foods we should try, and places to visit before we returned to the U.S.

It is hard to pick my favorite part of the program because every day offered something special. One of my best memories was exploring the picturesque city of Segovia in teams of four (two Spaniards, two Anglos) as part of a photo scavenger hunt. We were given a list of things to photograph and, luckily, Tony and I had Spanish teammates who knew the city and were able to guide us quickly through the list.

A beautiful country with magnificent art and cultures that rival other European destinations, Spain is still economical to visit. The VaughanTown experience did not offer much time to explore beyond El Rancho. After the program ended, however, we ventured with another couple to southern Spain where we rented a two-bedroom villa for less than $400 for the week. The day trips to Cordoba, Granada, and Cuenca were even more special because our VaughanTown acquaintances had given us tips for sightseeing and eating.

Getting to know the “locals” was priceless and an experience that many travelers usually do not have. Tears came to our eyes the night before we flew home when two VaughanTown students drove to our Madrid hotel to say goodbye in person. We believe, however, the farewells were only temporary. In this age of social media and Skype, we have made lasting friendships that will certainly take us back to Spain again and again.


 

My favorite VaughanTown moments in Spain:

  • Having a “Kafka moment” with Catalonian businessman Xavier Prats who described having Indian tea with a Southern belle in Spain as his “Kafka” moment. I’m still pondering that description, but nevertheless it was one of my most interesting conversations.
  • Walking to a pharmacy with VaughanTown student Dr. Fernando Sangüesa, who wanted to make sure I bought the right cold medicine. How many folks can say a doctor escorted them to the pharmacy?
  • Getting my picture made with a pig, the symbol of Segovia, as part of a photo scavenger hunt.
  • Discovering VaughanTown student Manel Santisteban is a well-known musical composer who has written numerous scores for Spanish movies.
  • Pretending I was a GreenPeace executive during a mock conference call with several VaughanTown students.
  • Eating the Iberian ham, roast pork, tapas and the cold Salmorejo soup. Come to think of it, eating was a highlight every day.

Visit www.volunteers.grupovaughan.com/vaughantown for more information about VaughanTown.


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