Four hours north of Madrid, Valdelavilla, a Medieval-style hamlet in the little-visited Soria province, definitely isn’t for everyone. Two- and three-story stone buildings house the accommodations that are simply furnished sans radio or air conditioning. Steep staircases, low wood beam ceilings, and irregular floors all define the rustic cottages. The bars on any cell phone are pretty much nonexistent and connection to WiFi is a slow-mo endeavor. Huddled within the forested valley in the limestone Tierras Altas Mountains, this hamlet was abandoned for decades before being repurposed and restored as a venue for rural tourism. Cobbled lanes connect the cluster of rugged buildings, including the largest that serves as the restaurant and bar. You won’t find a bank, post office, coffee shop, bookstore, or movie theater. In fact, when a new Anglo arrival looked around and asked, “Where’s the shopping?” we all knew her stay would be an uncomfortable one. The only way in or out is a serpentine road or a rugged dirt path that leads to other tiny, mostly abandoned, hamlets. The isolation is particularly keen at night where the only sounds are the rustling of the pines.
And yet, this is the idyllic setting I chose to teach conversational English to a group of adult Spaniards. The volunteer program, run by Vaughan Systems, brings together native English speaking volunteers from around the world with mostly business men and women but also college-age students with intermediate English language skills. Rather than a classroom experience, we make good use of the natural environment. Walking the dirt roads and paths thick with pine, oak and eucalyptus with our Spanish partner gives us the opportunity to chat about myriad topics, from American politics and the European economic crisis, to global warming, summer vacations, and the education system. No topic is off limits as long as our Spanish partners have abundant time to speak and listen to English from a native speaker.
Some of the volunteers find it difficult to come up with interesting discussion topics. But, I come equipped with a sure conversation starter: my JCreatures™ t-shirts that I designed. Each t-shirts has an image that reflects a different emotion or state of mind — like emoticons, of sorts. The first time one of my conversation partners saw the Happy JCreatures™ t-shirt, we discussed what foods put a smile on their face, do they feel happier in the summer or winter, and what travel destination gives them a sense of profound pleasure. For me, revisiting Reykjavik, one of my favorite cities, or finding a scenic bicycle path in Sylt, a German island in the North Sea, all are reasons to wear the Happy JCreatures™ t-shirt.
Our mornings are mostly spent in what I call musical chairs, without the chair. Every hour we rotate Spanish partners to converse with. There are exercises where we do role playing on the phone – it’s much more difficult understanding English on the phone vs. in person — so that I might play someone working in Human Resources while my partner is a job applicant. The afternoons involve an array of group activities, including learning dialogue for theatrical skits.
Knowing that anyone learning conversational English has a problem with idioms, phrasal verbs and prepositions, I often wear the Frustrated JCreatures™ t-shirt to reflect how they must feel as they struggle through learning these. We also might discuss what makes me frustrated when I travel, such as missing a ferry to an island in Croatia, or being unable to get a dinner reservation at a new restaurant in Lisbon. But, then again, I also pull out the Frustrated JCreatures™ t-shirt when my partner is late for a meeting.
I usually reserve wearing the Sad JCreatures™ t-shirt for my last day in Valdelavilla. After spending seven full days talking about our live and loves from breakfast to way past dinner time (though dinner in Spain is rarely before 9pm), it’s difficult to say good-bye to my new-found Spanish friends and to the bucolic environment. No wonder so many volunteers, like myself, return year after year to this isolated hamlet where you can always depend on life following a very simple and comfortable rhythm.
Guest Author: Jeanine Baronea, a native New Yorker, is a travel and food writer, designer, inventor and entrepreneur. As a travel writer, she specializes in hidden treasure travel, hunting down the little known café, the under-the-radar museum or the just opened underground art gallery. Her work appears in dozens of publications, from National Geographic Traveler to the Boston Globe. Her own travel blog is also filled with travel tips and amazing stories!