My new walking companion Maria sniffed apologetically and told me she was suffering from bad constipation.
I was a little perturbed. I know the Spaniards are outgoing and flamboyant, but I hadn’t expected her to share this much information. Then she sniffed again and told me the constipation was also making her sneeze. Ahh, she has a cold, I realized, and this is one of those linguistic twists where a word in one language has an unfortunate meaning in another.
Juan had already apologized for planning to molest us all, and nervous laughs gave way to guffaws when we remembered that the Spanish word ‘molestar’ translates into the far less provocative ‘annoy’ in English.
So Maria and I strolled on, chatting in English deep in the Spanish countryside. Later we’d tuck into a delicious lunch then enjoy a siesta before rehearsing for the evening’s entertainment. I was loving this routine at Vaughan Town, an amazing experience where English speakers can spend a week or more talking to Spaniards in return for free food, wine and a room in a gorgeous hotel.
It’s a simple concept, giving Spanish businessmen and students an intensive week of conversation about every conceivable subject with English speakers with eclectic accents from around the world.
The fun began with a tapas party in Madrid where I met all the other volunteers who have discovered this brilliant way of spending time in Spain on a shoestring. We ‘Anglos’ were a varied bunch, young and old, male and female, Irish, English, American, Canadian, a Swede, and me, a South African. For some it’s become a way of life, with one man there for his 17th time.
Vaughan Town runs courses in four villages, and I’d chosen Rascafria, an hour north of Madrid. Our hotel was a four-star Sheraton built around an impressive cobbled courtyard and attached to a monastery founded in 1390. Eight Benedictine monks still live there, and the Master Monk gives guided tours in such fast-tongued Spanish that even the natives struggle to keep up. Some of the cloisters display paintings from Madrid’s famous Prado art gallery, and I dropped in when my agenda showed free time.
Other free periods saw me in the gym to counteract the calorie overdose, or braving the freezing swimming pool, filled with water flowing down from the Guadarrama Mountains. Sometimes I couldn’t believe how much fun I was having, meeting fascinating people and eating delicious food in beautiful countryside – and not paying a cent to do it.
Our dual mistresses Julie and Carmen kept everything running to a strict schedule. Every hour each Anglo pairs up with a Spaniard to chat. It’s not always easy, since some of the younger degree students don’t have much to say for themselves.
Yet most conversations were intriguing and inspiring. Eva was a tiny pixie of a woman and a human rights lawyer working in some of the most dangerous countries in the world. She was in my group for a riotous game of truth or lies, when we each told two true things about ourselves and one lie. Eva’s tales were all so ludicrous they’d be blatant lies from anyone else, but with Eva, we reckoned they were all true. Yes, she had been kidnapped in Columbia, yes, she had eaten monkey, and while she hadn’t actually married a man in Ecuador to get him a Spanish passport, they had got as far as the engagement.
Jorge was another fascinating character, a retired bank CEO now studying English to support the next stage of his life as a consultant and philanthropist. He’s coming to South Africa to scout for worthy charities in January, so we’re planning a reunion.
Sometimes I felt more like a counsellor and encourager than a language brusher-upper. With Spain in recession and youth unemployment topping 50%, several were aiming to move overseas. We discussed the options and the pros and cons, the need to chase dreams and conquer fears.
In the evenings everyone takes part in the entertainment, like acting out comedy skits or watching Spaniards lisp through a Monte Python sketch. I gave a short talk about Johannesburg, and keeping it brief proved tricky with so much to tell people who have only heard about Mandela and the crime. I reminded them of the vuvuzela too, and got as many groans as laughs.
Dinner is served at 9pm, and the buffet allowed me to sample intriguing dishes like braised beef cheeks and squid cooked in squid ink without having to commit to a whole plateful of either. Wine flowed freely, conversation became more animated, and we ended up in the bar competing in a hilarious pub quiz.
Another night we celebrated the Galacian ritual of Queimada, gathering at 10pm in a dark and atmospheric courtyard. Julie, the master of ceremonies, handed out pointy witches hats and incanted a spell as she set alight a huge saucepan filled with three bottles of orujo, a wicked local liqueur. She added coffee beans and lemon peel, and ladled the flaming liquid up and down like a witch from Macbeth. Three of the men read the Conjuro, a call to the elements to purify the drink and share it with the souls of departed family and friends. It all felt very spooky, and as Julie ladled out the drink to each of us, one of the girls felt something brush against her foot. An enormous toad. I think there were some screams before the laughs.
Rascafria village is a gorgeous old place filled with quaint gabled houses, cobbled streets, a chocolate shop by the river and cafes spilling onto the pavements. I first walked there after lunch, when the whole place was closed for siesta. On the final night we walked to village again, and this time it was definitely open. We stopped at the chocolate shop first, sampling small chunks and chatting to the owner, finally giving me chance to practice some Spanish after a week of enforced English.
Then we took over a pavement bar and settled in with large beers, chilled wines and complementary tapas – juicy olives, spicy meatballs, potato croquettes, fried prawns and miniature spring rolls.
I could have stayed there all evening, surrounded by different voices telling different stories and a temperature still touching 30deg at 9pm. But dinner was waiting, and I had to speak for my supper.
How to get involved:
Vaughan Town runs courses throughout the year. English speakers apply online by detailing what you would bring to the conversation and choosing when you want to travel. It’s open to all ages, and no understanding of Spanish is necessary. In fact it’s positively frowned upon.
You pay your airfare to Madrid and for accommodation before or after. Vaughan Town drives you to your chosen village and pays for six nights of full board in a hotel. See http://volunteers.grupovaughan.com for details.
How to get there:
From Madrid airport the underground trains are easy to navigate to the Tetuán district where Vaughan Town is based. Several hotels are within walking distance, including the Infanta Mercedes, which I found on Booking.com. Don’t miss the opportunity to explore lively Madrid while you are there.