Get to know the locals in Europe during your visit? Fat chance. Most of us vacationing abroad can interact only with taxi drivers, waiters, shop assistants and hotel clerks — not much chance to form meaningful relationships there. But I’ve spent several visits forming deep friendships with folks I never knew before, thanks to a pair of similar programs that invite English-speakers to spend a week with native professionals, speaking English 24/7 in a resort setting, where — get this! — lodging and meals are free. The only thing you have to do is get yourself to the departure city: Madrid, Warsaw or whatever. And be gregarious.
No Textbooks Required
In Spain, the program is called Diverbo. In Eastern Europe, it’s Angloville; both operate year-round. We Anglophones ranged in age from 22 to 82 (most are retirees), coming not only from America, but also Ireland, Australia and England, to assure that locals learn to interact with a variety of accents.
Locals run the gamut, too. Most are mid-level managers who need practice in listening and speaking in order to advance in their jobs, which have ranged from architect to IT security and solar energy engineers, Volkswagen and Pepsi execs, a magazine editor, the owner of a hair salon, an event planner and a former government minister. They’ve all mastered textbook English but are terrified to carry on actual conversations, much less employ idioms and slang. No textbooks are used here, no grammar drills — simply talk, talk, talk — and have fun.
Conversations about Anything and Everything
Meals are served at tables of four (two locals, two Anglos). After breakfast, we plunge into a series of one-on-ones: hour-long sessions pairing two participants. After discussing the verb phrase of the hour (hang on vs. hang out vs. hang in) and an idiom (“I’m all ears”), we’re free to have a coffee or relax in the lounge while chatting about anything and everything.
Conversations quickly make the leap from “Where do you live/What’s your job?” to politics, religion, abortion — and those are merely the safe topics. Anna shared her feelings about being a professional woman in a man’s world; Pablo, about his new baby. Jose agonized over the Afghan war and the economy, and Luisa about raising a rebellious 14-year-old daughter. Antonio, when he learned I was from Minnesota, shouted “Teemberwolves!” while leaping from his chair with a bucket shot demo and a high-five.
Once a day, two-on-twos are scheduled. Suggested topics — always controversial — included “English should be the universal language” and “Families should not have more than one child.”
Creative Group Assignments
After lunch, a siesta from 3 to 5 p.m. — the only free time of the day. In Spain, I’d walk into the tiny Spanish town of La Alberca to marvel at its half-timber houses, their stone lintels carved with dates from the 1700s; or in Romania to Dracula’s castle rising from a nearby hamlet. Others would snooze or hit the Internet.
At five, we reassembled for a group activity. Divided into groups, we worked together to complete a creative (and competitive) assignment to present to the others, such as arriving at three questions to ask God; formulating a marketing campaign for a new perfume or how to enact a fairytale in mime.
More one-on-ones until theater time, when, after an hour of rehearsal, groups would present hilarious skits, which the staff program director had lifted from Monty Python or Saturday Night Live, complete with outrageous costumes from the prop box. Finally, dinner: always a choice of two appetizers and two entrees plus dessert. Then word games, the sillier the better (Ever try to mime the word ‘mustard’? Or ‘tarantula’?). Finally, optional bar time (Polish beer was $2, vodka shots $1, so the tab didn’t pinch) and/or a dance party or show, such as the night each nationality was asked to sing a group song. Our lame choice was “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.”
Thinking on Their Feet
As the week wore on, the locals loosened up. But their language challenges became more complex when telephone conversations were added to the mix in order to negate the clues of body language. First, a one-on-one from adjoining rooms, in one of which I posed as a celebrity’s press agent trying to fend off the local who posed as a journalist trying to snag an interview.
Later in the week, we progressed to a conference call involving one Anglo and three locals. During one of these “real-life” scenarios, I played the role of the exec with an American company considering opening a restaurant in Madrid, conversing with a team of three Spaniards as “experts” — a banker, a lawyer and a designer — whom I quizzed on the merits of the project. These exercises were guaranteed to drive home the day’s idiom: Think on your feet.
Each local needed to prepare an individual presentation on the topic of his or her choice for the final day with the help of an Anglo mentor. In Poland, Oksanna taught us about Ukrainian cooking; health-care professional Monika gave a Powerpoint talk on the substandard ultrasound equipment used in Polish hospitals; Marta explained the challenges of mountain climbing and Sonia prepared a mock job interview. In Romania, several of the women related accounts of participating in the Occupy movement that drive corrupt politicians out of office. We Anglos helped with nuances, correcting their “I am exciting to meet you;” “I come from a short family” (i.e., “small”) and “roads like Switzerland cheese.”
Finally, a graduation ceremony for the locals and a lot of hugging and kissing (once on each cheek) for everyone as we exchanged email addresses, set up a Facebook page to keep in contact and said fond goodbyes. Was the experience challenging? For sure. Was it worth it? For sure, again. Can’t wait to go back.
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