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Volunteering in Salamanca with Pueblo Ingles, Spain


My volunteering experience with Pueblo Ingles

I was so excited this morning as I felt I was going off to camp for the next week! We left the hostel and met at the bus meeting point in Madrid and had a chance to chat with a few Spaniards as well as Anglos. The bus was much more than I expected with plasma TV screens and beautiful leather seats. This was a hint of good things to come. The total trip was 4 hours with several stops along the way. As always in just a few minutes I had half the bus talking about food. I told five wide eyed Spaniards about how to make French Toast (with Baileys, they got a kick out of that). They also told me about many Spanish dishes such as Cocido (garbanzo beans, chorizo sausage and veggies which make up a sweet salad). I sat beside a very nice young lady who works for a Swedish oil company. Adjacent to me was a beautiful women I am sure is a model or could be at least. She works for Pfizer and sells baby medicine. All of the Spaniards are well to do working for major companies, the government or doctors and lawyers in private practice.

First we passed by Franco, or his remains which are buried on the side of a mountain in full view from the highway. He is buried under a huge cross the size of an apartment building. I was told he was a horrible leader (dictator) and the people hated him but he built this monument for himself with the help of those inmates in the Madrid prison system. The entire trip was breathtaking. Luckily our bus had huge windows and we could just gawk at the panoramic views of the mountains, farms and small villages as we drove north. It seems that I fit in well here as I am so animated and can’t stop talking. I have already been labelled as the food guy as I talked about cooking for the entire 4 hour trip. Our first stop was at Avila a medieval city and declared a UNESCO World Heritage site a few years ago. It is a huge walled castle village with 88 towers and a 2 km circumference. The town has a food speciality called Yemas which are sugar coated egg yolks!

Our second stop was Salamanca where we now were experiencing 28 degree weather. The city has a huge Cathedral on a hill and we stopped for lunch here for sandwiches. The Spanish love their mayonnaise that’s all I have to say. I had 3 varieties: chicken salad with grapes, bacon and manchego, and Spanish ham and walnut.

We arrived at our beautiful resort called Complejo Rural Abadia de los Templarrios. We arrived to a standing ovation from last week’s group who were just about to leave. They seemed so enthused and you could tell they were all best friends as they hugged each other and a few even cried! There are a total of 24 houses each with a top and bottom floor. Accommodation is set up so that the Anglo is on the bottom and Spaniard is on the top. My jaw dropped when I entered the front door. I have never ever been to such a nice place in my life, and I have been to some nice places! Marble floors, marble counter tops, leather sofas and a plasma screen TV. The first room is a kitchen and lounge and then I walked into my room which had two single beds, a vanity and beautiful antique dresser and my very own granite washroom! I first unpacked and figured out how to turn on my room’s air conditioner. I jumped into the shower and had a great cool soak. There was a huge welcome basket on the counter with everything from the typical shampoo to razor, toothbrush and sensitive skin polishing cloth! This next week is going to be divine.

We met at 5pm to have a big first group ice breaker meeting to introduce ourselves. We each stood up and told the group our name, where we are from and an interesting trait about ourselves. Our group is made of the Cream of the Crop from Spain as they say: Professional bowler, 8 employees from Vodafone (the worlds largest phone company), government officials, an ambassador, an employee from the worlds largest steel company, a quality control employee for a large Madrid based construction company and the CEO of Iberia airlines. My heart broke for some of these Spaniards. Some of them are absolutely terrified to be here. The location is lovely but in the business world today, especially in the European Union it is essential that employees speak English in order to advance in a merged or up and coming company. Many of the Spaniards here are sent from work to learn English and they feel great pressure to learn quickly in order to impress their bosses and advance in the company (or avoid being fired). One lady almost cried as she has left her family for a week to be here and is terrified to speak English for a week solid.

The philosophy of the company and teaching method was explained to us today. Their strong belief is the Spaniards can learn English in one week faster and better than they can at an English school. English teachers tend to teach slowly, using old English. There are such a mix of Anglos here from Hawaii to Texas, Washington, Alberta, Toronto, New Mexico, London and Glasgow! So many different accents really create a challenging atmosphere for the Spaniards. But this is what they need, in the workplace they will be experiencing so many different accents, this is the practical real world experience they need that they can’t find in a classroom. I stuck out as a sore thumb instantly. As you all know I talk a mile a minute and when I had to introduce myself I think I put the Spaniards in shock (even though I consciously tried to speak slowly). I have become the joke person in the group as the Spaniards love to pretend I am impossible to understand. The following is a real quote,

The leader joked to a Spaniard who said they were scared they wouldn’t really pick up any English during the week by saying “you’re first one on one, will be Andrew”. She responded “Is that Chinese torture.” The entire room was in an uproar with laughter. It seems that my personality is somewhat infectious like the bubonic plague. As I walked into the dining room for dinner to find a table I actually had a line up of Spaniards who wanted to sit with me. They think I am the funniest and fastest speaker of English on this side of Baghdad!

The main reception desk is elegant and looks out onto a large communal dining room and bar. Every meal we get to choose one of two options (I always love options as you all know). Wine is served at lunch and dinner, and all meals are 3 courses. I feel like I am yet again on an all you can eat Cruise eating binge. We sat down to a huge basket of locally made pastries and bread as well as a large carafe of red wine!

Dinner:
1st course: Summer Spanish Salad, corn, pine nuts and jamon serrano.
2nd course, Iberian Pork Sirloin with potatoes and almond sauce (Solomillo de Cerdo Ibercio con Salsa de Almendras).
Dessert: Custard with cookie and chocolate

After the meal the entire group drinks wine, chats and laughs until 2am or later. I went to bed at 1am after a bit of dancing and Canadian joke telling. I woke up at 7am from a horrible Charlie Horse in my left leg. I basically got right up and walked around the grounds taking pictures as the sun rose. This place is stunningly beautiful…mountains all around, birds and great people for company. I had the best breakfast today as I have been eating as a backpacker for weeks. Three kinds of croissants, fried eggs, tea and coffee, fresh squeezed juices, 8 plates of Spanish cold cuts, toast, muffins, yoghurt, tortilla and cheese. I had three plates full of this stuff, I expect it only gets better!

I had my first one on one today with Antony. He is a very good English speaking owner of Spain’s largest media and advertising firm. He has worked with Almondovar my favourite Spanish director who filmed Talk to Her and All about My Mother (who has been nominated for many many Oscars and film awards and is known for making Penelope Cruz famous). It is so much fun to just chat with fascinating successful business people such as Antony. He has been to 4 sessions thus far and speaks very good English. I expect he is a multi million dollar man as he told me he sold his company and moved to Costa Rica for 5 years to live like a King and relax. I had a 2 hour Free Time break with Helen after that so we put on Cocoa Butter tanning lotion that makes you smell like a tanning chocolate truffle and joked around. We constantly joke about sustainability as she is a hardcore tourism major and specializes her research on the sustainability of the London Olympics. Today we were having a gaff at the sustainability of using the local resources such as the grass outside to tan our white bodies. It is amazing how many little words I have learned from other Anglos. My favourite UK words thus far are: Minger which means ugly. Minging which means disgusting. Bogging which means dirty. Eejit which means idiot. Front bottom and a tommy tank.

Today for lunch we had white beans and sausage for our first course and pollo asado con patatas cerilla for our main with fried milk with cinnamon for dessert. Our dinner was white asparagus salad for our first and Spainish Omelette (tortilla) with tomato sauce for our second with Cuajada a sour creamed Spanish dessert. During lunch I talked to the Spaniard’s about their Christmas food traditions. The Spanish Christmas is most important during New Years Eve rather than Christmas day. The typical meal consists of fish soup, croquettes and small roasted suckling pigs. At dinner I sat beside a lovely lady who I think is around 70 years old. We share a great common ground with a love for film. She worked in the film industry for years in Ireland! She planned premiers and organized special treatment for celebrities as well as the more technical details like editing of films and trailers. I talked to her for the entire meal about my favorite films and can’t wait to keep in contact with her during the year to check up on her suggestions. A new specialty table has asserted itself during meals which we now fondly call the Practical Meeting table. All the Spaniards at this table want to learn every English word possible to do with sex. It was a hilarious time to say the least as different terms from Scotland, Ireland, England, Canada and America were being written down as quickly as possible by many of the Spanish counterparts.

The evening got messy, I became the clown of the evening and the Spaniards just kept on buying me more and more drinks. We all woke up in the morning looking like a train wreck. Helen and I have sworn off drinking any bevy for the day. A little vody for your body is no more. This morning I had my one on one with the president of Iberia Airline. It truly is amazing at how accomplished these Spaniards are and how quickly I have made friends with possible future employers, wink wink. I then had a one on one with Esther a beautiful Spanish super model from Barcelona, I kid you not I have a supermodel friend. There is a very creepy Texan man here named Kevin who terrifies everyone in the group. He looks as though he could potentially be a serial killer with his beedy little shifty eyes. Esther confided in me about how he sits beside her all the time and stares at her which she doesn’t like so much. I took this opportunity to practically teach her what the word awkward means. We had a good laugh and now she feels she can better handle herself around the creepo from Dallas. Before lunch I had my first phone conversation. One on ones are face to face sitting in the sun or going on a hike, talking about whatever the two of you want to. The phone conversations are set out in a booklet and you can choose any scenario you prefer. My Spaniard choose the Booking of a Hotel Room and Marriage Cancellation. Let me tell you I was sitting on my couch and was biting my tongue to prevent myself from laughing. The Spanish MAN was trying to break up our marriage on the phone as he met a new life partner at a bar, as the scenario goes. I haven’t laughed that hard in a long long long time.

This afternoon my group practiced for our skit. We had everyone in hysterics. The premise was that our plane had crashed in the Amazon and we had gone crazy making alcohol from weird plants. Iris the 70 year old Irish sweetheart played the part of a snobby queen and I was her love obsessed gent. For dinner I had Salad of Fowl with apple and pink sauce, Cordon Bleu de Jamon y Queso and egg and caramel pudding (flan). After dinner we had a very unique opportunity presented to us. A defining culinary tourism moment as we all went outside and gathered around a flaming table! They prepared Orujo for us. A specialty in the North of Spain made from a strong alcohol similar to Grappa. The pot is filled with the booze and then whole coffee beans are added, loads of sugar and lemon rind. The entire pot is set on fire and stirred while 3 men recite a pagan incantation of good luck and prosperity. Standing there watching the flames and smelling the intense aroma coming off the burning pot made me a bit timid for consumption. I took a quick swig and almost fell over. I think you can technically get drunk off this beverage just by smelling it.

My fondest memory of this life changing experience will be my one on ones. I always ask my one on one about their job so I can apply what I am learning at school to what they do for a living. Today I talked to another Vodafone executive who is in charge of customer satisfaction (development of surveys, questionnaires and statistics). The weird man from Wyoming was following us the entire hour with his spoon as a microphone. We spent the hour chatting and running away from him, at one point even running through a sprinkler and soaking ourselves! I had a very interesting conversation with Manuel. He is the head executive for Arthur Anderson Spain (a huge multinational consultancy firm). He specializes in quality management which I studied this past winter. It was so nice to discuss what he does and how he uses quality management techniques such as ISO every day. I am learning so much from these people, a great way to make connections in the international business world. Several of these executives have given me their email address and have offered me jobs already, I can’t wait to graduate. Manuel and I also discussed the cultural differences in the workplace. Why do Spaniards take siesta and how has globalization changed the work day for those in Spain. I feel as though I can go back to school this fall with an enriched understanding of international business, differences in cultural organizational behavior and culinary tourism across the continent. I had a moment alone today and thought back at my Organizational Behavior classes and realized we are really only taught the Americanized acceptable workplace. I do not like the idea of North American stress and overworking. In Spain a 10am work day with 2 hour lunch and nap followed by a late afternoon of work ending at 9pm sounds so ideal to me. I am learning how to chill out, who would have ever thought I would see the day!

This afternoon all of my one on ones discussed the same topics which created some serious and heated discussion; smoking laws and the Commonwealth monarchy. Spaniards are shocked when all of the Canadians told them of the laws and social acceptability of smoking in Canada. Just last year in Spain smoking was declared illegal in the workplace. Such heated discussion really made me realize how privileged we are in Canada to have such progressive laws. The best part of the debate was the moment when the lady from Alberta showed the Spaniards her pack of cigarettes which have the decaying nasty looking teeth. Half of them screamed and fell over laughing in horror. I think they may need pictures on their cases as well by the looks of it! In the evening we had a grand Fiesta (aka dance party). I was such a party pooper as my throat is hurting and my ears are popping which I am inclined to believe is the onset of a cold. The majority of people stayed up until 5am dancing!

In the morning we walked into La Alberca on a back route which was beautiful. Donkeys are attributed to this region as are almonds which can be found at little bake shops throughout the city. We went to one cute little bulk food store and bakery that had many dried legumes and spices. They also specialized in regional specialties such as chocolate covered figs and Rosquillas de Ledessma which are small hand rolled cookies an inch in diameter and the shape of a doughnut. La Alberca was the first world heritage city ever declared in Spain. It is very small but you feel as though you are walking around in the first century. We visited a beautiful medieval church and had tapas in a bodega that smelled as though it were built 1000 years ago. We had red wine, sliced meats, cheese and bread. We then walked to a restaurant in the square which was lovely and looked out onto the church. I had a great lentil soup with roasted garlic and chorizo. Siesta was amazing, I felt very ill with a scratchy throat and achy ears so I took 2 Advil cold and sinus and slept for 2 hours straight. This evening we are all taking it easy after dinner. Helen and I have decided to have a gossip chat which should be fun. I have come to realize today that people never grow up. I am hanging out with executives and CEO´s in their 30-50s and I feel like I am back in high school. Amongst those who are not married there is intense flirting and snogging. To say the least we are trying to determine with whom love in the air exists…an every day thrill!

I never want to ever have to eat another custard egg based dessert again in my life. Every dessert is custard with cookie or custard with strawberry or flan! I am also overloaded on Spanish ham. My hands and fingers wreak of cured ham smell and I can’t seem to wash it away even with the help of the best lavender soap. At lunch today we had a very interesting conversation about Cathedrals and how Medieval Cathedrals are different to Renaissance etc… The Spaniards were saying that their children are terrified of churches because the images of Jesus and Mary and different Saints suffering in European churches are very graphic, dark and disturbing. We also discussed Gypsy culture and I explained that we don’t have them but our Squeegee kids in Toronto are rather similar, although they don’t dance the Flamenco very well.

I received some hot Spanish drinking tips at dinner that I would like to share. Bellota is a very unique liquor drunken on the rocks. It is an acorn liquor and tastes woody also similar to frangelico. Everything in this region seems to concern itself around donkeys and almonds. Acorns are used in the region to feed the donkeys and best quality Iberian hams. With regards to Cava: My aunty is fond of Segura Viudas so for her sake and others I will explain what it means. Segura means To Be Safe and Viudas refers to a Widow women who has lost her husband. Therefore the drink is named after the wine growers wife who he lost in a donkey accident of all things. He named the cava after her in order to remind everyone that he wishes his wife to be safe in heaven until he can meet her again in the afterlife. The best affordable cava is Codordia which has been suggested to me several times by different Spaniards, I must try it soon.

This evening I had a melon and ham salad followed by a nice warm bowl of potato leak soup. We had a communal flambé of ice cream and meringue cake which was splendid. I managed to get 5 different Spaniards to buy me a glass of Baileys on the rocks. I love supporting the Irish economy! The final day at Pueblos Anglais was somber. The weather was warm as always and my nose was running like a tap. I hope I get better quickly but I am glad I was sick at a 5 star resort rather than at a hostel. The final evening we were all driven into La Alberca for dinner at a restaurant. We had plates of sausage, Catalan soup and Ratatouille of Fried egg. What an amazing place this is, I will always have fond memories of my time speaking with these very funny, interesting and accomplished Spaniards and Anglos from across the globe. Tomorrow we drive back to Madrid…I hear it is 40 degrees there right now so we’ll see how long it takes me to faint!

 

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