During a solo trip to Spain earlier this year, I spent a week in the Spanish countryside chatting and dining with other independent travelers and Spanish professionals – and all of my expenses were paid. This unique program is called Vaughantown (formerly Englishtown), an English immersion program in Spain that helps Spanish professionals improve their English. I was one of the 20-odd Anglo volunteers helping provide the "immersion."
Here's how it works: Spaniards pay to participate in the program, and Anglos get one week of free room and board in exchange for lots of conversation. It's ideal for solo travelers. Not only do you get a free stay in Spain, but you get to hang out with other like-minded travelers and natives of the country you're visiting.
The Englishtown program was started in July 2001 by Richard Vaughan, president of Vaughan Systems in Madrid. "We transformed an abandoned Spanish village into a tiny but bustling metropolis whose official language was English. We stocked the village with 20 English speakers from all over the world and brought in 20 Spaniards, leaving the 40 to work it out and have fun over 7 days."
Vaughan Systems' clients are Spanish business professionals who need to improve their English for their jobs. "Our goal is to expose them to the language just as they may hear it on the streets of London, Glasgow, Dublin, New York, Toronto, Melbourne, Cape Town, or for that matter, Coffeyville, Kansas."
To help them in this endeavor, Anglo participants come from all over the English-speaking world to enjoy a unique cultural exchange during their time in Spain.
As an Anglo participant, you don't teach English at Vaughantown, you just speak it. And to make it easy for you, a program director schedules activities throughout the day. Each morning, you're assigned to different partners for hour-long, one-on-one sessions. During these sessions, you can stroll through the countryside, drive into town, or lounge around the hotel talking.
At meal times, Anglos pair up with Spaniards to keep the conversation in English and the Spaniards from reverting back to Spanish while dining.
Each afternoon you have some free time before the evening activities begin. These can include theater performances, board games like Trivial Pursuit, and festive social gatherings. Some Anglos share their talents with the group. While I was there, one woman played Hotel California on the guitar and another performed a soliloquy from Agnes of God.
Other Anglos just talk about their hometown or country. One man spoke about beef jerky and came prepared with Slim Jims for everyone, and an Irish woman spoke about the Irish language. The cultural exchange goes both ways. So one evening, the Anglos enjoyed a Spanish paella at dinner, and another night participated in a Galician tradition called La Quemada.
All native English speakers are invited to participate. The only prerequisite is to be adaptable and willing take a role in the proceedings. Solo travelers are especially encouraged to participate.
"We prefer when Anglos come on their own," remarked Pablo Aspas, one of the program directors for Vaughantown, "that way they won't just talk to their traveling companion."
Only 2 of the 22 Anglos in my group came together. Vaughan Systems also prefers Anglos with little or no knowledge of Spanish. "We want to give the Spaniards the real McCoy. If they know they can revert back to Spanish, it's not a genuine immersion experience," Richard Vaughan explained.
Vaughantown programs now operate year round at three [five as of 2009] different venues: Valdelavilla, Gredos, and La Alberca.
Valdelavilla is an abandoned 18th century village with cobble-stoned streets and a rustic ambiance. This is the favorite venue during the summer months, and the place where it all started. Participants here are housed in the refurbished stone buildings of the old village. It's close to the Rioja wine region, three hours from Madrid and five hours from Barcelona.
At Gredos, participants stay at a plush, four-star hotel with an indoor swimming pool, workout room, and impressive views of the Gredos mountain range. The hotel is a 30-minute walk from the town of Barco de Avila, where there is a small aqueduct, a castle, chapels and even an old prison.
La Alberca is a 15th century town surrounded by mountains, and the first town in Spain to be declared a National Historic Site. Participants here are housed in a modern, four-star hotel complex.
The venues are all in beautiful but remote locations to create an English immersion environment for the Spaniards.
From Maida Mahltrecht: I participated in Diverbo in 2013 in La Alberca and enjoyed it tremendously. It was an experience of a lifetime. I would do it again. I hope one day it wil spread out to more countries. [Editor Note: Spain and Germany in 2016] I highly recommend it.
From Pam Chedore: I've just returned from Spain where I spent 2 weeks in the Vaughantown (formerly Englishtown) program. It's a nice way to meet Spaniards and have a free week (or two) in Spain, and this article is an accurate description of my experience there. There is also another organization called Diverbo doing the same thing in Spain, and I think also in Germany. I don't think I have anything to add other than that they now have more locations, including Pamplona. I think the only requirements are to be a native English speaker and to be relatively outgoing as you need to participate in some games and theatrics! They have a very large number of Anglo volunteers so it's necessary to apply well in advance (6 months or more).