Back back back to Extremadura

Nearly six weeks after my initial trip into Extremadura, I was at it again. This time, the bus was replaced by a nice four-door sedan, and the 20 Anglos were replaced by two Spaniards — Marcos and Jesus, a friend of mine from the Monfrague VaughanTown program.

Just like the first time on the bus, I sat with my eyes wide, staring out the window, marveling at the beauty of Spain’s countryside. This time was even more magnificent.

Snow still clung to the mountain peaks, and the fields below were still a vibrant green with yellow flowers blankets the ground. And then, there were more colors. Purple! Red! White! All competing with the yellow, blending into one of the most picturesque sights against the cork and olive trees I have ever seen.

“This … it is just so … amazing,” I explained to Marcos and Jesus, searching for the right words to convey the beauty I was witnessing.

“Si,” they said.

It went on for hours … this gorgeous countryside. Every now and then, we would pass ruins of old castles or palaces, little cities on hills, fields of horses and cows and bulls. Each minute, my heart wrapped itself more and more firmly around the country.

I have to live here.

Jesus and I had been working for a month on finding a job for me. I had even redone my entire CV and written a cover letter on how I wanted to work and live in Spain. And Jesus, bless him, had translated it all into Spanish for me. Up until that Sunday afternoon (the day of the Formula One race in Monaco (Alonso placed sixth), the tennis match with Federer and the Barcelona v Madrid futbol game), we had no luck, but my fingers were crossed.

And now, we were headed to Merida, where I would have a Monfrague reunion of sorts — seeing most of the people who played such an important role in my life during that one week … Jesus, Maria Antonio, Jose, Macarena and  Alfonso.

“We are home,” Jesus announced as the car pulled up in front of a white apartment building. The two men, being the polite and wonderful men they are, hauled my bags and buzzed Maria to let us in.

“Hi!” I squealed when Maria, head full of curls, greeted us at the door to her flat. We hugged, and walked into her beautiful home, leaving Jesus and Marcos to continue their day.

That was just the start of the impromptu (and awesome) Monfrague reunion in Merida.

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The upside of traveling solo is the same as the down

I stood, lost in thought at the taco counter in Pest.

“Are you OK?” asked the young man at the counter, in English seeping with a beautiful Hungarian accent.

I jogged back into the moment.

“Oh, yeah,” I said, grabbing my metal tray containing a junior burrito and large beer. “Just thinking.”

And I left it at that.

The truth was, I was OK. But, only kindasortanotreallymaybe.

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Decompression numero dos

 

Man, leaving new friends is a bitch.

The second time I had bid farewell (“see you soon”) in three weeks to a group of amazing and beautiful people who became my family in the blink of an eye was no easier than the departure two weeks earlier.

First, it was Valdelavilla. And now, Monfrague. Two completely different programs, two completely different locations. Two completely and breathtakingly different groups of people.

And both forever have special places in my heart.

Leaving the Spaniards is never easy. This time was especially hard because there were a few people on the both the Spanish and English sides (and they know exactly who they are) who immediately captured my love.

I was so reluctant at first to accept this new group of people. It felt a bit like cheating on the original Valdelavilla family. Anthony and I stood in the meeting room of Hospedería Parque de Monfrague, me leaning my head against his shoulder, exhausted from the night we had previously with some of the participants of this program.

I whispered in his ear, “I want to be in Valdelavilla again.”

The group we were surrounded by was new. Different. Overwhelming.

It was about 20 Spaniards compared to about 12 from the last program, as well as about 20 Anglos. We had the bus ride with just the Anglos, and there were a few we spoke with. But all these people? Really? It just tired me to look at their faces.

We did the introductions … “I’m D,” kiss on the cheek, kiss on the other cheek, “nice to meet you.”

And again, I wondered what the hell I had gotten myself in to.

But, intense experiences like this bring people together, and this was no exception.

Within three meals I felt something towards every person in our group.

Within three days, I couldn’t imagine my life without having met them.

By the end of the week, I was making plans to see nearly all of them again.

Every meal, every one-on-one, even the cigarette breaks (no, Mom, I did not smoke), were filled with laughter and conversation —  most of the time in English.

There were so many moments during Monfrague when I just wanted to press “pause” and make it last longer.

One moment was during our siesta — about half of us decided to go and explore Monfrague, a stunning national park with a castle perched atop a mountain. I stayed about mid-hike while the others climbed up to the castle with Tina, an Anglo from the UK.

Tina and I bonded instantly. We sat together, watching the vultures soar above our heads, sun shining on our faces, and had us some proper girl talk. By that night, she, Anthony and I were our own little club.

Another was when Jose, whose dimples, English phrases (“I can’t beeleeve it!”) and general oozing of happy quickly won me over, and I decided to head into the little town by our hotel for our one-on-one.

Only, we picked up some additional people.

He and I were driving down the road and saw Alfonso, another Spaniard who, along with his sister, Laly, ended up being like siblings to me during the trip, and Kate, an Anglo. So, we kidnapped them and they joined us as we sat outside at a little bar, sipping wine and beer and eating vultures feet (at least that’s what Alfonso wanted me to believe I was eating).

Another late afternoon, Jesus and I had our one-to-one and we took his little “puppito,” Lucky, for a walk around Monfrague. It was fun to watch the pup frolic in the yellow flowers, hopping through the neon green grass. And it was even more fun to talk to Jesus about life in Spain, my plans to live there (and how we are going to work on getting me a job there).

Then, there was the party. And, it was a party. A table covered with drinks and snacks mixed perfectly with the 40 or so of us until the wee hours of the morning.

And, of course, the next morning, Graeme (Anglo), Jose, Hector (Spaniard) and I continued the party at the little bar in town with coffee and brandy. Not my idea, but it worked.

Friday afternoon came and I was dreading it. Absolutely not looking forward to lunch or to leaving.

After lunch, we all congregated outside in the hotel’s driveway, hugging, kissing, promising to “see you soon,” and really meaning it (update: a group of us are having a reunion camping trip in May … looks like I’m headed back to Madrid!!).

As we pulled out of the hotel’s driveway, the Spaniards waved goodbye one last time.

There were a few tears. But, those tears were accompanied by the fact I KNEW the friends I had made would not disappear.

Friday night when we arrived back to Madrid, I was mentally exhausted. The “see you soon’s” of the day had ripped at me. But, I can’t wait to do another one …

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A love affair with Madrid

 I hadn’t expected to fall in love with Madrid. Many travelers I talked to said Madrid was “just another city” and “not safe.”

Yes, Madrid is “just another city” and, like any city, it isn’t always safe. But, I was fortunate enough to have a different perspective of the city than most travelers. I was able to live and breathe the city like a local.

I hadn’t expected to stay as long as I did in Madrid, but everything happens for a reason. For me, it solidified my desire to live in Spain and be a part of the magnificent and vibrant culture.

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Back to Anglo “reality”

I laid in my bed at Los Amigos Hostel listening to the hum of people outside my balcony on Calle de Arenal in Madrid.

Decompressing is a tough activity following the six days I spent immersed in English … in a way I never thought possible … with people I never expected to fall so deeply in love with.

I found myself craving Vadelavilla. The people. The way my heart smiled during my time there.

On the Metro earlier in the evening, all I could think about were the participants — both the Anglos and Spaniards.

I listened for Jose’s gruff voice … looked for Miguel’s mischievous smile … listened for Anthony’s infectious laugh  and Emma’s sound effects … searched for Silvia’s shoulder to lean my head … and none of them were there.

These people became my life for six intense days. I woke up with them. I ate with them. I laughed (a lot) with them. I even cried (mostly me when I said goodbye) with them.

And then … I was alone. And it felt really uncomfortable and lonely.

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Opening my ears

“Hi,” I began. “My name is D. I am originally from just outside of Washington, DC. In my former life, I was a publicist. Now, I am traveling and writing about it. If I could be any animal, I would be … a bird.”

I sat down.

I was sitting in one of the back rows in the Valedelavilla meeting room, anxiously surveying the crowd of Anglos and Spaniards (our new classifications) who had all come together in the room following a four-hour bus ride through the mountains near Soria.

Dade, a Brit, served as the MC and ushered us through quick introductions — who we are, where we are from, what we do, and what animal would we be if we could be any animal in the world. He instructed the Spaniards to open their ears to the extensive English being spoken.

I sat and listened as each person stood up and responded to Dade’s request. I tried to open my ears. Damn, it was hard.

After introductions, Dade explained the program: early wake up call for breakfast, followed by four one-on-ones with Anglos, then lunch, then siesta, then more one-on-ones and group activities, then performances, then dinner, then optional drinks at the bar.

What did I get myself into?

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The only English-speaking town in Spain

Tucked into the Soria region of Spain is a little mountain village is Valdelavilla — a  place completely isolated from the rest of the world, where Spaniards trek to learn English through intensive language immersion programs. It’s the only place in Spain where English is the first language.

Other than people participating in the program and the few staff on hand to take care of the property, there is nothing.

There are no stores. There is no cell phone service. The restaurant is located in an old villa. The bar has no stools and doubles as the “internet cafe.” So does the bench outside reception. And, the wifi is about as speedy as an old-school dial-up connection. The more people pow-wowing online at Valdelavilla, the slower it goes.

Despite these things, I fell in love with the town at first sight. Well, once I knew I wasn’t going to have to haul my backpack through the little stone streets.

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