an introvert’s conversion: or, what pueblo inglés taught me about life.
“Invisible threads are the strongest ties.”
My sister Brooke is a bit of a social marvel. One Wednesday afternoon last year, we caught each other on gChat (not always an easy feat) and she excitedly told me about her plans for the evening.
“There was nothing going on, so I’ve called everyone and now we’re going to play volleyball and then get ice cream! I can’t wait!”
I responded appropriately (which obviously means with many haha’s and “that’s awesome!”) while at the same time shaking my head, in awe – as always – at how different we sometimes are.
“If that had been me,” I told her, “I would’ve taken the chance to stay at home and hang out by myself.”
Because that’s what introverts do, right?
No matter how socially adept we are (or aren’t), we ultimately get our energy from ourselves – from alone time, not from being around people.
This is also reflected in my normal travel style – notwithstanding one-off group adventures like the Rickshaw Run, most of my time on the road is spent solo (cue Jason DeRulo’s “Ridin’ Solo”…).
It’s just me, an umbrella, and the road.
But then I came to Spain.
The ‘S’ in Spain has stood for many things so far this trip.
S for Santiago de Campostela – where the Camino ends and I shook off my backpack after two weeks of trekking across the country.
S for Spanish – the language I can’t get enough of, despite my limited vocab and rusty grammar.
And S for storks – the ubiquitous bird here whose nests are impossibly perched on every bell tower (or campanile) in every village.
One thing ‘s’ has not stood for, though, is solo.
First, there was the Camino. Reputedly walked by some 600,000 people a year, every day I shared the path with scores of other pilgrims, reuniting each night in the dorms (or albergues) to swap stories from the Way.
Then there has been my time in Madrid, where I’ve been grateful for a home-away-from-home at my friend Erin’s flat, and also to explore the nearby town of Alcalá de Henares with Jen from London. But nowhere else was my un-solo-ness more the case than last week, at Pueblo Inglés.
Designed ten years ago to create a language immersion experience for Spaniards wanting to improve their English, the program calls in an equal number of native English speakers to chat it up with the Spanish.
What’s the catch? The Anglos (as native speakers are lovingly termed) get a free week in Spain. The Spaniards get to practice their English. A win-win situation, no?
Held over eight days, Pueblo Inglés has Spaniards racking up some 100 hours of contact with English. To accomplish this, the daily schedule is a mix of 6 one-to-one and two-to-conversations, presentations, conference calls, telephone sessions, group activities, entertainment, and three 3-course meals a day (which ensured that any weight lost on the Camino was most swiftly and heartily recovered).
“I’m going to be a professional coffee date conversationalist by the end of the week,” I tweeted halfway through our first day – somewhat in jest, but also somewhat to say, I can’t remember the last time I talked this much…ever.
The introvert in me was saying, “Freak out! You’re not getting any time to yourself!” And she was right – I even spent the short siesta we got every afternoon in the common room, the only place where we could pick up wifi.
But aside from a few moments of needing some space, I largely didn’t freak out. Our one-to-one conversations held so much of what I’d loved about the Camino that it almost felt as if I’d never left the trail at all. They were about connection, discovery, serendipity – all without the walking (which might not have been a good thing, what with all those hefty meals and endless free wine…).
We talked about why they were working on their English – it had little to do with the language itself and more with where it could get them. To an interview. To a promotion. To a dream job in Australia or Columbia.
We talked about relationships (spurred on by explaining the idiom of the day, “to break up”), about what it means to be happy, and about living in the present – not always setting our minds on the future.
Really, we just talked about life – and despite the many “brain traffic jams” (as one Spaniard put it), there was a flow to it all that felt pretty darn close to magical.
But then as suddenly as we had come together the week ended, quick, tearful goodbyes were said in Madrid and I found myself in Alcalá with Jen. Just before falling asleep Friday night, I scrolled through Twitter and came across a post on Brain Pickings – “When Einstein Met Tagore.”
We’re going to leave aside the coincidence of this involving Tagore, by whom I’ve been increasingly fascinated over the last few months (he’s a famed Bengali writer, the first non-European to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature and the composer of both India’s and Bangladesh’s national anthem).
What I do want to mention here is the answer he gave to Einstein’s first question, “Do you believe in the Divine as isolated from the world?”
“Not isolated… I have taken a scientific fact to explain this – Matter is composed of protons and electrons, with gaps between them; but matter may seem to be solid. Similarly humanity is composed of individuals, yet they have their interconnection of human relationship, which gives living unity to man’s world. The entire universe is linked up with us in a similar manner, it is a human universe.”
There were two words in particular that jumped out at me – linked up – because of a photo I’d taken just the night before:
It was our last night as a group at Pueblo Inglés and after a farewell dinner in the village of La Alberca, we’d gathered back in the hotel bar for a few drinks and a bit (or a lot) of dancing. The last song was playing – Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” – and those of us still on the dance floor put our arms around each other and started swaying in a circle.
A few choruses in, I broke away, wanting to capture the moment on camera. And just then, as I perched over the ring of linked-up arms and new friends, it hit me:
This is what it’s about.
It – whether “it” be travel or life or whatever – is about who you go through it with.
It is about talking about what matters, even if language barriers threaten to get in the way.
It is about playing some of your songs on a crappy guitar for the group – not worrying about how little you’ve practiced or how nervous you are, but only because the entire week is about sharing and opening yourself up to others.
What I’m saying is nothing new. It’s the epigraph of E. M. Forster’s novel, Howard’s End: “Only connect…”
It’s the same revelation Christopher McCandless (i.e. Alexander Supertramp) had in Into the Wild, scrawling Happiness only real when shared on the pages of a book in the Alaskan wilderness.
Heck, I even just checked out the awesome new website of fellow blogger Zak Erving, only to see what he’d tweeted last night: “Just acted as impromptu photog on a #sunset #cruise. #Travel isn’t just about your own moments. It’s about sharing in someone else’s.”
And it’s what speaking English sixteen hours a day taught me in the heart of a Spanish village last week:
Connect. Exchange. Share.
Don’t get me wrong, though – the next time I’m free on a Wednesday night, you’re still most likely to find me curled up in a chair, book in hand, far from any phone, volleyball or ice cream.
Well, maybe not ice cream…
What are some of the experiences – whether at home or on the road – that have challenged certain aspects of your personality? Feel free to leave a comment below, I’d love to hear about them!
Check out other past Anglos’ stories from Pueblo Inglés:
- “Meeting the One” – I was honored to share the week with volunteer extraordinaire Terri Wingham, whose blog A Fresh Chapter is all about adventures of hope after cancer.
- “U is for Unforgettable” – our group of Anglos was pretty stacked in terms of bloggers…I loved getting to know this Texan writer, who blogs at The M Half.
- “The English Village Volunteer” – good friend and travel blogger Dylan Lowe also spent a week at La Alberca last year.
- “Pueblo Inglés: Best volunteer experience in Spain?” – this comprehensive piece by Lisa Lubin on Matador gives a perfect summation of the week.