Part 2: The People and Activities
As soon as I walked into the room, I was nearly brought to tears as I was overtaken by a particular and deeply missed feeling.
The fresh smell of linens? The comfort of being in my own room? NAY!
T’was a feeling I hadn’t felt after weeks of being abroad. A feeling so incredibly inaccessible in Spain that it caused me to question whether or not Spaniards were in fact warm-blooded.
The feeling was that of… COLD AIR! An air conditioner!
If you are a Spaniard reading this, this device is probably foreign to you. Well, it is similar to air — except it is “conditioned” — as in it creates a condition appropriate for human hibernation.
I hugged the thermostat as tears ran down my face and eventually filled the room until I was floating, weightlessly in a large, cold pool of gratitude and joy. Or maybe that was a just a dream…
In any event, the one pool that I was not in was one filled with my own sweat (finally!). And so, sheet-sticking-less-ly contented, I was able to fall comfortably asleep.
* * *
About an hour later, my alarm went off and I woke up somewhere in between refreshed and groggy. I rolled out of bed, threw on some clothes and stumbled down the stairs to the lobby where we were instructed to meet. We were guided by Amelia through the front door and outside.
Staggering into a semi-circle, our siesta-rested-eyes half-open, Amelia began to speak as the sun continued to pump out relentless heat.
To command attention and perhaps to summon enthusiasm, Amelia spoke in that very unforgivingly-loud and cheerful voice that your mom would wake you up with when it was time to get up on a school-day. Only this one came with an always pleasing Kiwi accent, partially muddled by having lived in Spain for nearly a decade. We all moaned and groaned, as we attempted to pile into the tiny bit of shaded ground.
She gave a quick introductory speech and then explained the ice-breaking group activity in which we were about to partake. We all feigned excitement as the directions were explained, reluctantly agreed to, and punctuated with an unwelcomed: “GO!”
And then a funny thing happened. As I went around from person to person, trying to be the first to fill in my worksheet with the random skills and accomplishments of my program-mates (e.g. “Find someone who has seen all four oceans,” or, “Find someone who knows a martial art”), I noticed that I was starting to smile.
I was starting to have fun. And so was the entire group, as the collective mood went from sleep-walking, zombie to frantic enjoyment and competitive energy.
But not “competitive” in the sense that you get serious for an athletic competition. More like in the way that kids play tag with a father, being chased and screaming out ‘I got you’ and laughing. [Of course, you gotta be the right kinda dad].
Of course, you still wanted to win. But when you didn’t, it was more like not winning in that ‘throw the softball into the tilted basket’ game at some amusement parks. When you miss you are more like “AW MAN!” but you say it with a smile and let out a gasp of laughing frustration.
Anyway, I lost. But it was a good experience for the first version of the many different types of activities we would engage in over the next six days. Though all did not feel quite as much like play…
* * *
The Activities, Las Actividades.
The activities ranged in scope and size, from small group team-building efforts to theatre, to the more social and libation-filled evening activities.
All were distinct in purpose and design, but all held in common one quality: full-engagement. Everyone participated, everyone cared, and for that reason, they seemed to be very effective.
I want to draw attention to a couple activities that I believe deserve special recognition:
Possibly the most consistent activity of the week, the one-on-ones are exactly what they sound like. Just an Anglo and Spaniard, walking and talking in English. We did this three to six times per day, each for about an hour with a different Spaniard.
Simple right? Well, simple in construct, yes. But difficult in execution. And extremely effective overall.
It was sort of like going on six first-dates per day (and then second, third, and forth).
So for the first day or two it was mostly: ‘Soooo, where ya from?’ ‘How many siblings do you have?’ Do you like Cuban food?’
Being an able-bodied-bachelor for the past decade in New York City, I am no stranger to this scripted dialogue.
You give these answers away like pawns on a chess board. Minimal agility, no lateral movement; to give them is not exactly to become vulnerable (at least to a white-belt-level chess player like myself).
However, once you got further along, into the third and forth date, say – so more to the back-row pieces – the difficulty, improvisation and maneuverability — and thus the interest of the conversations — started to grow.
This is commonplace to any self-respecting Hitch-re-watcher.
That is, you are still gonna go to the Knicks game and a movie, and you will still walk her to the door, but whether or not you chuck the inhaler – that is up to you.
In real talk – the Spaniards actually had to think about how to describe the questions and
answers for which they did not possess, or could not easily access, the vocabulary they wanted. They had no pre-baked answers and they had not necessarily heard the questions, or even the terminology used to construct them.
As for the Anglos, we were forced to listen closely to these descriptions and try to understand without interrupting or correcting every five seconds. We would then be wise to respond with simple and particular wording at a steady and comprehensible pace.
And even passed the specifics of language and communication – you got to know people.
Again – a couple accounts may add to the color. These are by no means the only two special and inspirational one-on-one experiences, but they are good examples:
The Serious Inspector. One of my very first one-on-ones was with a man of probably 45 years or so who worked as a safety inspector in a nuclear power plant. Ya, I know – intense.
This first encounter began much like I have indicated above. A lot of descriptive talk about family and profession. Luckily, in this case, his profession was both foreign and interesting to me, so there was barely any pause in conversation. But still, I could sense a discomfort, a sort of perfunctory going-through-the-motions-ness. The conversation was not exactly flowing – more like an interview than an exchange.
And even setting aside the somewhat dry discussion topics, I got the sense that the inspector was a bit of an introvert — a bit reserved and deliberate. A bit like – well, a nuclear inspector(?).
But as the week progressed, an amazing thing began to occur. This man who in one of the first group activities described himself as “serious” and “realistic” quickly morphed into what I would describe as the program celebrity.
He appeared in several of the theater productions, dressed as a cowboy or a witch, often as the comic relief, drawing huge ovations and laughter from the crowd. You could actually feel this collective and unspoken chanting among the group calling for encore after encore. A gravitational field formed around him and pulled us in.
Does this happen? The self-described realistic and serious nuclear inspector becomes the beloved comedic actor of 25 strangers? Hollywood-ish to say the least.
By the second to last day, between the one-on-ones, the meals, the activities and free time, the inspector and I probably spoke in semi-private maybe a dozen times. At this now final one-on-one, the conversation was light and fluent as we discussed wine, travel, and, of course, jamón.
I would be skeptical of the notion that Diverbo caused this man to “break out of his shell” – but the idea that it facilitated and encouraged such a showing seems to me undeniable. This program seems to provide just the right blend of comfort and urging; it passively provides the stage to be daring and then pushes you to the middle of it.
The Family Woman. The Family Woman was a compassionate and lovely woman of maybe 40 years (if you are reading this and I’ve guessed too high – please don’t hate me!) She had this extremely apparent air of effortless passion; extremely apparent but not hurled upon you like a downpour. It was more like an enveloping mist – just settling on you without offending. The first one-on-one with her was nothing like the Inspector.
For starters, I got no sense that she was introverted or conservative. She wore her passion and bubbliness on her sleeve and she seemed to speak English with confident ease.
She was also a terrific listener and thus allowed for one of my most objectionable tendencies – incessant babbler. We spoke briefly about her, but for probably 40 minutes of the 50-minute period we (I) spoke about myself, my issues, my plans – I get sick just thinking about it.
And yet, she seemed unperturbed and even fascinated by it. Her smile never faded through the entire period of my indulgence.
Throughout the week we grew closer, often finding ourselves sitting next to each other in group meetings, meals and activities; our talks ranging from her scuba interests, to my Spanish learning to our mutual interest in travel, to her son. It seemed to me that a connection had been formed – though I was unsure why she would feel such a way towards me.
Then we had another one-on-one towards the end of the week and many things became clear. This time, I wised up a bit and did the listening.
We began the walk up into the trees on the well-trodden but quite trail that wrapped around the town. She spoke contemplatively and heart-fully about her family and friends, seemingly withholding very little, as we got deeper into the woods and deeper into conversation.
She told me about her childhood; her friends, the school she hated, and her consequent rebellion. She told me about the few but true friends she preferred to surround herself with and her relationship with her parents. I remember I asked a particularly intrusive question as we wrapped around a bend that was bordered by a tall fence. Out of nowhere, a humongous sounding dog threw himself against the fence and scared the hell out of me. I jumped back, she remained steadfast and cool, laughing at me in a teasing way. We changed subjects.
As we worked our way towards my favorite part of the program grounds – a slightly secluded and elevated porch, overlooking the eastern mountains and trees (photo right) — we got into even more serious family subjects as emotion crept in.
She told me about her divorce and how hard the decision was for her to make a few years back. The choice was a difficult one: security for her and her young boy or freedom and uncertainty. And this begot a conversation of how she could see how some women would be terrified of this choice as she was. But unlike her, many of them remain a sort of prisoner to this fear.
As she described the feeling in detail I remember picturing an unlocked jail cell. The door was open to go, but if you walk through it, you must brave the harsh winter elements. So you get fooled or frightened into preferring the barren cell to the ambiguous world.
We ended on a happy note as she spoke about how much she was going to miss her son this coming year. He was to spend the school year in Ireland – a stranger in a strange land – as her demonstrated bravery and unwavering love no doubt prepared him to be.
On the last day, this was my hardest goodbye. I remember being shocked out how emotional I got as she hugged me goodbye. A real hug.
The realness of that hug – the invisible part that made it real – was certainly in large part due to her nondiscriminatory loving-ness. Perhaps I had experienced it in other settings — but never that fast. Never that unexpectedly.
Again, I am not saying that you will definitely have this experience if you sign up for this program. I do not want to pretend that this experience was created exclusively by Diverbo.
But, I also don’t want to pretend that it wasn’t.
Throughout the week, the Spaniards were required to give a presentation about a topic of personal interest. The Anglos had the option of volunteering (most did). The presentations ranged from about five to ten minutes in length and from about A to A+++++ in terms of interesting-ness.
If you are aware of my career aspirations to be a student (a debt-less one, of course), it isn’t surprising that the individual presentations were my single favorite activity.
One thing that might be more surprising to you is the incredible breadth of topics that were covered and the absolute magnitude of creativity so apparent in this group.
We had photography experts and wine aficionados; travel experts and published authors; yoga instructors and stress relievers; meditation wannabes (me) and dance instructors.
We had one presentation of what it’s like to live as an American woman in the United Arab Emirates. And one on the unexpected connection between the proliferation of wine vineyards and the always-nearby nuclear plants in Spain (don’t be concerned – your tempranillo wine is not nuclear active).
Pretty wide range, I’d say.
Another thing that struck me – the skill and passion with which these presentations were delivered. On a number of occasions, the effect was so great, that many people were driven to tears.
I remember one presentation that was particularly moving. It was given by two Aussie women – maybe in their 40s or 50s? These women were an unbelievably loving and light-hearted pair and quickly became the best-friends of every person in the group within maybe 24 hours.
They own a travel company called Wandering the World that gives off the feeling of more of a traveling family then merely some distant agent who books your hotels. I certainly intend to join them on a trip or two — if not for anything other than the great conversation and warmth that they exude. Like many people I admire, they have an inexhaustible list of interests and an endless supply of energy and enthusiasm.
They spoke about their experience on The Camino trail – an eastward pilgrimage across the northern part of Spain towards the Galacian capital – Santiago de Compostela. They recommend (or someone from the trip did) this film called “The Way” directed by Emilo Estevez and staring Martin Sheen (Camino means “way”). I have yet to see it.
In my time in Spain prior to this program, I had read about this trip and heard it touted as some kind of religious or spiritual experience. As somewhat of a “I-don’t-really-believe-but-am-looking-into-it-er” this kind of declaration typically intrigues me but automatically encourages my skepticism.
And although these women were not “religious” in the typical sense – they brought this thing to life. They spoke about the experience with such reverence and conviction that you couldn’t help being pulled in. The pictures and the stories and the feelings were all almost too much to bear. The emotion in the air became so thick and obvious, and the import of this topic to the presenters so apparent and real, that it was hard to watch without that sort of half smile / half teary-eyed look. It was hard to breathe.
Producing a completely different kind of shock and awe were the equally passionate and clear presentations delivered by the Spaniards who created similar effects and emotions in a foreign language!
So first consider most people’s intense fear of public speaking. Then consider the complete difficulty for ANYONE to come up with a 5-minute, cogent presentation in ANY language with only about three hours of preparation during a week in which you are constantly drained of energy.
And finally, consider doing that in a FOREIGN language and it being so good as to inspire actual TEARS.
* * *
After the icebreaker, we had a more formal meeting on the logistics of the week and we were more formally introduced to our program staff.
Amelia, whom I have already mentioned, was the MC – the Master of Ceremonies. At minimum, it is the job of the MC to serve as the “face of the program.”
But to leave it at that would be to undermine the extreme difficulty of the job and its absolutely vital importance to the effectiveness of the program. The “face” one day, she also played roles of the brain, eyes, mouth, body and soul; she was our mother, friend, confidant, and boss.
No, I do not mean to say Amelia was “bitch” or a “lover” or a “sinner.”
What I mean to do is point out the absolute myriad of skills this woman possesses. You could chat with her about any topic, you could ask her any question, and you could even whine to her (as I often enjoyed doing) — but she wouldn’t take it easy on you. She would gently, but sternly, force you to accept the challenge or take the harder, but probably wiser, road.
At some point during the program I found out she doubles (triples? quadrouples?) as a life coach. Um, Duh! If there is a person more qualified to listen and more competent to advise, I have not met her.
The other major gig is Program Director (PD). This role is every bit as complex and challenging as the MC’s, and in some ways, more so. This is in part due to the thanklessness inherent in a job done mostly behind the scenes. Well, the work is done behind the scenes – but the output (including any problems that might arise) are front and center.
The PD’s job involves scheduling each of the ten or so activities each day for 25 – 50 people over the course of this fast-paced, multi-cultural, 100-hour program. She must be extremely organized and planned, but also deal with flexibility, personalities — and my veganism.
To do all that, you certainly must be qualified. Of course, I am not totally sure you need the seven PhDs that our PD, Sarah, has, or be a music teacher, or a wonderful singer, but those were just extra qualities that we benefitted from.
Though the job is thankless, never once did I get that impression from Sarah. Indeed, she herself was ever-thankful to all of us for remaining engaged and enthusiastic and not complaining too much (well, except me).
At our last dinner, Sarah got up in front of the group and sang for us. She sang “Amazing Grace.” And as the group chimed in towards the end and you could see everyone smiling; you could perceive a connectedness that she inspired.
Between the two of them, it is really quite absurd. If the entire Diverbo Staff is this over-qualified and this talented, this might be one of the best organizations I have ever seen.
If you are lucky enough to participate in a program run by Sarah or Amelia, consider yourself lucky. Very, very, lucky.
* * *
Following the meeting, but before dinner, we had about a one-hour gap of free time. This was the first and only occurrence of such a gap, but being the first day, Amelia and Sarah wisely decided to bring us in slow. We were thankful.
I thought I would take this opportunity to do some work or read or write. But, an adorable mother / daughter pair from Virginia (pic below) and a futboling consultant from Madrid (pic left) mentioned they were going to go check out the town, and they asked me if I wanted to tag along.
I took one glance through the window to my left. The sun had reached that great point in the day where bright clarity and shine remain, but without the side effect of the beating heat.
At that time, some sort of energy tends to pervade the air and heighten the mood. It is almost like a natural dopamine shot. [Two references to the same neurotransmitter in one article: check].
Anyway, the combination of that plus the go-lucky beckoning by this triumvirate was impossible to refuse.
Take a look at those faces! Could you say no?!
We headed out through the front door, past the garden and toward the town…
* * *