Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Segovia, Madrid, y hasta luego España :'(

And so the program draws quickly to a close. It sure has flown by! The students almost cannot believe that tomorrow night they'll arrive in Indianapolis, and while they will be sad to leave Spain, they are very excited to be back with you all - families, friends, and fans. 

This update will be a very quick one (mainly to share some great photos) because we will be departing soon from Madrid so that our beloved students can be reunited with you all.

Monday morning brought us our sad (but exciting) departure from León - full of tears, hugs, kisses, and promises of being reunited. It was obvious that the students had developed a deep connection to their brand new second home, and the host families were equally sad to see the students go. 

A few hours later, we arrived in Segovia, a beautiful Spanish city whose most famous tourist attraction is an ancient Roman aqueduct (seen below). We took a thorough tour of Segovia and very much enjoyed ourselves!
Seeing the aqueducts!

The beautiful Segovian aqueducts 

The students in a minor plaza in Segovia (featuring a statue of Juan Bravo in the background)

Atop the Alcázar (palace) in Segovia!
 The very same day, we arrived in the evening in Madrid - the beautiful cosmopolitan capital of Spain. We arrived in Madrid seven weeks ago, and finally we were able to explore the city a bit and enjoy ourselves. After a looooooooooooooooooong Monday, we visited the Plaza Mayor and ate a varied meal in the Mercado de San Miguel, where you can find a bit of everything.

The following day (Tuesday) was a VERY full day. We began the day in the Prado Museum, one of the most famous art museums in the world. Students were able to see original works by famous Spanish, Italian, and French artists from the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, such as Velázquez, Ribera, Sorolla, El Greco, and Goya. The Prado is an amazing experience, and sadly, all we were able to offer was a teaser for future travels.

Outside the Prado Museum (in front of a statue of Goya)

In the Parque del Retiro (Madrid's Central Park)

Several students in the Real Madrid Soccer stadium right on the field!!

The whole group in the Plaza del Sol
All in all, it was a whirlwind tour of Madrid, but we were able to see quite a lot! And now, in just a few hours, we'll be heading toward Barajas - Madrid's international airport, where our journey began at the beginning of June. It's been quite a trip!

On behalf of my fellow instructors, I thank you all for sharing these 34 students with us for the past 7 weeks. It has been an honor and a privilege for us - Mark, Sarah, Isra, Megan - to teach and lead the students in this program. We are deeply impressed with all that they've accomplished, and we're certain that you will all notice remarkable growth in these students when they return. We're all excited to see what they do in the next steps of their lives.

Very nearly 24 hours from now, you'll be reunited with your brilliant kids in Indianapolis! Until then, I hope you enjoy these photos. Very best regards, and thank you all for following this blog over the course of the summer.


Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Caves, beaches, and mountains (oh my!)

From this past Wednesday to Saturday, we went on a number of excursions to sites of natural beauty, exploring the mysterious Caves of Valporquero (just an hour or so outside of León), the gorgeous beaches and beautiful Asturian city of Gijón, and the scenic landscapes of the Lakes of Covadonga. Needless to say, it was an active week!

Wednesday brought us to the Caves of Valporquero, a natural phenomenon famous among locals and even well known throughout other parts of Spain. The caves are home to incredible displays of stalactites, stalagmites, underground pools, and other amazing rock formations. Led by our tour guide (who, incidentally, was very impressed with how well our group of students spoke Spanish), we delved deeply into the geological wonders of Valporquero...

Enthralled as we were by the caves, greater destinations still lay ahead, for Friday morning took us to Gijón, a port city in Asturias famous for its shellfish and beaches. As we boarded the bus bright and early Friday morning, we were alarmed to see that the favorable weather forecasts from the night before had changed drastically overnight (as they sadly tend to do in Northern Spain) - instead of the low 80s and sunshine we had been expecting, we were driving into cloudy skies, light rain, and slightly chilly temperatures. Nevertheless, Team León arrived boldly, ready to face whatever weather awaited us. We took the opportunity in the morning to explore downtown a bit, see the Plaza Mayor, and a number of students chose to hike to a monument with an expansive view out to the Cantabrian Sea. A number of tougher students, however, wasted no time and dove right in - literally. The water was - to put it in diplomatic terms - brisk and refreshing, but sure enough in a couple hours the temperatures rose and the sun began to peek out from behind the clouds, and by early afternoon, it was a perfect day at the beach. Volleyball, soccer, sunbathing, frisbee, and swimming were among some of the preferred activities. 

Finally, Saturday brought us an optional excursion (which nearly all students chose to attend) to the Lakes of Covadonga, a natural landscape beyond compare. The excursion was full of hiking and scenic photography, as well as visits to picturesque nearby towns. Needless to say, students will be returning home full of photos and souvenirs from this week!

...speaking of returning home, it seems our time in León is drawing to an end. Amazing how quickly the weeks have flown by here. Tomorrow (Wednesday) will be the final day of the regular class schedule. On Thursday we'll be celebrating the Farewell Party with host families, during which the students will perform either Latin dance choreography or theater/comedy routines. The Farewell event is always a beautiful evening, as it also allows students to show their gratitude to their host families for having welcomed them into their homes for the summer. Rest assured that many joyful tears will be shed.

The weekend will be free time for the students to enjoy with their host families and then, before you know it, we'll be on our way to Madrid for a brief 1 1/2 day visit to Madrid, and then we'll be saying adios to Spain (for now). Expect at least one more update before we depart.

Hasta la próxima,

Friday, July 8, 2016

The long-awaited update: The Camino, Santiago, Portugal

Finally, after days and days of building anticipation, it arrives - the story of Team León's epic trans-national excursion. 

The day (Friday July 1) began at an almost inhumane hour; we met at our typical meeting spot at 6:00am. Despite the early start, everyone arrived enthusiastic and anxious for the adventures to begin. The bus ride was a fairly long one, punctuated by a stop at a cafe/hotel for coffee and breakfast. We finally arrived at our pre-destination: a small stop 16 km outside of Santiago from which point we began our pilgrimage on foot. As the photos below will demonstrate, we were very fortunate to share this path with other pilgrims - we walked through small picturesque towns, pristine forests, and rural landscapes, passing creeks, mountains, farmsteads, and friendly Spaniards along the way.

The day was gorgeous and the path was truly inspiring. Our group was split into several smaller groups to give students a chance to interact with other students with whom they don't normally talk as often, and we saw a number of new friendships emerge as a result. We took a number of breaks along the way for photos, snacks, and reflection - many of the students in the group arrived at impressive ideas about what the Camino de Santiago symbolized for them: a moment of transition, a journey of self-discovery, a lifetime of learning.
The very first steps on our Camino de Santiago

Just beginning the Camino (these smiles will look a bit more tired in 5 hours)


Elena, Elena, Laila, and Anna looking pretty excited to be on the Camino de Santiago

Taking a well-deserved break, eating sandwiches, making friends with local cats

Taking a break down by a bubbling brook 

Nevertheless, the way was a long one, and upon arriving in Santiago nearly 5 hours later, the group was worn out. The photo below is of our group victorious having arrived in the Praza do Obradoiro just outside the Cathedral of Santiago

Team León outside Santiago's world-famous Cathedral
Santiago was (and always is) a stunning city and a testament to a centuries-old pilgrimage that continues to hold meaning for hundreds of thousands of people every year. Students had the unique opportunity to attend a mass service in Santiago's Cathedral to witness a rare ritual called the Botafumeiro (I encourage you to look it up on youtube if you're curious), while other students chose to explore the ancient downtown area of the city, purchase souvenirs, and bask in the glory of a city that appeared to have grown out of a living mountain of stone. Santiago is a city not only known for its religious and symbolic significance as the final destination for the Camino de Santiago, but also for the heavy cultural influence that celtic imagery and music has had in forming the region's artistic and social traditions. To listen to traditional Galician music, one might be convinced they were sitting in a typical Irish pub hearing the bagpipes, flutes, drums, and strings that make up Celtic traditional music - in fact, a number of students had the opportunity to visit a traditional Galician music shop, where some purchased folk instruments and others witnessed a demonstration of Galician bagpipes.

That evening, we stayed in a beautiful residence downtown, which had once been a convent set aside for religious reflection. We were served a home-cooked meal by the owners, which was absolutely delicious (squash soup, Spanish tortilla, salad, and homemade apple pie), and after the lengthy hike and excitement of the day, everyone slept pretty soundly that evening.

The following morning, our pilgrimage began anew as we boarded the bus en route to Tui, the very last Spanish city on the border with Portugal. The destination was intentional, as our first activity that morning was to cross the national border on foot from Spain into Portugal. From Tui, we could see across the river Miño to Portugal on the other side.
This photo of Portugal was taken from Spanish shores

Crossing the bridge to Portugal!!

Crossing the bridge to Portugal!!

Crossing the bridge to Portugal!!

And then all of a sudden, we were in Portugal! The students could barely contain their excitement, and I can't blame them - the feeling of walking across a national border on foot into a brand new country is indescribable, and very powerful.


A glamour shot with Portugal's welcome sign at the border

We arrived first and foremost in a small town called Valença do Minho, an ancient Portuguese settlement built inside a fortress which still stands to this day - in fact, the entire town of Valença is inside this fortress (which provided for some excellent photos). As it happens, Valença is also famous for its craftsmanship in towels, tablecloths, and other such textiles (who knew?!), so we gave the group a good hour to explore their very first Portuguese town, take some photos, purchase some souvenirs, have some Portuguese coffee, and breath the Portuguese air, somehow even more exotic and enthralling than the Spanish air we'd left behind in Tui.

After taking in the sights and the souvenirs in Valença, we re-boarded the bus and drove toward our final Portuguese destination - Braga, a city known for its religious significance in Portugal and for its symbolic importance on the Camino de Santiago. Braga turned out to be a fascinating experience for the students in our group, because many of the Portuguese folks who lived and worked in Braga did not speak much Spanish. Very abruptly, the students realized how much their Spanish communicative fluency had improved, and how limiting it was to be in a place where they had a hard time communicating basic ideas (although they all managed with the intro Portuguese conversation courses we gave during the week leading up to the excursion). Braga was a stunning and truly new city. We had lunch in a Portuguese-style restaurant in the central plaza (lots of cod was consumed), and then had free time to explore this vast and fascinating city. Students reported successfully negotiating purchases with Portuguese shopkeepers, ordering coffee using Portuguese phrases, and even occasionally being mistaken for Spanish tourists visiting Braga for the day.

Team León making the IUHPFL more international than it has ever been before
It was an unforgettable excursion, and I'm afraid even this long post has only scratched the surface. I hope I've sparked curiosity among family and friends to probe the students for photos and stories upon their return which, unbelievably, is less than two weeks away. Indeed, the summer is flying right by, and we have a lot to do before leaving León behind. 

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Look forward to a post in the next couple of days with photos and stories from the 4th of July and a day in Gijón - an amazing coastal city in Asturias. 

I thank you for your patience as I compiled stories and photos from this lengthy excursion! 

Hasta la próxima,

Thursday, June 30, 2016

A quick update regarding the coming weekend

Dear families, friends, and fans of the IUHPFL León team,

The blog has gone a few days without activity, as the week has been building up toward the coming excursion. Rather than leave you all in suspense, I wanted to share what is to come.

Tomorrow at the crack of dawn (or, well, at 6:00am) we depart for our most exciting and symbolically important excursion: the trip to Santiago de Compostela, the destination for pilgrims around the world. Our bus, however, will not be dropping us off directly in Santiago, but rather 16km outside the city, so that we can enter on foot like the pilgrims we are. The pilgrimage is a beautiful, moving, and exciting part of this excursion, and the arrival in Santiago will be truly unforgettable.


The following morning, we double the excitement by crossing a national border into Portugal! This will be an amazing moment, as we'll also be crossing the border on foot - something few people in the world can say that they've done. We'll get to see the first town over the border, Valença do Minho, and then we'll spend the full afternoon in the bustling and beautiful Portuguese city of Braga.

Many photos and stories will follow. Look forward to tales and images of extraordinary adventures!

Hasta la pasta,
Mark (and Sarah, Isra, & Megan)

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Optional activities galore!

A relatively quick update - the past week has been full of activity! Of course, academic classes are well underway, as are the afternoon activities. The students are finding their routines and their comfort zones as they get become better acquainted each day with their host families and with León. They've already found their favorite places for café con leche, ice cream, churros, and tapas, but we encourage them to continue exploring - León is nothing if not a city of secret treasures, and there are always more discoveries to be made here!

Last Sunday was a very full day. We offered a number of optional activities which a number of students decided to take advantage of. In the morning right by the University of León campus was the annual Color Run - a super fun event where brightly colored powders are thrown, dropped, and fired out of cannons in order to tie-dye every participating runner from head to toe. The word "stained" sounds very harsh in this context, so we prefer to say that some students will be returning to the US with clothes full of colorful memories (that sounds nicer, right?):
Before (already pretty colorful)
After (good luck recognizing anyone)
 The Color Run was loads of fun, but we wrapped it up in the early afternoon in order to give everyone time to recover in time for the Melendi concert that night - another optional activity, but nearly every student decided to go (of course, accompanied by the four instructors). If you - the families, friends, and fans - are not familiar with Melendi's music, please do spend an hour or so on youtube exploring. The concert took place in León's Plaza de Toros (the local bullfighting stadium), and it was absolutely amazing - not a single student who went left without dancing and singing along.



It was a day full of fun, and in recognition of this, we started classes a bit late the following day (a good decision, because a number of students were still recovering their voices in the morning). The week went smoothly, if a bit warm and humid. Classes, afternoon activities, sports, and time with the families are all continuing beautifully, and the only shocking detail is how quickly the time is passing us by this summer!

This evening we'll be offering another optional activity to the students (which about half have chosen to attend) - a bull fight in León's Plaza de Toros. It's a particularly interesting activity in Spain currently, because many continue to see it as an important sport with historical and cultural significance, while other Spaniards see it as an outdated, barbaric act of animal cruelty. My personal sense is that both sides are valid, and indeed each year some students find the bull fight to be upsetting while others are fascinated by it. We'll see how it goes this year! Photos and stories to follow.

Hasta la próxima,
Mark (and Sarah, Megan, and Isra)

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Astorga, Ponferrada, and more!

Friday brought us our very first official program excursion to Astorga and Ponferrada. We departed bright and early at 8:00am (complete with family-made picnic lunches in hand) for the beautiful city of Astorga which, like León, was the site of an ancient Roman settlement long before Spain existed. Today, Astorga is home to an amazingly ornate cathedral ALMOST as impressive as León's cathedral (on the left in the photo below) and a famous and beautiful palace designed by Antoni Gaudi (on the right in the photo below). 

After a breath-taking visit to the Cathedral and the Palace, we headed to Astorga's other claim to fame - the chocolate museum. Led by an informative tour guide, we learned about Spain's initial discovery of cacao, the long history of cultivation and the process developed over centuries to refine cacao into the various artisan chocolate products that have by now come to be associated closely with Astorgan craftsmanship. Far more importantly, we ATE CHOCOLATE, and oh my, was it good. We had a brief sampling of different forms of chocolate with varying percentages of cacao (the higher percentage of cacao, the more bitter and the more healthy). Needless to say, there were many chocolate souvenirs purchased from the gift shop.

After a picnic lunch in Astorga's main plaza and a bit of time to explore the city's other touristic attractions, we re-boarded the bus and headed out for Ponferrada. The visit to Ponferrada was entirely geared toward one specific destination: an ancient templar castle (below).

Students outside the Templar Castle (accidentally photobombed by my thumb)

The castle was enormous, and even the 90 minutes we had to explore was barely enough time to see most of it - from a supposedly haunted cellar area, to an ancient Templar Library (complete with replicas of centuries-old religious texts), to a bodega area for feasting and music, to a lookout tower with a winding spiraled staircase, this castle had everything you could ever want from a castle!

We finally arrived back in León in the evening as the sun was beginning to set - just in time to head to our respective homes to watch Spain take on Turkey in the Eurocopa (Spain won 3-0). The day was long and full of excitement, and although the weather did not cooperate with us (it was cold and rained off and on), the students had an absolute blast. Most agreed that some day, they would like to have either a chocolate museum or a templar castle of their own, and I don't blame them.

Finally, we wished a very merry birthday to Kaitlyn! It's very important to us to celebrate our team's birthdays when they happen during the program, so we sang Feliz Cumpleaños to Kaitlyn loud and proud. All in all, it was a beautiful day.

More updates to come soon (including the annual Color Run, the Melendi concert, and the second full week of classes...)

Hasta la próxima,

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

La aventura en León sigue

The first full week in León is well underway! The students have encountered many new experiences this week (and have handled each one like veteran travelers!): traditional Spanish lunches at Casa Blanca (the restaurant where we eat every weekday afternoon), academic classes, afternoon activities, and continuing to explore new corners of this beautiful city that we get to call home for the next six weeks.

The group has had the experience already in the past few days to experience some typical dishes from León - among the most interesting of these have been gazpacho, squid and potatoes in squid ink, a trout served whole (complete with the head). We've been very impressed with the adventurous palates of our students - they've been not only willing but thrilled to sample new and strange foods. (Please excuse the photo quality - sadly, the lighting was not as optimal as the food in Casa Blanca).

Of course, the first complete week in León has also brought with it coursework and afternoon activities. The students have begun daily classes in Culture, Linguistics, Advanced Grammar, and Literature. It is a lot to manage (along with getting to know a host family, a new city, and a group full of fellow program-mates), but they've done an admirable job not only of arriving to classes prepared with their work done, but excited, ready and eager to learn. We four instructors have cheerfully agreed on a number of occasions this week that we couldn't be happier with the effort and enthusiasm that we've observed in this group academically.

The students have only had an introductory taste of afternoon activities, but they are off to a dynamic start! Quite a few have signed up for the Latin dance class (which I have the distinct honor of teaching), and they had a BLAST! I've taught Latin dancing to various groups for almost a decade, and rarely have I ever seen a group of students connect so immediately with it. A number of other students signed up for a combination theater group, which everyone is very excited about. This group will work with traditional theater pieces as well as comedy, satire, and improvisation. The specifics, of course, are kept safely confidential until the farewell performance at the end of the summer, so the rest of us will have to be satisfied with our suspense for now.

This Friday, we depart on our first official program excursion to Astorga and Ponferrada - two beautiful cities conveniently located close to León. Rest assured, many photos and stories will follow this excursion; as a quick teaser, we'll be visiting a chocolate museum (with a chocolate gift shop!), a palace designed by Gaudi, and a centuries-old Templar castle. I'll look forward to sharing the next chapter of our adventures soon.

Hasta la próxima,