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,

Saturday, June 11, 2016

¡Bienvenidos a León!

And so it was on the 8th of June that an historic expedition departed from Indianapolis International Airport for distant European shores. With mingled fear, anticipation, and excitement, 34 high school students bid their friends and families 'adios' for the next six weeks as they embark on an adventure that most students their age can only dream of.

Despite the long travel, our team arrived safely, soundly, and smilingly in Madrid the following morning ready to face a new day in a new country.

After a sleepy bus ride, we finally made it to León where the students met their host families (an encounter full of hugs, kisses, and the promise of way too much delicious Spanish food). On Friday, we took the group for a walking tour that included a visit to the academia where we'll be having classes, a glimpse of the restaurant where we'll normally be having lunch, and an overview of some of León's more iconic sites. 
In front of León's world-famous cathedral
Enjoying the charms of the Plaza Mayor
The day was full of explorations and conversations (in Spanish, of course), and by the afternoon, everyone was feeling much more acquainted with their new host city. For now, the students will have the weekend to unwind and get to know their host families a bit before we dive into the academic program on Monday.

I know I speak for my fellow instructors (Sarah, Megan, Israel) when I say that we couldn't be more impressed by the positive attitudes, the curiosity, and the open minds with which our team has greeted Spain so far. 

More updates to come soon as the adventure continues. For now, families, friends, and fans, we thank you for sharing these students with us over the next 6 weeks for what we are sure will be an unforgettable experience.

¡Hasta pronto!

Tuesday, June 7, 2016


And so Team León 2016's adventure begins! We'll look forward to seeing a full roster of Spain-bound students in IND International Airport tomorrow. By this time tomorrow, we'll be halfway across the Atlantic Ocean on our way to one of the most beautiful and culturally rich cities on the planet.

We instructors - Sarah, Isra, Megan, and Mark - express our sincere gratitude to you families for sharing such talented and inquisitive students with us for a couple months. We look forward to sharing León with our team. Over the next 7 weeks, this blog will be updated regularly with photos, stories, and news about our travels and accomplishments.

To families, friends, and fans of Team León students - ¡hasta pronto!