My name is Zachary Biondi. I started traveling in college and it has truly transformed the way I view education. I would say it has even transformed my life. I am also dating the creator of this blog. She suggested that I write about my experience in Spain, and I of course could not turn her down. So here is my first attempt at a blog. Gracias, viageros.
The love of traveling is often closely accompanied by the love of foreign language. In fact, trekking through a country whose language is not your own usually gives a tourist an uncomfortable yet exhilarating feeling of linguistic helplessness (perhaps you are familiar with it). It was this very sensation that endowed in me a fascination for languages. I remember wandering through the terminals in the Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris after a late-night flight, somehow hoping to glean meaning from the cryptic markings on the signs, realizing for the first time that my humanities education was lacking a crucial element: I needed a foreign language.
If you are considering purchasing Rosetta Stone or Pimsleur, stop. If you are going to pick up an Italian textbook at a used bookstore, save your two dollars. If you are going to attend the nearby university’s free French lessons, save yourself the time. Let me be clear, there is nothing wrong with the these methods (except perhaps Pimsleur) granted that you know beforehand that you will not reach any level of proficiency—that is, without quitting your job, getting a divorce, or becoming clinically insane. If you do not have at least one nervous breakdown, then you aren’t learning the language.
There is one tried and true method of language acquisition: total immersion—i.e., sink or swim. It, however, is also far more expensive than the thrift store Italian book (though the nervous breakdown is included at no extra charge). You must relocate, often to a place where it will not be possible to find a job (remember, you don’t speak the language), and often to an expensive place. When I graduated college in May 2012, basking in the student loan grace period, I decided to immerse myself in a language before I had to immerse myself in the stress of job searching. In my youthful enthusiasm I decided to move to Spain. I remembered a little bit of Spanish from high school—that is to say, I knew what conjugation was and that la was feminine and el was masculine. I figured I would pick up the rest along the way. But who would pick up the bill? Then at a fateful Chipotle lunch a friend told me about WWOOF.
Ciudad Real, Spain. Near Plaza Mayor.
Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms (or, as I often heard, Willing Workers on Organic Farms) is a loosely organized association of organic farms all over the world meant to spread and promote ideas and techniques of sustainable living and food production. Many countries have national organizations, Spain included, with opportunities at farms of all kinds. What they all had in common was organic and sustainable techniques. I was instantly a fan of the idea. I did some research and decided that this was an outstanding opportunity for various reasons:
- Though I wouldn’t consider myself an ‘activist’, I feel strongly about environmental sustainability and count it among the issues I wish to learn more about; and I especially wish to live out my convictions in a more consistent manner. Through WWOOF, I would be able to find people who truly walk the walk. Who better to learn from?
- A proud city-dweller, I figured it was about time to get in touch with my inner mountain man. I hoped that afternoon walks through organically planted fields and idyllic ponds would summon in me the sort of ‘getting in touch with the soul’ that one reads about in Walden. (In fact, I read Walden during my three months in Spain. I downloaded the free copy onto iBooks on my iPhone. Ignore the contradiction and read on, please.)
- The basic arrangement through WWOOF is roughly 30 hours of labor per week in exchange for free room and board. I would learn some farming skills, work outside with my hands, speak another language, have plenty of time to study, and not have to spend a dime (or Euro dime?) for three months.
- Seeing how most farms are not in the middle of cities, by WWOOFing I could ensure that I wouldn’t be running into English speakers on a daily basis. I did a bit of research and selected an area of Spain where it would be more difficult to find English. And I was right!
- I could live on a farm with people who only spoke Spanish. That way I would have no option and would not have to depend on will-power, which, if you were to attend the weekly French class, would be more a test of your determination than of your French.
- And lastly, I left for Spain at the beginning of August 2012. That means I returned just in time to vote in November and yet got to skip all of the campaigning!
So I became a member of WWOOF España and perused the listing of farms. I sent out several emails with ‘mi solicitud’ in English and Spanish. I got a response from a woman in Ciudad Real, a city about two and a half hours south a Madrid by bus. She wrote all in Spanish, the first line saying that she couldn’t speak any English (which turned out to be absolutely true). Her name was Maria. She lived alone on a small farm, had ample work for me, was fine with my lack of experience with WWOOF, and, most importantly, was willing to be patient with the paucity of coherent Spanish I could utter—which is putting it generously.
I had solved my problem. Total immersion need not be expensive. I could experience another culture and language at very little cost. And I could participate in something worthwhile that contributes to how the world ought to be. Plus, before I left, I utterly underestimated the amount I would learn through this journey.
Two views from a hill near the farm.
For part two.