Saturday, July 15, 2017

La despedida

Dear families, friends, and fans of Team León 2017,

Well, here we are in the final full day in our host city, León. It's almost unbelievable that the past few weeks have flown by as quickly as they have. Tomorrow at 6:00am we will be bidding farewell to León and to the host families that have made us feel welcome here all summer, and while students have some mixed feelings about leaving their new homes, they are all excited to be back home in the US.

Despite the heavy and mixed feelings characterizing this final full week on-site, we managed to fill it with quite a lot. Monday morning brought our group to León's City Hall to meet with a representative of the City Education Councilor's office. We were brought into the City Council's Chambers where policy-based deliberations and debates take place and had an (appropriately) educational conversation about education, international exchange, and the history of León.

Maya delivering a statement of gratitude for the City Education Council representative 
Team León looking elegant on the steps of City Hall
After a conversation in City Hall and a brief photo op, the City Council representative took us on a walking tour of some of the oldest and most well-preserved parts of León's Roman quarter, some of the walls of which date back to the 5th Century. After bidding our guide farewell, we headed over toward the academia to begin what would be a week of preparations for the Farewell Show, an event that we organize every year to show gratitude to our host families and to show off how talented our students are.

Rehearsing for the big night, sharing a quick solidarity hug
While the week also included the final class meetings for the summer, a night of tapas, and ample time wandering around downtown León, much of the week's attention was focused on rehearsing for the Farewell Show. This included not only learning and polishing dance choreography, blocking and finalizing theater performances, and practicing comedic timing, but also putting all of those pieces together to deliver a seamless show for host families.

Thursday evening brought with it a great deal of anticipation, the students having worked hard to prepare what they hoped would be a memorable series of performances. We were not disappointed.
Madison, Reagan, Leah, and David delivering some home-crafted stand-up comedy
Gabby, Emma, and Leah in the midst of an originally written satirical comedy sketch
Nate, Auggie, Maya, and Nick in "The Man Who Became a Dog" (Nate was playing the dog in case it wasn't clear)
Katey, Mikhail, Helen, Jade, Chyan, Nicole, Trey, and Mikahla showing off dance moves
Ivy, Lauren, Julia, Sam, Chyan, Ellie, Grace, and Anthony in perfect synch
Gabby playing a clarinet solo (featuring Nick and Emma as "improvised music stand")
Tessa and Paige star in "Who's Next?" - a fast-paced and sassy two-woman show

Toward the end of the Farewell Show, each student took the stage to deliver a heartwarming message of thanks to their host family for the food, time, affection, and fun they'd enjoyed all summer. The evening closed with a group performance of the song "No me voy" ("I'm not leaving"), which brought tears of mixed joy and sadness from the adoring crowd of host families. There was hardly a dry eye in the room.
The group hug they were practicing for in rehearsal

After the Farewell Show concluded, many students headed out with their host families to celebrate a beautiful and touching evening with tapas and desserts. A much-deserved night out for a group of 30 exceptional students who have accomplished truly remarkable things these past few weeks.

Friday was a somewhat melancholic day - it meant our final day of lunch at Casa Blanca (they made paella for us!) as well as our last day in the academy building where we had become so accustomed to having classes. At the end of the day, students bid a quiet farewell to the academy and headed off for their last afternoon of free time in downtown León (which, we have to assume, included a lot of ice cream). Today, Saturday, marks the students' final full day in León, which they'll all be spending with their host families. Hopefully they'll also spend part of the day packing, because we depart from León at 6:00am tomorrow morning. There, in front of the León University Library as is tradition, we'll say a sleepy and teary goodbye to these Spanish families who have welcomed us into their lives with such openness and kindness. From there, we head toward Segovia for an excursion, and then later that same day we'll arrive in Madrid, Spain's capital. 

I'll look forward to including one more post before we leave the country to return home, but for now, I thank you again for allowing us to spend a couple months with these wonderful students. I know that I speak on behalf of my fellow instructors when I say that it's been an honor and a pleasure - renewed each day - to teach and learn from these 30 extraordinary individuals.

Hasta la próxima
~Mark (and Sarah T, Sarah G, and Isra)

Sunday, July 9, 2017

4th of July, Caves, Gijón!

Dear families, friends, and fans of Team León 2017,

Well, here we are about to enter the final full week of our time in León. It always comes as a bit of a shock, but this summer in particular has really flown by. Students as well are beginning to feel the excitement to be back home again mixed with a pre-nostalgia for their new home-away-from-home. Nevertheless, we've not let the heavy emotions keep us from having a packed week.

This past Tuesday was, of course, the 4th of July, which we were thrilled to celebrate with host families in a public park in the outskirts of León. Many host families arrived with extended family members and friends as well, all decked out in red, white, and blue, so the scene was very festive and full of great people. As always the 4th of July party featured an apple pie baking contest and a Spanish tortilla contest for host families to compete among themselves.

Celebrating the most American of holidays in Spain
Some of the entries in our highly competitive apple pie and tortilla contest, complete with American flags

Wednesday afternoon saw us heading about an hour outside of León to a network of caves called the Cuevas de Valporquero. These caves are ancient and display extraordinary geological formations and isolated subterranean water bodies.

Team León about the enter the caves
Team León just inside the mouth of the cave hearing the first explanations of what we're about to see

Our tour guide took us through each of the rooms, explaining the differences between rock formations in the various sections, and many students were asking impressive questions to the tour guide as we went (he later remarked that he wished that the typical Spanish tour group could be so interested and attentive).
Team León deep within the caves
At the peak of the mountain we had just caved through. Not a bad view, no?

Friday morning took us to beautiful Gijón in Asturias. While the day started off cloudy and cool, the sun quickly came out and warmed things up a bit, which was great because Gijón is located directly on the Cantabrian coast with an excellent beach. The city itself is impressive and has a relatively famous historic downtown area, but many students were just as excited to have a day to relax by the sea and practice their beach soccer abilities. It was a much-needed day of unwinding before the final full week on-site.

Team León in Gijón with the Cantabrian Sea in the background

While Saturday was supposed to be our optional trip to the Peaks of Europe, we discovered the evening beforehand that there would be rain and storms all day with a projected high temperature in the 40s (Fahrenheit), so we made the unfortunate decision to cancel. Instead, we offered the students the option of a day in León, including a visit to the historic Basílica de San Isidoro (unfortunately no photos allowed inside, but they claim to have the real Holy Grail), a walk over to the cinema to see "La mujer maravilla" (Wonder Woman), and an evening of tapas with the professors. Despite the slight disappointment from canceling the Peaks of Europe excursion, it seemed like everyone had a great time.

And yes, alas, that brings us to our last full week here, which will be busy as we work to wrap up classes, prepare for the farewell show, and make plans for departing.

Look forward to another post soon about the farewell show as well as information about our final two excursion sites: Segovia and Madrid before departing to see you all on the 18th. It's been a wonderful summer so far, and we're looking forward to making the most of the final days in Spain.

As always, thank you for sharing this group with us for a few unforgettable weeks!
~Mark (and Isra, Sarah T, and Sarah G)

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

The big one... The Camino, Santiago, La isla Cíes, and Portugal

Dear Family, friends, and fans of Team León 2017,

Please excuse the slight delay in getting this post up - I wanted to make sure I had collected all the resources necessary to tell a complete story, because it was a huge weekend.

We began the day on Friday at the very crack of dawn at 6:00 in our regular excursion departure site, la Plaza de Santo Domingo. Students arrived excited and dressed for a long hike, but mere minutes into the trip there were only a couple conscious bodies on the bus - including the driver.

A very sleepy Equipo León on Friday morning

After a brief stop for breakfast and coffee, we finished our bus ride and arrived at a fairly inconspicuous stop - only notable because it marks the final 20km stretch of the Camino de Santiago entering into the city of Santiago de Compostela. The Camino de Santiago ("The Way of St. James") is an historically religious pilgrimage that has gradually transformed into a cultural pilgrimage of self-discovery more broadly applicable to religious and non-religious pilgrims alike.

Upon arrival at the beginning of our 20km hike, students were divided up into groups of three and given sets of suggested conversation topics (obviously in Spanish) so that they could get to know members of the group with whom they may not have spent as much time.

Team León ready to embark on the Camino de Santiago!

Over the course of the Camino, we took frequent breaks to reunite as a big group, check in with everyone, enjoy snacks, sing songs, and take in the extraordinary scenery that we passed.

Reagan, Mikahla, Helen, and Tessa fight off the rain with umbrellas, coats, and smiles

Standing in front of what appears to be an enchanted forest

"Casi" - the Spanish word for "almost." A bit of encouragement on our path

Just follow the yellow arrows...

Stopping by a monument along the way, featuring the famous scallop shell which is the symbol of the Camino de Santiago

A strong contingent of Equipo León enjoying lunch by a stream and a weeping willow

Madison and Julia, relaxing and smiling by a creek

Ivy, Nick, Veronica in the midst of pristine nature

No question: these are cheerful pilgrims

After around 4-5 beautiful hours of hiking, conversation, and contemplation, we arrived at the Monte de Goces and climbed the hill from which point we received an excited and relieving sight: the first view of Santiago de Compostela off in the distance. From this point, we knew we had less than an hour remaining, and I think we were all filled with a renewed sense of energy despite the aching feet.

We're almost there!!!!
Finally, after nearly 6 solid hours of hiking, we arrived exhausted and thrilled in gorgeous and historic Santiago de Compostela, our pilgrimage ending in the symbolic site of the front of the cathedral in the Praza do Obradoiro (Gallego for "Laborer's Plaza"). Most students - religious or not - decided to take the opportunity to attend the mass for pilgrims in the cathedral, intended as a blessing and a welcome for those who have completed their pilgrimage.

Equipo León in the Praza do Obradoiro - WE MADE IT!!!

At this point, the group was pretty tired, and so we had a quick dinner, got checked into our hostel, and called it a night. The following day brought most of the group to an island off the coast of Vigo called la Isla Cíes - a pristine and relatively undiscovered natural paradise. Students did some hiking, visited a beautiful beach, and generally enjoyed the feeling of being surrounded by one of Spain's most beloved national parks.

On the boat, enjoying the ocean breeze, on the way to la Isla Cíes

Arrival at the island - it's so beautiful!

View of the ocean from rocky hills

The group looking pretty thrilled to be on a Galician island

Very pleased about a day well spent on the island

Crystal clear skies and oceans. What more could one ask for?

Exhausted and exhilarated, the group arrived at the hostel ready for dinner, everyone anticipating the adventure that would come the following day. Sunday, of course, brought us to Tui, the final Spanish city in Galicia before crossing the border into Portugal. The bus left us in Tui from where we walked (it didn't take very long) toward the fateful bridge from which we would - on foot - cross a national border.

Lauren, Nick, Veronica, Nicole, Nate, and Jasper crossing the bridge from Spain into PORTUGAL

Taking our first steps off the bridge into Portuguese territory was nothing short of inspirational. It is hard to put into words the feeling of walking into a country that you have never visited before, and Team León was overwhelmed with a feeling of significance. Of course, there was an obligatory photo taken in front of the giant welcome sign in Portugal - the announcement of our arrival in a brand new country.
We. Just. Walked. On. Foot. Into. PORTUGAL!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Jade, Katey, and Chyan in front of the official EU welcome to Portugal

As soon as we crossed the bridge, we arrived in Valença do Minho - the first Portuguese city on the border with Spain. The entire city exists within an ancient fortress on the banks of the river that divides Spain from Portugal. From the highest points of the fortress, there are beautiful views across the river toward mountains and villages in Spain.

Invasion! The fortress has been breached!! 

Nick, Maya, Helen, Isaac, Leah, and Mikhail just casually relaxing on a centuries-old Portuguese fortress wall with Spain in the background

Chyan, Davaid, Augie, and Nate contemplating the symbolic power of having just crossed a national border on foot

Upon arrival in Valença, students had some free time to explore this new Portuguese city - they wandered the streets, purchased some souvenirs, and some even practiced a bit of Portuguese with shop employees. We had the opportunity to enjoy a typical Portuguese lunch as well, which was delicious and unlike any preparation of food we'd had before.
Exploring the picturesque, winding streets of Valença do Minho

Having an outdoor lunch in Portugal!!

After Valença, we brought the group about 20 minutes west along the river bank to a beach at which the river begins to feed into the Atlantic Ocean. Many photos were taken of Spanish hills on the other side of the river, and quite a few students decided to go for a swim as well.
Team León on a Portuguese beach with Spain in the background
If you look closely, you can observe the grinning head of an otherwise buried Nate surrounded by adoring friends

All in all, it was a weekend densely packed with truly new and exciting experiences. We arrived Sunday evening back in home-sweet-home-away-from-home (León) to the hugs and kisses of host families who had missed their American kids desperately during the long weekend excursion. Upon beginning the week, we are struck by the fact that in less than two weeks, we'll be arriving back in the United States, which came as a bit of a shock to the group of 30 students who abruptly realized they had come to feel at home in a foreign city.

In the days to come, we will be making the most of our remaining time here in our beloved host city - upcoming visits include a system of caves, a day in the coastal Asturian city of Gijón, an excursion in the Peaks of Europe, a visit to León's municipal Education Councilor, and preparation for our farewell.

Until the next update, I thank you for continuing to follow our adventures here!
~Mark (and Sarah T, Isra, and Sarah G)

Thursday, June 29, 2017

¡Fútbol y música!

Dear family, friends, and fans of Team León 2017,

It's been a big week here in the city of lions! Apart from advancing in classes, continuing with afternoon activities, spending plenty of time with the host families, and exploring the special festivities throughout the city, we've been able to do some really exciting things in the evenings.

On Tuesday night, Spain played against Italy in the sub-21 European soccer tournament (all players on the team are 21 or younger). It's an interesting tournament, because it gives a bit of a sneak peak at what the top levels of international soccer could look like in 4-5 years as these players continue to hone their abilities and play on other teams. This was the semi-final match in the tournament, and the stakes were high, so obviously we organized a night out to have some tapas and go watch the match together. While some chose to sit the evening out, many put on their red and yellow, broke out the flags and vuvuzelas, and joined the professors for a night of international soccer.

A strong contingent of Team León out for tapas and fútbol to support the Spanish side

We set up in a local spot with an enormous projector screen to watch the game, and it was a close one (at least for the first half). Spain, of course, took home a decisive 3-1 win, securing them a spot in the championship match against Germany on Friday. Fortunately, we'll be arriving in Santiago de Compostela (more on this later) with plenty of time to find a place to watch the final match, because now everyone is very invested in seeing Spain's eventual victory. 

Madison, Reagan, Jade, Helen, and Tessa getting PUMPED to see Spain stomp Italy

Last night (Wednesday) marked one of the biggest events in León's summer schedule - an outdoor concert by the famous Spanish band La Oreja de Van Gogh (Sarah T and Israel have been huuuuuge fans for years). Nearly every student came out to the jampacked Plaza Mayor to see this show, and the band did not disappoint - even those previously unfamiliar with their music were instant converts, dancing and singing along, electrified by the energy in the crowd.

New Oreja de Van Gogh super-fans, representing IUHPFL

La Oreja played all of their big hits, including "Cuídate," "La playa," "Jueves," and a number of brand new songs from their freshly released album "El planeta imaginario" (The imaginary planet). It was a huge show, and everyone had an amazing time - in fact, the concert didn't end until after 1:00am, so the professors mercifully began classes a bit later this morning to let the students rest up.

La Oreja de Van Gogh taking the stage getting the crowd excited for the first song of the night
La Oreja de Van Gogh is AMAZING!!!!

This weekend finally brings us to our biggest and bestest excursion - it begins with hiking the last 20km of the Camino de Santiago, entering into Santiago de Compostela on foot like the pilgrims we are. We'll take the following day to visit beautiful Santiago and then explore a pristine national park on an island off the coast of Vigo. On Sunday morning, we'll head west, crossing the border into Portugal on foot. It's going to be an unforgettable few days, so expect many photos and stories to come afterward.

Until then, we thank you again for letting us borrow these brilliant, hard-working, and often hilarious students for a few weeks. 

~Mark (and Isra, Sarah T, and Sarah G)

La despedida

Dear families, friends, and fans of Team León 2017, Well, here we are in the final full day in our host city, León. It's almost unbeli...