Bienvenidos to GAP! We are open and classes are held in Madrid city center classrooms with hybrid options built in to allow for a smooth semester that adjusts to any COVID-19 needs. The CIEE program has implemented all the stringent health protocols under the direction of the Spanish authorities, Language Schools and CIEE´s Health and Safety division.
Preparing a GAP program in Madrid during a global pandemic was an unusual and adventurous challenge. Yet the purpose and desired outcome of the GAP Madrid program never changed –our goal is to offer an excellent and rewarding learning experience for our participants while immersed in Spanish language and culture. This time around we had more honest conversation from our thoughtful CIEE staff members, local host families, dedicated language teachers and a cohort of eager and open-minded students. The fluid communication was a critical factor to develop realistic expectations so that the GAP programs could launch towards a "new better" in this Covid-19 environment.
When we welcomed our first GAP students last week for this fall semester, it was a very exciting moment. I have to say that meeting students at the Madrid airport was an emotional moment after months of anticipation – especially because the student excitement to be physically in Madrid was also transparent after a tiring journey of visa appointments, airline travel and trying to keep up with the latest news.
But it all started becoming real about one week before the official arrival date when CIEE staff delivered an online face to face orientation. We had an opportunity to have onsite staff connect with the participants as a way to get to know each other. The session spent time reviewing the key program components and by sharing Covid-19 updates from Madrid for the students. The onsite staff shared local tips and photos that helped students understand what is was like for jogging in the Retiro park, meeting for coffee on a terrace, going to a supermarket, etc. Students were pleased to know that they could move around the city and that one important obligation is to wear a face covering in public, maintain six feet distance and wash hands regularly.
At the Madrid terminal on arrival day, it was nearly empty and only passengers were allowed into the building. CIEE staff met each participant outside the airport by a well-known, visible landmark meeting point and took them in person by taxi to their homestay. In Madrid, all taxis and ubers need to be disinfected after a ride, drivers and passengers must wear masks, and most vehicles have a plastic shield between the driver seat and the maximum of two passengers in the back seat. This transport mode was convenient as taxis are easily available at the airport and through phone applications, if necessary.
Once at the homestay, the students were welcomed by their host mother, Marina, and host father, Carlos, who had prepared a traditional Spanish egg tortilla. See photo of students around the kitchen table.
The host mother is a trained actress and he is a playwright and stage director. Together they own a local artist´s company and manage their own theatre. Both hosts also perform in plays and, recently, Marina was in a Spanish film. They have four children who are now in their 20´s and early 30´s and who no longer live in the home, but they will visit on the weekends, typically on Sundays.
Some CIEE housing Covid-19 measures that the homestay implements are the following:
- Single room uses for each participant
- Disinfectant spray for shoes which are left at the front door upon entry
- Wearing a mask and providing meals to the individual rooms for the first five days
- Daily cleaning and disinfection of the common areas in the homestay
CIEE staff met with student and conducted daily walking tours in a small cohort of maximum fours since the legal limit is six people in a group, according to Spanish health authorities. CIEE staff took students to the historic, Austrias districts and saw the royal palace, the plaza mayor and the opera house. These emblematic locations are all in walking distance from their homestay. Later, the group had chocolate con churros on an outdoor terrace and reviewed some practical health and safety tips related to pickpocketing, filing police report, iNext insurance, making a doctor´s appointment, losing a passport and notifying the U.S. Embassy. CIEE staff also shared past student incidents so that participants have an idea of the scope of risks in Madrid city living, Fortunately, Madrid has one of the lowest violent crime statistics in all of Europe and walking the streets in the city center is a very Spanish daily activity.
The next day, the group visited the Language school and completed their oral interview which helped the teachers determine the final level placement of each students, varying from beginner, intermediate and advanced level Spanish. The language school places a maximin of eight students per classroom, with desks separated by six feet from each other. In case of more restrictions, the language school is ready to deliver classes online. See photo of CIEE students in their Spanish language classroom.
Students also visited the popular Retiro Park where we had a coffee meeting, sitting outdoors and socially distant. CIEE staff did an interactive exercise about cultural difference between the U.S, and Spain and discussed if these were stereotypes, generalizations or personal opinions, this was a fun bonding experience to be outdoors in one of the largest, green spaces of the city,
Students also visited the open, air exhibit, Anti Covid-19 art next to the world class Museo Reina Sofia. See the photos of how modern artists portray their critical views on the pandemic in poster art.
CIEE staff also aims to connect students with non-tourist parts of the city and rented bikes to look at the city´s changing landscape of Madrid Rio Park. The green-tree filled roads are car free and offer an excellent way for students to see how a working-class area along the Madrid river has been transformed into a 6 mile green park with multiple walking, running and biking paths, including a space for young people to have their own Olympic size skate park.
The first of our two CIEE-led day trips were a train ride to the medieval city of Alcalá de Henares, which is part of the world heritage network of the United Nations, UNESCO. The CIEE staff met the students and walked to the train station to explain how this transport works. Once in Alcalá, we had a guided tour of the main attractions of the city, the birth house museum of Miguel de Cervantes, the convent almond bakery, the bishop´s castle, the architecture and buildings of the Golden Age university campus and one of the most emblematically small theatre in Europe, the Corral de Comedias (built in 1601). Inside this beautifully restored wooden theatre structure, the guide explained its history but also the role of theatres through the ages, the actors experience, the different types of men and women patrons and the use of food to throw at a bad performance.
In general, locals in Madrid follow the Covid-19 measure order and often Madrid feels strangely calm. When you enter a shop you have to wait patiently if there is already another customer, make sure that you use the hand gel at the door, wipe your feet and be prepared to ask for assistance so that the clerk or shop owners can assist you more rapidly.
As one of our participants told us by the end of the first week, "it feels so wonderful to be here in Madrid and to belong to the world again!"