Saturday, 11 July 2009

Pre-teen purgatory

As we have repeatedly acknowledged, here in Spain things are done a little differently. Never was this more apparent than last week when I found myself working as a camp counselor for 45 pre-teens in Aldeaduero, right on the border with Portugal (which we could see across the river).

Summer camps for kids - presumably an import from America - are highly popular and well established here in Spain, unlike in the UK where they are something of a rarity. As such you would expect their legislation and institutional organization to be ahead of ours. Not so. While in the UK if you want to do any kind of work with young people (let alone children) you are subjected to relatively stringent background checks and are required to do some kind of child protection training - something I whole-heartedly support - nothing like that exists here in Spain. They just take your word for it that you aren't a pervert. Not that they even bother to ask.

When I've done holiday schools and summer camps in the UK there have been plenty of preparatory meetings for those involved to work out the ins-and-outs of the timetable and what exactly your duties were. On this occasion we didn't get a schedule until Saturday evening; nearly 48 hours after the camp had started! Our training consisted of a very apologetic HR manager who "didn't usually do training" trying to show us a video on a laptop that kept crashing; what we did see was of questionable worth anyway. Turning up to the bus to the camp the next morning we discovered that our Program Director and MC were already on site and thus care of 45 children for the 5 hour journey was entrusted to 3 first-time counselors and a bus driver who didn't know the way. None of us had any contact phone numbers, either for parents or office staff - just a list of names and a bag of sugar-filled treats to try and keep the kids quiet. Ha. Ha. Ha.

Like I said they do things a little differently over here, though it's one of the few areas where I definitely prefer the British way of doing things. You know; safe, organised, prepared. My question as to where the fire assembly point was was met with blank stares, something which came back to haunt us a few days later when a bush fire broke out across the river. Suddenly as the sirens blared and the helicopters circled, dropping water it didn't seem like such a stupid idea to have a fire evacuation policy in place.

Aldeaduero is a rather pretty village next to a hydroelectric plant on the Duero river that has been almost entirely converted into a hotel (the village that is, not the plant). Accommodation was either in en suite rooms around a courtyard or in bungalows. Accommodation for myself and one of the other (male) counselors was to be a couch in one of the bungalows. In order to shower I had to walk through a bedroom being shared by two 10 year old boys. Needless to say I wasn't entirely comfortable with this arrangement, not least because the couch was too short and my feet stuck over the end!

The whole camp was held in English, despite the fact many participants were struggling with phrases such as "I don't know" and "how do you say...?", though I guess it was a sign of the camp's success that they had at least learned these by the end. The 7 counselors were put in charge of teams of 6 to 7 children of mixed ages, abilities and genders. Needless to say my team - the Orange Falcons - somehow managed to include the chief troublemakers in the camp; on one day they accrued 12 negative points for speaking Spanish, being in the wrong rooms and generally misbehaving, while the next highest total was 4. Still, at least they weren't dull!

Once we got our schedules and actually begun to understand what we were doing, things started to become a bit more enjoyable. The other staff were lovely, although we didn't have that much time for interaction as we were all focused on keeping our teams in line as we led them through various games, meals and activities. We planned performances, organised a fair and designed posters, planes, castles, newspapers, and boats (ours was awesome - a proper, functioning catamaran). We allowed kids to cover us with paper and paint for a fashion show. It took me a hour to get all the paint off - there's something to be said for the usual British policy of banning physical contact between kids and adults. However as far as the kids were concerned the highlight was the daily dunk in the pool. Dunk is right, as I usually managed 20 seconds in the pool before kids would start swarming all over me trying to submerge me or get me to throw them in the air. Removal of pool privileges became the ultimate sanction for persistent Spanish speakers.

It was a fun, if totally exhausting experience but I definitely think this is one area where the Spanish could learn a little something from the British way of doing things. I'm doing another camp in a fortnight's time, though that one will be with teenagers. I suspect a whole new range of challenges awaits!

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