Paella, architecture and…haribos?

What began as “The earliest I’ve got up,” unfolded into, “The best thing I’ve ever done.” The words of Michael, 9.

This past week I have spent 5 days in Valencia with 16 of our junior school children, and Mrs Ward, in the second leg of an exchange programme between St John’s and SEK Levante, Spain.

Having limited children to only one carry-on bag and only a certain amount of spending money, the children proceeded to fill their bags and stomachs with duty-free Haribo (which I’m sure is some foreign language’s slang for ‘heartburn’) and chocolate. There is no better way for a child to survive a sleepless night and a long journey by air and land than filling themselves with sugar and fat. Thomas discovered this in extreme fashion. Don’t ask.

The host families were awaiting us on a day off 26 degree heat and actually a small splash of rain. The excitement of the youngsters obviously spurred them on, with some entering Spanish culture a little too much, Sam staying up until gone midnight to complete 20 consecutive hours awake.

Saturday and Sunday were full days with the hosts. Some went to the beach, others to the zoo, restaurants, parks for quad cycling, boat trips down rivers, football tournaments… Everything you could imagine, nearly everyone sampling paella.

On Monday morning, having not heard much from the children except through photos on the parent WhatsApp group, Mrs Ward and I waited nervously to see how they had all found the weekend as they arrived at school for a 8.30 start. The sun was already blazing and my choice of thick flannel shirt, although very fashionable and flattering to my previously slim build (prior to this trip), proved to be a poor one. Javier from SEK Levante had already given up part of his weekend to collect us from the airport and check us into the hotel, but then in addition had arranged tours of the school and a robotics workshop for us teachers. This will be visible in our extracurricular program very soon. The children meanwhile had a whole day following the typical timetable of their host partners, including an hour in the pool at the end of the afternoon.

On Tuesday Javier had organised a trip to the old city of Valencia, with the school’s history teacher Luis as a guide. “The architecture here is amazing!” were honestly the words of Toby, 10. Honestly… he really said that.

In the afternoon we visited the Oceanografico, Europe’s largest aquarium. Having seen penguins, walrus, crocodiles and sharks, we were treated to a live dolphin show. The children sat for half an hour enthralled with the tricks, jumps and flips these amazing animals can do. One person even got emotional and shed a tear at one point, but please don’t ask who because I’ll be embarrassed.

All that was left was for children to pack their bags, return to school and board the bus to the airport to get home. Being a Spanish speaker, I chatted frequently with the host parents and there were two words I heard more than any others when describing our children: “amable” and “gracioso”. Look them up if you want a shiver in your spine!

So after 5 days in a different country with new weather, places, faces, routines, flavours, habits, language… everything… What did they learn?

“Never, never, never slide into the pool. Just jump in because you get used to the cold quicker.” Thanks Anna.

Genuinely though, the risk these young children took in volunteering to go and then going through with it, is really quite something. Then, to last the whole time with not a single moment of poor behaviour and the strength to endure short moments of homesickness, is unbelievable. As I write this now I feel so proud and really quite electrified to know the depth of international-mindedness that this trip will have nurtured…

How lucky they are to live in these days and be part of something so good. We may be a small English school but we are part of an enormous network around the world, full of opportunities just like this one. This is only the beginning. Already the seeds have been planted for coordinated projects between some of our other sister schools, maybe even more visits, but watch this space for an even higher level of excitement.

A huge thank you to Javier Garcia from SEK Levante for all your time and commitment to organising a great trip for our children! It would not have been possible without you.

Mr Andi Davies

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