Adventure in Minnesota

Article originally published in the Lake Country Journal April/May 2019 issue.

AMONG THE TREASURES HIDDEN IN MINNESOTA'S NORTHWOODS, we find Concordia Language Villages, begun in 1961 by Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota. The earliest villages-Waldsee, German; and Skogfjorden, Norwegian-initiated the goal of creating authentic immersion sites modeled on the featured cultures. Today, there are fifteen languages offered, including locations in Switzerland and China.

This world-class facility serves approximately 9,000 "villagers" annually, counting the school year weekends, day, family, and adult camps. "Our instructors include native speaker counselors to college professors," says Jennifer Speir, Dean of Lac du Bois French camp for the past twenty-five years. "They represent thirty-five countries and are trained in the CV (Concordia Village) methodology. Most recently, we have been commissioned to work with the military linguistic forces and have measured testing improvements even among those who have spent years on assignments abroad."

People come from around the globe to improve fluency or just have fun. LC contributor Janet Kurtz and her granddaughter, Ella, attended Spanish family camp together. Here is what happened during their multi-generational, cultural experience.


"I don't want to go. I did not agree to this," my granddaughter stated as we put her suitcase into my car. Ella, 9, clenched her teeth and hugged her comfort toys to her chest. Under normal circumstances, she would leave home for an overnight and this was not going to be normal. We were headed to El Lago del Bosque near Bemidji, Minnesota, for a week of Concordia Language Villages Spanish family camp.

"Nana, do I have to speak Spanish?"

"Whatever you can, Ella. Just try. It's all families. Some will be native speakers, some have gone to immersion schools, and some know just a few words, like you. For now, remember: 'Hola, por favor, and gracias."'

"Mommy said if I don't like it, we can leave Wednesday," she reported.

"Let's concentrate on adventure." I handed her the map. "Read the directions to Turtle River Lake, por favor."

We meandered for some miles searching for the cluster of International Villages nestled in the surrounding woods. At last she perked up, "Flags! There is the U.S. one."

"And Mexico, France, Germany, Norway, and Sweden," I rattled off as we went through the corridor of fluttering countries. Those are the camps on this lake. They even teach Arabic, Danish, Russian, and Korean."

"Look at that long colorful boat," I pointed to the right. "Wonder if that is part of the French Voyageur's camp. They go to the Boundary Waters and re-enact the French­ American trading history. Bet they sing Voyageur songs!"

Up ahead, a uniformed person stopped another car. We would not be going beyond this checkpoint to the official Spanish Village with its plaza, tiled fountain, red-tiled roofs, Tienda, and outlying cabanas located in the big hacienda. That was occupied with middle-schoolers this week. The official pulled us over at Salolampi, the Finnish Village.

"Ready, Ella?" I looked into the back seat.

"Buenos dias," the young woman greeted us. "Quienes son ustedes?" She checked her list of names, marked us off and pointed to the parking lot, "La Aduana esta por alli."

"Gracias," I said, then smiled at Ella. "Nana, what did she say?"

"That Customs is over there."

Before I had the trunk open, Leonardo, from Uruguay, and Fito, from Argentina, were at our side asking if they could help. I gladly handed over our bags and followed. Across the street, a grinning man waved me over, greeted me with the traditional kiss on the cheek and introduced himself. It was Gustavo, Dean of the camp, in person!

Continuing our trek, we passed the Finnish-styled lodge, log cabins labeled Casa Iguazu and Machu Picchu, stopping at Casa Cusco, located in the Swedish Village. The simple design and five cubbies of two bunks each reminded me of European hostels. Maria Elena, from Connecticut, and her twin ten-year-olds were moving in. Other families would arrive from California, Texas, Tennessee, and Illinois, some with heritage in Colombia and Cuba.

Ella chose our cubbie, took the top bunk, moved in, and looked at me.

"Here is your passport, Ella. Let's go."

A short walk through the woods brought us to a red and white tent with four tables. We showed our passports and were sent to a table to be interviewed. They wrote our Spanish names, Juanita and Estrella, on tags while discerning our language ability. Ella signed us up for Arte and Musica, not soccer, much to my relief. The Comida table verified allergies and offered snacks.

Onward to the Tienda, (where "Daddy said we'd buy candy") and the Banco, where dollars are exchanged for Mexican pesos. We found the trail to the lake, discovered a Saami Hut, a sauna, and the swim area. Then a bell rang, calling us to a potential hurdle, foreign foods.

Emilio, the meal-time leader, bounced into the Cafeteria Ecuador, raising his hand in the universal camp sign for quiet. Each meal began with skits introducing the unknown foods. In their mix-matched costumes, twenty-five native speakers took turns racing around the room, repeating the vocabulary and producing pantomimes. No ingles. Pan, the word for bread, resulted in a spontaneous hand-clapping chant.

"Try this," parents coaxed. There were medianoches, a Cuban cheese and ham sandwich on freshly baked buns. The Argentine milanesas (thin slices of beef with cheese and tomato), genuine Mexican tacos, and churros, strawberry crepes and nochis (gnocchis) went down easily. Meals were served family style and everyone helped with clean-up.

After breakfast, it was Telenovela Time, a la Mexican soap opera. Spoiler alert. Shrek spoke Spanish! Burro (Donkey) appeared on stage wearing a fur-lined winter hat. Pinocchio held up a long stick for his nose. Shrek wore a green Mexican wrestler's mask. Ella sat entranced. She knew the movie and I knew the Spanish. Perfecto!

After each episode, the counselors grouped us for activities. Would she go alone? I held my breath...she did! With the teachers exaggerated expressions, we learned about Peru, decorated llamas, sang Mexican popular songs, and kids fashioned bows and arrows from sticks and strings.

Our days were filled from wake-up to fogata, the evening bonfire. When not in an assigned activity, we walked hand-in-hand through the forest stopping to listen or look. We noticed the eagle above, the frogs under leaves, two deer behind our cabin, the treed porcupines and watched fifteen baby snappers hatching in the road.

Each afternoon, we swam. She counted to ten in Spanish, the signal for us to dunk ourselves into the cold waves. When she saw others float away on a paddle board, she wanted to try. I found myself on my knees, balancing our way through the reeds. Next day, she drifted off with a new amiga.

When she asked, "Como se dice 'knees' en espanol?"  I nearly dropped. "Rodillas," I answered, and we sang, "Head and Shoulders" in Spanish.

Then, the surprise question. "Is this already our last day?"

"Yes Ella, already."

That evening, we put on our  party clothes for the farewell fiesta. One salsa dancing dad wore a kilt! Everyone received certijicados de participacion. Sabrina wheeled out the cake she made in the shape of Minnesota for Gustavo, who was retiring after twenty-two years at Spanish camps. The crowd yelled, "foto, foto." We all scooched together and smiled for our global family "foto."