So we’ve been in Spain for two months now, and all of us are increasing in language confidence, discovering many new places, and investigating the ins and outs of life in a foreign country.
We’ve slowed down our travel, allowing us to immerse ourselves in each place and really delve into new experiences. This has led to some incredible moments, from a farmer asking us to come and see his baby goats (which the kids got to hold), to the kids being invited to an English Language school for an end of year class party.
All of these experiences have been invaluable. The kids have made some very close friends and it has been hard for them to leave them when we do. Last night ended up in a pile of tears as we left some of their favourite new friends.
What we have found, however, is that we were constantly pushing the kids to step past their comfort limits, when Cass and I were not. ‘Go on, say hello to those kids on the playground’ we urged, however when faced with another adult, we would say ‘hello’ and then just go about our transaction without pushing any further.
It dawned on us one day that we were pushing the kids, and they were having some genuinely profound interactions, while Cass and I were missing out.
At home Cass and I truly value our strong friendships with a few close friends, however we have never needed a lot of social interaction. Both of us always got what we needed socially from work and those close friendships. We are naturally introverts who like the company of a small dedicated group. This doesn’t work when travelling, when expanding horizons is what it is all about.
We’re not new to travel, we’ve both travelled before, but as solo backpackers, where it is easy to make conversation with a similar vagabonding type over a meal in a hostel or a drink in a bar. Now we travel as a pack of four, stay in Airbnb type accomodation, and interact with each other in our own little bubble – it is so easy to get by without meeting anyone at all.
Cass and I have had to develop strategies and games to really push ourselves to have more meaningful interactions with people around us and it has really paid off; Cass met a fellow surfer taxi driver who told him all about the local conditions and explained some new Spanish surfing terms; we met a shop owner whose best friend is a coach with the Adelaide Soccer team; and we’ve made friends with the owners of a local tapas bar, who gave us an impromptu round of free Spanish liqueurs to try. These strategies have extended our experience to be so much more rewarding than before we tried them.
Here’s some little games and strategies we use daily:
1. Say something unnecessary
Every time you have an interaction with someone (buying something, riding in a taxi, asking for something) you try to say something that is completely unnecessary to the transaction. For example; when buying bread, ask if there’s been much rain lately, when at the bar, ask who is playing the football on the television, when in a taxi ask for a good place to eat. It’s amazing how often such a simple statement or question can lead to a larger conversation about something very interesting.
2. Go to the same place regularly
If you find somewhere good, go there often. We found a tapería where we really loved the food. It was cheap, near our accommodation and is owned by two brothers that were very friendly. We went back three times and by our third visit we were chatting about all sorts of things (they were the ones that gave us the free selection of Spanish liqueurs and even put some non-alcoholic colourful ones in similar glasses for the kids).
3. Say where you are from
If you tell people early on where you are from, it will often launch a conversation. It’s easier to drop in than you might think. If you don’t understand what someone says you can easily say in the local language, ‘I’m sorry, I don’t understand, I’m Australian’. If you are feeling a bit more confident you can say ‘I’m sorry, can you please say that again, I’m Australian but would like to practice my Spanish’. Usually this turns into a further conversation, perhaps they will ask where in Australia you are from, or tell you that they’ve been there, or know someone from there. It’s a good starting point.
4. Ask for help
This seems obvious but I’m not very good at this. It works in so many situations. I don’t eat much meat and we used to walk around looking at menus hoping that we would find something herbivorous. Recently we’ve learned to ask the waiter if there are any vegetarian options. This has led to finding better options for all of us, as the waiters often recommend something that is especially good on the menu, or offer a suggestion for what the kids might like. This can then give you a chance to ask more, such as what ingredients are in it, where does the fish come from, how is it cooked, for example.
5. Say yes (when you can).
It can be scary, especially when you are always thinking about the safety of the kids, to say yes to things. I was terrified of letting the kids go to an English Language school party without us in a foreign country, but it turned out to be an excellent experience for them. Of course sometimes you have to listen to your instinct and say no to something that isn’t a good idea, but generally, saying yes is going to find you in some unexpected places.
Have you got any other fun strategies or games for getting more our of your experience in a new country? We’d love to hear about it in the comments below.