Posted on by Peter & Ulrike Rettig

Rick Steves' Travel Tips Also Work For Language Learners...

I recently came across one of Rick Steves' articles in the Seattle Times: How to meet the locals while traveling in Europe. As we are currently in Barcelona, Spain, I thought we would try out a couple of his suggestions.

Using Social Media to Connect

Rick Steves lists a number of links for meeting locals through social media. While none of his links worked out for us, another site,, which I found by chance, set us up very well.

A few days after registering, we were contacted by Fabian, a professor of architecture who teaches at a University in Barcelona. He was as eager to practice his English as we were to practice our Spanish.

We met up with him in the “Ciutat Vella” (Catalan for “Old City”) and he took us on a tour of some special places we had not yet seen.

(The picture on the right shows children playing in the Plaça de SANT FELIP NERI, where the bullet holes from Franco era executions are still visible.)

The language exchange was great. Beyond that, though, he gave us a fascinating glimpse into the cultural and political struggle between Catalonia and “Spain.” (And yes, Catalonia is a part of Spain!)

This ongoing push-and-shove between the two cultures is something we had been aware of, but certainly hadn’t appreciated enough. (We’re planning another blog post on just that topic.)

Using Spanish Language Phrases

Another of Steves' suggestions was also right on: “Play with kids.”; “...make friends with the parents...”

At one of our favorite squares, Plaça de la Vila de Gràcia Plaza de Gracia(see image), we were sipping our evening aperitifs at an outdoor café, as a young woman and her two-year-old child came to sit down at the next table.

It did not take long before we played peek-a-boo with the child and tried out our Spanish with the mother by asking “How old is your daughter?”, “What is her name?”, etc. (all phrases and sentences, by the way, we had remembered or adapted from our Spanish 1 course).

We soon were talking away, and when Carmen told us that the brother of her Italian husband works in a restaurant in Falmouth, MA, we could even use another phrase from our course: “¡Qué coincidencia!”

In our conversation with her, we gained quite a few insights into Catalan life and society. A couple of days later, Carmen introduced us to her parents as well as to her 94 year old grandmother, who had lived through the Franco years.

We may not have understood all of the grandmother's painful and vivid memories. However, without our basic knowledge of Spanish, we would have missed all of it. (The grandmother speaks no English!)

Making Yourself into a Language Extrovert

“When you’re traveling in Europe, make yourself and extrovert, even if you’re not.”

Following Rick Steves' suggestion, we try to start up a conversation with anyone who will talk to us - and we do it in Spanish.

We do our shopping in Spanish, where we often make small talk with the shopkeeper or other people waiting to be served. We order our meals in Spanish and ask the waiter about obscure (to us) items on the menu.

The other day, we visited Vilanova (a town about 30 minutes away) and at the Information Office, the woman asked us if we wanted her explanations in Castilian, French, or English.

We chose Castilian and had no trouble following her. Since Castilian Spanish is the second language for most Catalans. They speak it (a little more) slowly and deliberately – a real advantage to learners like us!

We haven’t yet tried Rick Steves' trick that he calls “pal up to a pooch” - but it might be worth finding out if pooches in Barcelona are bilingual too. The drawback is that pooches don't talk back...