I'd been in Valencia for two weeks when it struck me that I hadn't had an uninhibited conversation in 14 days. I intended to stay in Valencia for a month and improve my Spanish-speaking skills by living there immersed in the language. The city was in the midst of Fallas, their exuberant March festival, a three-week, family-oriented event that would be immediately followed by Easter festivities. I was living solo in an apartment without friend or family to celebrate with, feeling bit lonely and needing to let loose a torrent of pent-up English words. But where to find English conversation in a city that speaks Valencian (a version of Catalan spoken in parts of Spain) and Spanish?
Intercambio literally means exchange in Spanish, and informal language and cultural events are sponsored by schools, bookstores, coffee shops, and pubs that allow participants to practice a language. It turned out there were many public intercambio events in Valencia inviting English speakers to come converse over beer or coffee with Spanish speakers wanting to improve their conversational English.
My first intercambio was at the Ubik Cafe, a coffee shop, wine bar, restaurant cum bookstore in the charming Rusafa neighborhood. The evening was advertised as "Singing in English," and that's exactly what it was. A local expat musician distributed sheet music of Beatles tunes and led the audience through a lively and social sing-along concert. On Monday evenings, Ubik sponsored a more traditional intercambio facilitated by a local language school where multiple language skills could be practiced including English, Italian, French, German, and Spanish. I didn't attend because, while I was singing in English, a local told me about another intercambio venue I decided to give a try.
Valencia's Portland Ale House is owned by two guys from Oregon who fell in love with Valencia and brought craft-beer brewing to the city. Oregon is only three hours south of my home turf. I would not only be able to talk English, I could talk USA Pacific Northwest English. Perfect! The pub was decorated in comforting memorabilia – a University of Oregon banner, Northwest Airline antique signs, and black and white photos of Oregon. The owner greeted me personally, seated me at the intercambio table, and gave me coupons for three free drinks and pizza as payment for my time as a conversation partner. Another English-speaking partner (from Seattle no less!) joined me along with six locals – all young professionals wanting to practice English. The evening was a combination of informal table conversation and pub trivia contests where our intercambio table competed with the pub's regular crowd. It was a trivia question that prompted another suggestion from one of the locals.
An Irish friend once told me you can find an Irish pub in every moderate-sized city in the world. Irish pubs are generally staffed by friendly Irish bartenders; soccer and rugby are televised, and they are frequented by English-speaking tourists and expats. There are at least five Irish pubs in Valencia but I only checked out one to see if it satisfied my need for an English chat. It did. Finnegans of Dublin was conveniently located on my daily walking route back to my apartment. The second time I dropped by for a beer after exploring all day, the bartender recognized me and introduced me to a group of London tourists who were there to watch a soccer match. I joined them and two soccer games later left completely saturated with English conversation.
Discovering Valencia offers a variety of guided tours with English speaking guides. I took the evening Tapas and Wine-tasting tour with Irma Mariscal, our lively and knowledgeable guide. A travel blogger from the USA joined us as well. That not only gave me an evening of speaking English, but I also learned a lot about the protocol and culture of tapas, the history of Valencia, and I discovered wonderful restaurants that I returned to during the rest of my stay.
My Spanish did improve. In fact, the rare English conversation I heard while out and about was so unusual it would nearly stop me in my tracks. As it happened, by the end of my trip I began to think I was hearing more English street conversation. Then, I was pleased to realize the conversations were still in Spanish only I could understand more of the jist without translating each word in my head. Still, I found I needed the occasional relief of hearing and speaking unfettered English. As a solo traveler without the companionship of fellow English speakers, I needed to seek out those opportunities. And by doing that I had many good times singing, playing pub trivia, cheering televised soccer, and sampling the cuisine and wine of Valencia.