"Dad, I want to play with some kids who speak English."
It was a reasonable request, and maybe you've heard it if you've traveled abroad for more than a few days with your family. My 5-year-old daughter Nina-Rose is an inveterate traveler, and like all good travelers, she loves to meet the locals. But on a long trip, it's easy to get tired of the nonstop push-and-pull of the language barrier, where every conversation (other than with your immediate family) is halting, awkward, and difficult.
So on our most recent trip to Spain, we discovered a secret hiding in plain sight: Expats.
Getting to know the local expat community on a trip can pay off with more than just primary school playmates. Expatriate Americans, British people, and other English-speaking folk make great cultural translators. They're far more clued in than the fellow tourists you'd meet at the local hostel, but they understand where you're coming from in a way that born-and-bred locals may not.
On some recent trips to Spain, we tapped into expat knowledge. In a park in upper Barcelona, a British dad told me which radio taxi service was most likely to have English-speaking drivers. Nina-Rose, meanwhile, attended a drop-in music class with some local British and American children, delivering a glowing verdict of "I want to go to this music class every day!"
Now, I know what some of you are thinking. The obvious, tried-and-true traveler meeting locations are hotel bars and youth hostel lounges, but those just aren't doable for most families. And it would be nice if we always spoke the language everywhere we went, but that also just isn't practical.
If you can't understand a word anyone says, here's how to find some help:
Go online and think like an expat. Sites such as Expatica (www.expatica.com), InterNations.org (www.internations.org), MumAbroad (www.mumabroad.com), Kids in Barcelona (www.kidsinbarcelona.com), and AngloInfo (www.angloinfo.com) all have listings, informational articles and bulletin boards about English-speaking life in other countries.
Through KidsInBarcelona.com, I found Keiko's Dream, a local language school that runs an after-school music class for little kids; that's the class Nina-Rose found so enticing. The sites can tip you off to popular international family haunts, like Hong Kong Park in central Hong Kong, as cited on AngloInfo.
"It's a good idea to use expat forums ahead of traveling to find out if there are any specific expat children's events going on in the area you are traveling to," said Carrie Frais of MumAbroad.com.
Ask a club. The Association of American Clubs (www.theassociationofamericanclubs.com) groups together a bunch of expat clubs around the world. While they generally require membership, you don't need a membership to ask what neighborhoods most expats live in, or what parks you're most likely to encounter local English-speaking kids in. They may even have free events you're welcome to drop in on.
Take in a film. In many major world cities, there's a movie theater that shows films in English. On a trip to Bombay a decade ago, part of a monthlong tour of India, I was literally shuddering with culture shock. Okay, it might have been food poisoning (and in fact I got giardia in Agra) but at the time, it felt like culture shock. Then I realized Analyze This was playing in English at a local movie theater.
In this case, the audience was all very well-dressed local Mumbaikars, but they spoke English and a few took pity on a lost, confused American traveler. Film buffs in Johannesburg and Spain have also given me some great local tips.
Find an expat haunt. For adults, that ubiquitous Irish pub can be a great source of information. On one trip to Iceland, I found that the stereotype was true: the bartender at the Irish pub downtown knew pretty much everything about English-speaking life in Reykjavik.
If you're looking for families to connect with, take your kids to a park in a neighborhood near the local American school or consulate. I found plenty of expats in Barcelona's Parc de l'Oreneta, near the U.S. consulate. Centrally located parks, near many tourist attractions, are also a good bet; Emma Grenham, owner of KidsInBarcelona.com, suggested the Parc de la Ciutadella in Barcelona.
Rent an apartment, and ask the rental agent. Grenham told me her organization has an arrangement with Friendly Rentals (www.friendlyrentals.com) to promote English-speaking children's events and get-togethers. Apartment rental agencies, more than hotel concierges, tend to be plugged into the rhythms of English-speaking life in foreign lands.
Do you have more tips for finding English-speaking friends in a foreign country? Tell us in the comments below.