I am not a resourceful person, not the type of guy who can repair a car engine with dental floss and a ballpoint pen spring. But, as I learned on my recent Spanish getaway, there's nothing like being plunked down in an unfamiliar environment to test one's mettle. Too busy to adequately plan for our sojourn abroad, I nevertheless managed to find plenty of music, food, and mischief in both Barcelona and Madrid—despite only the most rudimentary command of Spanish. As a public service, I'd like to share some lessons learned in my adventures.
Foremost, buy guide books to the place (or places) you intend to visit: The Rough Guide and Lonely Planet series are reliable, but for nightlife info the Time Out tomes are the winners. Do this before you get on the plane! English-language guides geared to the under-50 set are harder to find in distant lands; a desperate search of Barcelona booksellers turned up little more than Michelin's Madrid in Your Pocket, a nice resource if you like museums, but weak on local leather bars.
Also purchase a street map, phrase book, and pocket dictionary. Do not be afraid to use them. While your foolish attempts to utter the most basic phrases may sound hilarious (my friends burst into giggles every time I ordered a beer by lisping "ther-ve-thah"), it invokes a kinder response than immediately asking if people speak English. Memorize the phrase for "what do you call this?" Shaking a tumbler full of ice and asking c�se llama? spared me drinking warm whiskey all week.
In the event that mangling the native parlance isn't working, do not panic. Carry a pen so you're prepared to ask locals to write instructions down in simple phrases or draw diagrams; a map scribbled on a bar napkin is sometimes all you need to find a hot club that'll be history by the time it makes the guide books.
If you must resort to pantomime, be expressive and funny. The busboy is more likely to help you escape from the undercover cop you cruised in el ba�I> if you make him laugh while conveying the urgency of your predicament.
Judging by the radio, popular music in Spain is mostly frothy techno-dance and cheesy Latin tracks. Like I needed to buy a plane ticket to hear that. But finding good music abroad isn't much harder than doing so in Iowa—it just involves an extra step or two.
If you're looking for rock shows or clubs in a foreign metropolis, scour newsstands and record stores. An ad in Spain's Rockdelux rag pointed me toward the excellent shop Del Sur (Ca�del Peral 9, 28013 Madrid). At the newsstand I also discovered Madrid's weekly listings rag. I couldn't read a word of it, but after an hour or two combing through it with my trusty dictionary and map, I'd figured out which watering holes the white-belt-and-dyed-black-spit-curls set favors (Tupperware, on the Corredera Baja de San Pablo in the Malasa�istrict, is a good place to start) and where the UK band Gallon Drunk (who, by the way, kicked ass) were playing that weekend.
Another way to hunt down record stores—which inevitably have posters and flyers for gigs of note—is to pop into an Internet cafe and dial up the British Web site Motion, at motion.state51.co.uk. Using the Record Shop Finder function sent me to Barcelona's CD.Drome (c/Valldoncella 3, 08001 Barcelona), which had an amazing selection of both indie rock and beats. Here I not only picked up Teenage Fanclub's sunny new album Howdy! (Columbia Records, UK-only for the time being) but also a flyer for a club where Ben Watt (of Everything But the Girl) and Jay Hannon of UK perennial Lazy Dog were bringing their deep house grooves later in the week.
Other pointers to keep in mind: Study the cuisine of your vacation destination to avoid ugly surprises. The tables of Spain, for example, aren't especially welcoming if you're a) a vegan or b) squeamish about seafood served with the head on. Also, unlike in America, where pickpockets and terrorists are imaginary bogeymen intended to scare tourist yokels away from the big cities, abroad they are legitimate concerns. I spent an hour on a motionless train between Barcelona and Figueras (home of the surreal Museu Dali, well worth the 90-minute train ride), and was ultimately forced to disembark in the middle of nowhere and fend my way back to the hotel because of a bomb scare at the main station.
Oh, and one last thing. If you're in a country where it's not customary to tip the bartender—don't! You're just spoiling it for the rest of us.