Not enough people take advantage of the great number of language exchange evenings that have popped up all over Madrid. This may be because, while there are many different nationalities attending these meetings, the vast majority of people go to practice their English which at times means there is a frustrating lack of native speakers. However, don’t let this possibility deter you. The evening does not usually result in you being left alone at the bar wondering why you bothered coming out on a work night and most people manage to engage themselves in lively, if not a little clumsy, conversation.
So faced with so many options, how do you choose a good intercambio? Firstly, you have to have a little patience and try out a few- don’t be afraid to go along alone one evening to test the waters and accept that the first one you go to might not be for you. Remember, you are not committing yourself to anything. You also need to know what kind of experience you are looking for- is it just a chance for you and your friends to have a drink and talk to as many strangers as possible while leaving any attempts to speak English at the door or do you take a more serious approach?
Once you have spent a few slightly awkward evenings in various watering holes, apart from the obvious question of whether you have enjoyed yourself, how do you decide which one to frequent? There are a few factors that, in my opinion, make an intercambio worth sticking with. Firstly, a certain level of organisation is important. There must be someone who arranges the meet-ups and attends them in order to welcome newcomers and do a bit of “matchmaking” (in the non-romantic sense) by introducing you to people of potential interest. A good host won’t have you spend the evening making stilted conversation with the barman, or worse, left alone in a corner watching everyone else have fun.
The venue itself is also important. Many bars advertise “noche de intercambio” but make no effort to even provide a decent environment to talk. You either turn up to a near-empty bar with a few confused looking foreigners who aren’t sure if they’ve got the right night or a cramped space with the football blaring on the TV in the background and a mixture of people who are there for the advertised event or just want to watch the match (a word of warning: be careful of confusing the latter group for intercambio goers, they don’t like to be approached and disturbed from the game while both groups are guaranteed to mutually irritate each other just by their presence).
Last but not least are the event goers themselves. Ideally, you want a mix of regulars and newcomers so that things are always kept interesting but with some familiar faces to gravitate towards if feel shy. If there is no balance, the meetings run the risk of becoming too cliquey or simply a stream of strangers you will never see again.
If all this hasn’t put you off giving intercambios a go, I can recommend the following two meet-ups as fairly safe bets:
Beer Station, cuesta de Santo Domingo. This Group actually meets several times a week but Sunday from 19h onwards is usually its busiest evening. It is run by David, a charming and committed organiser who is always there to welcome you with a friendly face.
Café Galdos, C/Los Madrazo. Another busy Exchange Group which meets on Sunday and Wednesday evenings. There is normally someone on the door to welcome you and introduce you to others with your language combination.