Claire is back with another excellent article, this time reflecting on her last 5 years in Barcelona.
Within the next couple of weeks it will be 5 years to the day since I was hit by a wall of heat as I stepped off a sleeper train in Estació de França, with probably more luggage than is really permitted in their carriages. It’s difficult now to remember exactly how I felt at the time, what I was expecting, how long it would take, if ever, to feel like home. Moving away from a comfortable, happy life in Manchester to try one I’d dreamed of in a Mediterranean city has thrown more experiences and challenges my way than I ever expected and this anniversary has provided a good opportunity to reflect on what as a British expat are my personal highs and lows of Barcelona life.
Of course as a Brit I have to start with the weather. I never tire of seeing the resplendent sun and the cloudless sky nearly every day or of the lifestyle that comes with that, coffee on a terrace in December, being able to exercise outdoors for most of the year, open air concerts and events, learning to appreciate the relief and difference of a cool, wet day. Oh, and the slight schadenfreude I feel when seeing the UK weather forecast at the end of the news I’m watching as I eat my dinner.
The excitement of watching the human tower building castellers or the fire run correfoc at neighbourhood festivals and national holidays, no matter how many times I’ve seen the spectacle before. The sweaty palms I get as I watch the small child scurry up to the top of the tower and raise their arm or as a devil-dressed, pitchfork carrying, firework bearer taunts you with sparks flying everywhere. Aside from it being impressive I think it’s the juxtaposition with the risk-averse culture and firework restricted country I’m from that makes this so exciting.
Living in a city with a brilliant, efficient, integrated, relatively safe and clean public transport system makes life so easy. I will strongly defend the minor flaws of the Bicing bike hire system and the cost of the transport here because having lived in a city where much of the above does not apply, Barcelonins don’t realise just how good they have got it. Oh and the bus drivers say hello when you get on and rarely just drive past and leave you standing at the bus stop.
Of course as a food writer, cook and blogger I could not ignore the plethora of eating options here, and for me the standout point is access to ingredients. Yes, world food stuffs might take a little hunting down but being able to get almost every fresh ingredient imaginable and the adherence to seasonality means you look forward to items appearing in the markets. Where many recipes in my cookbooks were just unachievable with supermarkets at home, I am now able to cook a quail, some offal or any number of varieties of fish in a just a short walk from my apartment.
Although Spain is still suffering an economic crisis, something it is not suffering a crisis of is the important things in life; time to enjoy with family and friends and rest from the working week. The slow creep towards this changing is starting to happen, and whilst it may bring some economic improvement I feel what will be lost is priceless. Sunday here is a day to have a long lunch and talk, take the children to the theme park or beach, walk in Collserola Park or enjoy a stroll and an ice cream. There’s definitely resistance to the change but I feel the inevitable will happen and it should be cherished while we have it.
Making new friends from all over the world and sharing experiences, reasons for moving here, being united as being outsiders and trying to integrate together. I will always understand now why when people emigrate they ‘stay with their own’ a bit, I think it’s human nature to want to be part of the new place but be close to the familiar too. Contacts are also everything here. Making the effort to get to know people, putting yourself out there, going for a drink when you don’t really feel like it, being good to people (because it’s a very small world as a foreigner in Barcelona) can lead to amazing opportunities, good friendships and avenues you may have thought were closed.
The despedida, or leaving party. As a foreigner here you attend a lot of these. In the time I’ve been here I’ve said goodbye to many people who had become good friends. But for many reasons such as limited career opportunities, having children and wanting to be near family or just missing home too much, you will find yourself saying adeu, a lot. I’ve said goodbye in my life too many times now and as such try to avoid the despedida if I can. Rightly or wrongly, I now also find myself investing time more with people I meet who I can see are ‘stayers’ because I want long-term friends rather than those who are passing through.
Homesickness is a curious beast that can rear its ugly head when you don’t expect it, can hang around bothering you for days or weeks, you don’t really know why it’s appeared and it can be painful and upsetting. You miss your family and friends who have known you for a long time, yearn to be at a celebration or life event that you just can’t be there for and it can hurt. I thought it would be something that would just die away after some years, I now realise it’s probably a creature you have to learn to just live with, deal with when it creeps up and try to shut it out when it screams at you.
My Britishness. There may be a system for queuing here (asking the people in line, ¿quien es la última?, Who‘s last?) but any available opportunity to push in or jump the queue seems to be par for the course. Asking the supermarket assistant to “give you a bag” (no “please could you?”, “may I have?”, “would you mind giving me?”) or my neighbours not holding the door open for me as I come in or my leave my building offends my British sensibilities. We just don’t do the above. Although in honesty this amuses me and highlights our kookiness rather than being any criticism of cultural difference.
Not being able to reach fluency in Spanish or Catalan, and I’m saying this as someone who speaks and understands both at a good level. There are so many factors at play with this, some I take full responsibility for, others which are a victim of circumstance. If I moved here 20 years ago I wouldn’t be able to watch British TV, read a British newspaper or listen to British radio online and these are for me almost impossible habits to break. A job in an international company and international friends where English is the lingua franca don’t help either. But if you are Catalan or Spanish and I am trying to have a conversation with you, please stop seeing this as your opportunity to practice your English. I need that practice too.
Clearly the highs outweigh the lows as despite the rollercoaster I’m still here, here’s to the next five years!
Claire is a blogger, food writer and cook in Barcelona. She is the face behind Albion which hosts a monthly pop up afternoon tea event and hopes to bring more of the best of British cuisine to her adopted city.