When imagining Spain, one might envision picturesque beaches, tiny delicious tapas and beautiful, tanned Spanish women, kissed by the effervescent Mediterranean sun. The days are long, the nights even longer, and there is a romantic allure that draws you into this special place. This is what I thought at least, in 2009, when I decided to move there. At the time, I was living and working in Los Angeles, California. I had a great marketing job, a handful of close friends, and enjoyed the warm and comforting cocoon I had carved for myself. But something in me wanted more. I yearned to discover new things, escape the mundane and explore the world.
I began researching Master’s programs abroad. I considered many Western European cities: London, Paris, even Florence (where I had spent a 6 month program during my undergrad) before deciding on Barcelona.
Why Barcelona? I had spent no more than 72 hours during a brief visit years ago but somehow knew that it was the city for me. Barcelona was exotic. Filled with vibrant people, delicious foods, unapologetic sexuality and a nightlife that rivaled any major metropolitan city in the world.
It wasn’t until mid-May that year that I received my application letter. My heart fluttered and I did a little jump for joy. I knew my life was about to change, but little did I realize how much.
In August of 2009 I landed in El Prat Airport. I carried two overweight suitcases, and was wearing a soggy pink sweater that I used to dry my tears as I hugged my family goodbye. I was scared, lonely, but I was also ready for my adventure to begin.
I had earned this moment and finally, I had arrived to it.
The first few hours in Barcelona were incredibly lonely. I had rented a tiny studio, no more than 30 square meters. I managed to find a grocery store and with the little Spanish I knew selected tomate, espinacas, queso de cabra y un baguette rustica to make a small (ironically Italian) dinner for myself. After four years that were filled with sorority events and a spot on the collegiate swim team, it had been the first time in my life I had cooked and eaten a meal completely alone. I remember feeling so awkward, but in a strangely good way.
After dinner, I walked to a tiny Turkish bar that was at the bottom of my old building. Inside there were locals enjoying heaping wraps filled with spiced lamb and lovers whispering to one another in a corner. I had never felt more out of place. Sliding into an empty stool, I ordered a steaming cup of mint tea, and politely declined a cigarette from the owner who must’ve felt pity for the lonely girl as he plopped a sticky, flaky dessert next to my teacup, motioning me to try.
The days following proved to be equally awkward and confronting. I was unaccustomed to everything about the Spanish way of life. The terribly inconvenient business hours with a mid-day siesta, yet no one seemed to mind. It was starkly different from the incessantly convenient American way of working. Dinners always lasted late into the balmy, summer evenings, regardless of what obligation came in the morning. I quickly learned the concept of “manana, manana.” Time was a concept of fluidity to the Spanish: whenever this task is complete, that’s when one moves on to the next.
Men teased women on the streets, and whistles and catcalls were just a part of everyday interaction between the opposite sex. But perhaps most startling were the fiery fireworks that were ignited during each FC Barcelona victory on the very streets of the city center. I would scamper away and watch from afar, while others seemed drawn to the patriotic debauchery that took place on a weekly basis.
However, the most defining memory for me took place on a random day. It was October, and had already been weeks since my arrival into Barcelona. I had grown accustomed to my new life, and had even started making friends in my MBA program, which kept me constantly busy with new assignments or projects each week.
I had decided to take a break from schoolwork and venture to the Borne District, or the old town of Barcelona. Much of the city had been overtaken by modern buildings and renovated areas when Spain proudly hosted the 1992 Summer Olympics. But the Borne District was one of the places that remained intact, untouched by modern society and filled with artistic types, street musicians and my most favorite sight of all – Santa Maria Del Mar Cathedral.
Santa Maria Del Mar is a historic church located in the heart of Old Town Barcelona. At first glance there isn’t much distinguishing it from the hundreds of other cathedrals in Europe, but it is special to me in its own right.
That day I had made my way to the Metro system. I hurriedly brushed between tourists (because I of course no longer qualified as one of them), weaving the swarms of people underground, each on his own journey. I swept past the musicians playing versions of Frank Sinatra and the futbol team that had crowded the tunnel, but with each stride keeping a firm grasp on my handbag, which dangled at my side. I had learned by now that Barcelona was notorious for pick-pocketing, and I didn’t want to be the naïve American to fall prey to petty thieves.
Two trains later I finally arrived to my destination. When I emerged at the Barceloneta stop, I took fresh gulps of sea air as I walked along the beach, eventually making my way to the Cathedral square. It was then I realized how far I had come, in so little time. I was a meek and timid displacement from Spanish culture just weeks prior, but now I had assimilated confidently into this adopted way of living. I blended with the locals, and had begun to know my way around the city. I could purchase train tickets in Spanish, and knew what neighborhoods to avoid and which I still had wanted to visit.
I abandoned my precisely caked make-up for a fresher, more European beauty ritual and my hair fell freely around my Mediterranean tanned face, which complimented my new Spanish sundresses and sandals quite nicely.
Kneeling down in one of the creaky pews I said I silent prayer of thanks to the Universe for bringing me to this moment, and for recognizing it
I was thousands of miles away from California, but felt more assure than I had in months. I had begun a new life, a new journey.
Barcelona was my home.