That Summer: Stumbling through a year abroad in Barcelona in 1997
This piece was originally published as part of The Independent’s That Summer series. Find out more about it here.
I emerged from another set of steps into the same vast square. It was late afternoon but the sun was still scorching. I set down my bags again and peered hopefully down at the map.
I was flagging. I tried vainly to dismiss the gathering clouds of panic that I was phenomenally ill-prepared for my Catalan venture.
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An hour earlier I had got off the airport bus full of naive bravado, ready to find my way by train to the university where I would be studying for the next nine months.
Two aborted attempts later, I was back where I started from, humbled, and ready for a cab.
What had I been thinking when I applied to study in a city I had never been to before, with two official languages – neither of which I spoke?
It’s difficult for me not to feel self-pity when I think back to my first weekend in Barcelona, spent entirely on my own at a university campus still empty of students.
I was there early for an intensive language course; it would be another two weeks before my Catalan flatmates arrived.
After the difficulties of reaching my destination that first Friday, I was minded to stay in but hunger forced me out foraging. Having located the campus supermarket, I deftly negotiated the purchase of a six-pack of beer along with my pasta.
Two hours and four cans later, underwhelmed both with taste and effect, I studied the beer cans further. My fears were confirmed: sin alcohol was meaningfully stamped on it.
With my entire weekend’s linguistic output coming to no more than a few monosyllabic mutterings to the supermarket cashier, and a few peppery expletives on discovering my beer error, by Monday morning I was ready to talk to anybody about anything.
The problem was, I was going to a Spanish lesson.
I clearly remember taking my seat in a class. A teacher was enthusiastically espousing in Spanish at the front. I sat for 30 seconds in increasingly pained anxiety before bravely voicing: “Sorry, I think I’ve come into the wrong class, I’m meant to be in the beginners’ one”.
Now, I know that language immersion classes have probably been going on for years in the rest of the world, but for someone used to the idea that foreign languages were taught in English it was a bit of shock to be told, actually, I was in the beginners’ class.
A couple of Sundays later my flatmates arrived; I assaulted them with two weeks’ worth of Spanish learning and pent-up conversation.
Besides their company I enjoyed familiarising myself with the Catalan cultural map.
We always ate together at the table and they always cooked fresh food, lunch and dinner. I remember my incredulity that a one-litre bottle of olive oil bought for communal use on Monday was often shaken of its last drops by the following Friday.
I discovered breakfast for Catalans consisted of a rather disappointing milky coffee and a handful of biscuits with jam. A greater shock was the discovery that when a bottle of beer appeared on the table one evening it was to be shared between the four of us. Clearly some of the greatest learning was taking place outside the language classroom.
My own attempts at culture exchange were not always the greatest successes. Astounded that none of my flatmates had ever tried curry, I made it my mission to introduce them to it. But finding even the most basic of spices in even the largest of hypermarkets was difficult.
Not to be put off, I made do with what I had and, armed with the knowledge that Catalans are not used to spicy food, I prepared a korma so docile the lentils could have picked a fight with it. Nonetheless there were immediate lunges for glasses of milk and a free lesson in Catalan swearing from my companeros.
Looking back I’m sure that my naivety and ignorance of exactly what studying abroad involved protected me for those first few weeks. What I had not appreciated was that living in a place was not the same as travelling through it, nor how isolating lack of language was.
If times were not always easy at the beginning, the city distracted me with its spectacle and colour. I was driven by a youthful fascination with this brash Latin world.
One Saturday evening shortly after arriving, I took the train to Placa Catalunya. Coming out at the top of Las Ramblas I remember my childlike joy as my senses swayed at the barrage of stimuli; the Bolivian pan pipers, the Spanish rock band, the dancing Beatles puppets and all around swirling, eddying masses of people. Currents of energy tugged at me from every direction, possibility and adventure caught me.
In the new year of 1998, I moved into a small room in Gracia, one of the city’s inner barrios. I adored its small balcony and its temperamental lift but, above all, its location in what I saw as true urban Barcelona.
Meanwhile, my Spanish (if not my Catalan) was suddenly moving towards what could be called conversations. I loved speaking the language, loved the thrill access to this new world gave – also the excitement of unlocking a new part of me. I felt a giddy exhilaration as I seemed to expand into an unknown part of myself.
By June I had been completely seduced by the city. The academic year ended but I extended my lease through the summer, found work teaching English and swooned in anticipation at the months ahead.
A cursory glance at my recollections of those times brings back not just moments of flighty wonder, like the August street parties in Gracia; sunset on the roof of Gaudi’s voluptuous masterpiece, La Pedrera; or speaking to Maria-Jose for the first time after I found our eyes locked together in Placa del Sol.
Yet I recall just as strongly seemingly trivial routines, such as buying baguettes from the woman who insisted I speak Catalan. Or filling my old water bottles with wine from the barrel at the dark, musty shop around the corner, where the old men sat on small stools. Or conversations with Juan, the owner of Cafe de Teatro.
I remember my self-conscious pleasure at reading El Pais with my cortado coffee at a table in Placa de Rius y Taulet, and my satisfaction at adopting Spanish nocturnal timetables, where meetings were rarely before midnight and chocolate caliente was often sipped at dawn waiting for the Metro to open.
These moments reminded me that I had immersed myself in Mediterranean life, sought out the city’s rhythms and found I could dance to them.
That summer I often thought back to the lost, vulnerable foreigner standing in Placa Catalunya months earlier and thought how much had changed.
Barcelona nurtured a Latin quarter in me and gave it a chance to grow.
I realised during those sultry months that I could never be the native Latino I wanted to be, but also that it was because I was an outsider that I appreciated things so much. Nor though could I ever be quite the same, there was a part of that summer I’d always carry with me and a part of Barcelona I’d always call home.
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