Before coming to Barcelona, I had always thought of Spain as being similar to any of the Latin American countries I had been to: gregarious people, loud music everywhere, people hugging and kissing, spicy food...
I was (ultimately) pleasantly surprised that Barcelona was nothing like that. Here are the 15 most surprising things about living in Barcelona:
- They don't speak Castilian Spanish. They speak Catalan, a Romance language that has similarities to Spanish and French. And if you are ever there and know a bit of Spanish, please don't ask if the person can speak to you in Spanish. A bit of background: Barcelona is a city in Catalunya, a region in Spain. In Catalunya, they speak Catalan, a Spanish dialect, just as Castilian is a Spanish dialect. The Catalan people are fiercely independent and are even considering voting on their independence from Spain. So, when you ask if they speak Spanish, they will look at you for a second and respond that, yes, they do speak Castellano.
- Instead of the image I had in my head of a fiery, Antonio Banderas-ish Spaniard, the Catalan's temperament is more akin to Nordic people. It was hard for me to grow accustomed to their coldness, coming from the United States (where it is said that we are artificially cheerful) and from a Hispanic family (loud and emotive). Instead of the more polite, "Buenos Dias," that I'm used to, the Catalan people will greet you with a low-throated, "Hola." I endured many a stare at a store or restaurant when I would greet them with "Buenos Dias" or "Buenas Tardes" and they would just stare at me. It was even said, jokingly, that the park benches in Barcelona were supposed to illustrate how the Catalan people are: each park "bench" only had room for one person. However, once you get to know a Catalan, they will open their hearts and their homes up to you. They will cook you a meal and sit and drink cava with you for hours and even converse with you in Castilian Spanish and broken English if they have to.
- Barcelona, or Barca (pronounced Barsa in Catalan) for short, does a really great job of letting parents feel like they, too, can have a good time at the park. Each park in the city is surrounded by cafes. The parks are pretty minimal (we were so used to these huge, fancy, gross motor development ones in the States), but the kids love that about them. And you hardly ever see parents playing in the parks with their kids because they are sitting at a table, maybe 50 feet away from the park, drinking their cafe amb llet (latte) or a glass of cava (Spanish champagne), having adult conversations about - gasp! - something other than their children. For 30 blissful minutes, you get to feel like you're on a date with your spouse, while having your child play in front of, but apart from, you. I think this was my favorite part about living in Barca. Well, maybe second only to...
- Cava! Cava is readily available and very cheap. A good bottle of cava would cost us around 5 Euros or so. Almost every day, we would have at least a mug (unfortunately, as is the case with most of the places we stay, there were no proper wine or champagne glasses) of the bubbly goodness. I felt so fancy and it really made that moment even more special because who just drinks champagne all the time? It was rad. Also, the Freixenet winery was only a 45 minute train ride away...
- The Barri Gotic, the Gothic Quarter, is part of the Ciutat Vella, the old section of the city. We lived right on the cusp of Barri Gotic, called El Raval. El Raval is the most economically, racially, and ethnically diverse area of Barri Gotic. Everything we read said not to stumble into the area and definitely not to stay there. However, the place we found on Airbnb was too good to pass up (I mean, mosaic tile flooring, a little courtyard, AND a balcony) and it fit our budget. So, we were a little apprehensive when we got there, but we ended up falling in love with our neighborhood. We had access to more Indian and Middle Eastern food than anywhere else that I have lived. Since we had Des, who was 2.5 at the time, with us constantly, people (especially women) were very, very nice to him and us. They would see him running down the sidewalk and would offer him Chupa-Chups and balloons, two of his favorite things. He made us more friends with locals than we could have made on our own.
- Since Barri Gotic has buildings that date back to Roman-era Barcino, the streets are all twisted and intertwined and there was no way that we would ever be able to find ourselves in and out of Barri Gotic without a map. But guess what? After four months, we knew the Barri Gotic like we knew our way around our hometown of Salt Lake City. We were better at giving directions in the area than some native Barcelonians.
- There is no grass anywhere in Barri Gotic. Gracia, which is a neighborhood north of the Barri Gotic, is a more family-friendly neighborhood and also has one of the most beautiful parks in the world: Parc Guell, designed by Antoni Gaudi, of La Sagrada Familia fame.
- Churros in Barcelona are not the same as the churros most Americans are used to (which are Mexican-style churros). They are small, teardrop-shaped pieces of fried dough. You have the option to ask for sugar, which of course we did. At our favorite churros place, they were 1 euro per 100g bag, fresh from being fried right in front of our salivating faces. Two doors down from our favorite churro place was a cafe where they sold a traditional hot chocolate (like the kind you eat with a spoon) where they let you bring said bag of churros in to dip into your cup. Heaven in my mouth.
- I'm not sure why this was surprising to me, but I guess I was still in the whole Spanish = Latin American mentality, but there was never any canned red or black beans or cilantro to be found in the supermarket. How in the world was I going to make any Hispanic food when beans and cilantro are staples in my diet?!? Instead, I learned how to cook with alubias blancas (white beans) and canned berberechos (cockles).
- A popular hairstyle in Barcelona is the dread mullet: people grow their hair out into dreadlocks and then shave everything but a circle in the back. At first I was appalled, but then I grew to like the variety of dread mullets: there were multicolored ones, ones with big wooden beads in them, thick ones, skinny ones. Barri Gotic was full of younger people with their own unique, Euro hippie fashion sense.
- Everyone says "vale." It means OK. And they say it several times: "Vale, vale, vale."
- I'm not sure if it's old European city smell, but Barcelona has a distinct odor. It's more unpleasant than pleasant, but not horrible. I think it has to do with the amount of pee that used to be collected in the underground clothes washing crypts back in the Roman days.
- The Sagrada Familia was more beautiful than I could have ever imagined, especially given how weirdly interesting the facade is. As I stood in line for 45 minutes waiting to get in, I looked up at the church and thought to myself, "Jeez...it looks like melting sand." I wasn't particularly impressed and even less so when I paid almost 20 Euros for a ticket. As soon as I walked in, it was like one of those romance movies where the guy and girl see each other across a busy city street and everything sort of blurs around them and the only thing in focus is the other person. The inside of the church is the most beautiful place I have ever been. If you are in Barcelona, make this priority number 1.
- People eat these:
- What surprised me the most about living in Barcelona for a few months was that I could begin to live a much simpler life. Before, living in the States, it was absolutely imperative that I had a car (even though public transportation in my city was available and adequate), I would spend $150-200 a week! on food from Whole Foods and eating out, and I thought that having stuff equated with being a real adult (i.e. 40-inch TV, books I never read more than once, millions of framed pictures, beautiful toys for my son, fancy kitchen equipment). Being relegated to two large suitcases, we couldn't bring much. And I realized after lugging around my son's organic wood blocks across Europe that he didn't need all of the toys we brought for him. Being a nomadic family means that we need to make do with what comes available in our apartment (which is sometimes a shoddy, dull knife and some scratched, warped pans) and what we bring in our two suitcases. Plus, all of the refrigerators are half or 1/4 the size of the ones we are used to in the states. We can't buy $150-200 worth of groceries that will last us a week because it starts going bad. So, part of the learning experience was making friends with the fruit and veggie stand guy and seeing him every 2 or 3 days to do our shopping. And never letting food go to waste (since it was so expensive there).
- Finally, watch this to make you excited to even think about going.