“He vivido en Barcelona para ocho meses, pero hace tiempo, i creo que he olvidado casi toda de mi idioma.” A long-winded, slightly comprehensible way of avoiding trying to run through the gears on my rusty, barely-there-to-begin-with castellano.
So this phrase: attesting to my prior slightly-better use of one of the local languages, it became the thing I said about this Catalan city sprawling between the mountains and the sea whenever anyone asked me about my time there twelve years ago teaching English as a foreign language.
So disparate were my streams of income in that city that Tom Walton of International House (the language school I trained with and worked for, alongside a multitude of other schools, individuals, and institutions) wrote an article about how I winged my way from one side of the city to the other in any given day, teaching classes here, there, and everywhere in order to patch together an income sufficient to cover my city rent, cerveza, and tobacco needs. Those and chocolate, cheese, and cortados; an almost-entirely c-shaped diet.
I began my time in the city living in a damp hole of a room with an aggressive tenant who didn’t seem to want me there. I moved out the next day and found a room in a warm and cosy flat owned by a family from Costa Rica which was marvellously close to the Sagrada Familia but allowed for no real life. After another couple of weeks I found my way into a sublet with character, renting – as I chose to – an interior room that really wasn’t a room, sleeping on a bed that really wasn’t a bed, in a friendly couple’s entresuelo flat in el born (i.e. very close to the noisy street below that always seemed to be the venue for one reveller or another). But at the beginning I loved it. El born was for me the most enticing barrio in all of the medieval part of the city, just steps away from the notorious ‘el raval’ (where a slight lapse in attention could leave you without any of your worldly goods but where the popular band Manu Chou were living at the time so certainly cool) and around the corner from one of my favourite landmarks: the Basilica de Santa Maria del Mar.
No me gusto Barcelona. I didn’t really enjoy my time in the city. I was mostly poor, hungry, confused, tired, and sort of desperately aspirational. I bent myself around other people’s wills, hankered after the approval of the perceived geniuses I surrounded myself with, and generally was incredibly hard on myself. For some reason, I felt I had to go through what I did. Maybe I was right.
Revisiting the city twelve years on, I’m incredibly proud of the freshly-separated (rawly-separated) 25-year-old teen I was, the girl who threw herself into life in a city where she didn’t speak any of the languages, burnt herself out cobbling together a wage from poorly-paid teaching gigs, and didn’t know to attend to her movement needs, her nature needs, her needs for comfort and quiet, on-a-level non-judgemental understanding, her needs for good nutrition and less teasing about being a Brit who could only speak their own language (certainly a national failing and whether a mistake of arrogance or ignorance, not one for which I was solely or at all responsible, despite my feelings in response to the criticism).
Me gusto Barcelona. Despite all that, I loved my time in the city: meeting inspiring friends who could speak at least twenty languages and tease you in thirty, wandering cobblestone streets, learning to swear like a local, dancing in Gracia, a visit from my mum and Ian where we poured over Gaudi’s architecture, vin negro, ice cream, a brave and generous visit from Dan, and later Catherine, Ambroise and Kate, eating falafel, having my fortune told by one of the kindest employers and colleagues I’d ever meet (Alex), not going to the Goldfrapp concert with him because I wanted to be fresh for my morning lessons (major regret), sitting on the roof of our building drawing the red sky as the sun set on another balmy day, eating churros and chocolate in too-cool-for-school courtyards, trying to read books in Spanish, drinking estrella after estrella with new friends in ancient passeigs ’till too late into the night.
Twelve years on I wonder at my sanity moving to this too-large city. For this year’s visit (as part of the ‘Chasing Autumn Tour’) we stayed in stunning Sitges (“why didn’t I choose to live here all those years ago?” – my continual refrain as we wound our way through the tiny town’s enticing interior). We went only into the north of Barcelona to see Gaudi’s Parc Güell and the Sagrada Familia. His work remains a shining light. His great cathedral captivated me absolutely during my time living in the city. Going back, his work remains staggering, timeless. Indeed, the Sagrada seems to exist out of time, is being built out of time: a modern wonder of our world. It’s amazing this work is still going on, that a catholic church of such antiquity is currently under construction. The oldest facade, Gaudi’s original, clothed in dripping rock. The new emerging with pared-down futuristic interpretations of the old master’s vision. The inside is an epic ascent into a heaven of its own, not that we saw it this time, we didn’t book – last time you didn’t need to. I’m glad I don’t think I’ll ever see this edifice finished. I’m glad I have learned not to try to move myself into an impossible city again and expect to thrive.
Barcelona, 25-year-old self: hecho le menos, thank you, and I’m glad I don’t have to be in you any more.