Thursday, October 31, 2013

Final Thoughts on Barcelona, Part II (Spain)

I like lists so without further ado...

Things we do not miss about Barcelona:

- High cost of living + low (and unstable) wages. Most people in major cities feel this pinch, but “El Crisis” surely puts this into a whole other category. In consulting, contracts that were ending were not getting renewed, and at the university, every couple months seemed to bring further pay cuts or more layoffs. Money was pretty tight for our tiny, sixth floor walk-up apartment, not to mention the obligatory surcharges we got for being suspicious foreigners. Try also wrapping your head around numbers like 25% overall unemployment in Spain and over 50% for younger folks. Most of the lucky  survive either with as many flatmates as they can find or staying much longer with their parents - a cultural norm turned absolute necessity. We suspected this culture of strong family ties (as well as the social support structure) was the main reason you didn't see as much anarchy in the streets you'd expect anywhere else with those kinds of stats.

- Difficulty level of just doing things. Bureaucracy always sucks. Trying to get any business or anything official done requires multiple trips, multiple offices, and multiple copies… and Spaniards/Catalans fiercely guard photocopier/printer usage. Only brought 1 copy? Even if there is a copier right on the desk of the clerk speaking to you, you will need to: leave the line, possibly even exit the building, find a print shop around the corner, pay for extra copies, and join the queue you've been waiting in all morning at the end with a new number... and most of the government offices/banks close for lunch and will not reopen again.

-Alienation. A common complaint for expats. Catalans have a reputation for being a little closed. When someone still referred to her colleague Señor so-and-so after working together everyday for 40 years,  you realize learning Catalan is only one of the barriers to face socially. It was our own fault, too. Many expats get around the isolation by clinging to others of their home country, but we didn't move to Barcelona to stay in all-Brit or all-American enclaves and so avoided them assiduously. The city's got a fantastic nightlife, too, so doubtless, we could have made more friends had not our hard partying, late night clubbing days been behind us. Lastly, people don't often invite others into their homes either so it can be tough socializing on a strict budget.

Things we miss about Barcelona:

- The city. I personally think it's the most beautiful city in Europe, possibly the world. We've always been drawn to bright colors, mosaics, and wrought ironwork, and Catalan Modernisme brings these elements together in intricate detail and with the finest craftsmanship. These architectural gems are sprinkled all over so that walking around Barcelona feels like visiting an open air art gallery. Should these man-made creations not stir or inspire you, the city is book-ended by the sea and mountains. Even though we're always a little too ADD for sun-bathing, our regular strolls along the beach and port (25 minute walk from our door) were weekend favorites. The pleasant alternative was hiking in Parc de Collserola, where a scant 15 minutes on the commuter train would bring you to the trail head on the mountain.

- The neighborhood. Even though Barcelona is a big city, you feel like you live in a little village within it. We lived in the barrio of Sant Pere, or as Rich first described the narrow streets and old buildings, "like in The Bourne Identity." We got to know the people in our neighborhood - our bread guys, the super nice vet, the pet store lady, the bodega man, all the dog owners in the park, the man from the theatre, etc. - at least in a friendly nodding and chitchat way.

- The weather. Barcelona is almost always sunny with something like 300 days/year. The perfect blue skies made hanging the laundry out to dry off our balcony my favorite chore. While it can get unbearable in the summers, the temperature can also be mild in the winters. We sat drinking coffees outside one day in February in t-shirts. Beware though that too much of this makes one's sense of bad weather get grossly out of whack. Any day it rains in the city (usually about two weeks total in the spring) is the equivalent of a blizzard hitting the Midwest. Classes get cancelled, traffic gets ridiculous, and people come into work late, or not at all.

- The food. There is the obvious. Michelin stars have been awarded to quite a few Catalan chefs, and while we never got into the world's best restaurant El Bulli, we had the best meal of our lives at Cinc Sentits. But even beyond that, we miss even the basics. What Spain may lack in variety, they make up for in freshness and quality of ingredients. A pair of tea-drinkers really miss the excellent and cheap coffee. Ah, the perfection of the cortado (1 shot of espresso: 1 warm milk) mid-morning or after a meal! Then there is the unifying lament of every European moving to the U.S.- the bread. For less than a euro, we picked up our crusty barra natural (like a baguette but wider) newly baked everyday. Even the cheap cheese for our sandwiches was fancy - the generic store brand was still a mild blend of cow, sheep, and goat's milk. In the U.S., everyone's big on eating local or with the seasons. As a concept, this might seem strange in Spain since it's just how people have always eaten. My favorite seasons were  clementine/satsuma (I had to stop a 4/day habit because my stomach acids were churning), strawberry, fig, wild mushroom, chestnut, and jamón (ok, the last one isn't quite but most people buy one around the holidays). It helps that the country grows much of the produce for the rest of Europe. Still, it never ceased to amaze me how much more affordable fruits and vegetables are there. I could go into the greengrocer and come out with a stuffed shopping bag for less than 5 euros! For one thing, within the stores, produce appears to be graded (and priced) at different levels, ranging from the cosmetically perfect apple Americans have come to expect down to sad-looking apple that got a little beat up in transit but is still edible inside and probably half the price. But I digress. Oh, the seafood! the butchers! the 3 course menu del días that are 10 euros! the sausages! the cava! I could go on and on...

All in all, while there are a few other things we don't miss about our lives in Barcelona, there are many more we are nostalgic for. It was a great and rewarding experience to live there and absolutely the best decision for us. Though we're calling this post "Final Thoughts...," we can hope that we haven't seen the last of Barcelona. 

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Final Thoughts on Barcelona, Part I (Spain)

This week marks 3 months since Rich turned in the keys to our Barcelona apartment. With some time and distance between us and the city, it's a fitting moment for us to reflect on our grand adventure there.

I had originally intended to blog about many aspects of settling into our lives there. But I held my tongue for a variety of reasons. It was really hard, especially that first year. Pinching our pennies  because we had grossly underestimated the cost of living. Sending out hundreds of resumes, and yes, pounding the pavement old school, searching for employment in the midst of the world's worst economic crisis in one of the hardest hit countries. Struggling with the languages, spending a fortune on Spanish classes, and ever struggling in Catalan. Knowing our families - and particularly my immigrant parents - would be our main and possibly only audience for the blog, I didn't want to worry them even more. And we were exhausted. Battling all day with a foreign bureaucracy (I'm pointing a finger at you, too, British consulate!) or bank or service provider, you come home confused, humbled, shaken, and possibly crying. Sometimes it was all we could do to muster our energies and try again the next day. So forgive the blog for only accentuating the positive.

As time went on, our situation improved, and we also just got the hang of things... It's ok if we forget to write our meter reading down on the sheet appearing on the front door to the building (or, as in one case, if I accidentally write down a number several orders of magnitude different!)... This is the corner shop that doesn't overcharge for fresh milk (since most people seem to prefer the horrific UHT milk)... Being able to sleep through the hourly ringing of the bells from the 4 surrounding churches, the relentless clanging call of the butano men one must hail to deliver orange gas tanks to your door (we dodged a bullet renting a place with piped gas), or worse, the drunk French tourists on the balcony of the illegal vacation apartment just outside our bedroom window... There were other aspects of everyday life I could have commented on. But Barcelona seems like the world's most popular place for attracting expats and there are even more Catalans. To presume my foreigner's observations would contribute anything different smacked a little of implied judgement of local norms or conceit, which, as an American abroad, I am conscious of the stereotype. So I stuck to a mostly tourist's perspective.

My further reflections will continue in the next post...