Confused by the sign at the station, I got off the train one stop too soon and was standing in the middle of what looked like nowhere. I was Cary Grant in North By Northwest but without the cornfields and of course I am not Cary Grant, but I had the same look on my face. My phone didn’t work in Spain, or Europe for that matter so I couldn’t call Sigrid who was waiting at another station to pick me up.
It was hot. Sun blazing, there was no station and no people except a couple construction workers who informed me that I was in the wrong town. They offered to make a call for me but I didn’t have the number. I needed to get to a computer to retrieve Sigrid’s number from my facebook page. I was totally unprepared for the inevitable “things go wrong while traveling.” After a week in Barcelona, I had become so comfortable that I forgot I really didn’t know where I was.
The first day in a new place is always the same. My eyes moving slowly, panning the scene, looking up to the tops of buildings, discreetly studying the movements of people, noting the pace and mood. It takes a while to begin to digest the initial tastes of life in a new place. Walking Barcelona is a feast for the curious mind and the observant eye.
The first thing to catch my eye were the flags hanging from buildings, balconies, windows, over doors, everywhere you see the flag of Catalonia. The message is clear: You are in Catalonia and we are proud of our country. Indeed Catalonia is a country within a country (Spain).
Next to stand out was the architecture, which is a combination of grand buildings from Spain’s colonial heyday and Gaudi or Gaudi inspired buildings that defy convention in a way tantamount to a visual declaration of war against the status quo. Barcelona embraces and normalizes the avant-garde creating an aesthetic singular to this place. Another clear message: “We see things differently here.”
I recently had a discussion with a friend from Barcelona who was pondering the reasons for the great affection so many outsiders have for Barcelona. I pontificated for a while about the culture, the weather, the beautiful people, food, wine, etc. – all good reasons to love Barcelona. Perhaps there is a simple explanation: people are attracted to freedom.
Barcelona epitomizes freedom of expression, choice and self-identification. Barcelona is the antithesis of conformity. Individuality seeps from its pores. Even the graffiti ubiquitous across city has a style of its own.
We stayed in an apartment in the Gracia neighborhood. Guidebooks will tell you this is the “hippie” area. I have no idea what they are referring to. There is a bit of an artistic flavor but otherwise a vibrant neighborhood representing a cross-section of the city’s inhabitants. Our host was a charming lady named Maria. Like many in Spain today, Maria has taken a financial hit in the prolonged economic crisis. She makes ends meet teaching Spanish and renting a room to travelers in her beautiful little apartment. Maria’s spirit, kindness and sunrise-to-sundown exuberance defy the reality of her economic challenges. Her disposition was representative of the general mood in Barcelona. The pain is just beneath the surface, yet a general joy of living prevails. A couple times, while walking from one tapas restaurant or wine bar to another, I heard a voice from across the street calling my name. It was Maria making the rounds having dinner with friends or heading out for a date.
If you walk for a few minutes in any direction in Barcelona you will find yourself in a square and in that square you will find locals of all ages eating, drinking, chatting, playing, dancing, especially in the evenings. It’s like every neighborhood has a big outdoor living room.
I met Sigrid about a week after we moved to Leeds in England. I was standing in the middle of the room at my first Internations social event talking with another expat from Amsterdam when Sigrid walked over and introduced herself. Tall, beautiful with long curly hair and a big smile, Sigrid is a natural at breaking the ice. She spoke with a heavy accent and quickly got me up to speed on upcoming social events. Finding out that she is from Barcelona, I was proud to tell her my first trip from the UK would be to her hometown. Coincidentally, she would be there as well and invited me to a party she was planning at her parents house in a suburb of Barcelona.
Five days into the trip, my wife returned to Leeds for work while I followed Maria’s advice and up to the Costa Brava for a couple days.
I returned to Barcelona in time for Sigrid’s party. The plan was for her to pick me up the train station about 15 minutes from the party by car. When I got off the train at the wrong stop my first instinct was to contact Sigrid as quickly as possible so I walked up the nearest road and walked into a small hotel where no one spoke English or Spanish for that matter. They were speaking Catalan. They could not understand one word I was saying. After about 15 minutes, somehow, the manager understood my request to use their computer to access the Internet. They were familiar with the word facebook and this is what saved me.
Sigrid sent two of her friends to rescue me, Arturo and Alberto. The party was already going full steam but they insisted we stop at a local restaurant on the way to have a beer. We had a couple quick rounds and some tapas were served up the traditional way, as an accompaniment to our cervesas. The guys wasted no time bringing me into the fold and I dove right in. Arturo and Alberto were reminiscent of the two guys atop Sugar Loaf mountain in Brazil 8 years prior who I will forever remember as my welcoming committee to the world of travelers. We were like old friends sharing stories and laughing loud enough to alert passerby across the street, despite the fact Alberto spoke no English. As we left, Alberto stopped and had a few words with every other person in the restaurant. We were in a small town 40 minutes outside of Barcelona, a town where people either lived their entire lives or came back to stay close to their roots. I knew straight away, these were my kind of people.
We arrived at the party in good spirits. An outdoor barbeque was going full steam. Most of the guests were friends Sigrid grew up with and the families and significant others. It was a bit of a reunion for them. Within ten seconds a beautiful woman named Rebecca handed me a plate of grilled sausages and introduced herself. Her boyfriend Alex followed close behind with a big hello. Someone handed me a glass of wine. Then Alberto handed me an even bigger plate with more food on it. This was by far the most welcoming first 60 seconds I have ever spent among strangers without breaking the law.
I felt like I was at a reunion with my own friends back in Chicago, but I was somewhere in Catalonia looking out at rolling hills on a beautiful day. All the elements I had noticed in Barcelona individual style, freedom of expression, the joy of social interaction, pride an appreciation for the arts, good wine and good food all came together here. We talked for hours, ate, drank danced. One moment you’re lost and the next thing you know, you are right at home having the time of your life. I do not recall one moment while in Barcelona where I did not feel right at home.
Alberto, kept hugging me and speaking to me in Catalan and Spanish with a huge smile on his face. I did not understand a word, except when he said: “You … you, and patted his heart. I understood that and understand this; people love Barcelona because Barcelona has heart.