The largest shock? Un Cafe ≠ Regular Coffee
Having had the opportunity to travel Europe before, I believed myself to be somewhat adjusted to the changes in culture that are experienced when crossing borders.
I was wrong.
Culture shock hit me hard and fast that first day, excitement melted into something I almost refused myself to feel: regret.
Of course that feeling was the product of jet lag, exhaustion, frustration, and an overwhelming yo-yo-ing of emotions, but moving into a tiny Barcelona apartment with an ~abuela~ who doesn’t know a lick of English definitely brought an uncomfortable mix of experiences.
Conchita, my host mom, lives alone in an eclectic ‘L’ shapes flat with her two cats she calls her “hijos.” Having a motherly bond with my own cat, Pippin, I was excited to have the company of animals while in a foreign country. Her two cats talk and affectionately invade personal space just as much as she does (which I’ve come to learn is part of the Spanish culture).
Arriving on that first day, Allison and I were greeted with loud meows and a flurry of Spanish as Conchita wrapped us both in a hug. It was 10 am local time, we had been traveling since 8 am the previous day. The bags under my eyes were as heavy as the two suitcases I struggled to drag through the narrow, European hall to my shared room.
My brain wasn’t capable of forming English words let alone the Spanish ones that I poorly remembered. Conchita was vibrant, kind, engaging, and completely incapable of understanding any English. I wasn’t sure what I was expecting for the language barrier in Spain, but the first day it was more of an isolating wall than a crossable obstruction.
I’m a large communicator, I don’t display a lot of physical affection or emotion, and having my one mode of expression robbed was disarming. I slept most of the day on and off, tiptoeing around the cluttered flat feeling like an intruder into someone else’s life.
I woke up the next morning for orientation with puffy eyes (from crying or lack of sleep-unknown) and soundlessly slipped from the dead bolted apartment door. The sleepy neighborhood of Passeig de Sant Joan was starting to wake up with the early sun and it had a kind of charm to it that I didn’t notice though my previous jet-lag lenses.
I caught the bus and headed towards the IES center located in Plata de Catalunya (near the center of the city). With 900+ kids in my same program, It was easy to find the building crowded with a hoard of college age students standing outside, all looking as lost as I felt. I tightened my backpack straps and pushed through, feeling somewhat (and guiltily) relieved hearing the chit chat of English as I passed.
After the initial orientation, Allison, Julia, and myself all needed some literal breathing room from the foreign atmosphere of the city, so we decided to visit the famous Park Güell. We caught the bus as it winded up the surprisingly hilly streets of western Barcelona: breathing easier as the sky opened up infront of us.
The park (often featured in Instagram photos) highlights the architecture efforts of Gaudi & Güell – colorful tiling and interesting buildings. It’s a beautiful walk through the woods and the panoramic views of the city really made this a must see for our first day. After taking the time we needed to explore on our own schedule, we all felt calmer heading back to town after dusk.
The first official dinner with Conchita went better than the previous interaction, my very little Spanish coming back faster than I imagined. She understood we were making an effort and tailored the conversation to simple topics. I tried to explain how grateful I was for her to have us, and she just responded by serving Allison and I our third helping of Spanish tortilla (delicious, by the way). Food is truly the language of love in her case, and every chance she gets she stuffs us full.
From the second night on I began to appreciate more: the way Conchita plays 1990 American classic radio at all hours of the day (although mostly static), the sun warming up every chilly morning without fail, the independence I feel maneuvering the public transportation by myself, and (of course) my gorgeous surroundings.
After classes that first week I went on to visit the Arc de Triumph, La Boqueria, multiple Plajtos, local bars, and stumbled upon countless hidden gems. Barcelona’s location on the Mediterranean is nicknamed the golden coast (Costa Dorada) for a reason: the whole city seems to glow.
I ate tapas like a local (my favorite being of course the potatoes- patatas bravas), drank more than my fair share of cava (it’s cheaper than water!), and aimlessly walked more than I ever have in my life trying to explore the city.
An average of 23,000 steps a day later, I finally feel somewhat comfortable with Barcelona. The buildings are a mix between Paris and the winding streets of Florence, and the gothic streets empty into the Mediterranean with no warning, as if the sea and city are fighting for the land.
This past weekend I took trip with my Spanish class to the town of Tarragona, the first Roman city in Spain. Lacking the modernism of Barcelona, Tarragona possesses the classic historical feel that I assume ancient European cities to have, like being teleported back in time. On the trip I saw the more traditional side of Spain; the wine, architecture, and mountainous countryside.
On my return to the apartment, Conchita gave me large Besos (kisses) on both cheeks, the proper goodbye and hello in Spain, and wrapped me in a hug. She asked if I was tired from the journey and said she was happy to have her “Hija” back.
And although I’m still in a foreign country, after the long weekend away, it did, indeed feel a little like coming home.
Here’s the the next four months.