I snapped this photo while walking around some of the less traveled side streets of Barcelona.
In this blog entry I discuss pre-departure anxieties, first impressions, cultural differences and some of the things I’ve started doing here in Barcelona!
The build up to leaving the country for the first time was a bit nerve-wracking. However, the anxiety was different because I wasn’t simply going away for a week or two, I was leaving for 3 months. I was going to live with people I don’t know, in a place I’ve never been and to function in a language and culture I barely understand.
Was I excited? Absolutely. But to say I had no reservations or doubts would be a lie. Even still, there is a certain level of anxiety. My Spanish has been improving at light speed compared to the progress I made in Idaho – but I’m still a novice. On top of that, my Catalan is even worse, which complicates matters in Barcelona, particularly with this uprising of independence from Spain – but I can talk about that another time.
Upon arriving in Barcelona, probably the first thing to hit me was how humid it was everywhere. The airport was hot and humid; outside was hot and humid, it was impossible to escape. I remember thinking that there was no way I could survive this for three months.
Luckily however, it turns out that I happened to arrive in a sort of unseasonable hot and humid week. The temperatures have since fallen a bit and the humidity has also subsided some. In general, I find the weather to now be most enjoyable day and night.
Somewhat related to weather conditions is the notion of fashion. Prior to departure I had read that in Spain, for the most part, men do not wear shorts. However, Barcelona is the outlier (probably because it so cosmopolitan and internationalized). Unfortunately, due to my pre-conceived notions based on what I read, I only brought one pair of shorts with me….and several pairs of pants.
Furthermore, my efforts to appear as little like a tourist as possible were futile because Barcelona is literally a tourist town. It receives eight million visitors a year, 70% of whom are from outside Spain. This does, however, make for interesting metro rides. I’m likely to hear Catalan, Mandarin, Spanish, Farsi, English and German in a single trip across town.
There are many bus tours happening in Barcelona all the time.
Speaking of languages, my primary concern in Barcelona is the fact that while it is part of Spain, the region is known as Catalonia, and this region has its own distinct language that sounds and looks more like French than Spanish. Catalan is still a minority language compared to Spanish, but there has been significant momentum by the Catalan government and education system to re-instate it as the primary language. Most everywhere you could visit has Catalan listed first, Spanish second, and if you’re lucky, English.
These signs are all over the underground metro system. No fumeu is Catalan, No fumar is Spanish.
I bring this up because my pre-departure research suggested that Catalan was only spoken by 45%of the population and even less of the population knew how to read and write it. So I didn’t expect it to be as predominant as it actually is.
Being over five thousand miles away from home, in a place with many more millenniums of history and culture, there are bound to be a few things different from Lewiston, Idaho.
First and foremost, water usage. Here in Barcelona, water is conserved at a great level. People are greener than in the States. People here take shorter showers and they never let the water run. For example, in the States when you shower, it’s typical to be in the shower for 10-15 minutes with the water running the entire time. In Spain, not only do showers not exceed 7 minutes, you actually turn the water off while you’re soaping your hair and body, only turning it back on to rinse (which actually makes more sense than leaving it running if you think about it). Furthermore, all toilets are equipped with the big and small flush option. I don’t think I need to elaborate much more than that.
Another cultural difference is the general wealth equality and social system. Spain is a capitalist liberal democracy just like the United States; however, they have addressed some issues of wealth inequality differently, such as having nationalized healthcare. Additionally, their ‘service’ sector jobs pay significantly better than their American counterparts. As a consequence, the idea of tipping is almost non-existent. In the states, tipping has become so ubiquitous and expected, the service can be terrible and they still tack 20% in gratuity just because. Not so in Spain. In fact, there isn’t even a tip section on receipts at restaurants. And if you do tip, it need not be more than a euro or two for even a tab of 40 euros. The same goes for taxi rides. But perhaps what is most perplexing is that the food, drink and taxi rides are not any more expensive than in the states, and indeed are often times cheaper because there is little or no tipping.
Perhaps the most obvious cultural difference, however, is the issue of health & wellness and more specifically; obesity. I’m not exaggerating when I say there are no overly obese people in Barcelona. Indeed, I have yet to encounter many people who could even be considered overweight. Don’t get me wrong, the Spanish aren’t all well-shaped gym rats, either. However, due to intelligent city design and planning (mixed-zoning) and sustainability efforts, people here walk and use bicycles much more than in the States. As a result, their healthcare costs are significantly lower, and their lives are generally less expensive, and I would argue, more enjoyable.
Here you can dozens of mopeds and bicycles locked up. This is a common sight in Barcelona.
This is the public bike system. You will see racks like this all over Barcelona. Basically locals can check a bike out, ride it to another rack somewhere else and drop it off.
Part of the study abroad experience, maybe the most important part, is the immersion aspect. This means more than just living with a host family or going to school. It helps to just wander the city, get lost, and talk to locals when you can.
More specific ways that I’ve been getting involved begin with what is called the intercambio exchange. Essentially this is a program that matches local residents with international visitors. The purpose of this program is for each person to have the opportunity to practice their new language, such as English for them and Spanish for me. I actually meet my first partner on Monday, so stay tuned for that update.
The second activity I am getting involved in has been made possible by being a Gilman Scholar. The volunteer program is with the U.S. State Department. Essentially, I prepare a presentation and then visit under-served and low-income high schools around Barcelona to talk about a variety of topics – in English. The purpose of this is to expose school students to Americans and give them a chance to use their English with a real native speaker. I just had my meeting at the U.S. Consulate, so I haven’t given a presentation yet, but I plan to develop that over the next few days and begin my Barcelona lecture circuit as soon as possible.
I’m already thinking of opening up with a little exercise I picked up from some professors back at Lewis-Clark State College. I will give the class a blank sheet of paper and ask them to draw a map of the world as best they can. This will serve as a way of gauging their geographical awareness, but also get them to think about how they conceive the world in their minds and in their life.
Well amigos, that’s it for this installment. Thanks for reading and stay tuned for more. The next video comes out in a couple of weeks and will be about my daily life – where I go, what I see, etc.