I’ll hold off on the clichés if you can put up with a personal story.
The Gothic District of Barcelona is a winding maze of cobblestone alleys which feel more like tunnels than open-air streets. Tiny iron-gate balconies hang above you 5–7 stories high, draped with vines and other creeping plants. A resident might step out of their dark abode and light up a cigarette and stare down at you with an unflinching gaze. To them, you’re nothing but a plump, fumbling tourist treading on ancient land. Even if you’ve lived here for a while, the secrets are still tucked away in historical, cultural, and linguistic pockets — they are not, and will never be, yours to comprehend.
But if you tilt your head back, throw on a grin, and wave up at them, they’ll wave back.
Barcelona is a cosmopolitan city, the capital of the Catalonian region of Spain. People from cultures all over the world flock here for the warm weather, the beaches, the Mediterranean food, and the relaxed lifestyle. For such a worldly city, however, it can sure feel sleepy sometimes.
Privately-owned shops and markets close from 2 pm to 5 pm for siesta and everything is shuttered on Sundays. Restaurants open at 8 pm for dinner and remain open late so that your after-dinner conversations, “sobremesas”, can continue into the early-morning hours. A waiter here wouldn’t dream of kicking you out to make room for the next party. If you’ve finished eating, you can order a glass of wine or a coffee to supplement your sobremesa. Both options are cheaper than a bottle of water.
I love it here. I moved here about a year ago and my world is so much bigger now. I’m learning Spanish (slowly and awkwardly, but still…). I’ve learned to cook. I’ve gotten over my fear of being half-naked at the beach. High-speed rails or cheap-as-dirt plane tickets can bring me to France, Italy, Portugal, or Morocco for the weekend. I’ve even started reading from the collection of classic books my grandpa passed down to me. I just finished re-reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and I’m about to start on One Thousand And One Nights. Or maybe Robinson Crusoe.
Spaniards don’t seem to realize that they’re unique in the way that they make time for the physical and emotional necessities of life such as eating, sleeping, learning, and making genuine connections with other people. Or at least they didn’t before this year’s Bloomberg Healthiest Country Index ranked them as #1.
But a newcomer steps into this unrushed lifestyle like they’re coming up for air, hacking and coughing and sucking in every grateful breath.
I moved to Spain after living in San Francisco for 8 years, where I worked as a tour guide on the double-decker buses. My shifts could be as long as 14 hours (often without much of a break) and all my friends worked in tech, so they never slept or took a breath either. We bonded over microwavable dinners, take-out Thai food, and the fact that we all lived in $3,000/month holes with strangers we’d found on Craigslist after our old roommates ran out of money and had to move back in with their parents.
I fell head-over-heels in love with San Francisco on my very first day there, when I stumbled into Amoeba Records and realized that the guy performing a live acoustic show in the corner was Elvis Costello. I loved the hills, the vistas, the buildings, and the cable cars- colorful layers and iconic shapes which made every moment feel like you were stepping into a diorama shadow box. I loved the inside jokes and local references. I loved Karl the Fog. I loved the quirky history of the Hippie movement, the Beatniks, the Bohemians, the Castro, and the Gold Rush. I even had a sick love for walking among the lollypop-painted Victorian houses and knowing, aching in my heart, that I would never be able to afford one for myself. Unattainable desire can hurt so good.
I loved this quote by Paul Kantner of Jefferson Airplane:
“San Francisco is 49 square miles surrounded by reality.”
It filled me with such pride to be living in a place outside of reality. And, indeed, my job had me going around and around the city as though I had stepped onto a magical merry-go-round. Other people, tourists and such, eventually had to step off of that merry-go-round and go back to their real lives, but not me. One of my best friends was the Emperor of the United States and I often got to take day trips to Endor. San Francisco was my perpetual playground as long as I could keep up these hours, never sleep, and scrape together the sky-high rent.
Perhaps my favorite thing was having the ability to go to the park on my days off. San Francisco has so many pockets of green space with towering eucalyptus trees, planted flower beds that smelled like freshly dug-up earth, and large swaths of grass you could lie down on and cool your back as the sun beat down from above.
I’d never experienced greenery before- or scenery, really. I was born in a two-dimensional desert landscape.
I grew up in a wide, one-story adobe house built on the last unpaved road in the middle of Tucson, Arizona.
The house was surrounded by prickly pear cactus and gray-brown creosote bushes, which erupted with little cotton-ball seeds in the spring. Collecting those fuzzy seeds in a tin can or other such container was the only encouragement us three kids ever had to go outside. That, and the Flaming Hot Cheetos or Doritos Flamas at the Walgreens down the street. We had to scarf those down and scrub the residual red dye off our fingers before our parents got home or we’d get a very stern look of disappointment. They could never get us to eat anything they cooked unless it was microwavable or came in a Kraft box and I know it made them feel like they’d be better parents if only they could hold us down and shove nutrients into our bratty little faces.
If there were other kids living nearby, my siblings and I never knew it because, like us, they didn’t come out of their houses. It was like an oven outside. Summer temperatures often exceeded 100°. I spent my days indoors with the air conditioning, watching tv, resentful that I couldn’t run away to a life that was lush.
In August, the monsoons would dump hot and heavy drops of water in sheets that you could literally watch cross the road. But you had to go outside and catch them quickly or they’d be gone within the hour and then the sun would come out again, the clouds would lose their fight for semblance against the dusty desert air, and you wouldn’t feel another drop of natural water in or around your skin for another 11 months.
I hated how spread apart everything was. Nobody walked around town, they existed in boxes. You couldn’t get anywhere without driving. Some days, you’d only be outside for as long as it took to reach into the car and turn on the air conditioning so the seats and steering wheel had a chance to cool down. The metal of my seat belt burned me on a regular basis, and the motion of the car, the waving light rays bouncing off the cracked pavement, and the sun in my eyes gave me awful headaches.
Rabbits used to dart out in front of our car just to give themselves a fright and remind themselves that life was worth living. I think it also renewed their faith in humanity to watch us slam on the breaks to let them pass. I never blamed them for putting their lives so carelessly on the line for a bit of an adrenalin rush and a connection to another living thing. I empathized.