Often, when you think of Spain’s modern culture, you are actually thinking of Barcelona. Ironically, this quasi-separatist province of Spain, historically separate from the rest, has been the center of much of the country’s most famous intellectual achievements. Not only was it home to such artistic legends as Gaudí, Dalí, Picasso and Barceló, it was also the epicenter of the Socialist movements of the 1930’s, and the last stronghold of the Republic in the Guerra Civil. Such a rich cultural and ethno-linguistic heritage has made Barcelona the ideal place for me to begin work on my thesis, but also a place where doing such research might be self-contradictory. Coming to Barcelona to experience Spanish culture is like traveling to Montreal to experience Canadian culture—it just doesn’t translate onto the whole. And the nationalism of the Catalans—my central focus—has made them a historically difficult group to get along with, as the Spanish Crown has found for centuries.
After a week and a half in Barcelona, I seem, however, to be adapting quite well. This is a considerable feat given two considerations: one, that I have never before lived in a large city, and two, that the Catalans are notorious for being rather cold to foreigners. And in Barcelona, the term foreigner designates not only foreign nationals (i.e. Americans and other Europeans), but also the Españols, the Castellano-speaking imperialists from outside the region of Catalonia.
For most residents of Barcelona, Catalan, a language somewhere between French, Spanish and Latin, is the mother tongue, while the language we call Spanish—Castellano, or Castilian in English—is spoken as a second language. And if not speaking the first language weren’t enough, I still speak Spanish with a stuttering American accent, making me an eternal outsider (my first experience speaking Castellano, the taxi ride from the airport to the hotel, ended with the taxi driver unilaterally switching into English). The most embarrassing situations are those where I start a conversation sounding fluent with a well-rehearsed phrase, and end stumbling through what should be simple Spanish, but is in fact quite difficult given the immense pressure of the Catalan stare, and the fact that I am trying to form words and sentences on the fly (not something I generally have to worry about in a Spanish lit class). That being said, I am gaining a little bit of practice speaking with our program directors, as they are both very slow and patient speakers. However, since the general public spends little time speaking with fresh-off-the-boat American exchange students, this practice still leaves me ill-prepared for the real world (i.e. ordering food at restaurants. Ironically, that is the thing we do the most, and yet the one thing we really don’t learn in class. The menu at any restaurant is a labyrinth of meats, vegetables and sauces, some in Castellano, some in Catalan, and I none the wiser.).
Despite the difficulty of speaking the language(s) of Barcelona, I have found it a very easy place to fit into. The newer parts of the city, my neighborhood included, are laid out in a grid, an urban design introduced as L’Eixample (which I translate to “the Example,” though I may be wrong) by a socialist city architect. Street corners are cut (which makes it hard to cross streets, and even harder to feel like I am walking in a straight line), and there are few edifices higher than six stories. The idea was to create a socialist utopia, where every neoclassical and ornate modernist building was equally as beautiful as the next, and none was higher than the rest. While the architectural concept seems intellectually valid, the end result is a pretty, if monotonous city. Indeed, it is often quite easy to lose one’s way in L’Eixample, as nearly every broad avenue appears the same as the others.
However, the regularity and uniformity of L’Eixample have a fantastic contrast in the winding, narrow streets of the Barrio Gotic (Gothic Neighborhood, or Medieval Town). These streets hark back seven, thirteen and twenty centuries to the earliest eras of the fortified history of Barcelona. Steep-walled buildings face off across tiny canyons, as people and motorcycles trickle through down below. The Gothic Quarter has an atmosphere all to itself, a little more modest than the grandeur of La Rambla, yet still as sophisticated and avante-garde as the name Barcelona lends it.
Thus far, we have spent more time on La Rambla than in the Barrio Gotic, and have yet to venture into Grácia, the more bohemian part of town. La Rambla, though, is infamous in Barcelona as the center of the night-life, and is a center of after-midnight activity throughout the week. It is also known as a hotspot for pickpockets, drug dealers and prostitutes, the last of whom seem to be in love with my roommate, Adam. As a six-foot-two, two-hundred-pound, blond Pole, he sticks out as an American from a hundred meters away. Even if he didn’t drunkenly approach every person he encounters after a few glasses of cheap wine (and yes, we did manage to find and buy the rumored .80E box of wine), Moroccan whores would still walk up to him and grab his privates, call him from across the street, or harass him from behind, all the while ignoring the rest of the men in our group. Having him around always makes for an interesting night.
I have spent much of the past weeks trying to settle into the Spanish, specifically Catalan, lifestyle. When it comes to work and pleasure, they are a laid-back people who value long meals, good wine, chain-smoked cigarettes, and their daily siesta. Coming from the industrious nation of America, where everything is always open, it has been hard to adjust to a schedule that accommodates eating and shopping only at certain hours. But to compensate for the rigidity of store hours, drinking is permissible, even normal, at all hours of the day. Indeed, the liberality of alcohol consumption is reflected in that of other drugs, especially the hash cigarettes that one can smell while strolling through parks and cavorting down La Rambla.
For the youth culture, the schedule is even more difficult, as it mixes late nights with early mornings (out until 3, up at 7), long classes, and late breakfasts. While I am notoriously nocturnal at Cornell—I generally eat my first meal at 11am, and my last at 2am—even I have found it difficult to empalmar, or stitch-together the days, drinking until morning, then showering and going to class without sleep. Perhaps if I could find a good cup of American Joe, I might be able to make it through the day—or at the least through the morning to siesta-time—but here, the closest approximation is café con leche, and it is never to-go. Coffee is a slow luxury, to be sipped, as everything in this strange and distant country.
Because the days have been so busy, the coffee so rare, and the sleep even more so, I have still seen little of the city. Granted, I have made several solo excursions into various parts of the city, and taken program-sponsored tours through others, but all in all, I have a very cursory understanding of the city. Where it took me five days to memorize the metro map of Santiago de Chile, I still have difficulty figuring out how to get to the three (3) buildings where I am taking pro-seminar classes. And while I have a very general understanding of my own neighborhood—Fort Pius, in L’Eixample—I often get quite lost on the walk home.
A few highlights are definitely the Barrio Gotic, the Parc de le Ciutadella (only a ten-minute walk from my residence), the Temple of the Sacred Family, and a visit to the beach on my first full evening here. The Temple itself is visible from the front door of my apartment building, and the Arc de Triomf is only a five-minute walk. Possibly my favorite part of Barcelona is this smooth integration of the old and the new, the sacred and the mundane, with modern businesses inhabiting old gothic buildings, and new towers rising up on the outskirts, framing the passage to the sea. And in with all the rest is a eye-pleasing sprinkling of the work of Gaudí, whose genius as an architect I am truly beginning to admire. As the days grow longer, I hope to seek out more of his work, as well as the many and various art museums and galleries showing the various works of Barcelona’s artistic greats.