Brian: Barcelona Street Scraps
Please tell us a little bit about yourself. Who you are, where you come from, when you moved to Barcelona, etc.
I’m 37 and I’ve been living in Barcelona for just a bit over 8 years. Before Barcelona I’d been living in and around New York City for about 12 years, working various jobs, the majority of them in the service industry.
I graduated from Sarah Lawrence College in 1997 with a BA in Liberal Arts, a fantastic degree with which you can do anything…or the opposite. Before University I spent my earlier years living in Pennsylvania, though the majority of my family is in New Jersey and Connecticut (where I was born).
When and why did you decide to start blogging about your experiences?
Because I work as a teacher, I have the last part of July, all of August and sometimes the beginnings of September free. The career gods have been more than generous with me free time-wise; however this generosity doesn’t extend into the salary department. As a result, I usually take this time to explore the old city center of Barcelona, as I can sometimes find cool refuge in some of the shadier side streets. I became fascinated by some of the interesting examples of street art I would find during my wanderings and decided to start taking pictures. The blog started as a place to show and archive some of the more interesting pictures, with little text, as can be seen in the earlier entries. Over time, I’ve tried to write small vignettes or impressions to go along with the pictures. Some of them are more personal than others, and some of them are a bit more social or political in nature. This is only natural, considering the precarious situation here in the south of Europe. I suppose we could categorize the blog as a chronicle of art in the post-bubble Barcelona. Having arrived in the height of the boom years and now watching everything collapse and implode, there’s certainly a lot to be said.
Do you have any favorite blog entries of yours?
Almost all of the posts that make it to the blog have a special place in my heart, as they’re only a fraction of the nearly 700 photos I have on my Instagram feed. But here are three that really stand out:
Tell us about the ways your new life in Barcelona differs from that back home. Did you have trouble getting used to the new circumstances? Did you experience culture shock?
My first few years in Barcelona were, ahem, illegal, after the initial 3 month tourist visa ran its course. So I had to learn how to live life under the radar, that’s to say, no bank account, everything “under the table”. Interestingly enough, because of this situation, I missed out on the best of the boom years because I was a non-person. In retrospect, looking at all the people around me saddled with millennium-long mortgages and other debts, I think it was for the best. In that time, I also learned to go from a New Yorker who used taxis multiple times a day and ate all of his meals in restaurants to a supermarket-going, kitchen-using, metro-taking, bus-riding, dirt-poor tefl teacher. It was a rough adjustment, but I’m definitely a better person for it. And I can make a better “tortilla de patatas” than many of my Spanish friends.
Now that I’m legal, probably the biggest adjustment is learning to live on a once-a-month paycheck. When I worked in the US I was normally paid bi-weekly, sometimes weekly. Budgeting for a monthly paycheck is no easy task.
I never really experienced any severe culture shock, and started making friends with the locals almost immediately; I intentionally chose rentals that were with locals instead of Americans or Brits, and I think I learned the ropes a lot faster than most. On the other hand, I have nearly no expat friends, outside of my colleagues at work.
Do you think you were fully prepared for what awaited you in Barcelona? If you could, would you change some decisions/preparations you made?
I came to Barcelona (and Spain) sight unseen, but I had taken 90% of the apartments I’ve ever lived in the same way, so in that sense it wasn’t much of a surprise. My major problem at first was money. I came with what should have lasted me about a year without working, but I continued my NY spending habits after arriving here and the saving ran dry nearly twice as fast as I had expected. Working without documentation is also not the steadiest source of income, so I was living much rougher than I had been used to in NYC. Even today, my monthly teachers’ salary is about what I would have made in an average week behind the bar.
Every expat knows that expat life comes with some hilarious anecdotes and funny experiences. Care to share one with us?
One of the funny anecdotes that always come to mind has to do with the odd queuing culture here in Barcelona, and Spain in general. The orderly line of people patiently waiting that I was used to seeing in the US is nearly non-existent here. Everyone is standing (or sitting) with no visible order, but everyone is very well aware of their turn and the turns of those around them. I soon realized that this is because upon entering a bank or small shop, it is a customer’s responsibility to enquire “who’s last?” at which point someone will say “I am”. The new customer then becomes the last one, and knows who comes before. The next customer who enters will ask the same question and so on…
I was waiting in the bank one day, daydreaming a bit when an elderly woman entered and proceeded to ask me who was last. Forgetting my recent lesson in waiting culture, I answered, rather simply, “why you madam, you’re the last.” Needless to say, this was not the answer she was looking for and it didn’t go over so well.
Which three tips would you like to give future expats before they embark on their new life in Barcelona?
- Try to make friends with as many locals as possible. They will show you all the best places and you’ll learn the language much faster and much more cheaply than enrolling in intensive courses.
- If you plan on spending any significant amount of time here, say more than a year or two, invest the time and effort in learning Catalan. You will be able to survive perfectly with Spanish, but if you really want the true Barcelona experience, speaking Catalan will be greatly appreciated and can sometimes open doors that otherwise would be closed.
- Free yourself from the temptation of buying everything in the supermarkets, and try to buy some products in the many municipal markets. Every neighborhood has at least one and it’s really a part of the Barcelona experience that can’t be missed. Additionally, for the quality, the prices are not that much more expensive.
How is the expat community in Barcelona? Did you have a hard time finding like-minded people or fellow expats?
I’m a bit detached from the expat community. The only people I really interact with in English are my co-workers. I occasionally exchange messages with others via reedit, but the majority of my friends and interactions here are Spanish and/or Catalan.
How would you summarize your expat life in Barcelona in a single, catchy sentence?
I went from NYC, living like a rock star on a bartender’s budget to happily scraping by in the Barcelona sun, a city where I can run, trip and fall in one direction and end up in the mountains and spit in the other and hit the sea. (This was the one that took longest to answer)