Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The Charms of Barcelona

Canadian writer Monna McDiarmid currently resides in Yokohama, Japan, but she's also been fortunate enough to have called Thailand, Spain, Mexico and Colombia home in the past, too. She not only blogs about her travels, but also gives us a glimpse into the details of her expat life. As someone who's lived in Barcelona for three years and names it as one of her favorite cities (and just returned from a week-long visit there), I asked Monna to share some insights and tips about the Catalonia capital.

As our plane dropped out of the clouds and swept over the Mediterranean coastline, we leaned towards the window, taking in our first, glorious views of Barcelona in two years. I turned to DP and whispered, “Why did we ever leave?”

Life, of course, is not that simple. As international educators, we are responsible for funding our own retirement and it was clear that the kind of aggressive saving required was never going to happen while working at our tiny international school. So, after three years in Barcelona, we had moved to Asia where we would be able to live well while saving money.

But, somehow, life has not been quite as sweet since.

Barcelona is of Spain but is not Spanish. When dictator General Francisco Franco tried to squash the spirit of the Catalan people during the Spanish Civil War, he couldn’t have predicted that his actions would actually help strengthen their fierce pride. The Barca football stadium was the only place where Catalans could speak their language without suppression and the team quickly became a symbol of Catalan sovereignty. Today, most Catalans speak Spanish but they may prefer not to.
I remember a particularly ornery waiter who worked at Bar Tomas in the neighborhood of Sarria. As DP and I had lived in Colombia and Mexico, we were comfortable ordering in Spanish but the waiter always responded in English. This was particularly noteworthy because he clearly did not speak English and his attempts sounded like the barking of a large, angry dog. Finally, we came to understand the root of the problem and switched to English, which was clearly less offensive than our Spanish. He nodded and laughed and smacked our plate of patatas bravas down on the table with such force that I thought the plate might snap in two. We had finally passed his test.

During our trip this summer, we met up with photographers Kyle Hepp and her husband Seba and retraced the steps of our daily walk home through the neighborhood of Gracia. The neighborhood was just as we left it and the golden light flowed down the side streets like liquid gold. The woman at our local bakery recognized us immediately (we don’t really blend) and she ran out from behind the counter to give us a hug. We had been regulars; she had never minded our Spanish.

In our three years in Barcelona, we learned that enjoying the city was like falling out of bed – anyone could do it. But to BELONG in Barcelona, now that was quite a different matter requiring patience, time, a sense of humor and a commitment to extending oneself – linguistically and socially. One needed to court Barcelona carefully, according to her rules and whims. But, from time to time, when the gods of Catalunya embraced us, it was true love. 
Whether you seek to enjoy or belong, we recommend the following during your time in Barcelona:

- Learn a few words of Spanish and Catalan before you arrive.
- Guard your valuables carefully; the thieves in Barcelona are, perhaps, the most innovative in the world.
- Eat tapas. Patatas bravas, pan con tomate and escalivada are all musts.
- Sip cava at a café.
- Fall under the thrall of Antoni Gaudí’s Sagrada Familia.

- Cheer Barca to victory in a home game at Camp Nou. Be careful…you may just fall in love with the coach, Pep Guardiola!
- People-watch in one of the city's amazing plaças. Our favorite was Plaça Rius i Taulet (now called Plaça de la Vila de Gracia).
- Walk along the beach.
- Ramble up Las Ramblas. We favor Rambla de Catalunya, which runs North of Plaza de Catalunya.
- Buy a pair of espadrilles or menorquinas.
- Take in a concert at the Palau de la Musica.

Every city has its own charms. Barcelona has way more than her fair share.

Images: courtesy of Monna McDiarmid


  1. Enjoy the riches of the city, Dorkys: the cava, the Gaudi, the strolls and the infinitely fascinating people-watching opportunities. I miss Barcelona every day!

  2. Sounds like a wonderful place... Enjoy your visit there!

  3. ...someday...

    I guess I best stop saying "someday" and start thinking "such and such day".

  4. monna, I did all of the above! The cava was actually really good (never heard of it until your post), Gaudi was incredible and such a great topic of conversation for us several times over the last few days (would love to know how his mind worked) and I so enjoyed walking around the Gothic quarter and watching scenes unfold on La Rambla. Thank you so much for teaching me about Barcelona right before I arrived!

    toriz, thanks and I did! You should go there too.

    intense guy, yes sir so get to it! I think you'd absolutely love it there. The weather, the walking possibilities, the weird, gnarly buildings the Gaudi dreamed up, the culture, the beautiful women... :)


Say word.