I had never heard of Barcelona just six years ago. Yea, I know, I’m a barbarian. I mean I knew the name, but had no idea what it was all about. And that completely changed in 2017 when I spent just over three months based in that fine city. And then again in 2019, when I spent four. And somewhere right in the middle of all of it … I found home.
There actually is so much wrong with Barcelona. Aging sewer systems which can fill the city with stink. A major pickpocket problem. Out of control tourism. But it’s also a place which stopped me in my tracks and made me completely rethink life.
One day I was walking home from a minor errand. Home was in Barceloneta, the neighborhood on the beach. Once you’re inside it you wouldn’t call it beautiful. Extremely narrow streets. Just about every balcony has laundry hanging out to dry. It was approaching rush hour and it was crowded with hot commuters. And suddenly I just stopped, locked in place.
I have never been a person who sinks deep roots. And I’d never found a location that I wanted to call home and never leave. I always had a side-eye out for the next great place. But at that moment, in the midst of ordinary, I suddenly knew. A huge smile grew across my face because I had found what everyone meant when they said “home”. I knew where I belonged. It was such an alien feeling and I had no idea what to do with it. People were walking around me as I stood there, pondering what I was supposed to do next.
Break Out Your Hushpuppies
Barcelona is infinitely walkable. It’s only 39 square miles in size. To put that into perspective, it’s smaller than either Cincinnati Ohio or Baton Rouge Louisiana by a decent amount. Now while 39 square miles (101 km2) sounds impressive when using only your feet, the city is criss-crossed with subways, bus routes, and other forms of available transportation. Plus it’s normal to just walk. On any average day there, I easily put a dozen miles on my shoes.
Everywhere you turn in the city, there is something to explore. A 2000 year old (still standing and used) wall here. A grand cathedral there. Food everywhere. The city abounds with outdoor cafes. And you will never … repeat NEVER … need a car. Food markets are everywhere within easy distance. Same with variety and hardware stores. Hell, anything you absolutely need is in a small shop close by. It’s just the way it is. Big box stores and malls, while they exist, are far from the norm. Sounds “Anti-American”, I know. But once you experience it, it’s like going back to our old ancestral roots where shopkeepers were standard fare and specialists abounded. (And not some kid working a chain store department with zero knowledge of what they’re selling).
My greatest joy in Barcelona is just wandering. You turn a corner one night and there’s a great music place. So you go in and listen for a few hours. You walk out around 11 and decide you want something to eat. And somewhere in the middle of an alleyway is a great vegetarian place. (You don’t think it’s great when you first see it, I mean .. no meat?). But you go in anyway and it has the most wonderful vibe. So intimate. And somehow they use hot plates behind the narrow bar to create concoctions that make your mouth water, and bring you back again and again for more. And for each and every day this is your average life. This isn’t a one-off or a random thing. This is what happens here, always.
As much as Barcelona is wonderful, there’s a lot outside of it that’s great as well. And you can get there so easily. Barcelona has two major train stations and a couple of major bus stations as well. Local trains can whisk you to nearby cities. High speed trains to different parts of the continent. Bus rides to the coast or the mountains. And of course, an international airport should none of those get to you to where you want to be.
In America, we have zero concept of trains. We either look back at them historically (think wild wild west), or we think of Amtrak. And wonder if we even know someone who has ever taken a train somewhere. In Europe, they’re as ubiquitous as cars. And cheap too! We constantly were just hopping in a super-comfortable train car for a two hour ride to another city for the day. The stations at each end are purposefully situated to be walkable to where you want to be. And when the day is done, a restful ride back for only a few Euros.
I currently live in Miami. If I wanted to go to Disney World in Orlando my only real option is a car. Fighting traffic. If that same scenario were in Europe I could walk from my home to a station (or worst case take a subway) and in just a few short hours be standing next to Mickey Mouse. All for around $20 each way. And I wouldn’t have batted an eye at how I managed to do it. That’s what living in Barcelona is like.
Languages and Cultures Flow
Now, I don’t speak Spanish. Not well at least. I have what I call “Vocational Spanish”. Meaning I can order food, shop, and generally get around town pretty easily. I do not have the skills to carry on a conversation about the conditions of the sewer systems. But it doesn’t matter. Granted, in most of Spain you need Spanish. But not so in Barcelona because it’s so incredibly multi-cultural. To begin with, the locals don’t even consider Spanish to be their main language. It’s Catalan. English and a multitude of languages are spoken pretty much everywhere. And everyone knows how to blend, mix, and pantomime their way to understanding.
It’s amazing how quickly you adapt. We went to a picnic one afternoon in the park. Seven or eight of us with no single common language. But somehow we found ourselves laughing constantly. Someone would tell a joke, you would crack up, and then suddenly realize that you had no idea what language the joke had been in. It didn’t matter. Somehow it was just communicated with absolute clarity. Again … that’s what living in Barcelona is like.
So why am I in Miami then? And not in Barcelona? Well, we were moving there on May 1st, 2020. And you know what the world was like in 2020. The country was closed. The world was closed. But I know that I’ll be back. For starters, for many months in 2022. And if the planets stay aligned, then for a lot longer than that. Sitting here in my Florida home almost five years after that moment in Barceloneta when I discovered my roots, I still think of that city each and every day. I remember the passion and joy. There is a hole in my soul because I’m not there. And it’s the reason I’m taking this circuitous route to get back to it. Because that’s where I belong.