For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been in Barcelona. Prior to this, I was in Paris for 4 weeks and Berlin for a week. This summer has been weird for me. I stepped into it naively and it’s made a deep impact on how much trust I put into the world. I’m an extremely independent person, but despite that, there has always been a helpless little girl within me that needs guidance and I went to Paris to grow out of that and get a thicker skin. And I did (I think).
Now I’m in Barcelona, where I’ve been for 2 weeks. Barcelona reminds me a lot of Lima, Peru. It’s hot, sticky, salty, and sunny. But Barcelona is not Lima and I’m learning a lot.
I’m staying in a place in El Raval. El Raval is a very poor crime-ridden neighborhood, riddled with prostitution. About half of its population consists of immigrants, namely Pakistani and Romanian. There is a Sikh temple on my street. The streets are very narrow and if you look up, you will feel like you are being swallowed in a mess of adobe or clay. It’s probably not the place I’d like to be in this city, but I personally hate touristy things and will take a dose of the real deal over a gentrified disneyficated area any day of the year.
Every morning, I awake to a man loudly singing some Islamic prayer. When I go anywhere alone, I am rife to sexual harassment, whether it’s someone just saying, “hola guapa” or someone following me around yelling, “chula chula chula” while making kissing nosies. There is no real way to react to any of this, the mindset is deeply ingrained in the neighborhood’s culture and the religious beliefs prompt these men to think of women as second-class citizens.
The streets smell like poop and pee. When a friend of mine back in the states asked me what it was like in Europe, the best way I could think to explain Europe was to say, “It’s like going to a concert or a sports game at a huge stadium. Way too many people. Crowded. There is the faint hint of shit in the air. People pee wherever they want. There’s beer everywhere. It’s difficult to find healthy food. And it’s just really fucking loud all the time. But collectively, there is a pride, a spirit, a bond between all of these people even though there is a lot of rivalry between [teams/nations].”
As an American, I feel that people are used to mediocrity and everything being middle-of-the-road. We actually look at emotional breadth as a mental disorder, but I find in Europe, passion trumps all. I see people fist-fighting in the streets. I see women spitting at men, flipping them off, and storming off. When people kiss in public, they put their entire bodies into it. Despite religious conservatism, there is little shame. I’ve seen people walking down the street with tears in their eyes. And in comparison, tourists often look very miserable because they don’t show that same raw, carnal emotion–they look dead. In all of this, kids play in the streets all night long, past midnight. These kids are exposed to the elements, and they will grow up with fiery, untempered passions. When they hate, they will murder, when they love, it will be explosive. There will never be a middle of the road for these people.
Despite this, I find that there is a lot of mediocrity in service. I don’t know all the details on it, but you seemingly cannot be fired in the EU. People relish this job security and don’t put as much effort into service jobs as one might in the United States. This combined with just the overall “slow” culture of some European countries poses a lot of challenges. Going to a restaurant often robs you of hours of your day, even if you order para llevar. And stuff like this is contributing to massive economic failure, especially in Spain where the unemployment rate is extremely high.
Being here, I’ve also learned a bit of history surrounding Spain. Before coming here, I didn’t realize that Catalonia was viewed as its own independent nation by separatists or that there was still a very heavy movement for Catalonian independence, but Barcelonians will often outright say they are not part of Spain. A lot of this is fielded by economic tension and there appears to be a lot of hostility between locals over use of the Catalan language and the Spanish language. As an American, no one expects you to speak Catalan though.
Barcelona, like other European cities, seems to shut down at night. I find it funny that someone told me it would “come alive at night,” because that person clearly has no familiarity with American culture where we are used to 24-hour service. Grocery stores close at 9. Just like in Paris. “Pakimarts” (small convenience stores run by Pakistani immigrants… usually called Supermercats) stay open until maybe midnight, but they’re not a reliable source of decent food.
I like the overall feel of Barcelona though. The things above are not complaints so much as observations. They are not wrong. They are merely different from what I know as an American. I love being by the beach. I grew up by the beach, and whenever I am by one, I feel right. I am a child of the sea. I love the way the salt feels in the air. I love the way the heat feels in the afternoon. As much as it makes me miserable in the moment, I love sweaty sleeping. And I love the way mango juice feels going down my throat on the hottest of afternoons, as I settle down at my desk to get some work done, a small desk fan being the only thing keeping me from dying of heat exhaustion.