Every so often in life we all find a person, a place, or an idea, that makes us fall so deep in love we are blinded to all of their faults and shortcomings, creating a picture in our minds of complete perfection. This false ideal is unsustainable and fragile, eventually shattering and more often than not, leaving us broken-hearted and lost. For me, that was place was Barcelona.
Barcelona. One of the most popular tourist destinations in Europe, the home of Gaudi and his brilliant architecture, the capital of Catalonia, and one of the most interesting cities I’ve encountered in Europe. From the wide open beaches of the Barceloneta and the gleaming high buildings of the Port to the rambling cobblestone streets of El Quarto Gótico and the fairy tale gingerbread houses of Parque Güell, the city is full of magic and mysticism. Barcelona is not simply a modern, fun, and vibrant city, it also has a long, mysterious, and incredibly interesting past.
When I first went to Barcelona I was 13 years old. My family stayed in a small flat in the gothic quarter, I remember feeling terrified as we entered through the graffitied and barred door in a dark and silent street. I had just finished reading ‘The Shadow of the Wind’, by Carlos Ruiz Zafon, which to this day remains my favourite book of all time, I reread it at least once a year. The book, set in post civil war Barcelona had ignited a passion for the Spanish culture and history in me and I hold it solely responsible for my degree choice. The four days I spent wandering in this incredible city did not quench the fire inside of me, instead, fed it steadily until I made it a life ambition to live there one day.
The following summer, my family hosted a language student from San Vicente, a town very near Barcelona. We became friends and I visited her once a year for the next four years. Every time, I would spend a few days in Barcelona, simply walking and watching, breathing in the city. My favourite method of seeing a city is to in one direction until I hit a red light, then turn down the available route. The grid system of Barcelona is perfect for this. Forward, Stop, Turn. Forward. Stop Turn. Rinse and repeat until done. Now you’re in a place you’ve never seen before and have no idea how to get back to where you started. At this point, have a beer and contemplate life, before guessing your direction again, and heading back home. These were the times I lived for. I would spend all year waiting for the next time I could go back, not even thinking about other places because my goal was Barcelona. It still is, in a way.
During my A level studies, my school offered the chance to do a week of work experience in Rosas, a small but beautiful coastal town north of Barcelona. At that time, I was working on a project on Catalonia, essentially a detailed political, cultural and historical assessment of whether Catalonia should be independent. In Rosas I had the chance to interview several of the people I worked with, and the week taught me a lot about the history of Barcelona, embellishing the sheer respect and understanding that Zafón had already instilled in me. It also convinced me that if I wanted to live in Catalonia, I would have to learn Catalan.
The year after, I went back again. This time with my best friend, to visit my friend in San Vicente, and a girl who had au paired in Bath, and ended up staying at her house in the final weeks. This experience opened me up to a new part of Barcelona, the nightlife, restaurants and shopping which before I had stayed away from.
After a few months of travelling and volunteering in Europe the year after I finished school, my sights turned back to Barcelona. The plan at the time, was that I’d move there in April and work a volunteering job until I have managed to find a stable job and flat, and to remain there the following three years for university. This however, was when my plan began to fall apart. I was travelling with a friend, and we had secured a workaway position in ‘The Hipstel’, a hostel in the centre of Gracia. Our flight from Venice, where we had spent a romantic weekend getting lost in the narrow backstreets, landed at midday. Within an hour, we were on the airport bus into the city centre. The fare had doubled since last time I had been and we found ourselves struggling to find cash for lunch as the heavens opened as we arrived in Plaza Catalunya. Our hostel did not remember us. They had no idea about the dozens of messages we had been sending back and forth, and could not offer us a job. We would later find out that this happened at least once a fortnight.
Eventually, we were provided with beds and a job in a partner hostel, two minutes away from Plaza Catalunya. Within a two weeks I was forced to find a second job, as the hostel did not provide food as advertised, and the meagre 30 euro salary a week for 40-50 hours work could not even begin to cover the costs of life in the city. Being a not very unattractive British female, who could speak Spanish, I was offered four interviews within two days and accepted a job offer on the Barceloneta. 70, Carrer de Sevilla. Bar Celoneta. What a wonderful place, what an original name. The increase in income meant we were able to live better now, and my experience there taught me how to make 14 different types of sangria, something which has never been relevant since.
Yet again, this time the city failed me. Finishing work most nights after 2am meant that rather than an easy metro journey, more often than not I had to walk home 40 minutes through the port and up Las Ramblas. Every single night, without fail, I would be harassed by drunk men, usually tourists, who wanted to know ‘what a pretty girl like you’s doing out so late at night.’ It got the point within a couple of weeks that I was so sick of having to bat away the advances of idiots, that I would instead latch onto the closest looking normal person when I left work, and make them walk me home. This, whilst wearing long skirts or jeans and high-necked tops, I can only imagine how bad it would have been were I not dressed so conservatively.
There was one night which convinced me I would never be safe living in the city alone. I was talking to two young men after work one night, I had told them I could speak Spanish earlier on in the night but they had forgotten, and we’re addressing me in poor English. Luckily, this meant that I could easily eavesdrop. That’s the story about how I ran home, after hearing two young men discussing how they would be able to take advantage of me.
I left Barcelona two years and six months ago, after trying for several months to make it work and being struck down at every attempt. The night I left, £500 worth of valuables were stolen, including every single photo I’d taken travelling. I’ve only been back once since then, for two hours.
Barcelona is a difficult city. There is a darkness which lurks under every doorway, behind every corner. A thick smog of shame and secrecy hangs over the city, a city where so much has happened, and no one ever talks about. I love it, and I hate it all at the same time. I am ashamed that it bested me, and I know that one day I will go back, and that that time it will work.
Written by Bethany Naylor