As little of the Spanish language that I know and can understand, I can follow even less Catalan. Before heading to Barcelona Thursday morning, I thought Catalan was just a slightly different dialect of Spanish.
I had no clue that it was officially its own language. I wasn’t worried about the language barrier at all before heading to Spain (or at least, I was a lot less apprehensive about it than when I went to Munich) because so many words are so similar to the French language. There are a lot of Spanish-speakers at Sciences Po and living in France (and the U.S., of course), and I’ve heard enough Spanish in my life that I can usually figure out what’s going on when people are speaking to me, even if I can’t communicate much.
Last Monday I stopped by Bretano’s Franco-Anglophone bookstore (just across l’avenue de l’Opera from me) to buy a little Barcelona guidebook so I’d have a few maps, some key phrases and an idea of what Christina and I should do while there. I was browsing the guidebooks looking at English versions, but I somehow ended up buying one in French. The funny thing is that I didn’t even realize anything was amiss until halfway through the page on the Sagrada Familia – I guess I’m so used to having to read French that it didn’t seem weird to me to be reading about Barcelona in French.
I didn’t bother to exchange it because I understood it just fine, and it actually wasn’t at all confusing going from English to French to Catalan in the phrasebook section. At Sciences Po you have the option of taking a second language instead of an elective (my art history class), and while I’d considered starting Spanish, I opted against it because I thought it would be too confusing going through French as an intermediary language. After this weekend though, I really don’t think it would have been that bad, so I think I’m going to start taking Spanish during spring semester.
Anyway, once in Spain, I turned out to have a lot more Spanish saved up in my mind than I’d thought – I was formulating some simple and terribly constructed (but apparently comprehensible) sentences and remembered all the basics like please, thank-you, good bye, where are the bathrooms, etc. I’d expected to be able to understand okay, but not know how to say anything. It turned out to be completely opposite. Even if Catalan is a different language, most people from Catalonia understand regular Spanish too – for someone who’s only ever heard the Spanish that has crept up the West Coast from Mexico, though, Catalan was like nothing I’d ever heard.
All the menus, street signs, directions and brochures had everything written in both Catalan and Spanish, and it was eye-opening comparing the two. Christina and I spent most of Saturday afternoon at the Museu Picasso, and all of the cards next to the paintings (with the year, template, who donated, etc.) were in both languages. I mostly understood the Spanish half – I mean, niño is pretty easy to remember – but in Catalan, it turns into nen. Kind of similar, but to someone who has never actually studied either language, it was really confusing. Instead of “por favor” for please, it was “si us plau.” Christina and I realized pretty quickly that we were going to have no idea what was going on, so we figured out a few key phrases – “I don’t speak Spanish,” and “Do you speak English or French?” in particular.
Most people we asked for help in our butchered Cata-Spanish assumed we were French which kind of tickled us – until we remembered that France borders Catalonia, and it was probably just because a huge number of foreigners in Barcelona are from France. Also because of the proximity, more people spoke and understood French than English, so we ended up just telling a lot of people that we were French and going from there.
When we found someone who didn’t speak French or English, we used our limited Spanish vocabulary and some really wild charades. Outside the Museu Picasso we were trying to find an atm so we pulled out bank cards and cash and were pretending to get money out of an invisible machine. Pointing and grimacing works well too.
Since my flight to Barcelona left from Paris Beauvais airport an hour and a half outside of Paris on Thursday morning, and with transportation to the bus station I would have had to wake up at 4am anyway, I ended up staying up all night Wednesday. This wasn’t my original intention, but I had an art history paper to complete and ran out of time for sleeping. I met Christina at the Barcelona airport, where we took a bus and a metro to our hostel. Thanks to this website, we ended up with a really big clean hostel right in the center of the Barri Gotic.
The hostel was part of a group of 4 hostels throughout Barcelona, and because there was such a large staff and they have so many people staying there, there were organized activities and outings every day. That’s how we ended up on an English walking tour of the architecture of the city, which was really cool. We also spent quite a lot of time wandering the city on our own, which I always think is the best way to see a place. It was cool to have Christina as a travel buddy because our styles are really similar and we were both happy to walk for hours and see everything we could, even on no sleep and sore feet.
Apparently Barcelona was the port of entry for the first chocolate that ever came to Europe, so there’s a big chocolate museum attached to this cooking school for patisseries and bombons (nope, that’s not spelled wrong, it’s Catalan for bon-bon). Needless to say, we consumed a lot of chocolate in Catalonia! We also had our share of sangria, tapas and paella, which are all specialties of the region. We had a disturbing encounter with some anchovy-stuffed olives, but other than that, everything we tried was delicious.
On Saturday we walked past a reasonably-priced Mexican restaurant, and it sounded so good that we went back for dinner. We felt a little ridiculous being Americans eating in a Mexican restaurant in Spain – we were afraid people would think we were confused and thought Spain and Mexico were one and the same. We got over our feelings of awkwardness when our food arrived – it was delicious. We ate at a Parisian Mexican restaurant with Amelia for her birthday last weekend, which was okay, but nothing compared to this. Oh it was so delicious – Europeans generally do not enjoy spicy foods, and it’s really hard to find anything spicy here. At the chocolate museum there’s a whole display about how chocolate had to be modified from the spicy energy drink of the Aztecs to a sweet and perfumed beverage for Europeans, who couldn’t handle the spice in the original version.
We also checked out the Museu Picasso which came highly recommended, and we were not disappointed. Pablo Picasso actually lived in Barcelona for quite a few years, so most of the art in the museum was personally donated by him and his widow. There was an entire room full of erotic sketches drawn by Picasso when he was in his early twenties. Christina and I were very surprised to stumble into this room as these are generally not the things you think of when you picture the art of Pablo Ruiz Picasso. The museum was just really really cool because it charted all the different stages of his art through all the stages of his life – it was really informative in addition to having cool art to look at.
Sunday morning we had to catch a bus back to the Girona Barcelona airport at 4am, so we decided to just stay up the entire night again. We decided to be economical (trashy) and bought litros of boxed wine (for 1,5 each!) at a convenience store, and drank them while walking down to the waterfront. It was actually kind of a scary experience, because for some reason strange people on the street are very attracted to girls holding boxes of wine.
We were nearly attacked by a blistery-lipped old woman who was following us crying “Vino! Vino!” She really wanted a drink, and we really did not want to share, and we ended up having to run into a restaurant to hide from her. After her we had not one but two more guys stop us and ask for a drink! As Christina said, “If they had their own cups, I would be happy to share, but I didn’t come to Barcelona to get foreign diseases!”
Once at the waterfront, we walked out along this dock to a really large and fancy shopping mall. It’s a typical mall, except that the roof is covered with an assortment of bars and discotheques that are closed during the day. We walked up to the second floor of the deserted mall and to the foot of the staircase leading to the roof where security guards were taking a single cover charge for all the clubs on the roof (we’re girls though, we didn’t have to pay). Once on the roof, you have probably nine different bars and clubs to choose from, and as fun as it was, we couldn’t forget that we were in a mall.
We left the club at 2:30, walked back to our hostel to check out, and began the hike to the bus station still in our heels and going out make-up. After many long hours of bus-airplane-bus-metro, we made it back to my apartment in freezing cold Paris. After hot showers and warm soup, we pretty much just passed out for the rest of the day.
Barcelona was a drastic culture change from Paris – it’s a lot more like the West Coast of the U.S. – it’s warm and on the Mediterranean and the people are warm, friendly, relaxed and are the most granola of any I’ve encountered so far in Europe. It was like Seattle – or Berkeley, maybe. I felt at home among the dreadlocks, hemp and clouds of pot smoke in the parks.
All in all, Barcelona was awesome – the whole time though, I just kept thinking “enjoy this now.” This was the kind of traveling that is really only for the young and extremely energetic – going on a few hours of sleep for an entire weekend, sleeping in a 14-bed dormitory in a youth hostel, drinking wine from boxes, walking all day long for three days in a row, being afraid to touch any surfaces in the bathroom – it was exhausting. It’s only been four days but it kind of felt like we were returning from war when we stumbled through the door of my studio. It’s thrilling no doubt, but I’m pretty sure this is the only time in my life when my body is still spry enough to forgive me for what I’ve been putting it through.
•• By the way, Ryan Air has the worst security I’ve ever been checked by. I made it onto the airplane with my pepper spray (it was an accident, I forgot to take it out of my purse) and no questions asked.