Tips: Relocating to Barcelona
I had about a week's notice before I learned that I was moving to a little town called Barcelona, a place I had never been before but had no qualms about (and no time for) giving much thought to packing up all my belongings and moving halfway across the world...again. Three-and-a-half years later I feel like I can finally call this place home, but it hasn't been easy. Ask any expat about settling into a far-away land and they will probably tell you the same thing: it's not as magical and romantic as it seems.
When I first stepped off the plane at Barcelona-El Prat, I had nary an idea of the challenges I would face during the next three-something years. As such, I'm here to pass along my gained wisdom after learning the ropes (mostly) on my own.
Disclaimer: If your job is relocating you to Barcelona, congratulations! You won't have to deal with some of the bureaucratic nonsense that I harp on below.
Learn (some) Spanish.
Having previously lived abroad in a major European city (Paris), I initially was not too worried about only having a week to learn a handful of Spanish basics, as I assumed that most city dwellers spoke English to cater to the hordes of tourists. In Paris, for example, some locals only spoke English to me as they detested hearing a foreigner butcher their precious language (even though I was there to study French). During my first few days in Barcelona, I quickly learned that not as many people speak English as I had previously thought/hoped. So I whipped out my phone and downloaded Duolingo, an app I had been using before I arrived to pick up some of the general vocab and phrases.
In Barcelona, nearly everyone speaks Spanish, and most people speak both Spanish and Catalan, the language of the region of Catalonia, of which Barcelona is the capital. I decided that I would focus my efforts on Spanish, and I have ever since. Relying on Duolingo, my knowledge of French, my coworkers, and a handful of language exchange outings (called intercambios), I wouldn't call myself fluent, but I sure have mastered the hell out of a good surface-level conversation.
Sub-tip: Once you learn even a little bit of the local language, use it! Barcelona is not Paris; locals actually like and appreciate when you try to speak their language, even if you totally demolish it. If a restaurant server or shop merchant speaks to me in English (assuming I am a tourist), I reply and continue the conversation in Spanish. If I don't practice, I'll derail my learning.
Sure it's great to meet a bunch of native English speakers every once in awhile to have deeper conversations and feel close to home, but I feel like I would be doing myself a disservice if I came all this way, implanted myself in a foreign country, and stuck to my native language the entire time. Learning the local language is one of the more fun challenges of living abroad, and with all the not-so-fun challenges that come with the territory, it's nice to have one that rewards you for life.
Spanish bureaucracy is slow, complicated, and at times makes absolutely no sense. As a foreigner in this country I can hem and haw to friends, but I really can't do anything about the processes I must endure in order to be a part of this society, so I have learned to accept the obstacle courses and convoluted hedge mazes that Spain requires foreigners (especially those not from the European Union) to surmount.
Friends and family have heard me gripe and grumble about this struggle for years, and some have asked, "Why would you even go through this?" Aside from being *blessed* with a personality that thrives under stress, I really do love Barcelona. The beach, the city, the mountains, the food, the laid back lifestyle; I could go on. And while I may not be here forever, Barcelona feels like a place worth fighting for, and I knew that if I tried to work and live in any other European country, the process would most likely be just as difficult, if not more so. And as I sit here, after years of figuring it all out, how could I possibly leave now?
For better or for worse, moving to Barcelona was a choice. After filling out forms and waiting in lines and shelling out bucks to lawyers to establish myself here, I have learned to accept that no matter where I am living, I am going to have ups and downs. Sure, daily sunshine, proximity to the beach, and cheap health care give me peace of mind when I am down in the dumps, but realistically I know that bad days happen all over the world and that moving to one place or another doesn't serve as a quick fix. Whether you live abroad or in your hometown, crappy times don't discriminate based on location. so if you romanticize moving overseas as an escape from your problems at home, it won't work.
Figure out why you want to move abroad, identify what you want to get out of the experience, and then decide if the action is feasible or just a far-off fantasy. If things don't work out, develop a Plan B. When I left the States for Cambodia, I keep a few institutions in place back home just in case my first few weeks in my new Southeast Asia home left me broke and with no job prospects.
Give yourself a break.
Moving abroad (especially alone) is not for everyone. I have had moments where I stop and wonder, what in the world I am doing here? I doubt myself, I worry about Spain's low salaries and poor economy, and I wonder what life would be like back home. I would find it unique not to have these moments of self-doubt and wondering, "what if?". But between these brief periods of negativity, I sit back, relax, and enjoy the life I have built here.
I let myself take days to do absolutely nothing, to sit on the beach with a book and a beer, to walk the city streets for hours on end, to adjust to a life in a foreign setting that (all things considered) would probably not be too different from my life in the States. Even during the trying moments, I have listened to my gut and my heart, and both have told me that I am doing OK. These little instances put everything into perspective and allow me to shake off the worry.
Fellow expats: What do you wish you had known before moving abroad? I'd love to read your comments below!
Lead photo: View of Port Vell from Soho House Barcelona.