That Summer: Stumbling through a year abroad in Barcelona in 1997

An hour earlier I had got off the airport bus full of naive bravado, ready to find my way by train to the university where I would be studying for the next nine months. After the difficulties of reaching my destination that first Friday, I was minded to stay in but hunger forced me out foraging. With my entire weekend’s linguistic output coming to no more than a few monosyllabic mutterings to the supermarket cashier, and a few peppery expletives on discovering my beer error, by Monday morning I was ready to talk to anybody about anything. I remember my incredulity that a one-litre bottle of olive oil bought for communal use on Monday was often shaken of its last drops by the following Friday. I discovered breakfast for Catalans consisted of a rather disappointing milky coffee and a handful of biscuits with jam. A greater shock was the discovery that when a bottle of beer appeared on the table one evening it was to be shared between the four of us. Not to be put off, I made do with what I had and, armed with the knowledge that Catalans are not used to spicy food, I prepared a korma so docile the lentils could have picked a fight with it. Coming out at the top of Las Ramblas I remember my childlike joy as my senses swayed at the barrage of stimuli; the Bolivian pan pipers, the Spanish rock band, the dancing Beatles puppets and all around swirling, eddying masses of people. I adored its small balcony and its temperamental lift but, above all, its location in what I saw as true urban Barcelona. The academic year ended but I extended my lease through the summer, found work teaching English and swooned in anticipation at the months ahead. A cursory glance at my recollections of those times brings back not just moments of flighty wonder, like the August street parties in Gracia; sunset on the roof of Gaudi’s voluptuous masterpiece, La Pedrera; or speaking to Maria-Jose for the first time after I found our eyes locked together in Plaça del Sol. Yet I recall just as strongly seemingly trivial routines, such as buying baguettes from the woman who insisted I speak Catalan. Or filling my old water bottles with wine from the barrel at the dark, musty shop around the corner, where the old men sat on small stools. I remember my self-conscious pleasure at reading El País with my cortado coffee at a table in Plaça de Ruis y Taulet, and my satisfaction at adopting Spanish nocturnal timetables, where meetings were rarely before midnight and chocolate caliente was often sipped at dawn waiting for the Metro to open. These moments reminded me that I had immersed myself in Mediterranean life, sought out the city’s rhythms and found I could dance to them. I realised during those sultry months that I could never be the native Latino I wanted to be, but also that it was because I was an outsider that I appreciated things so much.