And So It Begins
It was our dream for many years. So, one day we finally sat down and made a plan. We knew it wouldn’t happen overnight. It took a lot of work but eventually the day came. “We’re moving to Barcelona.” we announced. Reactions varied.
That Could Have Gone Better
We aren’t ones to try to sugar coat everything about traveling. That’s why we decided to start each journal of the places we’ve lived with a story of our less than perfect moments. We think it’s important to not take ourselves too seriously. Don’t get us wrong, the great moments we get to experience tend to far outweigh the bad ones, but we think it’s important to include the whole story. Our most splendid fail in all of our travels happened at the end of our stay in Barcelona. And since this isn’t a Quentin Tarantino movie, we’re going to start at the beginning with a short tale of misunderstanding. But our biggest, let’s say, “learning experience,” really deserves its own blog anyway, so the link to it will be at the end of this blog. We won’t blame you if you scroll down and skip ahead.
It said BOMBERS in big bold letters on the side of the truck. Red lights are spinning on top of most of the cars on this street. A large area in front of an apartment building is taped off and surrounded by official looking people in even more official looking uniforms. Either something bad has happened or it’s about to.
We’ve just arrived in Barcelona and we’re sitting in the back of a taxi with two cats and everything that we own. We look at each other with wide eyes and I know Mimi is thinking the same thing I’m thinking. What the hell have we gotten ourselves into? BOMBERS? Is it even safe for the taxi to drive past this? The driver didn’t seem nearly as concerned as I was, and we drove on by bracing for the shock-wave of an explosion that fortunately, never came.
In our defense, we have the weak excuse of exhaustion to point to. It had been a full day of travel and we were tired to the point of delirium.
Bomb Squad was the closest association we had to BOMBERS and our brains automatically translated it into the scariest, most dramatic thing possible. The fact that it didn’t make sense was irrelevant. Obviously here was no bomb. The fire departments in Spain are called the Bombers. It had been a small fire, and fortunately no one was hurt. But it was our first lesson and it perfectly illustrated how much more we still had to learn about our new life. Note to selves: Everything will be called something else now, everywhere we go. Try to learn enough to keep yourself from wandering into traffic.
Weird, But Effective
Our apartment in the Barri Gòtic looked exactly like what we had built up in our minds. To us, it was what a European apartment was supposed to look like. If you were going to build a movie set of a typical Spanish apartment, it would have looked like this.
The walls were made of old brick that could only have that much character because it was old European brick. The wooden slatted windows were something right out of a cottage in the woods, complete with the flowing curtains that parted to let the sun pour inside. It had wood floors and a beautiful art piece from a local artist that spanned the entire wall of the living room. In the courtyard outside of our windows, local musicians, Microguagua, would play songs.
There was nothing settled about our new life. We tried to hit the ground running, but it was more like short sprints with lots of stopping. Work was unavoidable, but we still managed to free up some time wherever we could. I had really been hoping to win the lottery before we left California but since I never actually played, I knew my chances were pretty low. So, we would have to spend at least part of our days working but we could work with the sounds of Barcelona as our soundtrack, so they were good days at work.
Looking back, we still had a lot to learn about being digital nomads. The say ignorance is bliss and it would be an understatement to say that we were extremely blissful.
We had embraced the nomad lifestyle full on, but still hadn’t yet realized what that meant. All we knew at that point was, we were in Europe. We wanted to see and do everything. And we wanted all of this as soon as possible. Pacing ourselves still hadn’t occurred to us. Defining what seeing and doing everything meant hadn’t occurred to us either. Everything can be a really long list.
Realizing that you’re in this for the long haul, and that there’s no need to rush around spending up all of your savings, is an important early lesson. A balance has to be found. It was still very important to us that we see and do as much as possible. That’s why we’re here in the first place and it would be foolish to miss out on the opportunities. If I were a financial strategist I would give this advice. Think of your bank account like you would the speedometer of your car. Try to go as fast as you can without crashing and remember to slow down to enjoy the good parts.
Barcelona has far too many sights to list them all and frankly TripAdvisor has already done that anyway. I will however say that some of our favorites were anything involving Antoni Gaudí. He famously left his mark on the city with his innovative and artistically unique architecture.
There’s Sagrada Familia of course and if you only have time for one of his famous offerings, see this. I’ll admit, I’ve always had a thing for the architecture of these old cathedrals, but this place has to be experienced to be appreciated. While most old cathedrals feel mid-evil and gothic to me, Sagrada Familia was bright and colorful. A word of caution though, make your reservations online before you go, or you’ll spend half of your day standing in a very long line.
Parc Guell was a beautiful park with some great examples of Gaudi’s genius. Casa Batllo and Casa Mila are pretty amazing as well. You can get some great pictures of the outside, but we felt it was worth the price to go inside. Those would be our other “best of Gaudi” recommendations but we felt that everything he did was worth seeing.
The Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, or the MNAC, is a big museum with a lot of wonderful art. The bonus to visiting here is that you can walk past the Plaça Espanya, the Font Màgica de Montjuïc, and up the stairs to the front of the MNAC, which offers a breathtaking view of the city. Behind the MNAC, just a short walk away, is a beautiful park and the old Olympic stadium.
There’s so much to do in Barcelona that at some point you’ll probably need to relax and you’re in luck. Barcelona has lots of great beaches. There are plenty of bars and cafés that can be found all along the beach too. They’re much pricier than almost anywhere else in the city but hey! You’re on the beach. So, you’re not really over paying for a piña colada so much as, you’re over paying for a piña colada with a view. Every drink taste better when you drink it on a beach. That’s just a scientific fact.
What Did We Just Buy?
Living like a local means grocery shopping. Our relocations sometimes cause unexpected challenges to this normally mundane task. Let’s assume for a moment that we don’t speak the local language, because we don’t. We try to learn a few useful phrases of course but nothing to the level of understanding that would help with shopping. Shopping in another language is humbling, sometimes frustrating, and when you’re lucky, a bit comical. “Arf” is not just the sound of a dog barking. It’s also the name of a cleaner. But what does it clean?
Pictures on the label can help but there’s not always pictures. It was the next morning when I opened a bottle of milk and began to pour it over my cereal that the smell hit me. At first I thought that the milk was expired because there was obviously something not right about it. Seeing that the expiration date was still a week away I turned to Google. Apparently, sheep’s milk is a thing and people actually drink it. On purpose!
It was then that we developed the, “click a picture of the label then go home and Google it” method of shopping. It takes twice as many trips but trying to tell the difference between laundry detergent, fabric softener, or dishwasher detergent can be challenging when all of the labels are in a language that you don’t speak.
Barcelona has its share of big super markets and modern looking organic markets, but it also has some of the old style fresh markets left over from…well, from how it’s always been done in Europe! All within Mercado de Santa Caterina, we’d bounce from one stall to buy produce, to another stall for meats and cheeses. We’d stop by the bakery for fresh bread, and a shop for wine.
We found specialty local olive spreads and flavor infused olive oils for the bread that were incredible.
We’d sit there eating our picnic lunch, drinking a bottle of wine grinning like idiots. We felt that we were adapting to this new lifestyle very well.
It’s not that we don’t like to cook, it’s more that I hate washing dishes. So, we ate out at restaurants fairly often. Most of the time we would seek out new places we hadn’t tried yet, but we also had our favorites that we would visit semi regularly. It was always satisfying to see the look of recognition on the waiter/waitress’s face, when after a month or so, they’d realize that we weren’t just passing through on vacation. We were there to be part of the city for a time. In a city full of so many tourist, it was great to be embraced as a local by so many of the people we met.
We love cava. After 2 days of sampling from over fifty different Spanish wineries, at the Exhibition of Wine and Cava of Catalonia festival one weekend, it’s safe to call us big fans. Our livers may have disagreed, but organs don’t get a vote in the matter as long as they’re doing their job. Each time we visited a new booth for a fresh glass to sample, we would order something different from each other. We’d try each other’s cava and vote on who got the better glass. Not out of competition of course but purely for research purposes.
Two days of drinking cava wasn’t just for fun, it was for science! That’s believable, right?
Out of the many different samples we tried, there was only one glass we didn’t care for. Mimi discovered that she loves a good rose’ and I discovered that being singed by sparks at La Merce hurts less when drunk. Finding a good place to have a drink is not hard in Barcelona. Nearly every menu in the city comes with a selection of beer or wine and most places will have a full bar. It’s a major city so it’s not difficult to find almost anything you’re craving. You only need to decide on what type of atmosphere you’d like to hang out in. There’s a great nightlife with every type of bar or club imaginable, easily accessible.
Barcelona is probably most famous for great tapas and there are several good choices throughout the city. It’s not quite a snack, not quite a meal, the tapas is all about sociability, so if you know where to go, you can tapear till you drop. We just love the concept of these small plates of Spanish food, which allow us not only to snack throughout the day, but also to try many different dishes in one sitting.
It’s a Meatball
“What’s this called?” I asked the man behind the counter. “It’s a meatball.” was the reply accompanied with a look that could only be described as the “are you stupid” look. It did look like a meatball, but I persisted with my line of questioning until I got the answer I wanted. After all the menu above the counter was all in Spanish so there had to be another name. It turns out that the dish did have a more exotic sounding description, Albondigas. Essentially, it’s a meatball. Only it’s made with chorizo and beef which gives them a spicier, and distinctly Spanish flavor. They were delicious.
We were lucky enough to catch several events and festivals while we were there but our favorite two had to be the Gracia & La Mercè Festivals.
These two festivals are very different from each other but well worth attending. They each span several days with their own unique events and entertainment.
The Gracia Festival is the tamer of the two festivals but no less fun for it. Sections of the Gracia neighborhood are decorated by local artist, mostly using recycled materials, to create a colorful artistic wonderland. The sections are scattered and have different themes. It’s visually stunning as you wander along the streets trying to take it all in. You can also dance in the street to live music by one of the many stages spread throughout the neighborhood. We attended a couple of the nights in an effort to see it all and hear more bands.
The La Mercè Festival starts out the first few days with events featuring Castellers or human towers, parades of giants, concerts, and a light show. These are all things worth seeing and we had a lot of fun, but nothing prepared us for the night of the Fire Run. We spent the day at a wine/cava festival that’s held over the same weekend in Parc de la Ciutadella near the Arc de Triomf. (yes, there’s one in Barcelona too) There are food trucks and booths offering food from local restaurants of every variety and everything we tried was very tasty.
We were feeling good by the time night fell and it was time for the Fire Run. We’ve been to many Mardi Gras’ and we’ve been to Carnival in Cologne, but this wasn’t like either. Imagine Mardi Gras mixed with Mad Max on New Year’s Eve. It was kind of like that but crazier. We were at the start of the run, positioned near a big gate that spanned the entire road. It looked like something King Kong was about to come busting through, complete with big flames at the top and surrounded by fireworks.
When the doors opened, the “devils” started pouring through, shooting sparks at the crowd from spinning wheels at the tops of long poles. In between groups of dancing devils, there were groups of drummers pounding out hypnotic rhythms. There were “creatures” some being worn by people, some being carried or pulled by groups of people, that also sprayed huge fountains of sparks at the crowd. It was nothing short of a fireman’s nightmare and it was incredible. It has to be experienced to fully appreciate it.
Over the Hills and Through the Woods
With so many famous cities in Spain to explore it was common for us to hop on a train and visit someplace like Valencia, Madrid, or Seville for a few days. Nearby Tarragona could be reached in a half hour and features an impressive ancient Roman amphitheater, strategically placed with a spectacular view of the beach. And since all of Europe felt easily accessible now, we even booked birthday weekends for each other in Venice and Oberwesel.
We burned through a good chunk of our savings before we learned the very important lesson, that we couldn’t live like tourist all the time. It’s hard to say we regret it though. We had some incredible experiences. Personally, I don’t think you can put a price on that.
Living abroad comes with its moments of forced growth but we feel so fortunate to have had the opportunity. It was a privilege to call Barcelona home, even for a short time. Barcelona is without a doubt, one of the world’s greatest cities. It has something for everyone. No matter who you are or what your interest, you’ll find some part to enjoy. And no matter how long or short your visit is, it won’t be long enough to see everything, but it will definitely be long enough for you to fall in love. And now as promised, our most epic fail, well, so far!