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Seeing double in Barcelona

Thursday November 16, 2006

Natasha Young

Barcelona is a wonderful place. It's big, gorgeous, dirty, quirky and terribly mixed-up. If it were a man, I'd marry him. 

Once home to Picasso, George Orwell and Snowflake the albino gorilla, Barcelona is now home to me. I moved here from Manchester just over two years ago at the age of 31, drawn by the beaches, the weather, the culture and the wealth of original-version cinemas in a country that insists on dubbing all foreign film and TV. 

As any Catalan nationalist propping up the bar will happily tell you, Barcelona is not like the rest of Spain. In fact, if you can spare the time they will tell you that Catalonia is not really part of Spain at all, but a proud and separate nation with a pulsating economy, its own language and traditions, and a pretty nifty football team. You may also note as you stumble out into the sunlight, that while you've polished off four beers and a portion of patatas bravas, they've smoked 20 fags but hardly touched a drop.

Barcelona's dual identity makes it an intriguing and difficult place to live. Should you learn Catalan or Spanish? Was it just me or did that conversation start in Spanish, change to Catalan and then back into Spanish in mid-sentence? Is your lack of local friends a result of the Catalan's famed frostiness with outsiders or do people just not like you? Why do Barça fans hate Real Madrid so much? Where do you draw the line between nationalist and racist? 

And why, oh, why is Barcelona full of crusties, anarchist punks and people with really bad hair? My friends and hairdresser are all under strict instructions to put me on the next plane home if I start talking about getting a mullet. It's easily done. When you first arrive you're full of giggling disbelief and on constant mullet watch; then before you know it, you find yourself attracted to guys with monstrous hair and you're thinking about cutting your fringe really short. 

The real reason Barcelona can be a struggle is down to a combination of cripplingly high rents and low salaries. Back in my attic flat one rainy Sunday afternoon in Manchester, I'd dreamt of having my own little apartment in Barcelona, complete with green shutters, a sea view and a balcony where I'd tend plants and drink coffee with an intellectual beauty named Juan or Josef. Reality soon hit in the first month when I realised that I'd have to go back to flat-sharing and the only thing there was room for on the balcony of the tiny flat I was living in was the cat litter tray. 

In a city where everyone is bilingual, native English speakers with few language skills to speak of are not that highly prized on the job market. Your options are generally limited to teaching English, working in a call centre or serving pints to stag parties from Doncaster in an Irish bar on Calle Ferran. Whichever option you choose, you're not likely to bring home much more than ?1,000 a month.

All this may seem like a high price to pay, but the rewards are pretty great too. I'm writing this in mid-November from a cafe terrace with the sun on my back; and while the Catalans may take a while to get to know, I've got a host of friends from various parts of Europe and South America. The nightlife here is staggeringly good if you've got the stamina for it, and while I miss a good curry and Mr Kipling's Cherry Bakewells, the food's not bad either. My advice to anyone thinking of moving here is this: if you can cope with living like a student again, or you have the cash to see you through, do it. When you do, can you bring me a Battenberg cake and a copy of the NME please?

Some helpful tips

  1. When in Catalonia, do as the Catalans do. Have two breakfasts. Have lunch at 3pm. Have a siesta. Have a bite to eat at 6pm. Have dinner at 10pm. Go out at midnight. Go to a club at 2am (never before). Go home sometime after 5am. Then get up and do it all over again. It may sound like madness but go with it. 
  2. Meat eaters, I've been assured that the leg of ham behind the bar with the mucky tea towel thrown over it is bueeennnnnismo. Veggies: bring a good recipe book and develop a taste for potato omelette.
  3. Don't ask when the Sardanes (Catalonia's traditional dance) is going to get going. That's it.
  4. Catalans like fireworks. Especially ones they can throw. Or wear. Or run with. Health and safety fans stay away.
  5. If you're coming to teach English, be prepared for the fact that you're only likely to get a contract from October to June. You'll have to fend for yourself throughout the summer. Spain's popularity with English teachers keeps wages low and conditions worse. Best months for job hunting are September, October and January. 
  6. Revel in your Britishness. When people have a go at your beloved homeland (our driving on the left, insistence on keeping the pound and penchant for buying Mexican sombreros on La Rambla seem to particularly irk them), just smile. It really annoys them.


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