Apr 192010

Look at that plate of Spanish tapas to the left.

Can you guess what flavor and food is sitting atop those slices of bread? Is it sweet or savory? Does it consist of fish, or cheese, or vegetables… or white chocolate? Is it soft or hard? Creamy or crumbly?

You really can’t tell until you bite into it, can you!

The same goes for cities. You can hear hundreds of hours of talk about how freaking fantastic a certain place is, and you can view ten thousand photos of its sunny streets and towering spires… But until you are standing there in person, smelling its real-life air, you can’t really begin to taste it.

This is to say: I’m quite glad that I changed my original travel plan.

Perhaps you didn’t know this, but I wasn’t supposed to be traveling around the world. No! In fact, the scheme I told everyone for months and months at the beginning of my trip planning was that I was going to move my life to Barcelona, Spain, and live and work in that lovely city for a full year.

It was only later that I realized that if I was going to take a whole nine months off, I might as well see the other side of the world, too, since expenses would balance out in the end given the relative cheapness of continents besides Europe.

So, when my bus finally pulled into Barcelona this Monday at six in the morning, after eight hours on the road from Madrid, and after eight months of traveling through Asia and Africa, I was quivering with anticipation. What would my dream city be like in reality?

Here is the answer: I am having a fantastic week here in Barcelona because my hosts and new friends are fabulous… but the truth is that this city does not look or feel anything like what I imagined, and I now realize that I made the right choice in not moving my life here.

Do you have a dream city? Is your dream city, in fact, Barcelona? I am positive I could have made a great life here, and I’m sure you can, too… but let’s take a good hard listen at voices from on the ground here.

When I told my Spanish host in Barcelona (the distant cousin of a schoolmate of my father’s… yes, I know this is another miraculous chain of hospitality like in Japan, and Bangkok, and Madrid!) that it is a somewhat common American dream to want to pick up and move one’s life to Barcelona, my host looked me in the eye and asked very bluntly: “WHY?”

“I don’t know,” I stuttered, “I mean, like a lot of people, I guess imagined Barcelona to be positively bursting with color and dancing and partying in the streets… I imagined art everywhere, and warm weather, and beauty left and right!”

But I couldn’t help but agree with the words of an Italian woman who I met yesterday as she examined her shattered illusions. “Maybe it’s just the weather,” she said, “but Barcelona just looks gray to me right now. I just don’t feel the energy I thought I would. And it’s cold!”

My host chuckled when I told her what my dream Barcelona looked like. “This is just a city like any other,” she said. “We go to work each weekday. We party a little… but not so much.”

And what about the sights? As a tourist in Barcelona, it is very possible you may go to Gaudi’s La Sagrada Familia church (pictured, left), which you have been longing to see for years– and have trouble seeing it behind the throngs of tourists and construction cranes. It’s still stunning, but will you wait the two hours and pay the hefty fee to enter? Perhaps not.

“OMG, HOW CAN YOU NOT LOVE BARCELONA?!” typed everyone who heard I wasn’t obsessed with the city yet. “I LOOOOOVE BARCELONA!”

“When were you here?” I asked.

“I was fifteen, on a school trip,” typed one. “I was nineteen,” typed another, “and come to think of it, it was before I had really traveled anywhere else.”

“Hmm,” I said.

“It’s actually making Barcelona lose some of its charm that there are so, so many tourists here, now,” admitted my Barcelona host.

“I love Barcelona,” said my friend Sinead who moved here from Ireland four years ago, “but I am working so, SO many hours just to pay my rent that I hardly have time or energy to go out. My salary is awful as a foreign English teacher who doesn’t speak Catalan, and this is an expensive city! And you really have to watch out for all the pickpockets.”

“I’m having some problems,” sighed to me a 32-year-old American who sold his car dealership and followed his dream of moving here three weeks ago, “because I thought I would learn Spanish quickly, but all the signs are in Catalan! And also I had this idea that people would be really friendly… but they haven’t really been.”

Oh, our delicate dreams!

“Aww, I LOVE Barcelona!” typed a woman on Twitter when she caught wind of my disillusionment. “I felt disappointed at first like you, but after living there for several months, it really grew on me. By the time I left, it had become my favorite place ever!”

This I believe. I COULD live here and meet more wonderful people and eat more delicious food and have an utterly lovely time.

But let’s go back to that plate of tapas again. The answer to what is on top of the bread in the first picture is: creamy white cheese coated with sweet berry jam. Did you guess it? Indeed, that particular tapa was pretty tasty… but there were other tapas I ingested that I found even more delicious.

And like tapas, like cities. Everyone and their mother seems obsessed with the idea of Barcelona lately… but once you bite into it, it may not be quite the taste that you imagined!

This is not to say that Barcelona isn’t fabulous, because it is. And this is also not to say that you should be fearful of following your foreign dreams, because you shouldn’t be.

The moral is simply this: Sometimes it’s wise to browse the other delicious options out there, too, before you gorge yourself on one single dream… or cheese and jelly tapa!

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  110 Responses to “A Warning About Your Dream of Visiting or Moving to Barcelona”

  1. I have been offered a job in barcelona but I cannot quite make up my mind, because of the low salary. (I am a teacher).

    • Only you can make this decision! I wrote this article many years ago, so don’t let it sway you too much, as things have likely changed in Barcelona, and what was not right for me may be perfect for you. Wishing you luck on this big choice!

  2. I have been fortunate enough to travel the world. I have been all over Europe, parts of Asia, etc etc. I went to Barcelona with my sister 4 years ago and fell madly in love with the city. The people were so warm, welcoming, and the food such a delight. As a result, I’ve been wanting to move there since I left. I’m hoping to transition in about 2 years. I understand things will be hard, creating a new circle will be difficult, language barriers etc. But in the end if you walk in and try to make the most of the experience, you are already leaps and bounds ahead of others.

    I hope that my experience will be far different than yours, and that you can find a city where you feel a sense of home with.

  3. My dream city is Valencia. There is so much history in this city. I love Bacelona but my heart is in Valencia 🙂 Very interesting article! Keep posting!

  4. I’m sad to learn that so many people don’t like Barcelona. I suppose preference is individual, but I’ve been living here for two years now and I absolutely love it. The food is fantastic, the people are wonderful, and as a wandering soul, I think I finally found the place where I can settle down and have as my home-base for the rest of my life. Unlike the dissatisfied expats in your post, I will be happy here for a very very long time. It took me five months to get the hang of Catalan, and of course, a little longer for Spanish, as it is not spoken as commonly. And as for your friend claiming that it’s an expensive city? I would seriously disagree. I have a flat El Raval that I pay 500 euros a month for, a dinner out can cost as little as 12 euros per person, and flights to anywhere else in Europe are incredibly cheap. Last Christmas I flew round trip to Berlin for 25 euros. If that’s not cheap, I don’t know what is.

    I hope you can return someday and see the city as it is, not as a failed expectation, just without any expectation, see the real Barcelona. I think you might really like it.

    • Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Elise! I shall return one day with fresh eyes, and have no doubt that I will have a very different experience! What threw it all off for me were my unrealistic expectations.

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