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

  1. hi every one
    i travelled alot , and last year i visited Barcelona and i loved it ,.since then im thinking to move there ,is any body know how is job situation in Barcelona , im an architect but i dont care if i have to change my job .

  2. I have visited the city many times during the last 4 years with my family. we love it. Mibs and Elise are realistic and logic. anywhere there are negatives and positives, good and bad but, at the end of the day its YOU who will decide to enjoy and suffer.. by the way, I AM MOVING TO BARCELONA NEXT SUMMER

  3. Ive been in Barcelona for two years. The place is great for a holiday but its also incredibly superficial and the government admin is a mess. Its impossible to get anything done. Im increasingly concerned by the Mayor repeatedly saying “tourists are not welcome” and her attempts to close hotels, rentals, venues and discos.

    People in the North of Spain have strong french traits. If you need personal space, this is not the city for you.

    The city is becoming more unstable and more unsafe due to extreme poverty and these days no Spanish government. Please think twice before you move here. Underneath the party theres a lot of problems which are starting to boil to the surface. Anger, aggression, abuse and violence. Laws are quickly changing to stop tourists renting property here. Please make sure you have a full understanding of Spanish before you enter into agreements with anyone including banks. Get advice from someone who has gone through this. Its not worth the risk of simply packing up and moving.

    • I totally agree, i Have lived there for 10 years with my Spanish boyfriend (from Oviedo) and we are looking to leave. Barcelona was also my long time dream before moving there, and like everyone I was starry eyed with my pre-conceived ideas of it, but 10 years later I have to say I find it over-rated, superficial, very unfriendly, badly-run, extremely expensive compared to very low wages (the rents are higher than in many cities in Germany for example and the wages are less than half the comparable wage in germany). The food also is way overrated and expensive – having lived in many places in Spain and travelled extensively throughout the country I’d have to say the food in Barcelona is the worst in all of Spain (and I’m a foodie and have spent the past 10 years searching for good food in Barcelona – not that it isn’t to be found but not in the proportion you’d expect from its reputation and you have to pay ridiculous amounts to eat well – which for me does not qualify as a city having “good food”). Even the art scene seems shallow and talent-less – too many frustrated wanna-be artists struggling to get by and not enough people with money to buy any of their (usually crappy) art.

      I totally agree with Josephs comment that “Anger, aggression, abuse and violence” are starting to bubble to the surface and I’d add an (un)healthy dose of resentment towards tourists and non-locals in general. My neighbourhood is covered in graffiti of “tourist go home” – the recent neighbourhood street festival serving food on the street was festooned with signs “tourists GO AWAY you are not welcome here” “we don’t serve tourists” – even my corner cafe hung up a sign “No Tourists”. And this resentment and antipathy bubbles over in all many shops and restaurants in the centre where anyone – specially those not speaking Spanish – will be met with stony-faced antipathy. I really recommend anyone wanting to move to Barcelona to think again. I wish I had never moved here, it was the opposite of what I imagined it to be.

  4. Barcelona is a beautiful city. I lived there for three years. I made many interesting friends not from Barcelona, usually students or one year contract workers there for a year. I made no inroads with any Catalan, despite knowing quite a fe. Unfortunately the Catalans have been brainwashed to despise the tourists, so no matter how much you love it you will never truly feel at home. Also, the prices have rocked up since the opportunity to ask for higher rents from the tourist or foreigner who doesn’t know better or just landed, so it makes it more expensive for everyone. It also seems to attract a special type of pretentious rich kid who feels right at home being surrounded by a sprawling and somewhat desperate city. There are pick pockets, prostitutes and drugs everywhere and there is a desperation for jobs and money and hence a cycle of resentment towards the haves. The streets are so dirty and you most certainly should not touch any doorstep as you will be touching urine from all the party revellers who go in the streets. Also, if you need to go in a restaurant expect to buy a drink, they hate it if you’d use the restroom for free, hence the streets are pretty dirty. Lots of American toursits all falling in love with the city, unfortunately it doesn’t love you back. Peace

  5. Todos los extranjeros habláis de los mismos lugares: Gracia, Born, Eixample, Raval…

    Os tirais años aquí y jamás os situareis en la verdadera Barcelona.

    Parece que hayan dos Barcelonas, la verdadera Barcelona, la nuestra, la de los barceloneses que levantamos cada mañana la ciudad, hablamos catalán y tomamos decisiones, y la otra Barcelona artificial, la de los extranjeros endogámicos que se mueven en el mismo lugar siempre, que están pero no están, que cierran clubes de fiesta en el Born a las 5 de la madrugada, que no tienen pajorela idea de qué es Barcelona aunque lleve cinco años viviendo aquí, que conoce de palmo a palmo la discoteca Moog pero no sabe qué fue la Setmana Tragica o quien escribió la “Oda a Espanya”.

    Y estas dos Barcelonas son incompatibles, no ligan, se ven pero no se saludan.

    En realidad vosotros ganais: os llevais una experiencia. Nosotros perdemos: vemos nuestra ciudad recortada y ocupada por extraños que ni la entienden ni la aman, o que la aman como se ama a una mujer de una sola noche loca.

    • Thank you for your thoughtful comment.

    • Saludos, Arnau. Soy puertorriqueño, pero llevo casi diez años en Texas. Soy un profesional de informática de 45 años de edad.

      La vida acá en Texas es generalmente bastante buena, pero he tratado de conectar culturalmente y no he podido; las diferencias entre las culturas mexicanas y norteamericanas, en comparación con la puertorriqueña, son muy grandes. También los gastos médicos son horrendos acá, y la seguridad, especialmente con el asunto de las armas de fuego, no lo hace tan cómodo, especialmente cuando pienso en mis hijos.

      Mi esposa y yo hemos hablado de la probabilidad de mudarnos, y siempre nos ha llamado la atención Barcelona (será porque tengo algo de catalán por parte de madre, no se). He leído muchísimo sobre la cultura, las tradiciones, la vida diaria. Quiero empaparme mas de la historia de Cataluña. Tenemos mucho mas en común con ustedes que con México o EEUU. Pero en fin, estoy divagando…

      El punto es que aunque sabemos que no hay lugar perfecto, nos sigue llamando la atención. Tengo un amigo que vive en San Cugat Del Vallès. El me habla muy bien de Barcelona, pero siempre es bueno tener múltiples opiniones. Así pues, ¿qué me dices de la vida diaria allá? ¿Que es lo que mas te gusta? ¿Que odias? ¿Alguna recomendación?

      Cualquier respuesta es infinitamente agradecida. ¡Gracias!

    • We just visited Barcelona on an 18 day coach tour that covered spots like London, Paris, Rome, Amsterdam…the usual suspects…I did fall in love with Barcelona from the eyes of a tourist. My husband and I are American, but I am of Costa Rican decent from my parents. I felt at home being able to communicate with the taxi drivers and servers on the beach. I had a great conversation with a server while we were on the beach. He stated that he loved americans and that he and his wife were moving to America really soon. I explained to him that everything seems so relaxed here, and everything is so beautiful and that in America he is going to work himself to death…(because we do!) He explained that Barcelona life is beautiful but over run with tourists and the cost of living is really high for the wages that are made, and just by talking to him, he put things into perspective for me. So, with all of that said, I agree with Arnau. Tourist fall in love with Barcelona like you fall in love with someone for only one night. You have to really get to know a city before making huge decisions like moving and starting a life. Cheers to Arnau and Cheers to Lillie for sharing your thoughts in such an eloquent way!

    • Thanks for adding your insight!

    • @Arnau:

      Aunque los turistas conocen la versión “artificial” de Barcelona, es verdad que también hay “guiris” que llevan años aquí y, sin embargo, parecen encajar perfectamente en la misma categoría.

      Pero… ¿sabías que entre los “guiris” que viven aquí hay unos cuantos que se quedan en la Barcelona “artificial” porque en la “verdadera” no se sienten bienvenidos? Es que muchos de vosotros nos tratáis a los que no somos turistas como si lo fuéramos.

      Yo, por ejemplo, vivo aquí, pago mis impuestos, no salgo de fiesta por Born, ni por Vila Olímpica. Pero cuando hablo con alguien de aquí, no es nada fuera de lo común que me haga sentir que soy “de fuera”, con un comentario estereotipado tipo “¿Tienes frío? ¡Pero si tú eres de … … !”.

      Otro ejemplo: me dirijo a alguien en castellano, pero me contesta en inglés, ya sea para “practicarlo” (sabiendo que no soy de un país angloparlante) o porque no le “cuadra” que alguien con “cara de guiri” no sea turista.

      No soy nadie para deciros lo que tenéis que hacer en vuestro propio país, pero no te debe sorprender que la mayoría de los “guiris” vean tu ciudad como un parque temático.

  6. Sorry but I its a bit stupid to think you are going to paradise… such a thing does not exist. As like most big cities, it’s a busy place to be, with lots of tourists visiting and with works going on, they might be happening at the same time, that is not up to the people and the locals sure we do not like it either. But it has to be done.
    Your idea and your dreams are in your head. That does not means the place is totally the opposite as you were dreaming. Sometimes we are so blind we cannot see beyond our own interpretation.
    I am from Barcelona living abroad for many many years now, lived in different countries and cities, and every one of them surprises me all the time. I do not have pre constructed ideas and clichés stuck in my head as, in my opinion, I think you have.
    Party on the streets, lots of colour everywhere… quite an American interpretation of reality, of places?? mmm

    One advise, when moving abroad, try to keep your eyes and all senses open and ready for everything that comes. Give a chance to everything, because it is never gonna be like you expected. That built illusion in your head is not gonna be fulfilled but otherwise you might discover and incredible place with lots of real colour and exciting people to meet.
    If you do not like it, then it’s alright.. it might not be “your place”….. the planet is too big!

  7. Unless you are on holiday it is nice not if you work 8hours a day to pay rent and bills come home tired an do the same next day and no tapas hahahaha supermarkt and cheap cooking it is expensive here. Doesn’t mean I do not like it here but be aware what you read on websites.

  8. 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!

    • So what was your conclusion after 3 months there? Did Catalan really bother you? We (my wife and I) want to go there for a month but still studying our options. Income is not a problem because we are not going to look for work. But the questions is more around things to do while there. Outdoor, easy access to other near by cities, or anything else.

  9. 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.

  10. 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!

  11. 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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