Look at that plate of Spanish tapas below.
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 (the famous building pictured below), 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!
The author, Lillie Marshall, is 6-foot-tall National Board Certified Teacher of English, fitness fan, and mother of two who has been a public school educator since 2003. She launched Around the World “L” Travel and Life Blog in 2009, and over 4.2 million readers have now visited this site. Lillie also runs TeachingTraveling.com and DrawingsOf.com. Subscribe to her monthly newsletter, and follow @WorldLillie on social media!