The Gothic District of Barcelona is a winding maze of cobblestone alleys which feel more like tunnels than open-air streets. Tiny iron-gate balconies hang above you 5–7 stories high, draped with vines and other creeping plants. A resident might step out of their dark abode and light up a cigarette and stare down at you with an unflinching gaze. To them, you’re nothing but a plump, fumbling tourist treading on ancient land. Even if you’ve lived here for a while, the secrets are still tucked away in historical, cultural, and linguistic pockets — they are not, and will never be, yours to comprehend.
But if you tilt your head back, throw on a grin, and wave up at them, they’ll wave back.
Barcelona is a cosmopolitan city, the capital of the Catalonian region of Spain. People from cultures all over the world flock here for the warm weather, the beaches, the Mediterranean food, and the relaxed lifestyle. For such a worldly city, however, it can sure feel sleepy sometimes.
Privately-owned shops and markets close from 2 pm to 5 pm for siesta and everything is shuttered on Sundays. Restaurants open at 8 pm for dinner and remain open late so that your after-dinner conversations, “sobremesas”, can continue into the early-morning hours. A waiter here wouldn’t dream of kicking you out to make room for the next party. If you’ve finished eating, you can order a glass of wine or a coffee to supplement your sobremesa. Both options are cheaper than a bottle of water.
I love it here. I moved here about a year ago and my world is so much bigger now. I’m learning Spanish (slowly and awkwardly, but still…). I’ve learned to cook. I’ve gotten over my fear of being half-naked at the beach. High-speed rails or cheap-as-dirt plane tickets can bring me to France, Italy, Portugal, or Morocco for the weekend. I’ve even started reading from the collection of classic books my grandpa passed down to me. I just finished re-reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and I’m about to start on One Thousand And One Nights. Or maybe Robinson Crusoe.
Spaniards don’t seem to realize that they’re unique in the way that they make time for the physical and emotional necessities of life such as eating, sleeping, learning, and making genuine connections with other people. Or at least they didn’t before this year’s Bloomberg Healthiest Country Index ranked them as #1.
But a newcomer steps into this unrushed lifestyle like they’re coming up for air, hacking and coughing and sucking in every grateful breath.
I moved to Spain after living in San Francisco for 8 years, where I worked as a tour guide on the double-decker buses. My shifts could be as long as 14 hours (often without much of a break) and all my friends worked in tech, so they never slept or took a breath either. We bonded over microwavable dinners, take-out Thai food, and the fact that we all lived in $3,000/month holes with strangers we’d found on Craigslist after our old roommates ran out of money and had to move back in with their parents.
I fell head-over-heels in love with San Francisco on my very first day there, when I stumbled into Amoeba Records and realized that the guy performing a live acoustic show in the corner was Elvis Costello. I loved the hills, the vistas, the buildings, and the cable cars- colorful layers and iconic shapes which made every moment feel like you were stepping into a diorama shadow box. I loved the inside jokes and local references. I loved Karl the Fog. I loved the quirky history of the Hippie movement, the Beatniks, the Bohemians, the Castro, and the Gold Rush. I even had a sick love for walking among the lollypop-painted Victorian houses and knowing, aching in my heart, that I would never be able to afford one for myself. Unattainable desire can hurt so good.
I loved this quote by Paul Kantner of Jefferson Airplane:
“San Francisco is 49 square miles surrounded by reality.”
It filled me with such pride to be living in a place outside of reality. And, indeed, my job had me going around and around the city as though I had stepped onto a magical merry-go-round. Other people, tourists and such, eventually had to step off of that merry-go-round and go back to their real lives, but not me. One of my best friends was the Emperor of the United States and I often got to take day trips to Endor. San Francisco was my perpetual playground as long as I could keep up these hours, never sleep, and scrape together the sky-high rent.
Perhaps my favorite thing was having the ability to go to the park on my days off. San Francisco has so many pockets of green space with towering eucalyptus trees, planted flower beds that smelled like freshly dug-up earth, and large swaths of grass you could lie down on and cool your back as the sun beat down from above.
I’d never experienced greenery before- or scenery, really. I was born in a two-dimensional desert landscape.
I grew up in a wide, one-story adobe house built on the last unpaved road in the middle of Tucson, Arizona.
The house was surrounded by prickly pear cactus and gray-brown creosote bushes, which erupted with little cotton-ball seeds in the spring. Collecting those fuzzy seeds in a tin can or other such container was the only encouragement us three kids ever had to go outside. That, and the Flaming Hot Cheetos or Doritos Flamas at the Walgreens down the street. We had to scarf those down and scrub the residual red dye off our fingers before our parents got home or we’d get a very stern look of disappointment. They could never get us to eat anything they cooked unless it was microwavable or came in a Kraft box and I know it made them feel like they’d be better parents if only they could hold us down and shove nutrients into our bratty little faces.
If there were other kids living nearby, my siblings and I never knew it because, like us, they didn’t come out of their houses. It was like an oven outside. Summer temperatures often exceeded 100°. I spent my days indoors with the air conditioning, watching tv, resentful that I couldn’t run away to a life that was lush.
In August, the monsoons would dump hot and heavy drops of water in sheets that you could literally watch cross the road. But you had to go outside and catch them quickly or they’d be gone within the hour and then the sun would come out again, the clouds would lose their fight for semblance against the dusty desert air, and you wouldn’t feel another drop of natural water in or around your skin for another 11 months.
I hated how spread apart everything was. Nobody walked around town, they existed in boxes. You couldn’t get anywhere without driving. Some days, you’d only be outside for as long as it took to reach into the car and turn on the air conditioning so the seats and steering wheel had a chance to cool down. The metal of my seat belt burned me on a regular basis, and the motion of the car, the waving light rays bouncing off the cracked pavement, and the sun in my eyes gave me awful headaches.
Rabbits used to dart out in front of our car just to give themselves a fright and remind themselves that life was worth living. I think it also renewed their faith in humanity to watch us slam on the breaks to let them pass. I never blamed them for putting their lives so carelessly on the line for a bit of an adrenalin rush and a connection to another living thing. I empathized.
My bedroom walls were covered in pictures I’d printed off the internet of far-away places and other worlds. At one point, I’d gotten my hands on a label-maker and I used it to print a very small sticker with the one phrase that was constantly pulsating my heart to the point of torment:
“I want to go home.”
A bit melodramatic, sure, but I couldn’t get it out of my head. I didn’t know where “home” was, but I knew I wasn’t here. I stuck that label above my bed and read it to myself every day like a mantra. And when I’d had a bad day at school or I was just feeling particularly hormonal or lonely, I would sit on my bed and stare at that those words as the tears rolled down my cheek like I was one of those beautiful broken ladies in the movies, whose lives were far more interesting than mine.
When I look back on that poor little suffering girl and her longing for lushness, for a community, and for a life of adventure, I smile and feel pride for the fact that I was eventually able to gift her with all of that.
There’s no way I could have convinced her that some people go to Tucson for all those things. Or that she could have found them there if she’d looked for them like several of her friends did. To some people, the desert is abundant with life and inspiration. In fact, when I question my parents (Mom from New York, Dad from Michigan) about why they ever thought it would be a good idea to raise three kids in a patch of dirt such as Tucson, they shrug and say, “It felt like home the second we arrived.”
When I go back now, I can sort of see it. There’s beauty in the number of stars visible against the velvet-black night sky, in the rich Mexican food and culture I should have appreciated more, and in the way the sunlight hits the mountains so they glow neon as it’s going down.
“When one is traveling, everything looks brighter and lovelier. That does not mean it IS brighter and lovelier; it just means that sweet, kindly home suffers in comparison to tarted-up foreign places with all their jewels on.”
― Catherynne M. Valente, The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making
But when I ask myself here and now, in Spain, “Do I feel at home?” my answer is…
My sorrowful mantra disappeared the moment I left Tucson at 18. Honestly, the feeling of crawling out of my skin ended right then and there too, but that may just be because I’d made it out of those moody, hormone-soaked adolescent years (or because I’d finally experienced the ocean).
I felt like an unofficial ambassador of San Francisco up on my tour bus, tapped into the beating heart of the city. But it started to turn sour when the merry-go-round got old and I could no longer afford the ride. I also had some traumatic sexual harassment experiences at work that became impossible to put behind me when I was going around and around in a loop. I finally had to step off the ride and get back to reality.
Here in Spain, there are times when I feel like a complete outsider. Spanish is muy dificil to learn (especially in Barcelona, where many locals would prefer that I learn Catalan) and I’m still wrapping my head around local politics.
I woke up this morning to a booming voice over a loudspeaker, so I shuffled over to my own tiny iron-gate balcony to look down and see that a large crowd had gathered up the street. They were watching the trial of the 12 Catalan leaders who are accused of violating the constitution by calling a referendum and declaring independence from Spain. I guess you could say the region of Catalonia doesn’t feel at home in Spain, and it hasn’t for a long time (for good reason). Or you could say they feel perfectly at home and are just especially protective of it right now (also for good reason). Either way, this place where I find myself so relaxed and so healthy still has its problems. Everyone’s trying to figure out this whole “home” concept.
“Maybe your country is only a place you make up in your own mind. Something you dream about and sing about. Maybe it’s not a place on the map at all, but just a story full of people you meet and places you visit, full of books and films you’ve been to. I’m not afraid of being homesick and having no language to live in. I don’t have to be like anyone else. I’m walking on the wall and nobody can stop me.”
― Hugo Hamilton, The Speckled People: A Memoir of a Half-Irish Childhood
I have moments of being “at home” in my physical location, but my real home is the one I carry with me everywhere I go. It’s the safe space I create when I’m kind to myself about where and who I am in this moment. It’s when I’m alright with being a little uncomfortable all the time and when I’m delighted to be in the process of initiation. I feel it when someone lovingly corrects my Spanish. Or when I laugh with a friend about getting lost on the metro. Or when I have a chance to clean and rearrange my flat so I’m proud of it again. Or when my boyfriend and I are cooking and dancing together in the kitchen.
Yes, obviously, home is where the heart is. (I held off on saying that for as long as I could.)
But I think it’s also something you grow into, no matter where you are.