With an over the shoulder duffle bag packed to the exact specifications of Ryan Air regulations, 55 x 40 x 20 cm. to be exact, (screw the metric system, or maybe the U.S. just needs to get on the rest of the world’s level…probably the latter,) Melissa and I eagerly prepared for our first trip out of Italy to the unknown land of Barcelona, Spain. We walked to the Santa Maria Novella train Station to wait for the Terravision bus that would take us to Pisa, where our flight was leaving from. After walking 20 minutes to the station, we wandered around for another 15 just trying to find out where the bus stopped. Florence, and Italy in general, are beyond horrible with posting schedules and signs, so we asked about 4 different people before Melissa spotted a man donning a Terravision vest. By 10:15, we were on our way to Pisa.
When thinking about where we wanted to travel this semester, Melissa and I had both dismissed Spain. We didn’t really have a good reason, just that we thought there were other places we wanted to see more. One night though, after seeing how much flights cost to Munich, our original plan, we decided to look into cheaper locations. Melissa ended up finding an extremely cheap flight to Barcelona, and the location started to sound more appealing. After researching, we found out that there was a lot to do there and booked the cheap flight. We’ve even formed a catchphrase called “Stingy Struggles,” and use it every time our budget travel decisions fail us, because let’s be honest, all study abroad students are ballin’ on a budget.
Once we arrived in Pisa, we checked our boarding passes, went through security, which was incredibly lax compared to American TSA, and waited at our gate. Once 2 PM rolled around, we took a bus out to the tarmac and boarded our lovely Ryan Air plane. In all honesty, I could write an entire blog post on the beauty and simultaneuos horror that is Ryan Air, but I will sum it up in the phrase, “You get what you pay for.” Nonetheless, we arrived safe and sound after a somewhat crash landing. Ok, we didn’t really crash, but let’s just say it was NOT smooth. The Ryan Air jingle played and I exited the plane faster than I could say “Adios.”
We flew into an airport in Girona, which is about an hour outside of Barcelona, so we had to take a bus to the city center and then a cab to our hostel. The cab driver didn’t drop us off right next to our hostel, but pointed us in the right direction. Of course, we didn’t know how far to walk and walked back and forth down the road looking for the correct number. It doesn’t help that all of the intersections in Barcelona are shaped like diamonds, so you can’t see the signs from one side of the street to the other.
Once we finally arrived in the hostel it was around 6 PM and we just wanted to unpack and get some food. The owner of the hostel was extremely nice and helpful, but did not speak much English. When we checked in, he asked if we spoke any Spanish and I told him that I did. From that moment forward he did not utter one word of English to me. Although I was happy to be able to finally use the Spanish I had spent 8 years learning, language barriers are a part of studying abroad that never really goes away. For the most part though, I was able to communicate and understand everything he said, and I have to say, I felt especially accomplished.
Another part of being abroad is the feeling that the culture shock never really subsides. I almost always feel like an outsider no matter how hard I try to fit in. While I’ve learned to accept it and try my best to seamlessly fit in with the culture, every time I travel, it’s like starting over all over again. As amazing as it is to be immersed in other cultures, sometimes I miss the ease of American culture. For example, Melissa and I were the only white people at the hostel. This was an observation I happened to make, and coming from a hometown where 98% of the people are white middle-class, it was interesting to know that whether someone is from Indonesia, Spain or China, the concept of travel and exploration has no cultural boundaries.
That night, Melissa and I wandered right around our hostel to find dinner. We ended up going to get tapas, which are a classic Spanish food. They’re like mini appetizers so you usually buy a few and split them with whoever you are eating with. After that, we headed back to the hostel to rest up for a busy next day.
That morning we woke up early and headed to breakfast. I had spotted this cute and quaint cafe that advertised breakfast when we were walking to the hostel on Friday. The food was all homemade and served on wooden plates and mason jars. It was too cute. I had coconut bread served over cream cheese sauce and topped with fresh pairs. The holy grail though, was having a vanilla latte. While I do enjoy cappuccino and espresso, it was so nice to have American coffee.
From there, we went back to the hostel as they were offering a free walking tour. The tour guide was an American man from Philly who has lived in Spain and Germany as he studied the languages in college. He showed us all over the gothic quarter, Las Ramblas and the main squares of Barcelona.
One of the most interesting concepts I learned was about the spirit and culture of Catalonia. Catalonia is the region of Spain that Barcelona is in. Catalonia has always spoken Catalan Spanish, which is a different dialect from the Castilian Spanish that is spoken in Latin America and the rest of Spain. During the Franco regime, the people of Catalonia were forced to speak Castilian, therefore being oppressed into conforming to the rest of Spain. Because of this, nowadays, the people of Catalonia are extremely proud of their background and of their unique culture. While they understand Castilian Spanish, Catalan is the national language. In addition, for many years, the people in the region have wanted to separate from Spain and become their own country. People hang flags showing their support for or against being an independent country. While Americans hang our countries flag, no one hangs flags declaring this support of Democratic or Republican parties, which is a fair equivalent to how the people of Barcelona show their support. Another interesting fact I learned was that the national sport of Catalonia is a human pyramid. Once a year people form teams and try to make the tallest pyramid. Defintiely different than soccer or baseball.
After the walking tour, Melissa and I took the Metro up to Park Güell. Designed by the architectural genius that is Antoni Gaudí, it was originally supposed to be a housing complex that is now a park, featuring the world’s longest bench. Gaudí was commissioned by Eusebi Güell to build and design Park Güell, along with many other buildings throughout Barcelona. His unique mosaic work and curved lineage is featured throughout the city and after seeing his masterpieces in the flesh, he has become my favorite artist. While it was around 60 degrees during the walking tour, the sun disappeared while we were at Park Güell, which made it a little cold, but still enjoyable. Melissa and I went a little photo crazy while we were there, but hey, what’s new.
One exceptionally funny story happened while we were taking photos. There are certain spots on the bench where you have a fantastic panoramic view of the entire city. Obviously, everyone wants to take pictures here so when you can snag one of these spots you have to cherish it. As soon as Melissa sat down and I prepared to take her photo a woman sat down next to where I was standing and whipped out some bird food and started feeding the pigeons. Being the flying rats that they are, all of the pigeons in the nearset square mile flocked to this horrible woman. I hate pigeons (who doesn’t) so after waiting patiently to take photos in this one spot and having pigeons then surround us, I sternly asked the woman if she could feed them somewhere else. She more or less ignored me, so I began to try to shoo the pigeons away by kicking my foot in their direction. That’s when the woman said, “They’re animals!” I genuinely wanted to yell “BARELY!” at the woman, but I just walked away after an eye roll and skoff. I would never actually kick a pigeon, but seriously did she need to feed the world’s second worst animal (after frogs) in the most public area of the Park…no.
After taking the Metro back to the center after Park Güell, we got miserably lost, a constant struggle of being abroad, but once we were able to orient ourselves thanks to the help of a doorman, we went out to dinner at one of the most popular tapas places in Barcelona, and it did not disappoint. We shared Patatas Bravas, which is a common tapa, fried egg atop noodles, shrimp skewers, and split a pitcher of sangria. We had such an amazing time reminiscing about our friendship and realized how happy we were that we could share the life-changing experience of studying abroad together. From there we went back to the hostel to bed in order to make the most of our final, full day in Barcelona.
We woke up early in order to make it to the Sagrada Familia for our 10 AM reservation. We stopped at Starbucks, which we dearly missed, before heading over to the world-renowned church. While it was started in the 1800’s, it is still not finished due to setback of war, change in architects and other formalities. It is set to be finished in 30 years, but is still magnificent, even if it was under construction.
The outside featured so many intricate details that could not be captured by any camera. One side of the church’s exterior focuses on the nativity of Jesus, and the other on his resurrection. Melissa and I paid for an audio tour, and as nerdy as it was, it made me appreciate the details and architecture that Gaudí envisioned for the church.
The inside is covered in stained glass windows, as Gaudí wanted light to be the focus. In addition the beams are supposed to look like trees and form a symbolic connection between the Church and the people. I’m not necessarily a church person per say, but this was my favorite attraction of the trip. While it may have been Gaudí’s wonderful mind, the architecture was unlike any other church in the world and made it a unique experience.
From there we went to see more of Gaudí’s work including Casa Batlló, La Pedrera, Palau de la Música and then headed down Las Ramblas, the main street in Barcelona, towards the beach.
We took the long way around, not by choice, but we eventually reached the boardwalk. Let me tell you, the salt air smells and feeling of sand in between my toes was much missed, and being at the beach in March was quite enjoyable. Amongst weird men offering homemade mojitos to beach goers, Mel and I took pictures and searched for sea glass. I dipped my toes in the Mediterranean Sea for the first time, and while cold, the beach always soothes my soul. We walked around the boardwalk and it felt like something out of a movie. People biked by, while others played beach volleyball.
The Spanish lifestyle seemed like the perfect balance of work and play, something hard to balance in today’s world. We searched for an affordable paella restaurant and settled on one along the boardwalk. We split sangria and seafood paella, another classic Spanish food. It was a mix of rice, saffron, shrimp, mussels, chicken and steak and is served in a metal dish which the meals name is derived from. After walking around 8 miles, which has become a typical feat while traveling, we took the Metro back to the hostel and packed up to return home.
Before we left, we stopped at the delicious breakfast place we ate at the first day for once last gourmet breakfast something Florence does not know how to do. We stopped at a candy store called Happy Pills. You pick out candy and fill it up in a container that looks like a prescription bottle. Definitely overpriced, but a cute way to end our time in the beautiful Spanish city. We hailed a cab and headed towards the bus station to catch our bus and plane home.
We accidentally messed up the bus schedule so we arrived at the bus station way too early, while it kind of sucked just sitting their, we figured it would be less time sitting at the airport. Definitely not the case.
While waiting in line to board our 4 PM flight home, I saw people slowly getting out of line. After hearing murmurs form around, we found out that our flight was delayed until 9:30, with no explanation. We sat in the airport for about 7 hours, thanks Ryan Air, and the most disappointing part was knowing that we could have had an entire other day in Barcelona. The only compensation we received were in the form of tow 5 euro vouchers only valid that that day the one food stand in the Girona airport. Perfect example and use of our Stingy Struggles catchphrase. We arrived home in our apartment around 1 AM and I got about 4 hours of sleep before my 9 AM class the next day.
Barcelona, as I said, was somewhere I didn’t think I was going to visit while abroad, but I’m so glad I did. The city was lively, unique, vibrant and the people were so proud of who they are. Albeit, it was nice to be in a metropolitan city where people follow driving laws and there are sidewalks wide enough for two people, Barcelona was so much more than that. There was something to please very part of me. A magnificent beach sprawling with people, interesting, but now weird food, a city like atmosphere and a medical area of town. Barcelona has become one of my new favorite destinations, and I hope to return to explore the rest of Spain later in life. Definitely a great first trip out of Italy!
Ciao for now,
All photography by Emily Houston.