In a world where we are constantly connected to one another and have immediate access to all of the answers we ever need, it’s hard to be surprised anymore. Nowadays people consult friends or the Internet before embarking on any new adventure. They create itineraries before going on vacation and read reviews on restaurants, hotels and tours before first trying it out to formulate an opinion for themselves. That is why when we went to Barcelona, Nicole and I let ourselves be surprised by what this Mediterranean city had to offer.
So we ditched the internet, threw out the guidebooks and let ourselves discover Barcelona for ourselves — free from any expectations, which might be why we found the city to be such a freeing experience. Sure, the city was impressive, but it was the people and their sense of community that surprised me the most.
1.) A Welcoming and Diverse Community
Nicole and I were in need of a stiff drink after our narrow escape from Paris. After settling in our hostel we explored the narrow gothic alleyways of El Ravel, one of Barcelona’s oldest districts. We abandoned all suggestions and waited for the perfect bar to strike our fancy — that’s when we stumbled upon the Olímpic Bar. It had the feel of a trendy hipster bar, with its brightly colored walls and the projection of Hanna-Barbera cartoons on the wall, but the crowd was a cultural melting pot with patrons of all ages.
Nicole and I were trying on a couple of silly hats from an old couple who had already started celebrating the Carneval season, when suddenly a middle aged man came up and said something in Spanish. Our blank stares were a dead giveaway that we were not from the area. “English?” he asked. “Si” we replied in a futile attempt at Spanish. He asked if we could watch his and his friend’s drink while they went out and smoked. We agreed but were curious as to why they would trust in complete strangers who didn’t speak the native tongue to watch their drinks.
We were ladies of our word and sat at their table to protect their drinks until they returned. When they got back we introduced ourselves as two backpackers from the United States visiting Barcelona for our first time. Their back story was way more fascinating than ours. They were Iranians who had escaped their oppressive homeland and explored the world for a shot at freedom. They shared stories of their resistance against their government — offenses that ranged from political marches and protests to illegally selling Michael Jackson tapes at the school yard — both transgressions that got them imprisoned in tiny 6 foot by 6 foot cells. After serving their time in prison, the men joined the military, served for a year and saved up €10,000 each for passports — all prerequisites just to leave Iran.
Nicole and I were stunned not only by their calmness while telling this story, but by the fact that they held onto a dream for years and with persistence they were able to escape Iran and pursue the life they dreamed of. Speaking with them made me feel limitless — they encouraged us that nothing can stand in our way and no matter how long and dark a path in our lives may be, as long as we keep pushing forward, we would make it through.
The fact that they had settled down in Barcelona spoke to what the city had to offer to a couple of Iranian escapees. This curious couple of rag time vagabonds could live anywhere in the world but they settled in Barcelona. Though other countries would scrutinize their background of the rebel rousing that landed them in prison in Iran, Spain and the state of Catalonia welcomed them with open arms and treated them as one of their own.
2.) A City of Romantics
After our uplifting conversation with the Iranians at the Olímpic bar, we set off to Marsella, a 200 year old bar, reputedly the oldest bar in Barcelona. There we enjoyed the house drink, Absinthe, and chatted amongst ourselves… but not for long. We had only been in the city for 6 hours and had several encounters that showed us how important the concept of “community” was to Barcelonians, so needless to say we weren’t left alone for long. Nicole got up to use the restroom and I was approached by a tall, handsome Spaniard with olive skin and thick, dark hair. He handed me a note and shyly tried to duck out but I stopped him. “Wait! I don’t speak Spanish! What does your note say?” He whipped around and his perfectly sculpted hair followed, framing his soft yet prominent jawline. He took the note back, opened it and read it in Spanish:
1.) Eres muy guapa
2.) La vida es muy corta
3.) Si te ries, un beso”
Then he translated, pausing between each number to watch my reaction:
1.) You’re very pretty
2.) Life is too short
3.) If you laugh, a kiss”
Sly boots! He knew it would make me laugh, or give me shy giggles at best. But it was a trap I very happily walked into. I put my hands on his broad shoulders and planted a peck on his cheek. He seemed so downtrodden and replied “I should have specified a kiss on the lips”. Well who was I to argue! I very happily obliged!
After kissing this stranger I was curious to learn more about him. His name was Miguel, an orphan, and just like the Iranians earlier in the night, he had lived in many places around the world before settling on Barcelona. He had worked his way up in the community to become a real estate broker who also played professional water polo. He had a very here-and-now spirit and regardless of the fact that I was only in town for a few days, he invited me to join him at the Carneval in Stiges and “fall in love for a day”. I hesitantly yet politely declined — there was more for me to discover.
Author’s Note: Interestingly enough, I connected with the two Iranians as well as Miguel on Facebook. All three of them checked up on me weeks later to make sure I returned to Philadelphia safely. We still talk to this day!
3.) I Dream of Paella
Paella is now my favorite meal. Not only is it the best thing to ever happen to seafood but the style in which it is served is centered around enjoying a meal together. For those of you who are unaware of the glory of paella, it is a hodgepodge of seafood, calasparra or bomba rice, vegetables, beans and spices. It is served in a large skillet and is meant to be shared amongst family and friends.
The restaurant workers that served mine and Nicole’s first ever paella were kind and eager to share with us the communal spirit of the paella experience. We were the only ones in the restaurant at the time (we were eating dinner at 9pm which was way to early for Barcelonians who usually dine between 10pm-11pm) so they gave us free wine, free appetizers and all of the olives we could eat!
The list goes on! Barcelonians are a giving people. Check out Part 2 to read more surprises.