Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Barcelona: My Annoying, Very Attractive Acquaintance

I warn that this post is boring and whiny.  I promise to do better next time.  I wrote it after an 8 hour overnight bus trip in which we were told at 4:30 AM that we were going to take a 40 minute break at a rest stop and everyone had to get off.  Basque Country will come soon...all in good time.

As my time in Madrid is beginning to rap up (two weeks for me), my program-mates and I have begun to get a little sentimental and do the whole meta-trip conversation thing when we occasionally run into one another while trying to use our printer in the office, since otherwise we're off on our own thing.  Some people definitely talk about being in love with Madrid and being not able to imagine leaving.  I think by and large these were the people who actually fell in love in Madrid, and the "with" part was the side effect, but maybe I'm just cynical.  For me, I would say my feelings are best described by saying Madrid is just a good friend (metaphor stolen).  Our relationship is pretty mundane, and while we enjoy spending time together, I won't be totally heartbroken leaving.  In many ways, my departure seems more like a high school graduation than a breakup - we're both going our own ways, but we'll probably see one another again sometime.

If Madrid is my good friend, my trip this weekend to Barcelona revealed it to be a very attractive, if often annoying acquaintance.  Sometimes I would convince myself into believing I really liked the character of the city, only to realize again that I was just taken with the old neighborhoods, nice beaches, and pretty modernist architecture.  Don't get me wrong - I really liked Barcelona for these features, it's just not a very interesting thing to write about.  The old neighborhoods are really well preserved and very pretty (not to mention the unbelievable Roman remains under the city), the beach was a nice place to spend the evening, and some of the areas (e.g. L'Eixample and Parc Güell) seemed like Gaudi-based fantasy lands.  Also, Plaça d'Espanya is incredible at night.  I wouldn't want to give the impression that I had a bad time; I just have zero desire to describe individual sites, so my overal positive feelings about the trip will just have to be taken at my word.

Perhaps the single most irritating thing about Barcelona is that it knows it's a tourist destination, and exploits that fact.  Generally, tourists want to see one of a few districts that have interesting attractions.  Perhaps there are just more tourists there than in Madrid (though Pilar tells me this is false), but it seems like the locals avoid these areas at all costs.  As a result, they become a sort of Spanish-themed beach-side amusement park, reminiscent of ¡Bienvenido, Mr. Marshall!, a 1950's movie in which a Castillan town tries to become stereotypically Spanish (using mostly Andalusian culture) to impress American representatives who are distributing Marshall Plan funds.  All the popular areas are packed with restaurants offering "Your choice of two authentic Spanish tapas and a sangria for €12" or images of six varieties of paella.  Considering that tapas should in theory come free with drinks, that sangria is not usually consumed in restaurants*, and that those displays of paella indicate that it's probably reheated frozen food, I felt a bit angry at them for taking advantage of the passersby.

However, more than being angry for the other tourists, I found myself increasingly annoyed by them, even though they were in fairness the only people who wanted to talk to me as I was traveling alone (everyone from my program has already gone, and most were studying or getting ready to leave Spain).  They were almost exclusively fratty spring break types or stereotypical people in bucket hats and ugly shirts that they must reserve exclusively for foreign travel.  I couldn't understand why everyone in my hostel seemed to have come to sit on the beach and then go clubbing.  From what I see on Jersey Shore, this can be accomplished for cheaper with much greater convenience in Seaside Heights.  I got some really weird looks in the hostel for saying I didn't want to go out because I was tired from a busy day.

In part, I think, this has to do with what has become for me a near obsession with trying to pass as being either Spanish, or a resident foreigner (as the former ceases to be an option after I open my mouth).  I think it's probably a mix of a bunch of things, including trying to show myself that I'm doing well at cultural immersion and some sort of thrill I get from passing (maybe it's a gay thing), but I get really disappointed when people treat me as an American.  While it's easy in Madrid, the flux of tourists in Barcelona made this really hard to do.  I think my annoyance was, in part because the tourists reminded me that we weren't so different from one another.  In the end, I just spoke better Spanish and had a little more acquired cultural understanding than most of them.  At least I'm hoping this is the case, because otherwise it bodes poorly for how my re-immersion will go.  With any luck, I won't cringe at people speaking English in the streets back in the states.

Anyway, while the sites were lovely, I'm really glad I didn't study in Barcelona, which is the site of the Brown in Spain program.  I'm sure there are better areas to hang out, but between the tourists and Catalan, I wasn't really a fan.  The use of Catalan in public places is really annoying** and not exactly conducive to learning Spanish.  Barcelona also seems to have this weird 90's feel to it that I couldn't shake.  Maybe it was all the Olympic architecture, but it just felt a little past its prime.

*Sangria is known in Spain for being a) cheap and b) a fast way to get drunk.  It is typically sold in 1 liter paper cartons for €1.50, and has the added bonus that one can add additional liquor without changing the taste too much.  I doubt the restaurants in Barcelona are using the cartons (though my hostel did without anyone noticing), but it's not really that expensive to make.  Most self-respecting restaurants only serve tinto de verano, an absolutely delicious mix of wine and lemon soda, since it's less boozy and more classy.

**On a Catalan note, my hotel was off a street called Paral⋅lel, occasionally rendered as Paral.lel or Paral-lel.  The reason is that "LL" makes a "y" sound in Catalan, but for some reason they still insist on using to l's, perhaps to make it look like French.

1 comment:

  1. Some tips to travel to Barcelona:

    Hire a car only if you are going to spend several days there, so you can visit also the surroundings and places like Montserrat, Port Aventura, Costa Brava, etc.

    Be careful with pickpockets in metro and city center.

    If you are going to travel with your family rent a centric apartment (here they have holiday apartments in barcelona city center and they give out a free pocket guide, which is always useful).

    If you are going with friends it's a good idea too, but then you may want to look for something cheaper (here they have cheap accommodation in barcelona, from 19 € per night or so).

    And enjoy!