My husband and I just got back from a trip to Barcelona, Spain – our first vacation outside of North America.
I did a lot of research while planning this trip so we wouldn’t come off as dumb Americans in a foreign land. I also practiced my high school/Floridian Spanish for months leading up to our trip. For the most part, I think this effort paid off and we came off as dumb citizens of some ambiguously white country, but not necessarily Trumpland. (A fellow tourist from Italy thought we were Dutch, which is awesome. One of our servers at a nice restaurant said she thought we were French, but she might have just been fucking with me.)
No matter how much you prepare for visiting another country for the first time, there are going to be surprises. I will share with you some of mine.
Myth Versus Fact: An Examination of My Own Preconceptions About Barcelona Versus My Actual Experience
Myth: Most people in Europe speak decent English.
Fact: About half of the people I encountered were worse at English than I am at Spanish.
(Note: I am not fluent in Spanish. Duolingo puts me at about 50%, but as I’ve mentioned before, their program isn’t necessarily the most practical for traveling.)
I was really looking forward to testing out my Spanish language skills, so I was hoping it wouldn’t be too easy to speak English with everyone. That being said, I was surprised to find that so many people working in positions serving tourists spoke little to no English. I’m talking about people working at Barcelona Sants train station, servers in restaurants, that sort of thing.
I didn’t encounter a single cab driver who spoke English. No big deal. I can, “Vamos a la playa” my way to the beach. The problem arises when the cabbie is trying to tell you, in rapid Spanish, that he can’t take you to Barceloneta beach because (and here is where my Spanish falls short) something along the lines of lots of people in the street and when you nicely ask him, in Spanish, to please speak more slowly, he starts gesticulating and pointing to some government building and several other areas on the map and shaking his head. No bueno. (I saw on the news that morning that there was some Catalonia versus Spain shit going down, so I assumed that’s what he was talking about. More on that to follow.)
Myth: Everyone in Barcelona speaks Catalan and Spanish. Catalan is appreciated, but Spanish is fine.
Fact: If it’s not Catalan, it’s crap!
As I mentioned before, I did my research before this trip. I knew that Spain was divided into semi-autonomous regions, with Barcelona being in Catalonia. I knew that Catalans are very proud of their culture and language. I also rationalized that since Spain is spoken in half of the damn world and everybody in Catalonia speaks Spanish, they would still appreciate that I was making the effort to communicate with them in one of their languages instead of expecting them to speak English.
They were underwhelmed by my Spanish.
Every time we went out to eat, I would order for us and speak with the servers in Spanish. I wasn’t perfect, but we were able to communicate. At the end of the meal, my husband, who barely speaks his native language of English, would say, “Compte, si us plau?” and they would throw a damn party. (That’s “Check, please?” in Catalan.) He only knew that damn phrase because I told him. He didn’t even pronounce it correctly. It really chapped my ass.
When we were in Sagrada Familia, I asked a man working there, in Spanish, where the bathrooms were. He got huffy and said something about my “Castellano” (Spanish) and answered me in English. I have to assume he was pissed I didn’t use Catalan, because I know my Spanish for asking for the bathrooms is on point. (I even made sure to use Castellano rather than Español so as not to confuse anyone. Didn’t matter.) He would have rather spoken English than the tongue of his oppressors. My bad, I guess.
Note: I did not realize, until getting to Barcelona, how high tensions are between Catalans and Spaniards. I also didn’t realize the vote to secede was coming up on October 1, or that Spain might not recognize the validity of the outcome. It’s obviously complicated, and we don’t hear about any of this in the United States because we’re so consumed with what the man-child we have in office is doing. I know it’s not all about me. Honest.
Myth: Spanish food will be awesome! Yay!
Fact: I hope you like octopus.
I figured that a city on the Mediterranean would serve a lot of seafood. That’s cool – I love seafood! I did not realize it would be all the weird shit like octopus, squid, mussels, etc. Where the hell were the empanadas?
Part of the problem was that we never really got on the local eating schedule. In Spain, they eat lunch, their big meal, in the afternoon. They eat dinner at 10pm. I just couldn’t do it. We ended up eating tapas for nearly every meal, and small plates of shellfish get old after a while.
But what about jamón ibérico?? Everybody told me jamón would be life-changing. Eh. I mean, it was tasty, don’t get me wrong. But so was the Publix bacon my husband cooked for breakfast when we got home.
We did have one amazing dinner at a restaurant called Tickets that we had to reserve two months in advance. The food was incredible and interesting. It was definitely a once-in-a-lifetime experience. That being said, the cost of dinner was INSANE. I’m glad we tried it, but damn. It’s a good thing we were tipsy when the bill arrived.
Myth: A ten hour transatlantic flight is going to suck donkey balls.
Fact: International flights kick ass.
I don’t particularly like flying. I’m not afraid of crashing or anything, but I do get nauseated with a side of claustrophobia. Airplanes just always seem like big germ-mobiles crammed to bursting with cranky people and their stinky food.
International flying is a whole other thing.
The plane was bigger. The seats were bigger. We flew economy plus on the way there, and I actually had too much leg room – my feet barely touched the floor. It was bananas.
The plane was kept pretty dark for both our overnight flight to Barcelona and our daytime return flight. (I don’t know if there is some psychological voodoo at work with the lighting, but the other passengers were much less annoying than I am used to when flying domestic.)
We had those entertainment screens with all the movies/tv/games you could ever want. (Those are hit or miss on the domestic flights I take.) On top of all that, they bring food constantly. Each flight had two meals and a couple of snacks. I was never hungry. I know people will make jokes about airline food, but I liked it. I liked unwrapping all the individual components. What in here? Potatoes! What’s this? Ice cream! (I also get excited for the tiny ketchup bottles that come with room service at hotels. Sue me.)
Basically, our flights consisted of me sitting on my ass in a mostly comfortable seat, eating snacks and watching tv. For ten hours. What’s not to like about that?
Next time I go home to Michigan, I’m flying KLM by way of Amsterdam.
What We Actually Did in Barcelona (Pictures!)
(Click on individual photos for full size and complete captions!)
Our first evening, we grabbed a bite in a tapas bar recommended by the front desk person at the hotel. (We had flown overnight, leaving Atlanta at 10:30 pm on Friday and, after adjusting for the time difference, arriving in Barcelona around 5 pm on Saturday.)
It’s funny that this was the first place we went since it was probably the least touristy spot. There were no individual menus – they were just posted on the walls. In Catalan. (Even our Google Translate couldn’t figure out what they said, as you’ll see with our final bill.)
We ended up talking to one of the servers who spoke halfway decent English (except that he kept calling me “sir”) and ordering a few of their popular dishes. We were tired and didn’t care much what we were eating. I will say that this place, Bar Mut, had the best tomato bread of anywhere in Barcelona. It was awesome.
Salvador Dali Museum in Figueres
We took the high speed rail from Barcelona to Figueres to visit the Salvador Dali Theatre-Museum. (The high speed rail was awesome. Quick, efficient, comfortable.)
The Dali Museum was incredible. I was overwhelmed by the sheer volume of his work. I’ve previously been to the Dali Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida (both the old and new ones), where the second largest collection of his work is housed. The museum in Figueres in much, much larger. There were paintings, sculptures, and jewelry created by Dali, as well as works from other artists from his own personal collection. If you are a fan of Dali and are in Spain, you have to visit Figueres.
I’m glad I didn’t realize what a climb it would be to get to Park Güell, or I might not have wanted to do it. We didn’t pay to go inside and see the monuments, but the view from the top was breathtaking.
La Sagrada Familia is arguably the most famous building in Barcelona. We knew this was something we wanted to see inside and out. The story itself is fascinating. Started in 1866 and still under construction, this architectural masterpiece has to be seen in person to be appreciated.
Trying to take pictures of Sagrada Familia is like trying to take pictures of the Empire State Building; You just can’t capture the enormity of it.
But here are our crappy photos anyway. (Our resident Catholic is at work while I write this, so I will do my best to caption the pictures. Don’t expect much.)
Amazing Dinner at Tickets
I mentioned earlier that we had an amazing dinner at Tickets restaurant. The meal was a series of small courses chosen by the chef. We didn’t give them any restrictions (other than a price point that eventually went out the window).
I took photos, of course, but we were drinking a LOT of wine, so I can’t remember exactly what everything was. I’ll do my best. Also, sometimes we started pawing at the food before I remembered to take a photo. Oops.
Fun fact: One of the servers in the dessert room was from Kalamazoo. She volunteered that information when I mentioned that she looked American. How crazy it that? (Kalamazoo, a Michigan town of < 80,000 people is my hometown too!)
So, that was our trip to Barcelona. We didn’t get to see every last thing, but in less than a week we struck a good balance between exploration and day drinking.
It was a wonderful vacation, and a great way to visit Europe for the first time. It might have even made me appreciate the United States a bit more. (Especially the giant cheeseburger and fries I ordered as soon as we got home.)