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My Study Abroad in Barcelona

By Lily Alford

Everyone has gone to Barcelona. Or so I learnt the week prior to my arrival here, as we snatched coffees or pints under the temperamental skies of Southern England. You must go here, try this tapa and remember the name of this shop and - WHATEVER YOU DO - watch your phone when you’re walking down La Rambla.

I, however, haven’t gone to Barcelona before. Andalucía was a familiar place; I’d already absorbed the grandness of Granada, the serenity of Sevilla, the long-buried identity conflict of Córdoba and the mayhem of Málaga airport. I’d explored bits of Argentina too, zipwired from the heights of the Iguazú Falls onto a saddled horse and onwards through Buenos Aires (albeit, this action movie was broken up by several long coach rides). Given that I’d mastered the climb to the Alhambra, the clapping to flamenco dancers and the crust of an empanada; I reasoned that the culture shock would be no biggie.

But Barcelona isn’t Spain. The Catalan identity is strong, fortified by recent political events. My neighourhood, near Barcelona-Sants station, is sign-posted with vaguely comprehensible street-signs marked with yellow ribbons. The cafés sell croissants dipped in xocolata. Independence supporters gather in the plaza next to my flat to demonstrate their defiance against the Spanish state. Covid-19 has reinforced this divide, too.

And while I may pride myself on not having been approached by waiters in English, the reality is that restaurants- barely even open to serve the locals- haven’t seen tourists in over a year. Even now, with the curfew finally lifted, Barcelona still feels sleepy and its inhabitants half-hearted.

The first week was largely spent wrangling with new customs- taking phone calls from a new gym and fixing broken mirrors, testing out the coffee chains, throwing out mouldy bread and, on one occasion, tripping through the metro doors into a full carriage.

However, rather poetically, it all soon came together. When I stood on a balcony in central Barcelona at midnight on Sunday morning to hear the cheers, bangs and whistles of a community who had been liberated from a months-long curfew, I, too, had a taste of freedom.

I spend the majority of my time at Kingsbrook language school- where I take morning Spanish grammar lessons and write articles for them during the afternoon. Given the current climate, it’s been a joy to have a base where I can meet new people from all over the world. The majority can speak at least three languages, chattering away easily in Spanish during the breaks (my rigid British education struggles with such casual conversation). Some have been here for a year without travelling beyond the city due to restrictions; I took a trip to Valencia on my third weekend here.

Through my work, I’m able to explore many of the historical and cultural hotspots of the city in the guise of research. What I’ve found is that, the longer I stay here and the more I see, the more it fits together- the era of Antoni Gaudí and Pablo Picasso feels closer when you shop in the same markets and drink in the same bars as such famous Modernist artists.

There’s no denying that studying or interning abroad isn’t the same as in previous years. But there’s something special about seeing a city at its rawest, bare of coaches and queues.

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