And the Visiting Continues

November 11, 2015

I could probably be a tour guide of Barcelona at this point… I’ve taken my mission to get to know this city extremely seriously. 

Since I don’t have the constraints of a short vacation visit (nor the social schedule - still working on the whole friends thing ;) ) to limit my time, I can dedicate quite a bit of it to discovering each gem of Barcelona. 

    Today I visited el Antic Hospital de la Santa Creu I Sant Pau - designed by Lluís Domènech i Montaner and one of the finest examples of Catalan civil-Gothic architecture and La Sagrada Familia. Yesterday was Park Guell, Monday was all of Gracià, and Sunday was more of the Gothic Quarter (spent 3 days doing that one). 

    So in total, in just over 1 week, I’ve visited these areas: 

-Las Ramblas     -El Raval

-El Born              -La Ribera

-El Gotic             -Barceloneta

-Sarrià                 -Camp de l’Arpa

-Gracià               -Sagrada Familia

If you don’t know Spain, that may mean nothing to you, but believe me, the full list is much longer than that.  

Now I’ll share some highlights of these recent adventures:

First of all, Park Guell is magical! I went once before but in mid-afternoon and the huge tourist crowds really took away from the effect. This time I did it right. I woke up Tuesday morning promptly at 6:30am and made it to the park by 8am (it’s a hike to get there). But it was absolutely worth it. I essentially had the whole place to myself, and with the sun just starting to rise overhead, the colorful mosaics dazzled with reflected light and the arches and pillars cast such dramatic shadows. I spent the first half an hour running around pretending to be a photographer, catching every angle of the structures that were posing so beautifully for me. Then I worked on a painting for the next hour and a half. By 9:30am though, the tourists (funny how I don’t consider myself one ha) had infiltrated my peace and I became the subject of many photos taken by flocks of asian tourists as well… 

Gracià is succhhh a cool neighborhood. Think Brooklyn but with cuter streets and plazas every 100 meters. I went during the evening and the dark streets were lit up by tiny cafés and bars tucked into corners, boutiques full of hand-made clothes, thrift shops, health food/organic markers, hippie/spiritual shops full of chachkas, and old movie theatres.

    Sunday was fun because I met a friend from Brussels for lunch at a vegan restaurant. (She’s probably over 50 and we met taking the bus together but she’s super cool and acts like she’s 20). I also met a fellow young traveler from New Zealand because we were looking at the same piece of wacky art in a modern art gallery. I know they tell kids to not talk to strangers but it is one of my favorite things to do! Hahaha don’t repeat that. Really though, traveling alone, I meet such kind and interesting people that way, and from all over the world. 

    I also took a guided tour of El Palau de la Musica Catalana. This amazing architectural accomplishment, also designed by Lluís Domènech i Montaner, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is not well known on the list of tourist attractions but it was incredible! I had a semi-private, hour-long tour through the entire building, which included an organ performance. The modernist architecture rivaled Gaudi and the acoustics in the theatre were astounding.

Other notes: It’s taking some getting used to to be (mostly) all on my own again. I do have a couple of friends I go out with occasionally but for the most part, I’m left to my own devices. I don’t mind though. I’m really taking advantage of this free time to reflect, learn, and do all the things I never have time to do. After all, my main goal in taking this gap year is to find out more about myself. Sounds cheesy but there is no doubt that being alone in challenging situations absolutely leads to self-discovery. 

One Week In!

November 5, 2015

    It has been four days since I arrived Barcelona! I am absolutely loving my experience so far - everyday has been a cultural adventure and learning experience!

    But before I jump into what I’ve been up to, let me explain some more background information. I am living in Barcelona for about 2 months, working at the non-profit organization, Worldreader. They are an international NGO, with offices in San Francisco, London, and Ghana and promote global literacy. They organize campaign fundraisers to send e-books, electronic tablets pre-downloaded with thousands of books in the local languages, to schools and day care centers in developing countries. They also developed an app where one can access books and reading guides from basic mobile phones. I am helping the graphic design and communication teams, design posters and graphic images for online promotion. I’m also writing blog posts on current projects/news for the website, as well as proofreading all executive reports before they are sent out publicly. Long story short, I already have lots of projects to work on and I love the office dynamic! Unlike my previous internship, I feel extremely needed and useful, and also respected as part of the team, not simply an intern. This has a lot to do with the fact that the Worldreader team is a lot younger and smaller than Assar Architects (and I really know social media -  not so much architecture ;D) We all sit at the same big glass table in a white, high-ceilinged room with french doors opening up to a balcony looking over a busy intersection. Every now and then, we take stretching breaks and everyone goes around to give an update on what they’re working on. The vibe is one of urgently trying to help people as best and as fast as possible, while having a huge smile on your face. Everyone on the team seems extremely altruistic and dedicated to this noble goal. Plus, I was worried I would forget my French while in Spain but the team is extremely international! Over the course of one conversation, one can hear my coworkers speaking English, Spanish, Catalan, and French. 

    Outside of work, I’m really enjoying living with my host family. Fernando and Koté are so welcoming and also such interesting people! They work for an opera theatre, organizing shows all around in the world in prestigious venues. Their house is full of art and music books, wall tapestries and paintings, and objects from all around the world. Although being very cultured, they are very Spanish. Both born and raised in Barcelona, they exhibit, what strikes me as, many traditional Spanish cultural values and habits. They seem like the quintessential Spanish family. They also have a son, Gonzalo, who is 19 years old. It’s nice having someone my own age to talk to and I’m going to go out with him and his friends this weekend! They have a daughter too who I think I would really get along with. She’s not here - I’m staying in her room - because she’s been living in India this past year working at a Women’s Center in Delhi. Her room is full of buddhist paraphernalia, little elephant statues and books by Herman Hesse and about the Dalai Lama and classic American and Spanish literature.     

    Their apartment is slightly outside Barcelona in Sarrià. Now a neighborhood in the city, it was once considered its own town and municipality. I really like the small-village ambiance. In the evening I walk through (more like climb up - the whole town is situated on a steep hill) the little streets, passing ancient churches, meat and cheese shops, pastelerías, and fruit markets. Little dogs and children play in the squares, watched by their toothless grandparents. I’ve learned to keep to the side of streets, not to heed cars, but rather boys flying down the mountain sitting on skateboards. In the morning, I like to run to a park near the mountains, where there is an amazing view of all of Barcelona. I will miss Sarrià. Unfortunately I can only live with my host family for another week… currently looking into student flats in Gràcia - the coolest neighborhood I’ve heard. 

    I’ve also done quite a bit of sightseeing. Everyday this week, I’ve explored a different neighborhood after work. Today is El Born & La Ribera. For example, I’m sitting in La Cathedral de Santa María del Mar as I write this. I’m headed to the archeological site of Ciutat Born and el Parc Ciutadella after this. Yesterday was El Barrí Gotic. I visited the Cathedral of Barcelona, la Plaça Reial, la Plaça Sant Jaume, and el Puente Bisbe. Before that was el Raval - the biggest tourist trap in Barcelona but it had to be done. I visited la Boquería - the famous covered market that is a feast for the eyes and mouth - fruits of every shape and color, hanging slabs of meat, fresh fish and seafood, nuts and spices played out in a mosaic of colors. I stopped at a touristy area on Las Ramblas to ask a worker for directions. I quickly realized he worked for the Museum of Jam and I ended up getting a tour, which included free samples and explanations of every type of Iberian, aged ham. Although I was invited to see the full museum, I was beginning to feel queasy from so much meat surrounding me. (I rarely eat read meat but hey- when in Rome.)

Arrived in Barcelona! Some Reflections and First Impressions

November 1, 2015

I am in Barcelona!!!! 

Over the past couple of days in Brussels, I wasn't able to completely comprehend that I would be leaving - that the first adventure of my gap year was really coming to an end. My experience was rich and full of unforgettable memories and lasting friendships and in that way it felt long, but at the same time 2 months seemed to slip by in the blink of an eye. I was only just beginning to feel like I belonged in the city; that I lived there and wasn't simply passing through, when the time came for me to pack up my bags again and start anew. 

But now that I’m here, sitting in my new room, in the beautiful apartment of my new host family, feeling the strong evening breeze through my open window (open window! I know, crazy! It’s not cold here!), it is sinking in. 

When I arrived, I immediately felt the differences in culture. It was somewhat of a shock actually. When I met Fernando and Koté at the airport, I was immediately thrown into the spanish speaking world. After spending two months exclusively speaking French, my brain went into a hyper-frenzy trying to sort it all out, recalling lessons from over a year ago. It was quite interesting actually to see how my Spanish progressed throughout the day. At first, it was INCREDIBLY difficult. Every other word was French and I could feel my brain struggling through every phrase, gearing turning so fast that smoke was probably coming out of my ears. After spending the whole day with my new host family though, my Franish has returned to it’s normal Spanish and amazingly it is all coming back to me! 

Little by little, I could feel the rusty layer crumbling into pieces and falling away. I’m sure that after 2 or 3 days I’ll be able to have normal conversations again without any problem. For the moment, though, it’s frustrating to not be able to say what I am thinking. I’m thrown back to my early days in Brussels when I would sit through conversations mostly mute, the majority of the conversation passing right over my head. Ah and the Spanish speak so fast… 

Another really apparent cultural difference is the food - and the time they eat it. Fernando and Koté took me out to lunch with their 19 year old son, Gonzalo. We went to an outdoor restaurant right on the beach and ate fresh squid and calamari, fried little fish, and patatas bravas. On the menu was, of course, a plethora of different paellas, ceviche, caracoles (snails), croquettes and so many more dishes I didn’t know. I can’t wait to try Catalan cuisine! Goodbye moulles frites, gauffres, belgian chocolates, and beer… hello sangria, flan, pork sausage, octopus, iberian ham, and gambas!. 

It’s going to take some adjusting to get used to the latin-rhythm. I think I am going to like it though :D My host family leaves their house at around 9:30am, works until 2pm and the whole family comes home for lunch and relaxing time. At around 4:30, they go back to work until 7:30pm. Sports/shopping/other activities take place after that and dinner is at around 10pm.