I was recently lucky enough to visit the wonderful city of Barcelona, flying out on my eighteenth birthday. It was a great visit for many reasons, especially the quality time spent with my mum. But it’s also given me a lot to reflect on, and I wanted to share some of this today.
1. I practiced speaking Spanish. A lot.
I hadn’t spoken, read or listened to Spanish since exams, so I was really excited to get the chance to practice some more. That said, I wasn’t sure how much I’d actually get to use it, since often in touristy areas a lot of people just use English. So I was really happy when the driver taking us from the airport to our hotel chatted with me in his language and told us all about the buildings around us and their history. After that, I spoke Spanish at every opportunity. I even taught my mum a few phrases and she quite happily and successfully tried them out in the restaurants and bars (apart from once saying “excusez-moi” to a waiter and then completely butchering the word “servicios” so that neither he nor I had any clue what she was saying. He then brought us French menus.)
I was really happy that I understood everyone as I wasn’t familiar with the Barcelona accent, but I found the locals really easy to understand, and they were all happy to speak Castilian to me since I don’t know any Catalan. I’m particularly proud of speaking to customer service on the metro platform through the tinny speaker on the ticket machine, and somehow making myself understood. It’s also really great to see the pleasant surprise on people’s faces when I replied or ordered in Spanish.
2. Speaking the language really helps
It’s fairly well known that some places might rip tourists off a little and take advantage of their lack of local knowledge, but I felt fairly confident throughout the stay that we weren’t being hoodwinked at any time. We actually tried to find smaller local bars off the main streets anyway, so we were usually eating side by side with locals.
One evening on Las Ramblas (of course) a man tried to persuade us to drink in his bar, having noticed we were English. After protesting several times, I found that switching to Spanish got the message across far more effectively. I’m not saying everyone’s out to prey on tourists, and that poor man was just trying to do his job, but it’s useful to be able to get someone to back off, especially as a young girl in a foreign city, and because one day I hope to be travelling on my own.
3. We all ought to be a bit more…well, “Spanish”
That moment on Las Ramblas was one of many which made me notice the difference in mindset between English and Spanish people (a massive generalisation based on anecdotal evidence of course, but bear with me). I feel like something a lot of Brits struggle with is saying “no”. Even though I really didn’t want that drink, I still felt a bit guilty walking away. We phrase requests in the most timid and roundabout way possible and we seem to throw an apology into every sentence. Something my mum and I observed early on was that Spanish people have no issue saying no to something they don’t want, or, conversely, asking in a straightforward manner when they do want something. Although it’s difficult when I’m naturally shy, I have decided to live a bit more like the Spanish. I won’t apologise for the space that I occupy in the world, I will question things I don’t understand I will stand tall and walk with confidence, for no one’s benefit except my own.
Furthermore, I think we live life too quickly over here. I live in a sweet town in Yorkshire and it’s mostly a relaxed area to live in, but on the whole I never stop to drink coffee and watch the world go by; I don’t walk places as much as I could and I don’t sit outside half as much as I ought to. Of course, that’s easy to say when I was on holiday! But from now on I’m going to try to make even working days that little bit more relaxed; taking my time to appreciate my hometown and myself.
4. Take pride in your own culture
Perhaps it’s a side effect of living in a beautiful city, or perhaps it’s a bias that’s more common in the tourism industry, but I feel that many people we met were extremely proud of their culture, history and city. On the way from the airport to the hotel, our taxi driver obviously had a true desire to tell us about his home – not just because we were tourists. He was happy to answer my questions about certain current topics in the area and was keen to share his opinions with me. This isn’t an isolated experience. Lots of Spaniards will tell me all about their towns and ask me about mine. Heritage is very important.
5. It’s OK to be a tourist
What I mean by this is it’s okay to make mistakes, to not understand your surroundings and to stop appreciate the scenery. These are things that natives do, so why feel self-conscious just because you’re foreign? I stop to take a typical tourist shot every time I walk through the centre of my own hometown! It’s so easy to just ask someone to repeat what they said, to ask a passer-by for help and to do typically touristy things like take photos and drink sangria! As long as you’re respectful and keep yourself safe there’s really no problem.
6. Cities aren’t as daunting as I thought
This is hilariously naïve, but with good reason. I’ve lived in a few different towns but never anywhere particularly big and busy. I remember enjoying Paris and London when I last visited, but that was several years ago now and I could cling onto my parents. So this week, when my mum kind of subconsciously took a back seat in organising our days because I was the one speaking to people, I figured out the Barcelona metro, booked us tickets to the attractions, ordered food and navigated on foot as well. I’m so proud of myself for just taking all this in my stride (is that a pun?). It’s made me realise that as long as you’re vigilant and smart about where you and your valuables are, big cities, especially foreign ones, really aren’t something to be afraid of.
So there are the six biggest lessons I learned from my visit to Barcelona! I learned so much more than that, about the country and the region, politics, people, language and history. Most importantly I relaxed and enjoyed myself, but these things were quite big for me which is why I wanted to write them down. I hope that I get plenty of chances like this in the future to continue learning about myself and other things!
What are the biggest lessons travelling has taught you?