Barcelona

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Passeig de Gràcia.

Man, I could not stand this place when I first arrived. I’d been living in the countryside for more than a month, so coming straight to Barcelona was sensory overload. It’s a beautiful city with great weather and incredible architecture, but it was so crowded and jammed with tourists when I got there – honestly, my first thought was to hop back on the bus and get the hell out of there. But I had already arranged to live with a family on the outskirts of the city in a sort of au-pair situation, so I figured I had to at least give it a chance.

In exchange for looking after two 9-year-olds and teaching them English, I got to live and eat with the family for free and practice my Spanish. It was really different from the work exchanges I’d done on farms, but I wanted to experience authentic city life while improving my Spanish, so being an au-pair seemed like the most logical option. Well, as soon as I met the kids and their mom, I got the feeling that I’d made a huge mistake. I could tell that we weren’t a good fit for each other – but I saw this as a challenge, so I stayed anyway.

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The view from my host family’s flat in Cornellà de Llobregat.

The first couple of days were hard. I wasn’t really connecting with the kids or with their mom, and I felt incredibly lonely in a big city where I didn’t know a single person. I spent a lot of time walking around by myself, but I just couldn’t stand the endless hordes of tourists clogging up every street. After a few days of being sad and homesick, I just decided that I was going to do whatever it took to enjoy Barcelona. I started going to language exchanges in the evenings, which helped a lot with my Spanish, and I signed up for hiking excursions on the weekends. Turns out that it was actually really easy to make friends in Barcelona – there was an incredible number of expats and travelers there who were just as eager as I was to meet new people.

In fact, I met so many people that it became a bit overwhelming. It’s honestly really hard to find a social balance while traveling by yourself – I couldn’t stand being lonely, but I couldn’t be social all the time, either, especially when people were always coming and going. Barcelona is so transient – no one seems to stay for very long. Sometimes it felt like I was just making one acquaintance after another, and it really does get tiring to constantly meet people and introduce yourself and have superficial conversations while knowing full well that you’ll probably never see each other again.

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Waterfall in Montseny.

I got lucky when I met my friend Hashi on a hike in Montseny. We were both essentially on our own in Barcelona, and we both wanted to escape from our stressful living situations as often as we could. Finally, I’d found someone I actually really clicked with. Hashi and I spent a lot of time drifting in and out of little cafés and vintage shops in the Gothic quarter, hanging out at pintxo bars in Poble Sec, and avoiding La Rambla at all costs because it’s the worst place ever. After a few weeks, Barcelona finally began to feel like home, and I grew to really love it.

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Pintxos in the Poble Sec neighborhood.

Probably my favorite thing about Barcelona was its proximity to beautiful places like Montserrat and the Costa Brava. It was so nice to be able to escape from the city and spend a day hiking in the mountains or strolling around barefoot on the beach.

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Hashi and I went on a four hour hike in Montserrat with our Canadian friend Charles. It’s a bit of a journey to get there from Barcelona, but it’s absolutely worth it. The scenery is amazing.

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The Costa Brava reminded me so much of California’s central coast. It’s insanely beautiful. There are a ton of nude beaches too, if you’re into that.

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In between my fabulous day trips and afternoons of exploring the city, my home life was getting a bit unbearable. Basically, my kids had zero interest in learning English, and you just can’t make a 9-year-old learn something if they don’t want to. Also, their mom constantly asked me to work on my days off, and lied to me all the time about where she was and when she was coming home. I felt like I was being used as a free nanny rather than participating in Spanish family life. To be fair, my Spanish improved a lot while I was there, but I got tired of feeling like I was being taken advantage of. So I packed up and left to go stay with Hashi instead.

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Sunset view from Park Güell.

Barcelona left me absolutely exhausted in every way – physically, from all the hiking, and mentally, from being so stressed out with my host family all the time. It was an amazing experience, though. My Spanish got loads better, even though Barcelona is known to be the worst place to learn Spanish because everything is in Catalan. But still, I managed to make an unfamiliar city feel like home after initially feeling like it was the last place on Earth I wanted to be. I also decided I would never be an au-pair again – as they say in Spanish, no vale la pena!

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Plaça de Sant Jaume at Christmastime.

I actually ended up visiting Hashi in Barcelona again, just before Christmas. It was so much better in December than it was in late summer – I could actually walk down the street without getting lost in a sea of tourists! It felt amazing.

I think a lot of people come to Barcelona for the nightlife, the beach, and the Sagrada Familia, but there’s so much more to it than that. It doesn’t feel anything like other cities in Spain. Here, you have the opportunity to experience the culture and language of Catalonia, as well as the history, art, and surrounding natural beauty. I never thought I would fall in love with Barcelona, but I’m really glad I did.

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