Barcelona is a city I have been intrigued with for many years. Having visited Spain many times as a child usually to the Costa del Sol resorts, there was always something magnetic, trendy, and cosmopolitan related to Barcelona that fascinated and mesmerised me. I think it was the apparent synergy of Barcelona, that is its cosmopolitan, vibrant urban ambiance infused with its chilled, surfer vibe that filled me with a desire to visit. The city has always exuded a sense of fashion and elegance, with its long, endless streets almost hypnotically symmetrical with the green, oak trees and of course, its gothic architecture, namely, the acclaimed and astounding work by Catalan architect Antoni Gaudi, La Sagrada Familia.
In early 2019, a series of unique circumstances allowed me to make plans to visit Barcelona. I was always intent on working one day as an English teacher and a friend recommended a school in Barcelona, the Oxford TEFL House. I asked for a month's leave from my usual 9-5 job in a library and after approval, I was at once immersed in excitement and an undeniable urge to count down the days until my trip. It was a long four months between booking my flights in February until finally travelling in late June. Even now, with the wake of Coronavirus and the travel industry ravaged, it all seems like a distant hazy memory, another lifetime almost. Late June arrived and I finally set sail, well as we say in Ireland, hopped on the tin bird to begin my journey to Barcelona.
The Adventure to Barcelona Begins
It was my first solo journey in my 27 years and I was filled with trepidation and excitement. It felt like I was going to discover myself, to take a break from my 'serious' job, and I had the feeling I was going to meet some amazing people. When I emerged from the plane, the intense, stifling heat wrapped around me and at once I felt at home. It was a soothing heat, that whispered of a tremendous summer to come. This was a far cry from the drizzly rain and grey skies in Ireland. Everywhere I looked, it looked like summer - people's faces were filled with health and sunshine, happiness, vibrance, and laughter. Even the old man driving me in the taxi to my hotel was smiling out the window. I always think there must be something special about the advent of summer in Europe, for it is a real summer, of endless sunshine, tourism, and adventure.
I stayed at the most amazing bed & breakfast, literally diagonal to the La Sagrada Familia. When I walked out onto the balcony, the amazing ancient cathedral transfixed my gaze amidst the throngs of international tourists. Of course, one of the first things I did was get a picture of myself on the balcony and post it to Instagram, despite my sleepy complexion after a long day of travelling. No one could believe my view and as I sat with my café con leche, I couldn't either. I stayed with a wonderfully polite host called Ernest, who was in his mid-50s and divorced. He enjoyed the company of people from all over the world and as soon as I arrived was ready to embrace me with open arms and a Spanish omelette. What a day! Ernest made sure I was comfortable and felt right at home, and although I was one of around 5 guests within the apartment, I felt like I had his full and undivided attention.
Taking in the Energy of Barcelona with Cool Locals
That first day I couldn't wait to explore some of the sights and absorb the chic ambiance of Barcelona. I was a pasty looking, conspicuous tourist with my fanny bag wrapped around my waist (Barcelona is notorious for pickpockets) and google maps on my phone’s loudspeaker. I trusted the robotic voice to lead me to the prime spots. Naturally, on my doorstep, I took a closer look at the La Sagrada Familia and it is worth every bit of attention it receives from tourists. The elaborateness and complexity of the stonework and sculptures filled me with a sense of awe, and I couldn't deny the unique spiritual aura around the entire grounds.
Although there are so many monumental sights within Barcelona, for me, one of the most enjoyable tourist activities is just to lounge outside a coffee shop, in the shade, and watch Spanish life unfold. There was nothing more fundamentally Spanish than this for me, and it truly helped me feel like a Spaniard. On my first day I must have visited about 10 coffee shops, and undoubtedly butchered several Spanish words such as "por favor", "quiero" and of course "gracias". One thing that struck me about the Barcelonans was their readiness and eagerness to encourage non-Spanish speakers to attempt to speak Spanish. I never felt embarrassed or conscious of my accent and blips, even though I probably should have! Even on my first day in Spain, I made friends. I just happened to click onto my tinder and a guy asked me to join him and his friend for tapas. It didn't seem to have any romantic motivations, it was just the European mentality to go with the flow. We went for tapas, all tasty dishes such as Spanish omelettes, meatballs, chorizo - all washed down with rose wine before we went to a few clubs and danced the night away. As my head hit the pillow on my first night, I was immensely grateful for the experience of being in Barcelona, and of course for the aircon which was keeping me cool on a stifling night!
Teaching English and Becoming CELTA Certified in Barcelona
My time teaching in Barcelona was also highly enjoyable because Barcelonans were always eager to learn English and learn from a native speaker. I was completing the CELTA course which is notorious for its intensity and the level of work involved in completion. My days were often filled with lesson planning, stressful photocopying and finally, a nerve filled but enjoyable lesson. For me, I knew that teaching was not going to be a long-term career so I just wanted to have fun with it. So most of my lessons were games, roleplays, dances, and fun-filled activities in which I could relax and just enjoy getting to know the students. I was training with around 10 other CELTA trainees, from all over the world. I was amazed that even some non-native speakers were training to teach English. It put me to shame as I only knew English and my Spanish was limited and at that, very rusty. But this group of strangers quickly became friends. One funny thing now, which wasn't so funny at the time, was there was construction going on in the underground directly below the school, so at random intervals throughout the day, there would be an intense startling sound of drilling and digging. We all complained at the time but looking back it wasn't so bad. Also the school was so embarrassed, they reimbursed us some of the fees at the end of the course. The school was also very close to the famed Passeig DeGracia area, a haven to all the boutique shops and designer stores. Although my wallet did not render me a visit to many of the shops, walking down in such an elegant atmosphere, I felt like Spanish royalty.
I guess being a librarian I was always used to being quiet, that's why I was shocked at how lively classrooms can get. I ended up losing my voice twice during my lessons, the instructor told me to practice some vocal exercises to warm up before lessons, and thankfully I was able to retain my voice towards my latter lessons. Teaching was tough, especially in the warm weather. I would often have to wipe my brow and drink water through lively lessons. I usually walked from my apartment to the school, which was around 2 miles, but I found the underground confusing and claustrophobic, maybe I was subconsciously protecting myself from any viruses now looking back! Imagine a world before COVID-19!
A Great Friendship Created
One of my fellow trainees was an amazing young woman from the United States named Julia. There was something magnetic and magical about her which people couldn't take their eyes away from. She had Vietnamese heritage and spoke with a valley girl accent, which was annoying at first but quickly became endearing. Julia was a psychotherapist and taught me a lot of techniques and methods which she used for her patients to overcome their issues. She confided in me about her struggles with low self-esteem and confidence, issues that had plagued me throughout my life. Her mantra was "I am enough" and she used to tell these words were immensely powerful for transforming our confidence and belief in ourselves. I used to repeat this mantra before my lessons and could feel my burgeoning sense of self and confidence within my abilities. Julia had 50k Instagram followers, and it was no wonder why. She has amazing inspiring content on her social media pages and used the platform to spread positivity. To anyone interested in finding out more about her and "the dream life foundation, look up her IG account (@ih3artjulie). Julia and I are still friends, she returned to Barcelona after teaching, and she still holds me accountable with my confidence and endeavours today. On our weekends off, we would spend time roaming the city together. Visiting the gothic quarter was a particularly enjoyable experience. The cobbled streets, stone buildings, and odd conglomerate of shops with every nook and cranny spoke of an ancient, unique, and fiercely creative people. The gothic quarter is the oldest part of Barcelona and I enjoyed getting lost in the narrow pathways and streets. As I roamed with hungry eyes, I knew where JK Rowling received inspiration for “Diagon Alley”. We even had a look into Can Culleretes, the oldest restaurant in Barcelona dating back to 1776. It was quite reasonably priced given its heritage and had managed to retain a lot of its authentic, vintage vibe.
The End of a Great Barcelona Adventure – CELTA Certified!
During my final week in Barcelona, I completed the CELTA diploma and was an officially qualified English teacher. It felt amazing to have the qualification as my passport to international travel. I was emotional during my last few days in Barcelona but spent one of my last night’s dancing the night away in all of the local trendy clubs, blowing off much-needed steam after a few hard weeks of teaching. Before I left, however, Julia and I went to La Barceloneta for a final swim in the Mediterranean waves. The fact that such a splendid beach can exist just a short walk from the bustling city is what makes this city such a dichotomy. We of course had one final bowl of Paella at one of the many seaside restaurants on the promenade. I vow to return to Barcelona and explore all the other crevices and corners of the city which I missed in my first visit, it truly is an endless, ancient and magical city. I would recommend anyone to visit Barcelona because there is something for everyone – those artsy, gastronomical and even beach surfers!