If you don’t know what a jjimjilbang, or Korean bathhouse is, you’re missing out! Read all about my latest adventures at a Korean sauna at my skincare blog, linked here.
Jjimjilbangs are an essential part of Korean life and you can find everyone there – from young couples in love, to a whole family with boisterous children in tow. People come to take the waters and spend time together in the fiery saunas, sweating out all manner of sins, or getting the skin scraped off their backs, reborn a shiny new human. Doesn’t it sound fun?
I can’t believe it’s almost been a month since I arrived in South Korea. I expected to be wailing under the covers by this time, sniffling and puffy-eyed because I missed home. Not true in the slightest. These few weeks have been very strange for me…mostly because I don’t feel strange here.
I imagined complete culture shock, foodshock, and oh-God-what-am-I-doing-with-my-life shock. Aside from the latter, which is felt by most people on a regular basis, I have yet to really experience any kind of shock. The language barrier is certainly very real, but it hasn’t been a cause for any kind of trauma (yet), apart from a shouty taxi driver who pretended not to know where I was going. 5 minutes later, we pulled up outside my local metro station – I get the feeling he only pretended not to know so he could drive around the block for that extra 200 won.
Not including my new shouting taxi friend, perhaps one of the reasons that I feel so at home here is that people are so genuinely friendly. They really want to help you, really want to talk to you. Even if they don’t speak a word of English, and you can’t muster anything other than ‘thanks’ in Korean. Old ladies have offered to put my bag on their laps when on the metro. Well-meaning gentlemen point out arrows leading us to where they think we might want to go. Being called beautiful in the street isn’t completely weird. Even if you stutter out ‘hello’ in your terrible Korean, people praise you and commend you on your wonderful pronunciation (so, yes, they are obviously a nation of fibbers). Korea is helpful, friendly, and safe.
I’m settling in to my school rather well. My co-teachers are both lovely, and keen to help me wherever they can, whenever they can. I hope that we will make a good team. My principal has already given me a toothbrush, a water bottle, and a phone charm as gifts – keen on me feeling welcome at the school, obviously. One day, the other English teachers and I were called to her office. A little worried about what I’d done to be summoned, I tentatively nibbled on the rice flour biscuits she passed around, and waited to hear the bad news. It turns out she wanted to start a tea club with the younger teachers in the school, and all of us were then called upon to arrange a day, chat a little, and finish up the biscuits. Not content with just a Tea Club, the teachers were told that they were to attend sports activities every Wednesday. No exceptions. Last Wednesday, we marched around the hall to rousing military-style music, and took part in ballet yoga. It was very surreal.
On Saturday, I awoke to find it was a glorious, sunny day. The sky was clear, the air was as fresh as it could possibly be here (more on my new worry, pollution, at a later date), and the chill in the atmosphere had subdued. We decided it would be a good day to explore. Busan tower, situated near the port area of the city, made for a fine excursion. A 120-metre high viewing tower, it sits on a hillside just out of Nampodong, a hustling and bustling shopping area with fashionable shops aplenty, and a rammed marketplace – selling everything from Korean won-themed taekwondo shorts to imported Japanese build-your-own sweet boxes. Up on the hill, it’s peaceful, and your climb is rewarded with a look over Busan. The port, with hundreds and hundred of fishing boats lined up and ready. The mountains, jutting out of the city, powerful and strong. The high rise Haeundae beach buildings – glinting at you in the distance, a faraway reminder of just how big this city is. Up the tower, dizziness greeted us, with even more spectacular views of the surrounding area.
Busan tower is also an area for true love. A mini-pilgrimage of romance, where star-crossed lovers put a padlock on the surrounding wire fence, along with a plastic engraved heart, or even phone case (well, you know, it is Korea). These pretty hearts swamp the whole fence, and the entire tower is surrounded by declarations of true love. Perhaps I’ll be visiting there myself, padlock in hand, at a later point.
Another weekend of food experimenting was also to be had. We ventured down into the local market, towards the food stalls and bars, not quite sure what we had in mind. Deeper into the market, street food was being sold at ridiculously low prices. Vats of kimchi, pre-prepared bowls of Japchae ingredients, ready to be tossed into a pan and cooked at any moment, among a myriad of things that we yet have to try…or summon up the courage to.We found a place quickly enough – slightly off-putting in that ‘Korean Pizza’ was written on the window, but not a lick of cheese was in sight. We ate Jeon, a traditional Korean pancake, ours stuffed with kimchi and meat. Jeon can be eaten as a side dish, or often with alcohol. We made sure to do both, and then order Kimchi Jjigae on top of that. Kimchi Jjigae is a warming, rich stew made with the famous fermented cabbage, spring onions, traditional stock, and tofu. It was truly delicious, and the best meal I’ve had yet.
Life day to day in Korea is very normal for me – and perhaps that’s not the interesting thing you wanted to hear when reading this blog. But to me, that’s the beauty of it. My year in Korea is letting me experience a culture at normality, just like when I was in Spain. I could truly enjoy the culture, and didn’t feel pressured to do everything I could, as quickly as possible, as one often does when visiting a new place on holiday. Korea is treating me well so far, and I can only hope I continue to have many more normal, slightly mundane adventures to share with you all.
The day finally came. The night before, I slept not a wink – tossing and turning in the Gatwick hotel room I’d booked. I’d said I wasn’t nervous, but my body was clearly telling me otherwise. On the morning of February 17th, I woke up long before my alarm, rubbed my blurry eyes, and told myself it had finally arrived. I was going to Korea. Problem was, it would take nearly a day and a half’s travel to get there.
My journey was London > Amsterdam > Doha > Seoul > Busan. A mammoth journey, on a minimal amount of sleep. I touched down in Busan 30 hours later, adrenaline coursing through my veins – even though I was exhausted, I was buzzing. That night, in the hotel I stayed at, I couldn’t sleep again. My roommate, luckily, was exactly the same. We chatted through the early hours of the morning, ready to start the next leg of our overwhelming journey.
We are here to teach English with the EPIK program. It places native teachers in schools across Korea in an effort to get kids in touch with real, native speakers of English. We had all come from around the globe to be a part of this. We, however, would not just be sent into schools willy-nilly – first there was an 8-day orientation to attend. During orientation, the English Program in Korea would be giving us thorough lectures on culture, teaching, tips and tricks, and the Korean language.
Busan University of Foreign Studies was the setting for our training period – a beautiful, modern campus in glorious mountain surroundings. We shared a dorm room for the 8 day period – I was lucky with my roommate. I don’t know how many others were! The first day on campus, we were all still exhausted but immediately went out to explore what the neighbourhood had to offer. Korea in the daytime, I have to say, is not the world’s most beautiful of places: but this is understandable when you think of what Korea was like almost half a century ago. The country was destroyed by the war, and Japanese occupation. The Korea that you see today is fresh and new – there is hardly anything that was still standing at the end of the war. Bear this in mind when visiting Korea. It makes everything they have accomplished that much more incredible. Suddenly, the streets you walk don’t seem so ugly.
Orientation was a series of lectures and classes designed to help us as EPIK teachers – there were people from all walks of life. Some people had taught before, others had little to no experience, and some were simply wishing to try the program out as a way to experience a new culture. Whatever we were there for, we all bonded and slipped into friendships quickly, much like at university. When everyone is new to a situation they use it to bring them closer. Eight days with perfect strangers might be scary to some (myself included – I’m not too good meeting new people), but in this new country it was easy, unforced, and definitely a lot of fun.
We also had to undergo a medical test (again, ridiculously early in the morning – sensing a pattern here?), which none of us were all too happy with, but was over rather quickly. We were weighed, measured, x-rayed, and tested on our eyesight – and last but not least, blood and urine samples were taken. Though not together. Our results would be given to us within a few days…all was well!
Lectures were broken up by a field trip out to Haeundae beach – where skyscrapers tower over the seafront, glistening in the sunshine. A flat in one of these is said to cost billions of won – meaning they don’t come cheap. For a pure, unadulterated view over the East Sea, and practically all of Busan, it might be worth it. The design of these buildings was also striking, compared to the uniform high rises seen all over the city. Barcelona is a hectic mess of old and new, closely crammed in together. It is beautiful because of this, a complete mesh of architecture. Korean housing simply shoots up into the air, and doesn’t do much more than that visually. Looking out over Busan, many districts seem to be a repetition of the same photograph – blocks upon blocks of flats have everything in common.
Our day out was brought to a close by a visit to the UN Peace Park. This is a memorial to those who fought from the UN in the Korean War. I haven’t studied too much about the war, and thus was interested in learning more about it. There is, however, not too much information given at the memorial park. I was met, unexpectedly, with a wave of emotion. A wall of all the US soldiers who died in the Korean War snaked around a pretty pond. Columns and columns of names went on and on, making eyes smart in realisation of just how many people lost their lives in this terrible conflict. Names from all over the globe were engraved there, and we were all shocked into silence as the list simply became a blur – too many names to take in. Over 30,000 US soldiers lost their lives, and over 1,000 British. The UN memorial is home to 837 of our British soldiers’ graves – more than any other nationality buried there. It is a quiet, contemplative place, where I hope they have found peace.
The rest of the week rolled on with further lectures, classes, and information. Visiting lecturers came, talking about Korean culture, engaging us with funny stories, and teaching us how to deal with alien concepts such as co-teaching, which is the widely used format over the EPIK program. In all, it was a tiring, but informative week, that I was glad to have had the opportunity to experience. Being thrown in at the deep end would certainly have been difficult to deal with – a new school, new apartment, and new life all at once might make anybody consider returning to their old life.
Then, finally, the day came where we were to leave orientation and meet our new co-workers: our co-teachers, in fact. Nervously waiting with our luggage, one by one teachers came out with signs, calling out our names (or how they thought our names might be pronounced). Finally, after an agonising half an hour or so – two voices piped up with my own. My co-teachers loaded my very heavy luggage into the car, knees buckling under the weight, and drove me across town to my new flat. My eyes were as big as saucers as I looked out over the city hustle and bustle – being confined to the university meant we hadn’t seen much of Busan life yet. It was just as you might expect Asia to be: terrible driving, hundreds of people crossing the road in all directions at once, and rows of tall buildings with bright, beaming lights. I was attracted to them immediately – like a moth to the flame.
The teachers chit-chatted away to each other in Korean, and asked me some questions. After some nervous laughter we began to talk a little more, and I learned small things about them, the area I would be in, and what kind of food I should try. As we drew up to my apartment block, I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face. The flat inside was a pleasant surprise – quite large (we’d been told flats were a mixed bag), with a double bed, separate kitchen, and plenty of storage space. Underfloor heating is a complete revolution for me and I doubt I will want to give that up at the end of the year. Now, decorated and cleaned, my flat feels very homely. I’m very pleased with my lot.
The area I live in is called Dongnae, and I explored it at once. It’s very busy, due to it being right opposite the local market, and I loved it right off the bat. So many sights, sounds and smells were there to take in. Ahjummas sitting at the side of the road, selling all sorts, from kelp to ginseng, from sea slugs to hotteok – a hot Korean pancake stuffed with a cinnamon syrup filling. Navigating the Megamart (the local hypermarket) was a stress-inducing experience. Too polite to simply barge through the aisles with my trolley, I spent most of my time waiting for a gap in the throng, weaving in and out late-night Friday shoppers, getting everything but the kitchen sink.
I’m still finding my feet here, but I’m getting used to the idea of living in Korea. It still isn’t as real as I expected it to be, and I’m sure the culture shock and homesickness will set in soon – but until then, I’m going to enjoy strolling around the food stalls, singing my heart out at the noraeban (karaoke bar – yep, Korea loves them too), trying not to buy everything that has a cute face painted on it (even sponges do), and assuring the restaurant staff that spicy is absolutely fine, thank you. Korea, so far, is everything I ever hoped it to be!
The world media reported recently that 80% of Catalans voted a strong YES! to the question of being independent. I saw the headline in numerous papers, which surprised me as I have always thought that those behind the broadsheets really put some research and effort into what they put onto the page. The articles did go on to say that this 80% was only a representation of 2.2 million, not the 6 or so that actually live here, but that is by the by. The grabbing was done. Many who simply read the headlines would be inclined to believe the majority of those who live here are solidly sliding a ‘yes’ into the ballot box.
It is impossible to avoid the independent sentiment when living in Barcelona. Even in English classes, arguments are quickly nipped in the bud, through answers of ‘Catalan’, when the students are asked their nationality, and ‘Catalonia’, when asked the name of their country. It takes a great effort for me to stay silent, and swiftly move on. I don’t disagree with their feelings and the strong passion they have, but technically it isn’t a country, as some others in the class have oftentimes felt stirred enough to remind us, demanding to see their classmate’s passport. You can see why I now ask questions relating to MY nationality, or a famous person, rather than bring up the dreaded Catalan/Spanish debate. In an English class, it’s just not necessary.
The streets are festooned with Catalan flags, plastic yellow bows (hang the environment), and proud proclamations of what the householders are voting. It does look pretty to see the red and yellow stripes, especially on a warm summer’s day. I have no problem in seeing people’s pride displayed. It’s just when voices start being misrepresented, not only by the papers abroad, but also by the Spanish government, that I begin to have a problem.
On the 9th of November, an unofficial referendum took place across the region. This referendum had been declared illegal by the Madrid-based government, and attempts to make it lawful were quashed again and again. You can see why Catalans feel nothing but fury towards the government, in what is supposed to be a democracy. They are ignored again and again by those who are supposed to listen and implement change for them. The money they pay in taxes is sent to other parts of the country which are less well off. This is expected, I hear you say – and I agree, but when it gets to the extent that those whose money is being taken are not those who receive, by a long run, then it becomes a problem. Children in other parts of Spain enjoy the advantage of having one computer per child in school. Here, this is certainly not the case. The money is being sent to help less well-off parts of the country, but it needs to be spent in a sensible manner, rather than in such a way that seems to only seek to rile the more wealthy regions. Catalans have held an annual protest on September 11th about these injustices and the right to decide their own future. This year (2014), 2 million people formed a ‘v’, visible from the air, to state their solidarity. In Madrid, and the rest of Spain, it was reported only 100,000 people turned out.
On the 9th of November, 2.2 million people voted in the illegal referendum. I was not one of them. I would very much like to vote. Why didn’t I? Because whilst I agree with the idea that Catalans are not heard and are largely trampled on by the government, I did not see the referendum as ever fairly representing the region. It was organised by a pro-independence institution, and held in schools, rather than officially recognised and government endorsed ballot posts. The weeks running up to the vote, there was no ‘no’ campaign, as there was in Scotland. I only ever saw propaganda relating to the ‘SI-SI’ (Yes-Yes) side. Thousands and thousands of euros were spent on this. I can’t back an election that is biased, nor one that uses money that could be spent on other things instead of producing a skewed vote. In other places, maybe the government would take heed of the millions that stated they wanted independence, but Rajoy (the president of Spain) is stubborn. He will not take the chance – therefore only making things worse. The more you keep people silent, the more they will want to say. Those on the ‘no’ side will change their mind.
I do not agree with those that say the 2.2 million are a representation of the people who would vote in the real election, should one ever be held. I believe the turnout would be as high as it was in Scotland. Some blamed apathy and laziness on the reason for some not ticking the ballot papers – but I doubt something so important, on the day of a genuine election, would be ignored. I want to hear both sides, see what both parties promise me, before I make up my mind. In my view, I feel as if someone followed me around shouting ‘YES’ in my ear for a month, flashing with red and yellow lights so I even thought of Catalonia when I closed my eyes. The arguments are so persuasive it even changed me from a ‘no’ voter for the first half of the vote (Quiere que Catalunya sea un estado? Would you like Catalonia to be a state?), to a ‘yes’.
Artur Mas, the Catalan leader, promises independence within 18 months if he is voted in with a majority in the next local elections. It all seems a bit fishy and tactical. Nowadays, it’s difficult to find such a thing as impartiality, especially in a place such as this, where ‘national’ sentiment is through the roof, to the point I have only seen with illiterate lager louts on St. George’s Day (I’d like to note that those who display such pride, however, here are not made of the same stuff). I can only hope that voices such as mine will be represented should the vote ever be given to the region. A good move to secure more ‘yes’ votes would be to eliminate immigrants from participation. In the meantime, I will continue keeping my head down and my mouth shut, in order not to be dragged into an argument I’ve had a thousand times…and look set never to win.
1. Nobody really cares about your music taste, fashion sense, or the TV you watch.
Making friends on the basis of you both liking Nirvana is a stupid idea. Nirvana are good, but you’re not the only person to think so. In fact, quite a lot of people do. Therefore, it stands to reason that quite a few of these people are complete idiots that you should not be involving yourself with. Dismissing someone because they like Girls Aloud isn’t fair; in a few years you will come to realise that the more diverse your friendship group is, the better, as they can introduce you to new things, making you more open-minded.
2. Being normal is okay.
We can’t all be film-writers, fashionistas, actors, and professional footballers. In fact, being normal is pretty rewarding. If you want more and more of something, or never settle with what you have, you’ll never be happy or satisfied. I’m not saying we should give up, but you’re more likely to be a well-rounded and confident person if you simply accept what you have without wondering ‘what if…?’
3. Enjoy yourself.
Being an adult can be pretty fun, but it can also be rubbish at times. Bills, bills, bills, and a few more bills when you least expect them, and the occasional breakage or accident just to liven up your careful budgeting. Drink while you still can! Make the most of the fact that you wake up after a heavy night on the vodka with a radiant face and the readiness to start again – in a few years you’ll crawl out from under the covers after a night out and suffer a two-day hangover, minimum. Laugh with your friends – you may grow apart, which is sad when it happens, but inevitable, so make the most of them while they are there.
4. Your parents will not be there forever.
They nag you, they tell you what to do, they embarrass you, but that’s OK. You can just do it to your own children later. Learn to appreciate everything they have done for you, even if you don’t have what everyone else does – just because your friend had her brand new Vauxhall Corsa paid for by mama and papa does not mean it’s your given right. They fed you, clothed you, and loved you when you were young, which is a difficult task, worth much much more than a driving licence or V Festival tickets.
5. Nobody knows how to feel.
Confusion is fine. Feeling sad is fine. Feeling happy two minutes afterwards is also fine. The human mind is an ever-changing thing, and feeling upset and hurt at times just makes the happiness and enjoyment of your life a hundred times richer. You may think you’re battling depression, but trust me, it’s all part of growing up, and realising that not every moment has to be skipping through a sunny meadow into the arms of your handsome prince (who we will get to later).
6. Advertising is just advertising.
You do not have to look like those models. Those models do not even look like those models. As cheesy as it is, and well may you roll your eyes, beauty really does come from within. A Greek Goddess might have the personality of a banana, and the IQ to match – she’s only going to be attractive to her male equivalent, whose brain is generally kept in his nether regions. However you want to look, just do it with confidence. If you want to be a fitness freak, that’s okay too. It doesn’t matter. Nobody cares if you have a rear end J-Lo would be jealous of, or if your stomach could snap wood. They care about you as a person, and as a whole. Your beauty is not just your physique, it is your entire being – you can get fitter and better, but you can’t change yourself. so learn to love your exterior, because it’s not going anywhere…and it’s damn well expensive to tweak it.
7. Nobody is constant.
People change. They change for the better, and for the worse. If somebody shows you they are sorry, accept it. We all make mistakes, and holding a grudge is childish. The people who do not accept their friends, family and partners for whoever they are and for the person they grow into, are not who you want to be. These people are the ones who end up alone, still trapped in their teenage world, and wondering why nobody wants to do the same things you have always done, at the same times you have always kept, and in the same places you have always been. Evolve together, and appreciate the person for who they are now, not who they were when you were fifteen. Chances are that when you were fifteen, you were massive idiots.
8. You are not always right.
It may strike you as strange, but most of the opinions you have now will have changed in a few years time. This is because you will learn more about the world, and realise that things are not necessarily black and white. Posting strong political messages on Facebook isn’t going to change anybody’s mind, and it will most likely make you cringe when you read them back in the future. The mentality of ‘I’m always right’ is not going to do you any favours (even if you are right most of the time – put a sock in it and don’t brag, it will lose you respect), because people will just give up having nice, interesting discussions with you, as they know it’ll develop into an argument.
9. That guy you think is Prince Charming? He probably isn’t.
Don’t think that the person you are with now (if you are with anyone) is going to be your future husband. He may well be, but this is a rarity. You make bad decisions as you grow, mostly because you are battling with insecurity, and feeling pressure from your peers and society as a whole. If you are dating someone just for the sake of having someone in your life, you are doing it wrong. You are with someone because firstly you enjoy their company, you want to grow and share with them, they appreciate and value you as a person, and finally because you find them attractive. The concept of attractive (as we discussed before) is very relative, and someone who you connect with and laugh with is much more important than someone who turns every head in the street. You are friends first; you have to spend so much time together that this is a crucial factor and one that is often forgotten.
10. It’s okay to admit that you can’t do something.
You aren’t a superhero, and we don’t all have the ability or skill to do everything under the sun. People have different interests, hobbies, skills and talents, so it doesn’t matter if you can’t do it yourself. People will appreciate honesty far more than lies. That said, it’s important to at least try, just to see if you can surprise yourself. But don’t flog yourself if you don’t succeed – success is something that comes after a long line of failures.
And the final; most important thing to remember is this:
Five years ago, my parents upped and left England, choosing to move to France, in the house they had bought a few years previously. At the time, I felt quite angry about it, as many eighteen year olds probably would, not fully understanding the decision and feeling a little left behind, abandoned, that sort of thing. Five years on, here I am living abroad myself, and I feel like I can completely understand the urge to up sticks and go.
Living in a country which is not your own is a little strange. I truly believe most countries and people, at least those in Europe, are more or less the same aside from language issues, and a person can get down to it and cope living wherever they may choose. Speaking English has a wide range of advantages, and as I’ve said before, we’re lucky to have the world at our feet with it as our mother tongue. You have to adapt to a way of living you’re completely unaccustomed to; you have to learn another language and struggle speaking it as soon as you leave your house; you can’t buy the same things or have the same things available that you’re used to, and you of course have to make yourself new friends.
Naturally, you become a little homesick. I go through periods of it, sometimes feeling myself melancholy for no reason and longing to see open green fields, be greeted as ‘love’ or ‘petal’ by shopkeepers, and being but a stone’s throw away from rolling hills and sparkling streams. I long to be understood by other people, wishing they were able to converse with me without it being massive effort on my part, or theirs, depending on which language we are speaking in.
Then, I go through periods of jubilation, so happy to be here in my new, more fulfilling life. I sit on the train, looking through the window, and I can see the immense blue of the sea stretching out in front of me; craggy rock faces, and wiry shrubs poking from them, making for some spectacular viewing. I listen in to conversations, understanding the sing-song of Catalan, the up-and-down manner the Spanish speak in, tuning in to either language with ease and feeling proud because I can do so. I walk the streets of Gracia, and fall in love with it more each time, shady streets and pokey corners, teeming with life and trendy people sipping their coffees or beers. The sun brightens the open placa we reside in, children giggling, elderly nattering, and parents discussing. I feel at home.
It is a strange feeling to be from one country and belong in another. I am lucky enough to have two homes, and I feel slightly like I am formed by two separate personalities. When I go back to England, I settle into routine easily, happy that I can buy what I want with ease, I can speak to whoever I like, and make polite conversation with people wherever I like, without having to think too hard. I love where I’m from; I miss Yorkshire and its friendly, open people, heck, I even miss the rain at times. However, when I’m there, I find myself aching to return to Barcelona, as I’ve become so used to my life here. I want to stroll down sunny streets and stand still on an escalator, amble wherever I want, loving the laid back attitude to life people have here. I want to sit with my head down in a verb conjugation book, stand behind a lectern and wave around like a ninny at people who might have no idea what I’m trying to teach them.
I suppose it becomes easier with time; a transition that doesn’t come at once, but comes with patience and gradual realisation that your country isn’t going anywhere, especially with air fare being what it is these days. I never thought I’d be here forever; I always counted on returning home at some point. What if this is going to be the place I call home for the rest of my life? We as people are so capable of change, so adaptable: it can’t be too difficult. At the moment I’m slowly trying to get out of the habit of making comparisons left, right, and centre, trying to remember it’s a whole other country, and we all have differences. I feel like I will always hold England as the example, the way everything should be run; which I know isn’t right to do, but I spent twenty-two years there, and it’s only natural that I should be doing that.
I would urge anyone to live abroad for a period of time in their life; I think it opens your mind, you can learn so much, and potentially another language which should be important to any sort of person. You meet new people, experience another culture, and grow as a person. Perhaps, like me, you will even have the good fortune to make your future the way you want it in your new-found homeland.
I’ve been here for a year and a half, more or less, and I’ve realised I haven’t really advertised a lot of Barcelona’s little hidden greats, or cutesy cafés in pokey streets, sunny squares for ‘taking’ your coffee, and so on. I know when I look to go on holiday, sometimes it’s better to know some lesser-known, off the beaten track areas, so you’re not prey to crowds and tourism.
I live in Gracia, which I fell in love with the moment I strolled through the tiny rows of perfectly square streets and surprisingly placed placas – there seems to be one on every corner, full of hip and happening Catalans sipping beer and smoking, laughing carefree and giving no sign that the country is facing a particularly difficult time at the moment. The streets are lined with orange trees, tiny tiendas and boutiques, and because the buildings aren’t so high here as in the centre, you have the feeling that you’re just visiting a local town. If you have a spare day after visiting all the usual Gaudi and wandering around beautiful Barri Gotico, I’d highly recommend a stroll through my local area. Some of my favourite haunts I’ve stumbled across in my neighbourhood are as follows:
Placa de la Vila de Gracia
This large square houses a beautiful tall tower, striking in the sunlight, and pleasant to look at as you dine or drink in the local bars in the area. There is a particularly good café here called Bo, of which there are two in Gracia, although the dessert prices at five euros a pop leave something to be desired. This said, they have excellent tapas at better prices, and it’s nice to sit in the square, especially when the resident clarinet player is tooting away. After school hours, kids play football in front of the powder-blue town hall building, the square really bustling with life.
In the maze of Gracia, there is a long street called Carrer Verdi, which has oodles of little boutiques and interesting shops placed along it. You can find a few restaurants with cuisine from further afield around this area, which I sometimes find lacking in Barcelona (the idea that Spanish food is the best in the world seems to be upheld by everyone at all costs, as I keep hearing from students in lessons). There are nice little delis which sell yummy olives, jamon, and the typical food from the surrounding areas. Gracia being a little upon the hippy side, there are many organic shops selling carrot croquettes and lentil dishes, a staple part of Catalan cuisine.
Humana doesn’t just exist in Gracia – it’s one of Spain’s only charity shop chains, and sells clothes only. There are several scattered over Barcelona, with an eclectic mix of pattered old shirts and clown-print trousers, with certain diamonds in the rough if you search hard enough. On certain days and weeks it has ‘sales’, in which every article is under 2 or 3 euros, which means the shop is cleaned out, and is packed to the brim with people. Normally, clothes are around the 6-10 euro mark, which is still quite bargainous, and some vintage clobber can be found with ease; whilst we do our good bit for the earth and give some back to those who need more than we do. The shop accepts donations too.
Close to the Mercat de l’Abecería Central, which is also worth a look (there is a little egg shop inside selling ostrich eggs, of all things), there is an organic food shop called Granel, which sells all kinds of things in a serve-yourself manner. Large tubes are suspended from the wall, and you can amuse yourself twisting the knobs to get the paella mix or red lentils packaged away in your little bags. It’s one of the only places I’ve found a large range of spices at good prices, including sweet dried chillies, a rarity here, among other things such as delicious loose leaf tea from a variety of flavours – from oolong to chocolate and orange infused. The prices are good and it’s nice to support the local businesses: important in these times.
What looks like a bog standard restaurant/café (call it a diner, Spanish style), is a delicious surprise on Carrer Escorial. The food is cheap, good, and just like (Catalan) mummy made it. Croquetas, pimientos del padron, and nice home-made pizzas, with a wide range of fish and meat thrown in, washed down with some bravas and beer, make for a good hangover cure, I’ve found. A meal for five can come out at as little as thirty-five euros, which really is nothing to be sneered at. Whilst it’s never going to earn Michelin stars, I’d recommend it for a traditional tapas evening with good service and jolly waiters (depending on the time).
Some other places I like, whilst not in Gracia, are equally worth a visit, especially as they’re more central…
Ranging from crammed to the brim with people clamouring for a good cuppa, to deathly empty and eerie, Caj Chai sells what looks like thousands of different varieties of tea, including inventive mixtures with coffee, steamed milk, and other delights. I’ve been a few times, but I still get lost every time I look for it, as it’s situated in Barri Gotico, where to me most of the streets are similar and rather confusing. It’s worth the search, though, and because of its location, is less likely to be full of map-reading head-scratching lost tourists.
If you’re sick of fried food, as nice as it is, take a jaunt to Juicy Jones, a vegan café just off La Rambla, which also makes reasonably priced fresh juices, either from the menu or to your taste. The menu del día, a snip at 8.50 a pop, offers two courses and a dessert (which to be frank, is always a bit weird as it’s never remotely what you think it’s going to be – I’ve never seen halva that looks like jelly). It does a very nice thali, with good spice levels, and the starters include the biggest bowl of hummus you’ve seen in your life, so value for money is definitely noted, particularly in an area which is the rip-off zone of Barcelona.
Now, the food here is nowt to write home about, but with cheap margaritas and a range of frozen cocktails, I found I enjoyed it more than I expected to (Mexican isn’t as good or popular here). The atmosphere is jovial and relaxed, and occasionally a free frozen shot of strawberry daiquiri may be thrown in if you play your cards right. Sounds of mariachi bands pipe over the sound system, and the lurid tableclothes really give you a feel of Mexico – bright, enjoyable, and a popular spot both for eating and downing a few drinks.
All this is just a taste of some of the great places I’ve discovered during my stay here: come here and find out for yourselves!