Disembarking the plane in Barcelona, my heart was beating erratically and disjointedly. To be quite honest, I thought that the organ was going to burst out of my chest. I was so excited, enthralled, nervous, shaky, queasy…hence the exceedingly fast heartbeat. I wondered if everyone else could sense how everything in my life was shifting, if they knew that the course of my life was taking an entirely new direction. Walking into the airport, I gazed at the most mundane objects in awe. Surely, the windows in Barcelona were prettier than those of any other airport windows in the world. Their floors? Works of art. Couldn’t be topped. I managed to get through security, proudly flashing my three-month Spanish visa like I had won the Nobel Prize. The bored security official briefly glanced at it, gave me a perfunctory look, and ushered me along. I wondered if HE knew what an incredible moment this was for me, entering his city that was beloved by so many. I frantically connected to the WiFi, so as to communicate with the friend that was picking me up from the airport. My program had picked up the rest of the students earlier, but the connecting flight I had originally booked had been cancelled, forcing me to re-book a flight that would arrive at a later time than the program had set to pick up its students from the airport. The first hiccup in my adventure abroad, but not to worry, I had a friend from high school who had been living in Barcelona since we graduated. We walked outside the airport and I breathed in the air that I would be inhaling for the next 4 months. The smells were different, the people foreign. There were palm trees gently swaying in the wind. It was perfect.
I can remember the exact moment when my breath was taken away by Barcelona. I had just landed, fresh off the runway, and was grabbing a quick bite with my friend who lived in Barcelona before I attended my program’s orientation. I got off the metro, two heavy bags and one backpack in tow, flustered and disoriented from all the information my friend was relaying to me about Barcelona’s metro system. I looked up, and observed the immaculate plaza (Plaza Catalunya, the center of the city) in awe. The buildings were not imposing skyscrapers, but intricately designed low-rise structures. I was immediately struck by the cleanliness; everything was pristine as though the buildings had just come out of the shower. There was an old-time feel to the buildings, a feature that I particularly appreciate about cities considering I come from Beirut, a city that boasts quite a lot of older architecture. I had to stop for a second, put my bags down, just to contain my shock. I get to live HERE, for 4 MONTHS, I thought to myself. My friend glanced at me, with a knowing look in his eyes, and said, “It’s amazing, right?”
Nothing can prepare you for the love you will develop for the city you study in while abroad. It inevitably becomes a part of you and makes it that much harder for you to return to your normal life once you have left. After a while, the routine that formed felt older than a few months. I had grown accustomed to going grocery shopping after class and bringing a re-usable shopping bag because supermarkets in Barcelona make it so you have to pay to use plastic bags, in an effort to be more environmentally friendly and lower their usage of plastic. I was practically best friends with the baristas at the Starbucks near my school as I was known as the girl who always had a strange order (iced coffee is not common in Spanish culture). I had favorite brunch places, thrift shops, and bars that I enjoyed frequenting for the cheap drinks (3 euro mojitos! A godsend for a student studying abroad). On quiet afternoons, I would aimlessly walk up and down Passeig de Gracia, a famed shopping street in Barcelona near the center, and realized that I didn’t even need to think about where I was walking anymore my feet had become so familiar with the paved streets. If New York is the city that never sleeps, and Beirut is the city of chaos, Barcelona is the city of vibration—there is always a steady hum of life wherever you go.
Studying abroad is all about achieving a good balance. While people will joke with you that it is really “drinking abroad”, you will still have classes to attend and homework assignments to complete, contrary to popular belief. The key is to figure out how to enjoy the city you live in, travel to other cities, attend to your classwork, and yes, party. While it is true that you will probably only study abroad once, you don’t want to head back to your school with failing grades and no credits to show for the experience. So, maybe, don’t book your flight to Amsterdam on a Wednesday because all your friends are doing that when you know you have a mandatory class that day—just go to class. Pick your battles.
Barcelona is an extremely accommodating city—almost everyone knows some English and will be helpful if you need assistance. I was surprised when waiters immediately could tell I didn’t speak English and would hand me a menu in English and take my order speaking flawless English. It brought me to shame that they had trained themselves to speak our language while we barely spoke a lick of Spanish (Catalan in Barcelona’s case—more on that later) or made any effort to speak it. My advice to you is—try to absorb as much of the culture wherever you go. Speak their language, even if it is embarrassingly broken and you sound like a hapless tourist. They will appreciate it, and you will have left armed with knowledge you didn’t know before. Become a citizen of the world.