January marks thirty years ago that I lived and studied in Barcelona. I lived in the Sagrada Familia neighborhood (but never entered the cathedral), went to classes at the University of Barcelona, visited friends at their flat in the Raval, escaped to Sitges each Tuesday during the bus strike, and ate falafel in the Plaça de Catalunya every weekend in the early hours of the morning before going to bed.
Jordi Pujol was the president of the Generalitat de Catalunya (and later I named a cat after this leader who served from 1980 to 2003, Jordi) and catalans had been free of Franco’s regime for a decade. Everywhere “catalán” was heard, spoken and seen. The separatists had already formed but I observed that the assertion of independence was mostly expressed linguistically and culturally. At the University, for example, the professor of the art history course I was taking chose to teach it in Catalonian. This classroom experience, and the friends I made who spoke to me in Catalonian, is how I learned to understand the language. But I used Castillian to reply or write course work.
I have not returned to Barcelona since my study abroad semester there because I never felt at home. The homestay from hell was a trial to be sure but the city itself felt unwelcoming to me. The double language conversations in all places, including my homestay, were engaging but ultimately exhausting, I think, as I reflect back today. Even my first hour in Barcelona was stressful – a taxi driver at the airport who pretended to not know the address I gave him in Bona Nova and who drove circles around town to increase his fare.
My college adviser had strenuously warned me that Barcelona was not the place to learn Castillian but I overruled him, withdrew from school, and attended the program through another university. The academics were life-changing but the city was overwhelming. To be fair, I had never lived in a city that large and the culture shock literally choked me on the smoggy streets during my daily walk to class. Anti-American demonstrations were more common than separatist rallies. I spent one 24-hour period in my homestay apartment out of fear. Crowds protested (rightfully so) the U.S. bombing of Libya and it felt scary to be an American in that metropolis.
Still, the Catalonian language grabbed me and did not let me go. I considered Catalonian Studies for my Ph.D. The independence movement that has taken hold in Catalonia fascinates me, but strictly as a scholar. Today I identify myself with Castille and Madrid, a city I would be willing to make my second home.