I don't know if it's me, or Lori Tharps who's inspiring a nation of young women to come to Spain. Alright. Not exactly a nation, but these days few days go by without an email from another young sister asking me for advice about moving to Spain. So instead of letting these correspondences languish in my inbox, I've decided to resurrect the Mastering Your Expat Life series, partially as a space for answering these queries. First up, Kendall Carter:
I'm a 20 year old black girl from the northwestern part of North America who is planning to attend the University of Barcelona in the fall. I have been doing a lot of research about Spain including crime rates and prices. I came across your blog and knew I had to find you. I'd love any information, hints, tips etc. you have! For example, how bad's the culture shock and how do I learn to fit into their way of life without losing myself? I've never been to Spain before and I don't know any Spanish so I know it's going to be difficult. I'll also be living in an apartment with other students from the program but I'd really appreciate any advice that you'd like to share about settling into BCN as a person who is living there. Thank you! I hope I haven't taken up too much of your time!
Yeah. Never too much. I live for this shit.
First, I want to say congratulations for taking this step! You haven't revealed enough of yourself for me to know why you're studying abroad in Spain or what you expect to gain from this experience. I say this because of course, your expectations can shape your actual experience. All the sweet little things that comprise living in Barcelona could fill a Trick-or-Treat coffer to overflowing. It's like closing your eyes, sticking your hand in, and being ready to savour whatever the hell comes out, be it trick or treat.
I'm gonna bless you with 7 shiny golden nuggets stuffed with starter info. Let's start with one of your first questions: the crime rate.
According to Monocle Barcelona is #17 on a list of the world's 20 best cities to live in. However at press time, crime rates were not available. There's a reason for this: crime rates are probably very high. Don't get alarmed, you'll be safe. Your bag, however, is in mortal danger. The chances that it'll be stolen, emptied of its contents, and die an inglorious little death in a nearby garbage bin, are astronomically high. I don't know any foreigners (and as a black woman, you are obviously a foreigner, thus a target) who haven't been robbed, INCLUDING ME!! TWICE!! Pickpocketing and purse snatching is as much of a Barcelona institution as the Ramblas. There's even a Facebook group to testify to the fact. Check out How Not To Get Robbed in Barcelona on the Matador Network. It's got a pretty comprehensive list of do's and don'ts to avoid becoming a statistic that doesn't exist. But I'll add one more: Walk around with your screw face on (it's been a pretty effective deterrent since) and if you're going out at night, carry a teeny tiny purse with the strap underneath your jacket.
Culture Shock. I didn't really experience much culture shock. Homesickness for sure, but never culture shock. Spain (and especially the 'north' of Spain) is still a Western country. The style of life isn't so radically different. If you approach your time abroad as an emergent experience, you'll be focused on learning, adjusting, soaking everything in, and you'll be too busy experiencing to be shocked.
On [African] American Privilege. As a black person abroad, your American-ness is an asset. It serves you. You need it, and you don't want to lose it. Just being American can net you anything from basic customer service (basic is good for Spain!), to a job (like in my case!). There is a cross section of people who "hate" America in Europe. I put it in quotes, because that rabid anti-Americanism does not actually extend to the fun shit-- films, hip hop, and anything manufactured by Apple. That hate exists in equal balance to privilege. It's not something to feel guilty about, as we are wont to do as black people not accustomed to privilege. Not that you walk around being obnoxious about it, like so many other Americans do, but always keep it in mind.
Ditch your friends. As a student, you'll feel tempted to take refuge in your fellow non-Spanish friends. This is okay to some degree. Even necessary to your sanity. But don't let it keep you from really experiencing Barcelona. Make sure you don't only spend time in places like the Travel Bar, which is in the dead center of the city and full of Anglophones. Because Barcelona has a large, well established expat community (remember most Nordic peoples speak English as well), so it's easy to be living there for years, even, without ever really learning the language. You can live in Barcelona fairly well without speaking any more than the basic "I can order from a menu" Spanish. But you don't want that. You've got to ask yourself, almost daily,
What am I doing here?
Why am I here?
When I go home, what do I want to remember most?
What will I have learned?
And in a perfect world, how will I have changed?
Let the answers to these questions be your anchor.
On Language. It's almost impossible to move your language skills ahead at a faster pace without an intercambio or language exchange. You simply have a conversation that alternates between English and Spanish, with a Spanish-speaking person, in a casual setting. Make sure it's someone you like, but not too much. Why sacrifice the fruit of a great language exchange partnership for forbidden fruit that'll rot, more likely than not? Also, make sure you do it at least once weekly, if you want it to work. You've got to be able to connect a language to your own life, using it to tell your stories, and understand the stories of others. I believe that you don't know a language until you can tell a story in it. An intercambio is a foolproof way of achieving this level of fluency.
NB: I wouldn't worry to much about learning Catalan, especially if you're only going to be in Barcelona for a few months. Everyone speaks both languages.
Street harassment is a national pastime, but normally goes no further than a stage-whispered comment to which you can always reply, Yo no hablo Español. They will call you 'Negra' and 'Morena'. Choose not to be offended. Choose not to let it ruin your day.
Spain is racist. Though people can be a bit more ignorant than in the States, I've never found Spain to be so racist as to keep me from doing my thing. Remember: You don't want adventure if you don't venture out fully prepared to meet ignorant, racist people. Black people, globally, are not at the top of social hierarchy. Understood. Totally sucks. Now let's talk about your life. Whatchu gonna do?
Limón, Costa Rica. 1998. In a small club that looked almost like a treehouse, a man threw his drink on me, snarling 'nigger', because I wouldn't dance with him. My friends closed in, shielding me from his wrath. At that moment I had a decision to make: go home and sulk? Or suck it up and stay? What was I gonna do next? I wiped my dress and stayed. About an hour later I had a dance with a one-armed man that sparked a lifelong love affair with salsa. Two years after that I won a European salsa championship, that allowed me to travel around the continent as a performer and teacher. The point? Racist shit will happen. Or maybe it won't. But just know that if it does, you don't have to let it curb your enthusiasm for travel! You don't have to let the abyss devour your experience. How you handle horrible situations is all on you.
There are all kinds of details, like: Don't spend all your nights out in those clubs by the beach. Stay away from men who like foreigners (a.k.a guiri hunters). You don't have to tip as much as you do in the States. Always make brunch at home. Really, Spain does many things right. Brunch is NOT one of them. The art scene is amazing. If you're there during museum night, don't miss it!! Make sure you see at least one concert at Palau de la Música. It's the most amazing venue....
I could go on, but you'll soon see, taste, hear, smell, and feel all of this for yourself! Except for this one thing: Don't listen to what anyone says. Pim Pam Burger is the best fucking burger in the city of Barcelona. Quote me.