06 October 2011

Barcelona, Take 2

Ask me what I’ve done in the last month in Barcelona, and I’ll tell you about four things I haven’t. I haven’t gotten a tan, or sunburn for that matter. I haven’t stayed up and out all night. I haven’t been to the main tourist attractions. And I haven’t worn pants or long sleeves.

The last one highlights the fact that it is still hotter than blazes here, and the sun pays no attention to my hankering for colorful fall leaves, aromatic fall soups, and cuddly fall sweaters. No, midday is still tanktop-time here in sunny Spain.

The other comments should relay to you that Barcelona is not just a vacation destination: many people, including foreigners, rise early every morning, commute to work, pause for lunch, finish the day late and save the housework for evenings. I have joined their ranks. For the next three months especially, my posts will be sporadic but entertaining as I relate the ironies of daily life in Busy Barcelona. Let’s start with stories of settling in.


I arrived the 29th of August, on a lovely flight with Scandinavian Airlines that allowed me an 8-hour layover to visit Stockholm before flying on to Barcelona. I stayed with friends and proceeded to exercise all my might to bend fate and the great Spanish bureaucracy to my will. That is, by Day 2 I had my padrón, which registers me at my new address as an official city resident. That involved some pre-game paperwork from my new flatmates, Roger and Elena (and there is another girl, Judith). Foreigners spend a lot of time waiting at government offices, but I think more time and energy are required to assemble this pre-game paperwork.

On Day 3 I moved. I happened to snag a friend of a friend with a car to help me retrieve my belongings from storage in my old apartment and transfer them to my new one. I live in the same neighborhood, just 15 minutes from the old apartment, but this room is bigger, the apartment more spacious and homey, and all of it has beautiful views of the city and the port. I live with some other adults now, instead of students, and so life seems calmer and everyone does their part to take care of our home together. It’s a good place to be and good people to be with. I still visit occasionally with last year’s flatmates; they have often felt like little sisters, and so I check in on them. But when I walk into their creative mess and listen to their growing pains, I can still leave in the end.

The University offices all opened on 1 September, and so on Day 3 (don’t worry, I’ll soon stop counting days) I also waited in line at my Departmental Secretary’s office and then at the Residency Card Renewal office. My residency card (or NIE) was set to expire on the 15th, and so I couldn’t waste any time in filing for a renewal. I naively thought that process would be easier than obtaining the NIE the first time around. Nope! It has already required five office visits. The second meeting only lasted five minutes but required a lot of preparation (and a first meeting), and in the end I was short one official stamp from my Departmental Secretary. (Not my fault.) I took it back to her (third meeting) and asked if she would pretty please stamp, scan and email or mail this paper. She coolly told me it was beyond her capabilities.

You see, paperwork is like a great duel, you versus the bureaucrat. From the first en garde! the bureaucrat will use various ploys to fool you, lull you into submission, and distract you to then turn and touché! belittle you, send you on a wild goose chase, and whisk you away like a bothersome fly. Your task is to befriend her, ease the way for her, affirm her narcissism, and then lie, cheat, and steal necessary papers, stamps, or signatures. Anything to foil a bureaucrat. Anything for God, glory, and a valid residency card!

But victory is slow and arduous. The average this time around has been roughly six hours of waiting for half an hour of meeting time, spread over three offices and a government website I had to keep checking randomly to see if my dossier had been accepted. And now my card is being made using a very meticulous process, and I can go wait to pick it up in about a month. In the meantime, I have to keep explaining to everyone that my NIE “is being processed.”

A brief history of September:

I began work again at the University with one of my professors. Continuing this work while at home in July proved nearly impossible with the beautiful Michigan summer lazing by, and so there is some redeeming value in the Blind Crows’ Nest, as I like to call our top-floor-office-with-no-windows.

I spent one week in the middle of the month at the Barcelona Summer School on Bilingualism and Multilingualism, hosted by one of the newest universities in the city. The attendees were all students and some of us presented our current work on the last day of the conference. This being my first graduate-level conference presentation, to faculty of international renown in linguistics (from New York, Montréal, Belgium and the Basque Country), I was brimming with excitement. This first glimpse into my professional career has me hooked!

At the end of that week I flew to Paris to see Antoine. We spent a day visiting nearby Chartres, a small town famous for its cathedral, built in the thirteenth century and apparently one of the best-preserved. Almost all of the incredible stained glass windows are original, in spite of or thanks to the effort during World War II that led to their complete removal, storage, and replacement after the threat of bombing ended.

Over the weekend I celebrated Antoine’s birthday with his family: I like to consider it part of my diplomatic duty as an American abroad to engage in such festivities and make a good impression, but these have gone overboard and could probably be converted into treasonous spies. They were happy to see me. But they did call me gourmand, which as far as I can tell means something akin to glutinous; maybe I’m taking my American duties a bit too literally.

Am I having two desserts?

This one's for you, Dad.

While I was in Paris, I went for the first time to the Comédie Française, the Paris theater established in 1680 and still performing plays from that century. For example, I went to see L’Avare by Molière, a very classic piece about an old miser. Watching that play, surrounded by red velvet seats and gold accents, using theater binoculars…was the experience of a lifetime.

I returned to Barcelona under the influence of this Parisian glow, and realized I was living in a rather scatter-brained way. So I unpacked the last of my things, got some better sheets and a rug, and started settling in. Now I’m working, studying, writing, cooking, cleaning, planting, Rotaract-ing (you’ll remember that from my scholarship last year), and teaching. Or at least should be teaching.

I did my best to begin my English teaching assistantship this week, but sickness got the best of me. Despite the redness of my smarting eye, on Tuesday I went to La Roca del Vallès, a village about half an hour by train from Barcelona, to the primary school Mogent where I will be teaching this year. After signing a few papers, I was led unsuspectingly into the school gym, where ALL my students greeted me with a big HELLO and WELCOME! Each class presented me with a gift: a poster, a bouquet of hand-made tissue paper flowers, a clay US flag, a short song, and a large Statue of Liberty with—can you believe it—my face on it! I was so grateful but slightly embarrassed, and all the kids thought I was crying because my eye kept watering. I thanked them all personally as they left the gym and went promptly to a pharmacy to get antibiotics for pink eye. Sent home on the first day of school!

And here I sit, my eye already better but still contagious, everyone telling me to rest it but leaving me nothing but computer work, and feelings of regret for failing (already!) my new Lady Liberty image!

I wouldn’t say this month has been smooth sailing, but while the sun has shone fiercely, the breezes have been gentle and constant. Next week I’m sure to pass beyond the horizon.