Does living abroad give you a split personality?

A few months back, as I was cursing the detritus of a burst teabag in my morning cup of Earl Grey (in shall-we-say somewhat brisk Glaswegian), a Spanish colleague piped up from across the desk with an unexpected appeal.

“Julie, por favor, habla en español.” Looking a bit sheepish, his tone verged on imploring.

Now, this particular colleague speaks excellent English. The request was not prompted by frustration at not understanding.

“Ooh, yes”, every other colleague suddenly tipped in their tuppence, “you sound much nicer in Spanish”.

Guardedly spooning out the teabag gloop, I probed for further details.

Earl Grey by Anaulin

It seems that when I speak in my native English – on the phone, to one of the few fellow Brits in the office – I sound “harsh, hard-nosed, intimidating”. My colleagues didn’t quite go this far, which was considerate of them, but the message was clear – I assume a different personality depending on whether English or Spanish is coming out of my mouth.

Couple this experience with my last trip home to Scotland at Christmas, where even in mundane social interactions I was stunned at my alterity, and I’m really starting to wonder.

Does living abroad end up giving you a split personality?

Identity crisis

Let’s be honest, those of us who have upped sticks and fled our native shores. An appealing perk of relocating abroad is the opportunity it affords you to slough off an old self and reinvent yourself into a shiny new one.

Oh the untrammelled ontological possibilities that await. You can be anything!

Sort of.

Trouble is, before you can don the garb of a brand new foreign self, at least in any way convincingly, you have to shed a lifetime’s worth of cultural tenets and assumptions.

Precisely what you as an individual have to give up, of course, depends on the country you’ve come from and the one you’re trying to settle in. But I think it’s fair to say that whatever your particular set of circumstances, there’s likely to be some common ground in this psychological no-man’s land.

  • Mostly you feel like a pair of scissors. Each blade is a separate self, and on the rare day that the two come together, you could actually kiss strangers in sheer joy.
  • Mostly you feel like a fake. Coping with your new culture’s demands while trying to stay true to your home culture’s values inevitably means you always feel like you’re letting one of them down.
  • You’re perpetually mentally knackered. The daily abrading of two different cultures produces a constant, low-level anxiety, on top of the big things in life that everyone else has to worry about. As Petya Kirilova-Grady puts it so succinctly on her blog: “I feel that as expats/immigrants, etc., we often get pulled in multiple directions, which tends to keep us busy at best, anxious at worst.”
  • You’re constantly sidestepping the somatic tripwire. Sniffles that would have been trifles back home suddenly have the power to land you in bed for days.
  • At work, you’re now a nobody. Your professional identity has been defenestrated. Unless your employer in your native country has posted you abroad, you’re starting from scratch – in a foreign language, in a foreign country – and having to accept that no-one has a clue how good you really are. Your degrees and professional qualifications? They don’t mean a thing.
  • Your social status got chucked out behind it. The way you’ve always traditionally defined yourself (relationships with family, friends, community) is history.
  • You will be labelled in a way no-one has prepared you for. In your home country, you were simply ‘yourself’, and never really gave it much thought. In your adopted country, you may be, variously, a foreigner, an expat, an immigrant, a Scot/Brit/American/whatever, and if you’re in Barcelona, pejoratively, a guiri.
  • Some traits will never transpose. The sooner you accept that if you greet people with just a handshake in Spain they’ll think you’re socially frigid, and, conversely, greeting your elderly neighbours in Scotland with a bear hug and a huge smile frankly distresses them, the better. 
  • You don’t even recognise yourself when you do go ‘home’. Even there, you’re now an outsider looking in, questioning quirks and idiosyncrasies, wondering why your country people have no equivalent of ‘buen provecho’ before tucking in to even the most insignificant snack.

Give us this day our daily dialectic

Even after almost three years in Barcelona, there are days here I feel I’m operating under a mere veneer of authenticity.

Of course, part of the reason I moved abroad in the first place was to gain exposure to people with a whole other mindset, in an attempt to grow as a rounded human being. But being surrounded by folk who are constantly challenging your accepted view of the world can be wearying and unsettling.

Last year, for example, when my Cocker Spaniel was reaching puberty, and every male dog in the neighbourhood was hassling the hell out of her, I took her to be spayed at my trusted local vet’s.

“If you only knew”, he sighed, “how hard it is to convince Spanish people to get their dogs neutered. You’re saving her from countless cancers, unwanted puppies and a lifetime’s grief from other dogs, but try telling locals that.”

Cocker Spaniel relaxing

One hassle-free hound.

This was brought home to me repeatedly throughout the day. As I fretted, imagining her on the operating table, anguishing over whether she’d come round from the anaesthetic, my Spanish, Italian and Portuguese male colleagues didn’t hold back. “You’re evil for doing this”, one said. Another, slathering slabs of ham over his bocadillo, stated point-blank in all seriousness that he would never speak to me again.

“It’s even worse when it’s a male dog”, the vet told me later that evening as I collected my cone-clad Cocker. “Don’t even get me started.”

Even basic daily assumptions don’t go undisputed.

For example, when the pedestrian crossing light changes to green, you put one foot in front of the other in the full belief that the driver will honour your recognised right not to be mown down. But in reality, this is far from a given in Barcelona.

This constant challenging and up-ending of ingrained cultural assumptions gets downright tedious, and on days when linguistic issues come to the fore, it can quickly become overwhelming. To speak another language successfully, it’s not simply a case of conjugating the imperfect subjunctive at the opportune moment. You actually have to adopt a different personality – and way of thinking – for it to come across convincingly.

As a Scot living in Barcelona, it gets even more complicated. Apart from the problem of whether to sign off with an adiós or an adéu, there are macrocosmic cultural questions at work. Spain is a country with a serious split personality of its own, while Scotland currently finds itself in the approach to a historic referendum on independence from the United Kingdom.

With both of my wider environments embroiled in identity crises of their own, is it any wonder I’m confused?

Inscribing identities

So with your identity in freefall on foreign soil, how do you recognise your ‘real’ self?

The deep-rooted cultural values and beliefs that make you you are the bedrock of your identity, and you will fight to retain them at all costs. Look out for the ones you let go, though…who knows – in the long run, maybe those are the parts of your personality you’re better off without.


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Get the best out of Barcelona – new article in the Sunday Times

New blog post coming soon, but in the meantime, I wanted to share with you a brand-new article I was invited to collaborate on with Chris Haslam of The Sunday Times.

It’s fresh out today, online and in glossy hard copy, so if you’re in the UK, head to your local newsagent!

Cheers,

Julie

Barcelona skyride by Julie Sheridan

The dizzy heights of Barcelona


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A new view of Barcelona – from the Fabra Observatory

Mount Tibidabo is fast becoming my favourite place in Barcelona.

It’s a slow burner, granted. I’d lived here two full years before ever setting foot on a single funicular to ferry me up to its pine-clad slopes, up, up and away from the anything-but-bucolic Barcelona below.

And once you peak, chances are your head is turned by the exigencies of expiation. The screams from the funfair’s roller coaster (they must be atoning for something), or the beguilingly beautiful lanterns of the summit-smug Sagrat Cor church.

Sagrat Cor by Julie Sheridan

Admit it, you’re beguiled.

But all the while, right under your nose – and indeed, in most postcards of Tibidabo – is a century-old site that most Barcelonans themselves have never discovered.

The fabulous Fabra Observatory.

fabra observatory by scalleja

Perched among pine trees at over 400 metres above sea level, the Observatory was originally conceived of as a site devoted not just to the study of astronomy, but of meteorology and seismology.

In fact, dating from 1904, it’s one of the most ancient bases of astronomical, meteorological and seismological study in the world.

The first team of staff took up their posts in April 1906 (it had taken two years to recruit them – bear in mind, the guide points out, there was no InfoJobs back then). And they didn’t mess about. A good 29 years before the Richter Scale was even introduced, the Barcelona team’s instruments predicted major seismic activity on the other side of the world.

Sure enough, on 18 April 1906, the devastation of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake was unleashed.

Fabra Observatory Museum by Julie Sheridan

“The universe knew we were coming.”

The ascent

The universe might have known we were coming, but I’m betting it hadn’t bargained on us coming by public transport.

The Observatory’s website helpfully counsels “we recommend you come by car”. Sadly lacking in the car department, I somewhat trepidatiously eyed up the public transport options. This involved a metro ride from Tarragona to Plaça Catalunya (20 minutes), then a connecting train from Plaça Catalunya to Peu de Funicular (15 minutes – make sure you sit in a middle carriage or you’ll alight straight onto a brick wall), then the funicular train from Peu de Funicular right up to Vallvidrera Superior.

Exiting the station, in the middle of nowhere up a mountain, I consulted the bus timetable from Vallvidrera, only to find out I had a good 25-minute wait in store. In what was probably not the wisest decision of my life (iPhone in handbag), I decided sod it, what’s a dark mountain top between friends on a Saturday night, and hiked it up the hill on foot till I reached the Observatory, pausing now and again to gasp in awe at the Sagrat Cor church lit up, up close. (The church is honestly spectacular, and well worth the trip.)

Suddenly I see

Reaching the Observatory, at last, it turned out I was 45 minutes early. Ushering me through the gates, the guide was magnanimous in the face of my quaintly British tendencies.

“Why don’t you wait at the look-out point?”, he suggested, as I nodded and obligingly circumnavigated the building in the dark.

Alone, early, feeling irksomely non-Spanish, I found myself stumbling towards a long bench of decking, flanked by trees, and then gasping at the sudden view of the whole Barcelona conurbation corruscating at my feet.

Barcelona view by mazlov
The photos, of course, don’t do it justice.

To the left stood the Torre Agbar, in all its contentious conflagrations. In the middle the W Hotel, punctuating the horizon, definitively marking the end of the beach. A little inland, the reasurringly blue rays beamed over MNAC, the Magic Fountain dancing and prancing in symmetrical synchronicity, commanding attention, the prettiest belle of the ville.

I thought of James Joyce and his epiphanies.

Welcome to our World

Half an hour later, I found myself, not for the first time in the last two and a half years, the only non-Catalan-speaking person in the room. The guide seemed a kind, friendly little man, who clearly knew his stuff. He quickly clocked the look of dismay/incomprehension/boredom on my face as he launched into his welcome speech to the audience, which I was surprised to see on a Saturday night were mostly made up of parents and young kids.

“I’m just going to switch into Spanish”, he smiled at everyone, much to my gratitude.

lecture at Fabra Observatory by Julie Sheridan

Owned by the Royal Academy of Sciences and Arts of Barcelona, the southward-facing Observatory has an illustrious history. It’s the fourth-oldest observatory in the world that’s still going strong, and the building itself is the brainchild of reluctantly Modernista architect Josep Domenech i Estapà (the same designer behind the likes of CosmoCaixa and the city’s Law Courts).

The Observatory’s scientists began keeping records in 1914, and our guide takes pains to point out that not one day of data over the last 99 years – on the local weather, regional seismic activity and celestial shenanigans – has gone unrecorded. (He also mentions that this October has been the warmest since records began, confirming my deeply-held Scottish suspicions.)

Poignantly, this uninterrupted track record comes despite the devastation of the city during the Spanish Civil War. The Observatory then became a makeshift refugee camp for some members of the Royal Academy of Sciences and Arts, and the systematic bombing of Barcelona from its viewing deck must have been a terrible sight to behold.

The dame in the dome – the Fabra Telescope

Holding court in the Observatory’s cupula, the telescope itself is a grand old dame. One of the largest and oldest telescopes in Europe, it loomed large in front of us as we climbed the narrow access ladder, momentarily silencing the overweening Spanish children.

Each person got to take their turn, for about 20 seconds, to eye up the in-focus planets. On clear nights, our guide explains, they zoom in on the moon, but on overcast evenings the planets provide a more satisfying voyeuristic experience.

telescope Fabra Observatory by Julie Sheridan

Did the earth move for you?

I have to admit, what I saw through the lens wasn’t earth-shattering.

It could best be described as a nebulous white blob.

Later on, the young Spanish mother who I’d met in the museum and who had very kindly offered me a lift back down the mountain confessed to a similar sense of bemusement.

“What did you see?” she quizzed me as her husband took the Tibidabo bends expertly. “A white blob?” I ventured, and the three of us laughed in relief.

telescope Fabra Observatory by Julie Sheridan

Similarly starstruck?

The Observatory is open to the public on Sundays from 11am to 12.30pm, and you’re fine to just show up without booking ahead (note that it’s closed all throughout August, though).

For night-time visits (and let’s face it, that’s what it comes into its own), you’ll pay a bargain 10€ entry fee for a welcome speech (in Spanish), followed by on-eyeball planet action through the telescope, and a stroll around the panoramic outdoor walkway.

Feel Museum at Observatorio Fabra by Julie Sheridanlike splashing out? Or just hungry? From June till September each year the Observatory offers ‘Sopars amb estrelles’ (‘dinner under the stars’), where you get to dine in what must be one of the most privileged places in Barcelona. It’s not cheap (and I can’t vouch for the food), but having seen the look-out point/terrace where the supper takes place, I bet you’re in for a treat. Book ahead.

Whenever you go, bear in mind that Tibidabo tends to get a little on the frigid side (relatively speaking – I’m from Glasgow), and you’d be as well to bring a cardigan or light jacket for when that wind really starts to nip.


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The magical La Mercè – best bits 2013

Of all Barcelona’s traditional myriad excuses for a knees-up (or ankles-up, in the case of the sedate little steps of the Catalan sardana), late September’s La Mercè festival is somewhat of a legend in these parts.

Sundry fabulous beasts of yore – giants, dwarfs, fire-breathing dragons – prance and parade in their finery, not to mention castles of quivering human loins and foes of fire and water reaching operatic heights in an awe-inspiring final farewell to summer.

The 4-day event is a compelling cacophony of Catalan culture, and, amazingly given the continuing Crisis, it’s completely free.

castellers by Julie Sheridan

Castles in the air – saluting the town hall

La lovely lady herself

The festival is named in honour of Barcelona’s co-patron saint, the Virgin of La Mercè, who’s said to have intervened in a particularly pesky plague of locusts in the 17th century, thus bagging the ‘patron saint’ accolade. She shares the podium with Saint Eulàlia, who, peeved at having to share the limelight, is credited with tears of rage when it inevitably rains on La Mercè’s parade every year without fail.

Except this year, when the sun shone blithely throughout, making the spectacle on the streets all the more scintillating.

sardanes by julie sheridan

The circle dance of La Sardana – that’s what it’s all about!

Having somehow managed to be out of the city for most of it last year (following a baptism of fire in year one), this time round I wasn’t going to miss the chance to honour my closet pyro. With two somewhat wary Scottish relatives in tow, we donned our best fire-protective clothing, threw our handbags in the ring, and prepared to kick up our heels.

drums-la-merce by julie sheridan

The ‘bastoners’ belt out the beat of Barcelona

The city is the stage when it comes to La Mercè – to enjoy the festival’s best moments, you need to be out on the streets. The festival even has its own soundtrack, in the form of 50-odd open-air concerts from both local talent and established international performers.

gegants-by-PhotographYeah!

Anyone know the collective noun for giants?!

If you’re somewhere in the centre of town, you won’t need to wait too long for a passing procession of friendly giants, while circus acts and street performers do what they do best, enthralling kids up at Montjuïc Castle and thronging the main city park, Ciutadella.

Catalan conflagrations

The ‘correfoc‘, or firerun, takes place on the Sunday night, and is perhaps the most hotly anticipated event of the whole festival.

Forget running with the bulls – if you come to Barcelona for La Mercè, you better be ready to sprint with Satan himself. Plus his entourage of minor demons and aforementioned mythical beasts.

firerun by vosh

Throw caution to the wind in the non-BSI regulated correfoc

I’m no La Mercè virgin, but even I underestimated the strength of the tridents’ sparks. I emerged apparently unsinged from dancing with the devils under the umbrella of embers, but on the metro ride home, relative number 2 revealed she’d been burned right through three layers of clothing – as well as branded on her forearm.

dragon by julie sheridan

Nessie gets really mad


The ‘Pyromusical’

With full potential to be cringingly kitsch, but in actual fact touchingly impressive, Tuesday evening’s ‘Pyromusical’ saw the grounds surrounding the Magic Fountain packed to the gunnels.

The crowd of thousands in front of Montjuïc was remarkably well behaved as they craned their necks to catch sight of the first flare to light up the Barcelona night sky. The spectacle that followed was worth the wait – fireworks and fountain jets synching and sinking in time to the music, in a sublimely choreographed and jaw-dropping display.

All in all, a festival to take your breath away. See you there next year?

pyromusical by Julie Sheridan

 

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