Category Archives: Culture

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.


Filed under Culture, Society

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!



Barcelona skyride by Julie Sheridan

The dizzy heights of Barcelona

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Filed under Culture

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.


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



Filed under Culture, History

5 best Barcelona apps

The much-vaunted Mobile World Congress rolled into Barcelona a few months back. All across the self-proclaimed smart city, posters hung from lamp-posts (even the Gaudí-designed ones), radio adverts talked it up and, most annoyingly, taxis which normally battle it out for business (seriously, I saw the drivers almost come to blows on more than one occasion) were suddenly packed with passengers.

As the 80,000-strong tribe of suited and booted delegates debated the future of mobile technology – in, of all places, Hospitalet – it occurred to me that now might be a good time to mention the apps I find most useful, living in Barcelona.

(Then I promptly got mugged, and it was adiós smart phone, apps and article.)

So here we have attempt number two. I sincerely hope I’m not tempting fate.

In such a switched-on city, you would think it would be hard to pick only five apps. It wasn’t. There is a plethora of dross out there. Battling through the banal and bloody-difficult-to-use, here are the five best Barcelona apps I actually make use of on a regular basis.

1.     Transport – myTaxi

One of my biggest bugbears about living in Barcelona is the “no of course you can’t pay by credit card, stupid young wench” mentality, which seems to abound anywhere and everywhere across the city. I’m not exactly a fan of stoating about laden with cash, given Barcelona’s rep as carterista central (not to mention the fact I’ve been pickpocketed and mugged twice) so anywhere offering the ability to pay by credit card has my vote.

Enter myTaxi. Just plug in your destination and desired method of payment (cash, card or even pay over your mobile), the app does its thing and a couple of seconds later you’re greeted with “we’ve found you a driver!” Lo and behold, his (or her) mug shot pops up and you can see who’s on their way to get you.

MyTaxi Barcelona

The first time I used myTaxi, I was slightly sceptical. The Mobile World Congress or other massive trade fair aside, cabs across the city are generally ten-a-penny, and I imagined the app would be yet another short-lived denizen of my dashboard.

However, a middle-aged gent rolled up at my doorway, and positively beamed enthusiasm and courtesy throughout the whole journey. Dropping me, my wayward Spaniel puppy and her massive metal crate off in a decidedly dodgy part of the Raval, he waited outside, unprompted, after I’d left the cab, and even rushed back to help me when he saw me struggling to get inside the building. I was impressed.

Passengers are encouraged to rate their driver after each journey, and you can store your ‘favourites’ for future trips. Needless to say, the monopolistic taxi companies of Barcelona, like those of the other European cities where myTaxi has launched, haven’t taken too kindly to the new pretender on the block. Until they get their act together and move into the 21st century, I’m sticking with the app.

Best bit: being able to pay by credit/debit card/through the app itself.

Cost of app: free.

Platforms: available on both iOS and Android.

2.     Exploring the city conventionally – TimeOut Barcelona

Interior of the Sagrada Familia“The app savvy travellers have been waiting for”. This is how TimeOut markets its series of city-licking apps. Pushing the ‘local’ aspect (“expert local knowledge in your pocket”), TimeOut points out that its content is put together by on-the-ground experts, which can never be bad.

This is a fairly full and fancy overview of what’s going on across the city. The ‘what’s nearby’ section lets you home in on stuff a stone’s throw away, while the ‘top 10’ and ‘editor’s picks’ within each category mean you can quickly compile your Barcelona bucket list.

Although I’ve seen most of Barcelona’s sights and attractions after two years of living in the city, I do find myself going back to this app pretty regularly. Its comprehensive coverage is especially handy for discovering different districts, especially if you’re at a loose end and need some inspiration.

Best bit: “inspire me”. Plus it’s really easy to navigate.

Cost of app: free.

Platforms: iOS only.

3. Exploring the city unconventionally – BCN Paisatge

This one’s a real favourite of mine. Much less mainstream than the info you’ll find in TimeOut, for example, this one serves up the city’s secrets, letting you really get under its skin.

Sant Feli Neri square

Hit ‘landscapes’ and you’re confronted with a list of unique urban features, such as the shrapnel marks pitting the walls in the plaza of Sant Felip Neri, or, even more eerily, the hole in the wall where destitute parents passed their babies through to the orphanage on the other side (Carrer de les Ramalleres).

The ‘shops’ section name drops the weird and wonderful of Barcelona’s businesses, from where to go for authentic artesan bread to your options for Modernista pharmacies.

Best bit: the ‘near me’ section. Great if you’re bored and want to see something quirky that, given this is Barcelona, is likely just around the corner.

Cost of app: free.

Platforms: iOS only.

4. Shopping – decompring

With my Luddite-like tendencies, it took me a while to get my head around this one, but I’m now a firm fan.

Basically,picture of decompring app the app gives you rewards for shopping. Not a bad concept.

These rewards come in the form of ‘compris’, virtual money, which you build up as you look at the offers available from the listed shops or actually go to the shops to scan the barcodes of the products on offer.

There’s quite a range of shops that take part in decompring, such as supermarket chains like Condis, shoe shops like Zapaterías Tino González or bookstores like the mighty La Casa del Llibre. (You can use the filter to find the specific type of product you’re interested in – food, sports, petrol, clothes, etc.)

Once you’ve built up your ‘compris’ you redeem the virtual money for gift vouchers or for actual cash, which will eventually make its way to your bank account.

Best bit: you can do the honourable thing and donate the money to an NGO instead of cashing it in (although sadly, for the moment the list of charities is somewhat limited.)

Cost of app: free.

Platforms: both iOS and Android.

5. Running – Barcelona Corre

Developed by the ajuntament, Barcelona’s city council, this is a nifty wee app that only appeared a couple of months back. My early experiences attempting to go out for a run in Barcelona were less than successful (accompanied by constant catcalls and smutty gestures from the local males), but recently I’ve been adopting a ‘sod the lot of them’ mentality. Frankly, if I paid attention to the moronic male population here I would never leave the house.

Barcelona women's 10K runThe first screen you see is slightly intimidating, featuring a fit chick sprinting along Barcelona’s promenade, while the app immediately cuts to the chase (sorry) and demands your age, weight and height before we proceed. (It’s even more intimidating when it’s asking for the info in the metric form. No frigging idea.)

That hurdle over, you’re presented with 23 possible running routes grouped into three sections – different city districts, arranged thematically (parks and gardens, chilly days) and more challenging runs. There’s also a section dedicated to the most popular races that take place frequently across the city.

As an incentive, complete one of the 23 routes and you’re awarded a virtual medal stored in the app. Ideal for acquisitive souls.

Best bit: despite being developed by Barcelona’s Catalan-speaking city council, the app does offer the option of changing the text into either Spanish or English. (This isn’t as self-evident as it sounds, believe me.)

Cost of app: free.

Platforms: both iOS and Android.

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Filed under Culture