I recently celebrated the 6-month mark of being in Barcelona. In grim pathetic fallacy fashion, it bounced with rain, that day. I ducked out of work and went to buy cakes for everyone in the office to mark the occasion. But they don’t sell cakes here the way they do back home – if you really want to get to Greggs you’ll be walking a bloody long way. I made do with packets of ready-wrapped doughnuts and sent an email round saying ‘cakes in the kitchen to celebrate the rain’.
I’m feeling a bittersweet gratification at reaching this milestone. Loathe as I am to carp about life here, in reality this post has been brewing for some time. The compulsion to write it came to a head last week, on the first morning my Dad and I stepped onto the street during his 3-day visit. At over six feet tall, and broad, my father is a giant among Spaniards. This didn’t stop a well-dressed, middle-aged Catalan gent from ramrodding into him as they passed each other to such an extent that he was sent flying half way across the pavement. The guy didn’t apologise, or even as much as turn his head to acknowledge the incident. Welcome to Barcelona.
If this was an isolated case of rudeness, I wouldn’t even mention it. But I can’t help seeing it as typical of the aggressive tone that much social interaction here tends to take. Not long after I got here, Barcelona was described to me by another foreigner (from a non-English speaking country) as a city on the make. “People here are only out for themselves”, he said.
Walking down the street? Keep your elbows out – you will need them. Travelling on the metro? Don’t stand back to let people leave the train – no-one else does and you will go under in the crush. Buying stuff from the supermarket? Better have your bags packed in record speed or the next person’s groceries will land smack bang on top of your own. Or, worst of all, driving through the city? Be prepared to screech forward at a hundred miles an hour the very millisecond that amber light hints green, or face the horns of the hundreds of other drivers baying for your blood.
As always, I exaggerate. But only slightly.
A rude awakening
Again, ironically, Spanish struggles to render the English word ‘rude’ in any sort of satisfactory way. ‘Badly educated’ is what’s usually volunteered in translation, which somehow fails to capture the base sense of righteous injustice at the heart of the English version. It’s just too mild. “He was so rude!” your friend exclaims, and you empathise straight away, sharing her sense of put-outness over such uncouth and ill-mannered behaviour.
Try to translate my last sentence and its inherent sensibilities into Spanish and you will find you are up against it. Yes, I know British folk have a priggish reputation when it comes to these things. But is it possible to be too polite? And what I’m really curious about…what happens when your adopted culture lacks a decent word to describe the behaviour you find so offensive? If society hasn’t seen fit enough cause to come up with the word, how can the concept exist? And, intriguingly, what do you then do with your own internal sense of aggrievance?
You find ways to express it because the alternative is neither hale nor hearty. Existing in a perpetual state of pissed-offness, waiting for others to see the light and come round to your point of view, is not fun. There are days I wince at my own irony, having spent the last X amount of years on George Street, Edinburgh, complaining to anyone within earshot about the rarefied, cossetted existence that enveloped me.
The crapulous ingenuity of the first few months has been abraded down to a hardened, warily wizened core. Ready? Hmm. Resilient. And some days more than a little weary.