I have a habit migrating to cities I’ve never heard of (and usually neither has anyone else) on the premise that it will be “authentic”. The idea is romantic: see new sights, breathe in new scents of a much less explored city than those renowned in the western world, immerse yourself in an alien culture and language. In Thailand, I was a bit of a spectacle for locals who called westerners “farang” like a bad case of Tourettes. A few times, I received pictures of myself talking to others in school, cycling my bike around the shanty town – I became more and more aware that I was an alien to the people around me, and to some extent, no matter how much I tried to learn Thai, eat Thai food, wear Thai clothes, observe Thai customs, I always would be an alien. My outlook on the experience I had remains, mostly, positive.
People asked me in Thailand, “why you come Koraat?” and I couldn’t really give them an answer except “I wanted Real Thailand.” I left in search of somewhere closer to home, and spanning from a love for Barcelona, decided that the best way to learn a little bit more about the culture and refrain from inevitably burning myself out both physically and financially would be to find myself a job somewhere close enough to remarry the city when I wanted to, while simultaneously having space to breathe. Cue Vic: a town slap bang in the middle of Catalunya with around 45, 000 inhabitants and the world’s biggest sandpit.
How different could two cities in the province of Catalunya be? The answer is very x1000. Let’s start with the weather. Barcelona is warm all year-round. Vic is not. Barcelona is sunny all year-round. Vic is not – in fact, morning fog starts rolling in from the middle of September. Fog! And forget about the diverse choice of vegan-friendly restaurants most cosmopolitan cities (like Barcelona) have. Vic, it turns out, is the home of the Catalan sausage. Trade night-long drinking sessions standing in bars and meeting a mixture of locals and expats with rigidly set tables at gastronomic pubs and you have the dulling nightlife of Vic. And Catalan, isn’t that a dialect of Spanish and basically the same thing? The short reply is no, it is not. I know and have experienced culture shock from the little-known provinces of Thailand, but this was Culture Shock [revisited, remastered].
The first couple of months I spent in Vic gave me the feeling of getting into a bath when I was a kid. At first, the bath feels scolding and shocks your body and you really don’t know if you like it; you have to wait a while, before easing yourself in a little more gently and slowly. When you immerse yourself, it feels good. You go from jumping out of the bath from the heat to trying to put every part of your body under the water, shaking your hair to sense the water against it. Eventually, the water gets cold, but you stay in it for a while, unsure if it’s better in or out of the water. Moving to a foreign place, any truly foreign place, can be the same.
Two vitally important things happen simultaneously to “settle” into a new culture. The first is immersion. The second is taking the right kind of time for yourself. The immersion has and is still opening my eyes, teaching me new things everyday at a pace you can’t even stop to admire your mind for managing. I began to feel everything and nothing at the same time – enamoured, but exhausted by the consistently different environment. My saving grace became an Austrian, an old banger of a car and weekly excursions outside of Vic; climbing mountains, running through forests, and swimming in the sea. The few precious hours outside of the city, sometimes only lasting one morning before an afternoon at work, with no reminder of anything breathed new life into my perspective of the town I am now living in.
The irony of moving outside of Barcelona to have space to breathe is that it has taken me three months to be able to sit down and write this, and it’s on the floor in the airport waiting for my plane back home. I’ve invested most of my free moments in (attempting to) speak enough Catalan to be understood in the streets, and enough Spanish to be understood by the people I live with. This made me think that if you are naturally restless person, the idea of taking a break is more appealing than really doing it. You are halfway through a task and you are already thinking, “What’s next?”
The lesson to be learnt: Persevere, if tiredness squeezes around your mind and threatens to make it ache, sleep and come back to it, or have a cup of tea and come back to it, but always, always come back to it. Practise, and show you are trying – the slightly cold expressions of those around me can sometimes melt when they see me stuttering to ordering a café amb llet (perhaps my own personal development can only be physically seen in the fact I like coffee now. Does that make me an adult?) And of course, be patient with yourself. Take the time to treat yourself well and turn off your mind now and then, however that may be for you. Everything that’s worth doing takes time.