Before relocating to a new city, sometimes we let our imaginations get the best of us. But you can reel in those dramatic misconceptions and rest assured that moving to Barcelona does not mean you’ll get pickpocketed the moment you step onto the street, nor that you’ll be bombarded by ardent Catalans spouting on and on about independence. On the other hand, don’t confuse Barcelona with paradise. It’s a misconception that upon moving here, you’ll while away the time on a sun-soaked terrace, with a caña and heaping plate of paella, day in and day out. Despite the agreeable weather and inviting cultural activities, Barcelona residents work hard, and unfortunately, it’s still possible to get stressed in your quest to live the Mediterranean lifestyle.
We spoke to 7 expat parents around the city to see what they wish they’d known before moving to Barcelona.
#1 Ho Ho Hold on…Christmas is way different here
Dara Luskin, bassist in Los Stompers, from Ireland, moved to Barcelona in 1994
I came here at the age of 25, with no idea what to expect from Barcelona. Obviously, the city was very different back then, but some things remain the same.
I had to get used to the food—it took me some time, but now I eat shellfish AND gazpacho!—and how no one thinks to go out for a pint on cold nights. I also had to adapt to local holiday traditions. How Catalans celebrate Christmas, with their personalised and carefully assembled Pessebre nativity scenes, featuring the Caganer (a figurine curiously depicted in the act of defecation); New Year’s Eve, by eating 12 grapes at midnight; and Three Kings’ Day, when children receive the ‘good’ presents (aka toys and games), was completely foreign to me.
I moved here pre-internet, so everything down to doing the shopping was an adventure. Now we can research new places in-depth without ever getting out of bed and plan out a move down to a T. This way may be less daunting, but I’m not sure where the adventure is in that.
#2 A family affair
Jessica, journalist, from Boston, moved to Barcelona in 2011
Coming from the United States where a majority of families only get together for major holidays or really special occasions, I was pleasantly surprised by how family-oriented the culture is here. My Catalan husband isn’t that close to his family, and yet he doesn’t think twice about going to his parents’ for a three-hour lunch every Sunday. That’s just what people do. I think the fact that most businesses—stores, supermarkets and some restaurants—are closed on Sundays encourages this tradition.
We also have friends in their late 20s and 30s who happily go out with their siblings on weekends, and even travel with them. I personally can’t imagine ever taking a trip alone with one of my brothers, but maybe that’s just me.
#3 The one-year hiatus that turned into a lifetime abroad
Julie Stephenson, co-founder of Esperança, from the UK, moved to Barcelona in 2001
I moved to Barcelona with my then three-year-old. I had previously visited the city (but only for a day), so I can’t pretend like I knew exactly what to expect. I didn’t speak any Spanish or Catalan, and although I signed up for in-country language classes, I quickly discovered that learning a new language at 36/37 years old was going to be a real challenge. My daughter, Ella, didn’t struggle at all, however, and she quickly pulled way ahead of me.
I did very little research on the education system—I wasn’t even aware that classes are taught in Catalan—as I planned to stay here for no more than a year. I had also decided that Ella and I would take the year off together and didn’t sign her up at a nursery school. I wasn’t aware that children start school so young in Spain. The first months after our move, it was tough to find playmates for her during the day. We eventually joined a mother and toddler group, where we met people who are still some of our closest friends today. It has been lovely to watch our children grow up together. I hadn’t realised just how important our ‘Barcelona family’ would become.
By the end of that first year, I had fallen totally in love with Barcelona, and we settled in for the long haul. Ella started at a trilingual school, which I chose because I still thought we would return to the UK in the future and felt she needed to maintain a high level of English. Had I known we would still be here 15 years later (that she would be attending university here!), I may have done things differently. We made more great friends from her school, which, for me, was a big surprise. Barcelona’s international community tends to be very transient, and I never expected to make lifelong friendships back then that we can still count on now. As a single parent, that support has meant the world to me.
I have run several businesses in Barcelona. A nanny agency, a fish and chips shop, plus a few others. It was a steep learning curve—negotiating the intricacies of opening and growing a small business in a foreign country when my command of the language was still pretty basic. I also found it frustrating how slowly things move here. I was used to the rapid-fire business world of the UK, and I put forth a great deal of effort to be more patient. With determination, you get there in the end!
#4 Give peas a chance
Mike, software professional, from California, moved to Barcelona in 2012
When I visited Barcelona 10 years ago, dining out meant eating traditional Catalan food cooked with tons of oil. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good spread of tapas, and it doesn’t bother me if my dorada (a fish you’ll find on many menus) comes with scales and eyes, but coming from California, I felt the city’s gastronomy was lacking in other cuisines.
The scene is totally different today. There is a ton of food diversity now. People appreciate fresh ingredients more and vegetarian and vegan restaurants are thriving.
#5 Stepping outside your comfort zone
Aisling Quigley, art director at Barcelona Metropolitan, from Ireland, moved to Barcelona in 2006
When my husband and I moved to Barcelona, we had a two-year-old boy, Joey. We didn’t know that kids start school at age three here, which is great for working parents, but I made the mistake of spending the first year going to international playgroups and mixing with the expat community alone. This was of course great socially, but mixing with Spanish/Catalan families, at least part-time, would have acclimatised my son to his new surroundings more quickly and better prepared him for the shock of starting school in a foreign language.
I also should have done a Spanish intensive course from the beginning. As I did private classes sporadically, my Spanish suffered. I’m now back studying Spanish and trying to correct all the bad habits I regularly make.
Another surprise was how family friendly the city is. Right after we relocated, I spent a lot of time at home thinking I couldn’t go for dinner or a drink with my son after a certain time—as is the case in Ireland. However, there are so many lovely plazas and restaurants here, where they welcome families. So no matter your age, mother tongue or number of children, I suggest you immerse yourself in the local culture and enjoy life in this beautiful place!
#6 Take a deep breath and count to 10
Onke Truijen, painter, from the Netherlands, moved to Barcelona in 2013
I had to get used to the general inefficiency in Barcelona. It takes three tries to accomplish anything, so keep that in mind and don’t stress out. It’s certainly not one of the things I love about living here, but it has improved my patience. Plus, after yet another day of failing to officially check anything off of your to-do list, you can treat yourself to a glass of wine and a tapa on your favourite neighbourhood terrace. And if you can’t laugh at the chaotic Spanish systems, nor do you find a particular pleasure in solving the intricacies of paperwork, do hire a good gestor.
#7 Exceeds expectations
Joey Cleary, photographer, from Ireland, moved to Barcelona in 2004
I wish I’d known how much fun my family and I were going to have living in Barcelona. We would have moved here five, even ten years earlier!
It would have also been helpful to know about the Escuela Oficial de Idiomas (EOI) and their excellent, affordable language courses ahead of time. I tried to learn some Spanish before I came, but the learning experience was so much better once I was established here. It is well worth investing time and energy when you first arrive to master Spanish and/or Catalan, as you will find it opens many doors that would otherwise remain closed to you.
Hopefully hearing from these individuals will quell your imagination and give you a better sense of what to really expect as you settle into your new life in Barcelona.