After waking up naturally at the I-don’t-even-know-what-time-is-anymore hour of 6:45am CET the first morning that I had to contend with jet lag, I was surprised to find that my hearing-impaired alarm clock, which I need to circumvent my deep sleeping ability and which I had plugged in with a voltage converter when I went to bed, was about an hour behind. Within a few seconds, it hit me like a brick: 50 hertz electricity. We have 60 Hz in America, and the makers of this cheapo clock hadn’t made it electronic, so it would lose 2 minutes for every 10 that passed by. We will see how many days I get to class on time with just my cell phone alarm.
No matter though, I was up now, and there were showers to take, Spanish “Frosties” to eat (still complete with Tony the Tiger on the front of the box), and subways to catch. I left the flat with Alberto at 8 (who was nice enough to lead me along on this first day), and we walked down to the Maria Cristina stop on the Avenida Diagonal. At 8:10 in the morning, the train was – relative to other urban subway systems I’ve used – rather deserted. But after we took the 10 or so stops to Passeig de Gracia, the yellow line we transferred to was standing – nigh, pushing – room only.
And then I discovered: I may be in a foreign land, but God only ever created one species of college student. The second the doors opened at the Cituadella I Villa Olimpica stop, a flood of red Universitat Pompeu Fabra bright-red folders, iPods, outfits ranging from “posh” to “american” to “european hipster,” backpacks, and conversation in just about every language I could think of poured off the train and onto the escalators. I’m sorry Haverford College Study Abroad office, but you’d do well to stop telling people they don’t know what t-shirts, iPods, backpacks, and sneakers are in foreign countries. Those items are cross-cultural. Gotta love globalization.
Anyway, I walk the final block and make it to the Ciutadella campus of the Universitat Pompeu Fabra. Alberto and I take a circuitous route to find classroom 101 for my “City and Urban World” class, but eventually do, and he turns to go back home as I walk in scarcely 2 minutes late. Just like Haverford, there’s about 40 students in the room (okay bigger than HC) chatting, checking their phones, passing around iPods, whipping out notepads, and the like for a few minutes. Then the professor comes in and announces his presence.
“I’m sorry, but if you saw the syllabus, the class is in English. You can answer questions in Catalan or Castillian or whatever language if you’re not yet comfortable with that and I’ll do my best to respond or translate, but the next sentence is the only one I will say in Spanish.” El profe tells us, then follows through and does his announcement in Spanish, he cracks a few jokes, explains the syllabus, and we’re off to the lecture. In the beginning I was acutely aware of how uncomfortable I was being in a new building, with people I didn’t know sitting next to, behind, and in front of me, but in 10 minutes that all subsided. Thanks to el profe’s easily-understood accent, I forgot about Spain and for the next hour it was like I was back in the United States taking a class at Haverford again. Everything was normal.
Then, halfway through, a coffee break came. Unsure of what to do, I stood up with unease and lightly paced out into the hallway as I saw some other students did for a few minutes. Bored of the lack of activity there, I went back in the classroom and sat back down. My ears were thankful to find heavily-accented British English, but English nonetheless, being spoken in the row of seats behind me. There I introduced myself to two Erasmus exchange students from King’s College London, Sarah and Steven. I talked to them a bit about Erasmus, and how I had gotten there through IES and flew in only yesterday. I also introduced myself to the person sitting next to me, a Catalan student from Barcelona herself, named Maika. She asked me why I had decided to come to Barcelona, so I explained I wanted to learn and improve my Spanish. “But we speak Catalan here, its so much better!” she balked. She then explained to me that Catalan was more closely related to French and even Italian than it was Spanish. A lightbulb went off in my head: the pronunciation of all the signs I had been seeing, with odd spellings, cedillas, d’apostrophes, it all made so much more sense now.
But before I knew it break was over. At least I’ve made conversation with some students, I thought to myself. The last 24 hours had given me a feeling of isolation, along with the disorientation. Like a placebo drug to my Liberal-Artisan mind though, the second hour of lecture brought back the same relaxing “normal Americanness” feeling. The professor later showed some slides of Las Vegas and some random Stepford-wives-like Florida suburb, and me being the resident American in the nearest 3 rows and possibly the entire room, had to respond to jokes about our country’s poor urban decisions to a roomful of European cityfanatics. “But my family only visited Las Vegas once, and it was to see the Grand Canyon!” I defended.
Then we were dismissed. I only had a notebook and pen, so I packed up quickly. I didn’t have anyone to wait for and wasn’t feeling terribly outgoing yet even though I had made attempts in the break, so I decided to set out immediately and explore the UPF campus.
“Le Pompeu,” (pronounced pom-PAY-ewe), as I found out over the next few days what local students call it, is more of an urban university than I’ve come to expect in the States. As a subterranean exposition hallway in the Library told me (in Catalan, Spanish, French, and English), there are three campuses: mine, the Ciutadella, the Communications Campus in the newly-gentrifying post-industrial neighborhood of Poblenou, a few scattered buildings in Ciutat Vella (the old Roman quarter where all the tourists are), and a biomedical Campus del Mar overlooking the beach between Barceloneta and Port Olimpic. I assume there are dormitories, but they’re not very close, likely privately run separate from the UPF, and most students have apartments or commute from home anyway. Certainly takes away from the “residential” atmosphere and associated club and school spirit activity that US colleges have.
Though I have yet to visit the others (As a cities major, I do want to spend some time in Poblenou), the Ciutadella campus is compact, but it still has a bit of a campus feel. To the west is the Parc de la Ciutadella, Barcelona’s main central park that was converted from the land where the old imperial city fortress stood. So even though there’s no greenery actually on the UPF campus, every time you go outside and look left, you can see a few trees and appreciate their calming effect. The campus itself is made of only about 4 buildings from what I could see. Two of these are the main, large, square-with-the-corners-lobbed off (look up the octagonal shape of the blocks in Barcelona’s l’Eixample neighborhood and you’ll get it) classroom buildings – Roger Lluria and Jaume I. Both are painted an appealing yet unusual darkish carnation pink, and both have humongous courtyards in the center; Roger’s enclosed and made of brick all around, and Jaume’s open-air but with concrete floors. As I would find out later, they are historically renovated ex-military barracks – presumably the courtyards were designed for battalion marches or some such function. As a Quaker and urban enthusiast, I can’t possibly think of a better use for a former military facility than a university, and to keep the historic buildings intact, to boot! There’s also the Economics grad school building, a new looking glass structure in the back of Jaume I, and then the (excuse my Catalan) “Disposit de les Aigues.” The medieval brick “water castle” [its not really a tower] has been reconverted into a section of the library. Such high ceilings are a problem when you’re walking around exploring, because your footsteps echo and you cringe as you see all the trying-to-study eyes of students on you. The main entrance to the library, and loud, active lobby with computer stations, tables, and students collaborating, is actually in the basement between the Roger and Jaume buildings. You can follow as many corridors and book stacks as could fit in your average subway station between the two main classroom “barracks” and the water depository. I already was very glad I decided to register in one of the foreign universities, because I don’t care whatever resources and facilities the IES center had, there’s no way it could match this library or this campus. I couldn’t wait to get my UPF International Student ID card.
After exploring, though, I was starving. I found a combination cafeteria/bar in the Roger Lluria courtyard, but the menu was in Catalan and I wasn’t quite sure how the ordering system worked, so I passed. Thinking, like any college neighborhood in the States, the next few blocks would yield many a cheap local grub joint (or even pubs here in Europe!), I ventured off campus.
Not so. After passing many cafes with menus that were too expensive, and several that appeared closed, I finally found one that I might be able to deal with (free WiFi zone sticker in the window and “hamburgesas” on the menu). I walked inside, only to have the bartender tell me that the cook wasn’t yet in (it was 12:40pm) and he didn’t know how to make lunches. Strike the first inconvenience with the later, elongated Spanish daily schedule for me. Disappointed, I decided to go to the most touristy of all places: Plaza Catalunya. Surely something would be open there. Along the way, I bought myself some Spanish Head and Shoulders shampoo at the nearest Capralbo supermarket (gotta love those big multinationals, thanks Procter and Gamble!) and found the Red line Metro stop. Results of Plaza Catalunya: A #3 Whopper-type deal on the Burger King menu for 7 Euros. If it’s any consolation, I felt really, really, really terrible about resorting to that even before my first 24 hours were up, but I just wanted cheap food that I knew what was, especially at that point in the afternoon when I hadn’t eaten in 7 hours.
Without much else to do that first day, I went to the subterranean regional rail station beneath Plaza Catalunya to head home and take a siesta, have dinner, and call the day quits. One of the transit companies in Barcelona, the Ferrocarrilles de la Generalitat de Catalunya, the one I take most often because it’s closest to home, shares an acronym, FGC, with a famous Quaker organization. It gets me every time when I walk into a metro station with those three bolded letters FGC. Imagine trying to hold silent worship in a subway station. I bet it might actually be kinda cool.
I “alighted” the train at the Sarria stop, and now walked through the “downtown” of our community for the first time in the superior afternoon sunlight. Alberto had taken us around on a tour the first night, and we had taken the metro down this morning earlier than the sun cared to wake up fully, so this was the first time I could see everything as it was meant to be. Last night on the tour, he showed us the town church that was built in 987, and explained that Sarria had its roots as a country estate village, where all the rich people a century ago went to spend their summer weekends, away from the crowds of Barcelona. Now, it’s been absorbed into the city and has a more diverse population, but is still a bit like a village. I really like our neighborhood of Sarria. It’s a good place to come home to each day, and there’s a lot American towns could learn from.
First of all, the 6 minute walk to the FGC station is so, so exquisitely pedestrian friendly. Narrow cobblestone streets the whole way, making it a aesthetically pleasing walk as well. You do encounter vehicular traffic, particularly motocicletas, but the streets are narrow enough that they go slow, the rumbling stones announce their presence, and there’s rarely more than one or two every 3 minutes. Along main street, we have linen and household shops, fruterias, bank branches, a mobile phone store, bars, computer stores, periodical stands, restaurants, markets – the works. Even if you’re not looking to buy anything, window shopping along the way to the station can be a lot of fun, just to see what’s on offer. And boy, is it convenient, particularly the Barclay’s branch, which theoretically has a no-fee relationship with Bank of America.
When you get closer to our humble homestay, you run into Plaza Artos. As far as European plazas go, this one’s quite modest and quite small, shaped like a triangle sandwiched between two intersections and paved in gray stone. There’s the Doctor Coffee shop at the back end, which does a roaring trade no matter what the hour of the day. There’s a playground in the center, and the #66 bus stop off to one side.
Sarria is compact, and it has a calm but sure sense of neighborhood identity that makes you feel safe. It looks nice to walk through, and it’s not that busy or crowded. But perhaps most importantly: it’s active. Whether it’s the outdoor tables of Doctor Coffee full with rapidly gossiping “futbol moms” waiting for the nearby Catholic school to get out in the afternoon, the kids on the playground, the few (but present) motocicletas buzzing around, or all the strolling window shoppers and proprietors at every inch of street-level access, there’s always other people and sounds about and nothing feels empty. To accomplish this sense of activity and closeness (which is what makes people feel safe and at home) while at the same time not having the mountains of bustling crowds like on Las Ramblas (which is still safer-feeling than a completely quiet and desolate dark alley, but only just) is truly an accomplishment. Adding to this communal feel is the first building that you see when you exit the ferrocarriles station: Casa Orlandai, one of two “Centre Civics” in Sarria, a community center that every neighborhood in Barcelona has, with a cafe, workshops, artistic and other events, and municipal WiFi internet with free access – a “digital divide” busting tool that we need more of in the United States. There are always folks at the Centre Civic, just like Doctor Coffee, which means la gente de Sarria actually interact with each other, with their neighbors on a regular basis. Interaction and familiarity are important means by which society conquers political division and social diversity, and back in America our populace has and/or takes too few opportunities to engage in either.
The closest I could compare Sarria to in the States is somewhere like Hopedale or Milford, Massachusetts, or an urban center like Beacon Hill or Brooklyn – but they all fall woefully short. Hopedale and Milford are still too much like suburbia – too many double-yellow lined roads, too many cars, not enough shops and plazas, not compact enough, not good enough sidewalks. Beacon Hill and Brooklyn do better in these respects, but again, the car rules the streetlife, and there’s still not a feeling of cozy, welcoming public space. If there’s one thing Barcelona gets, it’s how to do public space. It needs to be active, a bit cluttered, and compact to be welcoming, and you need to have enough little “spits” of it in enough places that every community has their own to enjoy. Central Park is nice, but wouldn’t it be great if it was half it’s size, and you had that many extra acres of small local plazas and yards like Plaza Artos to sprinkle throughout New York? And don’t give skyscraper developers permission to build higher if they turn some of their land into a huge, empty, concrete “sidewalk” and let them call it “public space.” Put a fountain in, some benches, tables, trees – make it cluttered, alive, busy. If you build it, people will use it.