It was a very simple move. A short, 90 minute hop across the length of France, down over the Pyrenees, and into my new home. Into Barcelona.
I had tried to throw almost everything away. I’d spent the week before the big day hauling huge bags of old clothes, books, unused kitchen equipment and anything that could weigh me down out to the recycling centre. I’d narrowed my life down to just two suitcases and the iMac I’d bought in Budapest. That was everything I packed onto that small plane that morning and brought with me into my new life.
There was nobody to greet me as I walked out of arrivals pushing my trolley. A sea of strangers, waiting for friends and relatives. I walked past them, pushing my life on a single trolley, and headed for the taxi rank.
I made my way to the front of the queue and greeted the taxi driver in Spanish.
“Hola, buenas.” I pointed at my bags. “Te pido disculpas, porque llevo toda mi vida aquí, y tendremos que ponerla toda en tu coche. You’ll have to forgive me, because I have my whole life with me here, and we’re going to have to fit all of it in your taxi.”
“Buenas,” he replied. “Eso es toda tu vida? Qué guay. Qué honor. Pues la ponemos por detrás. This is your whole life? Wow. What an honour. Let’s put it all in the boot.”
“What are you going to do here?”
We drove off along the motorway towards the city over the turquoise horizon. The taxi driver was keen to talk. He asked me if I had so many things with me because I was moving to Barcelona. I told him I was. He asked me what I was going to do here. I coughed.
This was the question that I’d spent so long trying to avoid answering. The fact was I didn’t really have a clear idea. I had dreams, I had some plans, I had some projects, and I’d come to Barcelona because I thought this would finally be the place where I could get to work on them.
Because how do you tell somebody that one day you just woke up and knew you had to go? That you went into work and sat down with your manager and gave her your notice? You put your room up for rent, closed your bank accounts, and booked a one way ticket. Then a few weeks later, you just went.
No, you didn’t know what you were going to. But you knew that you’d never felt any urge as strong as this ever before in your life, and so for the very first time you stopped listening to everybody else, and started listening to yourself. And because you’d done that, you knew everything would be alright.
“I’m a journalist,” I told him. “I write feature pieces about languages, cultures and intercultural communication.” That’s what I’d told the BA cabin crew at Heathrow that morning when I was trying to persuade them to let me take my iMac into the cabin with me. It had worked.
The driver wasn’t really interested, because what he really wanted to talk about was chestnuts. Chestnuts, he told me, were an important symbol for life. They reconnected us with nature, with fate, and they brought us luck.
He grew chestnuts, he told me, but not just any chestnuts, lucky chestnuts: castañas de la suerte. He told me that whenever I needed some luck or inspiration, I should just take one of his chestnuts into my hand and squeeze it tight, and that fate would smile upon me.
As he started listing all the Spanish celebrities I’d never heard of who’d been in his taxi and held his chestnuts, I thought that was exactly what I needed at this point in my life: a bit of luck.
I looked at his measly chestnuts in their cheap cardboard boxes. I knew it was a scam, but I decided I was going to buy one anyway.
Soon, the motorway gave way to the elegant, multicoloured avenues of Barcelona. The billboards that had been offering to fly me back to London for €19,99 had turned into wrought iron balconies, draped with Catalan independence flags and yellow ribbons.
“No me muero por ninguna bandera.”
The afternoon sun began to dance through the autumnal leaves of the trees that lined the street. I suddenly realised that the driver had stopped talking about chestnuts.
“I’m very Catalan,” he said. “I love my country, I love my language, and I love my people.” As we drew up to a red light, he turned around to face me. “Pero yo no me muero por ninguna bandera. But I’m not going to die for any flag.” He let that hang for a moment in the air.
The lights turned green and we drove on, past another sea of Catalan flags. Each one seemed bigger, longer, and stripier than the last.
I told him, in Catalan, that I wanted to learn better Catalan. This delighted him, and he immediately stopped speaking Spanish.
“Everyone who lives in Barcelona should learn Catalan”, he told me. “Everyone complains that Catalans are very reclusive and hard to get to know, but how on earth do people coming here expect to integrate if they won’t even learn our language?”
“Lots of foreigners come here to learn Spanish and then complain that everything is written in our language. There are so many big cities in the world that speak Spanish, and just one that speaks Catalan. Why do they come here? If they don’t like it here, why don’t they go to Toledo or Valladolid or somewhere else?”
Because they don’t really come here to learn Spanish or Catalan, I thought. They come here primarily for the beach. There’s no beach in Toledo.
Eventually we arrived. My new front door was a gigantic glass and iron structure that gushed with natural light from the busy street into the ornate entranceway of my building.
I told the driver I wanted to buy a chestnut. His face looked like Catalunya had just been given independence and granted a permanent seat on the UN Security Council all in the same afternoon.
He helped me lift my possessions out onto the street, and plonked my largest suitcase directly into the path of a passing hipster with perfect designer stubble. He stumbled over it. “Welcome, tourist,” he muttered in English.
I started looking for the right doorbell to ring when suddenly the door was opened by a tall, thin guy with curly black hair and an Argentinian accent. I realised this was the person who was in the process of moving out of the room I was moving into. He had some bad news.
“El ascensor no va. Tendrás que subir las escaleras. The lift is out. You’re going to have to take the stairs.”
It was almost a very simple move. But even the slog of lifting 65 kilos worth of possessions up five flights of stairs was made beautiful by the ornate tiles that lined every step of the way.
As I collapsed into the sofa of my new living room and enjoyed the final rays of sunlight of the afternoon streaming through the double balcony doors, I breathed a huge sigh of relief. I had done it. I live in Barcelona now. And I couldn’t be happier.