Last spring a handful of families made the decision to move from the northwest to Barcelona. I wrote this up for them back then. I'm thinking the tips are everlasting and with our one year anniversary in a few days, it reminded me to republish it.
In a few days it will mark six months since we arrived in Barcelona. As I was thinking about this milestone and both how difficult and how fun it has been settling in here, I came across this blurb in a newsletter..."Job Offer – Relocation professional. Leading global mobility services company is looking for a relocation counselor (Barcelona Office). Requirements are: Minimum 2 years of residency in Barcelona. Strong interpersonal and problem solving skills. Fluent in English + Spanish (French or German would be a plus). Driving license (+ car).
Well, I pretty much fail all those criteria except the part about interpersonal and problem solving skills (which you will need a lot of!). I have six months residency, fluent in English, reached advanced beginner in Spanish, half-way to a driver's license and own a grocery stroller instead of a car! So, I am still pretty much just like you. So, from one new transplant to another here are a few tips from my time here so far, incorporating the wisdom of friends who lent me theirs before I came here.
BEFORE YOU LEAVE
Before you leave, as soon as possible, start your spanish lessons. Make sure you know your numbers into the thousands, you will need this for everything! Learn essential prepositions. You can act out or point at objects, but things like in front of, behind, next to, up, down are hard to mime. Make sure you get Spanish from Spain and not Spanish from Latin America materials, there are word and pronunciation differences too, but the main difference is that the Spanish here is three times faster. Most spanish books and tapes are aimed at tourists, so supplement that with learning everyday living things, especially the words and verbs for things that you are going to need to buy in the first few weeks you are here. Using a translation app is a nice aid, but too slow to really help in a live situation when there are 10 people standing in line behind you for their turn. If your Spanish is not good enough to be recognized as Spanish you may find that you don't understand anything people say back to you because they will automatically speak to you in Catalan. Catalan is not a dialect of Spanish, it is a completely different language. When you first get here, you will be reduced to baby talk and feel totally stupid, and get into some frustrating situations, but keep at it, it comes along slowly and people appreciate that you are trying. And it can lead to some proud moments. You can get away with buying everything at IKEA, large supermarkets and superstores where you don't have to talk to anyone, but you will miss out on part of what is so lovely about living in a European city!
The US postal service will forward your first class mail for six months to your Barcelona address for no extra charge. (no magazines or junk mail) We will get a small mailbox from the Postal Annex in Portland when our six months expires so that we can continue to maintain a US address (they have a forwarding service).
The last two weeks before you leave will be hell. Do not plan your going away parties for your last days, you will not want to go, you will not be able to go. All of this is especially true if you are renting your house or apartment out while you are in Spain. It takes an extraordinary amount of time to pack up your home and to sell anything you are not taking with you. You have way more stuff than you have any idea that you have!
Don't put everything in storage. It is good for you and especially for your kids to bring some things from home to make your new place more welcoming. Ask your kids to help choose a few pieces of artwork or photos or knick-knacks that you have up in your house now, and bring them with you. Pack familiar things that will help continue family traditions, especially things that you might use for important holidays. Favorite books, those kinds of things.
Everything is expensive here. And some things are just hard to find. We brought cameras, computers, recipe books, high end cooking pans and hand tools, bicycles, a king size bed and linens and were glad. I wish I had brought more travel books as it is hard to find good ones in English here. There is a small food store, the Deli Shop, in the shopping mall called L'Illa that stocks American essentials like brownie and cake mix, brown sugar, maple syrup, pancake mix, some cereals, peanut butter (for a hefty premium). Baking soda, Sally solved, it's at the pharmacy. No Q-tips-brand here so far.
Get your pets to the vet to be ready for the move. The Spanish Embassy in WDC has a website with very explicit directions on how to import your pet. (If you have cats, I have a detailed summary of that process I can send you).
Make sure your banks know that you are moving overseas for a while and if possible bond with someone you can call for help personally. If you plan to keep at least one US credit card (a good idea, both for internet purchases in the US and to maintain credit in the US) be sure to explain to the fraud department that you are going to be overseas for a while and charging both in Europe and the US at the same time, otherwise they will shut down your card. In addition, when you make your address change, they will shut down your cards and passwords, so don't do that right before you need to use it. It takes a long time to establish credit in Spain and where you had a larger limit in the US, your Spanish credit card limit will be much below that.
There are lots of very good private schools in Barcelona. My daughter is in 6th grade and 12 years old. In Portland, she had a very untraditional education, attending a Montessori school in an urban setting, in a cool warehouse type building with very little emphasis on sports. She wasn't looking forward to leaving Portland so we wanted her to have a say in where she went to school. Her criteria included 1) no uniforms and 2) classroom instruction in English. This very quickly narrowed the field to the American School Barcelona and Benjamin Franklin International School. These are both very good schools, and very different. Most Americans usually end up choosing Benjamin Franklin. It has a higher percentage of American students and is located closer to the neighborhoods of Pedralbes, Sarria, San Gervais, Tres Torres and Turo Park (all in the north), places where Americans tend to choose to live. It is located in a converted mansion with beautiful architectural details, but small hallways and rooms, and hardly any outside space. The American School Barcelona is located just outside Barcelona in San Just/Esplugues. This area has easy access to the city by bus or tram. It is a traditional format school with a large building and outdoor areas including a sports field. American School Barcelona has more experience than BFIS with the IB program, incorporating it unofficially in middle school and officially in high school. You should visit and apply to both schools, as sometimes it comes down to where there are openings.
The main warning I was given about ASB is that your child who is fluent in English will be in classes with people who are not. This would be like a fluent Spanish child entering a US spanish-immersion program designed for learning Spanish. The upside is that your child gets a truly international experience, most of my daughter's friends are Spanish and she is the only American in her class. She had a lot of big transitions, from elementary to middle school, from untraditional to classic education, and from one country to another. I can 100% say that the kids and staff at ASB have made Olivia feel welcome and comfortable from day one and she loves her school. She was the fastest one to find her feet here and now she is worried about the day she has to go home.
ASB just installed a beautiful sports field and is in the process of a multi-year plan to upgrade the facilities, build an even bigger library and cafeteria and redesign the entrance. Right now as another HP family observed, "it looks like a bit like a prison."
You do not need to live near the school, as both schools have excellent private bus transportation options. However, we did not want Olivia to be on the bus for more than 15-20 minutes and factored that into our leaning toward the north part of Barcelona and not the historic centers (Eixample), beach (Sitges, Gava, etc), or Sant Cugat. And most families do live near their school. It is easier to attend school dances, after school sports, and make it to parent events, especially if you have more than one child and are juggling their schedules. Olivia does after-school sports at ASB, but non of her friends live close enough to us for after-school get togethers. The school bus service at ASB does not support after-school activities, so I go to ASB by tram + 10-15 minute walk and pick her up twice a week. One of my friends had her kids use public transportation at ages 10 and 12 to get to and from BFIS to the heart of downtown. That plus a scooter.
You'll need photos, school records and vaccination records to apply to the schools.
We gave Olivia a few days to recover from jetlag and then put her right into school. This helped a lot with her transition, she had no time to be lonely or miss her friends before she had a crowd of new ones.
A CAR, TWO CARS OR NOT?
It is good to have at least one car. Barcelona is surrounded by wonderful weekend destinations. Sometimes you just need to schlep lots of stuff. And it gives you more flexibility for getting to work or to off hours school meetings. The public transportation system offers great coverage, and is efficient and reasonable. Driving and parking inside the city requires nerves of steel, quick reflexes, no hesitation, and a bit of luck. We scraped up our car in the parking lot of our apartment building the first day we got it, and have been in two fender benders during commuter hours. A smaller car helps. For Americans, getting a Spanish drivers license, which you need after six months, is a complete nightmare, especially if you are working full time. So far, I have only completed the first two-thirds of the testing...medical/reflexes test (in Spanish) and the written test (in "English"), which requires hours and hours of studying and learning not only European driving rules, but also learning what all the bad spanish to english translations are supposed to mean.
WHERE TO LIVE AND WHAT IN
In terms of where to live. If you live south of the Diagonal you will add 10-15 minutes to your commute to HP off the bat. More in weeks leading up to the winter break. The hill above the Ronda Del Alt on top of Pedralbes, Sarria is the most expensive and exclusive with multi-million dollar homes, and very few duplexes and apartments. Here it is the most quiet, and you can walk to the trails in the hills for bike riding. Pedrables below the monestary is quiet with more trees than the rest of Barcelona, but mostly large blocks of apartments with no character and no stores. Here and in Sarria the morning and afternoon traffic is congested by the huge number of private schools. Sarria is similar to Pedralbes, but has an old center that oozes charm, along the Calle Mayor. In addition, Sarria has supermarkets and small specialty stores for food, clothing, electronics that make it seem more like a village. The relocation people will tell you that you need a car if you choose Pedralbes, this is not true because Sarria is in walking distance. Turo Park, especially around the park, is surrounded by designer brand stores and has a more elegant, urban feel than Sarria and Pedralbes. Same for Sant Gervais. Tres Torres has quieter streets and lovely architecture where the tower houses are. All three of these neighborhoods are very livable with both small shops and supermarkets. In general, Barcelona is not very green. Parks on your map are not necessarily parks, sometimes all cement. Some parks that look beautiful from a distance, can be less quaint up close (witness the dog torn area in Turo Park). No matter what, before you commit to a property spend some time in the neighborhood at different parts of the day, and on work days during commute time (8:30-9:30).
Ideally, if you will be in temporary housing at the start, find something in the neighborhood you most favor. We rented from Aspasios, they have tasteful inventory in all parts of the city and were very easy to work with, everyone spoke english.
You'll get less for your money than what you have in the US, especially if you live in the city. Places are small and so it is good if you come with less extra furniture and clothes (you can wear the same thing more than once a week here!). If you live in a large house with a big yard now, you'll probably need to get used to some sort of communal living, with shared walls and smaller outdoor space. We came in November and the inventory was already picked over by people that came in the summer, but most of the apartments that we saw had kitchens in pretty bad shape. We ended up with a furnished duplex in excellent condition with a small yard and a tiny pool, but we had to go south of the Diagonal to find it.
There are options for both furnished and unfurnished housing. Of course, if you are picky about what you want in your furnished place, it will be harder to find someone with the same taste. Keep in mind that most people renting a furnished place are using the rental to store their crap. If you don't like the art work, a certain piece of furniture, their curtains or their dishware, make it a condition of the rental that they remove it before you move in. There is usually very little storage space, so don't waste it storing things you wish the owner had not left behind.
No pets allowed. Most places are advertised as no pets allowed. This is negotiable. Basically the owner wants the ability to approve your pet and to enforce a larger deposit. Be sure your relocation specialist knows about your pet so that they can manage the situation.
Olivia had braces for almost a year when we left Portland. Our orthodontist had a directory of other orthodontists all over the world that use the same physical system and gave me a list of 12 or so orthodontists in Barcelona. I wrote to all of them looking for someone who spoke english and found Dr. Carriere who I like in Bonanova, north of the San Gervais area. He and his father run the practice together and both speak english, the staff very little. Our international insurance through HP does not cover orthodontic work, but you should check with the specific insurance you will have. Ideally you would start and finish with the same person. Olivia was a little freaked out by the change in personalities. The office in Portland was run like a kid fair, everything to a fun theme, prizes, super friendly staff. Here it is run like a serious clinic and not so fun.
I joined the Barcelona Women's Network at the suggestion of a friend and am really glad I did. They organize cultural outings, walks, and lots of networking events. Most of the business professionals there are operating one-woman enterprises. The group is made up of women of all ages and nationalities, but all of them speak english and many have lived in Barcelona for years and years and can offer all kinds of advice for almost any situation where you need help.
I have a blog about Barcelona that I started when we moved here. It doesn't have a lot of details, but will give you a feel for what it is like to live here. It is mostly a celebration of Barcelona. That is because bottom line we love it here! I have moved to Germany, to Italy and now to Spain and it is never easy. But the truth is, it is always an adventure and it is always rewarding. And Barcelona is an especially great place, with nice people, fabulous architecture, and lots of sunny skies.
my blog is www.bebarcelona.es
So, even though my high school gpa was ruined by my grades in language, I really thought that I would be fluent in six months. So not true. I've tried self-paced online tutorials, 80 hours of private lessons, group lessons 4 hours a day and now group lessons 1.5 hours a week. Eleven months later, I am so frustrated by this!
Anna summed it up when she said it was really about motivation. To learn spanish you must memorize a ton of stuff. Boring! I find boring stuff is better in small doses, so my new method is a fun group class once a week and monotonous irregular verbs and thousands of verb tenses every day for one hour. If you are great at languages, I envy you.
I still really want to make it to being an intermediate speaker...which is officially defined as a person who "can interact with a degree of fluency and spontaneity that makes regular interaction with native speakers quite possible w/o strain for either party." Strain. That's so exactly it!
Telemarketer: Hello, would you be interested in participating in our survey?
Me: (pause, composing carefully...) I'm sorry, I am not interesting.
Friend: The party will be great, are you coming too?
Me: Yes, I am so exciting!
After six months, I understand Spanish pretty well, and for speaking, stumble all the time, lots of hand signals, continue to rely on mime and use a lot of remote synonyms. It’s taken 80 hours of tutoring and oodles of homework to get here. I returned Rosetta Stone long ago.
My bicycle card did not show up in the mail as it should have a couple weeks ago, so I sent a simple complaint in the best Spanish I could grab. Then, of course, I got an overly complicated response:
“En relación a su consulta respecto a su alta, queremos indicarle que ha sucedido una incidencia en el registro y no nos consta en nuestra base de datos. Comprobaremos si el abono de la subscripción se ha realizado correctamente y una vez hecho procederemos a restablecer el registro y al envío de la tarjeta de abono del Bicing. En caso de no haberse producido el abono se lo comunicaremos a fin que pueda repetir el alta. Lamentamos las molestias que este hecho le haya podido ocasionar, quedando a su disposición.”
So I copied and pasted the whole thing into Google Translate and this is what came out...
“Regarding your question about your discharge, we tell you it happened a bearing on the record and we recorded in our database. Check if the payment of the subscription was successful and once done proceed to restore the registry and send the card for payment of Bicing. In case of absence of the fertilizer will tell you can repeat to discharge. We regret any inconvenience that this may have caused you, being available.”
Hmmm, pretty sure I didn’t write in about a medical condition or a problem with my garden, so with my ugly, but most excellent dictionarywww.wordreference.com/es/translation.asp, slowly learned that this is what the letter had actually said...
“Regarding your question about membership, we would like to tell you that there has been some problem in the registration and you are not recorded in our database. We will check if the payment has been correctly posted and then we will try again to get you your Bicing card. In case we cannot find the payment, we will let you know, and then, if you wish, you can repeat the registration process. We regret any bother this may have caused you and remain at your disposal.”
I am proud to say, I got my bicycle card in the mail today. And I’ll just keep at those Spanish lessions!
Today I took and passed my written exam for a Spanish driver’s license! On my first attempt. This is a minor miracle in that I picked up my books two weeks ago, skipped the 16 hour training course and basically memorized 158 pages of 9 point typed information. On this test you not only answer questions about driving a car, but about driving a motorcycle, riding a bike, driving a tractor, detailed first aid, automobile maintenance, pollution, every side effect of every drug recreational or otherwise and all kinds of other gobble-di-gook. On top of that, when taking the test in English you must also learn the Spanish driving authority’s bad translations so that you have a chance to understand what they are asking you about. I’m guessing that the only reason I passed this test is that I got into a big fat fight (in Spanish...you know I don’t speak Spanish yet, right?) with the two exam supervisors about a question on my test that had absolutely no correct answers. After 10 minutes of discussion during a 30 minute test, they cross-checked the Spanish version of the question, then disappeared into the back room. Reappearing to say, you are correct, please choose this wrong answer on your test so that you get it marked right. Since I did not know the answers to five other questions, and you are only allowed to miss three, it seems like I passed to prevent any further trouble from the American lady.
We’ve been here almost three months and though it has been on the table, I have never really seriously considered getting a car. I walk, bus, tram and metro everywhere I need to go. However, without a car, you still need wheels, 'cause there is so much stuff to carry -- so here is my “GO” cart. Basically it’s your car trunk on wheels, feels the road like a pram, and folds up to fit anywhere. Vrooooom!
Moving day. Again. And again. Almost two months to the day our sea shipment arrived from home. Most impressive...movers magic...they got our garden furniture onto a rooftop terrace! From the inside you can only get to the top by a nautical spiral staircase. Have no fear, send anything and put it anywhere!
By Maia Pay Ozguc
What it's like to live Barcelona. Impressions. Be curious. Be Barcelona!