The Spanish language never left me and the Catalan language slowly came back. I danced under the spark-spewing dragons during the festivities of La Mercè and marveled at the human towers, the castellers. The beer was just as cheap as I remember it being, and the coffee was just as strong. I knew the streets and could orient myself with the two rivers, the mountains, and the sea. It wasn’t just a city that I had been a tourist in—I had lived in Barcelona. I had known the honks of hum of the morning commute, the bustle at five when all the prattling children get out of school, and the quiet of Sundays when most shops close.
While my memories of the city had not altered, the city itself had evolved. It came as a shock at first: how dare it change without my permission! I felt a silly hold on the city; if I pressed it close enough to my heart, it would always be the same, right? But there were new shops in my old neighborhood, and major construction works were underway. I had a new neighborhood and a new routine: I went to teach English when it was still dark outside, watching the sun rise as I gathered my first group of students for the day.
I got coffee at a new café and was always surprised to see students outside of school, even if I was just across the street. I walked the streets of Barcelona with new companions, making new memories in old places.But some old haunts were meant to stay in the past. I stopped by the old building of the University of Barcelona in Plaça Universitat to say hello to the staff of my former exchange program and could only venture so far. This part of the university was one of the first buildings constructed after the medieval walls of Barcelona came down in 1854—these classrooms had history. I always had the distinct feeling that someone else was present in the empty seats; the old souls of students past had sat where I sat and got to hold the books that were now locked up in glass cases. This time as I stepped through the giant double doors, I felt that I no longer belonged.
I snuck a peak of the courtyard lined with orange trees. I remember sitting on benches around the koi pond in the middle, snacking on a sandwich and talking with friends before trotting up the wavy and worn marble steps to a class on the second floor. I remember reading in the gardens behind the university while the stray cats meowed for bits of jamón and catching a breeze of fresh air while looking down from the courtyard balcony. I remember huddling in the library, if only for the sake of immersing myself in the smell of old books. But this place was no longer mine: I had joined the old souls of students passed, those who had come and gone, making little mark on the school other than helping the slow erosion of the marble stairs.
But despite its changes, the city still had a hold on me. It was home, or a home-away-from-home, or a home abroad. I gave up on trying to fit in perfectly with the Catalan-Spanish: I would never share all their opinions or wrap my scarves the artful way that they could. Instead, I learned to be myself, a combination of Californian cool with a brazen American smile and an open mind. There were times when I felt distinctly foreign, but other days I seamlessly blended in. I loved game days when I wore my red-and-blue-striped FC Barcelona jersey; strangers in the street would stop me and ask me in Catalan who won and what was the final score.
A return to California, where everything was so comfortable and familiar, created a reverse culture shock: the sprawling cities were overwhelming, the cars were too big, and the coffee was too weak. But I knew where everything was, and the grocery stores had so many options, and the beauty of the beaches and redwood trees made me wonder how I ever could have left. And then I got antsy and began to search for home-away-from-home, and I packed my suitcases again. I took the easy American smile and the Californian sunshine and the craving for good coffee and the wanderlust and the youthful optimism and the lack of direction and the Barça jersey and scarves to attempt to properly wrap like the Spanish do, and I went to the airport with a suitcase, a carry-on, and a backpack and hoped for the best.
You can read more from Courtney on her website The Map of Another Star.