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Journal: I Remember My First Day in Barcelona

I found some old photos the other day. They were the photos I took on my very first day in Barcelona. They’re not the best shots, but they transported me back in time to a different state of mind, to a different version of myself.

Travel writer Ben Holbrook's first day in Barcelona at Casa Batllo, Barcelona
Antoni Gaudi’s Casa Batlló. No idea who I asked to take the photograph.

It was August, 2009 and I was 25 years old.

I had no idea what I was doing with my life, but I’d taken a leap of faith with my move to Barcelona and was hoping the universe would conspire to help me make sense of it all.

The sun hovered directly above me, following me as if mocking my attempts to evade it.

The heat was visible. It sizzled off the strange buildings and baked the pavement so that it felt sticky under my feet.

I wandered aimlessly down streets like Carrer d’Astúries and Carrer de Verdi, trying to pronounce these strange new words under my breath as I walked.

I couldn’t say them properly, I just couldn’t make the right sounds with my mouth. I still can’t, if I’m honest.

Locals sauntered from shop to shop and bar to bar with skinny sticks of bread wedged under their arms. They’d take pit-stops to sip cañas (little glasses of beer) at neon-lit dive bars, which they’d fill with thick plumes of silvery smoke and exchange a few words with the barmen.

In the street, I studied the locals’ economy of movement, all too aware that I was a sticky, cranberry-hued mess while they remained dry and composed.

I loitered on benches in Plaça del Sol, drank street beers in Plaça de la Vila de Gràcia and stuck my head under the water fountain in Plaça de la Virreina to cool off.

It all seemed so old fashioned, like being in a rural village. Kids ran wild with footballs and hoola-hoops, their parents and grandparents spectating from cafe terraces, chain-smoking, boozing and gesturing wildly with their hands as the Spanish do when they speak.

I couldn’t tell if they were arguing with each other or simply talking about how well little Maria and Juan were doing at school. 

The truth is, I liked not knowing what they were saying. It was liberating and it suited my natural disposition to observe rather than participate. It was a safety barrier, a sort of veil that hung between us and made me feel invisible. I revelled in the anonymity. 

I ambled down the glitzy Passeig de Gràcia to the city centre, frequently stopping in my tracks as I stumbled across iconic Modernist buildings of Antoni Gaudi and his peers.

Antoni Gaudi's famous Casa Mila building on Passeig de Gracia, Barcelona
Antoni Gaudi’s famous Casa Mila building on Passeig de Gracia.

Back home ​I’d spent hours staring at photos of Casa Milà​ and Casa Batlló, and suddenly they were right here in front of me.

I ran my hand over the warm, coarse stone and snapped away frantically with my camera.

Las Ramblas overwhelmed me. I zig-zagged through the groaning swells of tourists, past hawkers selling flowers and brightly-coloured birds in cages and baby bunny rabbits, as well as little oil paintings and drugs and their bodies.

“Hello, my friend,” they’d say to me while gazing over my shoulder to check the coast was clear. “You want to smoke something? You want girls? Marijuana? Charlie? What you want?”

Eventually I found myself at Barceloneta beach, where I lay in the sun and felt my bones soak up the dripping rays of sunshine.

The sea was impossibly blue, a thick, cobalt blue that reminded me of the paint we used to ooze out of plastic bottles in art-class when I was a child and move around the paper with our fingertips. The sky, too, looked enhanced and unreal, a sort of blueberry haze somewhere between purple and violet.

I could feel something profound happening within me. Something was changing. I was changing. It was like being awake within a dream. I was free.


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