I have lived in Barcelona now for 2 years, and I have realised during my time here that the number of foreign people I know far exceeds the number of Spanish, and especially Catalan, people I have become friends with.
This poses an interesting conundrum to me, in my quest to become a true Barcelonian. I love this city, it is my home and I feel like I belong here. However, without fully integrating into Catalan society, I remain on the outskirts – a perpetual guiri, well settled in my own community of fellow international expats, but still peering through the metaphorical windows of my Catalan neighbours.
As I see it there are three key factors which continue to hinder my integration:
1. The language barrier. The first, and most obvious hurdle in this case is my lack of Catalan language skills. Fluent in Spanish after studying at university, I communicate quite happily with South American and Spanish residents, as well as other internationals where our common language is Spanish or English. However, I still struggle with Catalan. And when I do meet Catalans, why should they be obliged to switch languages just because I can’t speak their language? Often the Catalans I have met prefer to speak with me in English, not Spanish, so until I learn to speak to them in Catalan I will still feel like an outsider.
2. The friend factor. Most Catalans who have lived here all their lives have grown up with their friends around them, from school, work, and neighbours in their block of flats. So in general, they have no need to meet new people. If they are happy in their current situation, settled in their routine and activities, there is less motivation to mix with other nationalities. I’m not suggesting that Catalans aren’t friends with other nationalities of course, and I have met Catalans through various social groups, language exchanges, or through other friends and generally find them to be very friendly and welcoming people – once you meet them. But where do they ‘hide’ the rest of the time??
3. The work environment. Ironically in Barcelona where unemployment among locals is still very high, there are a lot of jobs available for native speakers of various other languages, from English & French to Russian or Chinese. Most such jobs tend to be in call centres or language schools, as telesales and customer service centres are very common here, and employ staff from all over the world. Although in my office we have a fair number of native Spanish speakers, there are significantly less Catalans. English is the primary language of the office, and then Spanish, so most of the time I’m not even sure who is Catalan and who is from the rest of Spain!
So enough about the barriers to integration; the real question is how do I overcome these challenges and become a true Barcelonian? Try harder? Join more social groups? Learn Catalan. That seems to be the answer here, although Catalunya is officially bilingual, I don’t think you can properly be integrated into any society if you can’t talk to the locals in their own language. Although not the easiest option, to learn a few phrases and beginners level Catalan shouldn’t be too hard – and with the Ajuntament offering 45 hours of free beginners classes it seems a no-brainer.
Then once I’ve mastered at least basic Catalan I can find more locals to chat to, take part in more activities where before I declined as I couldn’t understand what was going on. The issue for me is time, between work, the blog and actually having a social life with anyone I don’t have that much spare time. I’m also worried I will confuse my Spanish with Catalan and end up not being able to talk to anyone! Perhaps I need a private tutor or a Catalan boyfriend to add that extra motivation…. Now there’s an idea!
What is your experience of settling into life in Catalunya? I would love to hear from other expats, please share your successes and challenges in integrating into society here! And conversely, any Catalans out there who can advise on how to join in and become part of your community?
Interested in taking Catalan classes? Check out the details here