On April 3rd, 2006, Alan and I arrived at the Estació de França in Barcelona on an overnight train from Paris. Carrying one 60-litre backpack and two sets of carry-on luggage we were there to spend 13 months while I did research for my PhD dissertation. We rented an apartment online, through a real estate agency, in an amazing location in the Eixample, just steps from Gracia.
That year proved to be a turning point for me – Barcelona inspired me to a degree I didn’t imagine possible. I grew up moving to and adapting to new places, cultures, friends. For the most part, I have always managed to enjoy each and every place I lived in. But what I felt on that first week in Barcelona is difficult to put into words. As I wandered the streets of the Eixample, I understood the meaning of the term “surreal” as never before. Both the medieval and modern parts of the city were at the same time familiar in its recognizable architecture and unique in Catalan craziness. I understood seny and rauxa.
My food obsession reached its full potential when I was exposed to the amazing produce available in Catalonia. I felt at home in a land inhabited by similarly food-obsessed people. Some of my favourite foods today are foods I did not like before I lived in Barcelona. I learned to shop in markets, to eat seasonally, to savour food in all its glory and simplicity. Some of my ancestors were farmers in the Po Valley of Northern Italy. No doubt some of that genetic memory was awakened.
In Barcelona we made so many friends that changed our lives for the better. People we connected at a deep level, immediately, and who completely opened their lives to us. People we could spend 10-12 hours around a table with and never run out of conversation. We continue to see them whenever we have a chance and it always feel like we just saw them yesterday.
Much has changed in the last 10 years. Some of our favourite places did not survive the economic crisis of 2008. Some of those beautiful friends are no longer with us. But the year spent researching, mastering a new language, having my senses blown on a weekly basis, the weekends spent hiking in the mountains, going to the beach out of town, the endless blue sky that woke us every summer morning, the amazing children I spent the year photographing will forever be the best year of my life. I often feel a bit embarrassed to admit I did not travel much throughout Spain when I lived in Barcelona but the truth is that I could never get enough of all those Catalan towns, festivals, food. Tarragona, Valls, Vic, Besalú, Olot, Sant Pol de Mar, Arenys de Mar, Girona, Vilafranca del Penedès, Sant Carles de la Rapita. There was always a new market, a new Casteller competition to go to. The Alhambra had to wait.
When I came back to Toronto, I knew that no matter what happened to me in terms of jobs or academic career, I would never be able to see my PhD as a waste of time. It turned out to have opened doors to an amazing job with a fabulous group of people but even if that had not happened I would have done it all over again for that year alone.