I moved to Barcelona more than seventeen years ago. I was only twenty-two at the time, and the experience was life-shattering.
The high I felt on moving to the Mediterranean was incomparable. I am, of course, speaking from a European perspective, a privileged one, knowing that I'd worked to save up before coming to Barcelona so that I wouldn't starve. All newcomers deal with it differently. Many party till they drop, discovering clandestine after-hour bars in the unlikeliest of places, keeping on their feet until the sun has long risen to sleep it off on the beach at Barceloneta. But I became intensely active; my mind was abuzz, and, in short, I was on the biggest high I had ever known.
I walked everywhere and spent a lot of time alone. I loved it. On days when I had split shifts at the language school where I was teaching, I walked over to Montjuic, which was around half an hour from my flat, and took the escalators up the hill to the Picornell sports complex at the top. There I went swimming or read outside in the sun. I loved the area of Montjuic as there was a myriad of fountains and water features that trapped the sunlight, making it ripple and dance across all surfaces as far as the eye could see, like a life-size kaleidoscope.
Water in the sunlight had never looked so amazing, and I couldn’t understand how I had been surrounded by water all my life yet had never noticed just how spectacular it was. I was blown sideways, upwards and out of myself, lapping up the sunlight in its many forms and savouring my surroundings. I fell in love with the world around me. Constant adrenalin circulated around my body, giving me the energy to do things that would normally have seemed inconceivable, or would have left me feeling exhausted were I to do them in my usual state of mind.
Although I make it sound as if it was a smooth and seamless experience, it wasn’t the case. Counteracting the boundless energy, I experienced culture shock, like bereavement, that snuck up on me some days. It didn't happen very often but when it did I cried for hours. It was crushing, like a grieving process; the sensation lasted for ten minutes and then I felt better, until the next wave of grief-like emotion came up upon me again. It was bizarre.
I also felt like I was walking around in a film set, as if the palm trees or pavement were props and I might wake up out of a dream at any moment. I now put this surrealism down to Barcelona’s urban environment and climate, which are radically different from reality in the UK. I had really only ever associated palm trees before with desert islands, and the incredibly mild spring temperatures, even when the sun had gone down and the streets were dark, seemed completely alien to me.
I have since heard that culture shock is often experienced like this, as if things are not real but somehow fake, though at the same time magical. The feeling that I was part of a film set lasted for around six to eight months, after which time it receded and everything started to feel normal again.
Perhaps my experience was so intense because I was really young at the time. I wonder if things would affect me less were I to relocate to another country now. Have you had a similar experience? How did it affect you?
About: Genevieve Shaw has been working as a freelance writer and translator since 2006, specialising in health, culture, travel and marketing. To find out more about the services she offers, please visit her website.