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The es-lo-que-hay (that's life) Mentality in Barcelona, Catalonia

When I first started working in Barcelona, I noticed people saying "es lo que hay" (that's life) all the time. Is it still used so much in everyday conversation now?

Adapting to life as a foreigner in Catalonia is a lengthy and often difficult task. When I first started working in an office in Barcelona, at a time when I only spoke Spanish and was in the process of learning Catalan, I often came across the phrase "es lo que hay". It was used to mean "that’s life," usually uttered with an accepting shrug of the shoulders, as if the complaints of the moment were best left unresolved, floating in the coffee-break atmosphere of the office. A common phrase worldwide over but in Catalonia it seemed to reflect a unique state of mind. Low salaries and long hours were part of an ingrained acceptance of hardship; people got on with it, laughing it off with an "es lo que hay" shrug. But just where does this seeming acceptance come from?


A possible explanation for the "es lo que hay" mentality lies in the lives of people who came to Barcelona fifty years ago, from other parts of Spain.


Jordi is my partner, and his mum, Pilar, is from a village in Aragon called Muniesa, a dusty cluster of houses set in the heart of the Monegros Mountains. One lone road leads into this farming village and the same road, lined with bleak fields, comes out the other side. The main square contains a slaughter house next to a communal washing fountain and a horse-drinking trough. It’s a twitching-curtain community where everyone knows each other’s lives inside out and, despite having only seven hundred habitants, reduced from its earlier figure of two thousand, Muniesa still manages to convey an atmosphere of gossipy joviality that can be seen from the old people sitting in the streets long after dinner time.


Pilar’s family, similar to thousands of this period of history, lived from day to day, trying to scrape enough money together to buy a bottle of soy oil: olive oil was too expensive.


Life in Pilar's village revolved around farming, and for her father, who was a carpenter, a good Harvest meant payment for the furniture he had made. Her mother bred rabbits to sell, after all her father’s lands were inherited by an older sister and she was left without the means to make an independent living. These efforts were insufficient to support a family of five, and Pilar, at the age of eight, decided to work as a cleaner after school to help make ends meet. When she was eleven, Pilar left school and was sent to Zaragoza to live with an uncle who promised her an education and a better life. On arrival, she found that this better life consisted of working as her uncle’s servant, while being psychologically abused. When she became ill from exhaustion and suffered an abscess that nearly caused her to lose a leg, Pilar fled to Barcelona.

She arrived in Barcelona by herself at the age of fourteen and found a job as a maid to a Catalan family. Here she remained for two years, sending back all her earnings to her family in Aragon so that they too could eventually relocate to Barcelona. During her life here, Pilar has worked in houses, bakeries and factories, culminating her career as a supervisor in a chicken slaughterhouse. During her lifetime she has had four children and had, by the age of sixty, saved enough money to own, with her Catalan husband, several properties. Although not exactly a millionaire she is certainly not in the same state of rags she once was. Now retired, Pilar cannot forget her intense sense of responsibility, reliving the struggle to survive whatever the task at hand.


Many Spanish people over the age of fifty who moved to Barcelona from another area of Spain between 1950 and 1970 have a similar story.


In this twenty-year period many people from other parts of Spain migrated to Barcelona in the hope of building a new life. Compared with this desperate quest for survival, what can modern life possibly have worth complaining about? What can a few extra unpaid hours mean so long as there is food on the table? Why is an overly assertive boss difficult to withstand while people can cook with extra virgin olive oil? For those who can still remember, it’s all part of a life that is so much better than that of before. The little daily mishaps are just part of the way it is, "es lo que hay".


For foreigners that come to Catalonia, the unique atmosphere that immediately takes hearts and souls hostage —for some never letting them go— is partly due to the contrast between the old world and the modern.


The city of Barcelona is at once cosmopolitan and innovative while also formal and traditional. For people that were not born here, this incongruity is often perplexing. A man from San Francisco told me, “the party scene is really wild here but at the heart of the culture there is something fundamentally conservative.” As the urge to party is such an integral part of the Mediterranean spirit it is almost impossible to say where the pulsing creativity starts and the steadfast tradition stops. In fact, they seem to be inextricably linked, part of the Yin-Yang whole. Festa majors are explosions of vibrant and often forward-thinking creativity at the same time as they are markers of tradition and age-old continuity.

To make sense of Barcelona and Catalonia, they have to be appreciated in the context of their recent history and the relatively recent transition into democracy (1975). It is this overlapping of old and new, innovation and tradition that have helped shaped the unique dynamic here. It is this intriguing contrast between historical acceptance and modern-day movement that lies unspoken behind the phrase, "es lo que hay," that’s life.

For the last 12 years I have been working from home and have little opportunity to absorb coffee-break conversation in the office. I wonder if people still say, "es lo que hay" on a frequent basis? What do you think?

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