I recently got the chance to travel to Barcelona for work to teach a two-day workshop. I decided to extend my stay a bit before and after to get some vacation time and check out the famous city.
I already talked a bit about how I like to try to get to know the attitude of a city, and have some specific things I try to learn. One is getting the physical walk of the city down well enough that sidewalk tourist sales people ignore me. I can usually execute it well enough to not be bothered within 2-3 days.
This time I also tried to go even deeper in understanding the attitude behind the walk, not just the physical movement of it. I always have to get a little bit of the attitude correct for it to work, but this time seemed harder to me for some reason. I think it might be because the attitude is so different from my own that it took more work.
This is just a weeks worth of observation in a huge city with many different neighborhoods and people. I’m just sharing a lesson I learned in these observations, not really claiming I actually understand the complexity of a diverse city like Barcelona. I normally wouldn’t actually write this piece because I’m too worried about making useless reductions, but, as you’ll see, I’m trying to apply some of the attitude I learned to my daily life, including letting myself write kind of pointless things for fun. :)
I tried to come up with an internal philosophy that would explain what I saw and most allowed me to blend in despite being so obviously American.
What I came up with is a mantra for myself of “this is life too.” This simple attitude could explain a lot of the things I observed in Barcelona, and what I’ve long heard about many cultures and the Spanish siesta life.
OK, now I have to try to explain it… Do you ever feel like the current thing you’re doing, like walking, is just wasted time till you get to the place you’re going? Or that you have to maximize your outing and make those four stops so your real time at home or work is less disrupted? “I’m just running errands.” As if that’s grueling work so you can get back to living.
Or maybe work is the grueling part you have to get through so you can head home, in the most efficient manner, to finally live some life for the day? Optimizing everything for max efficiency. Maybe I’m the only one? Point being, there are many activities I do that I see as overhead to getting back to life.
I’ll try to give some examples that this everything-is-life attitude helped me understand.
Most people never seemed to be in a hurry when walking somewhere. Even those walking faster than others didn’t seem concerned. People would stop for the red light without trying to rush through that often. And I never really saw them get annoyed with having to wait, even when it happened every single block. All this is the opposite of how I usually walk around. I always really enjoy walking around, but it’s still usually for a purpose, and thus something to hurry through. So, applying my mantra, “this is life too”, means recognizing as you’re walking home or to the store that it’s not wasted time. The walk itself is just part of life, even when you’re going somewhere! You don’t have to rush through it to get back to life.
I’ve always heard about the afternoon Siesta and how people in Spain work later because of that and don’t even eat dinner until 9pm! That’s never made sense to me. I get maybe wanting a break in the middle of the day, but it never seemed worth it because it’s just pushing back the time when you get to be done working for the day and can get to doing what you want, back to life. But what if work was life too? Even if you’d rather not be working, it’s life and you can live it. Then you don’t have to get it over with to get back to life. And taking a nice long break means work is even less of a burden because you can come in refreshed for the afternoon and evening portion.
I often observed the store workers interacting with friends at work. Cafe waiters would deliver food to the shops next door and chat with their friend there instead of bringing me more water right away. They’re just living and enjoying it. Yes they have to work, but it’s not taking away from their main life, it’s just part of it. And waiting for more water helped me understand the real secret to this attitude of everything being part of life.
I think the reason this whole system works so well is that not only do people have this attitude for themselves, but they allow so much room for others to live that attitude as well. So, instead of me thinking “gah, it’s so annoying this waiter isn’t helping me within 30 seconds because I’m thirsty and want to get out of here”, I should be thinking “when that waiter is done chatting for a minute with their friend while living their life I can flag them down to ask for more water. It’s not like I actually have to hurry anywhere. I can just enjoy sitting here living my life too!”
I almost never saw pedestrians getting annoyed at other pedestrians, cyclists, or drivers despite seeing many things that usually get glares, hand gestures, or yelling in other places. They’re all just getting around doing their best and allowing others to do that too. That obviously wouldn’t always be the case, everyone has bad days or people doing dangerous things would be yelled at I’m sure, but the level of allowance given to others making mistakes was much higher than other places in my opinion.
Another example like that is that I never saw locals being annoyed at or mean to tourists. I saw many tourists doing silly things outside the tourist-specific places and everyone just took it in stride. The contrast to a place like New York City for this was huge. They were allowed to just be tourists enjoying their vacation.
I felt some of that allowance myself. I hurt my back while there, and was shuffling around very slowly for a lot of the time. Especially when switching hotels and wearing my heavy backpack. Even though I was often in the way in large crowds, and made some cars and scooters wait when I couldn’t make it all the way across the street in time, nobody was ever visibly annoyed or jostled me around to get by me. They saw I was having trouble walking and gave me the time and space I needed.
I really enjoyed trying to apply “this is life too” to myself. Whenever I noticed I was anxious to get somewhere or do one more thing to maximize my vacation time I’d take a step back and allow myself to just enjoy what I was already doing. I let myself take long (for me) meals, I let myself linger at cool places and just be there before rushing to the next place, and I definitely let myself enjoy just walking around more than I have in other cities.
I was a bit sad that my hurt back prevented me from doing some of the things I wanted, but I think my attitude adjustment helped me still enjoy my time as much as I could. Like, I let myself take most of a day to lie around to give my back a rest, and just relax and even spend a few hours writing. My inner voice was annoyed that I was wasting sight-seeing time somewhere I’ll probably never get back to, but I decided to let myself enjoy it anyway.
Another example was when I was traveling home. I was already 18+ hours into my journey home when a flight was delayed which meant I’d spend four hours at an airport waiting. Gah! But I thought back to my trip and decided that this is just life too, and I could really just enjoy the time by relaxing and listening to music. There were no expectations on me from anyone but myself to be productive or make use of the time. So I just let that go and enjoyed it.
One last thing. Not only did I allow myself time to relax and write, I allowed my self to write a pointless thing. So often I don’t write something because I’m certain others won’t get it, or care about, etc. If I only wrote things others would like I’d never get to write anything! Which is why I hardly write… I decided to give the leeway towards others I talked about to myself. I’d let myself do what I wanted because, why not? So I wrote The Crosswalk Game even though I was certain it was too weird for anyone to care. I cared, and I let that be enough. I also didn’t want to put the effort into it to make it good enough to not be embarrassed about it and decided that’s OK too. Then I also let myself write this right now. It’s philosophical and silly, and probably too hard to read through. But, meh, I can let myself do it anyway. (well, I’m pretending I can, so it’s more of a “fake it till you make it” kind of thing)