Living in Barcelona: First impressions of the city in Covid times
South African journalist
South African journalist, serial expat and Barcelonian-by-choice, Chené Koscielny, shares her views on living in Barcelona. Chené will write regular posts for Barcelona Global – which aims to make Barcelona one of the world’s best cities for talent and economic activity.
Living in Barcelona was never part of my life plan, neither was moving here in the full throes of a global pandemic obviously, but if there’s anything 2020 has taught us, it is that life doesn’t always go according to plan.
So, here I am, living and working in Barcelona – a city I’d previously only associated with Sangria, tapas and Gaudi – in that order. I’ve lived in Cape Town, Paris, Berlin, London and Geneva, but Barcelona never held much attraction beyond a city break by the sea.
Five months after swapping postcard-inspiring Swiss mountains and lakes for the decidedly scruffier shores of Spain, I celebrated the arrival of 2021 by trying to eat 12 grapes (not easy) washed down with a lot of Cava (no challenge here) – the Spanish way to see in the New Year. (I learned too late that you’re meant to cut up the grapes and remove the seeds!) It seemed also like a good time to reflect upon my first impressions of Barcelona as the city had just been named the eighth best city in the world to live in according to the 2021 World’s Best Cities Report.
Life in Barcelona during Covid
Hot, hot, hot …
Originally from Africa, I’m not supposed to be fazed by heat, but the closest I’ve come to Barcelona’s suffocating August temperatures was the Abu Dhabi desert. You soon understand why the few unlucky Barcelonians who don’t manage to escape the city in summer, stay out of sight most of the day. Stepping outside after 8am is like slamming into a brick wall. Your limbs turn to lead and crossing the street requires massive effort.
In praise of air-con, beer and siesta
Doing anything, not to mention moving to Barcelona in August, is only possible with full-blast air conditioning. Taking a siesta is no luxury, as by lunchtime you all but pass out anyway. Amazingly, though, when dusk falls, the city comes to life as people stream to pavement bars and restaurants to enjoy an apèro, a beer and some olives or patatas bravas. A Spanish friend tells me: “For us, life is outdoors. We sleep at home, but the rest of the day we are outside. «
This culture coupled with tiny apartments has made lockdown especially tough. If you live outside of Barcelona – like many expat families – you may have more space, though accommodation prices are eye-wateringly high. Everything else seems very affordable if you come from Geneva or London, but house prices are on a par with some of the most expensive cities in the world.
One of the major thrills of being new in Barcelona is the luxury of being able to pop to the beach – in the city or to nearby Gava Mar or Sitges – to cool down. The beach holiday vibe is always within reach, even as the country’s tourism revenues dropped by more than 75% in 2020 – figures not seen in 50 years.
Covid ghost town – a sign of the future?
In August the streets are usually empty, locals say, but this year the relentless lockdowns have turned Barcelona into a virtual ghost town at times.
Macabre graffiti-ed shop shutters and boarded up windows have become a depressingly familiar sight. Like everywhere in the world, COVID has taken its toll on local businesses, particularly hotels and restaurants in a city reliant on tourism. A third of local restaurants have gone bust as a result of the restrictions, El Periodico reported in January 2021.
The new culture of homeworking means the center is a mere whisper of its former frenetic self. This is a big concern for Barcelona Global , who fear gentrification will leave the city without a heart as companies desert the center. They propose a long-term policy of encouraging economic life to return through the entrepreneurial use of historic spaces such as Barcelona Tech City’s development of the Pier complex.
More English, please!
One of the biggest surprises of living in Barcelona to date has been the fact that English is not nearly as common as one would think! Barcelona is an international city and you’ll be just fine with English, right? Wrong!
Maybe I’ve just been unlucky, but I can count on one hand the number of restaurants, bars, shops, taxis – not to mention public services where I’ve been served by someone who could speak or even understand two words of English.
If you want to live in Barcelona, even if you work for an international company, you need Spanish. On the positive side – it has forced me to enroll in Spanish classes and allows me to practice my Spanish every day. It makes life harder, for sure, but if you want to make the most of your experience, you should learn the language anyway.
There is a caveat in Barcelona! Catalan is also widely used. I’m all for integration, but learning two new languages at the same time is a stretch. So, I’m with Barcelona Global in advocating that businesses need to make more of an effort with English to attract foreign talent to the city.
Foodie heaven – no more?
Barcelona is foodie heaven, everyone told me: «You’ll love it.»
Well, sadly, due to Covid mainly, I haven’t had a chance to experience much of this yet. I’ve eaten in a few good restaurants, tried some Catalan dishes and gorged on paella and tapas, but because of lockdown, it’s been somewhat limited. With a third of the restaurants not reopening, I hope this won’t detract from the city’s reputation as a culinary capital.
Service with a smile
My experiences as a foreigner in Paris and Geneva have made me highly suspicious of anyone being helpful or polite. Brushing off rudeness has been part of my expat armor for years. However, so far in Barcelona – and maybe I’m still in the honeymoon phase – I’ve found people open and willing to help – often with a smile!
Working in Barcelona
I’ve managed to find a part-time job for a digital agency in a few months and will be writing regular posts for Barcelona Global, suggesting that despite the economic downturn and job losses, the city still offers opportunities for foreigners, particularly in the digital sector – more about this in an upcoming post.
All in all, moving to Barcelona has been a surprisingly positive experience so far and I can’t wait to experience the city’s post-pandemic splendour.
What has your experience been as a Barcelonian-by-choice? Are you thinking of moving to the city and do you have some questions? Comment below or drop me a message on firstname.lastname@example.org.
If I’m unable to answer your question, I’ll try to find someone who can.
For news about the city and the people, international and local, who bring it to life, sign up today to the Barcelona Global Blog in English.
Great post thanks! As an expat from Canada and having lived and worked in Barcelona for more than 6 years, I totally agree with your observations about this city. Without the restrictions brought about by COVID, it is a vibrant and diverse city to explore. I live in Sant Cugat and it is a pricy and a bit snobbish town but the mountains are spectacular and it is country living at its best. My one wish would be for really good ethnic restaurants which are so plentiful in other European cities, but hard to find here. I look forward to future posts and more comments from fellow expats!
Thanks, Amita – good to know my comments are not totally off! Interesting comment about the restaurants. My first impression is also that there is a lot of the same type of restaurants and not as much diversity as I’d expected, but this may be due to COVID.
Great article! Very down to earth fully encapsulated the bittersweet taste of moving to Barcelona in covid times! For me, the hardest thing has been the lack of social connections and meeting new people. Not sure if it’s only related to the current situation or it’s also about Catalans not being as open as I was expecting them to be. And the insecurity that the fact that it’s quite difficult to navigate yourself around the system without speaking Spanish creates.
Thanks for sharing your experience!
Thanks for your comment Angeliki – yes, not being able to speak the language is definitely a challenge and it’s a lot more difficult to make friends and network during COVID. As for Catalans, I’ve heard this, but to be honest, have not really experienced that so far. Good luck and hope to see you at a Barcelona Global or other event soon.
Chené, I love your blog. I can so relate to your experience and all that Barcelona has to offer. Being a trailing expat wife for the past 14 years, moving to different countries ever so often are definitely challenging. Every city has it’s pro’s and con’s, and I think what makes the biggest difference is our mindset and if we view this «glass as half empty or half full». You clearly have a positive outlook on life! Have fun making Barcelona your new home. Expat greetings.
Thanks for the comment Carlien. We learn to be positive as expats!