In about two weeks, Alan and I will be going back to Barcelona for a month. Of course, for us, visiting Barcelona is not quite living any other foreign destination – we lived there and Alan still fondly refers to it as “home”. But still, I like roaming through travel forums to read about other people’s recent trips, what they saw, what they did. Inevitably, they share their impressions and these can be either positive or negative. While I enjoy reading about other people’s experiences, I also get very frustrated with human beings’ (natural?) propensity to generalize, essentialize, and misunderstand a culture not their own. We have all heard of Parisian waiters’ fame for being surly and rude, which is nothing but a stereotype. In forums about Barcelona, people tend to focus on two issues: crime in Barcelona and the rudeness of the Catalan people. Because I got tired of trying to dispel some of these notions, or at least to put them in perspective, in the sites I belong to, I decided it was about time I got it out of my system here.
Crime in Barcelona – Sites like Tripadvisor have pages upon pages about pickpocketing in Barcelona. Since places frequented by thousands of tourists daily tend to draw lots of pickpockets, I’d have thought this is more or less expected. But no, unlike those who have been pickpocketed in Paris or London, those who have lost valuable in Barcelona to petty theft of this sort express the same horror as those who have been to war-torn cities. The tone is so alarmist that I, someone who has navigated Rio de Janeiro’s far superior crime rate with ease, arrived in Barcelona two years ago literally anxious and expecting thugs to be hiding at every corner, ready to jump on me as soon as I turned the corner. That is not a nice feeling to have and I soon discovered it was unfounded. Sure, there is a lot of pickpocketing in the most touristy parts of the city (Barceloneta, Barri Gotic, Sagrada Familia & Park Güel) but as long as you take normal precautions that you should take in any big, populous urban area, you are fine. Alan and I walked everywhere, always took public transit, carried around expensive cameras, and never had a problem. We had visitors almost every month we were there, told them to be careful with their stuff, and they never had a problem either. I’m not saying it doesn’t happen and I’m not defending Barcelona just because I like it either, but as a woman who is aware of my surroundings at all times (what I call my Brazilian survival skills), I never felt unsafe in Barcelona. Sure, there are some unsavoury streets in the Raval that made me feel unconfortable but what city doesn’t have a few of those? Besides, while pickpocketing might be a problem (which I have yet to be convinced is any worse than in Rome or Paris), violent crime in Barcelona is very low. I read the newspapers daily and I don’t think I ever heard of a tourist being robbed at gunpoint or a similar incident. But I guess the shock and the indignation of many tourists come from the obvious cultural shock of leaving suburban America or small-town Britain to navigating the streets of a large and crowded urban centre. Many thrive but just as many are quite intimidated by it all.
The Catalans – Where do I start? Maybe it is too Pollyanish on my part, but I don’t believe there is such a thing as a rude people. Visiting a foreign country or city is like visiting someone’s home. You should acknowledge your host, compliment his house, show appreciation for what he offers you, and remember that he doesn’t have to put up with you. Unfortunately, many tourists these days approach traveling like they approach visiting an amusement park – as consumers paying for entertainment. As such, they believe the staff at the amusement park should be happy to comply with their demands and make every effort to make sure they enjoy their time there. (Un)fortunately, places like Barcelona, Madrid, Paris, London or Rome, are bustling cities where people live, work, and go about their daily chores. They are definitely not there just to provide entertainment for tourists.
An additional issue is that many people bring with them preconceived ideas about what the locals are supposed to be like. This is particularly problematic for Spain, a country forcefully carved out of very distinct states/kingdoms with their own cultures, languages, and way of life. Of course there are common elements across the Iberian peninsula, but I’d say it would be as foolish to expect a Catalan to be exactly like a Castilian as it would be to imagine that a Portuguese person is the same as a Spanish. They are definitely not Flamenco-dancing, ole-yelling bullfighters. I think they are a bit more reserved than Castilians, but not at all unapproachable. If you show some remote interest and appreciation for their language and culture, they’ll open up and be very friendly. This is were a bit of cultural sensitivity would go a long way.
We lived in a non-touristy neighbourhood of Barcelona and joined a local gym frequented mostly by Catalans. Neither Alan nor myself have anything bad to say about the people from the gym. Everyone from the manager, to the swim coach, to the personal-trainers, to the instructors, were nothing but nice and welcoming. Had Alan wanted to, he could have been part of their master swim team (the coach invited him numerous times). And both at the bakery near the gym and at the bar near our home, after our first two weeks. we no longer needed to order coffee – it was brought to us, the way we wanted, every time.
Every time I hear someone saying things like “the Catalan are so unfriendly”, I think of our friends Pau & Mireia who picked us up at the train station in their hometown of Vic many times, took us around, introduced us to friends & family and shared with us the best their region had to offer. Or I think of all the staff and security personnel at the archives were I worked, who would invite me for coffee and discuss everything from yesterday’s soccer game to their vacation plans and the state of the economy. Or about my friend Toni, who lives in Salzburg and whom I met on the blogosphere and after knowing I’d be in Barcelona for a few days over Christmas quickly invited Alan and I for a coffee in one of the city’s traditional cafés so that we could finally meet personally. Alan and I felt very honoured by the wonderful gift they brought us from Austria. I could go on and on. My basic point is: there are nice people and rude people everywhere in the world. But it is not their nationality that makes them so. And to label a whole nationality as something is a bit unfair in my books.
Sorry for the long, disjointed rant. I just had to say that. The short version is: Barcelona is not a war zone and the Catalans are not the new French. But do clean your feet before coming in and say hello to the host.