by Aseye Kesiah
I lived in Catalonia for a year and a half from January 2015 till June 2016. During that time, I worked as a conversation assistant, an au pair and an English teacher in a language school.
Initially, I was apprehensive about the move, especially as a lone black woman. I had been accepted onto a conversation assistant programme and had been assigned to a small Catalan town called Sant Fruitós de Bages. The population was tiny; a mere 9,000 people compared to 8.5 million in London. Nevertheless, I embraced this brand new environment and discovered many perks of the Catalan lifestyle.
I worked in a concertada (a private school partially funded by the government), which was based in the same town. The education system is a lot more relaxed compared to the UK: teachers are known on a first-name basis; uniforms are non-existent; lunch was three and a half hours long – a luxury I could only dream of in London- and students would make jokes to teachers, with teachers laughing along with them.
My students had a particularly positive impact on my teaching experience. They were amazed by me and I was equally amazed by them. Their frankness, vibrancy yet relaxed nature helped me settle in greatly. They were all so open-minded and refreshing to be around.
“Catalonia served as the get-out I needed and it helped me grow tremendously.”
The Catalan landscape is beautiful. They are a people who adore the mountains and I went up with my host family to Monserrat. I also stayed in the Pre-Pyrenees in a caravan during the summer, which was incredible. Being in such proximity to Castilian Spain meant that I could easily travel to other places such as Madrid, Jerez de la Frontera, Granada, Toledo, Valencia and Andorra.
I loved the festa majors which are local festivals that take place in summer. The whole town comes out to celebrate and participate in many different activities, including music concerts, amusement parks and much more. Everything was new and eye-opening for me; most events in the UK are monetised so I could not believe that all of this fun was for free. It was wonderful to see all communities fuse together and share in the light and merriment of the celebrations.
For Sant Joan, which takes place in July and marks the summer solstice, we went to the Costa Brava to a seaside town called L’Estartit. There was a massive fire on the beach along with a party with DJs playing French dance music as we camped by the beach. There is also La Patum, which is celebrated in either May or June. As I was only free on weekends, I missed the actual processions but was there for the evening street parties. The festival is also infamous for the production of an alcoholic drink called barreja, which has an overly sweet taste but gets you quite drunk in a short period of time- so drunk that the taste no longer matters!
The language barrier posed the biggest obstacle to my experience in Catalonia, since my Catalan and Spanish was non-existent when I arrived. Initially having to learn by ear, I decided to take free Spanish lessons that the agency I worked for was offering. I supposed that Spanish was more useful in the grand scheme of things, although I did also pick up Catalan as it was what I heard spoken daily, especially through the children. When people would engage with me in shops, they automatically spoke to me in Spanish, as the assumption was that since I clearly looked an outsider, I must have spoken Spanish.
“There was also being mistaken for a sex worker. To give context, sex work is very visible in Spain and Catalonia, especially in major cities.”
My time in Catalonia was not completely plain sailing. There was a boy who once said to me, “I can dance like you, I can dance like a n****.” The subsequent feeling of realising that I was the only black person present for miles dawned on me, and the lack of diversity was quite isolating.
There was also being mistaken for a sex worker. To give context, sex work is very visible in Spain and Catalonia, especially in major cities- in this case, Barcelona. I was waiting for a friend on the street when a man came up to me with a lewd look on his face and whispered, “Africana”, to me. Luckily this was the point at which my friend emerged and yelled, “No” at him, dragging me away. There was also the prevalence of blackface, especially during events such as the Three Kings and Carnival. Touching on these issues would necessitate another article. The blackface along with justification behind it was atrocious. During the Three Kings procession in January 2016 in Barcelona, citizens made a big show of actually using a black person. However, this was not played out in the smaller towns, which is where I was based. The impact of such experiences, combined with my boredom of being English teacher led me to make the decision to come back to the UK.
I missed London so much whilst I was away, especially my friends and family, the food, the culture, the music and the diversity that not many places can replicate. Living abroad put many things into perspective for me. Being in London before had started to drain me emotionally and financially and I was hating it. Catalonia therefore served as the get-out I needed and it helped me grow tremendously. It would have also been naïve of me to believe that it would have been wholly a good time. I wanted a new experience – I got one. I got to experience a different culture and a different way of living, which changed my life in so many ways. It helped me explore my independence in a way that I could never have imagined living at home. I want to live abroad again, and I hope to do so soon.