“What’s life like abroad?” That’s the second most-frequently asked question I hear after returning from living in Barcelona for over three years.
The most frequently asked question? “Why did you come back?”
That’s the subject for another blog post.
What life is like abroad is what I will be writing about for now, and the answer is not so simple.
I thought to try to answer the question with words, but instead, I’ve chosen to answer it with pictures, beginning with one I captured during my first week in Barcelona:
That photo was taken just a few weeks after this one:
And seeing the similarity in appearance, if not in circumstance, brought to mind Juxtapozitions, a photo project which will be the first (of four) creative projects I plan to launch this year.
As the title suggests, Juxtapozitions visually juxtaposes life in the Philippines and Europe. (If you’re curious as to why I misspell the word, it’s merely for social media purposes. If you check the hashtag #juxtapozitions, majority of it will be my images. For whatever that’s worth.) Mostly from Barcelona, of course, because that’s where I livedmost of the time, but also other Spanish cities including Granada, Girona, andLa Palma. I also traveled to the Amsterdam, Venice, Paris, Prague, and Toulon a couple of times.
Taken over a period of around three years, most of these were photos weren’t taken with this photo project in mind. But after going over my visual memory bank, I repeatedly come across photos that had visual or contextual similarities–for example, female fishmongers in the La Boqueria and a wet market in Aurora, Baler:
Or the waiting area in the Oficina de Extranjeria de Barcelona (foreigners’ office) and the Department of Foreign Affairs in Manila:
or Catalan children sitting on a curb during an FC Barcelona victory parade, and some Filipino boys just hanging out outside a sari-sari store during a holiday:
Incidentally, a week before I left Barcelona, the Spanish National Guard assaulted Catalans who were seeking independence from Spain, or at least the right to hold a referendum to do so. I found this ironic as around 150 years earlier, Spanish soldiers executed Filipinos fighting for independence from the Spanish empire :
In the photobook, I desaturate some of the photos to minimise the distinction between the two worlds.
So Juxtapozitions is one way I’ve chosen to answer the complex question, albeit to a very limited extent. By capturing parallels between life on opposite sides of the planet, a planet that seems to grow smaller with every leap forward in transport and information technology, I hope to provide some insight into what living in a culture and society that is so different–yet in some ways similar–to the one I grew up in, is like.
And if there’s any insight that I’ve gained during all those three years it would be these three:
People are inherently good
Anne Frank said it first. Without people I never would have made it. Not just once, but many times over. This doesn’t mean there aren’t absolute shits out there, there are, and keep away from them by all means. But they most likely didn’t start out that way. I’ve met some amazing and generous people, who didn’t know me at all and didn’t have anything to gain, but went out of their way, who offered help when I needed it so badly.
It takes three to five years
It takes at least three to five years to feel at home in a new place. If you’re lucky. Barcelona is a melting pot, like New York, Paris, or any other major metropolis, and I’ve encountered people from literally all over, but all of them come to the city to live, drawn by its warm climate, endless beaches, and vibrant culture. Some come to study then tried to transition to work, as I did. And like myself, many don’t speak Spanish, or Catalan for that matter. And language is a huge badge that declares you as either a local or a tourist. And there’s the matter of employment. I’ve lived with people who’ve moved from other Spanish cities to find work, only to go back because the financial crisis meant that lucrative opportunities were scarce all around. And friendships need time to grow. It’s more difficult to make friends when you’re older, people are busy or already have their sets of friends, and in a transitory city like Barcelona, people are coming and going all the time.
People are basically the same
Finally, despite everything, people are basically the same. We have the same motivations, the same wants, the same fears. Being indoctrinated at an early age I carried the burden of colonial mentality. I believed that everything from abroad was better, that people from Europe were the epitome of culture, intelligence, and sophistication. That they lived perfect, worry-free lives where they had free quality education, health care, fast internet, no crime or hunger, and everyone’s fart smelled like roses. Needless to say, it was a rather rude awakening.
And in the end, I suppose that’s what I’m trying to point out with Juxtapozitions, that we are the same, you and I. And that no matter where you go, your experience of a place is defined by the people that live in it.
To see previews of the Juxtapozitions photobook, you may check my Instagram or twitter under the hashtag #juxtapozitions.
If you’d like to order a copy, send me an email at pinoyartista(at)gmail. I accept payments via Paypal.
I thought that I’d share my experience of last Thursday’s terrorist attack on Catalunya, the 2nd in the history of Barcelona.
August 17, 2017 17.42 CCCB
It was around 14.30 and I was seated at the Arxiu at the CCCB, the Center for Contemporary Culture of Barcelona. Before that, I was at the library, another favourite hangout of mine, but I left as they close for the lunch hour. CCCB is in Raval, right next to Las Ramblas.
After doing some correspondence, I watched the Vice documentary Charlottesville: Race & Terror. Prior to this I had not read up much on what had happened, and needless to say, I was shocked.
Afterwards, I popped into fb and this was the first notification I saw:
Confused, I then opened the La Vanguardia website. And that’s when I realised what was going on. It was unreal, to first see video of a car ramming into the demonstrators in Charlottesville from a few days ago, to reading that a van had rammed into people, seeing the grotesque images that were taken not more than a few minutes ago, and not even a kilometre away.
Across from me, a girl who turned out to be an Italian architect doing her traineeship in Barcelona, asked me if I knew what was going on. I said I literally just read about it. She had gotten the news from her friends and family all the way in Italy. They were telling her so many details, and told her to stay put. She lived on a street perpendicular to Las Ramblas, not more than a minute away by foot, right on the street where the van struck some people and she was at a loss about what to do.
Being in the Arxiu, we were safe at least. Then security showed up and said that we all had evacuate, they were locking down the CCCB.
Considering she had nowhere to go, I said she was welcome to stay at my flat. She readily accepted, and we started walking, making sure to keep as far away from Ramblas as possible. All around, it was eerily quiet, and we could see people walking with their bags, like they were leaving the city.
19.30 Avinguda Diagonal
We walked past a crowd of people watching the news from the televisions in an appliance store window. I started to worry about the people I knew who were living and working in the area, which has a very large Filipino population.
We walked on for about 30 minutes until we reached Avinguda Diagonal, one of the main roads that cuts through Barcelona, and were met by this sight:
Cars were bumper to bumper. We wondered if they were all leaving the city.
Then I saw something that made me stop. Four men who looked middle Eastern had their hands behind their heads, and in front of them was a man wearing what appeared to be a kevlar vest and holding a gun out and pointing it at them. My companion freaked out and said, let’s pass somewhere else. I wanted to snap a photo but they had led them away, I don’t know if they arrested them or saw that they were innocent bystanders.
We later learned that there was a second attack, and that the attackers had made it Sant Just, a neighbourhood just next to mine.
She looks happy but appearances can be deceiving.
We got to my flat as it was getting dark. A few hours later, my flatmates, who had been driving to Barcelona during the attack after spending a few days in France, arrived. We had been communicating and I had told them it would probably be best if they didn’t come back tonight. Fortunately, they were able to drive into the city, keeping to the outskirts, without incident.
I don’t think any of us slept well that night. I certainly didn’t.
August 18 11.00 Les Corts
The next morning, I woke up and took the dog for a walk. Around 13.00, the Italian said that her flatmates said that Ramblas was no longer locked down, and that they were able to get home. We took the bus to Plaza Universitat, and walked to her flat. We were both still shaken up from the day before, and it was surreal to be back in that area and to see people walking around like nothing had changed. We stopped at the corner, just to look out on the Ramblas. We saw police, media, signs and police cordons.
We bid each other goodbye, and I decided to walk on Las Ramblas.
20.30 Las Ramblas
There were crowds huddled here and there, candles had been placed, some flowers, stuffed toys, and someone had left some paper and pens for people to write notes. Some had written on post it notes. There was a young man with his head bowed, staring at the candles with tears in his eyes. Seeing the stuffed toys, I figured that this was a place where one of the casualties, perhaps a child, had lost his or her life.
The tragedy, the injustice, of a life extinguished before its time, under such senseless circumstances began to hit me.
That’s when I started to feel the grief arise in me. I left a note, and decided to walk home.
August 19, 2017 16.00 Plaza Catalunya
The next morning, I began to make some signs. I had been thinking about the other attacks in Europe, such as the one in Paris, Belgium, Manchester, and I knew I wanted to make something to show solidarity with this tragedy.
It was a beautiful sight and a wonderful feeling. In highly developed societies, one of the biggest drawbacks is the lack of physical contact, and in a touristic place like Plaza Catalunya and Las Ramblas, you would very rarely speak to a stranger unless it was to ask them to take a picture or refuse a “cervesa beer.” And here, men and women, young and old, of different racial backgrounds were hugging each other. The antidote to terror, to fear, is love.
Yesterday there were just a few candles, flowers, and notes. Two days later, here is what the shrines looked like:
It showed how much love and solidarity people felt for the victims of this senseless tragedy. Indeed, it could have been any one of us. I left my signs in different shrines and biked home.
I saw photos and videos from that morning where thousands upon thousands had descended upon Plaza Catalunya, clapping and chanting, ‘No tengo miedo!’ (We are not afraid), and the the mimes and other buskers who lined Las Ramblas everyd, also paid tribute to the victims by joining the procession as the crowd made its way down the most famous boulevard in Barcelona. The Mayor of Barce, Ada Colau, posted this.
August 20, 2017 17.00 Las Ramblas
On the third day after the attack, Ramblas was seemingly back to normal. It was more crowded than usual, or so it seemed. People took photos of the shrines, selfies even, and there was a procession of Muslims, then later, Christians.
As I write this, it’s been five days since the multiple terrorist attacks in Catalunya. Things have seemingly gone back to normal. But there are still people in the hospitals, not all the perpetrators have been accounted for, and there are many more whose lives will never be the same again. And that includes the families of the attackers.
And the authorities are left with the question, how do we keep our cities safe from this type of extremism? This level of viciousness? Especially since the attackers were not foreign, they were young men who were part of Spanish society, who were integrated into Catalan culture, what makes people become this way?
Since January this year I’ve been listening to Chris Gillebeau’s Side Hustle School on my daily commute, walk, bike, etc. It’s a daily podcast with bite-sized stories about people who start an income-generating business while working a day job.
The podcast’s tag line is: A side hustle isn’t just nice, it’s necessary.
Chris, by the way, is the author of the The Art of Non-Conformity, and is one of the reasons I decided to leave the Philippines and try living abroad.
From a japanese candy subscription to professional snuggling, the stories are entertaining and inspiring. I try to recommend it to everyone I know who’s looking to earn more income. As an illustrator/visual artist, income can be pretty erratic. So I’ve always had to do other things, be it swim instructor, courtroom sketch artist (more on that later), and antique dealer.
Based on the the stories I’ve listened to, I’ve tried:
Posting portrait and personalised comic book services here and on Etsy
Offering photograph, videography, and massage services on craigslist
None of these have panned out so far. After listening about a man from Florida who made $100,000 from selling t-shirts without any inventory, I thought I’d give the teespring a try. Several times I’ve tried and failed on Threadless, which works on a voting system, which shows that I need to get better at of promoting and designing. With teespring however, there is no voting system, but you do need to meet a minimum purchase order for the shirt to be printed.
So here’s my first design:
I set the limit at 50 orders, and as of this writing, I need 3 more to be able to print.
A friend helped me come up with this one, and I promised to split the profits with her. If you have a tshirt design and want me to create it, send me a message at pinoyartista(at)gmail. The plan is to release 3 designs and see if they move.
The great thing about teespring that sets it apart from all the other tshirt platforms I’ve tried is they give you the option of donating a portion of your sales to several charities. 10% of So Very Sorry sales will go to Reach Out WorldWide which is a network of professionals with first-responder skill sets who augment local efforts during natural disasters.
The challenge is to move quickly, to quickly test different business models and determine which works best in terms of enjoyment and profit.
To date, I’ve been playing the copycat, trying to see which are immediately applicable. Although the best thing would be to come up with an idea that a) is original and b) helps people by making their lives better.
After each episode, Chris signs off with, “Remember, inspiration is good, but inspiration combined with action, is so much better.”
Yesterday, the 29th of February 2016 marks 1 year, 4 months, 24 days since I moved from Manila to Barcelona.
Today is the leap day of a leap year. Every four years–for reasons that I do not think are all that important–we have chosen to add a day to the 365 we already have. Like birthdays and other holidays, marking time has its purpose.
Like anyone who likes to write, I have a penchant for reminiscing, of counting things, of finding and maintaining connections, and noticing patterns.
So since moving to Barcelona I have moved flats three times. First in Les Corts, then Eixample, now in Poble Nou. Next month I will be moving again. In order to renew my visa I enrolled in my second course, this time in Graphic Design at Bau. My spanish has significantly improved, I am happy to report, thanks to studying and working with Spanish people. Most importantly, during the past year I have had the good fortune of meeting some interesting people, some who I am happy to call friends.
The past 511 days have not all been fun and games, of course, and I have made mistakes and at times have not been as kind as I should be to others. I have been robbed. Twice. My heart has been let down and broken more than that. I have spent more than I have earned, and worked for less than I should.
So why the year of urgency? Three months into 2016 there have been several high-profile deaths, all of them from unnatural causes if I’m not mistaken. Cancer, suicide, overdose. Today something gruesome happened in Moscow. It probably is not the first time it has happened but this is the first time it has been widely publicised. My grandmother is 96 years old, bedridden, feeding through a tube. I have an uncle who has been comatose for the past two months. It will not be long before it is my turn.
And so, there is only that which we cannot see, feel, taste, touch or hear, but to which we must bow to: Time. If today is just like any other day in the year, then why does it feel…different? The prevailing theme of the leap day is to do something different; something new. But what is the point? Nothing is original. And like New Year’s Resolutions, trying to change things simply because of some arbitrary day of the year is not enough reason for me.
As I wrote previously, it has been a surreal start to this year and because of this, perhaps more than any other reason, is why I feel a sense of urgency. Specifically about what, I am not sure. Just like the year before, I wrote my annual review but I am opting not to publish it this time. I did make a pretty good joke about it though:
As before, I have the same categories of goals, with creation and production as the priority. But this time I want to do things faster, smarter, and to do exactly what I want as well as what needs to be done with expediency and to full effect.
Time is short. Get moving.
Suggested reading: Chris Guillebeau’s manifesto The Tower (free download)
The Creative (detail)
by Jose Gamboa
56 x 20 cm
acrylic on canvas
For the past three and a half weeks, I’ve been on a social media sabbatical–more specifically, a facebook fast.
This wasn’t the first time I’ve gone on a facebook fast or been, to practice my castellano, incommunicado.
A couple of years ago, feeling a bit overwhelmed with how much the internet was taking up my time, and how it was affecting me psychologically, I decided to unplug once a week. That meant that every Sunday I didn’t go online at all. Then, I decided to try getting off facebook for a week.
Then it extended to a month. Then two. It is sort of like freediving, seeing just how far you can push yourself. In the end, I stayed off facebook a year and a half.
Eventually, reality pulled me back in because I started working as a freelance community manager, and the bogus account I had created to manage pages was taken down (big surprise since the account was named Katherine Upton and had only photos of the same). Until that point, even though I was managing several pages, my personal account was deactivated, and I had no connection with my 150 or so facebook friends during this time (I also tried to limit my connections to a minimum, believing Malcolm Gladwell’s “Rule of 150” from The Tipping Point where he purports that people have the capacity to have no more than 150 genuine connections. But believe me, I didn’t really have a whole lot of friends to add back then anyway. Today, things have improved for me somewhat socially, but I still don’t consider myself to have been blessed with a large number of true friends.
For some reason, being reachable never appealed to me. As a result, I only got a cellphone in 2008 when they handed me one at work, signed up for facebook in 2009, five years after the social media giant had already been available. At the height of their popularity, I didn’t sign up for Friendster, Myspace or Multiply, and consequently didn’t feel any remorse when these platforms went under, taking people’s precious photos and writing down with them. Today, I still own the same phone I bought five years ago, and in 2013 I bought a secondhand iPad 2, which was my first ever smart device. On it I installed the messaging app Viber, but because it is not supported on the iPad, I never got on WhatsApp, simply because I didn’t like the name or interface, and I thought mistakenly that Viber was sufficient, which was wrong because the former apparently is the preferred app of 99% of instant messenger users. Later, facebook outsourced their messaging interface, forcing everyone to install a 3rd party app which sucked.
Now, after moving to Barcelona and doubling my number of facebook friends, I decided for a second time, to go on a facebook fast. Again, it was partly because I was starting to feel overwhelmed, and I thought it was time to pull the needle from the vein.
Also, I was simply acting in accordance to my nature. I really think that facebook is too powerful, and can dictate whatever they want and the masses will follow, and that despite Zuckerberg having the best intentions, what happens in the future when he eventually goes? The people left running the biggest repository of private information may not be so ethical. It could already be happening. I had dragged my feet getting into the social media bandwagon, and now I was trying to get out before I got in too deep.
A third reason is because I think one of the biggest drawbacks of social media is narcissism and shortened attention spans. Facebook has spawned the selfie, the throwbacks, the oh-so-precious relationship and status updates that have become drugs for our egos. For an introvert like myself, I find it anathema to overshare, to imagine oneself so important as to matter, to be the voice of reason in a s0-called discussion about what colour a dress is or whatever controversy is currently trending.
Ironically, I have this blog and I have shared quite a bit on it as it is. But this is not for likes.
Furthermore, studies have shown that overuse of social media foments envy, lowered self-esteem, and for younger people, hinders academic adjustment.
It is such a breath of fresh air when you get off the timesuck that is facebook, or social media in general. The day seems longer, there is time to do relatively more important things, read a book, reminisce–not always a good thing, and to have–can you imagine?–real life conversations.
Here’s what unplugging has taught me:
1. You learn who your real friends are
This is the biggest insight I gleaned from my 2nd facebook fast. Of course, living abroad, I told my family that I would be going on a social media sabbatical, but I didn’t tell anybody else. Coincidentally, this was right about the time that Lent started, although I didn’t realise it at the time, and my sister joked that being raised Catholic, religious observance is in my theological body clock.
Even for the first facebook fast, I didn’t post an update notifying my adoring public that I would be deactivating. That would be contradictory to the entire exercise.
A day after I got a text from a couple of people asking what happened to my account. And I also started looking for emails and mobile numbers, alternative ways of getting in touch, and those that I wanted to get in touch with, I did so through these channels. Many were perturbed, others simply took it in stride. But facebook can be such a mindfuck–pardon my french–that you really start to get deluded into thinking those likes mean something, that your opinion matters, that your wall is your pulpit, your microphone for spewing your unimportant garbage into the world. Facebook doesn’t even show it to everyone unless you pay them for reach.
So I realised who actually wanted to talk to me, who I wanted to stay connected with, not just the random like or share. Having 300 or so ‘friends’ on facebook was in the end, a meaningless number, and by my count, I had between thirty to forty real friends. More to the point, it isn’t about being a hermit (something I’ve been called more than once), it’s about realising that you can be in touch in so many other ways, and that while social media may be the easiest and currently the most prevalent, it isn’t necessarily the best.
2. There is more time in the day than you realised
When I started to unplug I would leave my phone at home, or just let the battery run out. I stuck to a rigid schedule for checking email, even using a plug-in that would block my email screen every half hour. Whereas prior to deactivating I would log into facebook the first thing when I booted up the computer, or years later when I got a tablet, was the first thing I would instinctively check in the morning and the last thing before going to bed. Even Instagram at one point started to get too much, but at least it is not so intrusive.
Studies show that Filipinos spend an average of 4 hours a day on social media. The rest of the world probably goes to about 2 to 3…but nonetheless, that adds up. There are a lot of telling statistics on Tech Addiction. Life is brief enough as it is, and I refuse to squander any more time than I already have.
Without facebook, I found life went at a much more leisurely pace: cooking, cleaning, going for strolls, and doing errands, writing, and getting a lot of work that I had been putting off thanks to the addictive distractions of facebook, twitter, instagram, pinterest, tumblr, etc, done.
3. It gets easier
Like any substance you abuse, be it food, alcohol, tobacco, heroin, going cold turkey on facebook is extraordinarily difficult. The first time around, I had a bad case of FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out). Nobody invited me to anything, simply because they couldn’t add me to an event. I would hear conversations about this post, that comment, events, and hadn’t the faintest clue about what was going on. I started to feel like a non-person.
But after a while, as I mentioned in No. 1, people start to come around. They find other ways of reaching you, they pass the message through everyone around you. This was similar to when I refused to buy a cellphone. People would reach me through other people’s phones, and I eventually started using other people’s phones to text and call others, which of course, didn’t sit well with the one who owned the phone and had to pay the bill. I also learned that there are actually people who are affronted by or suspicious of people who don’t have a mobile phone or facebook account.
After a month I was relishing the exhilarating feeling of not having to check my wall, or needing to respond to friend requests from strangers or people you really didn’t want to add, or facestalking that cute girl from the bar, or keeping up with whatever people were concerned about, eating, wearing, or hawking.
4. You need a substitute
But it isn’t enough just to deactivate facebook. Or not log into social media…on our personal smart devices these are always on, so unless you adjust the settings (or delete the app) the notifications will keep clamouring for your attention like a spoiled child every three seconds. Like alcoholics or drug addicts, if you don’t substitute the destructive habit with a positive one, you just tend to find another millstone to hang around your neck to replace the previous one. Aside from social media, the internet is in itself a huge landscape for you to simply lose yourself in. Believe me, I know. I’ve tried pretty much all sorts of platforms, wasted hours in discussion boards, watching TV series, days playing computer games, and have gone on youtube video binges, and even email suddenly becomes extremely interesting when you are so used to being in front of a screen that it is your default state, regardless of whether there is something to do or not.
The point of unplugging is to preserve your limited time and bandwidth and devoting these to worthwhile projects and activities. So in the morning, instead of tapping on that notification, do a few stretches instead. Instead of checking twitter twenty times a day, do it only when you’re boiling tea or making coffee, and set a timer. Get a limited data plan. Or better yet, don’t get one. I don’t have 3G on my tablet, which means I cannot always be connected and have to find that modern day oasis: The Wifi hotspot.
Similar to Tim Ferris’ advice in The Four-Hour Workweek, people should go on a low information diet. This means you limit the amount of input to your brain, thereby saving your brain capacity for only important matters. Don’t open email from other people first thing when logging in. This only puts you at the mercy of other people’s agendas. Instead, send those emails that you need to send, setting a timer for a half-hour or so, and log off once you’ve completed the most important email tasks. Repeat in the afternoon. Don’t read shit novels, magazines, listen or look at advertising, don’t memorise useless information, write it down, don’t read messages right when they arrive, or answer the phone during a meal.
So what do you do instead with the extra two to four hours in your day? That’s your call; you could take up a hobby, or learn something you’ve always wanted to, like dancing, but you will be surprised at what you are able to accomplish once you’ve taken control of your daily routine.
So if you’re considering going on a social media sabbatical, here are some suggestions:
Realise whether or not you are spending an inordinate amount of time on the computer
Start weaning yourself off by checking email, social media, a fixed number of times a day. Try running an errand without bringing your device with you.
Intentionally do not check your email/facebook/instagram/twitter the first thing when you wake up and the last thing at night. Place the device in another room, or at least not by the bedside table when you sleep. Place it on silent at night.
Pick a day to unplug. Saturday or Sunday usually works best.
If you decide to deactivate, try shooting for a week and see how it feels. Go longer if you feel like it.
Disable notifications or better yet, sign out or delete the apps. Take them off your home screen.
Find a substitute. If your mornings are spent browsing social media, write instead. In the evenings, reading a book is a great way to relax your brain for deep sleep.
If you have kids, you can install plug-ins to limit their time online, or this is also a great strategy for the more technologically-adept parent:
To finish, I’m not saying facebook is bad, not at all, and just like computers and the internet, it serves a purpose. Google, Wikipedia, Youtube, these have become indispensable, or at least, extremely useful in education, research, finding what’s showing at the cinema and how to breakdance. Social media has brought people closer together in ways that the post, beepers, cellphones, skype, instant messaging did to some degree…but in a more immediate, (somewhat) enjoyable, and visual way.
Nowadays, a community page is mandatory for all businesses and organisations, and I know that it can be useful. As an artist, I have experienced firsthand how the internet has turned the art game on its head, taking away some–not all–the power from the institutions (galleries, curators, museums, auction houses). It is important for anyone with their own business, but especially those in the creative fields to have an online presence, be it a website, online portfolio, or a pinterest account (which I will never ever sign up for. Ever).
18.09.17 Update: 2015 –Opened a Pinterest account 😑
Approaching the end of my social media sabbatical, the urge to stay off facebook for good is really strong. But we’ll see how it goes.
…all of which–with the exception of La Fabrica del Sol which was under renovation–I would recommend if you are traveling to Barcelona.
Moreover, I’ve been fortunate enough to have traveled to six cities (Sant Pol del Mar, Sitges, La Palma, Andorra, La Molina, Girona), strolled through four parks (Parc Guell, Parc Citudella, Parc Pedralbes, Parc de Montjuic), attended four musical performances, one stand up comedy show, one stage performance, three lectures related to cultural management, visited one printing press, shifted out of the Master’s Degree to the Postgraduate Diploma in Arts & Cultural Management (a story for another post), signed up for two dance classes which I did not go to, worked three part-time jobs, moved flats once, met loads of people from all over the world, and have learned quite a bit about European culture and this wonderful city called Barcelona.
All these novel experiences are just the beginning and have of course, irrevocably changed me. My philosophy is that novel experiences are by default, positive. So whenever I have to make a decision, I usually try to go for the one that has some degree of uncertainty, but always, always, I choose to act, as opposed to inaction. In this way, the change is encouraged, if not welcomed, and sometimes, the change can happen on my terms, as opposed to the common condition where change is seen as an unavoidable imposition.
Moving to the Spanish Apartment, as well as the new flat (which I have dubbed Rockafort–as that is more or less the name of the street) was surprisingly simple, although the circumstances around it were anything but.
When I was moving to Barcelona, I sent an email to everyone in the university’s Master’s program, asking if anyone was looking to share a flat. I got a few responses, and the result was that I had a place to stay–paid for in advance–even before I had set foot in Barcelona.
The rent of the flat was divided by everyone, and a month later, the occupants had risen from four to five, reducing our individual shares. However, this would only be until April, by which time the rent would go back up again. This, including the fact that one flatmate–who shall remain anonymous–and I were basically getting on like a house drenched in ice-cold water, made me decide it was time to make a change.
So I began asking around, and it so happened that Lena, one of my classmates, had just moved into a flat with a room available. Upon visiting the flat and meeting the other occupants, I decided that I could live here. I contacted the landlord, made the reservation and started moving my things that same day. Being the cheapskate that I am, I tried to move everything on foot: a twenty-minute walk at night in the winter. Only in Barcelona can someone get away with this.
I had to find someone to take my old room, however, as we had agreed prior to my moving in that should I leave before the end of the contract, then I had to find a replacement. Equally important was finding a good person to move in, someone who wouldn’t flip out or make the others feel unsafe (as I mentioned, there are no locks on any of the doors in the flat—not even the bathrooms).
Surprisingly, this again proved to be easier than I expected. Minutes after posting a notice of the room in various fb groups for Erasmus students and others related to housing in Barcelona, I already had several offers and had scheduled visits that same afternoon. In the end, I decided on a French Erasmus student taking up a Masters in Economics at the University of Barcelona. Three days later I had handed her the keys to the flat and had already spent one night at Rockafort.
The change of flat included having new flatmates: three Spanish guys–Adria, Alvaro, and Ricardo, Anna, a Korean, Lena from Hamburg whom I go to school with, and a wonderful pug named Fiji, who is clearly everyone’s favourite occupant.
Other changes include a considerably smaller and colder flat, room, kitchen, bath and toilet to share, less amenities (no lift or dishwasher), slower wifi, and hot water that disappeared while you were showering when any other faucet was switched on. On the brighter side, cheaper rent and cool flatmates all of whom—with the exception of Fiji–are professionals who preferred to speak Spanish, giving me the chance to practice my castellan.
Below is Adria, who isn’t in the above photo because he works crazy hours:
I will be writing a bit more about my new flatmates in a future post, but basically, a lot has changed over the last 120 or so days, and unavoidably, I have changed with my circumstances. The frequency and intensity of these shifts, being compressed in a small amount of time has also accelerated my growth as a person. Having only a few people to call upon in an emergency–all of whom I’ve known less than half a year–taught me to be truly independent and self reliant. Also, it taught me to do something I have not done before: How to develop close friendships in a short amount of time. It means I have become better–not the best, obviously–at relating with others, an invaluable life skill regardless of who you are and where you’re from.
For this alone, all other benefits of studying and working abroad notwithstanding, makes the entire experience of putting oneself out of one’s comfort zone absolutely worth the price of admission.
Like falling in love with another person, it is intoxicating, you want to breath them in, you can’t bear to be apart, and then you can’t help but start to imagine what it would be like to live together, to plant roots and grow old together.
That can be part of the reason why travel is so gratifying. Each time you step foot in a place you’ve never been before, the possibility is there.
But there is a distinction between Love and its often-confused doppelgänger, Infatuation.
Infatuation is a volcanic eruption: loud, intense, all-consuming. It can feel like the real thing, and sometimes, it could be.
Love, on the other hand, is a garden. It takes time, a lot of effort, quiet, and without fanfare, it blooms, and an entire field that once had nothing but dirt, is filled with life and beauty.
During some of my travels, certain places have aroused this feeling in me; places that have taken my breath away, places that feel like home.
My earliest memory of such a place would probably be Baguio, a city in the mountains in the north of the Philippines. I had spent almost every summer there as a child, and bathed in its cool air that smelt of pine. I rode horses, learned to bike and roller-skate (had quite a few injuries), and met a lot of interesting people. Unfortunately, rampant and uncontrolled development has destroyed the Baguio I once knew, and living there no longer appeals to me as it once did.
Another place I felt at home in was in Basco, Batanes, the northernmost island of the Philippines.
Closer to Taiwan than the rest of the Philippines, Batanes looks completely different from the rest of the archipelago.
Then there is Baler, Aurora, a city on the Pacific coast, six hours from Manila. Over the course of well over thirty trips, I grew to love surfing, the people, and the place.
When I went to Bali, Indonesia in 2013, the perfect waves, friendly people, and cheap yet delicious food made me feel that I needed to–if not relocate–return here at least once a year.
And then in January 2015 I experienced La Palma.
All the places that have captured my heart have similar characteristics in that they have a lot of nature, are close to the ocean, the people living there are warm and hospitable, and economically are quite undeveloped, and certainly none are likely to be listed in the GOOD cities index anytime soon.
It could have something to do with my having grown up in notoriously congested and polluted Manila.
Like Thoreau, I longed to escape the concrete jungle, and time and again, had considered packing up and living on some seaside town where the pace was easy, and life was as it should be: Enjoyed everyday.
But La Palma was on a whole another level. Its natural beauty was stunning, with its sunsets, mountains, flora, seaside, and climate being optimal for human existence.
Compared to Barcelona, the Spanish people I met here were so relaxed, friendly, and their features were likewise very different. Also, I was surprised at how many Germans were on the island. Hiking, apparently, is something Germans (and other Scandinavians) are totally crazy about. I met that rare breed–retired hippie Germans–who have made la Isla Bonita their home.
Even if hiking isn’t your thing–although if you are walking through trails like these–how could you not be, La Palma offers so many opportunities for cyclists, climbers, downhill bikers and long boarders, para and hang gliders, sailors, surfers, and so on.
The island was formed and reformed by volcanic activity, and the most recent eruption was less forty years ago, and its raw beauty made me imagine that this is what the earth must have looked like when it was very young.
Although I have never been there, I imagine that this is what Hawaii–one of my dream destinations–looks like.
Although Hawaii has much better waves, I was pleasantly surprised to see beautiful right handers and A-frames at Los Guirres, one of the surf breaks on La Palma and the one of the stops for the Gran Canaria surf circuit.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to paddle out because I didn’t have any gear and wasn’t able to find the board and wetsuit rental. Instead, I was able to watch a bit of the surf, bodyboard and drop knee competition that just happened to take place that weekend.
At the competition I saw the most number of people I had ever seen in one place on the island. La Palma doesn’t have its own university and its industry mainly revolves around bananas and salt, which are its main exports. As a result, young people leave to study and find work, leaving an ageing population and not much economic activity.
But this is what draws me to this place even more. Bali and Baler have started to become crowded as tourism has developed the area. In La Palma, with a population of less than 18,000, you can go to many places and not encounter another human being.
Before I came, I considered hiking to be a boring past time, devoid of any thrill or challenge. I’ve gone mountain climbing, cross-country skiing, and caving, and all the hikes I’ve been on had been unenjoyable. But La Palma showed me that I had not experienced extreme hiking. Every year, hikers die and sometimes disappear in these mountains. Towards the end of my stay we went on hikes that lasted for five hours, that rose and descended a thousand meters, and where nothing, not even the wind, could be heard.
Of course, it could simply be the people that have drawn me to this place. As I wrote in Terminal Illness, I went to La Palma to visit my aunt whom I had not seen in over twenty five years. She and my cousin made my stay absolutely wonderful, especially since it was such an ordeal to get there, and I will forever be grateful for their hospitality. My aunt rises up with the sun, which peeks over the mountain at around 9, she makes an impressive cup of tea, then goes to work in the garden. She has a macadamia tree. She and her husband are still gradually moving books and things over from Germany, and the house still needs constant work. Occasionally, she visits with other residents of the island (her neighbour, another German, spends seven days a week tending to his garden–which is beautiful) or drives into town to do shopping.
My aunt had only moved to La Palma less than two years ago, before this she had devoted her life to running a bookshop which she owned for fifteen years, then sold when on their third trip to the island, her husband said, ‘Sell the bookshop, let’s get a place here.’ Just like that.
It sounds so simple, although of course, it never is. But at its core, life and love are simple.
It is for all these reasons that La Palma has captured my heart.
So we shall meet again someday, La Isla Bonita.
During these seven days, the island also captured my imagination:
If you would like to read more about everyday life on La Isla Bonita, here is the most popular blog on La Palma (in German).