A Spaniard, a Russian, a Norwegian, a German, and a Filipino Walk Into an Ikea…

 

Several years ago, my French friend Dominique lent me a film L’Auberge Espagnole (in English, The Spanish Apartment). It is about six Erasmus students who share an apartment in Barcelona.

Today, I find myself living in an flat, in Barcelona, together with three other students from different parts of the world. Uncanny how life imitates art.

I believe that commercial air travel is one of the greatest inventions of the 20th century. Thanks to it, there is nowhere in the world that one cannot be in in less than 22 hours. The world has seemingly shrunk, and one can meet up with friends in London, do business in China, and order shoes from the US (again via China).

As I walked into the Swedish furniture complex in Barcelona after having ridden over in a German automobile with a Spaniard at the wheel, a Russian, two Germans, and a Norwegian, I felt the full impact of the much-bandied about word globalisation.

Meet my flatmates (click the image):

 

All three women are incredibly well-traveled and very independent. Coming from the Philippines where we rarely have the opportunity to be alone, not to mention to travel solo, and where women still play traditional roles, they are all quite exceptional. Although I am accustomed to being the only thorn among the roses–I was the only male teacher when I worked in Mindanao, and the only male reading teacher when I worked in a clinic for children with learning difficulties–this is an entirely new experience, given the variety of backgrounds, cultures, and personalities.

It will be interesting to see how things develop in the next few months. I am certain there will be challenges. For one, I am an introvert who is used to living alone, so there will have to be some adjustment on my part.

Also, coming from a developing country, I will also be faced with a lifestyle that I consider–simply because I come from the Philippines–to be well above my means. As fortunate as we are to have found a beautiful, spacious flat in the suburbs of Les Corts in Barcelona, furnished with appliances, cutlery, dishes, brand-new IKEA furniture, I would still need to be able to find work to support myself while I am here.

The IKEA furniture-shopping expedition culminated with a meal in the cafeteria. Whereas my flatmates bought curtains, frames, carpets, bookends, lamps, and other embellishments with which to beautify their rooms, I had bought a trash bin.

Arrival

 

It is a strange feeling, arriving in a foreign country for the first time. It is a process that continues even after you have walked out of the airport, even after you have unpacked your bags, taken your first shower, or have had your first meal.

I arrived in Barcelona airport before noon, and after using the mere 15 minutes of free wifi that they make available to contact my flatmates to get the address of our apartment, I then had to figure out how to get there. My first attempt to board a bus to the city taught me that they do not give change for anything larger than €20, so I had to go back up to the airport to have money changed into smaller denominations.

The weather in Barcelona is optimal for human existence. It was October and you can walk around in a shirt beneath the midday sun and not sweat a drop.

TIP: When arriving in a new country, bring the local currency in smaller denominations. The bus fare from the airport to the city is €5.90, while the regular bus fare within the city is €2.15. Buying a prepaid card as early as possible will save you money right off the bat. For example, a card worth 10 trips costs €10.30 (only €1 per trip), and is valid on the bus, tram, and metro. Multiple swipes within an hour also count as just one trip.

You could, of course, take a taxi, which I’ve learned is quite reasonable, and not cutthroat in their rates (unlike airport taxis in my country). Out of habit, however, I do not take a taxi if I can help it.
My first interaction with the locals was on the plane. Marta and Angela were two ladies who ran a travel agency, Atlantis Mara, and they had just taken a group to Myanmar for several days. So I was quite lucky as they spoke english and suggested places to visit and so on. I chatted with one of their clients about football, and learned that tickets to watch a match in Barcelona Camp Nou costs at least €50, but that there are clubs you can join which gets you a discount.

In the arrival area, there are information centres, banks, money changers, and a surprisingly large number of dogs. I suggest that unless you’re changing large amounts, you can get better rates elsewhere.

Distracted at Plaza España. It’s always better to make your way to your destination before getting into sightseeing.

As usual, I immediately got lost (even back in the Philippines, I have a horrible sense of direction). Despite having consulted at the tourist information booth, I missed my stop and had to take another bus back. Fortunately, there was a tourist information booth here because I couldn’t find the bus stop. Then, after receiving directions, I decided to sightsee for a bit, then proceeded to wait at the wrong bus stop for a bus that never came. I tried asking a few people for directions (all the Spanish phrases one has learned become so much harder to remember when you really need to use them), and was eventually pointed in the right direction by a waiter.

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The youths who man the tourist information centers are the best. They are multilingual and extremely helpful. This guy at Plaza España was way friendly and spoke spanish, catalan, english, and even korean.

TIP: As they tend to stand outside, waiters and shopkeepers are good people to ask for directions. Senior citizens are also happy to help, but one I spoke to completely ignored me after several “Buenos tardeses.” She either had really bad hearing or simply did not want to have anything to do with a FOB like myself. Also, take a cab if it’s not that expensive.

By the time I got to my flat past 3, my shoulders were screaming (my pack weighed around 20kg). I rang the bell, introduced myself to the voice over the intercom, and was let in by a young Spaniard named Jose, who turned out to be the property manager and the son of the owners of the flat.

We rode up on an antique elevator to the fourth floor, and I walked into what would be my home–and to meet the people who were to be my flatmates for the next ten months–for the very first time.


TIP: When looking for long-staying flat rentals in Barcelona, search out sites like JustLandedBCN, AirBNB, or Loquo. Also, don’t ignore ads simply because they don’t have photos. I plan to write a more detailed post about flat hunting in Barcelona in the future.

How To Survive a 22-Hour Flight

 

When I saw that flying from Manila, Philippines to Barcelona, Spain would take me  a whopping twenty two hours (with a two-hour layover in Singapore and a hidden stop in Madrid), I decided to look up tips to make the trip more manageable. Here is a list of tips that would make air travel more bearable, should you find yourself flying across time zones.

1. Fly via Singapore Airlines Whenever possible, fly Singapore Airlines. I cannot stress this enough. Once you’ve already decided to fly halfway around the world, invest in the best airline to get you there.

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Changi Airport is the best. This is the view from one of the free foot massage chairs that line the concourse. There is also a free cinema, water fountains, butterfly garden, and of course, wifi.

Their food is better, you can order as many drinks as your bladder can hold, you have your own entertainment centre with the latest films, TV series, documentaries, stage performances, and music. Did I mention this is in economy class? Along with Emirates, which I’ve yet to experience, Singapore Airlines is ranked the best airline in the world. And deservedly so.

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This is business class. One day, first class, one day.

But say you didn’t follow my advice and flew on an airline that’s not Singapore Airlines, then you’ll need to bring the following in order to maintain your sanity in prolonged confinement in high altitudes with complete strangers:

2. Bring a sleep mask, ear plugs, and travel pillow Some people have the uncanny ability to sleep regardless of where they are (my father for example), and are also able to instantly adjust to time differences. If you’re not one of these people, however, you can diminish the effects of jet lag by sleeping or waking according to the time zone of your destination. Flying from east to west, with the Philippines being six hours ahead of Spain, I tried sleeping a few hours later in the week leading up my flight, and on the plane, I slept when it was nighttime at my destination. A sleep mask is usually provided. For travel pillows, I use the inflatable type, which isn’t the best, but is great if you don’t have a lot of room in your carry-on. If you have the budget, I would recommend the J Pillow – Winner of British Invention of the Year 2013

3. Get a seat towards the rear of the plane It’s roomier back there, but at the same time, but of course, be sure to get one that’s not right next to the lavatories. You’re likely to get an empty seat adjacent to you, so you can stretch out or even lie down. If there are empty seats in another row, work something out with your fellow passengers. Some other travellers are able to get bumped up to business class, but this is pretty rare.

4. Wear comfortable clothes Leave the tight jeans in your luggage. The high altitude will cause you to bloat, and wearing constricting clothing will become even quite uncomfortable. Wear sweatshirts, joggers, and shoes that are easy to slip on and off. Some women advise wearing loose tops so that you can easily and inconspicuously slip off your bra.

Continue to page 2 to keep reading ‘How to Survive a 22-Hour Flight

The Year of Living Dangerously

 

In less than a week I will be saying goodbye to my family, my friends, my country, and all that I know so well.  Goodbye to the familiar food, sights, sounds, currency, routes, weather, and smells.

It won’t be the first time I’ve gone abroad to study. When I was in secondary school I was a YFU (Youth For Understanding) exchange student to Norway where I was hosted by several families. When I left the Philippines for Norway in 1996, the Internet was still a novelty in those parts of the world. Letters were sent through the post instead of through email, and I remember my father giving me $2500 as pocket money for one year. It was the most money I had ever had , and by the end of the year, I hadn’t  even spent all of it.

The wacky pose was already in Oslo but didn't become a phenomenon until much later. Hartvig-Nissen Skole, Oslo 1996
Spot the odd man out. Hartvig-Nissen Skole, Oslo 1996

Seventeen years later I am once again heading out into the great unknown, but this time on my own. After weeks of gathering the necessary paperwork I have taken all my savings, liquidated my investments, made a downpayment on the tuition fee, and bought a one-way ticket to Spain. I don’t have a place to stay when I arrive, and since my funds aren’t enough to cover living expenses, I plan to work in order to support myself during my studies.

This is a chronicle of my journey, a life experiment if you will, and perhaps, it may serve as a guide to any of you out there who dream of venturing outside your comfort zone. Of making mistakes, of falling flat, so many times that you become immune to the pain, and become very good at dusting yourself off.

See you out there.

For a theme song, I thought This Year from the Mountain Goats’ The Sunset Tree album would be appropriate.