The Barcelona Effect

by emily on April 9, 2012

Barcelona is the sort of place that makes me nervously tongue-tied. No matter how much I enjoy myself while I’m there, I always leave feeling untethered and unsure.

Spain intimidates me because it’s so close to the world that I know, but operating on its own frequency.  It’s this alternate rhythm that’s nerve-wracking. When you travel often, you come to realize that most places and cities in the world share a common hum that ticks throughout, connecting them to the same vibration. So when you visit a place like Spain where there is a different time signature, you experience a disarming shock. The common thread you’ve come to expect for a shred of normalcy in a new place isn’t so common anymore.

I think this shock hits hard coming from Belgium.  Belgium is frequently called the most Northern of the Southern cultures, and the most Southern of the Northern.  The grey area that Belgians excel at living in lets people develop a nebulous sense of understanding between the two latitudinal halves of Europe. But a visit to Spain blows that shred of Southern cultural understanding to bits.

The moment of being overwhelmed and terrified comes when you realize how long this culture has been operating apart from your previously perceived general order of things. It seems like an obvious and glib statement, but there’s a fine line separating the knowing from the understanding. We know there are different ways of life, but experiencing the manifestation of those differences makes you comprehend how fantastically malleable human society is. You can’t help but wonder how many more places there are in the world like this, places that offer a glimpse of how large the bottom of the ice berg you’re standing on may be. The possibility of that grandness makes you feel very small.

Barcelona augments Spain’s feeling of particularity. As the capital of Catalonia, a region whose engines are always revving to take off from Spain, the sense of uniqueness and otherness is celebrated. It’s logical that Picasso, Joan Miro and Antoni Gaudi found inspiration in their home country, snuggling in amongst its difference from the rest of the Iberian Peninsula.

I like Barcelona because of this celebration and pride. It’s a surprisingly freeing feeling coming from places like Brussels where the individuality of Art Nouveau was torn down before locals could understand its value. Or from the US, where for many people the stamped out patterns of suburbia are the norm. Suddenly seeing the fanciful architecture of Gaudi and other modernists pop up next to traditional Gothic-style apartment complexes makes you feel like you’ve accidentally tripped down the rabbit hole.

The Sagrada Familia, Antoni Gaudi’s massive ode to God and modernism, is Barcelona’s major cathedral and one of the city’s main symbols. The façade drips with hallucinogenic natural forms and the spires look as if they’ve been formed by a child who slowly and deliberately dribbled sand droplets on top of each other to build the sandy stalagmites.

The Sagrada Familia exemplifies this thing that Barcelona does so well – it takes a standard form and flips it ever so slightly. The cathedral has the essence of all the cathedrals or grand European buildings I’ve visited, but is psychotropic with its sculptures of animals melting into human forms and the skeletal bones of the interior. Its scaffolding seems normal and apropos for the building’s grandness as well, but only until you remember that it’s still being built, not renovated.

Gaudi’s cathedral captures another element that runs throughout Spain.  It’s this feeling that every celebration of individuality and experimentation has a direct connection to tradition.  This quiet assertion that the past can be mixed with new ideas and risks without having the world come to an end feels humbling from my current American perspective.

Spain feels like it uses its traditional past differently.  It reminds me that sometimes in America we focus a bit too much on maintaining tradition exactly as it is for the sake of tradition.  We sometimes forget to remember that at one point, our tradition was once somebody’s vanguard.  Tradition is not meant to be fought for or against, but to serve as a foundation and a building block.

So why am I tongue-tied? This is my third trip to Spain, and my second one to Barcelona, so I wasn’t expecting to leave again with the feeling that the floor had just opened up beneath me. I left being reminded how large Europe was and more importantly, that I had fallen into a trap that Americans are more likely to fall into than others.  We come from a relatively uniform culture within a continent-wide country, making it hard to actively remember that as a continent, Europe does not share our cultural consistency. We have an inverse connection between geographical size and cultural homogeneousness.  Only in the US can you spend a weekend on the other side of the country while speaking the same language as in your hometown and without experiencing major culture shock.

I’m not sure when I fell into the feeling that Europe is an accessible lump culture, but thankfully Spain cracked apart my narrowing perception. I started to believe a little too strongly in that specific hum of life that I had found woven throughout my other travels. But that’s the benefit of traveling and the need to be overwhelmed with the largeness of human versatility. There is a common thread that links multiple cultures together, and it’s necessary to believe in that commonality. But the awesome feeling of traveling is when you realize that there’s more than one possible thread connecting you to other ways of life and the people who live them. The dumbfounding beauty is knowing that there is an infinite number of threads out there and that we only shortchange ourselves once we stop looking.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Kaley [Y Mucho Más] April 11, 2012 at 2:53 am

I find it really cool and interesting that you think of Spain as so different from Belgium. For me, Spain is challenging in so many ways, and I’ve learned to accept that part of me/Spain, but I am glad to see others see that big gap just like I do.

Even if Barcelona itself is a bit distinct from the rest of Spain. :)

Liz April 12, 2012 at 4:12 am

Great post, I love your writing :) Barcelona is on my “must visit” list!

Katie K April 14, 2012 at 5:33 pm

I agree, great post! But really, for example, don’t Canada and Australia, for example, also count as countries where you can spend a weekend on the other side of the country while speaking the same language as in your hometown and without experiencing major culture shock?”

emily April 14, 2012 at 6:12 pm


Katie, it’s true about Australia – I honestly forgot about our largest Anglophone neighbors to the South! As for Canada, Quebec is a very different culture – both in where the culture is orientated toward and in linguistic terms – than say, Vancouver. Plus, there are the accents of the far eastern Canadian coast which vary much more drastically from their Western counterparts than our California vs. New Yorker differences, for example. I think the US really is unique in its cultural uniformity coast to coast. It’s impressive when you think about how big the country is!

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