Questions from my year abroad


Swapping the dreaming spires of Oxford for the twisting spires of Barcelona.

‘Puc fer-te una pregunta?’ Can I ask you a question? Honestly, I’m in a hurry, running an Oxford five minutes late and sweating slightly. I get asked questions all the time. Does it have to be now?

It helps to be addressed in a language that I can actually speak.

The feeling of starting a year abroad can be perhaps summed up in this strange interaction: an elderly Catalan man brandishing his walking stick at young English blow-ins on his way to his morning coffee and pastry. Taking myself by surprise, I stopped to oblige him. Seeing my look of consternation at his opener, he followed it up with ‘Català o castellà?’ Catalan or Spanish? It helps to be addressed in a language that I actually speak, so in Spanish now, he went on: ‘What do corrupt politicians have in common with the moon?’ I really was running late.

Apparently, they both have hidden faces. I must have looked like I’d never heard of the moon because he started to explain to me that we can only see one side of it from the earth, that politicians are duplicitous, and that it’s a metaphor. Thanks, I thought, for clearing that one up.

I’m not hungover today, but it’s good to know there’s support out there for when I am.

Or perhaps the feeling of a year abroad is summed up in the bakery where I (a vege- but really flexi-tarian) first ordered a vegetable baguette. ‘Chicken or fish?’ was the response. Oh, I guess they’re vegetables here. ‘So’, I say, ‘what are the vegetarian options?’ ‘Well, we have bocadillos de tortilla… and… everything else has meat.’

Here I make a mental note that bocadillos de tortilla are baguettes filled with Spanish omelette, or carbs around carbs and eggs. I’m not hungover today, but it’s good to know there’s support out there for when I am.

I had a chicken sandwich. It was good, excellent in fact, and vegetables filled with vegetables anyway. The woman at the bakery seemed most relieved I had renegued on my morals and eaten properly.

But, I guess that’s the point. I can run late in Oxford, and in fact have honed my panicked time-keeping skills in two years of study there. In Barcelona, I can run late and field questions from philosophical pensioners. In Oxford I can choose from a plethora of vegetarian options. In Barcelona I could eat my bodyweight in fartons   (delicious finger- shaped pastries to be dipped in coffee or chocolate and made, unfortunately, with lard) on my way to uni and it wouldn’t cost me an arm and a leg.

A year abroad can be isolating and scary and confusing. You feel like you’re learning constantly and yet going nowhere. You have to eat different things, and a cheeky trip to Tesco turns into a 45-minute slog in Carrefour. You have to navigate labyrinthine bureaucracy and new streets. In short, it’s difficult. But there are also moments when you feel like the characters from a book you read have stepped out of its pages and started grilling you
like a Catalan Jeremy Paxman.

In Barcelona, I could eat my bodyweight in fartons.

I was running late but being early is overrated and being on time is British. Mostly, I’m enjoying the non-Britishness of everything, the surprise of new experiences and unexpected questions.

As much as I’m looking forward to coming home for Christmas, I’m glad that moment has not arrived yet.

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