It all started with the cancellation of my roommate’s flight to Germany two weekends ago because of the air traffic controllers strike in France…no one could fly over French airspace. Flights were canceled, delayed, re-routed, etc. Anyway, it messed up our traveling plans for this weekend after he had to re-schedule, and I was left to stay in Barcelona this past weekend. Then, my generous and welcoming co-worker Laura mentioned a cheese festival in her hometown of La Seu d’Urgell in the Pyrenees Mountains, and an invitation for me to come, and before I knew it I was in a car with Laura, her boyfriend Carles, and their baby Ainara heading north.
Who could pass that up? I will admit that there was a certain amount of hesitation and nervousness because of the language barrier (her family speaks Catalan, Spanish as a second language, and no English). In the end, it was a little bit of a challenge, but both Laura’s and Carles’s families were SO warm and friendly that it didn’t matter. Although La Seu is still in Catalonia, the town was very different from Barcelona – the pace, the lifestyle, the food, the landscape…it was a breath of fresh air! Below are some of the biggest differences I saw from Barcelona to La Seu d’Urgell.
I will start with the more “surface” (no pun intended) differences. Driving into the Pyrenees was breathtaking. The mountains converge and cross right in front of you (which makes for a pretty curvy ride), and there are small lakes here and there. Within a matter of 2 hours you are in a completely different world. The town is surrounded by mountains and farmland, and the Olympic Park of Segre is located in town, which is a canoeing and kayaking facility built in 1990 for use during the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona. We were able to watch some kayakers practicing in the rushing waters during one of our walks through town, which was pretty cool. My favorite street in town was Passeig Joan Brudieu. The town is obviously also smaller than Barcelona, and has a very “small-town” feel.
After we arrived and got settled at Carles’s parents’ house, we took a walk through the town and to the butcher shop that Laura’s dad owns. When we got there, there were about 5 people in line waiting to place an order. As soon as the three employees working (Laura’s father, mother, and sister) saw us (more specifically Ainara) they stopped everything to say hello, to hold Ainara, give her kisses and hugs, and to meet me. Meanwhile, the store was filling up with customers…but none seemed impatient, no one was complaining, no one left. They all waited until the greetings were done (long enough for me to start wondering if the family was going to go back to work), and then resumed as if nothing had happened. Laura told me that sometimes when she is there and her mom is working alone, her mom will stop and talk or gossip with a customer for 5 minutes with no shame, while the other customers wait.
That same night, Laura and I went for dinner with her friends and we were there for 3 hours, until 1:00am. There was no rush to finish or to get the bill – everyone was simply enjoying the 3-course meal and each other’s company. Although maybe this would happen in Barcelona, I am not sure if it would be to the extremes that I saw in La Seu. Here, the pace of life is centered around people and relationships rather than time.
In La Seu, there is no mistaking – this is Catalonia. Catalan is spoken both between people and on TV, flags fly proud, and traditional food is more prominent. Carles’s father told me that his grandparents that were from there never even learned Spanish, they only spoke Catalan. Although I have seen a lot of Catalan pride in Barcelona as well, it is more a part of life in La Seu. The language has been one of the most fascinating aspects of my stay in Barcelona – the fact that the people switch between Catalan and Spanish so often, and that it is such a big part of their identity. In Barcelona, both languages are spoken, but I would say that Spanish is still heard more often. In La Seu, although everyone knows Spanish, it is mainly Catalan you hear spoken. Before dinner one night, Carles’s mother was asking me if I was hungry, I could tell that much by her hand motions and body language, but the words coming out of her mouth I did not understand. I must have looked confused, because she asked Laura why I didn’t understand. Laura responded by telling her that she was speaking Catalan to me – “Tens gana?” – a language I do not know. She didn’t even realize!
One overwhelming similarity to Barcelona was the welcome I received into the homes and groups. Even though I don’t speak the language, and they have never met me before, I was received with open arms. I got home-cooked meals, a place to sleep, a personal tour around the town, and even a trip to Andorra! When I was at dinner with Laura and her friends, although many don’t speak English very well, they still tried to communicate with me and welcomed me into the group with no hesitation. This is the same feeling I had when I arrived in Barcelona – there was no hesitation to welcome me, show me around, and make me feel like it was a true home.
It was a great weekend and one that I will always remember!