Two weeks ago, the kids and I arrived in Barcelona, the city we called home for two years until last August. We rushed over after school ended in San Francisco so the kids could see their old friends while they still had a week of school left here in Spain.
This time we rented an apartment in Turo Park, the elegant, leafy neighborhood where many ex-pat and local families we know live. It’s where we would have moved had we been able to stay another year in Spain. Its organic market and chic boutiques were favored destinations of mine last year, but I had to drive here from our home in the hills.
Almost immediately I felt a sense of ease that I have to work to achieve in the United States, with meditation classes and deliberate mindfulness training. Life slows down in Spain and there’s a warmth in human interactions that’s harder to grasp in the US.
There is an ease that comes with living here, despite some inconveniences. In fact, some of the things we call an inconvenience, like the fact that stores are closed in the mid-afternoon and on Sundays, are part of what makes life easier. You are forced to relax at certain times of the day.
Back in San Francisco, we are in living our “proper” life, complete with an exciting job for my husband, a modern dream house we’re building in the city, and excellent schools for our kids.
But somehow it’s never enough in San Francisco. In the US it’s never about where you are, but where you’re going.
I wrote these words a week ago, and today a friend who divides her time between Barcelona and San Francisco said just that. She said that San Francisco has fantastic food, lovely weather and beautiful scenery – yet, she said, there’s a different feeling in San Francisco. “It’s like you’re always going somewhere,” she said.
In Spain, it’s about where you are.
Every afternoon in Barcelona, except Sunday, you find all the cafes full of locals. They are simply gathering with friends to chat. There is no other agenda, not particular information that needs to be conveyed. Simply being together.
On Sundays, Spaniards take it a step further. The day is reserved for lunch with the extended family, a multi-hour affair that assures that at least one day a week you will be fully unplugged from work and school pressures and, instead, engaged in the personal relationships that are what really matters. Expats living in Spain take up the tradition by hosting their own lunches at home.
The other night I went out with four local Catalan women. From 10pm to 2am, we ambled from one location to another in Barcelona’s gentrifying Raval district. A drink was had here and there, with not enough food and too many cigarettes, but what struck me was the languid pace of our discussions. The hours passed and there was no sense of rushing, no urge to get home to bed or to the kids.
Spaniards simply do a better job of living in the moment. Tomorrow is tomorrow and if we’re going to be tired in the morning, so be it. Right now I’m chatting with my friends or new acquaintances and that’s where I am.
Spaniards also have institutionalized their downtime. Lunchtime is sacred. When our kids skied on ski teams in the Pyrenees, training ended at 2pm. That’s the time for lunch, the main meal of the day. While we opted for the long lunches with friends on our Saturdays in the mountains, on Sundays we took advantage of the empty highways (everyone is at lunch in the mid-afternoon) to drive back home to Barcelona.
Yet our Catalan friends, even those who had lived in the US, were horrified to learn that on Sundays we ate sandwiches in the car on our way back to Barcelona. They’d prefer to brave the post-lunchtime traffic or to have a siesta and drive home in the late evening, rather than do something as uncivilized as eat lunch in the car.
In my opinion, there’s a happy medium. I can’t and don’t want a two-hour lunch break every day, especially if it means going back to work until 8pm, as it does in Spain. And I frankly don’t even mind a meal in the car if it means getting home much earlier on Sunday evening.
But on the other hand, there are times when just being – either at a meal or in conversation with friends – should be the main event. It shouldn’t be a prelude to anything else. It should just be.