Finding Culture in Barcelona


“When in Barcelona!”
“What?” I snapped.
“You know, like ‘When in Rome, do as the Romans do…’”
“But we’re not in Rome. That’s not the saying.”
“Yeah, but I think it applies to wherever.”
And the conversation went on like this for a few minutes. I had no idea what my friend, Margeaux, was talking about; there was nothing for us to do like the Barcelonans would do, unless she wanted us to wait like the locals, which I’m pretty sure they didn’t even have to do. The silent treatment seemed to be especially for the tourists.

The small restaurant would have been welcoming, maybe even cute, had we not been fresh off a plane, hungry, and irritable (after about ten minutes Margeaux had given up on optimistic and was looking downright irritated.) The walls around us were white stone and the small wooden tables were scattered around the place with mismatching chairs. Looking back, the place was eclectic and cozy, but Margeaux and I felt like we were skirting the line of starvation at the time, so to us it was dingy and cramped.

Finally after about twenty or thirty minutes a very dark and Spanish looking waiter walked slowly over to our table. He had olive complexion, shoulder-length dark hair bordering on black, and stood with his hand on his hip like Ricky Ricardo.

“Hello,” he said in a thick accent. “What can I get you?” He tapped his foot impatiently even as the words left his mouth.

“We want to try something new!” Margeaux said confidently to the waiter in her best (and loudest) Spanish. We had been trying to practice our Spanish since we left The States and we were a bit offended that this waiter had automatically assumed we were American. Looking back on it, it is no wonder that he did.

“You want to try something new? Okay.” He responded this time in Spanish.
With that Señor Blue Eyes turned on his heel and was off to the kitchen to prepare our order.

The only thing Barcelonans hate more than two naïve American girls is two naïve American girls trying to speak Spanish in a city where Catalan is the norm. I didn’t know it then, but Catalan is the language of northern Spain, not Spanish; and to anyone who was raised speaking it, it is the only language of Spain. Of course Barcelonans have a handle on both the languages so he understood us perfectly and even responded clearly enough in Spanish (though his accent sounded like a comedian’s impression of a gay hairdresser), but the people of Barcelona are a peculiar breed of Spaniard. They are proud; they are cultured; they have light eyes and dark skin; and dammit they don’t have to speak Spanish in Spain if they don’t want to! They also seem to have no qualms about teaching two American girls a lesson. Several minutes later the waiter returned with a large plate of what at first looked like pasta. “Enjoy,” he said as he placed our entrée on the table. We looked at our delicious meal hungrily, forks in hand, mouths watering, ready to shovel the food gluttonously to our faces, when we realized this was not a plate of pasta at all. What we took to be thick noodles were the thick, stubby tentacles of at least twenty miniature octopi.

We stared at the plate. It stared back.
“When in Barcelona…”
I looked at the waiter as I chewed (and chewed, and chewed…) the tiny morsel of what may as well have been rubber; and I forced a smile. After he disappeared I quickly pushed the plate away from me and closer to Margeaux, we put a menu over the thing just to avoid the reminder of what was currently squirming down into our stomachs, and drained our water glasses so fast, a small tear trickled out of my eye.

Needless to say the first bite was our last and the plate remained hidden until we left, but we thought we put forth a valiant effort considering our meal had suction cups. After all, we are Americans. We are stubborn, we speak Spanish at inappropriate times, we have never even heard of Catalan, and dammit we aren’t afraid to try new things!
When we left the restaurant we walked into the first McDonald’s we saw.
After all, we are Americans.

N Grigson

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