I moved to Barcelona the first time by accident. It was 1993, the year after their summer Olympic games and I had bought the cheapest one-way ticket from Los Angeles to Europe I could find, which happened to be Amsterdam. It was May and I had not packed well for Northern Europe so I was freezing my ass off! After two days of smoking everything possible in the cool cafes near the Red Light District, I took a train to Paris. Paris was too expensive, San Sebastian and Pamplona weren’t what I was looking for, and I ultimately ended up in a seaside village 25 minutes south of Barcelona called Sitges.
It was like nothing I had ever even imagined in my life. No one wore trainers outside of the gym. There were no sweatpants or cut-off denim shorts or purple leggings, and I was the ONLY person in the village with Ugg boots and rollerblades (both of which generated confused stares wherever I went)! Locals said hello as they entered any shop or the bank or when sitting down on the train. They even said hello or gave a nod as they passed by on the street, it was wild. Life closed down between two to five p.m. each day and Sundays were made to spend with family. I was 22 years old and worked illegally that first summer at a ‘disco’ named Ricky’s, partying and dancing ‘til dawn seven nights a week. Basically having the time of my life.
That first stint lasted four years and the next one – starting exactly a decade later in 2003 – lasted another eight years. It’s still where my heart calls home, although I moved to Asia in 2011.
Well, two weeks ago my dear friend Rando unearthed an epic video from a 2007 ‘cierre’ (an end-of-summer closing party) we all attended annually in Barcelona. It had terrible ‘probably recorded on a 1st generation smartphone’ audio but that didn’t matter because the energy was there. Every single person there looks 100% into the moment and that was exactly how things were back then! It stirred up a ton of emotions and memories.
So I asked my mates what they miss most about our old lives in Sitges. Here’s what they said…
1. The quality of life
Nicole Mullikin is from the USA and currently living in Dubai where she’s taking a break from her career to enjoy expat life in the Dubai sandpit. She shared, “Sunday is a day to spend time and eat/drink with family and friends – with really no businesses open you are forced to take a route of quality time instead of taking care of your to-do list on a Sunday.”
Of course Nicole is right, it was amazing to see exactly that every Sunday. Without fail, families united. In the village of Sitges where I lived, most people went to the ‘paseo’ (the boardwalk) and took a leisurely stroll to help digest some amazing paella or barbacoa lunch they had just eaten. Nicole lived in the heart of Barcelona and for her it was Las Ramblas more so than the Paseo but the behavior was the same. What was most incredible about this was that it included kids young and old. As a teen in SoCal, there’s no way I would have wanted to do that week after week, and I’m sure I wouldn’t have to be honest. Yet families care and respect each other differently in Spain and quality time together was simply how life was there. It was assumed, and it was beautiful!
2. Spain’s relaxed lifestyle
James Gossage is from the UK and currently living in the London where he has just done a huge 180 on his career and is now in training to protect and serve with her Majesty’s police force. He said, “The pace of life and the luxury of meeting friends for extended lunches on the beach” is what he misses most.
That laid back Spanish siesta vibe makes its way into everyone’s life that resides in Spain. Whereas most countries have a standard 1-hour lunch imposed by human resources, work lunches in Spain are 2 hours and often include wine or beer pretty much every day. Now imagine that level of chilled work culture but with your dearest friends added into the equation. Add to that the beauty of the Mediterranean Sea and the food and wine culture of España! Our group would often start off like James mentioned, as an extended lunch. Yet half the time we’d just carry on from there! More times than either of us can count we’d end up watching the sunrise together the next day following a night of dinner and dancing, too.
3. It was easy to make good friends as an expat in Spain
Neilas Katinas is from Lithuania and currently living in Chile where he co-hosts a national television dance show and is an Ambassador for Glam Design Fashion Week by Glam Magazine Chile. He told me that for him it was having “A great time with fantastic people.”
Neilas is 1,000% spot on! Many of us are or were serial expats and know very well that not all cities are created equally when it comes to making friends and the life you can have with them. Although we all worked in Barcelona, most of our crew lived in that one tiny village on the sea and that’s where our life was and we were kindred spirits. Our group was a mix of locals and expats from all over the world. Everyone was down-to-earth, welcoming and inclusive, and 100% unpretentious. All of that made our core group of friends truly special and to my knowledge something that none of us have yet been able to replicate or have found again.
Rando Wagner is from Germany and currently living in the UK but spends all the time he’s not working in Greece helping Syrian and other refugees. He works tirelessly to help others, please support his Go Fund Me campaign that has already raised £98,458 at the time I’m writing this. He shared this with me, “Pre € Spain had a second-world charm and lifestyle that differentiated it from Northern Europe. While people didn’t fly away (in general) for city breaks abroad, they had a good life involving a month long holiday by the coast and went out for coffee and meals with friends much more than in other European countries. Everything was a little more relaxed, less serious.”
Rando’s comment is about a lot more than just August but you can see from above there is a general theme to what we ex-expats loved most about Spain. Just like the shops that close down from two to five p.m. daily (outside of super touristy areas of the big cities), the entire country shuts down to a certain extent in August. It’s a time to recharge the battery and enjoy the pleasures of life with friends and family. As a girl in my early 20s (the 1st time I moved to Spain), all I ever knew was a life where workers had one week of vacation per year. The Spanish found that reality as mind blowing as I did learning about their month-long vacation. Life in general seemed to be structured for the people back then. I know that things have probably changed for Spain since I left in 2011 but I hope it hasn’t changed too much. Assimilating their lifestyle was pure joy as an expat.
5. Going out for the night with sunglasses
And last but not least me (Angela), from the USA and currently living in Malaysia where I’m about to launch a digital agency by day and by night I vlog about luxury travel and life abroad in Southeast Asia:
When I think back on what I miss most it’s a combination of the beauty of where we lived (the seafront mixed with all that incredible architecture!), the amazing friends I had, and the crazy times we spent together. And by crazy times I partly mean that glorious nightlife in summer! There were a couple of years between 2005 to 2007 when our group would either meet on Friday nights at 12:30am at a bar called Prinz or at a friend’s apartment. There we’d make a plan, have a first drink, and start out. Generally it was to smaller bars until 3am and then to a club to dance until 6am. From there, depending on who was game, we’d possibly hop on the train and head out for a few more hours at a wildly cool ‘after hours’ club called Souvenir. Either way, we’d always pre-plan to have sunglasses with us because you’d never know how the night was going to shape up and it was a safe bet we’d be watching the sunrise together. It was a fantastic routine that had us meeting at 4pm at ‘our spot’ on the beach after a few hours of sleep … and doing it all over again on Saturday night.
#FunFoodFact! I asked everyone what they missed most on the culinary side of life and here is our combined list (in the same order as the list above): jamón serrano, tapas in general, pulpo a la gallega, tortilla de patata, and calçots.
My final thoughts…
I don’t see my friends as often as I’d like but Facetime helps to stay in touch, for which I’m genuinely thrilled. Since Spain, I’ve lived in India, China, Hong Kong, and now Malaysia and so far I have yet to experience a sense of community or belonging anywhere else like I did in Sitges. Over time I’m hoping that changes though, because I’d love for Kuala Lumpur to become the new place my heart calls home.
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