In Manhattan I wake up between 6 and 8 am no matter what. The city wakes everyone up and calls them out of bed before the sun even peeks over the skyscrapers. The streets fill up, people walk fast and multitask. They imbibe trendy and expensive coffees; ending morning yawns and unpleasant moods but contributing to a constant jitter in the city.
During my last week in Barcelona, I woke up, still out of habit, at 7am in order to grab my coffee and be focused for my language class which began at 9:30. I walked outside to a nearly empty calle.
The sun had been up for hours and yet even on a workday the commotion (if you could even call it that) wouldn’t begin until 15 minutes prior to the start of work. At this hour, a sleepy but beautifully dressed woman strolled hand in hand with her boyfriend. Neither one of them spoke until they parted in front of the bus stop and uttered a whispering of goodbyes. A man jogged to the stoplight across from me; filling the still air with the sounds of his footsteps and heavy breathing. His light grey shirt matched the bit of hair on his head and began to show his hard work with spots of sweat. I knew he was a tourist. I’d rarely seen a Barcelonian jogging and the few I had noticed were certainly not jogging at 8am.
The mornings were just one of moments throughout the day when I’d experience such a strong difference between the culture surrounding me and the one in New York. After three weeks I knew it wasn’t jet lag. All of my former habits simply didn’t fit in Spain. In Manhattan, for example, I’d gotten used to the convenience of the many grocery stores, pharmacies, and 24 hour hole-in-the-wall bodegas. On my first day of language classes, I decided to buy a new notebook and set of pens. So, during my lunch break at 1pm, I walked a few blocks to a papeleria (a stationary store), which, unlike U.S. superstores was the only kind of shop you could buy a notebook and the like. On each block I noticed more and more shopkeepers pulling down their old, creaky garage doors. I reached the papeleria just in time for the daily siesta. Everything around me was closed until at least 4 or 5pm and my stationary needs (as well as grumbling stomach) would have to wait.
Similarly, a friend and I left for dinner one evening around 7pm. We passed our Spanish teacher, a true Catalonian, on the street and he asked where we were heading. “We’re starving! Do you have any restaurant recommendations?” my friend responded (in broken Spanish). He laughed. His favorite restaurant wouldn’t open for dinner until 8pm and even that was much earlier than he would dine. We hypothesized that if we’d awoken and eaten breakfast later, then enjoyed a lunch and siesta of proper lengths we might have been able to hold out and eat our dinner as late as the rest of Spain. But, alas, our devouring of patatas bravas and chilled cava was accompanied by other hungry tourists and not the boisterous Spanish conversations we’d hoped for.
It really doesn’t take long to adjust to the lifestyle and pace of Barcelona. Who wouldn’t want to take off of work at 1pm every day to enjoy a leisurely lunch with friends and maybe even take a nap? The culture urges you to put work aside, let your meals last hours, spend your afternoons at a beach, and turn on vacation mode.
But, toward the end of my three weeks, as the airlines bombarded my email inbox with reminders of my return flight, I felt conflicted about going back. I did feel antsy for my old routine. I missed that buzzing city full of people driving for a nearly unattainable level of success. I wanted that motivational nudge (or aggressive shove) that Manhattan seems to give me every time I leave my apartment. But as I strolled by happy Barcelonians leisurely enjoying the heat of summer and thoroughly satisfied by the work they’d accomplished, I realized how rare such a scene was in New York.
What am I missing when I speed through each day? What would it take to get the city, or even just one office, to take off work for two or three hours in the middle of the day? So many New Yorkers seem to treat slowing down or taking a break as a sign of weakness; the end of the world. Perhaps we would actually benefit immensely with a true change in our pace.