The Barcelona Syndrome

On being unhappy in beautiful places

I have an all-too-frequent and all-too-human tendency to repeat myself. It takes a number of forms. It might be because I come across a quote, a thought or an idea that interests and excites me and suddenly my usual restraint is loosened and I want to share the wisdom with everybody, whether by scanning for spurious and loosely connected reasons for bringing it into any conversation, little openings that enable me to bask in the reflected genius of the idea, or worse, allow the impression that the wisdom contained in the words is mine. One worrying component, mentioned earlier, of this trait concerns my worsening-on-a-daily-basis forgetfulness: have I told you this before? Yes? No? Never mind, I’ll say it anyway. One example of this variant was told me by a client (from my clients I’ve always felt I learn way more than is probably fair…given who is paying), a piece of folk wisdom which he was told by his grandmother: “If you need something done, ask someone who’s busy.” At first I didn’t get it, it being subtle, smart and counter-intuitive. But then on the train home the words stepped out into the light and revealed themselves to me and I wanted to share my learning with the whole carriage.

The more virulent version of this trait happens when I have an original idea of my own – which sometimes happens! Then, all of the above are amplified. One such example is the Barcelona Syndrome, an idea I have repeated to many of my clients and, of course, some more than once. So, forgive me if I’m repeating myself.

Moving abroad is never short of surprises. Hopefully enough of these surprises are enjoyable and add to our happiness, helping to broaden our awareness and understanding of ourselves and the world. However, what we experience when we leave our home country can all too often be tough, unexpectedly so…and sometimes even disturbing, to the extent that our mood and health suffer.

Once the excitement and newness begins to fade, and the being on holiday feeling (“this is great…strolling about in t-shirt, shorts and flip-flops for 8 months of the year…”) gives way to the strange existential mood of living on holiday (“I’m on holiday…no I’m not, I live here…is this all my life amounts to?”) Then we begin to ask ourselves:

  • Is my life here sustainable?
  • Can I be economically active here and earn a living?
  • Is it okay to not be able to communicate clearly in the local language/s?
  • Can I find enough of what I need culturally here?
  • Can I cope without my family and friends?
  • Can this new place become my home?

Suddenly and unexpectedly we can feel lost and hopelessly at sea. Even the ordinary everyday elements of daily life can begin to feel overwhelming. From simply buying bread to engaging with the confusing and daunting local bureaucracies in order to administer our new lives, suddenly all the things we need to do become infected by discomfort and fear. We can quickly become isolated and all too easily lose our capacity to cope.

What I describe above partly arises from what I’ve lived through since arriving in Barcelona in 1999 (a long time ago now but actually there are moments when it feels like yesterday!) and partly on the experience of growing-up in an immigrant family in the United Kingdom, the son of Polish and Irish settlers. Now, as a consequence of my own immigrant experience in Spain, I look at the lives of my parents with much greater respect, understanding and empathy. Of course Birmingham, where they migrated to and where I grew up, is not Barcelona. It occupies a very different place in the global (national UK at least) imagination. Mike Harding, ‘The Rochdale Cowboy’, comedian, poet, etc., once said that if the world had hemorrhoids they’d be dangling in Birmingham. My old City comes with its issues too!

What seems clear to me is the fact that this is Barcelona matters (and yes I have enjoyed the envy it stimulates to tell people I live here…but it does grow tedious!). It’s the City addicted to tourism (see another piece on my blog), the place itself a kind of happiness inducing wonder drug in the global imagination. Many of my clients came here in search of this very panacea but now carry their Barcelona kit as an additional burden, over and above what it is that they have explicitly come to see me for. This is what I over the years have begun to call the Barcelona Syndrome. My oft repeated idea which is basically the belief, that can begin to set in, living in a place as cool, desirable, envy-inducing and beautiful as Barcelona, a place where half the planet seems to want to live, that “there must be something REALLY wrong with me if I’m capable of being unhappy HERE!”

Barcelona, if we swallow the hype and we rarely hear otherwise, is a wonderful place to live. Of course, there is no doubt about this being a privileged part of the world. So much great weather, so much light, endless beaches, great architecture, mountains for walking and skiing, the magnificent Mediterranean. Excellent food, the world’s best restaurant, (once) just up the coast, the healthiest diet… All of this can begin to feel crushingly ironic, because the collective myth of Barcelona not only generally excludes some of the real challenges of living here, it reinforces the unhappiness when it sets in. Then add the language issue to the mix. “Not only can I not speak Spanish…but there’s another language (Catalan) in which I’m even less capable!!” Consequently, living in Barcelona, our struggles feel worse, not better. We can become terribly self-critical and carry a deep sense of having failed. While it is generally true that the worst criticisms come from inside us, there are those for whom it is impossible to truly comprehend that it is possible to have problems and be unhappy in Barcelona.

“Barcelona was the medicine I thought would heal me BUT I became unwell here too.”  Or (and this is all too often the case in a City that people can all too easily become lost in) “this is where I first became unwell, so there must be something really wrong with me!”

One of the factors reinforcing this belief is that people stop talking to those back home about their stuff – this is generally true of most mental health issues – because they feel ashamed (shame, the great social killer) of their plight, for not being happy in a place where all conventional wisdom says you MUST be happy. “People just look at me and think I’m mad…you’re in Barcelona girl…just go out and have a laugh.” So people stop talking with each other and gradually fall deeper into unhappiness and despair.

Finally, it is of course equally the case (probably for the majority) that a city like Barcelona can make us happy…it does after all have SO MUCH to enjoy and is in many ways a deeply privileged place. Perhaps though this merely reinforces, for those whom migrating here did not work, the deep sense of failure that sets in when one becomes unhappy here.

Key Largo seascape

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One thought on “The Barcelona Syndrome

  1. I wish I’d written that myself and now I wish at least I would have done so better than you (big splash of honesty and my sense of humour 🙂 ). Excellent read, thank you. I have emigrated three times..I have not been less happy in any other place than BCN. BCN was by far the most gorgeous (the other places were Stuttgart Germany, and london uk) and a place to clearly ENJOY yourself. And indeed I was enjoying all the things you mentioned and much more.. But in terms of economic sustainability, career, and creation I could just see an abyss. And apart from the Catalan language that complicates the communication -although I anyway utterly LOVE new languages and learning- is my very personal impression (and forgive me I’m not sociologist or politician) that although Barcelona comes across as an “international” city, for various reasons I’m sure, but what I’m thinking now is the political and economical concerns for autonomy from Spain maybe make bcn in reality a less tolerant city socially, or this is my feeling and personal experience. I was trying to convince my self that is was ok to be unhappy in such a wonderful place -and it was hard! Many thanks for sharing, means a lot to know that people would be able to understand you, (if only you could dare to speak about it).

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