A week or two ago several coworkers asked me the same question.
“Are you going to the Festa Major?”
“Huh, what’s that?”
When multiple people are checking you know about something happening in your new city, it definitely gets your attention.
Each major neighborhood in Barcelona has a yearly festival. These often last for days with decoration in the streets, food, music, all the things you’d expect from a festival in Spain. This week was the one for Gràcia, a relatively central neighborhood we’d considered living in until we found our flat in Poblenou.
Festa Major de Gràcia is one of the larger events and lasts a whole week. We didn’t make it out until the last day. From what we hear about the crowds earlier, it’s probably just as well!
Different streets decorated to themes and competed with each other. Some were mostly art displays, others host to large neighbor dinners or elevated musical stages. Talking with a coworker the day after he said, “Lots of those streets are kind of weird.” As a Portlander, I mostly just felt at home.
We wandered out around 8:30 as dusk closed in. Life in Spain runs as late as you’ve heard. Festivities were just starting throughout Gràcia. We toured several streets, had a baby gelato cones (so itty bitty!), and then found our way to pizza and pasta for dinner before more streets.
One had a video game theme 🤖🎮👾
Another got Cora especially excited… Miyazaki movies!
Near the close of the evening we heard noise and commotion up ahead. A scent of burning wafted through the air, and we turned a corner to find this.
While I’ve traveled many places before, I’ve never had to figure out how to rent a place to live.
The first step began months ago. Since almost the moment we decided to relocate, Amber started cruising real estate sites for Barcelona. In particular, she spent hours on idealista. Coworkers confirmed that as a top site on the topic, and as time approached Amber favorited dozens of flats to consider.
During our first weeks in country we took the next step of exploring neighborhoods. That confirmed our initial list of target areas: Gràcia, Poblenou, or Eixample. Each had different things to recommend it. Gràcia had narrow streets and old-world charm. Poblenou had relative quiet within walking distance of beaches. Eixample had the bustling urban heart of the city.
Next we finalized our need vs want list. We wanted three or four bedrooms so the kids each got their own space, and ideally we could support visitors (hint hint, come visit!) Multiple bathrooms, outdoor space, pool (?!), washing machine, laundry all fell on the nice to haves.
The biggest change to reckon with, though, was our very American notions of space. Obviously we were downsizing… but how much? We got pretty good at translating meters squared into square feet, and with some uncertainty capped the lower bound of our search at 90 m2 (about 970 ft2). This left us feeling by turns absurdly American and nervous at the transition we might find ourselves making.
Idealista lets you contact the flat owners straight from the website, so we shot off messages to a handful of our favorites. Here we encountered the difficulty of Spain in high season… much of the country is on holiday for weeks at a time during July and August. I’m convinced that a different time of year we might have heard from more of them, but we ended up getting four bites.
This revealed a big difference between renting in the US and Barcelona. Everything on idealista ran through real estate agencies. Back home I would have expected to directly contact apartment owners, or at least someone whoever managed the place. Instead, every time we were talking to a real estate agent. Apparently with effort you can avoid this–and the agency fees that come along, which are more than a month’s rent!–but with our timelines and inexperience, we just rolled with the agents.
We ended up seeing three places near Eixample and Gracia, and one in El Poblenou. The flats in Eixample were largely along Avinguda Diagonal, a large busy street, but all were surprisingly quiet behind closed doors and windows. These were close to my work, and two of the three had excellent space and layout. The parks nearby were lovely, and Amber loved the architecture nearby.
Despite all this, the flat in El Poblenou drew us continually back. It’s highlight feature was unique, and unlikely to show up for us wherever we move in the future–Mediterranean surf and sand just a short walk away. It’s also a quieter neighborhood, with a nice little Rambla full of shops and restaurants. Just the vibe we were after.
Having chosen the place, we visited a real estate office to sign papers that we intended to rent through their agency. At this point we paid the agency fee, although the agreement clearly stated if the rental didn’t happen it would be refunded. At this point after two weeks in a single hostel room with the kids, my attitude toward shelling out money to get into a place was roughly like this:
That commitment in place, our agent contacted another agent (really) representing the owners. Between them, they sorted out the details. The only mild hiccup was a type of insurance the owners wanted which our work status presented some issues for. After a little negotiating we found a way to settle that to everyone’s satisfaction.
A few days later, we had yet another round of signing at a different real estate office. Although the stack of papers was nowhere near the mountain of paperwork for buying a house, I did feel déjà vu signing page after page. Beyond the contract, we even signed pictures of the various meters with the understanding we could confirm the values once we moved in.
Papers signed, the keys were ours!
The owners weren’t present as they live in Germany, but their father, a friendly man named Antonio, joined for the signing. Afterward, he took us to the flat and showed us the place in more detail. He gave us a great tour of the various systems–locks, windows, AC, bunk beds–with the knowledge of someone who had really been around the place. He even introduced us to Dino’s Gelato just a block down the Rambla. Danger!
After Antonio left, the day presented one more task… moving in as best we could. Eight maximized checked bags and four sizable carry-ons were still stowed at the hostel. The kids’ room had a bunk bed, but Amber and I had nowhere to sleep. While we’d have liked nothing better than to just stay put for the night, instead we journeyed out, drawn to that place we’d spend so much time over the coming weeks: IKEA.
We purchased a queen mattress and a rather large pile of other items with which to start our new home. It was almost 10PM when we got out, with nary a taxi to be seen. I honestly doubt most taxis could have accommodated all our stuff. Fortunately, at the front of IKEA there are almost always unbranded vans with men hanging around, ready to help you haul. That evening there was only one, and he didn’t have room for the whole family. We finally got a taxi, and the family headed home while I set off for the hostel after loading everything from IKEA into the back.
The night was hot, continuing the smothering heatwave that we’d run smack into when we landed in Barcelona. The van didn’t have AC, and I sat with sweat pouring down me as we wove through the darkened night toward the hostel.
Our friends at the front desk at Twentytú graciously helped to ferry the gargantuan mass of luggage to the van. This saved time, and calmed my paranoid (?) concerns about the van suddenly vanishing with all our worldly possessions while I was inside locating that one last bag.
Another broiling hop in the van, and then we shuttled all the stuff into the entryway of the build. Hilariously, the driver mirrored my nerves, but about everyone else around us as we unloaded.
By the time I hoisted the entire world upstairs, my clothes were soaked through, and I was ready to collapse. We sliced open the plastic wrapping on the mattress, flopped it on the floor, took a quick cold shower, and then collapsed into a deep, contented sleep.
(Wondering what the flat’s like? Don’t worry… a tour will be forthcoming soon!)
Last week I started back to work at New Relic’s Barcelona office. Located downtown in an area call L’Eixample, I’ve been transiting (mostly Metro) between there and our flat in El Poblenou (more details forthcoming!)
On Thursday Amber sent a list of nine things, and asked if I’d grab them from the store on my way home. A bus ran from near the office, past a major shopping center I was familiar with within talking distance of our flat. Easy!
Since I only had a laptop bag, I snagged an unused paper bag from the lunchroom, patting myself on the back for my forethought to avoid buying a new bag at the store (cue ominous music).
Outside, not only was the bus line nearby, it was literally steps from the door. This whole urban living thing was really coming together.
Shopping rubbed off a little of that shine, though, as I worked down Amber’s list. First off, shopping in an unfamiliar, large grocery store is always grounds for some mild frustration. Compounding that, Spanish groceries aren’t arranged quite like the “standard” layout in the US. The differences are subtle, but real. For instance, the baking soda (bicarbonato de sodio) was with spices, but the the baking powder (pulvo de hornear) hid out with the boxed cakes eight aisles away. Ibuprofen isn’t even available at grocery stores, only at separate pharmacies. I did manage to find peanut butter, a nice touch given how often I’ve heard that held up as a strictly American thing.
Packing the paper bag full, I headed into the kilometer walk home. About a third of the way there, a familiar sensation began, missing since my arrival in Spain. Was that drizzle? The sky did hang low and cloudy, but I’m from Oregon. A little rain doesn’t scare me.
Cue the downpour.
I wasn’t about to let this spoil my outing, though. Worst off I’d end up wet, but if it stopped afterward it might even cool things down. But as my clothes soaked through, drips turned to small streams from my hair, and a thick fog smeared over my glasses, I noticed a problem.
The front corners of the paper bag were softening from the rain.
I clutched the groceries closer, craning uselessly to shield them. Picking up my pace, I was certain I could make it down the rambla and home before things got dire.
The bag disintegrated all at once. Half of my groceries flew from my arms like angry magnets, scattering on the pavement. Glass shattered. With my left eye flaring (yeah for detached retinas!) and fog over my glasses, I could hardly see the extent of the damage. As I clutched the remains of my groceries, I didn’t even notice for a moment that the bag of flour had burst open. My entire right leg was plastered wet and caked in white.
A kind stranger saw my predicament and said in relatively clear English, “That’s not going to work.” Um, yeah, agreed. He immediately offered to run and grab a bag, though. Almost on his heels, someone else offered me a large reusable bag. I thanked them profusely as I tucked what remained into the bag. Flour and broken egg smeared everything.
With the surviving items finally safe, I picked up the broken glass I could, gripping them in the soaked shreds of my brilliant paper bag, and tucked the lot in the nearest trash can before scurrying the rest of the way home.