2 years ago, I returned to Singapore after a 6 month internship in the coastal city of Barcelona. I'd chronicled my experience in a separate post, detailing what moving to Spain at the age of 19 on my own was like, and even though I never started labelling Spain or Barcelona itself as 'home', a part of me left with a massive attachment to the place for the way it forced me to grow up in ways I never thought would happen.
This July, I returned to Spain for 3 weeks for a family vacation.
But I wasn't returning to Barcelona.
Truth is, there isn't really anyone left in Barcelona for me to visit, as all of us other interns at that time had all left back to our various schools and institutions to study and work.
I thought that if I didn't have anyone left to visit, I didn't need to bring my whole family back to Barcelona as we'd already done Barcelona on a separate family vacation 3 years ago.
I was going to be visiting Madrid and cities in Andalusia, places I've been wanting to visit for ages.
When I arrived in Madrid and saw connections to Barcelona though, and knowing I wasn't going back, I felt a tinge of regret I didn't think I would.
I thought 3 weeks was going to be enough, with an itinerary that would be bringing us around from city to city, with plenty of rail and bus connections to catch, sights to see that would wear me out etc.
But truth is, by the end of the 3 weeks, I didn't want to leave.
In the aforementioned earlier post, I touched on the concept of 'home', and that I didn't (and still don't) believe that home is necessarily a place you were born, a place you were raised, or a place you're currently living in. Sometimes home isn't even a place at all. Home is a feeling to me, it's a feeling you get that's intangible and at times difficult to find the right words for.
Knowing I was going to return to Spain for a holiday earlier this year though, a part of me wondered if I would feel that upon arriving.
I think it's something everyone needs to have— a sense of belonging somewhere, and something we continuously search for till we find it. And perhaps for me it's when I start a family of my own and settle somewhere, make my own memories and sacrifices that make the search worth it.
I don't know what feeling at home in a country or city really means, so I can't say for sure if what I felt when I arrived at Madrid's Barajas Airport was a feeling of home, but being in the streets, I felt this overwhelming sense of familiarity despite never having been to Madrid before.
Hearing Spanish (from Spain) all around me again, seeing retail shops by Zara, Bershka, Pull&Bear and various other Spanish brands literally everywhere in the city again, having Vodafone and Orange as telco providers, seeing familiar supermarket names I used to patronise every week, knowing all the best restaurants, cafes and bars are those in the alleys, seeing Federal Cafe (a brunch restaurant serving Aussie-inspired plates with branches all over Spain) in Madrid when there was a Federal Cafe close to where I used to live in Barcelona, and all these various small things that brought about this overwhelming rush of nostalgia.
Oh, and my Spanish had vastly improved on return.
I don't speak Spanish anywhere close to fluently, but I could finally deal with basic conversations, and in most interactions I had in restaurants, cafes, supermarkets and the like, I never needed to switch to English.
I honestly thought I'd forgotten a lot of the language with not having used it for so long, but being immersed in Spanish again made me pick everything back up surprisingly quickly.
As a result, I got to have conversations with locals that helped add to that level of comfort and familiarity.
In Granada, we bought cotton shirts from one of the shops in the Albaicín, Granada's Muslim quarter. Of course, most of the vendors are able to carry out transactions in English, but I asked in Spanish if the stall owner was from Granada. He replied he was originally from Morocco but he'd been living with his family in Granada for close to 7 years now.
"Are you a citizen?"
"No, but I have papers."
This made me laugh a little but I felt a little bad too, because it's such an immigrant thing to have to rush to defend their status, as if any human should be labelled as legal or illegal.
"Are you planning to get Spanish citizenship?"
"Yes, but I can only apply after 10 years of living here."
I don't know why I have such great empathy for the story of the immigrant. Maybe it's because I feel like it could be me in the future. Maybe it's because I know that humans have been migrating to different lands since humans first arrived, for a better life, for better prospects, for a better chance for their children. Maybe it's because I know how hard some people in power make it for others now.
But I wished him luck with the utmost sincerity I think he felt too, and he thanked me and I went off on my way.
And this was all in Spanish.
It probably wasn't perfect on my end, but had I spoke with the level of Spanish I spoke 2 years ago, I don't think I would've been able to have this conversation; a genuine, spur-of-the-moment human conversation.
On a separate occasion in Granada, I was really intrigued by the cave houses in the city. I know historically it's where the gypsies lived, but unless you rent a cave house or know someone who lives in one and is invited to one, you're not going to get the chance to explore one. There's a museum in Granada for this, but I chose to skip over this as reviews said it wasn't the most informative or elaborate. But I was intrigued by the status of cave houses today.
I wanted to know if that's where people actively want to live now.
Was it something that became touristy and kitsch?
I wanted to know how much they cost in comparison to houses in the rest of the city.
I remember reading this travel blog about Granada that talked about the cave houses, and this writer was waxing poetry about the district of Sacromonte where the cave houses can be found.
They wrote about how cars slowly turn into horses and carriages as you step back in time walking on this road into Sacromonte, and paved roads give way to dirt roads with barely any other soul in sight.
I did find this paved road into Sacromonte, and kept walking and walking and walking down this paved road and never saw a horse or dirt road anywhere.
I don't know if this writer was writing about another road, but I did find the romanticising of the neighbourhood to be hilarious as I kept walking down this car-lined paved road that could've been any other street in any other city.
I knew I was probably going to get the best answers to my questions from a local, and as we boarded the city bus leaving Sacromonte (we only saw a photo studio we weren't meant to wander into that was inside a cave, oops. But it was pretty cool, and quite literally too, it was incredibly cooling inside), I posed my questions to the bus driver in Spanish, but I couldn't quite hear him over the sound of the engine, and had trouble understanding his accent too. I thought it was because of my lack of command over the language, but my friend from Madrid says she can barely understand some accents from the south too so that made me feel a little better about my Spanish ha.
I tried again with another local on the bus, this time an elderly lady I knew wasn't going to know a word of English.
I understood her, but not to the answers of my questions.
But deciding these questions might be answered another time, I proceeded to just have a regular conversation with her, and I asked if she ever had to learn English in school. She looked at me in half disbelief and half laughter, "when I was in school??"
She didn't, of course, but placed her bets on Spaniards of my age doing better with English than she did.
I got off the bus, and wished her well.
Again, I couldn't have had these interactions if I couldn't speak a word of Spanish, which made me appreciate how far I'd come from my days of "hola" and "gracias", but how far I still have to go if I want to be able to speak more.
For now though, I will say that returning to Spain after 2 years made me feel some type of way.
I felt comfortable.
I felt, in some ways, at home.
But who knows where I'll be next year, never mind in the future.
Life has a way of working things out, and I've surrendered to the idea that I will end up where I end up, where I'm meant to.
From my trip to Spain this summer, I've turned some of my photography into my brand of everyday products which you can check out below. Worldwide shipping is available so if you're looking for a tote bag or postcard to take home to remember your travels if you too have been to these parts of Spain, and if you'd like to support this passion project of mine, look no further!
View the full product catalogue at the shop here.
Barcelona wasn't on the itinerary this summer, but as you can imagine I have plenty photos from my stint 2 years ago.
One of my favourite neighbourhoods in Barcelona is El Born, which is basically the Gothic Quarter except lined with local boutiques instead of kitsch tourist souvenir shops, which lends itself to a really nice bohemian atmosphere.
Not to mention some of the best tapas bars in the city can be found here, which is a major plus.
El Born's also where you get all the beauty of the Gothic Quarter, and I particularly like the doors and façade of shops and houses here.
So here's a photograph of a coffeehouse in El Born, and I think this is quintessential Barcelona in a photograph.
View the rest of the collection here.
When in Seville, we went on a walking tour to get ourselves familiarised with the city.
I've fallen hard for walking tours after this summer, and I'm so glad I went on 2 in Spain alone.
Across the Guadalquivir River lies the neighbourhood of Triana, so called the neighbourhood of gypsies and outcasts, where inhabitants used to identify as being from Triana before Seville.
The draw of Triana though, apart from the flamenco flair, is Calle Betis, the riverfront promenade lined with restaurants and bars which turns into a hotspot in the evenings.
In the sleepy late afternoon though, the buildings shine in the sun as workers of each restaurant start slowly setting up for a busy evening ahead.
View the rest of the collection here.
When I lived in Barcelona, there were quite a few vintage clothing stores around, and this in particular was a chain of them— Flamingos Vintage Kilo. I would always walk into these stores even if I wasn't looking for anything in particular for the vibe of them. Everything about them just felt so damn cool. In this shop, I stumbled onto an area where there was a collection of vinyls, and there really is something about vinyls for me and the way they are packaged. There was no way I was leaving this store without at least a snap on the camera.
Andalucia in Spain may be famous for its whitewashed hilltop towns, but I got a slice of that in Sitges in Northeastern Spain, Catalonia. The streets in winter were almost completely empty save the odd resident or two going about their daily business, meaning we got to explore the entire town almost to ourselves that day.
Street art wasn't hard to find during the time I lived in Barcelona, Spain. But this by the side of a building in the town of Tarragona an hour away from Barcelona was by far the most elaborate I saw. The mural represents a celebration of Spanish culture.
During my very first trip to Barcelona, Spain, we headed to the beaches of the city in the district of Barceloneta. On a clear day, the sun brought the crowds in droves; friends playing beach football or volleyball, joggers taking in their morning ritual, groups of families and friends strolled along the promenade, and beachgoers getting out their towels and getting their best tan on. Whilst making my way down the boulevard, I managed to get this clear shot of these two palm trees right next to each other, and made me think of partners— two peas in a pod.