“You’re going to have the best time ever”, “don’t party too much!”, “dude WHAT?! That’s awesome!”, were just some of the things people kept saying to me when they knew I was headed to Barcelona for a 6 month internship when I was just 19 years old.
On the surface, it seemed perfect.
I was going to be spending half a year in one of the most visited and beautiful cities in the world; one people continuously wax poetry about, not to mention one that inspired some incredible artists (Antoni Gaudi, anyone?).
I was going to be having tapas and sangrias every other day. I was going to start my mornings at beautiful cafes in the city. I was going to be right on the beach facing the Mediterranean Sea. I was going to be working in a 5 star luxury hotel— invaluable experience and proper CV boosting stuff.
But I didn’t.
I didn’t start the internship with all these lofty expectations, simply because I didn’t know what to expect.
I’d never moved out of the family home before, never mind overseas.
I’d never worked in a different country before, and I didn’t know a single soul in this huge international city.
Oh, and my Spanish was barely there.
So here’s a story I’ve really only told a handful of close friends, of what it was really like moving to Spain before I even hit 20 years of age.
The story starts months before I made the move, because stuff like this doesn’t just fall into my lap fellas.
I knew that for my internship, I’d wanted to stick to hospitality.
I’d worked in a hotel in Singapore and enjoyed it, and knew within the domain of my diploma at least, hospitality was the way to go for me.
I knew I wanted to move outside of Asia, just for a drastic change of scenery, just to prove to myself that I could do it.
So I spent months scouring the internet, sending my CV to hundreds of hotels all around the world from Melbourne to Dubai to Copenhagen to Los Angeles.
The internship board of directors at my school scoffed when I told them I was sourcing for an internship myself, and that I was sourcing for one outside of Asia.
They’d never had a student do that before successfully, and grilled me on questions I had no answer to and straight up belittled my ambitions.
“Are you aware of the unemployment rate in Spain?”
”So what makes you think they’ll hire you?”
Ah, I love the “practical thinking” mentality of being real so we kill any dreams before someone else even gets the chance.
With more questions like that posed, I left the meeting feeling dejected and like I wasn't good enough.
Still, not one to back down from something I’ve already put my mind to, I eventually landed an interview with a hotel in Barcelona who offered me the job at the end of it, and I begun my visa process.
I also got a website from a Spanish friend to look for an apartment, and fun fact: I got ghosted by a landlord after transferring around €300 in a months’ worth of rent to the landlord as deposit.
I’d never been swindled before, and as someone who prided myself on being born and bred in a big city and that I wasn’t some small town boy from the country; my face flushed and turned hot when I realised what had happened.
I felt so incredibly stupid, and more upset at myself than anything else.
With that happening to me 2 weeks before I was due to fly off, I was without accommodation, and I had my final exams to study and prepare for— oh and I hadn’t had time to pack a suitcase for 6 months too.
After losing it for an hour or two, I quickly got myself together and began searching for another room, and thankfully managed to find one over a weekend.
Harrowing experience aside involving police stations, fraud cases with a bank, finals done and dusted etc., I left all that behind me and boarded a flight bound for Spain.
Customs officers looked at me odd, but of course they did, I was this young, not-even-20-year-old guy moving to Spain for 6 months, boarding a flight bound for a different continent.
And what was Spain like when I got there?
In a small paragraph— honestly, I’d never grown up so fast and so much in such a short period of time.
You only become an adult, whatever that means, when you're forced to, I think.
I'd never been so independent before in my life, and that feeling of being young and free, truly was incredibly liberating.
The spectrum of emotions I felt also grew in scale, and through the process of being in so many new situations and experiences, I was constantly running though in my head why I reacted to certain things in a certain way and I honestly learned a lot about myself.
Truth is when I went over, all I wanted was one friend.
That didn't happen.
I ended up making so many more acquaintances than I ever thought I would, and that was something I honestly struggled with.
See, the thing about moving away from everyone you know, is that when you feel like the pits and need someone to rant to, whoever you used to rely on for emotional support in the past is sleeping because it's 3am where they're at, or they might be out with plans because we're all busy people and can't be available 24/7 for just anyone; so you deal with your problems yourself.
That stuff makes you grow up— realising you're completely alone at least in that moment and you've gotta deal with that because no one else can deal with it with or for you.
I don't think I'd ever felt loneliness, the way I felt in Spain.
I also didn't realise how Asian I was in working style.
I remember thinking everyone there was so confrontational.
See, I find that at least in the Asian culture I worked and grew up in, people tend to dress up their words, even when asking for a favour.
I felt like no one was using "please" or "thank you" very much, and sentences were curt, almost like an order.
It was hilarious I thought that before, because once I'd gotten used to it, I began to communicate exactly like that at work.
It was just so much more effective and that's why I felt my team got on well, we knew exactly which buttons to press that would make someone else tick, so we just didn't press them. Because we knew each other. Because we'd iron out all differences the moment they came up, and never swept them under the rug for fear of making things awkward or tense.
As a result, after, I couldn't stand when people wouldn't get to the point. I didn't understand why if someone had a problem with someone else, they couldn't just go up to their face and thrash it out and get over it, so much so I was afraid I'd offend someone when I started working in Asia again.
I also learned that blue skies infinitely made me happier and would wash me with this sense of calm.
I'd associated the city I grew up in with so much frustration and restrictions that the often overcast skies that came with it was plugged into that whole world, so being somewhere with skies so intensely blue would make me feel like a weight was lifted off my chest, because I knew I was somewhere different.
But at the same time, even though I can't foresee a future here in this country I've grown up in, I learned you'll always be the same amount of happy wherever you go, at least in general unless we're talking going from being enslaved to oppressive regimes and systems to a world you're sorta free in.
I thought I'd be infinitely happier when I moved to Spain.
And I had to learn through experience that I didn't, and that was an important personal discovery to have had.
My problems here might've disappeared, but with a new life in Spain came new problems.
Things that made me upset here just took different forms over there.
It's now been two years since I've been back, and I will say that I left Spain on a high.
I had managed to build a solid community of friends that were more than just people I went to party and had a good time with. I'd built a routine for myself I'd eased into, I was more comfortable speaking Spanish, and I had restaurants and cafes I loved with employees that recognised me and remembered my orders. I had a regular barber I went to who would check in on how I was getting on and how much my Spanish had (or hadn't) improved. It was all these small things about my life in Spain, that made me feel like I'd really found a piece of home in Barcelona. It's something I'd never really felt, and I suspect will be something I will continue to be on the search for in the future, whatever city or country I move to.
So that's another lesson— home doesn't have to be the place you were born, the place you were raised, or the place you're currently living in. Home is a feeling. And that's not something that can be faked.
But it was a bittersweet experience, especially at the beginning when I felt like nothing was coming together despite my best efforts.
Would I do it again?
As in, move solo to a different continent not knowing a soul in the city?
I now know what that experience entails, maybe that would help me, but I would second guess it and make sure it's something I really wanted, but an honest answer would definitely be a yes.
I'm addicted to growth; I want to experience what life has to offer, I want to meet new people, I want to be immersed in different cultures and lifestyles. I want to feel like I'm constantly learning more things about life and myself faster than my brain can really process and put into words. I want to do it not because I can say I did it to everyone else, but to really feel like I'm living.
I don't think a life that's worth living is one that's easy.
I think it's something you fight for to prove yourself; to hopefully prove to anyone who gave you a shot at life that you were worth those opportunities.
And there is truly nothing more fulfilling than that.
From my time in Barcelona and Catalonia, 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 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.
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.
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.
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.
We stumbled onto this vantage point over the town of Tarragona just south of Barcelona when we found ourselves exploring the Roman ruins downtown. The best part of travelling around in winter is that for the most part, we had all these incredible sights to ourselves.