Thanks to the Catalan capital’s environment, easygoing lifestyle, and expat community, swapping the UK for Spain on whim five years ago turned out to be the best decision James Ekins has ever made. And he’s got no plans to leave soon…
1. You grew up in Essex, in southeast England—how did you end up in Barcelona?
When I turned 19, I decided to study philosophy at the University of Bristol. I knew this degree wouldn’t get me lots of jobs, but I had no idea what I wanted to do at that time. I had always been afraid of dying in the same city I grew up in and I knew I wanted to travel. As my uncle was living in Sitges, a nice coastal town 45 minutes away from Barcelona by train, the connection was pretty easy to make. I’m not the kind of person who makes plans—I simply left as soon as I could!
2. You’ve been in Barcelona for five years now. Did you know you’d stay for that long? How did you prepare for the move?
Originally no! One or two years, maybe, but not that long. But moving to Barcelona has been the best thing that’s happened to me—100%!
Moving to a new country is probably one of the most stressful things you can do. So I saved money for the first few months, checked online how to get the required qualifications to teach English—the easiest option when new to the city—and did a bit of research about the place. But honestly, the most useful thing I found at that time was Facebook groups—the expat community here is huge!
Moving to a new country is probably one of the most stressful things you can do.
3. How is Barcelona different from the UK?
Obviously, the weather is much better! I grew up in a small town and Barcelona is somehow similar—it’s a city where it’s easy to go with the flow. But the culture is very different in the most fundamental way—in the UK, people live to work, 40 hours a week at least. Here, people are much more relaxed—you work to live! You don’t earn as much money—the standard salary is about €1,000 a month—but you definitely spend it on quality time.
Also, Barcelona is one of the most expensive cities in Spain—Valencia is cheaper by half—but it’s definitely cheaper than the UK, and the quality of life is much better. There’s the sea, sun, good food, mountains…
I grew up in a small town and Barcelona is somehow similar—it’s a city where it’s easy to go with the flow.
4. What do you wish you’d known before arriving?
Barcelona is a very metropolitan city. If you walk around the center, you can hear all kinds of languages, but to be honest, I wish I had done more research on its local culture. Obviously, the political situation in Catalonia is complicated, and during my first year I somehow worked out what was going on here from the Spanish students I was teaching English. I’m sure that if I had made more of an effort to learn Catalan and Spanish and bothered to dive into the culture and integrate better, my life would be more diverse and I’d be participating much more in local life. But most of my friends are British or are English speakers, and in five years, I’ve only achieved child-level Spanish because I’m incredibly lazy!
I wish I had done more research on the local culture.
5. What surprised you most after you relocated here?
I didn’t expect people to be so active! Everybody does a lot of sport—going to the gym is quite a social activity—and there’s a big focus on being active outside! Also, everybody knows about the sea, but I think the incredible mountain range 20 minutes away by train is one of the biggest secrets of Barcelona! It’s one of the best landscapes I’ve ever seen in my life and I love going there for long walks.
6. What are your favorite areas of the city?
I spent the first six months at my uncle’s place because I wanted to explore the city before deciding where I wanted to be. Having a job where I’d move to different offices during lunch hours to teach English was the best way to get a feel for the different neighborhoods. I finally decided to settle in Gràcia, a 10- to 15-minute walk from the center of the city. It looks like a lovely village because it was a separate town 100 years ago, before it melted with Barcelona as the city expanded. Tiny streets, locals, independent shops… To me, this is the perfect area. I haven’t moved in almost five years now, and I don’t think I could live anywhere else!
Having a job where I’d move to different offices during lunch hours to teach English was the best way to get a feel for the different neighborhoods.
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