Image: A view of Barcelona from Gaudi Park
Flying from my home in Barcelona to my hometown, Melbourne, Australia, usually requires arming myself with concise and considered answers to a whole lot of well-intentioned questions from interested friends and family members. Pondering on the themes of culture and travel, we happily swap details of each other’s lives, simultaneously failing to imagine what it would be like to live in the other’s shoes. Apart from the usual ‘how long do you see yourself there?’ and ‘do you speak Spanish?’ there comes the occasional questioner who wants to know specifically ‘what do you have there that you don’t have here?’ I surprised myself, answering the question without a drop of irony by saying ‘a bicycle.’
The friend answered by saying that I could have a bicycle here, and upon considering what a horrible experience I imagine trying to cross Melbourne by bicycle to be (dodging unaware drivers and plowing through peak-hour traffic on roads with barely any bicycle infrastructure), I discovered that what I really meant by ‘a bicycle’ was ‘ease of connection.’ Whereas in Melbourne I seem to spend upwards of two hours total in the car daily, in Barcelona it’s extremely rare that I should go anywhere that cannot be reached in 10-25 minutes on a bicycle, or on the metro.
I often say that I live in a very small city. Now, don’t get me wrong, Barcelona is anything but small on most people’s international radars, and there’s nothing insignificant about its bustling center, extensive history and huge heart. Comparatively however, the municipality of Barcelona is just under 40 square miles with a population of about 1.6million, whereas Melbourne boasts an area of just under 4,000 square miles, and a population of almost 4.3m in what is considered to be the metropolitan area.
The markers of living in the ‘smaller’ city are not what you might imagine. Barcelona averages about 41,420 people per square mile while Melbournians like to spread out with 3,857 people per square mile. So is there traffic in Barcelona? Of course! Crowds? More than you could imagine. Noise? Cramped living spaces? All of the above. But what we get for being crammed-in is a sense of community. Living on top of one another creates empathy for your fellow city dwellers; there is a shared experience that breeds tolerance. More than this, at the end of a long day, when you’ve just arrived home from work and are brought back from your daydream by the beep of a message, ‘want to meet for a coffee/beer/walk/meal in the center?’, no matter where you are, you can probably confidently reply ‘sure, be there in 10 minutes’, and you will be.
For me, this ‘ease of connection’ to the city as well as the people in it has created a new sense of community in my life. The next challenge I suppose will be to one day learn to create that ease in a sprawling city like Melbourne.