Buscando Barcelona

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While waiting to board the plane back to Barcelona after an incredible six days in Italy, I stopped dead in my tracks. After doing a little mental math I realized that I had 10 days left in Europe. The next time I stood in line for a plane would be in the Barcelona airport for a flight back to the United States. Wait a second….where did this semester go?? Wasn’t I just unpacking in my new apartment and exploring my new home? Didn’t I just get back from a weekend at Oktoberfest? Didn’t I just celebrate my birthday in November? I don’t want to leave, but I don’t want to stay much longer. I’m in the middle of a thrilling ride, wind in my hair, sun on my face, with 8 of my best friends behind me. I can see the last dip, we’re rounding the last turn, and I’m not quite ready for it to be over. I feel the need for one more loop that sends your stomach flipping like a dolphin, one more adventure in a country I never dreamed I’d get to see. I feel the need to stay in Barcelona forever, come good or bad. But at the same time, I see the station nearing and I know that all good things must come to an end. And I begin to understand that the rollercoaster isn’t going anywhere. Barcelona isn’t going anywhere, Europe isn’t going anywhere. Actually, its me that’s going somewhere. Back to the simple things like consistently hot showers (our water heater is very temperamental), back to a full sized bed, back to a washing machine that actually cleans my clothes, back to unlimited condiments (Europe is a little stingy on the ketchup), back to a car that takes me from point A to B without switching at various metro stops, back to my family, my boyfriend, my home at Miami. I am so glad that I got to spend this time in Barcelona and wouldn’t change any aspect of it. I am already dreaming of the day I get to come back to my home away from home.

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L’Eixample began with Ildefons Cerda, a civil engineer who created the expansion plan for the city of Barcelona when it came time for the old city walls to be torn down to accommodate the growing population and economy in 1856. While the style at the time called for beauty, Cerda knew that efficiency would be more practical no matter what time period Barcelona was in. It was carefully considered and integrated with the old city in a very modern way. And while the more whimsical and beautiful plan won in Barcelona, it was the practical plan that was chosen by the central government in Madrid and the plan that creates the Eixample we see today.

            Cerda focused on key needs, particularly, the need for natural lighting and ventilation, green spaces, effective sewage systems and the ease of movement between people, goods, and services. His plans were far ahead of his time and allowed for the easy integration of new forms of communication and travel, from the octagonal intersections for the visibility of oncoming horse and buggies, to the ease of construction of a city wide underground rail system.

            The grid pattern remains a hallmark of Barcelona, but not all of his plans came to life. Originally, the plan was to have only 3 sides of the blocks covered with an apartment building in order to leave the center open for green space and ventilation. In addition, these apartments were to not surpass a certain height. Instead, what we see today is a majority of the blocks completely built up with no space in the center, along with narrower than planned streets, only 2 of the diagonal streets connecting the whole city, and a lack of class mixing that was the dream of Cerda. This is not to say that the plan was a failure, however. In fact, it is one of the greatest achievements in Barcelona history because it effectively allowed for the easy expansion of the city both physically and demographically, and allowed for additional hospitals, schools, markets, and other public services.

            L’Eixample today is divided into two halves, Esquerra and Derecha, and it is officially divided into a total of five neighborhoods. Left and Right Eixample, Sant Antoni, Sagrada Familia, and Fort Pienc, are all technically considered their own neighborhoods, though they are often simply grouped in with either the right or the left side of Eixample which is delineated by Passeig de Gracia. Other main thoroughfares include the Avinguda Diagonal which slices the grid diagonally, and Gran Via which crosses the entirety of the city from southwest to northeast parallel to the coast.

            I live in L’Eixample Esquerra on the corner of Paris and Calabria. In this neighborhood there are several interesting sites, most of which I visited when working on my neighborhood presentation. There are 18 schools in the district, 2 hospitals, 4 libraries, 5 civic centers, all serving the 248,777 inhabitants within 746.68hm2. The Ajuntament de Barcelona office of my neighborhood is conveniently on the ground floor of my apartment building. We were told that they only offer public services. They help people who are unemployed and those who are having trouble financially or with food.

            The ages and social class of the people living in L’Eixample Esquerra obviously range from the young to the old and from the poor to the rich, but the overall demographic is fairly similar, at least from what I have observed. It’s a rather old community because I often see elderly men sitting in the park or elderly women walking together down the street. I think this is because it is a quieter neighborhood farther away from center town. That is not to say that there aren’t any younger families however, because there are obviously several, just not quite as many as in other areas of town. Our side of Eixample is more for the public services in town so it is a bit less glamourous than Eixample Dreta. Our neighborhood is home to the firehouses and the city jail, instead of the designer shops and famous Gaudi architecture. Regardless, it has become my home away from home and I really will miss everything it has to offer.

One of the hospitals in our neighborhood is the Hospital Clinic. It is the up and coming location for medical research in Barcelona. Founded in 1906 it was originally for underpriviledged patients. Many famous procedures were performed here including one by José Maria Gil Vernet, who performed the first kidney transplantation in Spain in 1965, Ciril Rozman, with the first allogenic of bone marrow in Spain in 1976, and Laureano Fernandez-Cruz, who in 1983 made the first pancreas transplant. Recently, the Clinic was worthy of accreditation C “advanced technology and reference.” Today it is the force behind one of the main institutions of reference for the health sciences in Spain: the Health Corporation Clinic. They are currently under construction to create a new center for biomedical research which is opening in 2010.

            A friend of ours unfortunately had to go to the hospital while we were here due to a surprise case of appendicitis. He went to a hospital outside of our neighborhood, but it was an interesting look in to the general workings of the Spanish healthcare system. He was immediately admitted after a brief examination and was taken into surgery only 2 hours after. After a quick lathroscopic surgery (they used lasers through his bellybutton) Max was as good as new! He only spent one night in the hospital and the check out process was literally painless. There was nothing to be signed, no one to check in with, we just walked right out the door! If only the US had the same set up…. We went to a farmacia afterwards and got his prescription for his pain medicine filled right then and there. No waiting! The US could definitely learn something from this system because it was incredibly convenient!

            Another attraction is one that is a little less known. Parc de Joan Miro is one of the open green spaces that Cerda had envisioned when he planned the city expansion. Filled with wide open spaces, large shady palm trees, a playground, and table tennis, it is a great place for the residents of Esquerra to gather. This was the first park developed after the oppressive Franco era and it boasts a 22m sculpture by the famous Miro called Woman and Bird. While I don’t think it looks like a woman or a bird at all, I have to admit, the colors and the mosaic are very pretty. As you walk through the park you can see children and their mothers playing in the playground, old friends chatting on the park benches, men walking their dogs, and teens playing soccer in the open spaces. At the opposite end, there is  also a library for people to sit and read.

This library is divided into two sections, a childrens and adults and is also named after Miro. Its usually only open in the afternoons, and in the evenings it is filled with elderly men and women who are reading the paper and quietly catching up with each other. The library is very small, but somehow manages to hold 35,000 books, 150 journals, and 4,800 CDs, DVDs, and cassettes. The staff was very patient when we tried speaking Spanish to get our library cards.

Near this park is another famous site in Eixample Esquerra. Plaza Espanya is the roundabout on the main road Gran Via. The two towers framing the road leading to the Magic Fountain and the MNAC were modeled after the Venitian towers and were built for the 1929 Universal Exhibition along with the neoclassical Romanesque statue in the center of the plaza. This plaza boasts the first ever metro stop in Barcelona which connected Plaza Espanya and Plaza Catalunya in an effort to display Barcelona’s modernity for the exhibition.

One of the more unusual attractions of the area is what is known as Gaixample. Running from Gran Via to Arago and Balmes to Urgell, the area is internationally known for its heavily gay community. Bars and clubs that are gay friendly line the streets and there are bright lights and rainbow flags flying. While I have never been to one of these clubs, a girl in our class has and said she had one of the best nights in Barcelona at a gay bar.

One important aspect of every neighborhood is their markets. I went to visit Mercat de Ninot. Unfortunately, their regular location is under construction and they have been moved to a large tent not far from the original area. It was founded in 1933 and was definitely due for some updates! This market, like any other sells meat, seafood, fruit, vegetables, clothing, and other supplies. Though only temporary, the building set up is very nice. It is bright and clean and there is plenty of room for shoppers. It was mostly an elderly crowd shopping and we were clearly the only Americans there. This market is similar to La Boqueria, but much less touristy and a lot cheaper. As we were walking outside looking at the clothes, we chatted with one of the shop owners. He said that although they have moved for the time being, all of his regular customers still came back showing that the residents are very loyal to their markets.

Other attractions include the Les Arenes which was the former bullfighting arena in Barcelona. Bullfighting is a popular Spanish sport, and to keep up with the popularity, the city built a new, updated arena. The old arena which was preserved because of its beautiful Moorish architecture is being renovated into a shopping center, with restaurants, stores, and a large rooftop terrace for exhibitions. Another interesting site is the University of Barcelona which was built in 1882. Beautiful architecture and green gardened courtyards cover the campus and there are always students hanging around bringing the younger crowd into the neighborhood. The Barcelona Industrial School is also in our neighborhood. Converted from an old factory, this school is the equivalent of a trade school back in the United States. The courtyards, like most big schools here are very pretty and are always filled with students chatting between classes. When you walk by, some of the windows are open and you can see students taking tests or practicing their trades.

            Other interesting sites in our neighborhood include the local firestation Bombers, and the city jail. I’m a little nervous about being so close to the city jail, but so far so good, no one has escaped! This goes to show that Europe does not really separate services quite like the United States does. In the US, jails are usually on the outskirts of town in poorer areas, but here, the jail is in a middle/upper middle class neighborhood right across the street from a metro stop, apartments, and grocery stores. It was very surprising to me. A few blocks in the opposite direction is the firehouse. We ran into the firemen one night on our way out to a bar. They were very nice and friendly towards us! Oftentimes I can hear the sirens of the firetrucks when they leave the station because we are so close!