Working mum Lara Pennington shares with us her life in Barcelona’s most vibrant district: Barceloneta
British-born Lara Pennington moved to Barcelona over 20 years ago, after falling in love with Spain during a ‘Gap Year’ in Madrid. She now lives in the Barceloneta area of the city with her son and works in Marketing for the media and publishing group, Grupo Planeta. She chatted to Lucas Fox about every day life as a single working mum in the city and how Barcelona has changed over the years.
JC: You initially spent a year in Madrid, before moving to Barcelona over 20 years ago. What first drew you to Spain, and why did you choose to settle in Barcelona?
LP: I moved to Madrid on a rather random “Gap Year” from University, my parents wouldn’t let me take a year off to backpack around the world so I came up with a more “parent friendly Plan B” = Learn a foreign language. We had a summer house in Malaga so I’d spent a lot of time in Spain but had never been to Madrid, it just seemed like a good idea at the time. I fell in love with the city the moment I arrived and decided to stay forever, my parents had other ideas and dragged my back to the UK after a year to finish my degree (although in hindsight I’m grateful they did). I continued to work with the same Spanish company throughout my Uni summer vacations and they eventually relocated me to Barcelona. I was initially nervous about the change of city as my Madrileño friends had insisted on the stereotype that Catalans are “colder, less sociable and only speak Catalan”. Again I fell in love immediately, Barcelona has all the same great things as Madrid, everyones bilingual AND it has a beach ! I’ve been here ever since.
JC: What were the main practical challenges you encountered when you made the move? Are there any remaining challenges you face on a day to day basis?
LP: I’m sure there were plenty of practical challenges when I arrived but I can’t really remember now. I think my current day to day challenges are probably similar to those any working mum faces anywhere in the world.
JC: When you first moved to Barcelona, did you speak Spanish (or Catalan)? If not, was this a priority to learn? Overall how important do you think it is to speak the local language when relocating to the city?
LP: When I originally moved to Madrid, my Spanish probably stretched to “Café solo, cerveza y vino tinto” (coffee, beer and red wine). Way back in the 80s there weren’t many English speakers (native or local), and being a very sociable person I had no choice but to throw myself into the task of learning Castellano in order to communicate and make friends. I think the situation is quite different now, it’s possible to live & work in Barcelona without learning Castellano or Catalan due to the sheer number of English speaking expats but for me it would be a huge shame to miss out on sharing the essence of the city and local people.
I’ve always socialised & worked in a Spanish/Catalan environment, my Castellano is pretty much bilingual and my Catalan is passable but interestingly I don’t actually use Catalan as much as you’d imagine, although most of my friends and colleagues are bilingual Castellano/Catalan speakers they all switch easily between languages without even noticing it. In my experience the idea that Catalans only want to speak Catalan is an urban myth.
JC: You live in the Barceloneta area of the city, which has a real community feel. How would you describe living in this part of Barcelona?
LP: I absolutely LOVE living in the Barceloneta, we’re right on the beach by the Marina, the seagulls wake me up in the morning, most of the barrio is pedestrian so we walk or skateboard everywhere (we only use the car if we take a weekend trip out of the city), there are hundreds of family friendly bars, restaurants and terraces with a relaxed, beachy vibe (we rarely eat at home on the weekend), the vecinos are an eclectic mix of families who’ve been here for generations and singles, expats, foreigners or students who don’t mind the tiny apartments with no lift. The barrio feels like a small close-knit village with everyone ready to celebrate a “street fiesta” at the drop of a hat.
JC: You grew up on the South Coast of England – how does living in Barcelona compare to daily life in the UK?
LP: Having been in Barcelona since I was a teenager I’ve never actually lived or worked in the UK as an adult so I can only compare my life to those of my friends and family. Although it may sound fickle, the weather is key for us, our lives in Barcelona revolve around being outside all year round, eating, drinking, walking, swimming, surfing, skiing, playing …… although the South Coast is a great place its not quite the same
JC: Is there an established expat community in the area where you live? How important is this in your day-to-day life?
LP: I’m very integrated into the local community and feel more Spanish than English now to be honest. Before I had my son I didn’t mix in expat circles at all and could count my English speaking friends on one hand. My social circle has now expanded and includes a lot of expat friends, mainly through “mums/kids” activities. Our social life is probably 50/50 English/Spanish.
JC: Has Barcelona (and more specifically, Barceloneta) become more “expat friendly” during your time living here?
LP: Yes definitely, Barceloneta has changed enormously in the last 20 years, it used to be an area of the city that was considered a bit “edgy” now its becoming a “cool” neighbourhood with lots of expats moving in and renovating old properties.
JC: What have been the biggest changes in the city since you first moved here?
LP: I first came to Barcelona before the Olympics so I can see changes in every aspect of the city, from the people to the buildings and infrastructure. For me the most impressive change is the beach renovation, 20+ years ago the whole beachfront as we know it now didn’t exist. It used to be like a quaint fishing village, a ramshackle jumble of fishing boats, warehouses and spit & sawdust seafood chiringuitos (beach bars). A million miles away from the current luxury skyscraper skyline of the Hotel W, Diagonal Mar etc.
JC: Does your son attend a local school or an international school? Why did you make that decision?
LP: My son goes to the Hamelin International School in Alella. I’m a firm believer in the benefit of children learning multiple languages from an early age, the current political climate in Catalunya means that state schools teach exclusively in Catalan which I personally consider to be a rather limiting option in todays increasingly international world. I chose this particular school as it follows the International Baccalaureate system, most of the students are Catalan which avoids the high rotation of expats that other international schools suffer, the curriculum is totally trilingual (English, Catalan, Castellano) from age 3 and by age 5 they incorporate a foreign language (Chinese, French, German), it’s also secular and puts a high emphasis on work/life balance and the importance of creating well balanced, happy kids and adults.
JC: In 2013, Barcelona saw its highest ever tourism figures, and increasing numbers of international residents are flocking to live there. What, in your opinion, makes Barcelona so unique and appealing?
LP: Everything ! But I guess I’m biased !
JC: You currently work in Marketing for the media and publishing group, Grupo Planeta. Describe a typical day.
LP: My son gets picked up by the school bus at 8.20am, then I get my only “me time” of the day, we’re members of Club Natacio Barcelona which overlooks the Barceloneta beach, I love swimming my morning laps watching the sun come up over the sea, it also gives me time to think in peace and organise my day. Then I dash across the city on my Vespa (the best way to travel in rush hour) to my office, I usually spend most of the day in meetings and work through until 18/20h depending on the day, contrary to popular belief long lazy weekday siesta lunches are non existent as lunch involves a quick bite to eat in the canteen, I have a great nanny who collects my son from the bus at 6pm several times a week, then we usually either have some kind of after school activity water polo, surfing, swimming or we skateboard along the beach, meet up with friends and have a drink in a beach chiringuito. We aim for a 9pm bedtime during the week which sounds late for a British 6 year old but it’s totally normal here, quite often friends will pop round and stay for dinner which tends to be around 10pm.
JC: Tell us about some of your favourite places in the Barcelona and the surrounding area and why?
LP: As you can already tell I’m a total fan of the Barceloneta and the beach, I also love Cuitat Vella & the Born. I can happily spend hours wandering around the old city, discovering new places, shops, bars & restaurants and visiting museums. We spend quite a few winter weekends snowboarding in the Spanish Pyrenees & most of the summer either on the Costa Brava or Costa Azahar .
JC: Finally, what advice would you give others considering moving to Barcelona (or the rest of Spain)?
LP: Just do it !