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  • Writer's pictureOlga Pavlovsky

Fire, sweat and tears. Integration into Catalunya.

One woman’s experience of the path to integration

In 2019, I stood surrounded by images: smoking dragons, ribbons and skirts swirling, espadrilles pounding the pavement in the June fiestas, abuelas staring down at giants whose heads brush past the balconies they are watching from as the giants whirl by. The images cover the walls of our town hall. They are of the rich cultural life and the people who make it so. Within these images is the story of my family.

My youngest beating a drum, following the dragons with his dad; my eldest playing the Catalan flute at the summer fiesta; my middle child high on the top of a human tower, teeth clenched in concentration as another child scales over the top of her and I look through my camera lens from below, nervously snapping the shot. And there also am I, with the head of the colla (or group) of devils, laughing as I run away from a fire-breathing beast who has come from Mallorca to torch the tails of our canvas suits as we run, sparks flying from our fireworks, through the streets of our town. I am part of that pack of devils at the annual winter festival, stinking of smoke, tears streaming down my laughing face.

Standing in that hall was my moment to pause and reflect that, ten years in, we are getting there, we are beginning to belong. As I thanked the town council for giving me this exhibition to showcase what I love about my city, its people, and the life I see here, it was also my opportunity to thank those around me for helping me to belong. They will never know how important they are to our life here.

Years previously , when I wandered into the local Catalan cultural centre, I had no idea of this life, of where it would lead me and how much I would fall in love with it. I had been living in an expat community, trying to integrate and, to be honest, feeling as though part of my life was missing. In the UK I was part of the fabric of the town, life was no struggle – it was just what I made of it. Here, it was different: I felt apart, a foreigner, weird, different, alien. I was, and still am, no linguist and arrived speaking no Catalan and only limping Spanish. After four years in Spain, I was feeling that I needed a dramatic shift, I needed to fit in, to become part of my town and to improve my limping languages. That’s when I wandered into the Catalan cultural centre one afternoon, drawn in by the huge mural of castellers or human towers, a local regional thing of pride.

It was a fortuitous moment, and we were instantly welcomed in by the cultural centre staff, asked what we wished to join – dances, music, human towers, dragons, giants, a smorgasbord of delight. Spoilt for choice, we joined almost everything in our desire to “give it a go”.

I won’t lie, the start was rough, we understood nothing, it was a tight knit group of long-standing local families and hard to break in. We turned up for practices of human towers and often felt isolated, alone – a little stupid to be honest – with our lack of language. But I am determined, and I don’t quit easily, so we stayed. I remember the first day I felt passionate, and mad, about my child being missed out in an opportunity to participate in a fiesta, so I had an argument with the team. I lost, as I didn’t have enough words, but I got my point across. I was a mum, and I was mad, an advocate for my child and passionately keen to keep her involved. That night, I returned home to 10 Facebook friends requests from within the group. We were in, they recognised we wanted to be a part… and so it went on.

Years of turning up, years of poor communication, but smiles, shared jokes (often at my expense), and slowly, slowly we got there learning bits more of the languages. We toured Catalunya, Mallorca, Andorra and Valencia. Fiestas and events, participating with a curiosity, learning more and more about the culture and history of this brilliant country. People were passionate in sharing what they knew, what they loved. With my camera and my writing, I was able to capture the beauty of all we saw, the people, their passions and their identity. This I have shared with others, and this was appreciated by those who held it of value. It took years of feeling on the fringe but little by little we got there; one year I won the cooking competition for a local regional dish, the next I managed to stand up and speak in Catalan in the town fiesta in the town square and it got me a cheer and a few back slaps for weeks after as I shopped and went about my life. People appreciated that we tried. We participated in the massive “concurs de castellers”, a huge biannual regional event, wedged in the huge structures, hot, pressed against the bodies of our teammates, and allowed to stand sweaty and grinning, holding the winning trophy with the others. We slowly found ourselves invited in, BBQs, parties, and at community events we were alongside the mayor and – once – the president of the region.

We slipped in, in photos in the local newspaper and social media, were interviewed on radio and TV, mainly selected for our foreignness but also a slow slipping into belonging. Over time we became them, we morphed from “guiris” (foreigners) into townsfolk. The point I was given my exhibition was the point at which I realised we were there, we belonged. I still can’t speak good Catalan, my pronunciation is horrible but I try when I can. I still take Spanish classes weekly in an attempt to better my ability to be here, to further my career and also to argue/negotiate for things, but the persistence has paid off and I now feel like one of the locals. My strange guiri ways are accepted and now we are part of the fabric of the town, a part of the life that we desired years ago when I stepped into that cultural centre in the heart of our town.

Photography: Kayte Locke

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