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Photo by David Robinson
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Photo by Lee Woolcock
Sala de Actes, Ateneu Barcelonès - home
Sala de Actes, Ateneu Barcelonès
“I don’t want to belong to any club that would have me as a member.” Groucho Marx
Aside from Groucho Marx, most people want to belong to something. We need community, support and a place where ‘everyone knows your name’. Much of our identity is connected to the groups we belong to, whether that be our immediate family, a church, the local watering-hole or a Meetup.com group. Foreigners in Barcelona use clubs as easy diving boards from which to jump into their new adopted home. It’s a fast way to meet people and, depending on the club, to get to know Catalan and Spanish culture. However, while being a ‘joiner-in’ is still popular with many people, the type of club they sign up with and their reasons for doing so are gradually changing, a phenomonen that Barcelona is witnessing at first hand.
During the last century, foreign and local clubs, societies, asociaciones and centres flourished in the city. Opened just after World War One, the now defunct British Club was one of the first foreign resident organisations to set up a headquarters in central Barcelona in an elegant entresuelo on Plaça Uquinaona.
The reason for the club’s foundation is clear: from the mid-19th century to the early 20th century, many British businesses were established in Barcelona and, as a result, many nationals from the UK emigrated to the city. Lloyds Bank was here, as were many British insurance companies and textile factories, like Scottish jacket-maker Fabra Coats, while English shipping agents were also heavily involved in the Catalan textile industry. Though British businesses employed Spaniards, the upper-management was always from the UK. With so many Brits about, the British Chamber of Commerce was set up in 1908, and the British Club followed shortly thereafter.
“All the new ex-pats who came into Barcelona, the British ones, almost automatically joined the British Club because it was a little bit of home,” explained John Connolly, former British Society president, describing the Club’s atmosphere in the Twenties.
At the Club, Britons could play bridge, have tea, play snooker or cards and peruse the English library. Miles away from Britain, with limited Castilian and no modern-day resources such as Easyjet, Skype and MSN messenger, the foreign residents of 100 years ago may have suffered more severe homesickness than today’s new arrivals and, if they did, the British Club was there to see them through it with gin and tonics and traditional British events like celebrating the Queen’s Birthday and whisky tasting.
As communication and transportation options improved, the British Club, which once had a substantial membership, began to decline. It moved to Carrer de l’Argenteria and then eventually gave up on having a headquarters altogether and sold the property. Around 1980, the British Club closed its doors, and in 1981 opened anew as the British Society.
Currently the British Society has about 200 members of all ages, though most are over 40. While the group is not what it once was, it is still very active and provides one service that it always has: assistance for British people who are new in town. “Sometimes it helps to have someone you can call, in your own language, to ask where the best place to hire an electrician is,” explained another former British Society president Brenda Wright. Though the Society is still an important social gathering place for many, unless it can attract younger members it could eventually come to an end.
The British Society is not the only club in Barcelona struggling to recruit young blood. Down in El Raval at the Centro Aragonés, a place that promotes the culture of the Aragón community, president Jacinto Bello López is considering the same issue.
“It looks bad,” Bello López told Metropolitan. “The other day I was with another Centro director, and he told me that within eight or 10 years they would probably have to close their club.” Bello López is more optimistic about the Centro Aragonés. He
believes that with its 1,500 current members, and its role as an important cultural institution in the city, it will hold on for another 20 to 25 years. However, he does see an end coming.
Just as the British came for commerce and set up clubs in Barcelona, so did Spaniards. As waves of emigrants came to the city throughout the 20th century, asociaciones, peñas and centres sprang up throughout Barcelona to represent every region of Spain, from Andalucía to the Basque country. The Centro Aragonés is one of the finest of these asociaciones: located in a well-preserved Modernista building, the Centro dominates the corner of Carrer Joaquín Costa and owns the Goya Theatre, which is in the same building.
Asociaciones and centres like the Centro Aragonés are culturally important in that they keep regional customs alive with folk dancing, traditional holidays, and the preservation of historic costumes. At the Centro Aragonés, members with stamina can sign up for classes in the traditional Aragonés jota dance.
Unfortunately, the expense of keeping an asociación going is high in Barcelona, and although many of these clubs receive money from the government plus take a monthly fee from their members (€6 a month at the Centro Aragonés), rises in rent prices could see many asociaciones forced to move or shut down.
Such was the case for the Hogar Extremeno, a gathering-place for those from and interested in Extremadura, which used to be housed on Portal del Angel, at number four. The centre had an intimate terrace that was popular with foreigners and locals alike, especially on humid summer nights. When the Hogar Extremeno’s lease ran out, they were asked to pay many more thousands of euros in rent, or move. They closed down in October 2008, unable to pay, and now an Esprit boutique has taken over what was once a charming slice of Barcelona history. Hogar Extremeno’s former patrons were so upset by its closure that a Facebook page asking people to boycott Esprit was set up. It has over 800 members.
However, the news is not totally bleak for those managing Barcelona clubs, or indeed for those looking for places to join, as many old and new clubs continue to thrive here. The 150-year old Ateneu Barcelonés continues to sign up members. Originally a men’s club, the Ateneu has managed to attract new members through a wide variety of events, an accessible membership fee, and its fabulous library and building, which offers a garden oasis in the centre of the city, with tortoises and a goldfish-filled pond. Similarly, the Barcelona’s Women’s Network continues to bring women together with many events every month, while at the cocktail hours organised by the American Society, an important new trend is in evidence. It’s not uncommon to discover that half of the people there are not from the US originally—instead, people are increasingly gathering less according to their culture and more by shared interest.
Meetup.com is proof of this. While the idea is always to physically meet up, members of the internet social network initially get in touch online, finding local groups that focus on a specific pastime or shared interest, such as photography, cinema or language exchange. Indeed, nowadays, some of us may prefer first joining a club from the comfort of our laptops, being able to find others who we know we share an interest before actually geting to know them face to face, rather than simply turning up at an unfamiliar club.
Though we live in a society where virtual groups and communication are more and more accessible, online forums have not yet replaced our need to get together and physically meet others. These days in Barcelona, we join clubs not so much because of our culture or nationality, and more by common interest, and that’s a good thing.
- The American Society: Organises July 4th parties, and a monthly cocktail event, which is usually well attended, as well as many other activities throughout the year. www.amersoc.com
- Ateneu Barcelonés: Historic private members’ club at the centre of Barcelona. Strong supporter of Catalan culture, it also houses the local branch of the PEN Society and hosts various talks and courses. It costs €60 to join and then there is a monthly fee of €27: this gives you access to the extensive library, including many foreign publications and books, and the beautiful patio garden. Canuda 6. www.ateneubcn.org
- Barcelona Women’s Network: International group for women aimed at helping new arrivals settle in and provide regular social events (including mother and toddler groups, coffee mornings and evening get-togethers) for those living here. www.bcnwomensnetwork.com
- The British Society: Formally the British Club, this organisation celebrates the Queen’s birthday, has info on Witty Walks (which take participants out to explore the Catalan countryside), and offers many other events. You must speak English to join. www.britsoccat.com
- Centro Aragonés (C/ Joaquin Costa 68): This club just turned 111. Located in a Modernista building, it has a beautiful library for members to use. Anyone can join for just €6 a month (it’s not necessary to be from Aragón). Serves a good-value menú del día for about €8. http://centroaragonesbcn.tripod.com
- Hogar Extremeno’s Facebook page: www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=28207951589
- Meetup.com: an online social network that aims to bring people physically together rather than simply corresponding on the internet. Anyone can join and anyone can start a club for a small fee. Many special interest groups are represented. There are more than 60 Barcelona groups offering everything from book clubs to a vegan club as well as a Metropolitan readers’ club. www.meetup.com
Other clubs in Barcelona:
- Associació Catalana d’Amics de Nova York (ACANY): Corsega 459, tel. 93 458 1932
- Casa de Andalucía de Barcelona: Santa Engràcia 68, tel. 93 318 6138. www.casadeandaluciabcn.com
- Centre Cultural Euskal Etxea Barcelona (Basque centre): Plaçeta Montcada 1-3, tel. 93 310 2200. http://euskaletxeak.org
- Centro Gallego de Barcelona (Galician centre): Rambla Caputxins 35-37, tel. 93 301 2892. www.cgb.cat
- Circulo Ecuestre: Expensive private members’ club that was inaugurated in 1856 and is famed for its rooftop swimming-pool. Located on Balmes with Avinguda Diagonal. www.circuloecuestre.es