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Photo by Richard Owens
Family photo of Lynda Trevitt, Xavi Margarit and their children
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Photo by Richard Owens
Photo of Jing Jing Yuan and Ambròs Genís
Last August, after a 14-year courtship and the birth of two children, my Catalan boyfriend and I got married. Romantically, I like to consider our cross-cultural bonding pioneer. But in fact, we are part of a growing minority. In a report on mixed marriages compiled back in 2006 by The Institute for Advanced Studies in Vienna, the percentage of marriages comprised of one local and one foreign partner in Spain was as high as 11.76 percent. And that number is based solely on registered partnerships. With the enormous influx of new immigrants to Barcelona in the past decade, love across cultural and geographical borders is flourishing. But it’s not without its difficulties.
Kolbrún Rut Ragnarsdóttir (Reykjavic, Iceland) and Alex Ruiz Pallach (Barcelona)
Kolbrún first came to Barcelona in 1997 to study anthropology as an Erasmus student. “We are used to travelling,” she explains about Icelanders as we sit in her kitchen drinking coffee and eating home-made carrot cake. She and Alex met one November night in 1998 in Plaça Reial, while out with friends. They began dating but in February of the following year, Kolbrún returned to Iceland to finish her studies and she also started working as a flight attendant.
Alex’s friends and family thought the relationship was, to quote Cole Porter, just one of those crazy flings, and like many long-distance affairs, it wasn’t expected to last. But he and Kolbrún felt differently. “When we met, it seemed like we knew each other. I guess that’s why we kept the contact,” says Kolbrún. Alex saw the distance and the time apart as constructive, allowing them the space to consider where it was going. “You can see if you want to be with this woman or not,” he tells me. In September of 1999, he spent a few weeks in Iceland and in January 2000 Kolbrún made the move to Barcelona. “I always knew that there was something more to this; that’s why I came back,” says Kolbrún.
It wasn’t always easy. Things as basic as meal schedules to more complex family expectations had to be rethought and adjusted. And then there was communication and the complications of discussing their feelings without a common native language. Both Kolbrún and Alex feel that being from minority cultures makes them especially aware of the need to respect each other’s background. Catalan, Castilian and Icelandic are spoken in the home. Local and Icelandic traditions are shared with their three sons. Alex sees the culture and the person as part of the same package, and his love for Kolbrún is extended to her country. He says knowing her has facilitated his relationships with people of diverse communities and viewpoints. “I’ve changed,” he says. “I’ve opened up more to the world. I knew it was something I would have to do to continue to be with Kolbrún.”
When I ask Kolbrún what she misses she is quick to answer: “Family events, friends, the culture.” She shows me a box of chocolate Easter eggs she brought back from Iceland for her children, a small symbol of devotion she hopes to pass on to her boys. They see her parents frequently and often spend summers in Iceland. And what do her parents think about her raising a family abroad? Kolbrún’s expression grows solemn. “The most important thing is that you are happy, they said.”
Jing Jing Yuan (Beijing, China) and Ambròs Genís (Agullana, Catalunya)
Jing Jing Yuan and Ambròs Genís met at Pudong Airport in Shanghai. She was flying to Barcelona to study Castilian as part of a master’s degree, he was returning home from a business trip to China. They exchanged email addresses before boarding. “After my studies, I needed to go back to Shanghai and find a job but finally, I stayed here,” says Jing Jing. The year was 2003. Jing Jing tells me this in English and when the phone rings she quickly switches to Castilian. Later, she returns to her mother tongue to greet an elegant Chinese woman with a young child who have come through the door of the tea shop Jing Jing and Ambròs own together.
Ambròs continues, explaining their courtship in Barcelona, “I was studying Chinese because I enjoyed China and I wanted to practise Chinese so I sent an email to her and we met two or three times.” “But we never talked Chinese!” Jing Jing points out, laughing.
In 2005, they opened their business, Tetere. It is the realisation of a dream of Ambròs to have his own business. And for both he and Jing Jing, it is a way to share something they both love. “We saw that there was no real Chinese culture here,” says Jing Jing. Despite its location on Carrer Saragossa, once inside it seems plausible that you have crossed a portal into East Asia. Among the delicate Chinese décor hangs a portrait of the couple together in traditional Chinese clothing, he in a cheongsam, she in a qi pao. Like their relationship, the shop is a perfect blend of their east-west union, and is a reflection of Barcelona’s rapidly growing cosmopolitanism.
Now the couple have a son. Jing Jing visits China with him each year so that he can see his Chinese family and better understand his Chinese roots. At home, she speaks to him in Chinese. But according to Chinese law, the boy is not entitled to dual nationality.
When Jing Jing has a problem she is careful not to concern her parents. “Because my parents will feel I’m alone here and they will worry. Now we have our son and my parents, they miss a lot. We cannot meet every month, every day; maybe once a year.” But both she and her husband are open to the idea of spending more time in China. “Maybe in the future we will move to China. I didn’t change my nationality. I am Chinese. My son and my husband, they are Spanish.”
Despite the difficulties, both Jing Jing and Ambròs recognise the benefits that come from exploring together. Even though he had been to China many times, knowing Jing Jing has given him a deeper understanding and appreciation of her homeland.
Now when they visit China, Ambròs sees it through Jing Jing’s eyes. “I also explain things that happen here in Catalunya, our traditions and the cultural ways of doing things. We enjoy that a lot.” Another thing he enjoys is learning to see life from a fresh perspective. “This for me is very important; you start from scratch. Most of the things are different, the way of thinking is different. And when everything is different, I would say it is easier to...” Ambròs stops to consider how it is easier. Jing Jing waits.
“The longer you stay here, you will feel a big difference between two cultures,” she tells me later, as we sit just the two of us sipping tea. I ask if that makes the relationship grow more difficult with time. “No,” she answers. “Because both of us talk a lot.” We sit quietly for a moment, watching people pass on the street. Over soft Chinese music, Jing Jing adds, “We have a lot of ideas we exchange. It’s good. It’s interesting.”
Koos Kroon (Heemskerk, The Netherlands) and Sonia Fort (Barcelona)
Even for polyglots like Koos and Sonia, language can present certain obstacles in a cross-cultural relationship. She speaks five languages. He speaks six. “In the beginning, neither of us was speaking our original language,” Sonia explains. They met one summer on the Costa Brava, and their romance began in French. “To get to say something would be so difficult. But it’s also the beginning of the love so you have all the time, all the patience,” she remembers.
Both were in their early 20s. They were both students. When he returned to the Netherlands, they travelled back and forth in order to be together. Two years later, a decision was made. “We were visiting each other every three or four months. It was terrible. So we decided to live together and she came to Amsterdam,” explains Koos. Sonia told her family she was leaving. “[My parents] had met him and they thought there was a lot of love and they said, ‘OK, if you have any trouble, you can always come back.’” She and Koos married in Holland where they worked and finished their studies while Sonia learned to speak Dutch.
Eight years later, they moved to Catalunya. “She was homesick and we decided to come back. It was also always the intention to go to Barcelona,” says Koos.
In Holland, Koos was a photographer. He knew it would be difficult to continue his profession here so, with the support of Sonia’s family, he took his passion for bicycles and turned it into a business, opening a retail bike shop called Bike Gracia; the business has since grown to include a wholesale division. Koos speaks fluent Catalan, while Sonia keeps up her Dutch and wants their three children to identify with their Dutch heritage. “Every time I go to Holland I try to bring things home that are very typical Dutch things…personajes de cuento, cookies…I want them used to the Dutch details, so if they ever want to go to Holland to live there, they feel at home.”
Though strikingly tall and Germanic, Koos fits right in. “I think I’ve adapted myself quite well,” he says, matter-of-factly. “I don’t think I will go back. I really like it here. The climate is good and it makes relationships with other people really different.” He feels being part of a multicultural home has made him more flexible and has ultimately made life easier. “It’s a very rich experience.”
Lynda Trevitt (Sydney, Australia) and Xavi Margarit (Barcelona)
Strange luck and determination brought Lynda and Xavi together. Going through the message board at the University of Barcelona, Lynda came across Xavi’s notice for a language exchange. He was a journalist, as was she. “I thought, at least we’ll have something in common,” says Lynda. Their first encounter was over the phone, in Castilian. When she told him she was Australian, he said he wasn’t interested. He’d been in Bali where he’d heard the accent and found it impossible. So she switched to English to say goodbye. As she was about to hang up she heard him say, “Wait, I can understand you.” That was 20 years ago.
“It was touch and go. If I hadn’t changed into English at that moment, I would have hung up the phone and we would have never met.” They lived together for six months but Lynda was just passing through. Longing for home, she packed her rucksack and returned to Sydney. But in April of 1994, Xavi realised he missed Lynda too much to end the relationship and in a burst of romantic adventure, he went to Australia. There, the relationship was rekindled.
Lynda says the couple chose to live in Barcelona because it seemed easier for her to find work here than for Xavi to begin again in Sydney, not because she had any intention of returning. Xavi has a different impression. “I don’t think I had to persuade her to come to Barcelona. She wanted to come.”
It took Lynda a long time to get used to living here. “If Barcelona had continued to be the same as it was in the early Nineties, maybe we would have left and gone back to Australia,” she says. Now, as a family of five, trips home require savings and planning.
Lynda works as a translator and says she loves her job. As her youngest child, Max, climbs a tree and our husbands talk, we watch the children playing in the park. We talk about the transformation the city has made in the last 20 years, how it is we find ourselves still here after two decades. “Barcelona’s changed and I’ve changed too, I suppose, at the same time,” she says. “And once you have children, then you’re really settled somewhere. You’re really beginning to put down roots. At least that’s the way I feel.” I nod in agreement, knowing just what she means.
- Both civil and religious marriages require a marriage certificate and have to be registered with the state. Information on civil weddings in Barcelona can be obtained through the Registro Civil: Plaça Duc de Medinaceli 2. Tel. 93 412 0474. Contact your local house of worship for details about religious weddings.
- To register the marriage in your home country, contact your local consulate.
- As of January 1st, 2011, a new law is in effect to simplify the recognition of una pareja estable (domestic partnership). Information can be obtained from your district Ajuntament.