(Writes our dear friend Michelle, from Gainesville, Florida.)

For almost four years, we have been planning to visit Joe and Coloma in Santa Coloma, Catalonia. This “planning” has ended up being more in thought than in action, as various life events, big and small, frequently pushed the trip back. Finally, one day in April of this year, we noticed the flight prices drop significantly, so we decided–very decisively and over text message while at work–let’s really do this! We bought round trip tickets for our family of four from Miami to Barcelona and in mid-October, finally made the trek to visit our friends whom we dearly miss in Gainesville.

We were inspired by the community we joined for the next 9 days: days and nights spent in rural Catalonia, hiking, drinking wine, while our kids ran and played in the Plaça. We found that the differences in culture and people in Catalonia and the U.S. frequently came up in conversation between the four of us. We wondered how life could feel so different in Santa Coloma compared with Gainesville, FL. Were the people inherently different, or are there structures that promote different rhythms and routines? It seemed like people in Santa Coloma simply led socially healthier lives, and we’ve been considering ways to bring those aspects of health back with us to the states.

I mentioned this thought to a friend of mine upon returning home, who immediately suggested I listen to this episode of America Dissected, discussing this exact issue. Apparently there’s something to this idea that our public spaces have a lot to do with how healthy and happy we feel.

There are too many aspects to Catalonian life that we fell in love with to name, but three characteristics stand out as promoting a distinctly different lifestyle than that of the United States:

1- Lack of cars: Historic Santa Coloma is situated within a medieval walled city where very few cars are allowed. Joe and Coloma’s home is within these walls, and everything a person (read: a person like me) needs to be happy is also within these walls. A few minutes’ walk (past a 14th century church, by the way) takes you to a bakery, a small market with cheese and meat, a hairdresser for your daughter to get bangs, an exercise class that meets at 9pm, and most importantly– the central Plaça, where kids can run, bike, and scoot without fear of being hit by a car, while their parents can actually relax and enjoy time with other adults. A couple of excursions outside Santa Coloma gave us time to experience the interstate system, where I was struck by the seemingly ubiquitious tiny, white car that most people use to get around. It felt like people had just the smallest amount of car they needed to get where they wanted to go.

2- Sense of community: Generations upon generations of families live in this town, and it feels like everyone knows everyone else. As it can be with small towns, I can see how this could sometimes feel like a negative. However, having grown up in sprawling, suburban Florida, the familiarity of Santa Coloma felt really special. It felt like everyone already knew us as the Americans visiting Joe and Coloma, taking the pressure off when I would try to explain to someone that I don’t speak Catalan. I loved seeing Coloma’s childhood home, where her parents and grandmother (àvia) have lived for 60 years. We were graciously invited to Coloma’s family’s Sunday lunch where 8 of her mom’s siblings and 50+ family members gathered on a gorgeous day in a neighboring town to celebrate the life of her mom’s mom. This lunch–the largest meal of the day–happened around 2pm, so we met for “vermouth” at 12 pm at the Plaça, where we drank vermouth and ate the world’s best olives as yet another excuse to see friends.

3- Pace of life: Joe has explained that where Americans might brag about what a busy or stressful day we are having, someone in Spain would NEVER do this! Rather, they might brag about dipping out of work early or having had a lot of time to relax that day. Simply put, I felt GOOD in Catalonia. Our family rhythm felt good in Catalonia. We ate, we exercised, we drank, we had wonderful conversations with great friends. You’re probably thinking, we were on vacation, right? Of course we felt great! But what started to occur to me was that Joe and Coloma weren’t on vacation. This was them balancing work, parenting, the business of daily life, and having an extra family of four in their home.

4- Ok I’m adding a fourth one: REALLY good wine that costs like 2 Euros at the grocery store!

Before leaving for Spain, I had emailed Joe to find out whether we should plan to stay overnight in Barcelona the night before our flight home, thinking it might make the morning easier and that we’d want to do some touristy, big-city sightseeing. His response was simple, and surprised me at the time: not only was it logistically easier to stay in Santa Coloma but would just more fun in general. Would we be missing out not seeing any of Barcelona, I wondered? Turns out: not at all. What a joy it is to visit friends in a town off the beaten path, spending long days in one place, really learning what everyday life is like for another family, in another culture. Though we love Gainesville immensely, we are excited to see how we can incorporate a little of Santa Coloma into our lives here. Thanks Coloma, Joe, Ramona, and Galileo, for opening your home and your lives to us! We can’t wait to return!

(Thanks so much Michelle for this blog post!)

And here is a video of the time we enjoyed together!