“Abroad planning,” “Barcelona bucket list,” “Travel to book,” “Running to-do list”: the top four lists I see when I open my Notes app, and those are just ones I have pinned. I have 1830 notes (and counting) on my phone. I used to consider this addiction a great accomplishment, but recently I’ve come to view it as a curse.
I recently passed the halfway mark of my semester abroad. This inflection point has me reflecting on what I’ve learned and seen so far, and anticipating my final six weeks here. I’ve concluded that one semester is too short an amount of time to feel sufficiently acquainted with any place, especially a city as large as Barcelona. Two and a half months in, I finally feel like I live here. I know which metro line to take where, how to give confused tourists directions to the Sagrada Familia, and which bars are for locals (and which are for study abroad students). Now, as I’m settled at last, my departure is on the horizon.
My time here has felt like an endless series of to-do lists—usually a positive, as I’ve always been an avid list-maker. I arrived with pages of recommendations from friends and family who are familiar with the city. I researched restaurants on Instagram, TikTok, and The Infatuation. I added every place I wanted to try to an Apple Maps guide that now has over 200 pins. I’ve been to about a third of them so far.
Like many American study abroad students, I am also taking advantage of the short and affordable flights from Barcelona to elsewhere in Europe, meaning I travel most weekends. I want to be checking tons of places off my travel to-do list, but that means I have less time to devote to my Barcelona bucket list. I am experiencing a constant trade-off of wanting to immerse myself here in the time that I have left, yet also take advantage of opportunities to explore other cities and countries.
The itineraries I make for each place I visit range from surface-level tourist attractions and world-famous restaurants (for places I’m seeing for the first time, especially when I only have a weekend to explore them) to more in-depth lists of vintage stores, speakeasies, and hidden gems if I’m traveling somewhere I’ve been before. My Barcelona map is a hodgepodge of Gaudí buildings I’ve yet to tour, boutiques I’ve walked by that were closed for siesta, and places I now frequent, like the hole-in-the-wall natural wine bar I stumbled upon in between wash cycles at the laundromat.
Since January I have been obsessively ranking every restaurant, bar, and coffee shop I’ve ever been to on an app called Beli. The more restaurants you rank, the higher your ranking as a Beli user will be. There is no tangible benefit to being highly ranked; it’s more just a point of pride. I’ve now surpassed 800 restaurants and am ranked in the top 300 users. My Beli status has become a hallmark of my time abroad; as friends of mine begin to discover and join the app, they realize just how much time and effort I’ve put into memorializing all of the meals I’ve had. And, like with all social media, logging each meal connects me to followers across great distances. My friends at home know that my morning croissant was mediocre, the chai latte I had at a bookstore’s cafe tasted like a warm hug, and the tapas I ate for dinner were some of the best I’ve ever eaten.
Beli is the newest app in a recent trend that commodifies engagement with art. First came Goodreads (which I use to keep track of books I read, despite the app’s ancient interface), then Letterboxd (if you’re not on it yet you probably should be—Martin Scorsese just made an account), and now Beli. These apps have appealed to my obsession with list-making and documentation. I think Letterboxd almost single-handedly got me through the COVID-19 pandemic; I spent hours adding 500+ movies I’ve never seen to a watchlist and logged 100 movies in 2021, mostly for the sake of seeing the number on my profile rise, somewhat to participate in whatever discourse surrounds each film, and, of course, for personal enjoyment, too.
It's only recently that I’ve begun to ask myself, Is this healthy? Am I watching movies, reading books, and eating at new restaurants because I value these experiences, or just to say that I had them and memorialize them in an app? If everything becomes a mental or physical to-do list, what am I gaining from the moments and media I consume themselves, and how much of the satisfaction is derived from checking them off a list?
This phenomenon is a somewhat inevitable outgrowth of social media. Productivity apps disguised as arts communities enable users to feel like they aren’t frying their brains the way they are on TikTok or Instagram, but still allow them to experience validation from other users, while simultaneously completing a task.
In Spain especially, this mentality of mine clashes with the culture. Spaniards don’t make plans. On the rare occasion that they do, they’re chronically late to them. They’d rather have nowhere to be, so they can stumble upon local wine festivals and random flea markets. Maybe that’s why they eat dinner so late: they procrastinated making a plan and realized that they didn’t need one anyway. My brain refuses to rewire this way.
I already have a senior spring bucket list to tackle when I return to Providence in January. I am constantly telling myself I need to live in the moment, but if I am not always planning my next meal, my next book, and my next trip, I fear the control I might lose and the opportunities I might relinquish.
Knowing myself, it is ultimately unlikely that I will stop using any of these apps I love so dearly. I’m learning that it’s good to leave a list with a few boxes unchecked; it’s best to never actually finish a to-do list, but to always come close. That way, there is always something on the horizon—a new experience when I return to a city or sit down to watch a movie but don’t know what to choose.
I’ve experienced a jarring scarcity complex while traveling; I walk tens of thousands of steps a day while exploring a new city, desperately seeking to touch every corner of its terrain, convinced I may never be there again. But like rewatching a favorite movie or eating over and over again at a favorite restaurant, travel is an experience that demands to be repeated. A city I’ve seen before will feel different each time I visit it. It’s best to always have a few items on the bucket list left to check off.