Julie Stephenson, Founder of Esperaça talks to MumAbroad Life about her move to Barcelona, owning a fish & chip shop and helping the homeless.
I’m originally from Liverpool in England. I moved to Barcelona on a whim really. Ella, my daughter, was three at the time, and I liked the idea of bringing her up in a country where she would learn a second language. Before we settled here, I didn’t realise she would have three languages. It wasn’t a conscious decision. We didn’t sit down and say we are moving to Spain. It was simply a year, which became two years, and has now been 13 years.
We stayed because I liked the lifestyle for kids. Plus, which one would you choose: long hours of sunshine or long hours of rain? It wasn’t a difficult decision. Also, very quickly and quite unexpectedly, I made some really good friends. Everything kinda just worked from day one. We felt comfortable. We liked being here, but also liked that England is very accessible from here so we could visit as much as we wanted.
Julia Fossi and I opened a fish and chip shop. We decided Barcelona needed a fish and chip shop, but it wound up being a lot harder to open than we had anticipated. At the same time as we finally got the shop open on Rambla del Raval, we were asked to do a pop-up fish and chips shop at the Bread & Butter fair at Plaça d’Espanya. So we basically opened two shops within two weeks of each other. Although it was a huge undertaking, it was still a lot of fun.
We got a lot of English speakers in the shop, but we got a lot of Spanish and Catalan people, too. Fried fish and potatoes. Spanish people love that. There were also a lot of people who had been to England, tried fish and chips, really liked it and wanted to experience it again. And ours was like a true fish and chip shop. The only difference was we served alcohol, so you could have a glass of wine with your fish and chips.
My favourite part of owning a restaurant was meeting new people and making friends. The first couple of years were really good fun and extremely interesting. Having a great business partner didn’t hurt either. Julia was very supportive. Support is so important when you’re doing something like that in a country where you don’t speak the language. My Spanish was really bad at that point, when we first started. Obviously I have improved since then.
We had lots of crazy customers. I took a punch outside the shop once. We had a big problem with people parking outside in front of our terrace. One day, I very nicely asked a customer to move his car and he simply didn’t want to. But we have lots of crazy stories like that. It was a bit of a bonkers place.
We were part of Operation Fish so we were on the news. Somebody was falsifying passports out of our shop, so we were raided by the Guàrdia Civil. There were lots of people arrested, not just people from our shop. Obviously if we had known, we might have stopped it, but it did make for an exciting day.
Now I run Esperança. Credit for that comes from Facebook. I happened to see that a group had started in Liverpool, run by a guy called Colin, and known as the HOPE Project. They go out in the city—I think they do seven nights a week now—and hand out food to the homeless. I contacted two of my closest friends, Julia and Libby, and said, ‘You know, we could do something like this’. Libby and I went out that weekend with no clue what we were doing. We just made a couple of sandwiches, took some cups of coffee and went around passing them out. People seemed very appreciative so it grew from there. It will be a year this month that the programme has been up and running.
Ninety per cent, maybe even 95 per cent, of people we come in contact with are very receptive to us and what we’re doing. If people don’t want anything, they’re usually very polite about it. Either they’ve already had something to eat, want to go to sleep or just want to be left alone, but the majority of people are very, very appreciative. It’s very moving the first time you go out and see how grateful people are for anything you can give them.
A lot of the people we know, we see every week. Obviously, our volunteers can’t go out for hours on end, but we do try to stop and have a chat with them. We’re not doing something that is changing their lives. We’re not taking them off the street. We can’t help them in any other way besides those 10 minutes or that half an hour where they get to socialise a little and eat a little something.
There was one night when we went past La Caixa. One man sat at one end and one at the other. We gave them some soup, sandwiches, juice, whatever we had, then we stopped for a drink at a bar down the street. When we came out, we walked back past the bank, and the two guys were sitting together, chatting and eating their food. They started waving to us, with big smiles on their faces, and that’s when I realised the impact of what we’re doing. Just for a moment, we make homeless people feel good about themselves. They feel like someone gives a damn that they’re alive. That’s all it is, but for a lot of people on the street, that’s a huge thing. Most people feel very ignored.
Other than Esperança, I am getting used to having another adult in the house! My daughter, Ella turned 18 and it’s just the two of us. She has started college in BCN studying music so I am now travelling again!
Esperança is now a registered association so we can accept donations and we are looking at how we move the charity forward.
Esperança makes up gift boxes at Christmas to give to the homeless. To find out more visit: www.facebook.com/groups/esperancabcn