Following our walkabout in the UK, we returned to Girona, Catalonia, on September 14. The city was deep in the run-up to the hugely divisive referendum to be held on October 1. The government of Catalonia was asking its citizens if they would support Catalonia separating from Spain to form a republic. The vote was to be a non-binding opinion poll, but the central government in Madrid said such an opinion poll was unconstitutional and promised to stop it at all costs.
A little background: There is a long history of conflict between Catalonia and Spain dating back centuries. Catalonia was devastated during the Spanish Civil War (1936-39). Americans will remember the Civil War, which was featured in Ernest Hemingway’s novel For Whom the Bell Tolls. Many Catalan families have relatives who were executed and buried in unmarked graves during the dictatorship of Francisco Franco (1938-1973). It is estimated that Franco was responsible for the deaths of as many as 400,000 political opponents and dissenters all over Spain.
Approximately half of the people elected to the Catalan parliament in the recent election ran on a platform of separation from Spain. When they were in office they immediately scheduled the referendum for October 1, 2017, even though the Spanish government threatened to shut it down. A confrontation seemed inevitable.
The mood in the streets of Girona was jubilant, with pro-independence posters everywhere and daily peaceful demonstrations, many of which passed under our balcony on Carrer Nou (see the slide show below). Approximately half of the population of Catalonia was in favor of separation, and some of the other half wanted more autonomy within Spain.
We are permanent residents of Spain, but we are not citizens. The question of Catalan independence is not for us to decide. We are merely observers of the ongoing struggle. We understand the concerns that have brought many in Catalonia to the separatist camp, and we also understand the near impossibility of making a two-state solution work. Nonetheless, we were deeply impacted by these events. We began to see evidence of the mobilization of Spanish paramilitary forces (Guardia Civil) in Catalonia. We had learned that two cruise ships had been leased by the central government to house nearly 5,000 Guardia Civil troops in the ports around Barcelona. In addition, Elyn was deeply stressed by the intensity of emotions surrounding the referendum. We feared that the Catalan independence movement would be brutally crushed. All that people wanted to do was express their opinion, but that was considered a criminal act.
I wanted to do something special for Elyn’s 71st birthday, and the idea of walking the 90 km trail from Santiago de Compostela to the sea at Finisterre was much on her mind. She did her PhD in anthropology on the Camino de Santiago and has written several books about the Camino, but she had never walked this last section of the road. She suggested now would be a good time. It would get us out of Catalonia for a while and make a fitting celebration of Elyn’s birthday at the same time. We packed our bags again and fled. (You can read Elyn’s account of our decision to leave Girona HERE.)
We traveled across northern Spain, stopping first at Flores del Camino, a retreat center near Astorga that we had heard much about. We rested and recovered there for several days before moving on. On October 1 we were staying at the Parador de San Marcos in León when we heard from our friends in Girona that there had been much violence by the Guardia Civil at the polling places in Catalonia. The Spanish news in León either downplayed the violence or blamed it on the people of Catalonia.
I have a long-standing aversion to the Guardia Civil, which has a history of being Franco’s private army. The thought of living in Girona with Guardia Civil on every corner made me very nervous.
We began to seriously consider leaving Girona, where we had happily lived for eight years. But the question I now faced was two-fold: Could this 80-year-old guy from Cedar Vale, Kansas, withstand one last uprooting? And if so, where would we move to? Our choices were limited. We could always go back to the United States, but the political and social situation in our native country ruled that out. Moving to another country would require establishing residency, and that felt overwhelming. The easiest move would be to somewhere else in Spain, since we have permanent residency here. But where? Where could we move and not feel the political oppression? We decided to take that under advisement during our walk to Finisterre.
Stay tuned for our further adventures.