Fleeing Catalonia

by Elyn Aviva


It started innocuously enough with the peaceful manifestation (demonstration) on the street below our fifth-floor apartment in Girona, Catalonia. Our friend Joaquím had told us that at 10 am a few people would accompany our mayor, Marta, to the Courts. She had been summoned to appear on charges of helping the Catalan Independentista movement arrange the upcoming referendum (opinion poll) on whether to leave Spain or not. The central Spanish government had declared the referendum—and a previous one, three years ago—illegal. Apparently, asking Catalan people in a non-biding opinion poll how they felt about their relationship with Spain was forbidden in this so-called democracy. 

Marta was our neighbor, a tall, pleasant woman in her 40’s, with teenage children. Hardly a flaming firebrand of radical action. And now she was being threatened with 8-10 years in prison and huge fines for enabling people to vote in the referendum scheduled for October 1.

I heard the sound of numerous feet marching down the cobblestone street. I ran out to our balcony and leaned over the railing. Hundreds of—I was later told a thousand—people were marching peacefully in support of Marta. Our friend Joaquím was in the front of the group, holding one side of a banner in support of the right to vote. Marta was in the middle, surrounded by numerous friends and many citizens, pro-independence or not.


I started to weep uncontrollably. Huge sobs racked my body, and I doubled over in grief. As I sank into a nearby patio chair, I tried to observe my reaction objectively. “Why on earth,” I wondered, “was I so emotional?” Yes, we had lived in Girona for eight years. Yes, Marta had lived in the same apartment building, and we often exchanged pleasantries—in English—in the elevator. Yes, Joaquím was my friend. 


But so? I’m not Catalan. I wasn’t watching violence unfold in the street below—instead, I was watching a grass-roots, peaceful demonstration demanding the right to vote in a referendum that the Supreme Court in Madrid had ruled as unconstitutional and hence illegal. So why was I weeping so uncontrollably?

The demonstration continued down the street and eventually out of sight, and gradually my gut-wrenching sobs diminished. “Well,” I thought to myself, “That’s interesting. I hope that’s the end of that!” And for the next day it was. But with each new turn of the screw, each new or renewed threat of intervention from the central Spanish government, I would burst into tears again. 


In meditation, I tried to enter into the “still center within,” seeking that inner stillness that is always there. But instead of deep peace I saw an archetypal female form rising up in the center—the Spirit of Catalonia, stern and sorrowful, full of sadness for the unhealed wounds of her land, fiercely hoping for redress and freedom for her people. At least, that was the message I got. I marveled at this image, so powerful and poignant. 

Again I wondered why I was feeling this so strongly. I remembered we had moved here eight years earlier from a different part of Spain because I had had a dream that I needed to “say prayers for the medieval Jewish dead” in Girona. Weird, but that’s what I had dreamt. And that’s what I proceeded to do, until it felt “done,” and I stopped.

Perhaps this contemporary experience was triggering something from my past, or the past of my ancestors. Perhaps I was tapping into the pain and suffering of others who had lived here. I didn’t know. 

I tried to stay objective, but my deep grief was almost overwhelming. The Catalans are masters of peaceful demonstrations, although there was no knowing what the Spanish state would do—it had already sent in 6,000 national police/Guardia civil to “reinforce” the Catalan police. The threat of violence was in the air—and the adrenaline rush of those who were challenging the status quo. I wasn’t afraid for my physical well-being, but I was beginning to worry about my emotional state.

I told my beloved husband, Gary, what I was experiencing—he could see it, anyway—and we agreed that it might be better to get out of Catalonia for a while, at least until after the referendum, until we saw what was going to happen to our adopted land. We made plans to go to a delightful rural retreat center called Flores del Camino, in Castrillo de los Polvazares in northern Spain. We bought our train tickets and began packing.

I felt anxious, fearing that the trains would be blocked from leaving Catalonia and we wouldn’t be able to escape. I made a mental list of what I had to pack if we were never able to return home.

Again, I observed all this with puzzlement. There was no real—as in “physical”—threat. Yet the fear and grief that I felt permeating the atmosphere felt as real to me as the lavender plants on our terrace. 

I wondered: Was I somehow experiencing the fear my beloved departed father felt in 1923 when he fled his home in Vitebsk, Belarus, with his mother, in the midst of the Bolshevik Revolution? He and his mother managed to board the last ship out of Italy to the US. Or perhaps I was “tapping into” the residual, terrified memories of those Catalans who had fled General Franco during the Civil War, trekking over the nearby Pyrenees into France….

That night before we fled, I couldn’t sleep. I was afraid that the trains wouldn’t be running the next day, but of course, they did. Nobody had declared martial law—yet—in Catalonia. Things looked pretty normal as we waited in the Sants Station in Barcelona for our connecting train.

Once we were on the train and an hour en route to the north and west, I began to relax. Tears no longer dripped from my eyes at the mention of Catalonia. The tightness in my chest began to release. I could “feel” myself—or perhaps more accurately, feel “myself” again.

We settled into our retreat center, went for walks, ate delicious food, and watched the Milky Way float across the night sky. Gradually, the sense of impending doom lifted. I still felt teary whenever I read the news or talked about the situation—yes, I know, I was advised by friends to disconnect, but I wanted to know what was happening. 

Physical separation helped lessen the intensity that I had felt building around me like a pressure cooker ready to explode. But it didn’t go away entirely.

I remembered various bits of wisdom, including, “Wherever you go, there you are.” And, “Peace begins within.” And, “You must learn to be ‘in’ the world but not ‘of’ it.” And, “Chaos is ephemeral. The center is within.” How profound—and trite.

We left the retreat center and spent nine days walking the Way to Fisterra (Camino de Finisterre) from Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain, dedicating our 90 km (60 mile) walk to healing the deep and ancient wounds that permeate this land and its people.

The 1-O (Oct. 1) independence referendum was held amidst threats, State interference of all sorts, and excessive force. Over 800 Catalan voters were injured by violent police action. The UN Human Rights Commission and others, including the Council of Europe Assembly, lodged protests about the unnecessary and unacceptable Spanish government-sponsored violence aimed at peaceful citizens. 


Now, nearly three weeks later, the screws are tightening more and more. The Catalan government has (perhaps) declared independence—but put the declaration on hold for a few days or weeks, to see how the Spanish government responds. It has responded with the threat to take over Catalonia.

Meantime, our friends in Girona say it’s very peaceful. You wouldn’t know that a crisis is going on. Parents stroll down the streets pushing baby buggies, kids go to school, people relax at sidewalk cafes, drinking artisanal beer. 

I hope they are right, because we are catching a train back to Girona. I hope they are right, and I won’t once again be inundated with overwhelming grief for the suffering of a people and its land.


Elyn Aviva is a transformational traveler, writer, and fiber artist who lives in Girona, Spain. She is co-author with her husband, Gary White, of “Powerful Places Guidebooks.” To learn more about her publications, go to www.powerfulplaces.com and www.pilgrimsprocess.com. To learn about Elyn’s fiber art, go to www.fiberalchemy.com. Gary’s blog about their expat life is www.fandangolife.com.


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