words + photos by Elyn Aviva
“I can’t believe we live here!” I said to Gary as I stared in fascination at the multicolored reflections dancing over the rippling surface of the Onyar River.
He squeezed my hand and leaned over the railing of the stone bridge. Ducks floated by, luminous in the evening light. “I know just what you mean,” he replied. “Who’d have thought that what started off as a whim would end up being such an adventure?”
I nodded, admiring how the brightly lit cathedral spires were silhouetted against the velvet black sky. I sighed, contentedly. Then, hand in hand, Gary and I strolled across the medieval bridge that divides one part of Girona from the other. We walked down the Rambla and sat down at a sidewalk café. We ordered a cortado, a fragrant cup of espresso laced with a touch of milk, and an artisan beer. We looked at each other and grinned. Ah, what a life.
Just two years earlier Gary and I had been pondering what to do next with our lives. We knew we enjoyed traveling in Europe and wanted to do more of it with less hassle. Why not move to Europe for a few years, I suggested. We weren’t getting any younger. We had good health, enough money, a love of adventure, and much to be grateful for. If not now, when? Gary agreed, and we began making plans to move to Spain, a country we had lived in briefly once before.
Five months later we returned to Sahagún, a small town (population 2500) in north-central Spain. It was easy to establish ourselves there since we had friends and “family” from our previous stay. It was convenient (on the train lines to everywhere, so we didn’t need a car) and inexpensive. Easy, convenient, and boring. After a year of spending more time traveling than in Sahagún, we realized it was time to find somewhere else to live.
We made a list of what we wanted in a place: organic grocery stores, convenient computer repair and service, a good farmers’ market, bookstores, easy access by train to places we want to visit, lively folkloric events, museums, diverse cultural activities (some in English), some English-speaking resources—and a certain “je ne sais quoi”—an indescribable attractiveness.
Girona, a medieval city in Catalonia, immediately came to mind. We’d stayed there once briefly and we’d been charmed. Five bridges (one designed by M. Eiffel) cross from the Barri Vell (Old Town) to the barely newer new town on the other side of the river. Narrow winding streets, arcaded passageways, stunning churches, numerous museums, a Roman road running through the center of what remains of the medieval Jewish neighborhood, a city of 90,000 people, including some who speak English—definitely, our kind of town.
I went on-line and found an apartment for short-term rental in the Barri Vell, just across from the Museum of the Jews in Catalonia. After several phone conversations (in English, more or less) with the proprietor, we arrived in Girona for a one-month trial sojourn. I checked out several local blogs and made contact with Jack, an American-Englishman who offered to show us around. The “Your Life Is A Trip” adventure gods were smiling on us.
Our apartment, we discovered, wasn’t just any apartment: it was a newly renovated apartment in a sixteenth-century building constructed over a medieval building built over a still-older building on the Calle de la Força, the original Roman road that led from France through Girona and further south into Catalonia. We entered through a large stone arch into an interior atrium, complete with the original well that had provided water for the building’s inhabitants throughout the centuries. Our apartment had twin arched windows left over from the previous (sixteenth-century) reconstruction and an equally old interior stone wall. We were literally inhaling history.
Within days of arriving in Girona, we knew we were going to move there. The Old Town was saturated with atmosphere—and not just from 1000 years ago. One morning while shopping at the outdoors market we heard a loud, rhythmic thump-thump-thump approaching from the far end of the street. A dozen young people in identical costumes were marching down the street striking large drums and playing a haunting instrument that sounded like a distant cousin of the oboe. Following behind were eight dancing folkloric peasants with huge paper-mâche heads on their shoulders (cabezudos). And behind them, four giant royal figures over twelve feet tall—gigantes—in embroidered velvet robes swayed majestically down the street. What was the occasion, we asked bystanders. They shrugged. Some local celebration. There are too many to remember.
Kiosks fluttered with flyers describing upcoming music and theater events, some in English. Gary checked out the local Apple store and approved. We went with Jack for a hike in the nearby foothills—a short walk out of town. Soon we were sharing the trails with native Gironines who were on the look-out for wild asparagus. Later, Jack told us, they’d be hunting for mushrooms and we’d be able to buy them in the market. We checked out the local medical system (Gary tripped and needed emergency care) and found it excellent. We went on day trips to medieval towns in the Pyrenees, to Greek and Roman ruins, to charming seaside villages. We found favorite restaurants that offered affordable lunch-time specials and became friendly with shopkeepers. We made Catalan acquaintances—a neighbor even invited us in for tea.
We’d found our new home. Well, almost. We still needed to find an apartment for the long term—which meant at least a year. Through a series of fortuitous events, we met a wonderful realtor, and she and her husband not only found us an apartment but also soon become good friends.
We returned to Sahagún, packed up our few belongings, put them in a rental van, and moved to Girona.
A year has passed. We continue to be enthralled with Girona. Living in a foreign country is not for the meek or timid—nor is it for the impatient and inflexible. We’ve learned to watch where we step to avoid the ubiquitous dog-poo (they do not have laws about picking the stuff up). We’ve learned that if we accomplish one or two tasks in a day we consider ourselves fortunate (a shop may or may not be open; the person in charge may or may not be available; the equipment might or might not be working). We’ve learned that we can’t buy everything we’re used to and that there are many fewer choices—but that that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it’s a good thing.
And we’ve learned that speaking a foreign language and negotiating a foreign culture are both more challenging and more rewarding than we could ever have imagined. They say that the best way to keep an aging mind agile is to challenge it with new tasks. Well, we do that every day. It’s unavoidable.
Do we plan to return “home”? We are home. At least, for the near future.
Sorry—I have to go now. I just got a text-message from our Catalan friends to meet them at the local Irish bar and have a Guinness….
Elyn Aviva is a writer, fiber artist, and transformational traveler. Currently living in Girona (Catalonia), Spain, she is fascinated by pilgrimage and sacred sites. Her PhD in anthropology was on the modern Camino de Santiago in Spain. Aviva is author of a number of books on pilgrimage and journey, and she is co-author with her husband, Gary White, of “Powerful Places Guidebooks”; the most recent one is Powerful Places in Brittany. To learn more about Elyn or her publications, go to www.pilgrimsprocess.com, www.powerfulplaces.com and www.fiberalchemy.com