Today marks exactly two years since I first arrived in Girona, Catalonia, Spain. It is also exactly one year since the Catalan independence movement organized a referendum.
The referendum was unsanctioned, but peaceful. It was broken up by policemen in black uniforms and black impenetrable helmets, with black truncheons and rubber bullets. They blinded a man. His surname was Español. The irony was lost on everyone.
From the office where I work in the mornings, we can see the back of the Spanish government’s representation in the city.
The sub-delegation, as it’s called, is a big, round, orange-brick building. It looks like a sort of sawn-off bull-fighting arena. It has been ringed with yellow crowd control fences, chained together, since this day last year.
We can see the back door and the car park, which is where the police vans tend to hang out. These are squat, dark navy vans, with blacked-out windshields. The side windows are filled with black wire fencing, rather than glass. When they drive through town in convoy, you can see pale fingers gripping at the wire.
I try to imagine the same fingers wielding a baton, or directing traffic, or filling in my residency papers when I first arrived. The images are difficult to align.
Back in the office, we are standing at the windows and counting the police vans.
We haven’t seen them in months, but today they are back in full force. The sound of protest flows down the street and through the open windows, not even drowned out by a passing train. Someone in the office laughs, nervously.
Then out on the street, along with the drums and the megaphone-relay speeches, what sounds like a siren goes off. Someone laughs, nervously, again. Someone makes a joke about the old air raid shelter down by the river. I find my fists are clenched and I can’t move (remembering another place, another strange day, ten years ago). Finally someone closes the windows.
This time last year, I was in a polling station.
I had spent the morning listening to bands and marches outside, and checking the news. There were lots of reports of peaceful voting, friendly police making peace with activists. My favourite thing was the tractor protests: endless columns of huge machines, in cheerful primary colours, filling the roads and making the screen doors rattle.
Then things started to go bad. There had been scuffles at one or two stations. One friend forwarded me a Whatsapp video from her husband, voting at a school near their house. He was sitting on a wall round the school yard, or next to the wall, and watching the police charge the gate. People were shouting and screaming. They had their arms in the air to show they would not fight.
About one o’clock, I got a text inviting me to the polling station in my old neighbourhood — a sports pavilion where some of my students played basketball on Thursday nights. When I got down there, it was buzzing. A crowd outside had formed a ramshackle cordon, and were swapping rumours about where the police would hit next. (That was how we talked about it: as if the police were like bank robbers, in silly masks, shooting people up because they lost their nerve.)
There were a lot of children in the sports hall.
Families were sharing sandwiches. I’d just come back from holiday, and it felt like I bumped into everyone I knew: all the people who had helped me through my first year in Girona, welcomed me, taught me how to speak new languages, let me be responsible for their children in class.
I watched the lines of voters, excited, solemn, posing for photographs at the ballot box. One old man trudged in, wheeling an oxygen tank; he got a standing ovation from everyone there.
After a few hours, word came round that the police had stopped charging the polling stations.
Charging, in both senses of the word. The battering rams and arrest warrants had been put away. The excitement was over, supposedly. Anywhere that ballot boxes had not been confiscated, the counting would start.
I decided to walk home. The streets were eerily empty and quiet, except for little clusters of policemen on street corners, and occasional groups of teenagers with flags draped round their shoulders. I was anxious to get indoors.
The next few weeks were a strange anti-climax.
The vote was decisive, but it was also unapproved. Nobody knew what that meant. Statements from political leaders only confused us more. Statements from Spanish officials, and even the king, made people furiously angry. We held protests in the streets against police brutality and state-sponsored violence. The protests were fun: full of singing, people wearing bright yellow, in the autumn sunshine.
Then they started arresting politicians.
One year on, I cannot say that much has changed, except that the streets have never reached the same level of life and excitement as they did in those first few weeks after the referendum. Yellow ribbons dangle from lamp posts and coat lapels in support of the prisoners.
Things feel muted, somehow. Nobody knows what to do next, on any side of the debate. Politicians and policemen alike are waiting for trial. It feels like we are all waiting for a decision.
So I’m throwing a party to celebrate my two-year anniversary of moving here, with mixed feelings. And I’m watching the news. Just in case.