In a Barcelona hotel room, I suffered a nervous breakdown. Almost. Why was I roaming the far reaches of the planet, I wondered, where many Indian women dared not go? Jet lagged and exhausted, I located the bus station and bought myself a ticket, then woke up at 3 a.m. in a bout of panic about my journey into the unknown.
On the bus, a Catalan woman took me under her wings. Feeling sheltered, I fell asleep. Yellowing pastures stretched for hours devoid of animals or humans. I began to wonder if the Pyrenees Mountains were just a series of puny hills.
Five hours later, when the bus killed its engine and I opened my eyes, I was by a river. Tree-covered cliffs flanked the banks. A line of rafts glided down the rapids. Children frolicked. As I stood on the bridge, inhaling the sweet scent of pine, time stood still for a moment.
When a taxi carried me up the mountain to the Center of Art, which was to be my residence for the next month, I thought I was in Hobiton. Little stone houses perched on cliffs. Slate roofs glistened, their chimneys covered with slabs weighed down by rocks. Pathways of piedras or stones climbed precariously toward homes. An isolated hermita—church—perched atop a hilltop accessed only by a rugged trail. Green hills dotted by meadows stretched as far as the eye could see. All I had to do to witness the Parc Natural de l’Alt Pirineu was to step onto my balcony.
For the first few days I walked around the village in awe, the melodious music of the Roman fountains accompanying my every step. Ancient aqueducts carried water from the mountains to stone cisterns located all over town, some large enough to bathe and float in, their waters pure and drinkable.
At the Center, my routine was simple. I wrote in the morning, made myself lunch, and took a siesta. In the late afternoon, I hiked into the mountain. At eight-thirty, when I descended the stairs to the dining room, I often found myself the only one there. By American standards, it was almost bedtime, but for Catalans, it was too early for dinner.
Then followed a leisurely four-course meal accompanied by an animated conversation, which I could have followed had it not been in Catalan. Alas, the Catalans refuse to speak Spanish, the language of the imperialists, labeling it Castellano because other languages like Basque and Gaelic are also spoken in the country. I got the impression that they were speaking nonstop in their tongue just to keep it from dying out.
Like the Basques, the Catalans have struggled for independence. At the turn of the last century, the government promised them autonomy. But when the Spanish Civil War fought in the 1930s less than five kilometers from the Center and which destroyed Tirvia ended, dictator Franco betrayed them. Many Catalans point out that Franco’s descendants still rule the country. A referendum on Independence is, in fact, scheduled for October.
Americans can’t remember what occurred a decade ago but Catalans remember their history as if it happened yesterday. A pediatrician named Carme took me on a hike near the Spanish-French border where, every week, traders barter cheeses and other agricultural products. It was through this pass that the Republicans had fled the country at the end of the war, she informed me Ten years later, the flow reversed when Jews came through, fleeing Nazi-occupied France.
To get a flavor of that epoch, I read Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell who did a brief stint in the war. I couldn’t help chuckling at the descriptions of the local tendency to wait till mañana, which I observed daily.
The Center’s residents, mostly women, turned out to be strong, opinionated, and direct, a welcome departure from America, where passive-aggressive behavior seems to be the norm. There were no games, no one-upmanship, no phobias about someone touching one’s laundry or food. The most endearing trait the Catalans possessed, I discovered, was the ability to be friendly while maintaining boundaries. Not a soul asked me about my personal life. Cocooned in my writing, I relished not having to explain myself.
In the middle of August, the hamlet celebrated Fiesta Mayor, the largest festival dedicated to the patron saint of the town. Young lads carried a maypole to the plaza and festooned it with streamers. Days of concerts and festivities continued, culminating in a rock concert that began at midnight ending at 7.30 a.m. the next morning with thirty people still dancing. I attended one such concert, held inside the church where a man alternated between singing to the accompaniment of an acoustic guitar and playing the Tibetan cuencas.
But for me the height of the fiesta was the paella dinner the village prepared, bringing its knives to chop the onions. Men slaved for hours over shallow copper pots installed atop special propane stoves. “It’s a religious ritual,” my fellow-resident Marina said. “You’ll know it’s done when they add the rice.” The only such experience I’d ever had, I told her, was the Ganesh festival in my hometown of Nagpur.
At 10 p.m., when I finally sat down to dinner, I could not help but wonder about the merits of identity politics vis-à-vis the global villager. The former offered a cohesive community, I mused, while the latter offered a world sans boundaries.
Sarita Sarvate (www.saritasarvate.com) has published commentaries for New America Media, KQED FM, San Jose Mercury News, the Oakland Tribune, and many nationwide publications.