Torroella de Montgri: a reflection

Short Stories Apr 22, 2020

“Which one’s you, Avia?”

“That’s me in the middle, mi tesoro. Is that what you thought?”

“Hmmm. Maybe. Your eyes look a bit the same. But your skin around them is wrinkly now. Were you young once?”

I stifle the creases of a great-grandmotherly smile. “Si! Thanks for noticing that, mi tesoro, I was young once. That photo was taken when I was a few years older than you are now.”

“Who’s the other girl, Avia?”

“That was my friend Josefa. We’d just arrived in Australia from the old country. Our families were from the same village back in Catalonia.”

“So who’s the boy, Avia?”

“That was your Besavi, mi amor. Your great-grandfather. His name was Jordi and he was Josefa’s brother. Jordi was my boyfriend.”

“Your boyfriend?” giggles Archie, raising a pair of seven year old eyebrows in surprise. “Avia, tell me about my Besavi and Catalonia. Mum doesn’t know much about them.”

“That’s because she wasn’t there, mi tesoro.”

And I glaze over in front of Archie as the ghosts of a civil war and the loss of Jordi wash over me. How do I balance respecting the sensitivities and innocence of inquisitive, 7 year old Archie with the need to keep alive the realities of Torroella de Montgri. When I pass, will the narrative still exist? There’ll be nobody left to pass on first hand knowledge? Will the message become diluted and sanitized? How important is it for Archie to know his roots? Will he care; will it matter if he doesn’t?

No, the first ten years of my life has not blurred despite my almost eighty years. A childhood haunted by the legacies of the Spanish Civil War was indelibly printed in my psyche.  Should Archie be told that the brutalities of 1936 to 1939 were inflicted in a war of ideologies rather than geography, which is why many of our families were torn apart due to their political beliefs. Civil Wars often have clearer geographical positions, so many families’ allegiances are defined according to where they live. The Spanish Civil War revolved around personal politics – leftist or rightist beliefs – hence family members were often opposed to each other. Dreadful atrocities were perpetrated by both sides.

Each town in Spain has its central placa and it is inconceivable that these small outdoor spaces, where people today meet, talk and drink coffee daily, house such dark secrets. No, you probably don’t need to know those dark secrets, Archie. The Catalan region of Spain, which was always fiercely autonomous, mostly sided with the Republic, the forces of the elected Government. We were one of the last bastions to fall when General Franco’s military junta finally overthrew our Government forces in 1939. As resistance crumbled and towns fell to Franco’s Nationalist forces, town leaders or sympathizers were often summarily tried and executed in the town placa. It was in our beautiful stone village of Torroella de Montgri that Jordi’s besavi, your great great grandfather was dragged roughly into the placa and stood against the warm, honey -yellow stone wall in the placa and shot because he was a member of the town Council. His blood, and the blood of dozens of other villagers, had seeped between the ancient cobblestones where, a few years later, my Mama and Tata used to take me on market days.

But the winners get to write the history, Archie. As you grow and read more, you’ll understand what I mean. Four years after the Civil War, in 1943, I was born, but by then we had lost our autonomy and flag, and our language was banned. I could only speak my native Catalan in secret at home, and in the seclusion of my own thoughts. At school and in public I had to speak Spanish, Archie. Using our language was punishable. It wasn’t until after General Franco’s death in 1975 that the law on using our language was relaxed. Even today, most of our people view themselves as Catalan, not Espagnol.

And in my moment of solitary reflection, now completely oblivious to Archie’s immediate presence, I recall our escape from an oppressive regime and my family’s bus, train and ocean journey beginning in the humble market village of Torroella de Montgri on the river Ter, just before it flows into the Mediterranean. We were lured by the promise of a new beginning - to Australia. My parents had answered the call for more Europeans to help “populate or perish” under the umbrella of the White Australia Policy. And my excitement to be sharing the same hopes and sea voyage with Josefa and Jordi whose family had left their small rioja vineyard between Vell Pals and my village. In my naivety, I fell in love with 10 year old Jordi and by the time we arrived at the migrant hostel in Chullora, I thought he would be mine forever. I was compensating for the childhood joy that the legacy of the civil war had leached from me. Jordi was the love of my life.

When we were eighteen years old, Jordi moved from Sydney to a job outside Jindabyne on the Snowy Mountains hydro-electric Scheme. It was almost 60 years ago, but I can still vividly recall my frantic sucking for air, and the sickening crunches tearing crudely inside my chest, when my parents broke the news to me – less than 3 months after leaving Sydney, Jordi had been killed in a machinery accident at Tumut. He was just one of the 121 men who were killed during the decades of that dangerous project. Archie… I thought my life had ended when Jordi died. But fate had run a measure over me and determined that this wasn’t to be the case. Jordi, mi amor, was to be the father of the 4 month old baby growing inside me. Yes Archie, your mother’s mother was the fruit of Besavi’s and my love for each other. There’s just so much to tell, Archie. There’ll be an appropriate time.

Archie’s petulant calling snaps my reverie and drags me crudely back to the present.

“Avia… Avia… Avia? Are you going to tell me about my Besavi and about your village, or not? Hey, you’ve got tears in your eyes, Avia.”

“It’s the onions I’m chopping for suquet de peix, mi tesoro. You like Avia’s fish soup don’t you? Now put the photo back on the hall stand like a good little Catalan.”


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