There are places that remain in our memories, the details may become slightly blurred, nostalgia may colour our thoughts, but they don’t fade. And how those places made us feel at the time is the one thing that remains.
Today I’m really pleased to welcome Chris Lloyd, who I seem to have known for quite a while, yet I can’t remember where we met, but who has since become a good friend.
Over to you, Chris…
So here I am, remembering Girona …
You can’t help but feel love for a city that puts up a statue to books.
I knew very little about the language of Catalonia and nothing of its history when I went to live in Girona for six months in 1979, my year abroad on my degree course in Spanish and French. Sending me to study Spanish in the heartland of Catalan language and culture wasn’t perhaps the wisest move, but in the end I had no complaints. Quite the opposite, in fact. It was the first and one of the most important of the turning points in my life.
When I turned up one very hot morning at the end of August to start a teaching job in September, Franco had not yet been gone four years. Institutions were changing, slowly. Spain’s new Constitution had been approved, and a Statute of Autonomy for Catalonia voted in and enacted shortly after I turned up. Changes small and large, visible and not so visible, were taking place all around us. The most disreputable street names had been changed – either back to their original pre-dictatorship names or to new ones to mark the passing of the dictator and the return of democracy – but there were still others high up on the walls of buildings that were still in Castilian Spanish, waiting to be replaced.
The Catalan language had been banned under Franco, its use in public office prohibited, no songs recorded or books published (with the exception, eventually, of a small set of Catholic-funded tomes few people read). No Catalan holidays were observed or traditional celebrations allowed, and a pan-Spanish pseudo-culture was imposed on the country, not just in response to a burgeoning tourist industry but to dilute national and regional differences.
Catalan hadn’t been taught in schools since 1939, and there were at least two generations of Catalans who could speak their language, albeit with many ‘Castilianisms’ creeping in, but few of them could write it. So much of what had been taught about history and culture, hijacked by a petty and brittle dictatorship, had to be untaught and old subjects and thoughts rediscovered. Years later, researching for a guide book, I came across stories of archaeological sites that had been destroyed during the Franco years as the evidence they provided didn’t fit in with the new narrative that the dictatorship had demanded.
All around me, it felt like a people sloughing off a hide of oppression. More than that, it was a rebirth. A nation emerging dazzled into the sunlight after decades of darkness, suddenly being given a second chance, this time with a determination to get it right.
It was the most exciting and optimistic of times. And it just seemed to fit in with me and with my stage in my own history. I’d grown up in an insecure Wales that was torn between trying to revive its old identity and searching for a new one. I was the same. I was the youngest of three siblings, a bit of an age gap between me and my brother and sister, uncertain of where I fitted in. At twenty, when I went to Girona, I still had no real idea of who I was, collectively or individually, or of my place in the world.
Girona – and Catalonia – changed that. I was swept up in their renewal, in awe of their determination never to return to the days of every decision taken away from them and to move forward in asserting their own identity. It formed a sense of community in me and a sense of me in a community. The Catalans’ belief in the validity of their own language and culture made me take a fresh look at my own, at Wales. Beyond all of that, it made me take a fresh look at myself, at where I fitted in. And the lynchpin of that was the language. Lacking in self-confidence but blustery to hide shyness, I found that speaking in another language allowed me to overcome that. It was a façade I could hide my real uncertainties behind – my initial lack of fluency gave me an excuse for my lack of confidence and a way of overcoming it, while becoming fluent over time and the kind words said about my Catalan finally dispelled some of that insecurity.
Quite apart from the effect that that period in that place had on me, Girona itself is a beautiful city. To a twenty-something me, it was a whole new school and playground. An old quarter half-encircled by medieval city walls – in one of the most unfortunate urban decisions in history, the city council decided to knock down the other half of the walls in the 1930s to create an avenue – that was a den of minuscule alleys, smoke-filled jazz bars and elderly people sitting on upright chairs outside their front doors. A Jewish Quarter that had been so forcibly cut off from the rest of the city, it had created its own micro-climate. A cobbled hill that eventually led to Rome, part of the Via Augusta, and a towering Baroque cathedral atop Europe’s largest flight of Rococo steps that dominated the city as far as the Pyrenees.
And bookshops. A city with barely 100,000 people and there are about twenty bookshops, the vast majority of them independent. That’s why the city put up a statue to books. And it’s probably why, thirty-five years later, I set my first three novels in Girona, the first a story of clinging to the past while embracing the new. Full circle. From that first day in Girona, it gave me exactly that: the confidence to write and the curiosity to pursue it. Even my new series, set in Occupied France, owes its genesis to the lessons I began to learn in Girona.
I stayed in Catalonia. I went back to Girona for a few years after graduating before moving on to Bilbao, Madrid and Barcelona. In all, I stayed twenty-four years in Spain, twenty of them in Catalonia, and while Barcelona was where I lived the longest and the city I loved the most, Girona has always stayed with me as that first love you never forget and to which I owe so much.
Straight after graduating in Spanish and French, Chris Lloyd hopped on a bus from Cardiff to Catalonia and stayed there for over twenty years. He has also lived in Grenoble – researching the French Resistance movement – as well as in the Basque Country and Madrid, where he taught English and worked in educational publishing and as a travel writer. More recently, he worked as a Catalan and Spanish translator.
Chris now lives in Wales, where he writes the Occupation series, featuring Eddie Giral, a French police detective in Paris under Nazi rule. The first book in the series – The Unwanted Dead – won the HWA Gold Crown Award for best historical novel of the year and was shortlisted for the CWA Historical Dagger Award for the best historical crime fiction. It was chosen as Waterstones Welsh Book of the Month. The second book in the series, Paris Requiem, will be published in February 2023.
He has also written a trilogy set in present-day Girona, in Catalonia, featuring Elisenda Domènech, a police officer in the devolved Catalan police force.