Picture by Albert Salamé

Marcela Topor (1976) is from Iaşi (Romania). She is a journalist, English philologist, French philologist, and the wife of President Carles Puigdemont. Now after one year of his exile, VilaWeb has been able to interview her in Girona, the city where she lives, in one of the few interviews she has granted. In this interview we talk especially about how she has experienced life in exile. The darkest part and the most hopeful part, too.

– How did you experience that first of October, Marcela Topor?
– It may seem a cliché, but it was a turning point. I had never felt such a powerful
feeling. You’re on your way to the polls to vote and they tell you: you can’t get out
because there are Guardia Civil vans, they have broken a glass door at the polling
center, and people are very scared. So we went to Sarrià de Ter instead. Chased by a
helicopter. Driving in a car and seeing a helicopter a few meters above your head is an indescribable thing. You can hardly find the words to explain it. I saw the communist dictatorship fall when I was fourteen. In 1989, when Ceausescu ended the way he did. Christmas. Scary. And Carles, when Franco died, was more or less the same age as I was when Ceausescu died. For me, a new era started with the fall of Berlin. We have this in common. And it leaves a big mark on you.

– 1-O reminded you of this?
– When I saw that helicopter and the images of the people, the panic in their faces, and the police smashing stuff with their truncheons… How do you react? I was petrified. Frozen. At first you don’t react. I had lived in a dictatorship, but I had never been afraid. But I was afraid then. When I was a child I hadn’t experienced it directly. I suffered like the whole country, but not in a personal way. But here, yes. It was very hard.

– You were also under the bridge where you exchanged cars…
– Without that bridge I don’t know where we would be now! Imagine if this bridge hadn’t been there. You have a helicopter with the very clear objective of not allowing you to vote. That is the moment when you say: I thought we were living in a free country. And in a democracy. And you see that you’re not. It’s not true. We’re living a fiction. A reality that we had believed. A false reality. Where have we been living all this time? How can this happen, and in this way? I was hugely disappointed. Hugely. Many preconceived notions were shattered, that day.

– From 1-O to 27-O, and into exile.
– Exile? Today it’s still hard to believe. It is a very difficult word to take onboard. For
me, exile had very negative connotations, very strong, of repression. In 21st century
Europe it’s difficult to speak of exile. Exile is very hard. Exile is also like a prison. Are they free, up there? No. They’re not free. In exile they aren’t free because they are forced to be there. They have not gone on vacation. They have fled injustice. And they have their phones tapped… you have to find ways to communicate, and you’re followed by cars. That is not freedom. But there is one good thing in exile.

– What’s that?
– That you can work. Without exile we would not be here. They would all be locked
away and forgotten. They would like that for them. But exile has upset their plans, in
this sense. Politically, exile has hurt them very badly, and been very good to us. We
thought that the world knew many things in Catalonia. But they didn’t. It is through
exile that it is being discovered. This is also a positive thing. And thirdly, the situation
in Spain has been exposed. Many people now doubt that Spain is a democracy. What kind of state is it? Is there freedom of expression? Why should rapper Valtònyc be in exile? Or activist Adrià Carrasco? They’ve left their families. They’ve left everything behind. What’s waiting for them here? Jail? Are they criminals, are they corrupt? We have innocent people who have been in custody for a year. So, now the world knows the political situation. I don’t know if it has been harder than I thought, exile, because I never thought anything about it. I never imagined that my husband would end up in exile. We had little time to decide and obviously I said: I prefer a thousand times that he be in exile than in jail. Of course. But in no case is there a manual or practical guide for families of people in exile. It’s very hard. The first few weeks I could barely utter a word. I simply couldn’t. Physically, I was broken. Little by little you regain your strength from somewhere and go on. You have only one option: to keep going. We are always stronger than we think. You end up finding the strength. Not continuing means giving up and sinking. And that is not an option. And I’ll tell you another thing: that which does not kill you, does make you stronger.

– Strong enough to be able visit the prison in Neumünster, for example.
– I admit that I was pretty rattled. I was very cautious. I had talked to the relatives of the prisoners here and had formed a rather terrifying picture. Not very positive. And I came out of there lighter in spirit because I saw humanity. And that was very important to me. To me they seemed people who gave proper and humane treatment. And that reassured me. Luckily, I thought, they will not humiliate or make them feel bad here. And we saw that later. I went to see him [Carles Puigdemont] on a Wednesday, and the next day I received a call from him. As one of our daughters had not arrived yet, he said: ‘I’ll call you back in twenty minutes’. But it was Jami who called, instead of Carles. ‘What’s going on? Did anything happen?’ ‘They let him out!’ I swear: it was incredible. There is a God! And when he called me, he was so happy. That day we celebrated, yes. Look, in this world there is justice. When you see how things are done here, you lose hope.

– On to Waterloo. Do you ever see yourselves there?
– We talked many times. If we had little girls we might have thought about it. But now the girls are at a very important age for their schooling. For us, all this is temporary. We work every day as if tomorrow were the last day of exile. Because we want him to return. The goal is this: that he comes back, not that we go up there and get on with life. The goal is to return, not to leave. I live with the hope that the exile will be very short. Now, if I had seen that I needed it, or the girls did, I would have done it. Because I don’t want to hide the fact that at first it was so hard I didn’t know if I could handle it. It’s truly very hard, indescribable. And the first few weeks the emotional shock was … It was good for me to have a job to go to. I have no time to worry or get carried away. I prefer to move forward. As I told you, that which does not kill you, makes you stronger. And my life hasn’t been a bed of roses.

– Up there I have seen helpless politicians and some others much more adapted to life abroad.
– Very few people have the strength that Carles has. Very few. Before he was mayor [of Girona city], I asked him: where do you get your strength? He’s tireless. When he was mayor they said: ‘But do you have multiple clones of yourself or what?’ And he was the same as president. He always gives it everything. And at the same time he is quite austere. Many people are dazzled by power. And they need it. But he doesn’t. He has no desire for power or to be in the limelight. Nor does he get drunk on power. This is a great element: his austerity and strength of character. I also admit that I’m somewhat like that. Living at his side you see the power. You are in power. But power has never seduced me. Power means nothing to me. It doesn’t fascinate me. It doesn’t excite me or make me lose my head.

– A classic: ‘Puigdemont would be happy reading books in Girona’.
– He would be happy with his family. At home. In Girona. He was going through a very sweet time doing his job as mayor of Girona. A personal and political moment. He had won the second term. And then when he started fighting against the PSC in Girona, they said: ‘Are you crazy? You’re nobody and you want to win?’ There are many people who live in their comfort zone. And changes scare them. But Carles likes changes and challenges. He left his comfort zone in Girona, when everything was hunky-dory. The city was lovely. He had won. What else did he need? And then he left everything to become president. He could have turned the job down.

– I don’t know if he could have.
– You can always say no. He had fought for a long time to get what he had, and when you can relax three years and … How does the phrase go? It never rains but it pours!

– Is Marcela Topor interested in politics?
– Yes. Politics affects us. You have to be interested. I will never get personally involved in politics. But I’m interested. It affects me. It’s part of our lives. And you cannot be ignorant. You need to have some interest in everything.

– And how do you see the current moment, politically speaking?
– I don’t speak for Carles. Let’s be clear about that. I speak for myself. I am optimistic. We should play down the drama quite a bit. We shouldn’t play the victim. It serves no purpose. We have the future in our hands. All this was started by the people. And it balances on the people. And the people have the strength. Without people this isn’t going anywhere. I am very happy because I see that a year later people continue to be mobilized. And people have not forgotten. The worst thing would be for people to forget. And that has not been the case. I think that, as a people, we have shown incredible strength. We have it. And it’s there. We must remember that we have this strength. Our future is in our hands. I know it will pan out. When? How? I don’t know.

-Controlling the territory won’t be easy.
-It’s not. But we have begun something, and the worst thing would be to forget. Now we can’t go back. We can only go forward and with conviction. We have always been peaceful, not violent, and we are fighting for freedom. Voting is a basic right. What kind of world do we live in? Do we want our children to live without freedom of expression? I don’t want my daughters to live with this fear. I lived through that until I was fourteen years old. We were afraid to speak. Your neighbor could turn you in. No one knew who might be working for the Securitate. There were informers everywhere. Well, now my daughters panic when they see a Guardia Civil van. One day I was driving and a Guardia Civil car appeared behind us. There was panic on my daughters’ faces. Panic. I had never seen them so afraid. Is this normal? It’s not. We have to ask ourselves a lot of questions. This situation is unsustainable. You can’t live like that. I do not want to live in a country like this. We have to fight for freedom. As if I lived in I don’t know which century. But look, what is Valtònyc doing in Brussels if there is freedom of expression?

– How do you see the new PSOE government [in Spain]?
– If we have to wait for help to come from Madrid … We’ve seen that nothing has changed. The change of government, for now, hasn’t changed a thing. A different manner, but their actions are the same. They speak with a different tone of voice. But give me facts. Otherwise, it’s worthless. You see, now they are all pally but they are still saying “you lot will stay in jail”. And that doesn’t work for me. You smiling at me… that doesn’t help me. Perhaps their [PP] predecessors screamed it and called you names. The socialists neither insult you nor scream. But they say the same stuff.

– Would you like to add anything else?
– I want to thank the people for their help and solidarity, which has been incredible. Because if there is any good thing about exile, it is that you learn who is who. When you’re on top of the world, everyone smiles and looks happy. And when things go wrong, you see how some people disappear. Few. And those who are left are the ones that are worthy. Plus those who appear again. Surprises. There are people that when you are as low as you can go, they reach out and pull you out of the hole. This is priceless. During this year of exile I have seen much courage and cowardice. I will never be able to thank the people who help enough. Not only for me. For all of us and for the future of our children. Either we all make it through, or we will end up together in exile.