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Imagine the Secrets They Kept
Mountains as a natural shield and safe haven
February 10, 2023
Happy Friday, travelers! This week, I got back on the pavement.
It’s been months since I last ran regularly. I missed the rhythm as my shoes hit the ground in tandem with whatever I’m listening to at the moment.
It’s a delicate balance, to inhale deeply enough for the exhale I need to propel me forward for one more block, one more song, over one more bridge, around one more bend.
There was a time when you couldn’t pay me to run. I’d only do that if someone were chasing me. But four years ago, I laced up and just went. I didn’t want a gym membership, and it was free exercise. One year later, I went couch to marathon. I hobbled into race day with three overuse injuries—one in my right hip, the others in both knees.
Now, I’m training for my second half-marathon. And in the three hilly miles I ran before I wrote this to you, I thought about the same thing I’ve reflected on for days: Josep Trueta’s words in The Spirit of Catalonia.
Much has been written, fantasized, even mythologized about the Pyrenees. Los Pirineos. A mountain pass that spans the majority of Spain’s border with France.
As unforgiving as their terrain, the Pyrenees have also served as a natural sanctuary. The French Resistance used their stature and breadth to smuggle downed Allied pilots, Jews, and Resistance fighters on the run from the Gestapo to neutral Spain. From there, local Spaniards who wanted to help got them to the British embassy.
At the time, Spain suffered greatly under its own fascist dictator, Francisco Franco,friend and ideological ally of Hitler. During the Spanish Civil War from 1936 to 1939, Franco enlisted Hitler’s Luftwaffe to viciously bomb Guernica, a small town in the Basque countryside. The tragedy was memorialized forever in Pablo Picasso’s Guernica (1937), a masterful work that takes up an entire wall. I gasped when I first saw it in Madrid at the Reina Sofía.
Eight hundred years before it was a fortress for the oppressed with a role of its own in the vast, highly sophisticated Resistance networks, it was a shield. The mountain range even conceals a kingdom, Andorra, which is still a sovereign country nestled between Spain and France.
As war tore through Europe at the dawn of the 20th century, a young Catalán doctor wanted to help. Spain was also officially neutral during World War I, but many Spanish volunteers joined the British army to do their part. Josep Truetas was one of them.
Here was Truetas, surrounded by men of a different culture, and not a single one of them knew about his homeland. Cataluña. Or Catalonia in English. He knew immediately this had to change—a place he loved so dearly could not be unknown or forgotten.
I can see him now—after tending the wounded, sitting by candlelight in the loaded stillness and quiet. He’d likely have used a Parker Trench Pen, designed specifically for soldiers. After all, how could an ink pot stay perfectly upright in the chaos all around them?
Mind to pen to page. He started from the beginning: “Astride the Pyrenees.”
His story of Cataluña from centuries ago shows that the region has more in common with the south of France than with the rest of Spain. Why? The Pyrenees. For centuries, they’ve been a natural border, cordoning off a nation and a people from land that would later claim them.
For years, there have been stiff tensions between Catalan national identity and Spanish central government. Much of it is tied to the dictatorship, where any regional languages, including Catalan, were banned. Spanish was the only language allowed, and Castillian history the premier story of everyone—even of regions that had their own distinct histories already. As it turned out, Truetas’ fear of Catalan erasure came to fruition.Just from the south instead of the north.
Josep wrote this book, a vital part of that history Catalans wanted to protect, over 100 years ago. Today, I sit in my studio apartment and run my hands over its cover, which is older than everyone reading this newsletter. Thousands of miles and a century apart, Josep describes these mountains and I know exactly what he means.
Land forms identities. In its own magical way, geography has a vital impact on our consciences and cultures, on our very selves.
As the sun sinks below the horizon, far to the west, and the stars drape over these mountains, imagine the memories they harbor. The secrets they keep. The histories they’ve held close, a mystery floating behind the surface of who they are today.
Dynamic, yet static. They will be here after all of us. Here until the end.
What’s On My Tray Table
When We Meet Again, by Kristin Harmel
I stayed up until 3:07am to finish this book. That’s how good it is.
During World War II, there was a POW program that brought German and other prisoners of war to work on American farms and factories. At the time, the American young male labor force was overseas fighting. The American economy needed workers, and these young foreign men were some of them.
Admittedly morbid, this program also turned out to be positive for some of the POWs. The majority of them grew up in a Germany that struggled economically for their entire lives.
This meant that their time as prisoners in the U.S. was the first time many of them ate three full meals in a day.
The protagonists of When We Meet Again are a German POW and an American girl who fall deeply in love. He works on her father’s sugarcane farm, sees her for the first time, and the rest is history. When they are tragically separated, their granddaughter peels back the layers of bad blood, hatred, and a tense family history to find the truth about what separated them.
I Will Die in a Foreign Land, by Kalani Pickhart
Taras Shevchenko, the most famous Ukrainian poet in the nation’s history, lamented that he would die in a foreign land. He saw the imperialistic ambitions of his country’s neighbor and saw the writing on the wall.
Like many amazing artists, he was somewhat of a prophet. When he died, he was buried in St. Petersburg for his artistic prowess. If it weren’t so sad, it would be comical, considering his work was almost entirely about his love for Ukraine, its national identity, its land, and the Ukrainian language. His body was later exhumed and relocated to a burial site by the Dnipro River, his rightful resting place. The resting place he wanted.
Named in a hat tip to Shevchenko, Kalani Pickhart’s debut novel follows several characters at the Revolution of Dignity in 2014. At the time, Victor Yanukovych was president of Ukraine—and an ally of Putin.
Ukrainians voted to become part of Europe. Putin didn’t want that. Yanukovych voted “No.”
Revolution ensued, and these characters tell part of the story. This novel is beautifully written and addresses so much of Ukraine’s being. I read and re-read sections so I could experience them again. Highly recommend.
Be brave and stay that way,
I should say it came to fruition in part. Cataluña has done a phenomenal job of nurturing its history and regional identity, but their efforts are stacked against the severe oppression of the Franco dictatorship (which didn’t end until he died in 1975).