Carles Puigdemont is the figurehead of Catalonia's independence movement – hated by some, lionized by others. Nicolas Martin visited the Catalan president's birthplace, Amer, to learn more about him.
"Sometimes he helped me here when he was a young boy," says the woman at the bakery. The Pastisseria Puigdemont has been baking bread, croissants and sweets in the tiny village of Amer, 120 kilometers (75 miles) northeast of Barcelona, since 1928. The bakery is still family-owned, and the woman behind the wooden sales counter also has a world-famous relative: Carles Puigdemont, the controversial head of Catalonia's regional government, was born here in 1962 and grew up in Amer. The woman is unwilling to say anything more about "Puigdi," as some here call him, and makes that sentiment clear with an unmistakable gesture.
Amer is a countryside village, surrounded by mountains covered with oak, chestnut and pine trees. The air is crisp and clean. About 2,300 people live here. The town center is about 30 meters away from the family bakery. The cobblestone square is surrounded by beautifully restored medieval houses with Catalan flags hanging out of every window. Ninety-seven percent of Amer's eligible voters showed up for the recent independence referendum, and overwhelmingly voted "Yes."
'Puigdemont is very courageous'
"We are very proud of him here," beams 39-year-old biology teacher Anna."He represents our interests. We finally want our independence." Then she quickly moves on. Picture and name? "I'd rather not, they have put words in our mouths so often," complains Anna, referring to the Spanish central government in Madrid. Jaume also refuses to give his last name. "We are sick of this dictatorship," he says, as he films the tiny sea of flags on the main square with his cellphone. "That is my flag," he murmurs, as if to himself. He and three friends came to Amer by motorcycle. "Puigdemont is very courageous," he says. Then he sits down at a small cafe on the square.
Next door is the mayor's office. Salvador Clara is the town's deputy mayor and his eyes light up at the mention of Puigdemont's name. He is an old schoolmate of Carles'. He explains how the two of them experienced the transition from dictatorship under Franco to democracy, and how both of them came to the conclusion at age 14 that nothing had gotten better regarding the treatment of Catalonia. "They used to lock us up for speaking Catalan," says the now 55-year-old with an animated voice.
Independence always his aim
Clara says his classmate was always for independence. "At school I was a member of a leftist party, but Carles was in a group that had the sole aim of breaking away from Spain." After graduation, their paths strayed apart: Clara left to study in Barcelona, and Puigdemont in nearby Girona, just 25 kilometers from Amer. There he studied philosophy and became a journalist for a Catalan newspaper. Eventually he became the paper's editor-in-chief. Ultimately, he founded Catalonia's official news agency. Politically he is thought of as a latecomer, serving as Girona's mayor from 2011 to 2016. At his inauguration as the head of Catalonia's regional government he said: "This is no time for cowards!"
"He stands by his friends, he is smart, a great orator and a man of the 21st century," says Clara in response to the question of why it is that Puigdemont, of all people, is the only man able to deliver Catalan independence. And the deputy mayor is convinced that it will happen. He says Puigdemont let off some of the pressure from the overall situation by delaying independence. But Clara points to an artwork at the entrance to city hall and says: "sooner or later the whole thing is going to explode." The artwork is a large white dove, painted by a Polish artist living in Amer. The bird's body is covered with residents' handprints. "We Catalans are peaceful people," he says, pondering the painting.
Hoping for dialogue
Clara believes that Madrid is the aggressor, adding, "We wept when we saw how they attacked voters during the referendum." Before he bids farewell the deputy mayor shows me a few photos on his cellphone. There he is with his "friend Carles" – back when they were students, and a couple of months ago, when he visited the regional parliament in Barcelona. His eyes light up once again – this time, with pride in the present: "He is the president that will make the collective dream of generations a reality."
On a side street leading away from the main square, a young woman sits on a stone stairway and plays with her 8-month-old child. Nuri Soler has come from Girona to attend a family dinner. Puigdemont, his wife and his two daughters still live in Girona today. The vast majority of voters there cast their ballots for independence as well. "Sure we are proud that a man from our region has decided to take things into his own hands," Soler says, explaining that no president has ever dared go that far. "He deserves more respect," says the 35-year-old. Still, after everything that happened during the October 1 referendum, she is fearful of what Madrid might do should independence really be declared. "I hope things can be sorted out through dialogue," she says, as she gazes at her son.