Nothing is normal when your husband is exiled

Editor’s note: Interviews for this story were conducted in Spanish and English.

GIRONA, Spain — On the morning of October 1, 2017, as Marcela Topor pulled down her suburban street, she peered out the car window and saw a helicopter overhead. She had always known something could happen that day — she’d been warned — but a helicopter? This felt different. This felt like war.

The helicopter belonged to the Spanish police. They were following Topor and her husband as they tried to cast the most consequential votes of their lives: to make the region of Catalonia independent from Spain.

The couple was supposed to vote at a sports center in the town of Sant Julià de Ramis, but the Spanish police were already there, smashing windows and blocking residents from entering the voting site. “I don’t know how many police were waiting for us,” Topor said in an interview in September. “We had to change plans.” When they drove under a nearby bridge, Topor and her husband switched cars and diverted to Cornellà de Terri, a different town. There, out of sight of the helicopter and the police, they voted “yes” on Catalan independence.

“It sounds like a film,” Topor said. “But sadly, it’s true.”

A crowd gathers in Sant Julià de Ramis, where Marcela Topor and Carles Puigdemont were to have voted, for the first anniversary of the independence referendum on Oct. 1, 2018. / Meg Bernhard

Topor, a 42-year-old Romanian native, is married to Carles Puigdemont, who, as Catalonia’s then-president, oversaw a polarizing independence referendum that led to Spain’s deepest political crisis since it became a democracy nearly half a century ago. That’s why the helicopter tracked the couple as they tried to vote. That’s why, more than a year later, Topor lives in Catalonia with her two daughters while Puigdemont lives in Belgium, in self-imposed exile more than 600 miles from his family.

Puigdemont fled Catalonia in October 2017, fearing arrest by Spanish authorities who deemed his referendum illegal. While in exile, Puigdemont has faced international arrest warrants and traveled Europe defending Catalan separatism. Last spring, he spent nearly two weeks in a German jail after being detained and threatened with extradition; eventually, a German court ruled he should be released. He has not stepped foot in Spain since.

Topor, a journalist, could have gone with him. She could have sent her daughters María, 9, and Magali, 11, to school in Belgium. Instead, she remained in Girona, the city where she met Puigdemont 20 years ago as a Romanian university student who knew nothing of Catalan nationalism.

She wants to keep life as normal as possible for her daughters. They have jazz lessons and after-school parties and weekend trips to visit their father in Waterloo, where Puigdemont rents a house that doubles as the international seat of the Catalan independence movement. The family calls him every day and lived with him in Belgium for the summer. In Belgium, they go on hikes and visit museums and sit around the airy Waterloo house, catching up.

This isn’t the family life Topor envisioned when her husband went into politics a decade ago.

“Nothing is normal,” Topor said. “The word normal doesn’t exist anymore. Normality has totally disappeared because normal means you are back in Catalonia, with no prisoners or exiles.”

Topor recognizes she is relatively lucky. Other referendum organizers are in prison. For eight months, Laura Masvidal took the three-hour bullet train from Barcelona to Madrid to visit her husband, former Catalonia interior secretary Joaquim Forn, in prison. (Over the summer, Forn was transferred to a prison in Catalonia, shortening her trip.)

Seven former separatist politicians remain in exile, and nine are in prison. The prisoners — in addition to three others— will be tried in the coming weeks on charges of sedition and rebellion against the Spanish state, which hold prison sentences of up to 25 years. Many defendants are not optimistic about the outcome.

Though Puigdemont will not be tried, the future of Topor’s family — and the future of Catalonia — is uncertain. The outcome of the separatists’ trial could determine if Spain re-activates a European arrest warrant to extradite Puigdemont. In any case, it is unclear when Puigdemont will walk freely in Catalonia again.

In the meantime, Topor puts off making long-term plans. She’s not sure how long her family’s precarious situation will hold — a year, two, five? She doesn’t like to dwell on it.

“Nobody teaches you these things,” Topor said. “It’s not like there’s a textbook or some guidebook that teaches you how to behave or how to react when your husband becomes an exile.”

EVERYTHING started with the red velvet curtains.

It was 1998. Topor, a 22-year-old philology student at Romania’s University of Alexandru Ioan Cuza, was visiting the mid-sized Catalan city of Girona, where her student theater troupe had traveled to perform in a festival. Acting helped combat her shyness. She was a timid student of English and French and imagined pursuing a master’s degree in Bucharest after graduating. Maybe she would go into journalism. Maybe she would keep acting.

Topor loved Girona, its pastel-colored buildings lining the Onyar River and its majestic cathedral overlooking the surrounding countryside. She was fascinated by the Catalan language and curious about its strong regional identity. She hadn’t known anything about Catalans when she arrived in Girona, but after a week was eagerly asking questions of locals, trying to figure out what made them so proud of their heritage.

One day, a friend received an email addressed to Topor, who didn’t have an email account. Topor wondered who wanted to speak with her urgently enough to contact her friend.

Carles Puigdemont, President of the Generalitat of Catalonia, speaking at an event in London on May 12, 2016 / Chatham House

It was Carles Puigdemont, a 35-year-old journalist who was helping organize the theater festival. The two had met earlier in the week, but only spoke briefly — in French, their lingua franca.

The theatre troupe had forgotten its red velvet curtain, Puigdemont wrote. He could have told anyone, but instead he reached out to Topor. Clearly, he was interested.

Earlier in the week, Puigdemont had asked Topor when the troupe would have their next performance. In a few months, in Paris, she replied. What a coincidence, he said. He’d be there for work.

“It is in Paris where our relationship started,” Topor said. “It’s very romantic.” They spent a day there together and then returned to their home countries.

The courtship that followed was a whirlwind: letters sent between Catalonia and Romania, long phone calls, an Easter visit from Puigdemont. Topor spent a summer in Girona studying Catalan four hours a day. She hadn’t yet learned Spanish.

“Most important was to speak the language of Catalans, what they were speaking,” she said. “It felt right that way.”

She admired Puigdemont’s passion for Catalonia, his sense of belonging to an old nation. He was impressed by how quickly she absorbed information. She was a private person interested in learning about others’ beliefs; he dreamt of becoming a public figure charged with defending his own core belief — that Catalonia should be independent from Spain.

As Topor fell for Puigdemont, she also fell for Catalonia. In particular, she was drawn to the region’s proud tradition of castells, pillars of people stacked one on top of the other, as high as 40-feet in the air, created for festivals celebrating Catalan identity. Castells, Catalans like to say, represent their people’s strength and stability when confronted with challenges. A child of six or seven scales the tower and stands at the top, waving four fingers — representing the stripes on the Catalan flag — to signal the castell is finished.

“I really admire the castells,” Topor said in a 2016 television interview. “For their strength, perseverance, the team spirit, the brutal energy that comes off.”

Topor began considering herself an independentista, a supporter of Catalan separatism. Catalans, she believed, belonged to their own nation. They had a distinct culture. They spoke a different language.

She moved to Catalonia in 1999. She and Puigdemont wed in the beach town of Roses and traveled to Romania for an Orthodox ceremony with her family. They began building their life together in Girona, where Topor taught and translated English and Puigdemont became editor of the newspaper “El Punt.” In 2004, he founded “Catalonia Today,” an English-language magazine Topor would edit a decade later.

Topor gave birth to Magali and María. They led a low-key life.  

Everyone in Girona knew Topor. Some tried to speak Romanian with her, and while she indulged their efforts, by then she could speak Catalan fluently. As each year passed, she felt more like a native.

TOPOR KNEW Puigdemont wanted a career in politics, but she didn’t anticipate his quick ascendance. While she built her career in English-language journalism, Puigdemont left reporting to become a representative in the Catalan parliament. In 2011, he became mayor of Girona and made his secessionist views clear.

Five years later, the region’s political parties selected Puigdemont in a last-minute deal to replace the Catalan president, who had been unable to form a government after elections. In 2016, the obscure politician from Girona was sworn into the region’s highest office.

Protesters take to the streets in Barcelona donning esteladas and masks of Carles Puigdemont’s face on a day in January 2018 when he was rumored to have returned. (He did not) / Meg Bernhard

By then, many Catalans were clamoring for secession. Their region was one of Spain’s richest, and they were angry they didn’t have more autonomy over taxation and other government functions. A turning point had come in 2006, when Catalan voters approved a change to their regional constitution to strengthen local judiciary powers and privilege Catalan over Spanish as Catalonia’s administrative language.

In response, the Spanish court ruled the changes unconstitutional, leading to massive demonstrations around Catalonia. Independentistas demanded a referendum to secede from Spain.

Puigdemont, the new president, promised to hold one by the end of 2017.

Topor became a public figure overnight. Spanish gossip magazines called her a bruja — a witch — because she was Romanian. Some alleged she talked to spirits. They questioned how a foreigner became a fervent defender of Catalan independence, and if a foreigner could be considered Catalan at all. They called her “the absent first lady,” because, unlike her predecessors, she did not often make speeches or appear at events with Puigdemont.

The magazines obsessed over Topor’s appearance — she is beautiful with a confident posture, dark brown hair, and almond-colored eyes — and derided the 14-year-age difference between her and Puigdemont. The tabloid coverage, she said, was “very sexist.” It was the political side effect of being married to one of the most famous men in Spain.

“Because I am the wife of the president, through me they want to hurt him,” Topor said. “Anything they can do to destabilize him or to destabilize us is good for them.”

The residents of Girona, at least, left her alone. At an event at her daughters’ school in October, two women serving sweet bread and hot chocolate refused to talk about Topor. “We don’t speak about her, out of respect for her,” one said.

Topor, friends say, is discrete, hard-working, and doesn’t like drawing attention to herself. As an editor and host of two television programs, Topor prefers asking questions to answering them. Given her experience with Spanish tabloids, she is reticent to divulge personal information and rarely grants interviews.

And, as she makes clear, she is a lifestyle journalist with her own career, not a spokesperson for her husband.

“I am not a politician,” Topor said. “Even though I am married to a politician, I do not do politics.”

But over the course of 2016, as Puigdemont faced pressure to act on his promise of a referendum, daily life became increasingly political. Mariano Rajoy, Spain’s prime minister, warned Puigdemont there would be consequences if he sought a referendum on Catalan secession.

The implication was clear: Puigdemont would be arrested.

A few months after Puigdemont took office as president, Topor sat down for lunch with Pilar Rahola, a journalist from the Catalan-language network TV3. Rahola peppered Topor with questions about the future. What would happen if Puigdemont stood on the balcony of the Generalitat, the seat of government, and declared Catalonia independent?

“Do you see yourself on the balcony, there with your husband?” Rahola asked.

“I don’t want to think about this,” Topor replied evasively. “I want to think about the free country as a whole.”

And what if he’s arrested?

“We’re prepared for everything,” Topor replied.

Men drape a banner over the Generalitat, the seat of the Catalan government, on the day Quim Torra was sworn in as president, June 2, 2018. / Meg Bernhard

THE TWO never stood on the balcony together. The day Puigdemont declared Catalonia independent, on October 27, 2017 — nearly three weeks after the low-turnout referendum went in favor of independence — he quietly slipped out of the Generalitat. A few days later, the Spanish government fired the Catalan government and put out a warrant for Puigdemont’s arrest. He mulled his options. He could stay in Catalonia and be arrested, or flee the country and bide his time.

The night before Puigdemont left Catalonia, he wandered Girona with his friend, journalist Carles Porta. People applauded Puigdemont and asked to shake his hand. The mood in the streets was celebratory.

At home, the situation was different. Puigdemont and Topor were worried. They didn’t know how long Puigdemont would be gone, or when they’d see each other again.

“There was this sensation of impotence, of emptiness, of seeing your country applaud you, seeing people enthusiastic,” Porta said. “And in front of you, you have this state that won’t consider you for anything, and so you have to make the decision to go into exile.”

Topor had spent the first decade of her life living under the dictatorship of Nicolae Ceaușescu, and while living in Catalonia, learned of dictator Francisco Franco’s repression of Catalans in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War. Now, Topor argued, repression came from the Rajoy’s right-wing Partido Popular.

“When you live in a democracy in the European Union in the 21st Century and see this happening, it is hard to understand,” she said. Spanish officials deny they used repressive tactics during the fall of 2017, and instead argue that Catalan separatists incited insurrection and violated the Spanish constitution. Catalans, meanwhile, remain divided over independence, with about half in support and half against. 

On October 30, Puigdemont and five of his ministers drove to Marseilles. There, they caught a plane to Brussels, where Catalans thought they could find a sympathetic audience among Flemish separatists. Topor stayed behind.

 autumn day exactly one year after the police helicopter followed her car, Topor sat on a fold-out chair in a plaza with a large crowd of people dressed in yellow and red and blue, the colors of the Estelada, the Catalan separatist flag. Folk musicians played Els Segadors, the Catalan anthem. For the festivities, Topor had picked out a bright yellow leather jacket, the color of solidarity for imprisoned and exiled separatists. She was dressed for a day of public appearances.

The crowd was huddling together in Sant Julià de Ramis, where Topor had intended to vote in 2017, to commemorate the anniversary of the independence referendum. Quim Torra, whose swearing-in as Catalonia’s president in June ended months of uncertainty about the region’s leadership, addressed the crowd from a makeshift stage. Empty chairs symbolized the jailed and exiled politicians. A woman handed Topor a yellow carnation. She smiled.

After the event, a few people took discreet photos as Topor walked to her car. One woman gave her a small doll made in Puigdemont’s likeness. Another shook her hand and said, “We are grateful for you, ma’am.” A group of singers who lived in town swarmed Topor, hugging her. “Greetings to Carles,” one said. “We always think about him. He is in our hearts.”

Topor thanked them. “It’s a tough day,” she said.

A day earlier she visited Puigdemont in Belgium, and a few days before that she sat in the restaurant in downtown Barcelona where she films one of her television programs. Each week, the talk show focuses on a theme. That week’s was happiness. To each of her guests — an actress, a writer, a cake decorator — she posed the question, “Are you happy?”

Each guest responded in turn, and Topor asked more questions about short and long-
term happiness, never discussing herself.

Painted yellow ribbons, a symbol representing solidarity for politicians in prison and in exile, in a southern Catalan town. / Meg Bernhard

There was a certain irony in the scene: Topor discussing happiness as she prepared to commemorate the day that ended up splitting her family.
Of course she was sad, Topor said. How could she not be? There were difficult days, like in the spring, when Puigdemont was jailed in Germany. Torra’s swearing-in ceremony was also “bittersweet.” Topor attended to show her support for the new president, but couldn’t help feeling that the moment was all wrong.

Still, she said, “You can’t be sad and crying every day.”

Topor has found emotional support in the family members of other Catalans in prison or exile. Shortly after the arrests, the Catalan Association for Civil Rights convened to host dinners and protests to demand the release of prisoners. Some of them travel across Europe to argue for the prisoners’ freedom. Topor usually remains in Catalonia with her daughters.

Puigdemont’s parents and sister live nearby and watch the girls when Topor is away. But sometimes she has trouble asking for a hand, said Montse Puigdemont, Topor’s sister-in-law.

“She doesn’t want to bother anyone, doesn’t want anyone to worry,” Montse Puigdemont said. “But she’s taking it hard. Ask for help. We’re here.”

Her daughters understand her father’s situation, Topor says. They prefer he stay in Belgium, where he is free. But they miss him. He often took them to school, even when he was president. They get nervous each time they see a Spanish police officer. “For them, it’s like the big bad wolf,” Topor said.

Some Catalans criticize Puigdemont for fleeing the country when his people needed him most. He argues he’s more useful free than detained; this way, he can travel Europe and drum up support for Catalan independence. Topor, though devastated at her family’s situation, is grateful that her family can be together. She can visit her husband and they can go for walks. He can hug his daughters and read to them before bed. And there’s always the chance she moves to Belgium.

A few hours after the morning ceremony in Sant Julià de Ramis, Topor picked her daughters up from school, which held an event to commemorate the referendum anniversary. Kids ran around on the asphalt outside. They ate bread dipped in chocolate and screamed in delight as a team of young castellers began forming a small human tower. Topor stood with a group of mothers, watching each child gingerly step onto the back of another to form a pyramid, wobbly at first, then stable.

Meritxell Sala, a Girona resident, and her 10-year-old daughter Sofia greeted Topor. Sala hugged her.

“I don’t know her, only from a distance,” Sala said, clutching her daughter’s hand. “But I wanted express our thanks and love that they’re here, and to give them support. Just a hug from one mother to another.”