08/14/2019 05:00 – Updated: 08/15/2019 00:29
“That guy, they don’t want him here”, Alex warns every time
“They don’t want that guy here”, Alex warns every time they ask him about Carles Puigdemont. This Ecuadorian opened a gas station in Waterloo a year and a half ago, on the same dates when Puigdemont settled in this small town 25 kilometers from Brussels, fleeing from the Spanish Justice. Álex, whose business guards the entrances and exits of Waterloo, knows well what he is talking about.
On Rue de l’Avocat, a couple of numbers from the chalet of one of the most hated men in Spain, Bernard* talks with his two twenty-year-old sons. Upon hearing the name of Puigdemont, he snorts, takes two steps forward and points to the mansion where the Catalan politician resides: “Yesterday they had a party with their flags raised“. If I tell you the truth, we are increasingly fed up. Not with Puigdemont, whom we see very little, but with all his followers who come here”, he explains with his arms in a jar. His children, who take advantage of Sunday afternoon to clean their bikes, sit up and nod.
Without knowing it, Bernard refers to the last ‘summit’ of the pro-independence forces that took place this Saturday in the ‘House of the Republic’. In his lowest hours – he has not been able to be MEP by not collecting his accreditations in Spain – Puigdemont organized a paella with his circle of faithful. Among the guests were the journalist Pilar Rahola, the member of Bildu in the Spanish Parliament Jon Iñarritu, the rapper – and also escaped from Justice –Valtònyc or the ‘ex-ministers’ Toni Comín and Lluís Puig, among others. “12 apostles conjuring a paella in Tintin lands”, as Rahola wrote in Instagram.
Money and silence
In Waterloo, there are two things that are everywhere: money and silence. It is a dormitory city of 30,000 inhabitants where senior officials or diplomats enjoy huge houses with gardens far from Brussels. The products that Álex sells at its gas station are a sample of the average customer profile: a one-liter bottle of natural juice costs seven euros, there are whiskey bottles for 50 Euros and champagne bottles for 100 Euros.
The neighborhood is designed so that the days progress without anything happening. A woman walks her dog on the esplanade that Puigdemont and Bernard share in front of their houses. Cars are parked outside the garage and there are not many fences in the houses, which prefer to delimit their perimeter with careful hedges. “It’s all very quiet, that’s why we came here 20 years ago”, says Bernard, one of the few in the neighborhood who hasn’t gone on vacation in August.
He, like all his neighbors, has been a collateral victim of a sharp turn in the history of Spain. Puigdemont, accused of crimes of embezzlement, sedition and rebellion over the events related to the illegal referendum on October 1, 2017, fled from Spain to avoid the same fate as Oriol Junqueras: the jail. After several months from hotel to hotel, the fugitive from Justice settled in February 2018 on Rue de l’Avocat 34 in Waterloo, in a 550-square-meter mansion: the rent amounts to 4,400 euros per month.
Since then, Puigdemont has turned the ‘House of the Republic’ into the base of operations of Catalan secessionism abroad … and in its particular Mecca. A constant trickle of faithful pro-independence followers goes to Waterloo to visit the ‘ex-president’. Some weekends, the neighbors observe how 50 adults get off the bus with a yellow bow on their chest and place themselves a few meters from the house, waiting for Puigdemont to appear. The fuss is guaranteed.
“Imagine that you buy a house in the neighborhood and, from one day to another and without notifying you, a public character arrives who every day receives visits from followers, representatives, hordes of journalists”, laments Bernard, who insists over and over again that the rest of the neighbors are just as “fed up” as he is.
But not everyone in Waterloo hates Puigdemont. In fact, the owners of the coffee shops in the town center are happy with their arrival. Or, rather, with the pro-independence Catalans who come to greet him and eat a hamburger later in the town. A young Belgian waitress, who does not know who Puigdemont is, recognizes that in the last year she has learned to differentiate the Catalans from the rest of the Spaniards.
Less and less Catalans are coming
A few minutes later, Lola and Xavier get up from their table and approach the counter to pay the waitress. This couple from Barcelona has come to Brussels on vacation and has taken the opportunity to visit Waterloo and see the Tintin museum. “It’s great”, says Lola, while paying two cappuccinos with her credit card. “Besides, since we were here, we thought why we didn’t pay a visit to the ‘president”.
But the visit has been a failure. Puigdemont, who was voted in his day, was not available to be seen: “The security guard has told us that the ‘president’ had left just 15 minutes ago”, says the woman with some indifference.
In the Waterloo tourist office, located in front of the cafeteria, they are also accustomed to receiving visits from Catalans. So much so that they have the speech prepared every time someone asks them about Puigdemont: “I’m sorry, I can’t give you his address … But you can search on the internet”.
Last summer, the office came to have photocopies with the photo of Puigdemont and his postal address because of the immense number of ‘political’ tourists who came to Waterloo. “Our boss forbade us”, says the woman who works in the office this summer Sunday. She then acknowledges that less and less independence people appear.
But the neighbors of Puigdemont care very little what the tourist office says. The oldest of Bernard’s two children remembers the day when other neighbors called the police because a group of Catalans were shouting at Puigdemont to come out to greet them. The police went and told the neighbors that they could do nothing.
The meadow that Bernard, Puigdemont and other neighbors share. The house of the ‘ex-president’ is on the right. (C. B)
Therefore, the relevant question for them is not whether more or less tourists come – approximately the same, according to them – but why Puigdemont decided to settle in this neighborhood of Waterloo. In his book ‘The Catalan crisis. A missed opportunity’, Puigdemont defends himself from criticism justifying the house as the ideal place to work and write quietly.
But Bernard is not convinced by the answer. “If he wanted a quiet place, why didn’t he go to one of the thousands of neighborhoods in Flanders? There they support him; nobody here. Belgians detest independence. If not, what would Europe be like?”, he asks rhetorically. “I imagine he came here because he doesn’t speak Dutch”, he adds, after a silence.
The mysterious flag of Spain
The flag of Spain of the mysterious neighbor … which is Italian. (C. B.)
Bernard himself, looking for more evidence of the inconvenience that Puigdemont generates in the neighborhood, quotes the episode of a mysterious neighbor who displayed a flag of Spain when the ‘ex-president’ was installed a year and a half ago: “At first we thought he was a Spaniard, but a month ago they told me that he is not…”, he smiles, without explaining anything else.
After the curve, between single-family villas and very well-groomed lawns, the house can be seen with the flag of Spain displayed in the window of the second floor. No one responds to the ringing sound. A few meters from the property of the ‘mysterious neighbor’, an elderly couple is trimming the bushes of their house, but none answers the questions. She gets inside the house and after a while her son leaves, who apologizes. His parents are Armenians and do not speak English or French: “The house of the Spanish flag belongs to an Italian neighbor”, he replies sparingly.
It’s getting late and Bernard’s children are going for a motorcycle ride. Bernard kisses both of them. Do you think one day silence will return to Waterloo? “The neighbors expect him to leave Waterloo soon. Now there is a new rumor in the neighborhood saying Puigdemont is going to continue his exile in Asia. Hopefully”, Bernard replies.
“Look, there come others”, interrupts one of his children with his helmet on. A man and a woman get off a Peugeot and approach the door of Puigdemont’s house. They do not see anyone. They try to skirt it, but they dare not jump the safety cord. A man comes out of an adjacent booth and explains that Puigdemont is not there. The man and the woman take several selfies.
“Come on, you can ride the plane back. You have already taken 2,000 kilometers for a photo in front of a house”, says full of irony Bernard’s youngest son.
* Bernard is a fictitious name at the request of the neighbor of Puigdemont.