A Disquisition on Swallows

The swallow is the tiny black dot.

Full disclosure:  yesterday, I didn’t exercise, and I didn’t clap.

In the morning, I’d let myself read an article about what Spain’s lessening of restrictions might look like, which speculated that it might take place in two parts.  The first, lasting until the end of July, would see us allowed to walk around again, in a curtailed sort of way. Maybe for an hour, maybe in a kilometer’s radius from home?  Still alone, unless accompanied by minor children.  Travel would be restricted, of course, in ways we don’t yet know. In the second part, starting in August, restaurants might open, although how that might look is anybody’s guess. Verbenas — street festivals— and other gatherings, would be out of the question for a long long time.

I knew all this, I knew this all already, and we never really liked August’s verbenas anyway:  too hot, too crowded.

All the same, after I read this, inertia settled on my shoulders as heavily as the thick clouds settled on the city — and what about the rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain??  Experts say it takes 30 days to form new habits.  In the future experts may also say: five weeks locked in is about as much as people can take with equanimity.

To shake off this Covid-Ennui, I made a cup of Earl Grey tea and headed out to lean my elbows on the railing of the balcony.  Fact:  there are a few, just a few, more people out on the street (see the five week factor, above).  There was also, wheeling overhead,  a richness of swallows, as the nomenclature for a gathering of swallows goes.

When we arrived in Madrid last July, the swallows, with their dips and arabesques and faint peep peeps, were a constant.  To walk out into a hot dry dawn into the sound and sight of swallows probably says Spain to me more than just about anything else.

Around October, the swallows disappeared, and the only urban birds we had left were pigeons and magpies. Where did they go?  I typed it into Google.

To Africa; to Burkina Faso, the Ivory Coast, Ghana, and Mali.  It takes them  40 days to get there, they fly 3500 km.  Their spring return to Madrid is quicker; a straight shot across the Straits of Gibraltar at an average of 100-140 km a day. They arrive between mid-March and mid-April, a harbinger of spring.

So here they are again, tiny pinpricks tossed against the Madrid sky.  So much else has changed, or stopped, or become strange — but the swallows are a constant.

A swallow is a traditional maritime tattoo. Maybe sailors in the old days got a single swallow tattoo after they’d travelled 5000 miles, a second, after 10,000.  Or maybe the significance was that since swallows return to the same place every year to mate and nest, swallow tattoos would ensure a sailor’s safe return home. Either way, they’re lucky, the way they speak to constancy and return and distance.  Plucky little bird, to transverse the Sahara for urban Madrid, and then back again, every single year.

Una golondrina no hace verano, they say here — a single swallow doesn’t make a summer.

But a richness of them — that’s got to be a message.