Essential Business

Sunday night, 19 April 2020, before the nightly applause, looking eastward in Madrid.


Today, bookstores are allowed to reopen in Rome.  It’s unknown how many of them actually will open — what business wants to be the trial balloon when quarantine measures loosen? — but what could be more heartening than this evidence that even as connected by technology as we’ve been throughout these last weeks,  we yearn for written words, for poetry, for the exchange of ideas and the curious mind-meld they create?

Ink and paper and the conscious aesthetic choices of font and cover design create order, it would seem.  They’re a civilizing influence, even now, in these late days, which gives one hope.

Way back at the beginning of all this, when I  poured over El Pais trying to figure out what we could do and what we couldn’t as well as what was open and what was not, I saw that newspaper kiosks would be open from the get-go as an essential business.  How quaint and uniquely European!

Here, there are still elderly men who don their soft caps and make their methodical way down to the corner kiosk every morning to exchange greetings with the vendor and choose their poison, El Pais o El Mundo.  Here, also, there’s somebody with the power to make decisions who believes it important that that elderly segment of the population know what’s going on.  Either that, or there’s a very strong kiosk lobbying organization here in Spain.

Like those abuelos, I’m a creature of habit, creating new routines to replace the ones that vanished when the Estado de Alarma began. The early-morning time  I once spent walking briskly through Parque del Oeste  I now use to read the Diario Viral of Iñigo Domínguez, a columnist for El Pais.  Since I’m trying to read his column in the original Spanish, this takes me about the same amount of time I once spent walking 5 km, so it’s become the same sort of linchpin for my day.

Some mornings, if I’m very very lucky, I’ll read a sentence and understand it without having to translate it into English first. Magic! Other times, I might get the words as they stand alone but when they’re mashed together into a sentence,  my English-leaning mind can’t even begin to process them.

Always, though, I’m impressed by the generosity and affection in his writing — as well as by his far-ranging references to books and movies and music.  If Americans knew as half much about international culture as he knows of such things outside Spain’s borders, the world would be a better place.

I too am keeping a Diario Viral, I suppose, and the two of us are writing in the same city  on the same same timeline, which is interesting to contemplate.  He wrote about the effects of the time change on the nightly applause around the same day I did.  Just this morning, he mentioned the swallows back from their journey across the Sahara that I noticed on Friday.

Today, he referenced a song, Pongamos que hablo de Madrid (Let’s say I speak of Madrid). 

I looked it up, of course I did — we have all the time in the world now! It’s an old song, from the Movida Madrileña of the early 80s, when Spain was cracking open after Franco.  It’s always been a  bit of an anthem, “a story of love and hatred for an unlivable but irreplaceable city,”  and just a few days ago, new artists recorded it again in support of Madrid.

As soon as I played the first bar, I realized one of my Spanish teachers  brought in copies of the lyrics and played it for us last summer.  A lifetime ago. God bless the language teachers of the world. They work so hard to impart knowledge to their blank-faced, overwhelmed charges.

And sometimes, it actually works.  I couldn’t understand Pongamos que hablo de Madrid  then, but now —

It speaks volumes.