Los Chavales*


*The kids.

Saturday, March 15, we knew the prime minister was about to announce an Estado de Alarma, but we were all of us youngsters back then, we had no idea what that meant.  That morning, full of our not knowing, we went for a walk — us and the rest of Madrid.  If I’d known it was my last walk for months, I would’ve walked farther and longer, like maybe forever.

At one point during all this, M announced that when we were finally able to walk around freely, he planned to walk the soles off his shoes across the length and breadth of Madrid, for hours.  Another day, I fantasized that once this was all over, I was going to immediately shrug on a backpack and walk the entire Camino de Santiago, the ancient pilgrim route across Europe.

Then I reflected that the inhabitants of the tiny villages along that route aren’t going to welcome Madrileños for a very long time.  Like Londoners during plague days, here in Madrid we’ve rubbed shoulders too closely with El Virus.  Someday, maybe, we’ll know how many people in the city have had it, and if all the coughs I heard on the subway at the beginning of March were COVID19 or something more benign.

Part of our closest park, the Parque del Oeste, butts up against one of Madrid’s universities, and that Saturday it looked like a study for Seurat’s  Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.  People lolled everywhere:  strumming guitars. Singing. Playing cards, drinking beer, sleeping, courting.

By 3 p.m., the parks had been cordoned off.

I didn’t like it, but I understood why.  This is the country where you kiss strangers you’ve just met on both cheeks; or at least you did before all this happened.  In Madrid, people stand close. They prefer crowds to solitude.  Which made me feel claustrophobic at first — but the other day, when I and the single person I passed on the sidewalk gave each other the wide prescribed berth of 2 meters, I felt sad.

Also sad:  the store windows filled with mannequins arrested in poses and clothes of winter, puffer coats and stocking caps.  Not even the Spanish, who bundle up on days when I’m happiest in short sleeves, can countenance that.  Rip Van Winkle slept through the American Revolution:  we’ve slept through spring.

But this Sunday, after much political back-and-forth and confusion, we’ll experience our first honest-to-God loosening of COVID constraints:  between 9 a.m. and 9 p.m., kids under 14 will be allowed outside for an hour a day, as long as they stay within a kilometer of home, accompanied by an older person from their domicile, including older siblings.

At first, the word was that they could only walk with their parents to the grocery store or the pharmacy or the bank, which the only places adults are allowed to go.  This made sense to a friend of mine with no children, but then again, she’s never gone to the grocery store with a kid under 5.

Some people are bitter about that hour: no fair that if you’ve got a kid or a dog you can stretch your legs when the rest of us can’t, but I’d say there are few enough perks of parenthood.  But as far as the dog walkers, who’ve stretched their legs and the rules as far as they can go for 6 weeks — be my guest, have at ’em.

There’s a family with 2 little kids living a couple of floors before us.  Smart kids — knowing there were Americans in the building, they dressed up and hit us up for candy on Halloween. I don’t know their names because when I asked, I couldn’t understand the answers I got (not Pedro or Pablo or Luis, I could tell that much).  So when we refer to the older one we just call him Amigo.

Sometimes since this started, the sound of Amigo’s crying spirals up the inner courtyard.  Every night, impatient, he comes out early for the Applause and shakes some sort of noisemaker.  He’s still shaking it when the clapping dies down a few minutes later.

He’ll never forget this. None of our kids will ever forget this. And their lack of forgetting will be theirs alone; us adults won’t ever completely grasp it.

If I had to be locked down, I’m glad it happened here, where the kids are the first of us gifted with  a tiny bit of freedom.