New Words for a New World

The other day, a kid on a chat group with elder daughter called the Prime Minister a communist; later an expat mom did the same. This was clearly an insult/epithet, but I come from a country where 1. socialist is bad word enough, you don’t bother with communist and 2. you’re more likely to hear social justice warrior and liberal snowflake as pejoratives.

Maybe they were just pissed Madrid couldn’t move to Phase 1. Maybe using the word says something about their own political leanings. I had no idea what they were trying to get across; the subtleties escaped me.

I had no idea what they were trying to get across; the subtleties escaped me.

This is my normal state. The truth is: I don’t have enough words. Other customers six feet in front of me in line at the bakery have conversations with the counter people about their children and grandchildren and dogs and their life philosophies; mine is an exchange of fines, rudimentary talk about the weather, and yes, I want a lid for the coffee but I don’t need the little stick for stirring. When what I really want to ask is what does it mean when somebody calls Pedro Sanchez a communist? or what is it like to sell bread all day in the middle of a pandemic? or Why do you use the familiar tense with me here at the bakery but the lady won’t, no matter how friendly I am, at the frutería? I’d like to blame this inability to get social nuance on the fact that we’re all muffled by masks — but I can’t.

Twenty-five years ago, when M and I lived in Frankfurt, I learned less German than I’m now learning Spanish, but I gained so much admiration for the way the German language jigsaws together words to express complex emotions and states of being:

Weltschmerz. (World pain, the sense of having the world’s weight on your shoulders.)

Mutterseelenallein. (So alone not even your mother can stand being with you.)

Schadenfreude. (Taking joy in other’s pain.)

Ever since La Cuarentena started, I’ve felt like I’m grasping for words that don’t even exist yet. What’s the word for the searing rage and sorrow one feels watching their home country’s political dumpster fire become a conflagration of epic proportions?

For homesickness for a place that may not ever exist again?

For feeling like you need to wash your hands — when you just washed them?

For nostalgia for things that were struck from the books?

For the strange dreams that come with quarantine?

Yesterday, we ventured, not without trepidation, outside the neighborhood for the first time since early March, for the girls’ trip to the orthodontist. No amount of pouring over the newspapers or discussion with expats beforehand made it clear whether 1, 2, or 3 of us could ride in a cab together. Eventually I just walked down to the corner to talk to the cabbie who always waits there. Yes, we could all three go together, because we’re a family, and the trip was to a doctor (we had a special, very official-sounding note). Relief all the way around.

When time came to climb in the cab we’d hailed, that driver said only 2 of us could sit in the back seat. One would have to sit in front with him, on the wrong side of the plexiglass barrier. This made no sense to me. If an American cabbie had told me this, I would have asked questions — but we’re not in Kansas anymore, so I didn’t.

You’d think our drive would have been accompanied by trumpet flourishes, but Madrid looked the same. Just emptier. The orthodontist’s office, on the other hand, was so spotless, it made your teeth hurt. Everyone working there was sealed away like astronauts.

When we left, the thought of sitting up front with a taxi driver made at least two of us feel itchy inside, so we decided to walk home. Whether or not this was permissible was … unknowable. On the one hand, we had that note… on the other, we were an hour’s walk from home. It was during the timeframe when a parent can walk with three children. But are teenagers children? We spread ourselves out, one after another, with 20 feet between us.

One of my Spanish teachers once told his class that, should we ever be stopped by the police, we should just tell them we didn’t speak Spanish. But as it turns out, the policía are much more interested in stopping pairs of adolescent boys than they are women with gray in their hair with surly teens in tow.

It was drizzling. We were close to home when I realized my mask had gotten too damp to do its job. Nobody was walking anywhere near us. I ripped it off and breathed deep.

It also turns out masks do work, at least in some ways: it was only at that point that I realized we’d been walking past a stand of rainsoaked lilacs for the past 10 minutes.

A few minutes later, an abuela at least 20 feet away from me glared. At my maskless face, even though masks aren’t even suggested outside, just in the metro or inside public spaces? At the teenagers, who were laughing?

But oh, the scent of those lilacs! That long walk! The censure was worth it, and someday in this New World, there may just be a word for that.

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