Pre-COVID, I walked through Madrid like I had someplace to go (because I did). And more often than I walked, I took the Metro: it got me where I needed to be more quickly and more efficiently than walking ever could.
But spending two + months in lockdown seems to have changed how I travel through Madrid, at least for the moment. I haven’t braved the Metro yet, so I’ve walked more and farther than I ever did before March, but the change isn’t because of that, not entirely.
Maybe the difference is partially metaphysical — when the past is a foreign country you can’t travel back to and the future is a fraught question, you have little choice but to inhabit the present moment. But it’s also partly one of comparisons. Every morning, I read the headlines of the New York Times feeling full of rage and sorrow. Then, because shopping for groceries daily turns out to be easy once you get your head around the habit, especially when the fruit around the corner is lusciously ripe and the woman who works there calls you corazón, I shake myself mentally and pick up my string bag and pull on my mask and head out into the streets of Chamberí, our neighborhood in Madrid.
The honest-to-God truth is that I miss the comforting familiarity of my home country every single day, but at the same time I find myself wondering not only if the home I miss so much doesn’t exist right now — but also if it stopped existing a long long time ago, and I was just (we all were just) too busy and distracted to notice.
Even in July, even when it knows the temperature’s going to hit 95 by mid-afternoon, Chamberí rolls out of bed at a respectable nine o’clock in the morning. Today at nine, I passed in the street a woman in work clothes carrying a white parakeet in a bird cage, on her way to the vet who had just opened. Half a block further on came a man hoisting a yappy dog in a cage, possibly on the way to the same vet. The sidewalk tables in front of the restaurants were inhabited mostly by men in work clothes who’d stopped for a quick espresso before starting work. It’s unheard of, here, to carry around a giant to-go cup.
The wide sidewalk was glistening wet: the porters of the buildings were out en mass, scrubbing stoops and stairwells the way they do every morning, chatting as they work. Our porter, at least, lives in the building, and I’m sure a portion of our rent goes toward her pay. But this fact that the labor isn’t outsourced and faceless helps us all become part of a small ecosystem, nested inside a larger one: she takes time to talk with each of the neighbors as they come in and out. I know her name and the name of her dog and that she occasionally goes down the street to the café for a beer, and if I spoke better Spanish, I’m sure I’d know even more about her. Maybe mopping the entry isn’t her favorite part of the day, but she doesn’t seem to downright loathe it.
I can’t think of the last time I saw someone who wasn’t a city worker clean an outdoor space in the United States. This isn’t to say Europe has it all figured out. But the interwoven fabric of community feels tangible here, and that has to be a good thing.
Last night, M went to the hardware store around the corner. It’s the size of two American walk-in closets and its treasures include
mortars and pestles,
old-fashioned coffee mills,
olive oil decanters,
and sharp spikes so birds can’t land on your balcony.
Because of distancing requirements, customers can only enter one by one. I’d decided a mortar and pestle was absolutely necessary equipment for dinner: the guy working at the hardware store climbed into the window display so he could show M all three types, and then once he selected one, wrapped it carefully in white paper.
On his walk home, M passed the store, also closet-sized, that only sells underwear to elderly women; also the one that sells safety razors and shaving brushes and the same brand of soap that was used in the first class cabins on the Titanic. Also the store that only sells baby booties and bibs. All of these close for a two-hour lunch in the middle of the day and don’t open at all on Sundays.
There’s something human-sized about this. I can’t get what I want, whenever I want it — and sometimes that makes me really mad.
But then there are also days like this morning, when the sidewalk is glistening clean and I feel like I got something I didn’t even know I wanted, something worth much more.