Hyper-local: Day 1

As of yesterday, all of Spain sits under a newly-enacted State of Alarm. Version II is much lighter than March’s was — we aren’t confined to our houses, just subject to curfews* and building capacity restrictions — but the silence this morning, so complete that it was practically touchable, yanked me back to Covid’s earliest days.

If I wanted to describe the location of our apartment in progressively granular ways, I’d say: we live in Madrid, in the neighborhood of Chamberí, in the sub-section of Chamberí called Gaztambide, inside the six-block area of Gaztambide serviced by the Guzmán el Bueno Health Center.

Chamberí is often labeled the most castizo — authentic or traditional— of Madrid neighborhoods. Though I think that description really depends on how you choose to define authentic, Chamberí is arguably less touristy than the more central neighborhoods and less pijo (posh) than Salamanca, home of Gucci and Madrid’s Golden Mile. Each of Chamberí’s six sub-neighborhoods has its own flavor. Almagro, containing the former mansions of the 19th century elite, feels sedate and fin de siècle. The northern two areas, Rio Rosas and Vallehermoso, dotted with high-rise brutalist apartment buildings, scream out that they were built up in the 1960s and 70s.

Gaztambide, the westernmost area, within a stone’s throw of several universities, feels scrappier. The siege of Madrid during the Spanish Civil War hit Gaztambide particularly hard, because it was so close to the western front. Nowadays, in Gaztambide, students who sit in the cafes in packs, families navigating the streets with scooters, bikes, and strollers, and the elderly who nurse their cañas in the cafes all rub shoulders. Our streets are dirtier; Gaztambide dog owners are congenitally incapable of scooping their poop.

And the Guzmán el Bueno health zone within Gaztambide? Within that six-block by seven block area, we have at least

21,000 neighbors

7 book stores

7 fruterías

13 bakeries

10 supermarkets

3 hardware stores

In short, the area that feeds into the Guzmán el Bueno primary healthcare center is a microcosm of Madrid.


By last Saturday, I’d dreamed, over and over, that I had Covid and was trying to explain to a contact tracer in Spanish where I’d been for the past five days, The will we? won’t we? roller coaster of possible confinement felt unending. My Octopus Teacher, the new Netflix documentary about the year filmmaker Craig Foster spends diving a particular kelp forest and observing a particular octopus, sounded — well, sonorous — but also like just what the doctor ordered.

Early in the film, when Foster talks about why he started making his dives, he points out that it’s only through close, repeated observation of a place that you can begin to truly learn it. He’s speaking as a naturalist, of course, but it made me wonder — what would happen if I took the area of Madrid inside my “confinamiento perimetral” and really looked at it for the next two weeks?

The truth is — at least on Day 1 — this confinement feels pretty nominal. People freely cross from the allowed side of the street to the unallowed one. I saw more photojournalists stopping passers-by than I did police officers. There might be a few less people out on the street, but I don’t know if I’d notice that if I hadn’t been primed to do so.

All the same, the U.S. election is 7DAYS16HOURS38MINUTES away. The Big Picture is just a bit much.

So for the next two weeks, my plan is to dive deep — and to go small.

*The prime minister yesterday described the situation as a “nocturnal confinement” rather than a curfew, but I think they’re the same thing.

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