Jubilation Exhales

By Miguel Hernandez. I can’t find a good English translation but I like the idea of “jubilation exhaling.”

On Monday, Madrid and Barcelona will move at long last into Phase I of De-escalation. We’ll still have to exercise according to the previous timetable, but the sidewalk terraces will be open with 30% (maybe 50%?) capacity (and masks). People can go to each other’s houses, as long as they practice social distancing (and wear masks). Movie theatres will also be open (with 30% capacity and masks), but I don’t plan on seeing a movie anywhere other than on Netflix for a while.

—How do you think Monday will be? I asked a friend.

—Debauchery, she answered.

It feels a little strange to be so ebullient about this change when opening-up vs sheltering-in-place is so horribly fraught in the States. Here, we hit El Virus with the Hammer before we stuck our noses outside for the Dance, but there, all is ambiguous, nebulous, obscured, charged, chaotic.

During the four or five days we had back in March between the announcement the schools would close and the beginning of the State of Alarm, I kept saying I was going to go to the neighborhood garden store. It was still open then, the university students were still sitting on the sidewalk terraces drinking beer and playing cards, but in the end, I didn’t go: it felt too frivolous and scary. No one had told us not to go to inessential stores, but should we?

Throughout La Cuarentena, when our apartment terrace, our tiny square of nature, became our saving grace, I kept saying “before the next global pandemic, I’m going to fill this terrace up with plants that bloom.”

Yesterday I toted some geraniums home from the garden store, my first time in anyplace other than the grocery store since March 4 or 5. I was shopping, not exercising, and that’s allowable during the time when parents and kids under 14 get exercise. The weather turned summery this week — Madrid has gone from wearing puffy coats to wearing shorts between Monday and today.

Kids were everywhere, on bikes, on scooters, in strollers, toddling with their parents. I’d missed them — without really realizing they were missing. At least three times, I saw a parent whip out a bottle of hand sanitizer and wipe down a kid. The moms standing on the corner were chatting from 2 meters apart (with masks). I hope this works.

All afternoon, we spotted people walking down the street with pots of flowers in each hand, a parade of summer. To be honest, geraniums weren’t one of my favorite flowers before now, but post-COVID, they slay me. That fuschia… those velvety leaves… that peppery scent…

De Madrid al Cielo*

You have the right to have fun,
the neighbors to sleep.
Respect their rest.
Don’t yell when you leave the bar.
Thank you.

The Big Quiet has ended.

Early morning, the smell of baking bread issues, once again, from the bakery run by the Venezuelan couple. Porters sweep the sidewalks in front of buildings, stopping to stare pensively at the swallows swirling overhead.

Construction projects are back up and running. When we moved into the apartment last July, a building down the street was vanishing, piece by jackhammered piece, into a single small dumpster on the street. Someday a new building will replace it, one that’ll attract a new sort of neighbor who only sits on their terrace in acapulco chairs and requires a swimming pool.

Will that sort of neighbor even exist in Spain’s New Normality?

While we wait to find out the answer to that question, demolition work goes on. I’ve been listening to those jackhammers for 10 months now.

Ten months of living in Madrid! Can I count the two spent locked in this apartment because of COVID?

Today while I was out during our exercise slot, I watched a sour-faced older man berate two construction workers. The reason? They were backing a dump truck across a blocked-off sidewalk. He was going to have to detour into the street.

Coño, he swore, dodging the truck.

Hijo de puta, one of the workers swore back.

Because he was wearing his mask on his chin, as construction workers tend to, I could tell he had a glimmer of a smile on his face, as if to say Now this, this, is what I call normal! The old man continued on his way, swearing as he went; the construction worker continued yelling curses at his back.

And I swear — they were having fun.

When I was a kid growing up in Athens, GA, then-population 44,000, I vowed that as soon I could, I’d shake its podunk dust from my feet and head for a City with a capital C. Since I was nothing if not ambitious, geographically speaking, nothing but New York was going to do.

Was I the least bit equipped for city life? Of course not. When I was 18, everything I knew about cities, I knew from books. Actually, when I was 18, everything I knew about anything, I knew from books.

My first day in New York, when a convenience store clerk cursed me for paying with a traveler’s check, I cried. I’d taken the Southern Crescent Amtrack to get from Athens to NYC, and had met somebody in the bar car somewhere in Virginia who told me the area around the Sloan House Y, where I’d be staying before classes started at Sarah Lawrence, was dangerous. Thus, I spent a sweltering, un-airconditioned August week in NYC, hiding out inside a dreary room the size of a shoe box.

I was back in Athens within two years. I’d had it all wrong, I concluded, I actually loathed cities. They were dirty, loud, rude, and full of themselves. Give me small towns instead.

Funny how life never turns out the way you had it planned. In the past 25 years, M has managed to cajole me into not one, not two, but three major cities.

Today, I walked past porters, bakers, cursers, dogwalkers, elegantly dressed old ladies, dog shit, garbage, and it hit me. With its community and communion and common spaces, Madrid might be the city I hoped to find half a lifetime ago in New York City. It might be the city Frankfurt never was, for me at least.

Maybe I bathed Madrid in such a rosy glow today because I have no idea, most of the time, what anybody here is actually saying.

Maybe I’ve gained such affection for it because of the strange hardship the past few months have brought.

Maybe it’s because I just spent two months cloistered in the Western world’s strictest quarantine, and grueling things, like boot camp, create loyalty.

Or maybe it’s just Madrid. I didn’t expect to feel this way, and maybe I won’t tomorrow, but today, as the proverb says —

*From Madrid, to Heaven.

Brief Dispatches from the Spanish Front

There were only 285 new cases of COVID-19 in Spain yesterday and 59 deaths. On April 2, our darkest day, we had over 950 deaths in 24 hours.

Whatever organization it is that decrees these things has decreed that COVID-19 takes the female gender, grammatically speaking; i.e, La Covid.

It’s now mandatory to wear masks any time we can’t safely maintain a social distance of 2 meters. Since maintaining a distance of two meters is close to impossible in a city of 3 million, this basically means: masks are now mandatory.

I won’t say I like wearing a mask, but this morning I realized the visceral anxiety I had when I saw people in them three months ago has vanished. Putting one on as I head down the stairs, pulling on gloves when I walk in the grocery store, constantly washing my hands or slathering them with sanitizer feels…. normal.

The Spanish shoe brand El Ganso is selling reusable masks embroidered with smiles for 4.95 euros.


Sometimes, these days, when you’re walking in Madrid, someone will stop short on the sidewalk and suddenly snap a picture. What is it that catches their eye? The sky, a tree, a shop window, their walking partner, mask-clad: after two months away from streetlife, it all seems new.

While I was out, elder daughter said after her first run in two months, everybody who passed me looked beautiful.

The Dance

Yesterday afternoon it was decided that Madrid will move to Phase 0.5.

A couple of weeks ago, when I used the word inching to describe how we might move toward The New Normality, I had no idea how accurate I was. The needle moves

s l o w l y.

What 0.5 really means is that we’re still in Phase 0, just with benefits: stores under 400m employing the proper distancing can open (and you can go to a wake attended by 10 people). No sidewalk terraces, no gatherings at home. The regulations about exercise are still in place.

I’m ok with caution. The more things open up, the more our cases inch up as well. Early on, someone wrote a piece about COVID19 that was widely circulated called The Hammer and the Dance. I’m not enough of a numbers geek to have really dug into it, but I like the imagery of its title, which refers to how to deal with the virus: smash it with a hammer first, then dance delicately around it. Right now, here in Madrid, we’re dancing.

This morning I suggested to M that maybe we could rent bikes tomorrow. Bikes and running are exercise, which means you can do either of them for the entire 4 hour exercise window in the morning — as long as you stay in your municipality. Taking a walk, on the other hand, isn’t exercise, it’s just taking a walk. You can take a walk for an hour, but only within a km to home.

Wait, I said after I made my suggestion about the bikes. We can walk together but we have to exercise apart. This could mean only 30 feet apart, I guess, and pretending, if we have to, that we’ve never seen each other before, but parameters and subterfuge kind of take the joy out of things.

We seem to have about three topics of conversation these days: the daily count of COVID19 cases; politics, genus American or Spanish; and what exactly we can do, and when.

M can take a walk with P between 6-10 a.m. but on Saturday P doesn’t get up until 9:30, so M will take a walk with K. M or K are supposed to go to the grocery store alone, between 9 and 9, although they shouldn’t do it between 9- 10 am, because that’s set aside for the elderly. 10- 11 is the elderly’s time to walk, so they will glare at you if you go out then. And so on…

The Dance.

I’ve kept this diary a little over two months now. Confession: over those two months, also I’ve kept a few things from it. Like the fact that on the second day of the State of Alarm, M had a slight fever and thus was isolated in the bedroom for a week, with me leaving food at the door for him and talking to him via cellphone. (We didn’t want our parents to know about this, but on about day 6, my mom noticed and asked How’s M? You talk about you and the girls doing things but what’s he doing? )

Also during those early days, there was a lot of anxious expat chatter about going or staying. We weren’t going anywhere — this is home now. But people we knew who were planning to leave by summer had to jump or not jump. Rumors flew. Flights got cancelled. It felt a little like Saigon in the days before its airlift. Friends we’d made, a family with two college kids whose colleges had just shut down in the states, who were planning to leave in summer anyway, decided they needed to get while the getting was good. They left me the key to their apartment, so people could pick things up when the lockdown loosened, in a street-side hand-off worthy of The Third Man.

Yesterday, I slipped over to their apartment to leave the key for the leasing company. Someday, somehow, that apartment might rent again. On he walk home, I spotted a little boy across the wide avenue, five or six, proudly carrying a tissue-wrapped bouquet of three roses, sweetheart red, rosy pink, a splash of yellow. his dad trailing behind him. A once-common sight, now rare: somewhere, in the direction I was headed, a florist must be open.

Open, as in you stand in the door and tell them what you want while a queue waiting 2 meters apart gathers behind you.  I bought an armful of tulips and peonies without thought to the cost.  A little spring for the house since we had no spring, I told the salesclerk.  Yes! she agreed enthusiastically from behind her mask. We missed it. A  mother and little boy stopped statue still on the sidewalk in front of the display. The little boy was in ecstasies.  

— Mama! Look! Beautiful flowers, Mama!   Are they open? Are we getting some?  Mama, THEY ARE SO BEAUTIFUL. Are they really open? They’re beautiful.

You didn’t have to be able to speak great Spanish to understand the wonder in his voice, the joy, at this, the commonplace, the world’s most exuberant magic trick.

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.

Limbo/Liminality/Phase 0

Mannequin clad in protective gear; Madrid, 10 May 2020.

Today, half of Spain moves into Phase 1, which means that, among other things, their sidewalk terraces will open at 1/3 capacity — but not Madrid. We’re still in Phase 0. We could’ve seen this coming, but it stings nevertheless.

Another thing that turns out to be true about human nature: you always want what you can’t have. As soon as we could go out for an hour a day between 6 a.m. – 10 a.m. or 8:00 p.m. – 11 p.m., I immediately wanted to go out instead at, say, 2:45, and for an hour and 45 minutes instead of just an hour. Or I wanted to go somewhere else altogether, like the beach.

Opening a door a crack busts open the floodgates. Officially, we can take a walk with one other person from the same domicile or we can exercise alone, but I’d bet money the groups of bicyclists that gather like schools of fish at each red light are only pretending not to know each other. I also don’t believe for a red hot second that all the people walking two-by-two actually live together; you just don’t see that many women in their 50s who have roommates, likewise men in their 60s, or 16-year-olds, for that matter.

In 1985, my sophomore year of college, I took Medieval Literature, for reasons that probably weren’t clear to me then, and definitely aren’t clear to me now. (If liberal arts is truly the most useless of studies, medieval literature surely holds pride of place as the most useless study within it). These past two months of La Cuarentena are literally the first time in 35 years I’ve thought about that class.

But right before the State of Alarm, when those who could in Madrid decamped to their second homes, I remembered how, in the Decameron, those nobles fled Florence during the Black Death, and set themselves up in a deserted villa where they ate well, drank good white wine, and told raunchy stories. It was strangely comforting to think that we’d been here before, that humans tend to behave in predictable, if greedy and self-interested, ways.

Phase 0, our threshold, our pause, our jumping-off place between Lockdown and New Normality, is full of rules and just about as complicated as Limbo was in Dante’s Inferno. Limbo, the first circle of hell, meant traveling through 7 gates, the first of which had, (I think), Abandon Hope, All Ye Who Enter Here written above it.

Tomorrow I have to take the kids to the orthodontist, which is allowed, but requires a paper from the practitioner and a level of trust and organization that may be beyond me. It’s still unclear if the three of us can ride in the same cab. The subway’s running, but only at 30 percent capacity, and it’ll be years before we can convince ourselves to set foot on it.

We might actually consider walking there, but that would take an hour. Besides, the appointment isn’t during the time when we’re allowed out, and even if it was, one of us would have to walk 20 ft. behind the other two and pretend she didn’t know us.

Beyond here, there be monsters. We stand on the threshold.

Que Será, Será (Whatever Will Be, Will Be)

Statue of Important Person Contemplates Facemask.

A fairy tale seemed like a great place to take leave of our story, but fairy tales, no matter how lovely, are never life, entirely. The plot trundles on after the Happy Ever After — likewise, Phase 0 keeps on keeping on after the terrible trombone player stops playing I Will Survive.

Throughout these strange days, I’ve really been enjoying my fantasy that Spain lacked the sort of angry agitation America excels at. Actually, enjoying is the wrong word: I’ve been clinging to this view, brought about by equal parts isolation and lack of language skills, like it was a lifeline. But yesterday, someone in my Moms of Class of 2020 wasap asked us all to write Pablo Casado, the leader of PP, to request that he vote against extending the state of alarm and the dictadura social-podemita (this sort of translates to the far-left dictatorship). Vox, the far-right party, wants us to quit applauding for the essential workers, because applauding for them keeps us from beating pots against the government. (There’s a lot less applause now, but that’s because most adults go outside to exercise right at 8 p.m.) Then an anti-vaxer posted a petition on the Expats of Madrid FB feed.

This, I’m afraid, is the coda honesty forces me to add to The Fairy Tale, just in case some future person reads this diario virus and wants to try to extrapolate things from it.

Back in early April, when someone was dying roughly every minute and a half in Spain, you didn’t see this kind of thing, just pictures of bread people baked and heart emojis. Maybe when you’re terrified there’s no room for bile. Or maybe it all comes down to trying to exert control over something we have absolutely no power over, el mal bicho, el puto virus. Some of us try to control it by wiping down the soles of our shoes with bleach, others by convincing ourselves it’s no worse than the flu.

Before Eldest was born, back when we were young and foolish, M and I spent weeks agonizing over the baby gear: safest stroller, safest car seat, best crib to go with our decor. Because the pregnancy books suggested it, I wrote a Birth Plan detailing how I wanted things to go once I got to the hospital: no bath for baby right away (she got a bath); no interventions unless absolutely necessary (as if I knew anything about that). Around the same time, my mother suggested that maybe my generation tried to control everything. I rolled my eyes, because that’s exactly what you should do when your mother points out something like this.

But maybe there’s something to that, maybe we’ve been lucky enough to live most of our lives in a world we have at least the illusion of controlling. And now here we are, confronted with an implacable adversary whose raison d’être is not to be controlled. It doesn’t care whether we believe in irt or not. It will just keep doing what it does, which is try to grow.

Today’s El País reports Madrid may not be ready to go to Phase 1 next Monday.

As I took a walk this morning, I reminded myself: Breathe deep. I cannot control this. And then my own coda to that, in my head: este mal bicho, este puto virus — this bad bug, this fucking virus. If I could swear with the elegance of a Spaniard, I would.

The Fairy Tale

Madrid has woken up, like an enchanted castle that has been asleep for a hundred years. When we went to sleep in March it was still the tail-end of winter; now it’s the onset of summer. The world is full of normal sounds, for the first time in 50 days: cars (though not as much), horns (though not as many), the swish of a broom as a portero cleans a building’s stoop and sidewalk. The grafitti-inscribed roll-down shutters covering storefronts are halfway up, the proprietors are inside, cleaning and assessing: today, for the first time, people will be able to pick up food to eat at home. There was a line in front of the post office this morning; another in front of the bank. When I woke up, my alarm clock informed me it was May 4, which seemed absurd. I felt the way I feel when I wake up from a dream that I’m back in college: it takes a few minutes, a reckoning, to swim back to the proper time, the actual date.

Saturday, my first time out on my own, I started out walking quickly, wanting to clear the cobwebs from my head, but the truth is, it’s hard to move fast when your eyes are welling up with tears. It’s sweet, this old world, to paraphrase Lucinda Williams, and we’re most alive out there in it.

There’s both a morning and and evening time set aside for exercise (although the evening slot, from 8 until 11, is called an afternoon slot, as the Spanish would have it), and yesterday, M and I went out right on the dot of 8, which let us see the last few minutes of the nightly applause on the streets around us. We finally figured out where the DJ with the loudspeaker lives. He was waxing flowery about mothers, since it was Mother’s Day here: nice sentiments but I sure am glad we haven’t lived next to him for the past two months. It turns out our block-long street is boring: on some of the surrounding ones, they’ve been doing things up, with dance parties and sing-alongs. Who knew that FOMO could be part of a pandemic?

Five hundred lifetimes ago, when I was thirteen, and we were en route to Guadalajara, Mexico, where my father was about to take up a year’s Fulbright, my parents left my brother and me in our hotel room in Saltillo or Zacatecas one night and went out for a walk, and to explore. It was past dark, and taking walks in the dark wasn’t something my parents usually did. But it was different here, my mother said, when they came back, energized: there, everyone went out to dar un paseo, to take a walk: slow-moving old folks, giant clamorous families containing multiple generations , self-absorbed courting couples, gangs of teenagers.

Last night as the sun went down, Madrid indulged in a giant paseo. It was beautiful to see, once I got over my (not small) anxiety over seeing so many people out at once. So many middle-aged, long-married couples holding hands! It did one’s heart good to see them. The kids, who’re only allowed out between 12-7, were all up on the balconies, making noise.

And there on the corner: a guy playing I Will Survive, quite badly, on the trombone.