Optics

We didn’t see many people on the road on our way to the Madrid airport — who knows whether that’s due to COVID, or simply due to August. Parts of the airport felt like they usually do (the lines at the gates for flights to the Canary Islands, for instance), but others didn’t. It took two minutes to go through security. None of the restaurant or stores were open. Every announcement was about keeping distance from one another, and the mood felt a little somber. Our flight to Amsterdam was around half full.

The vibe at Schiphol in Amsterdam was extremely laid back. It felt like ye olde days pre-COVID, when we all blithely went on vacation without a second thought. All the restaurants were open — and none of the billboards or advertisements mentioned COVID, the opposite of in Madrid. But the further we travelled into the International Departures terminal, the emptier it got. For the first time ever in my history of flying, the only people waiting at the gate were people who held American passports or green cards.

When we got on the plane, we discovered somebody had thwarted our clever plan of having us sit in two different rows with an empty seat in between — and had reserved the seat between M and younger daughter. He was already ensconced there when we got to our seats —a young guy I developed an immediate dislike for, both because of that fact and because he was wearing one of those N95 masks with a valve that’s great for protecting yourself and utterly useless for protecting anyone around you.

One of the flight attendants made a beeline for our row and offered him a seat in an empty row ahead of us.

That’s all right, he said. I’m fine here.

I’m fine here? Maybe the fact that we all, even the two teenagers, even the flight attendant, stared at him like he was from some other pandemic-free planet made him slink off to his new seat.


About 30 minutes before the plane touched down in Atlanta, the flight attendants handed round the usual custom forms and a copied one-sheet health form that had no seal or identifying features, even though the Dutch flight attendant who announced in a very severe and serious-sounding way that they were being passed out said that once we landed, Government Officials who would be also doing health screenings would be coming on board to collect them.

This form asked us only whether we were coming from mainland China (but not Taiwan or Hong Kong), Iran, or the Schengen Area (which is most of western Europe, but does not include the UK, which, last I heard, wasn’t a COVID-free zone).

In March, this information might’ve been of some use. I’m no health expert, but right now, in mid-August, it seems like you might want to know if people were traveling from Brazil, India, the USA or Columbia — all of which have many, many more daily cases than anywhere in Europe or China.

The form also asked if we had shortness of breath or fever.

That was it. Those “government officials” never came on board to collect the forms, though two extremely nice young people wearing vests that said Public Health did collect them at the end of the gangway. No one checked anybody’s temperatures — not that temperature screening’s supposed to really do much.

But a row of more smiling young people wearing public health vests and face shields directed us where we needed to go. It’s good to be home, I told one as we walked past her, toward passport control, where the person behind the plexiglass screen said welcome home; toward customs, where nobody even wanted our customs forms — and not withstanding the strangeness of the times, it is.

Hasta Pronto to All That

We’re almost the last ones left in the apartment building. Whenever I come back from running last minute errands, the elevator is there in the lobby, right where I left it – nobody else is around to use it. Even La Portera has disappeared, to spend August in her home village, her pueblo. At noon today, the dozy streets of Madrid will perfectly illustrate the principle that only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun. Madrid is a country unto itself, come August.

We’ve been advised to have safety goggles, for our trip to our pueblo, a transatlantic flight away. As well as pens for the forms we’ll sign at entry to Holland, where we change planes, vouching we have no symptoms of COVID*.

No one wants to share pens, these days.

On our return to Madrid once college drop-off has been accomplished, should it be accomplished —the college president just sent an email that the length of the initial student quarantine on campus has gone from 48 hours to 4 days due to “demand for testing from hot spots across the South and in other parts of the country (that) will adversely affect our testing schedule here” — there’ll be an application for a QR code for our phones. I’ve stocked the (tiny) cupboard in the kitchen with non-perishables, for our self-exile in the apartment once we return.

Meanwhile, life goes on. Early this morning, people stood outside the public health center for our barrio, clutching their plastic folders of paperwork, in an appropriately socially-distanced line. A block further on, three taxi drivers stood chatting while they waited for fares. Granted, one wore his mask on his chin not his face, but they all had masks, and they all stood a deliberate four feet apart — and that’s an accomplishment, in a country where people truly enjoy rubbing shoulders. In front of a just-opened café, a mask-clad waitperson slowly wiped down tables with disinfectant.

We keep to routines; we feel our way through things; navigating here and there, before and after, safe harbors and the unknown.

*Who would fly if they had them, or say yes if they did?

Summer Pubs

Today: grateful and happy for the very kind shout-out in Curious Fictions for my recently-published story “Bunting“.

An evocative story that is both dark and hopeful, weaving together the big, real-world disasters we all watched on the news with the more private tribulations and triumphs of pregnancy and childbirth. Hester’s prose is fluid like a poem and makes every emotion, every pain and joy pierce you through and through. I love how this story captures the blended fear and exhiliration of becoming a parent and how it avoids any and all sentimentality.

A Wing and a Prayer

I thought swallows were the more poetical birds, because I knew more about them.

So when the avian aerial performers of Madrid, the swifts, returned to the canyons between the buildings during the heart of La Cuarentena, when the air still vibrated with sirens, I called them swallows and made everybody come out onto the balcony to watch them.

Somewhere along the way, I became the namer of the family, and the imperfect naturalist. I hand down the names my father, who died a year ago after an unexpected drawn-out and heart-wrenching illness — is there any other kind? — handed me when I was younger than my daughters are now.

Ten years ago, when Eldest was 8 and Younger 5, I decided it was high time they experience a particularly American sort of travel: the packed car, the tedium (and romance) of the days’-long drive. The three of us took five days to drive from Georgia to Texas. At journey’s zenith we floated in the lovely shimmer of a swimming pool ringed by mountains in west Texas, watching swallows as they banked and skimmed the surface of the water and then boomeranged away.

But it turns out there are just as many poems about swifts as there are about swallows, maybe more. Most of them are English. Winifred Owen wrote one, and Ted Hughes, another. On this side of the ocean, the swifts arrive from Africa in March and return there in August. They only alight to nest: everything else about their life happens in the air, on the wing. They fly 70 to 115 miles per hour, at the altitude of small jets.

Irresistible stuff, for writers.

The swifts are here, and then they’re gone. A couple of days ago, after I read Helen Macdonald’s essay about swifts in the New York Times, I walked out onto the terrace and looked up at the sky and realized the swifts that kept us company during lockdown had left. As life returned to normal, I’d forgotten to take time to sit and trace their flight in the dusk poetically called vespertino in Spanish.

Along with being the namer and the naturalist, I’m the family’s planner and packer. Before children, I don’t know if I’d willingly have chosen these duties, but they’re part of the second skin of motherhood, part of the nest we weave to keep our offspring safe.

Last night, I found myself reading over something called “the essential college COVID-19 packing list.” Masks were at the top of that list, a variety of them, N-95s, surgical masks, cloth ones. A “to-go” bag containing among other things a thermometer and oximeter was recommended, in case students find themselves hustled straight from COVID testing to two-week isolation. There were, of course, links to companies from which I could buy every single one of these things.

I carefully wrote them all on my list and then I wondered: how exactly, between the transatlantic flight and the temperature checks and the complicated semi-quarantines and the socially distanced wave to Grandmother and the drives and the drop-off and the constant drumbeat of the news, will we get around to that?

And then, this morning, I woke up, and re-read Macdonald’s essay about swifts. It seemed the wiser course.

And while young martins and swallows return to their nests after their first flights, young swifts do not. As soon as they tip themselves free of the nest hole, they start flying, and they will not stop flying for two or three years, bathing in rain, feeding on airborne insects, winnowing fast and low to scoop fat mouthfuls of water from lakes and rivers.

Be Here Now

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.

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.

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,

egg cups,

olive oil decanters,

plumbing supplies,

rope,

light bulbs,

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.

Of Stories and Street Life

Yesterday, for the first time since March, I walked down (up?) Gran Vía*, the bustling avenue sometimes known as Spain’s Broadway, then cut across the plaza at Puerto del Sol.

The first time the girls and I ever ventured bravely, tentatively out on our own, we took this same route. Gran Vía may be Madrid’s glittering Great White Way but to a jetlagged semi-small town American fresh off the plane it was just too hot too crowded too loud too dirty too smelly — in short, just too much of a muchness. And then, the first time I wove my way across Puerto del Sol, dodging hucksters and lollygaggers and tourguides brandishing umbrellas, I swore I’d never willingly set foot there again.

Yesterday, though, Gran Vía felt quite civilized. In fact you could almost call it sedate. Not empty by any means, but the foot traffic was manageable. Madrid felt human-sized. My brain could absorb it. I found myself looking up at the buildings that line the wide sidewalk, spotting stone arabesques and flourishes I’d never had time to notice before. And then Sol — crossing Sol was actually almost pleasurable! We strolled. The vendors who stand at the peripheries, sunglasses and lighters and junk spread on blankets tied at the corners with ropes they hold in one hand so they can yank up their wares and hightail it whenever the cops come — not there. Nor the ladies who try to give you stalks of rosemary and read your fortune. Nor the tourguides trying to herd their milling, dazed-looking charges. Nor the tubby guy known as Spiderman Gordo (His hustle: you can have your picture taken with him in his bunchy costume, for a price.)

I said: so this is Madrid, in the Summer of COVID, sans tourists.

The daughters disagreed. They said: so this is Madrid, on a hot Wednesday morning in July. Same as it ever was.

Or maybe, I thought, once we got home, this is Madrid, after a year spent developing your city-shield. The foreign becomes familiar.

And the converse is also true: the familiar becomes foreign.

Three stories. All true.

Three stories. Take your pick.

Shaping stories requires at least a little certitude. Don’t know about you, but I’ve never been less certain of — well, anything — than I am this summer.

How can we conclude what anything means, in this kind of weather?

*In the early 1900s, Gran Vía wasn’t called that but was instead named after 3 notable figures. When the Civil War started, it was Avenida de Rusia but nicknamed Avenida de los obuses (“Howitzer Avenue.”) After the war, it was renamed “Avenida de José Antonio after the founder of the Falange. Only in the 1980s was it named el Gran Vía.

Human Ingenuity

In case anybody out there was still wondering: Coronavirus does not melt away like butter on a griddle when it gets hot. The high today in Madrid will be 102°; we still have Coronavirus. Less than there was, less of it than there is in the States; but facts are facts: the virus isn’t going anywhere.

Life Before is a country we can’t travel back to, not even if we quarantine for 14 days — but we’re making adjustments, putting human ingenuity to work in changing circumstances. Not only has every every single tailor in Madrid turned their hands to making masks*, but the other day I received, as a freebie from an insurance company, a metal “door opener” to attach to my keychain. It looks a little like brass knuckles but it gets the job done.

A year ago, using this to open the door to the elevator in our building would have made me seem like notorious germaphobe Howard Hughes, shuffling around Hollywood with Kleenex boxes on his feet. Now, anybody who spots me using this probably covets one for themself (at least this is what I tell myself as I punch the buttons in the elevator with a flourish).

Although it’s just been a couple of weeks since the last Public Service Announcement campaign went up in the bus stops (Don’t Wear Your Mask as a Scarf), this morning I noticed a new one. Madrid in the Hands of All, reminds the text on one side, and on the other, graphics of hands illustrate social mores of handwashing, or social distancing. This one, using a hand as a mask, is particularly clever. I’m impressed by whatever agency comes up with these.

*There are floral masks, single color masks, masks with a small Spanish flag on one side, favored by VOX supporters; today, I saw a sand-camouflage version, to match a soldier’s sand-camouflaged fatigues.

Summer in the City

The State of Alarm ended in Spain at 0:00 Sunday morning, and five seconds later summer arrived with a bang and the temperature climbed at least 20 degrees (F, not C). After weeks of unseasonably balmy temperatures, the predicted high tomorrow will be 98°.

Even though the our restrictions have progressively loosened over the last month, so much so that you wouldn’t think there were any left to get rid of at this point, being out in la calle felt different today.

In fact, except for the fact that everybody’s wearing masks and there’s hand sanitizer on the cafe tables, it feels pretty much like Summer, Last Year’s Version. The abuelas and abuelos are back at the sidewalk tables. Last night when we went out for gelato, we passed about ten of them sitting over drinks and algo para picar. Their concession to the New Normality lay in the fact that every single one of them was wearing a face shield. Today while I was out running errands, it felt like all the middle-aged daughters of Madrid were visiting their elderly mothers. One was ahead of me at the pharmacy, picking up her mother’s prescriptions (She’ll go to the hair salon but she says she’s scared to go to the pharmacy, the woman told the pharmacist). Another pair sat on a bench watching the street life go by. Another sat at the sidewalk cafe: abuela with a glass of white wine beaded with condensation in front of her.

The girls and I arrived in Spain on July 2 last year. COVID has taken such a bite out of things that it really doesn’t feel like we’ve lived here a year. Things still feel so new to me; my Spanish still feels like a careening car crash of grammatical faux pas.

Now that the State of Alarm is over, we can travel from one province to another. For about a week, the newspaper said just that: it is allowed to move freely throughout Spain. The last couple of days, they’ve added a caveat of a governmental spokesperson: now it’s up to personal responsibility; unnecessary travel should be avoided.

Who knows what’s unnecessary at this point?

Today I sent a query to someone who rents out a beach house — in Spanish. I used the future tense; I used the subjunctive; I have lived here a year.

Neither here, nor there

The danger still lurks… use well the mask. (Don’t wear it as a scarf.)

The last thing we did outside of our neighborhood prior to lockdown was apply for our new residency cards. After three months, the office that issues them is finally open again, so this morning, we went to pick them up.

The gestora who had shepherded us through the bureaucracy met us on the sidewalk out front of the office in case we had problems. Her immediate family was fine, she told us, but her husband’s work partner had a fever one day in March. A week later, he was dead. He was 56, a year older than I am.

When we walked one at a time into the office, a guard asked us to sanitize our hands immediately. In the waiting area, every other chair had a sign taped to it so that no one would sit in it. The worker who handed me my card wore not only a mask but a homemade face screen made from a plastic folder.

Once we had our cards in hand, officially residents of Spain once more (our old cards had expired during quarantine), we walked home, past stores where the first thing you do when you walk in is slather your hands with sanitizer; past cafes each with their own bottle of sanitizer on each sidewalk table. (Buying stock in a hand-sanitizer company might have been a good investment, pre-COVID). Every plate-glass window is plastered with COVID related signage; every advertisement is about safety, security, home, the family. Every tailor in Madrid has turned their hands to making fabric masks. The nail salons have all been rigged with sneeze guards between manicurist and client.

Here, there’s no forgetting about COVID, it’s already woven into daily life. How it is at home? I wondered when we passed yet another store window with yet another poster reminding us that masks are obligatory. Because there, of course, they aren’t mandatory, and there are bigger pressing worries.

Every day I read at least three US newspapers. I scour Facebook. It’s a very strange feeling, to realize that I have no idea what it’s like there.

Summer Pubs

“There were still pockets of land that the city had forgotten to inhabit, where trees still met overhead and creeks still scoured upended flagstones of granite. Little pockets of land, where English ivy ran riot, where something lived in the hole halfway up the clay bank. Little pockets of land, evidence the city had forfeited its right to actually be a city. The real city was somewhere else, a place where people were waiting for trains that never came, for loved ones who, they began to realize as the day unfolded, would never arrive home.”

My story “Bunting” has just gone live on/in Bracken Magazine, a lovely publication whose mission is to publish poetry, fiction, and art born of the love of the woods and its shadows.

“Bunting” is an odd weaving of 9/11, motherhood, and an imaginary ur-Atlanta, that even with its references to CDs and landlines might be weirdly apropos to this particular moment, too.