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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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°.
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.
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.
“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.
This marks the last week of Spain’s State of Alarm, which began exactly 3 months ago. Next Monday, each autonomous region will resume making the decisions taken over by the national government back in March and we’ll enter, at long last, The New Normality. We’ll be able to travel freely again; the borders will be re-opened. Masks will still be mandatory.
People joke that right now Spain consists of two areas on the map, one shaded light green, the other dark. In the light green area, you can do whatever you want. In the dark green area, you can do whatever you want, too. People also point out, cynically, that it’s interesting that the State of Alarm will end right at the beginning of tourist season.
In the meantime, the drill of mask and hand-washing is second nature, as is pulling on the plastic gloves supplied by the grocery store whenever we go shopping. When the grocery store runs out of gloves, they supply plastic bags for us to wear over our hands — another piece of evidence this is a strange new world, as if we needed any.
Yesterday, we saw a guy wearing a homemade mask with the Rolling Stones lips logo on it. The day before that, we saw a guy wearing his duck-billed N95 mask on the top of his head like a birthday hat. The day before that, the newspaper had a story headlined “don’t wear your mask on your elbow; your elbow can’t breathe!”
The inner courtyard of our building is once again filled with the homely smell of frying cod and potatoes. (No one can fry potatoes like the Spanish. Our American french fries pale in comparision.)
Last night M and I went to our first post-lockdown gathering for drinks at someone’s place. It was small, consisting only of 4 couples. We took off our shoes at the door when we arrived and slathered our hands with sanitizer. We stood at least 3 feet apart and talked … mostly about the lockdown, almost as if we were debriefing. When we got home, I realized I didn’t sit down the whole time. The cheese tray remained mostly untouched.
Someone in each of the couples had been isolated from the rest of the family at some point during lockdown. One had a fever for 14 days but tested negative. One (M) only had fever for 2 days but later tested positive for antibodies. One had the elevated antibodies that indicate a current infection but a subsequent swab test indicated no COVID at all. People knew other people who tested positive for the virus but negative for the antibodies, and vice versa.
¿Quién sabe? Who knows? What will be, will be. Some of us stood out on the tiny balcony at sunset. The Guadarrama mountains lay, long and low and purple, in a tiny patch of horizon between Madrid’s trees and buildings, a bulwark as we inch forward, into the unknown.
This morning, I was getting ready to head out to exercise when I remembered that starting today, I can go out whenever I want, not just between 6 and 10. This felt so strange that I celebrated by spending an extra hour over my coffee, reading the news. I felt guilty about it, as if reading the daily news were as pleasurable as eating bon-bons (which it isn’t) — but then again, how many times will I go from Fase 1 to Fase 2?
Never again, hopefully. Why not mark it?
When Older Daughter and I finally went out, some stores were open, but honestly, a lot of them weren’t. The streets felt emptier than they had, pre-COVID, but then again, maybe we don’t really remember what life was like, pre-COVID.
We had a destination, which turned out to be closed. I found myself stopping to study the contents of the shop windows we passed. So, it seemed, was everybody else — I’ve never seen so much window shopping.
When we found an open cafe, we went inside. It felt strange. The customers at the other occupied table, a mother with toddler and a friend, were speaking English, and the mother was reminding her friend that the toddler hadn’t been able to leave their apartment for over seven weeks.
Seven weeks is a long time. The calendar page taped to the café wall said it was June. How did we get here? A group of young women came in, tentatively, as if they’d forgotten just how to come into a cafe.
When we left, we saw an elderly woman taking her morning paseo, caregiver walking slowly beside her, guiding her by the elbow. She was decked out as only elderly Spanish women deck themselves out: black velvet pantsuit, white hair immaculately styled.
And her cane — her cane was leopard-printed! At the sight I knew Madrid was really back to normal.