Semana Blanca*

*Taking the pulse.

So here we are, come full circle. The kids have Thursday and Friday off; it’s the time of year known as Semana Blanca (White Week), when, back in ye olden days, Europe headed happily for the pistes.

Now, of course, we understand that the main thing all that après ski jollity created was perfect super-spreading conditions. Now, the thought of fondue-eaters packed sardine-like into warm petri-dishes/bars causes a visceral recoil. People actually went to Italy????

This time last year, I was just back from Lisbon and snapping pictures of El Entierro de la Sardina (the Burial of the Sardine), the culminating event of Carnaval, when “costumes are put away, the fanfares fall silent and the humble fish is buried with honors to indicate that the time has come to wrap up the celebrations and get ready for Lent.” Because I had what I thought was a cold, I didn’t stick around the four hours until the bonfire that “closes the ceremony, as though driving away all evils and negative thoughts, with the ashes representing the happiness, peace and harmony that characterise Madrileños.”

This year, I tell myself I’d stick around until the bitter end. This year, I can’t think of anything I’d like better than a symbolic gesture meant to drive away evil and negative thoughts. But Carnaval, of course, has been canceled. Next in the sights: Semana Santa and Easter. (The health minister said he didn’t know when Easter was when he was asked if we would be able to travel by Easter.)

We do what we can. It’s a small consolation (I’d much rather watch drunken Spanish carry the coffin of a fish through a park that once was the hunting preserve of a King) but to mark the date, I’m erasing certain websites I bookmarked a year ago, back when I thought — what? What did I think then?

Gone, Worldometer.com’s covid count. Vanished, Covid Act Now, real time metrics to understand where we stand against Covid. Deleted Covid Search By Streets, Find out the incidence where you live in the Community of Madrid and Covid 19 Map: These are the confined areas. I don’t have the foggiest idea whether or not we can drive out of the province of Madrid at this point, and I’ve given up on knowing.

This morning, I passed six college students sitting together at a table on a terrace drinking cañas, because Madrid has upped the number who can sit together to six. Tomorrow, if the powers-that-be change everything again and decree that only four can sit together, they’ll sit in groups of four instead. They’re full of equanimity; they roll with the punches.

In short, life goes on. Parque de Oeste was going to be closed for 2 months, but they’ve gotten enough of the downed branches taken care of that it’s already open. When I walk past, the workers in the park are burning pine twigs in a bucket beside their truck. I surreptitiously pull down my mask to breathe in that resiny, piney scent.

The big dogs are walking the little women.

The little dogs (pugs, mainly) are walking the big men.

Life goes on.

The Long Winter

Last night, apropos of nothing much, Younger Daughter asked me Are you sad, Mama?

The fact was: I was a little sad and had been all day, but I thought I’d done an excellent job of hiding it, because that is what mothers are supposed to do. Why do you ask? I asked (cagily).

Because The Long Winter is sitting on the coffee table and you read The Long Winter when you’re sad.

Out of the mouths of babes! This actually happens to be true. I find The Long Winter, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s classic children’s book, strangely soothing, which I’ve mentioned a couple of times in the past year, here and here.

Although The Long Winter mostly takes place inside a two-room house, the Ingalls are always plucky and resourceful.  Ma makes a delicious pie from green frost-bitten pumpkins.  It’s Laura — of course it is! —  who realizes the teacher and group of schoolchildren trying to make their way from the schoolhouse to town through a worsening blizzard are headed, not toward safety, but for the open prairie. 

Since Madrid’s own Big Snow a month ago, it hasn’t been all that cold, but more days than not it has been rainy. Yesterday, walking out into yet another cloudy, drizzly day, I felt dumbed down and muzzy-headed and muffled, like I’d been tamped down into a little box packed full of cotton batting.

The morning paper had informed me not only that our little health zone once more has the highest number of cases in Madrid but also that the Community of Madrid’s response to that will be to change the number of people who can sit together on a terraza from 4 to 6. In the past few days, a couple of people we know who had COVID back in the spring have gotten it for a second time.

I just felt r e a l l y, r e a l l y tired.

When I came home, I pulled The Long Winter off the shelf. Hadn’t Laura and her family felt something like that?

Laura tried to listen but she felt stupid and numb….She felt that the blizzard must stop before she could do anything, before she could even listen or think, but it would never stop. It had been blowing forever. She was tired. She was tired of the cold and the dark, tired of brown bread and potatoes, tired of twisting hay and grinding wheat, filling the stove and washing dishes and making beds and going to sleep and waking up.

I closed the book and slipped it back on the shelf.

No matter what happens, we’re not in a blizzard that lasted seven months, I comforted myself.


This morning, the sun, as it always eventually will, came out.

Rains might be predicted for later this afternoon. But until then, the sky is a tremulous pale-winter blue and Madrid’s bathed in sunlight and full of the promise: spring’s coming.

The Nature of the (Human) Beast

There are houseplants under that foot of snow.

The snow that brought Madrid to its knees was drop-dead, once-in-a-lifetime gorgeous, but before long it was dotted with frozen dog poop, we were storing a week’s worth of garbage on our balconies and shovelling snow with dustpans and ice scoops, and everybody was mad. The meteorologists had predicted the snowfall down to the centimeter. Why hadn’t the government been better prepared?

Meanwhile, in the kingdom of our household, similar questions are being asked. I knew the storm was coming, so why did I make cinnamon rolls rather than bringing all the succulents and cacti inside from the balcony?

My only defense: human nature.


This time last year, I was taking an intensive Spanish course, during which the teacher daily asked the students from China how things were going with El Virus. This was before I knew the Spanish for wave (as in third wave) or threat or curfew, and my main source of anxiety was that Holy Week was just around the corner and I had yet to make hotel reservations anywhere. The carrot of uprooting the family to Europe had been lots of travel — I needed to get on the stick.

This inability to see the big picture might have been excusable then but then in May, when I could only leave my house for groceries, I whiled away hours planning a trip to Greece for October. And then, at Christmas, I actually thought maybe we could make the trip planned for last Spring Break for this one.

And now here we are, February again, and my only defense can be: human nature.


Nineteen years ago, when my firstborn was a squalling newborn, I couldn’t fathom that she would ever go off to college. The time will fly by, my mother told me, the same thing I tell my young friend considering motherhood, but the fact was that back then all I wanted was to sleep a few hours uninterrupted and take a shower without a carseat with a baby napping in it on the bathroom floor.

To be human, to inhabit this uncomfortable human skin, requires a failure of imagination. We can’t sit beside a bed, clasping someone’s hand, and let ourselves understand that they might be gone in the morning. We can’t look down at the newborn and see the college freshman.

Early this morning, I stepped into the hallway from my bedroom and saw that the door to my eldest daughter’s bedroom was flung wide. She didn’t come home last night! I thought for an instant.

But not so— this bird had flown. The big things are so big we can’t look at them head on. Life doles out understanding bit by bit, in glorious, terrifying piecemeal.

A Mental State

The woman who stopped us on the sidewalk said something about documentacion but between her mask and my sub-optimal grasp of Spanish, I couldn’t understand anything else. She had her phone out, which usually indicates a person is looking for an address; without being consciously aware I was doing so, I created a narrative in the split second before I stopped to help her: she’s looking for directions someplace where she has to take all her papers. Her documentación.

No, no, she said impatiently. ¡La policía! They’re checking documentación.

True enough, two police officers were up ahead, but they seemed to only be pulling over cars, not the oblivious pedestrians streaming up and down the sidewalk.


Back in September the Community of Madrid and the larger government were wrangling over the number of COVID cases and Madrid said it had a perfect, surgical plan. They’d work with scalpels and tweezers, of course, not the blunt axe the government had wielded when it forced all of Spain home for ten weeks last March. Madrid would only isolate areas that had worryingly high cases. At first “worryingly high” meant over 1000 case per 100K people in the previous two weeks, and then it meant over 500, and then it meant over 250, and then it meant over 500, and then nobody knew what it meant, when or where, but who cared, anyway? The perimetral confinements weren’t being enforced, anyway, especially if you were on foot.

Last week, six months after the selective confinements started, the Community of Madrid announced they’d just allotted 218 officers for their enforcement, along with drones. Has anyone, out when they shouldn’t be, been spotted by a drone? We don’t know, because these days all we do is take walks, eat, and watch TV.

Today, the zone above ours is confined and ours is not. I’m betting this will change tomorrow, when they hold the weekly press conference where they announce new lockdowns. Our health zone had 700 cases on Monday; today it has over 1100, the highest number of cases of any neighborhood in the city of Madrid.

But for the moment, we are free, and we are walking. We’re also, without consciously thinking about it, passing through the confined zone. It’s easy to do so, because confined and unconfined zones look exactly the same.

An epidemiologist was quoted in the paper today. The jury’s still out on whether selective confinements lower cases. As he says, llegamos a la conclusión de que los confinamientos han sido un estado mental.*

*We come to the conclusion that the confinements have been a mental state.

Assessment as We Start Year Two

Madrid abides.

No fancy prose here, just documentation. We’re only 25 days into 2021 but so far, Madrid has experienced:

  • Snow that in places was up to my knees (and over a week’s worth of trash stored on our balcony until garbage service was restored).
  • The explosion of a city building making international news.
  • A fireball (in reality, a meteor) streaking across the sky and disintegrating over the city.
  • COVID restrictions, ever stricter and stricter. This time, the 16 current perimetral confinements will be monitored by drones and checkpoints.

Our health zone isn’t confined — not yet — but the one a few blocks above ours is. Will I be able to pass through it on my way to the park? The frutería?

I can only walk the sidewalk outside the park anyway, looking longingly toward its green spaces. One of the saddest repercussions of the snow is that parks are closed for the next 2 months. Too much danger from still-dangling tree limbs.

Holland already required a PCR test if a traveler passed through its airports: a government decree on Friday night added a rapid test no more than 4 hours before the flight. Since just about the only flight left between Madrid and Amsterdam (and then, on to the U.S.) departs at 6 a.m., travel through Amsterdam is effectively impossible.

Somehow I get the feeling Holland doesn’t want us there at this point.

On a more micro level, in the past year, I’ve walked 1027 miles — half the length of the Appalachian Trail and twice the length of the Camino de Santiago — mostly without leaving Madrid. I’ve explored the city far more than I ever planned to in pre-pandemic times. My yardstick has changed: I used to think distances that meant a 40-minute walk required a train or bus ride instead, to make them quicker. Now any destination less than an hour away feels like a walk in the park (pun intended).

The swifts will start their annual migration back from Africa soon.

(Not Quite)Mopping Up

At final tally, almost a foot of snow fell in Madrid between Thursday and Saturday. Today, the temperature rose to about 37 degrees and the sun came out — but the question now is what does one do with all that snow? If you’re a Madrileño with a top-floor terrace, you shovel it into the street below using your broom and a dust pan, which tends to cause shouting matches with passers-by. This morning, El Pais contained a diagram illustrating how to avoid snowfalls from building cornices. Mostly, people just walk in the middle of the street. Their careful shuffle is a little zombie-like; the car-less thoroughfares, a little apocalyptic.

Snow plows have cleared main streets, but most peripheral arteries are a mixture of snow, slush, dog poop, and downed tree limbs — there’s probably not a tree in Madrid that didn’t lose at least a branch. Volunteers with four wheel drive vehicles are ferrying people to the hospitals, which are otherwise inaccessible.

Tonight’s low will be in the low 20s, tomorrow’s in the teens. Since all that slush is about to become ice, school’s been cancelled at least through Tuesday. The grocery store opened at noon today, but by the time we got there at 12:45, the produce section had already been decimated.

The new joke is that the snow was a government plan to get us all back on lockdown.

Inédito(Unheard Of)

Philomena, the storm of the century, was forecast days ago, but people kept saying it just wouldn’t happen: Madrid doesn’t get snow, not the kind that shuts down a city. On Thursday, it spat flurries, and people said there’s your snow, but El Pais said well, that was just un aperitivo, so I crossed my fingers, my toes, and hoped with all my heart — because by then the news from home was so grievous, so heartrending, that the best thing to do seemed to be to turn away from CNN and walk toward the light.

Snow in places that usually don’t see it covers a multitude of sins and brings out the best in people, and if there was ever a time that called for that — now would be it.

We overslept this morning, Madrid tamped down like a city inside a snow globe, and went out without taking the time for breakfast. An urban center lacking the sound of cars is a beautiful place — more than anything, I wanted to experience it before the snow plows got out, the Spanish woke up, and the beautiful white blanket covering Madrid had become yellow slush.

A friend says someone they know, a native Madrileño of 73, described today as unedito, which literally translates to unpublished, but in this case has to mean unheard of.

People are skiing on Gran Vía:

At one o’clock this morning, there was a giant snowball fight on the plaza in front of the main Corte Ingles department store.

There weren’t many people out at 8:30 a.m., when we first waded out into the snow that covered Calle Princesa. Some wore ski clothes, others, plastic garbage bags over their sneakers.

But — and this is the thing that lifted my heart — when they left their apartments this morning, each and every one of them reached, out of new habit, without getting angry about it, without debating it, for their face mask.

Epiphanies

Sixty-seven percent of Spanish children prefer to get their Christmas presents from the Three Kings than from Papa Noel (Santa Claus). Thus, tomorrow, Epiphany, is another holiday. The festivities, however, start tonight. Why have one party when you can have two (or three), or only one day of Christmas when you can draw it out to twelve?

Usually, the Three Kings parade into Madrid, tossing candy to the spectators who’ve lined up to see them (the wise spectator brings their own ladder). This year, mysteriously, the sides of Madrid buses say “the three kings travel by bus.” I’m not sure what this means, but according to the official Madrid tourism website, “from 6:30 p.m., in 25-minute intervals and in six different points of Madrid,  flashes of light will be fired in the form of a comet that will announce the imminent arrival of the Three Kings.” At that point, we can join the festivities via television screen.

Meanwhile, midafternoon, people are lining up in front of all the bakeries to purchase their king cake, their roscón de reyes.

We jumped the gun and sliced into ours last night. This year’s contained not a tiny king (the person who encounters this in their piece is king of the festivities), but a penguin.

A more secular version?

— Or maybe it’s a king penguin?

Also, today, the knife sharpener roams the streets, the sound of his pan-flute like e.e. cumming’s balloon man’s, a faint trill, somewhere far off,

far and wee.

On Flânerie

Over the past 15 years, as life’s become increasingly less analog and increasingly more digital, I’ve devised, without thinking on it much, a ritual that effectively closes the book on each year and turns the page to the next.

The ritual is this: some time between Thanksgiving and Christmas every year, I sift through the year’s photos, pictures only in the vaguest sense of the word, amorphous bits and bytes that exist only in my phone — in other words, nowhere.

Even so, I sort and cull. Deleted as if they never existed, the dozen pictures of a blurry sunset that didn’t capture the reality, the hundreds of selfies snapped by bored teens who snatched the phone at random moments, the signs for restaurants seen while out walking that I thought I might someday come back to.

And then, out of the distillate, the photographic jelly that remains, I create an honest-to-goodness paper and ink coffee table book. It makes an excellent gift for the grandparents, for one thing. For another, it allows me to dabble in things I’m actually not very good at, like graphic design, for a captive admiring audience.

Or, I should say: this was something I used to do, until COVID-times. In 2020, the annual family milestones were virtual; the travel, non-existent. We took no pictures.

What to do? The grandmothers needed presents, all the same.


It wasn’t that I actually stopped taking photographs in 2020 — they just became less personally historical, less chronological. Instead of taking pictures of piano recitals and birthdays and holidays and sporting events, I was documenting what I found while I walked Madrid, post-cuarentina, instead: building cornices, bits of blue sky, face masks tossed on the ground, public health announcement signs.

I decided to take 6 or 7 of the best pictures I’d taken of old doorways in Madrid, lay them out in an aesthetically pleasing way and have them turned into (o, the wonders of technology) into an 1000-piece puzzle.


And so, this weekend, which could’ve been much more productively spent (making new year’s resolutions, maybe?), I pieced together, not our most recent past history, but the barest snippets and wisps of a few seconds during 2020. Somehow, in the process, the details went from mundane to momentous. The nighttime sky and the glow of a streetlight in one photo became ethereal. A shop window became timeless; the tiny sticker in the corner of the window that announced that dogs were allowed inside, transportive.

Maybe it’s the long look given to a thing that turns life into art.


Coincidentally, this weekend, I found myself reading an article about a Spanish photographer who has gotten hooked on taking pictures of old Madrid store fronts before they’re gone. The article called him a flâneur, a term the French coined in the 19th century to describe a certain sort who strolls through a city, engaged in what de Balzac referred to as “the gastronomy of the eye.”

Baudelaire, champion of flânerie, said:

The crowd is his element, as the air is that of birds and water of fishes. His passion and his profession are to become one flesh with the crowd. For the perfect flâneur, for the passionate spectator, it is an immense joy to set up house in the heart of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite.

Leave it to the Europeans! Walking as an intellectual pursuit, my brand-new New Year’s Resolution.