Yesterday, I steeled myself and suited up and ventured further afield than I’ve gone in almost a month — which means that rather than just going the 100 meters or so to the bland supermarket around the corner, I was going to walk a few blocks further to the bakery with beautiful handmade bread (and Portuguese pasteis de nata, my real reason for going.)
A few hours earlier, Austria had announced the need for masks when going out for groceries. I felt a little nervous, since I haven’t seen anyplace selling masks since mid-January and I wasn’t wearing one. A little nervous? Actually, I was sweating like a criminal. I’d heard so many stories from friends about being stopped by the police while walking their dogs or going shopping together instead of alone, that I figured that if I passed a cop, they’d know telepathically, just by looking at me, that I’d gone farther than I needed to, notwithstanding the fact that my closer store had downright terrible bread.
After days of rain, the sun was finally shining. The streets were cleaner than before-Corona, except for a scrim of discarded plastic gloves. Though it was still cold enough by Spanish standards for puffy coats (55 degrees), more people than usual had raised the windows of their apartments. Somewhere a couple was fighting. Of somewhere else, someone let out a bellow, which I interpreted as a manifestation of disgust with the whole situation.
Down at street level, though, the proprietor of a shoebox-sized convenience store had hung his blue parakeet’s cage in a patch of sunlight. Some sort of urban street-tree was blooming, a fuchsia extravagance of blossoms.
I wanted to stop and take a picture, but I was afraid a policía might appear out of nowhere and give me a ticket.
(The bakery was closed.)
I’ve got a stockpile of good books to read, award winners of literary merit, serious novels about serious things,* but since this strange dream-time started what I’m picking up most often are the books of childhood. So far, I’ve reread A Wrinkle in Time and its sequel, and a young-adult book by Naomi Shihab Nye called Habibi. This weekend I started rereading The Long Winter, which was always my favorite of the “Little House” books by Laura Ingalls Wilder.
In some ways, it’s an odd favorite, but in other ways, it’s not odd at all. Although it’s set during the “Big Snow” of 1880-81, when the South Dakota Territory was beset by 7 months of practically back-to-back blizzards, it opens — and closes — with sunshine.
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. We get our first glimpse of Almanzo, Laura’s future husband, and his team of beautifully-matched Morgan horses. (Spoiler alert: he saves the town from starvation).
Just a few years after I was the right age for The Little House books, I had the good fortune to take a high school English class with a teacher prescient enough to know a reading list of fiction about a world turned on its head would capture teenage attention. It was 1979; we read On the Beach and Alas, Babylon and A Canticle for Leibowitz, all classics of a post-apocalyptic genre that didn’t even have a name yet.
We were Generation X Latchkey Kids who’d had our cartoons interrupted by Watergate, who’d walked to school past lines of cars at the gas stations during the Oil Embargo of 1973, who understood that the duckncover drills we practiced occasionally had nothing to do with tornados. The reading list spoke to us, or at least it did to me: ever since then, I’ve dreamed about being alone after some great cataclysm, usually on my way to hunt-and-gather food from an abandoned supermarket.
Today. as I get ready to head out to buy groceries, armed with hand sanitizer and about to pull on plastic gloves, I can definitely draw a through-line — from plucky pioneers to canny survivors to us, sofa-sitters who have bought up all the yeast in the stores.
I know more about Laura Ingalls Wilder than I certainly did as a kid — that she was a dyed-in-the-wool Libertarian, that her co-writer daughter Rose, an even more dyed-in-the-wool Libertarian, funded a school that later educated, of all people, the Koch brothers. (Actually, I knew about the libertarian part, but not about the connection to the Koch brothers, which I just learned from Google.)
With that backstory in mind, how does The Long Winter sit with me now?
Is it too much information, or Coronavirus, that ruins a good yarn?
I picked up The Long Winter in part to avoid thinking about the divisiveness that still seems to coat so much of the news “back home.” And what do I find? Disquisitions into the Free Market, along with this passage, when Laura and Pa come across the especially thick muskrat lodge on the lake that foreshadows the long winter to come:
“Pa, how can the muskrats know?” she asked.
“I don’t know how they know,” Pa said, “But they do. God tells them, somehow, I suppose.”
“Then why doesn’t God tell us?” Laura wanted to know.
“Because,” said Pa, “we’re not animals. We’re humans, and, like it says in the Declaration of Independence, God created us free. That means we got to take care of ourselves.”
Laura said faintly, “I thought God takes care of us.”
“He does,” Pa said, “so far as we do what’s right. And He gives us a conscience and brains to know what’s right. But He leaves it to us to do as we please. That’s the difference between us and everything else in creation.”
“Can’t muskrats do what they please?” Laura asked, amazed.
“No,” said Pa. “I don’t know why they can’t but you can see they can’t. Look at this muskrat house. Muskrats have to build that kind of house. They always have and they always will. It’s plain they can’t build any other kind. But folks build all kinds of houses. A man can build any kind of house he can think of. So if his house don’t keep out the weather, that’s his lookout; he’s free and independent.”
So if his house don’t keep out the weather, that’s his lookout; he’s free and independent.
This is what happens when you read Laura Ingalls Wilder during a Global Pandemic: you read that, and you think of the map of America spread out on the news, the states that have sheltered-in-place colored red, others, like Georgia, my home state, still white and … free.
The thing is, at the end of The Long Winter, Laura’s family feasts on the “Christmas barrel” that had been stuck in a train all winter, which is basically charity, including a turkey.
Could be that government is a pesky thing, until you personally need it.
*My bookshelf also contains a novel about the travails of the Donner Party, but that one will definitely stay put.
Yesterday, Daylight Savings Time commenced in Spain, which means we’re back to being six hours ahead of the East Coast, rather than the five hours we spent apart for a few weeks. Strangely, this mostly-symbolic loss of time made me feel more distanced from the States than ever. I’d gotten used to the ritual of talking on the phone early enough in the day that I could get away with drinking coffee. Seeing the news unroll in the US in the first half of the day seemed much better than seeing it unroll in the latter. An hour! I never dreamed an hour could make so much difference between near and far. Near, I only leave the apartment to walk quickly to the supermercado around the corner, keeping my distance from anyone walking towards me. Plastic gloves litter the sidewalk like dead leaves — hojarascas, as they’re called here. Far, I depend on phone calls and the news to try to decipher what’s going on over there. It looks like spring has come.
Along with the time change, yesterday Madrid was blessed with balmy weather, the kind that just a month ago would have had us crowding the sidewalk cafes and strolling the parks, en masse. The Spanish are happiest together. Maybe, when the chips are down, all human beings, no matter how introverted, are happiest together.
Yesterday, lacking the ability to take to the parks, we put our balconies and terraces to good use. Someone around the corner was playing The Beatles. Someone else, even farther away, was playing the soundtrack from The Lion King. The little boy who lives two apartments beneath us stood at his window, shouting. Across the street, Lonely Smoking Guy sat back in a chair, his face tilted to the sun, his eyes closed. I realized that further down our side of the street in an apartment at our level, lives Smoking Woman. I never saw her before. Maybe she didn’t come out until now, maybe she just became Smoking Woman, because of the tedium. Below lives Woman Who Leans Her Arms on Dirty Tile Windowsill.
Last night, The Nightly Clap took place before dusk rather than in the dark, which enlarged our peripheries a hundred-fold. For the first time we could see just how many people stood at their windows way off down the street and far away, over the roof tops.
Today, though, commenced cloudy, and colder, and palpably quiet. There’s a 50 percent chance of snow. It won’t stick, of course it won’t, but how much stranger can this get?
This morning, while I ate two pieces of cinnamon toast, the same comforting breakfast my mother always made when I was a kid and under the weather, I read on Facebook about a nutritionist who says we all need to be consuming less calories because we’re getting less exercise.
This is of course factually true, but some people really know how to ruin the party, don’t they?
In the future — there will be one, no matter how unimaginable that seems right now— we’ll talk not about the Freshman 15, but the Covid 15. In the future, men may ask each other did you grow a Corona beard? and women, what day of the Quarantine did you stop wearing your bra? In the future, everyone may ask each other what day did you stop changing from your nighttime to your daytime pajamas? In the future, there will be — we all know there will — Corona Babies. As well Corona Love Affairs, begun virtually, and Corona Divorces.
This morning, I woke with a jolt, thinking that I’d forgotten to get the girls up for school in time. Then I remembered: school is little more than hundred steps from the table where they eat their breakfast, and besides, they can attend it in their pajamas. As I fell back into that musing half-life between awake and asleep, my mind started wandering until the image of myself sitting on a park bench here in Madrid popped into my mind. I realized a friend was sitting there, on the next bench further down the sidewalk. Only ten feet away! What luck! The joyful surprised recognition I felt in that moment woke me all the way up.
We humans are such sociable creatures. Maybe we’ve forgotten that, in these past few years of division and discord. This morning, I’m holding onto the thought that some good might come from this strange slow nerve-wracking time, as we all navigate being alone, together.
This morning, I woke up and told M I wasn’t going to do this anymore.
By this, I meant this written diario of these strange times, but I could’ve been referring to just about anything in our suddenly-constrained routine: the yoga at 9 a.m., the constant idiotic refreshing of CNN and El Pais, the 5-minute breaks I take to work the World’s Most Annoying Puzzle. Am I going to spend the next month telling anyone bored enough to listen whether or not my neighbors walk out on their balconies?
At this point, what is there to say?
During the first week of my Spanish class after the Christmas break, our teacher asked three of the students, Chinese who had been living in Spain for a while, about El Virus. The first time El Virus came up, about January 10th or so, I had no idea what they were referring to. I went home and looked it up and thought: Well, that’s the other side of the world…
Every few days after that, the teachers would check in: how are your people in China? The students shrugged, said fine. It was easier for them to say fine than say more, for a number of reasons, of which the difficulty of conveying something in Spanish is probably only one.
But somewhere along the way, in those early days, El Virus began to lodge itself in my consciousness, like a tickle in the back of my throat. At the end of January, I wondered about the wisdom of reserving tickets for a trip to Portugal at the end of February. At that point there were only two cases in Spain and none at all in Portugal. We went, and then, once we came back, I scoured the internet over and over and over again trying to determine whether the symptoms of the slight colds we’d caught, cold I hardly would’ve noticed in normal times, matched with the symptoms of COVID-19. They didn’t.
But now, who knows?
It wears you down, El Virus, with its name conjuring up some strange sort of Elvis impersonator. El Virus, caped and rhinestoned, making the most of his time in the limelight, the opposite of a superhero.
Every night, after we clap for the health care workers, someone somewhere to the east of us plays music I don’t recognize through a loudspeaker, usually the same two songs. One, I think, is the Spanish national anthem, the other, I realized, thanks to today’s newspaper, is probably Resistiré (I Will Resist).
Resistiré, written in 1988, shows it. But it’s catchy and it’s got that 80s bounce we all remember, and right now, it works.
En Forma (1988)
Cuando pierda todas las partidas/should I lose all the matches
Cuando duerma con la soledad/should I sleep in solitude
Cuando se me cierren las salidas/should all the doors be closed to me
Y la noche no me deje en paz/and the night not leave me in peace
Cuando sienta miedo del silencio/Should I feel afraid of the silence
Cuando cueste mantenerse en pie/should it cost me to maintain my feet
Cuando se rebelen los recuerdos/should the memories rebel
Y me pongan contra la pared/and put me up against the wall
Resistiré, erguido frente a todos/I will resist, standing tall in front of everything
Me volveré de hierro para endurecer la piel/I will become iron to toughen my skin
Y aunque los vientos de la vida soplen fuerte/and although the winds of life blow fiercely
Yo soy como el junco que se dobla/I am like the reed that bends
Pero siempre sigue en pie/but always keeps its feet.
Resistiré para seguir viviendo/I will resist, to keep on living
Soportaré los golpes y jamás me rendiré/I will resist the blows and never surrender
Y aunque los sueños se me rompan en pedazos/Although the dreams break me into pieces
Resistiré, resistiré/I will resist, I will resist
Cuando el mundo pierda toda magia/Should the world lose all its magic
Cuando mi enemigo sea yo/Should my enemy be me
Cuando me apuñale la nostalgia/Should I be pierced by nostalgia
Y no reconozca ni mi voz/and not even recognize my voice
Cuando me amenace la locura/should the madness menace me
Cuando en mi moneda salga cruz/should my coin fall tails
Cuando el diablo pase la factura/should the devil pass the bill
O si alguna vez me faltas tú/or should I miss you
Resistiré/I will resist…
OK, so say there was some crazy Battle of the Bands.
El Virus vs Resistaré.
Tonight we cast our vote, through singing, for the latter.
*I translated this myself. It took me over an hour, and I’m counting that as time productively spent, whether it really is or not.
These are the neighbors in the apartment building across the street from ours: Lonely Smoking Guy; Old Guy; White Bathrobe Guy and His Significant Other, and Man-Bun and His Significant Other. Further afield, too far for us to really “know” is Person Who Has Big TV Who Never Participates in Anything; and even further afield than that is Guy Who Participates in Everything. And then, somewhere off in the distance, is Guy with Loudspeaker, who DJs music from his apartment.
One night way back (was it just a week ago?), as the Nightly Clap was winding down, Man-Bun’s female partner shouted across the street to us. Something was happening in an hour, at 9:00 p.m. We couldn’t decipher more than that.
Sure enough, right at nine, neighbors were back out on their balconies. Not as many as for the Nightly Clap, but a few, banging pots and pans and metal bowls with spoons. It seemed exuberant, joyful even: we joined in. Why not? It wasn’t like we had anything better to do.
The next day, I did a little online investigating and learned the clamor we’d witnessed has an actual name.
A cacerolazo, cacerolada or casserole is a form of popular protest which consists of a group of people making noise by banging pots, pans, and other utensils in order to call for attention.
That first cacerolada took place during the King’s televised speech after the Estado de Alarma was announced. Since then, we’ve had a cacerolada every couple of days, usually during televised speeches by various powers-that-be. The political nuances are far far above my pay grade. Since embarrassment is the girls’ response to everything I do these days, needless to say they’re mortified we participated in that first one: not our circus, not our monkeys.
True, of course, but I’m impressed almost to speechlessness by this phenomenon. The common folk, using tools of domesticity to drown out the status quo! Our last cacerolada was Sunday night. The wasap circulating beforehand: We are fed up with incompetents, high-handedness, and the caste you have become. You’ve deceived us.
Now that’s a sentiment you could almost get behind bashing a pot for.
Yesterday, in the middle of a very quiet, cloudy, and long afternoon, we learned our lockdown will extend until mid-April.
I think we all knew it was coming: just about everybody in Spain customarily goes on vacation for Semana Santa, the week before Easter. And the last thing this country needs at this point is tens of thousands of people on the move, having fun, getting close, exchanging money.
So here we will sit for a while longer.
Will spring have come, and gone, by mid-April? Will life ever feel the same as it did, pre-lockdown?
Last night, we headed out to the terrace for the Nightly Clap, which has become an homage not just to the health care workers but also to the food deliverers, the taxi drivers, the police — to anyone who is out there providing a service during this crisis. An empty city bus trundled past as we clapped, the driver laying on the horn all the way up the long wide avenue a block away. A delivery person for Glovo, our version of Uber Eats, rang his bicycle bell as he peddled slowly along.
It seemed to me like fewer neighbors came to their windows last night, as if the news of the extension had dampened their enthusiasm for the whole enterprise.
I wish Spanish were my native language, and that my teen daughters didn’t find every single thing I do quite so embarrassing.
Hang in there, Madrid, I’d shout to my neighbors, peering out over the darkened rooftops. Keep the faith. Come summer, we’ll meet in the sidewalk cafes again, surely.
As I sit down to write this, I can hear the rhythmic thud, from elsewhere in the building, of one of the neighbors doing their daily calisthenics, maybe jumping jacks, maybe jump rope, maybe running in place. Earlier, one daughter ran up and down the hallway for 20 minutes, and then we gathered in the living room en familia for a 7 minute cardio workout.
Last night over dinner, we debated: when exactly did our lockdown start? Was it the first day there was no school, a week ago Wednesday, which would make this Day 11? Or was it the day the official Estado de Alarma began, which would make this Day 8? We opted for the former. The girls are a little bitter that their friends States-side count days when they can take walks as days of quarantine, when they can’t even leave the apartment at all. —Are we talking about a Spanish Lockdown or an American Lockdown? one asked, ironically, this morning. I’ll hand them those three extra days, and happily. They deserve medals.
We’re all developing our routines. I wake before everyone else, and commune, over coffee, with the absolute silence permeating Madrid. It enwraps us, along with the gray down of the persistent cloudy days. Then I attempt to read El Pais in Spanish. Then I click Google Translate. It sort of works, although Google Translate believes sanitarios (health care workers) are toilets.
A few days ago, I clicked on a story and found myself reading the Daily Journal one of their columnists is keeping. Maybe because it’s written in more colloquial language, I seem to be able to understand it better. I still need to look up words, but I get most of it — and the musical it I’m getting is nothing Google Translate can capture. It only works in Spanish.
This intangible music is, I realize, what I’ve been missing since we moved here. Even when I understand, I don’t understand, I’ve kept saying.
Of course, it’s one thing to understand the written word, and another thing to be able to speak a language. I have a long long way to go. But how strange, in the middle of this madness, to receive this gift, of connection and language.
Urban apartment kitchens in Europe are … petite… to say the least. Our refrigerator is bigger than a dorm fridge — but nowhere near the size of an American refrigerator. Our freezer holds ice cube trays and a couple of bags of frozen peas and a frozen pizza but that’s about it. In some ways, this is a good thing right now, because it puts the brakes on hoarding. It also means the shopping has to be done more frequently than once a week.
Yesterday was a Red Letter Day for me: I went to the pharmacy AND the grocery store (both a couple of blocks from the house), compulsively rubbing my hands with sanitizer like some crazed Lady MacBeth before I went in. In the pharmacy, I picked up a refill for a prescription and figured while I was at it, I’d ask about hand soap (nope!) and thermometers (Double-nope + wry shake of the head).
I then went to the larger, fancier grocery store in the basement of Corte Ingles, Spain’s department store, rather than our corner market, because our usual grocery store still doesn’t have rice or garbage bags or hand soap, all things we’ve run out of, plus I just needed to mix it up a little. I’m pleased to serve as your boots on the ground in Madrid and report to you that in the Corte Ingles on Princess Street there are no condoms. (They were on an end-cap display.) I was able to snag the last Magic Erasers in the store, though.
I also ran into a friend, and standing six feet apart catching up with her was one of the highlights of the day. She’s the first person outside of the family that I’ve seen face to face IRL since last Monday. This afternoon, another friend and I will study Spanish together virtually, just to hold ourselves accountable.
In the grocery store, the produce arranged on its tiered shelves was brightly-tinted and beautiful and I had to stop myself from buying too much of it, since I was going to have to carry everything home by myself (you can’t go to the grocery store with anyone else). For months, I’ve been threatening to buy an abuela cart to get the groceries home but the girls always recoil in such horror that I’ve put it off. Note to self: Next time, buy a thermometer and a grocery cart beforehand.
When we moved here, one of the first things I noticed (other than the heat) was what an integral part Los Abuelos (the grandparents) play in Spanish life. In normal days, they pull their abuela carts down the sidewalk behind them like little lap dogs, they walk their actual real lap dogs (who wear raincoats when it rains and sweaters when it’s cold), they block the sidewalk as they make their slow daily paseos (an abuela line?). Elderly couples walk holding hands. Elderly women walk arm in arm in groups, or slowly, slowly, with their patient caregivers. When the weather’s warm, they sit at the sidewalk cafes nursing cañas of beer or glasses of vermouth, and stand on their balconies keeping an eye on the neighbors. This winter, I particularly loved seeing the older women: furcoat-clad, wearing dark sunglasses, hair beautifully-coiffed, their regal bearing reminding that once they were just like the lovely stylish smooth-haired young women who breeze past them.
As one of my Spanish teachers said one when someone recounted a story about being lectured by an elderly lady at the grocery store or of one cutting in line, both of which are extremely common occurrences, the abuelas are a force of nature.
This — small, inadequate — is my applause for the abuelos y abuelas.