Tomorrow, the equinox. But today, we’re balanced on the cusp of fall, the husk of summer.
This morning, doors throughout Madrid were propped ajar to invite in the cooler weather. Porteros swabbed down sidewalks; as I walked past, I peeked into the lobbies of the apartment buildings. They’re neither public or private, not here nor there, but every single one of them sports a chandelier and a plant. In the fin de siecle buildings, the chandeliers hang like regal jewelwork, in the frumpy ones, the chandelier and plant both are plastic.
The smell of coffee issued from the open door of a cafe; I heard the clink of a cup set down on the metal counter that ran the length of the interior. Inside another, a serve idled, above his head, jamones hung in a wreath.
I passed four churches, all with their doors flung open: ten or so minutes into 9:00 mass. A little elderly man shuffled into one, his too-big black suit the sort a character from a Graham Greene novel would wear. I wasn’t quick enough to sneak a photo with my phone.
The equinox; a good walk; the world in momentary balance.
The press conference was supposed to take place at 11:30 yesterday, and then it was changed to 1:00, and then it was canceled, and then at 5:00 Isabel Díaz Ayuso, the President of the Community of Madrid finally announced the new restrictions: on Monday, people in 37 health areas of the region of Madrid, most of them in the southern part of the city, most of them crowded, most of them working-class, will only be allowed in and out of their neighborhoods for essential activities such as going to school or work. Social gatherings are reduced from 10 people to 6; parks will be closed. 855,193 people — 17% of the population of the Madrid region — live in these areas, but according to statistics in El Pais, they account for 25% of COVID cases. The other seventy-five percent of cases come from elsewhere in the region, but so far, our neighborhoods haven’t been put under restrictions.
We live to the northwest of all that. Last night, the young guys who live on the bottom floor of our apartment building had a party that lasted until 5:00 a.m. They sang and sang and sang, and all I could think as I tossed and turned and punched my pillow was Corona, Corona.
This morning, the temperature was in the 60s, and the Spanish were all wearing their puffy coats.
Yesterday, I was with a friend and she warned me that the lead story in El Pais was that the Community of Madrid will soon be announcing some “strategic” lockdowns in areas of the region with high COVID numbers, but by the time I got home and actually read the article (which, for me, requires reading the Spanish version and the officially-translated into English version and the Google-translate word salad version) other higher-up governmental personages had back-pedalled and saidwell maybe they would and maybe they wouldn’t. And maybe they’d announce whether they would or wouldn’t on Thursday. Or maybe on Friday. Or maybe on Sunday.
About this time, M and Elder Daughter and I all received emails from Georgia that our absentee ballots for the general election were available for us to access. This was a momentous state of affairs, because we’ve been somewhat concerned we wouldn’t receive our ballots soon enough to get them back by the deadline of November 3rd. This sounds like a ludicrous fear when I write it down — but it isn’t.
Some states allow overseas voters to email their absentee ballots back, some allow them to be some faxed back, and some, like Georgia (why are you not surprised?) require that they be mailed back in a very specific way. We went through all this for the primary. Mailing our ballots back required a number of steps, including printing out a certain kind of cover sheet, putting the ballot in a certain kind of envelope which we then had to sign as well.
The sticking point now is that mail from Europe to the United States is estimated to take 4 weeks, because there are so many fewer flights between the EU and the US. (We received a birthday card for Younger Daughter at the end of August. Her birthday was in May, and the card had been mailed on April 30th.) What this means is anyone voting absentee in Georgia from overseas has 2 weeks from today to both get and then mail back their ballot in order for it to arrive in time to be counted.
(Once we can access our ballots, we do have the option of taking them to the Embassy so that they can be sent in the “diplomatic pouch.” I don’t have any idea what a diplomatic pouch actually is, but its existence comforted me until recently, because it seemed like the mail equivalent of a hot line — until we learned that the Embassy estimates that ballots in the diplomatic pouch will also take 4 weeks to arrive. Are they going by steam ship? Raft?)
The first time I tried to access the ballot, I was directed to the (previous) ballot for the September 29 special election. The second time, I could request access but then was caught in an endless “processing” loop. Now, someone at Fulton County has taken my name and phone number. Luckily, I have a VOIP number I can use in situations like this, because I somehow doubt that the Fulton County Board of Elections would call me at a Spanish phone number. Will I hear back? Time will tell.
I don’t know why it surprises me whenever I see how thin the veneer of exceptionalism is, but it does.
On the other hand, the entrepreneurial spirit is alive and well:
Last year, I took Spanish classes for four hours a day, five days a week. That was Before, of course. During that time of diligence and optimism, I met more than one expat who’d been in Madrid awhile who confessed they’d worked really hard on their Spanish when they first got here, but then they’d let it slide — they really needed to get back to it.
I didn’t get it. Why work so hard, and then, just … stop?
Theoretically, I’ve now reached the level of Spanish most of those people had attained. And now I get it. A year ago, I naively thought that if I did A, then B, then C, I’d wake up one morning and suddenly be speaking fluent Spanish. I always was, at heart, a rule follower. Aren’t results supposed to follow when you abide by the rules?
Fluency actually feels less attainable to me now than it ever did then.
I can study the subjunctive until I’m blue in the face, but it’ll never come naturally. There will always be a mental hitch, when I have to stop to think over things. Am I making a request? A command? Describing something in the past — or talking about a one-off event?
I’ll always have to watch Casa de Papel with Spanish subtitles. The taxi driver will always start talking about something I lack vocabulary for (last time it was road work, and while I could commiserate with an Atlanta taxi driver about crappy roads forever, I wouldn’t feel qualified to criticize the Spanish government, even if I had the words for it.)
Besides — much larger problem — now that we’re all wearing masks, I can’t understand anybody.
They can’t understand me, either.
While we were in the States, I was impressed* by the sleek black masks I saw people wearing everywhere, so much so that I bought one at the airport. When I unwrapped it, it turned out to be the saggy grandma’s panty-hose equivalent.
That black mask goes into my collection: I have surgical masks, KN95 masks, homemade masks shipped from home, homemade masks made by tailors here in Madrid, masks with elastic straps I’ve cut and re-engineered to avoid the dreaded Mask-Slip, when a mask slides down under your nose when you open your mouth.
Like Goldilocks, I’m not happy with any of them. I’m still searching for The Perfect Mask, the One that’s just right; I have to stop myself from buying more.
But the sad fact is: no matter what color or style it is, a mask is just a mask.
*Those camouflage neck gaiters that seem to be certain Americans’, genus red-blooded white young guys particularly, concession to mask-wearing are not masks.
I wrote this over thirteen years ago, when I started this blog. Mother to a six-year-old and a two-and-a-half year old, I was traveling a landscape where there were no smart phones, no Tiger Moms, no Helicopter Parents, no TikTok, no COVID-19. There wasn’t even any Motherlode, that (sometimes irritating) parenting column in the New York Times that’s now called Well Parent. (Sign of the times.) At that point in my parenting trajectory, one of my darkest fears was that there existed somewhere a secret mothering rule book that decreed that being a good parent meant I was supposed to amputate my writer-self from the mother I’d become.
At first, this writing probably fit into the category of what was then being called a “mommy blog.” Then, it was just a place where I posted news about publications. Now, it has morphed into a COVID Journal.
Thirteen years on, I can safely say that my life has folded inward, outward, become a sort of origami of that earliest iteration of itself. My eldest has started college; my younger spreads her wings with four months away from home.
Now, the thing the world hints I should excise from myself is that mother-part.
I was about to write we are awfully hard on women, but the truth might really be that we are awfully hard on people.
*According to the internet, the term Empty Nest first appeared in 1914, in a book called Mothers and Children by Dorothy Canfield Fisher:
The more things change, the more things stay the same. You need only look at any Parents of College Class of 2024 Facebook page to see evidence of parents well on the way to “fretting themselves into nervous prostration.” There are, of course, mitigating circumstances for that—for Exhibit A, see COVI). Nonetheless, the phrase flabby listless inaction strikes fear into my heart.
About 60 years before Canfield Fisher’s take on things, the industrial revolution had torn work and home asunder. No more coming home from the fields for dinner, no more teens working behind the shop counter on the ground floor of a family’s narrow living space after school. Work became somewhere you went, not just something you did, and, once we decided that was the way the world worked we had to also come up the idea of the Angel in the House: a sainted motherly presence who would keep the home fires burning. As Virginia Woolf described her
She was intensely sympathetic. She was immensely charming. She was utterly unselfish. She excelled in the difficult arts of family life. She sacrificed herself daily. If there was chicken, she took the leg; if there was a draught she sat in it–in short she was so constituted that she never had a mind or a wish of her own, but preferred to sympathize always with the minds and wishes of others. Above all–I need not say it—she was pure.
A hundred and seventy-five years on, we we still haven’t shed these constructs. Because both the Empty Nest and that unrealistic angel are constructs. I wondered if the empty nest translated to Spanish; so far I’ve only found actual translations of American articles. I guess if your children don’t leave the family apartment until they’re in their thirties, this isn’t a concept that worries you much.
So here we sit, at this strange Covid-caused crossroads. The kids are at school …. except in many places they’re not. And we’re working, but from our beds, in our pajamas. Except when we’re not. As this global mess drags on, I find myself wondering more and more whether we’re going to figure out solutions this time around or if, when this is all over, we’re just going to go back to the old ways.
Except that really, what we’re doing right now is taking temperatures.
This morning, I gave a group of Spanish high schoolers a wide berth as I made my way down Calle Princesa. Some of them were masked, but half of them were not. Probably a fourth of the unmasked ones were smoking, which in some regions of Spain has been banned in the streets, due to its efficacy at spreading COVID. Of course I stepped into the street to get around them. They may be young — but I am old. They were cooling their heels, jostling and scuffling, waiting to be zapped with the thermometer raygun wielded by the school administrator at the top of the stairs to the colegio.
Right on schedule, the temperatures in Madrid fell this week. It feels like fall. The question du jour is: Will we or won’t we? Meaning, will we or won’t we be locked up again?
The official answer seems to be no — the theory is that now that more is understood about the virus, responses can be more targeted.
And the only sane response to that can be — Ojalá.
2 negative COVID tests, 2 quarantines, 2 offspring dropped at school, with fiercest love and optimistic fingers crossed.
4 curbside pickups from big box stores made to gather supplies for above-mentioned offspring school drop-offs. (The week of August 14 there were no flip flops, nalgene water bottles or Clorox wipes in Athens, GA.)
But by far the strangest thing I saw during the last 20 days was when we, now two instead of four, checked into a midtown* Atlanta hotel two nights ago, before our flight back to Madrid. At the end of the familiar ritual of checking in, the desk clerk pushed a sleek box smaller than a breadbox but larger than an iphone across the counter toward me. She recited something about keys, clearly by rote, but I was so flat out tired I couldn’t even process it.
The lighting was dim. The lobby was entirely unpeopled, as had been the parking garage, the street we’d driven down. We’d spent the afternoon, visiting, COVID-style, outside and 6 feet apart, and I was sticky with sweat and covered with mosquito bites. I looked dumbly down at the box, which seemed to emit an otherworldly glow.
I’m sorry, I said. What exactly is this for?
My room key was in it, she explained. Freshly ultrasonically zapped for cleanliness.
I picked it up and walked toward the elevator, to press buttons pressed by who knows how many fingers. The next morning, I went to the lobby “market” for coffee, because the restaurant was closed for reasons of pandemic, where I was asked to sign a credit card slip with a pen passed to me by the clerk (nary a high-tech box in sight).
I would say this is America, but actually, this is the world, our brave new world, these days.
In Ohio, we drove down a state road at sunset, past a collection of Amish farms. It being Saturday night, young Amish bucks in teams of two sat in their buggies where state road met gravel, watching the world go by. Our last look back: a woman walking up a farm road, bonnet ties hanging, holding the hand of a child, sunset spread gloriously behind her.
The next farm up the road had planted in the dirt along with its crop of soybeans a Trump: Keep American Great banner.
In Kentucky, in a rest stop restroom, I overheard two elderly women with thick thick southern accents have this conversation:
Guess they don’t wear masks ’round here.
Well, I sure will then!
In Kentucky also, we drove the pike road from Paris to Lexington during the Golden Hour, past lavish horse farms and grass so lush and electric green you wanted to stop and eat it yourself. When we arrived at our hotel, a BLM march was taking place on the street outside the front door.
In North Carolina, though the sign on the door to a gas station explained that anyone going in must wear a mask, no one working inside had one on at all.
And so on. On Delta, the flight announcement was that masks that covered both mouth and nose were required. Takethat, you chin-mask wearers!
In the Amsterdam airport, I saw a couple decked out in masks, face shields and white haz-mat type suits, complete with hoods. The cherry on top: matching bucket hats worn over the hoods.
Here, Madrid has a third of Spain’s rising COVID cases. School starts in a few days. I can’t figure out what the policies for that are, and I’m not so sure that’s solely because I’ve forgotten all my Spanish.
2020 isn’t over yet.
O Midtown, O Peachtree Street. Hardly a restaurant open. The office towers without people.
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.
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.
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*.
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?