Waiting(La Espera)

The traditional Semana Santa processions couldn’t happen last week for the second year in a row, so Madrid came up with new rituals. Since the pasos, the elaborate floats that depict the Passion of Christ, weren’t allowed to come to the people through their usual parades, the people made their way to the pasos, on view inside the churches.

Since moving here, I’ve heard over and over again that this is no longer a churchgoing country, that a third of the population considers itself atheist, agnostic, or non-believer (the figure is 26% in the U.S., a little less) On Good Friday, we’d planned a walk from church to church to see some of the pasos, mainly because the City had published a detailed map and signage (including QR codes).* As it turned out, the churches with the best, most extravagant pasos all had huge crowds waiting in line out front. If Spain is a non-churchgoing country now, I can’t imagine what things must have been like in, say, 1953.

In the few churches we made it into, the holy water basins were all empty, and the bottles of hand sanitizer at the door were all full. Elderly viewers sat in pews to contemplate the depictions of Christ carrying his cross; the younger ones snapped quick photos with their phones and moved on.

This might be Covid, Year II, in a nutshell: almost the same, but not quite.

For months, the mask regulation here had been that masks were required outdoors whenever people couldn’t keep 1.5 meters apart. At some point last week, all that changed. Masks are now required outside no matter what. On the beach? people wanted to know. At the swimming pool? No one was happy.

An amendment was announced this morning: sunbathing maskless is ok. Of course, most province borders are closed to inter-Spain travel, so the only beachgoers are arriving from other countries in the EU. “French tourists,” the Madrileños sniff.

The Russian vaccine, Sputnik V, hasn’t been approved by the EU yet, but last week sources revealed that the Community of Madrid’s government apparently met with middlemen to discuss its purchase, because all avenues must be explored “in the face of the ineffectiveness of the Government.”

All week, I predicted the swifts, our harbingers of true Spring, would return to Madrid from Southern Africa by Easter Sunday. I didn’t have any scientific backing for this prediction — I just thought it would be nice.

But for now, the mornings are still a bit chilly. We haven’t quite reached that pivotal moment when the weather in the early mornings goes from having a little bite to it to staying downright balmy.

Kenya, Uganda, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Central African Republic, Chad, Nigeria, Cameroon, Liberia, Guinea, Mali, Algeria, Morocco — these are the countries the swifts cross on their way here. They left Kenya around the 3rd of February.

Madrid is waiting.

*We also planned this route because most things besides restaurants and churches were closed.

Mrs. Dalloway Said She Would Buy The Flowers Herself

This morning I made it out of the house early, leaving a cup of coffee half-drunk and the article in El Pais that reported that only half the over-80 population of Spain is vaccinated mostly unread. Spring has come, with a vengeance, and it’d be a shame to waste the morning on the endless fretting of the news.

There’s a quick way to get where I was going and then there’s a scenic route, and just because I could, I chose the latter, heading down Calle del Acuerdo (Agreement Street) toward the city center.

Still-cobbled Calle del Acuerdo pitches downward toward Gran Vía and frames one of Madrid’s most-famous landmarks, the Metrópolis building, to such perfection that one can’t help but be stricken dumb with europhilia at the sight.

Can one feel love for a place that isn’t yours, a place you can never really know completely? At 8:30 on a spring morning, when Madrid stretches and yawns and wakes up, when the churches are opening for masses hardly anyone goes to and the construction workers in fluorescent vests have stopped outside the cafes for a quick café con leche, it’s hard not to. At the end of the street, just before I turned the corner to plunge into the bustle of Gran Vía, I looked up at a building facade to see winged Mercury, god of commerce, eloquence, messages, communication (including divination), travelers, boundaries, luck, trickery and thieves peeping back as if in benediction — may your travels today be good ones.

Back home, the apartment was dirty and my list full of shoulds and oughts that need doing was long long long, but the morning said walk, so I did. Skirting the Royal Palace and the interminable construction surrounding it, across the Manzanares river and into the green space that long ago was some king’s hunting preserve and less long ago was the front lines during the siege of Madrid. And then finally back up the hill into the neighborhood, where the little wizened flower seller who sets up on the corner, who dresses all in black and is dropped off for work along with her wares by a guy in a Range Rover, (and who always charges me more, I suspect, than she does other people) was selling, along with her usual carnations, huge billowing masses of lilacs.

How could I resist?

I walked into our apartment with my arms full, feeling a little like Mrs. Dalloway, a little like a person I never once in my life up until now expected to be, a city-dweller.

…In people’s eyes, in the swing, tramp, and trudge; in the bellow and the uproar; the carriages, motor cars, omnibuses, vans, sandwich men shuffling and swinging; brass bands; barrel organs; in the triumph and the jingle and the strange high singing of some aeroplane overhead was what she loved; life; London; this moment in June.

Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf

Sky Blue Sky

Yesterday morning, I spent an hour or so sitting in the sun, drinking café con leche and discussing AstraZeneca with a group of women all here in Madrid because of their husbands’ jobs.

(For those of you playing along at home, what we call shots, people in the U.K. call jabs. Also for those playing along at home, in foreign service and military families, this particular state of statelessness is called being a trailing spouse, a phrase that always makes me think of toilet paper draggled from a shoe.)

Tomorrow is another saints’ day, the advent of yet another long holiday weekend when we can’t leave the Community of Madrid. If we could leave, maybe we wouldn’t want to, but human nature being what it is, the fact that we can’t go anywhere else feels particularly chafing.

(To put things another way: we may have the stately boulevards, the Spanish sun, the café, all very nice, but what we don’t have is the vaccine.)

Then, last night, I dreamed that I was enjoying a lovely wilderness and was suddenly full of consternation because I’d forgotten my mask.

I cannot tell a lie: I woke up grumpy.

My daily walk usually takes me through the park, but this morning, when I saw the way the long low line of the Guadarrama mountains lay against the sky, I decided to head for higher ground instead.

I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help.

As I passed a bazaar, as the five-and-tens where you can buy everything from potholders to plants for your balcony are called, I saw its proprietor had wired lemons to the lemon trees out front in a sort of aspirational advertising.

A little further on, a juggler in full mime makeup was tossing tennis balls at the traffic light. An old man was walking a tiny lapdog carrying a pinecone in its mouth.

And there, at the crest of the hill behind the hospital, where the makeshift shrine to the Virgin Mary stands, someone was doing tai chi.

With a sky blue sky this rotten time

Wouldn’t seem so bad to me now

Oh, I didn’t die, I should be satisfied

I survived, it’s good enough for now

—Wilco, Sky Blue Sky

The World Turns

And so it began, this time last year. And no, FB, I don’t “enjoy looking back and sharing memories on Facebook,” at least not when it’s this particular one. Though I guess it’s good for us all to take stock, to assess, to honor just how far we’ve traveled in the last eventful year.

Yesterday’s headlines were that the CDC says small groups of vaccinated adults can visit inside, sans masks. The speed of the vaccine trajectory is, quite honestly, spectacular, a testament to the heights humanity can reach (even though here in Spain this was not the headline and they’re still vaccinating those over 80).

The sad corollary, I’m afraid, was how lukewarm I felt, reading those headlines. Well, we’ll see, I thought. The truth is that it’s going to take a while for us to recover, individually and collectively. Along with physical long-COVID, there’s a spiritual long-COVID we’re going to have to manage and heal from. I wonder how the spin-machine that seems to impact so much of life these days will tackle that.

But all the same: this time last year, I could only leave our apartment to buy groceries. This year —thank goodness! — I can rip off my mask once I walk to the park to breathe in that heady vanilla scent, the almond blossoms’ excessive, joyful explosion. And then, on my way home, I spotted a handmade sign someone had hung from their balcony in honor of International Women’s Day.

Seguimos aquí! It was scrawled on pale pink paper, hung from a railing held up by veritable goddesses. We’re still here.

Indeed we are.


Over time, I’ve come up with my own names for the shops we patronise in the neighborhood, mainly because if I call them by their actual names, M has no clue which place I’m talking about.

Thus, our main frutería has become my fruit lady. One bakery is foccacia guy, the other is Roman guy. Our back-up frutería is frutería near foccacia guy (sometimes also known as frutería near Lidl). Even though the store selling products from Latin America was sold to someone new and now also carries products from all over the world (harissa, udon noodles, lime pickle, mirin), I still call it Latino Grocery.

Yesterday about 6:00, which is afternoon for the Spanish and night for me, I ran downstairs and around the corner to the frutería near foccacia guy for some green onions.

The way it works at the frutería is that you stand just inside the door and tell the proprietor what you want, item by item. You. do. not. touch. the. produce. While I was waiting, I noticed a display of the plumpest, most gorgeous figs just inside the door. If figs were an art form, they’d look like these did: curvaceous, a purple so lustrous it was almost black, the heft and look of them whispering summer.

Surely it’s too early for figs, I thought.

How are they? I asked him.

Very good, he said (of course he did, what else would he say?). Though he didn’t refer to them as higos, the usual word for figs, but as brevas.

Maybe they weren’t actually figs at all but something else unique to Spain that looked exactly like figs and ripened for picking only at the end of winter? Whatever they were, whatever they were called, I couldn’t resist them. I brought home six, nestled carefully into a wax baggie.

This morning we ate them all, sliced thin, laid on fruit and nut bread slathered with cream cheese and drizzled with rosemary honey.

I was a person who believed figs were downright disgusting until I planted a fig tree at our house in Atlanta in my forties. Since, figs have figured (yes, I know I did that) in my writing a lot. Here, and here, for example.


Breve means brief. Maybe breva did, too? As I ate, I mulled things over.

At some point in my 15 year-long stewardship of that fig tree half a world away, I learned figs have two crops, the breba and the main one. The breba crop consists of figs that grow on last years’ wood, early in the spring; the main crop comes later, in July to September. In Atlanta, that first crop was usually nipped by frost and never made it to fruition.

Breba— breva —breve — brief.

Lo and behold, when I looked it up, I found this:

breba (or more commonly breva in Spanish, and sometimes as taqsh)[1] is a fig that develops on a common fig tree in the spring on the previous year’s shoot growth.[2] In contrast, the main fig crop develops on the current year’s shoot growth and ripens in late summer or fall. Breba figs of certain varieties don’t always develop the rich flavor that the main crop has. Growers of those varieties frequently discard the brebas before they ripen to encourage growth of the main crop because the main crop is generally superior in both quantity and quality to the breba crop. Other cultivars such as Black Mission, Croisic, and Ventura produce good breba crops.

In some cold climates the breba crop is often destroyed by spring frosts.[2] However, in other areas, the summer may be too cool for the main crop to set so the breba crop is the only crop that will ripen.

Hang on to the spring, for it is fleeting.

One Step Forward

On Saturday, the buskers outside the subway were all playing “Hallelujah” and the Spanish girls were wearing shirts that showed off their belly buttons. The buskers hadn’t bothered to play “Hallelujah” since COVID started a year ago, and this time last year, nobody was wearing skimpy clothes that anybody else saw, because we were all locked inside.

Today, though, it’s gray, and colder. Spring, like much of life these days, seems to be a case of one step forward; one step back.

I know I shouldn’t wish too hard for warmer weather, because after spring comes the Madrid summer and the Madrid summer will scald the bejeezus out of the best of us, but I want it all the same. We missed spring last year; would an extra-long, temperate one this year really be too much to ask for this year?

And as an aside, just so you folks back home know, Europe isn’t doing COVID vaccines the way you guys are. On Thursday, Spain just started vaccinating people 80 years old and older (admittedly, those who lived in care homes got vaccinated already).

One step forward.

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.