Life During Lockdown

IMG_4514Yesterday had a sort of routine to it:  during the day we all worked or studied online, we moved the coffee table and exercised.  We made a semi-elaborate lunch, and then a more elaborate dinner.  We kept an eye on the clock, so we could get out to the terrace to clap our hearts out during the Nightly Clap. I didn’t think to myself we got this,  but I did think ok, this is do-able.

Then, after everybody else went to bed, I made the mistake of binge-reading news, even though I should’ve known better.  That  led to a dark-night-of-the-soul when I contemplated the idea of this lasting, say, eight weeks instead of just two. Of all our summer plans falling apart.  I wondered why I was bothering to study Spanish at all,  and who I thought I was, writing this blog.  I thought about all the (apparent) people commenting on US news stories who still think this is just a cold.

In short, I stepped out of the present moment and started thinking about the steep hill we may all be about to climb.

Advice to self, and others, from day 5 of Lockdown — Don’t Do That!

Today’s a new day.  The orange tree on our terrace is beginning to flower. It looks like the clouds that have been covering Madrid since Sunday will lift.  Lonely Smoking Guy, in the apartment across from ours, has come out for his first two cigarettes.  White Bathrobe Guy, in the apartment underneath his, is sitting in front of his computer.  Young Man-Bun,  and his Partner, two windows to the right,  are probably still sleeping.

Today’s a new day, and my main project is not to read the news.



Our New Normal


Yesterday, I went to the grocery store.

I hadn’t been outside our apartment building since Saturday, which feels like a lifetime ago. I hadn’t gone anywhere besides the grocery store since last Thursday, which seems like two lifetimes ago.

You don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone.

I pulled on gloves, I took the stairs instead of the elevator, and then, when I rounded the corner and was not presented with the tables and chairs usually set up in front of the two closest bars, it felt like a slap.  The streets weren’t completely empty — there was a taxi idling at the corner and as I walked to the store, a food-delivery service worker peddled past on his bike — but  his face was swathed in a black scarf like a ninja and it was empty enough that a friend’s description of the streets as Zombie Land felt apt.

How do you run a grocery store during a pandemic?  Strategies have been put into place since Friday, and I have to admit such evidence of forethought and social order was, well, comforting.  There were printed signs on the doors explaining the new policies:  carts and conveyor belts cleaned after each customer; customers required to wear plastic gloves and stay 1 meter apart. There were police officers at the front door, watching as I walked in.

There was plenty of produce (but no zucchinis).  Very little ice cream.  Absolutely no toilet paper.  There were only four other people in the store, none of us even making eye contract, as if even that was dangerous.

When I went to check out, the floors were taped in front of the registers to indicate where to wait in line and still keep the required distance. Would North Americans, with their wide open spaces and desire for elbow room, need such a concrete reminder to stand far apart?

A mask-clad clerk scanned my items and it felt odd not to know whether or not he was smiling. I realized I hadn’t really taken a deep, fully-relaxed breath since I walked into the store.  Another thing I’d forgotten to do was weigh my avocado, which is a terrible faux-pas here and always means a lecture.  Not this time.  The clerk handed just handed it to the security guard, who went and weighed it for me.

When I walked out, it was hailing.   I took a deep breath and headed home.



The Nightly Clap


Last week, as our lockdown slid in slow motion from unofficial to official, I found I was depending more and more on What’s App, or wasap as it’s known here in Spain.  Particularly on three rough groups:  one  formed to share COVID-19 info in English that the girls now refer to as CoronaMoms; small group of friends who live within a couple of blocks of us,  and then, all lumped together, those friends, whether on the other side of Madrid or on the other side of the ocean,  who — bless them! — have been getting in touch individually.

Saturday morning, I got the above message, which translates roughly to

Homage to the health care workers. At 10 tonight we will go to our windows, terraces, and balconies and applaud them.  Please pass it on.

Saturday’s Clap, our first, was a welcome outlet for the stress we’ve been feeling over the past days and weeks.  Not everybody knew it was taking place, turnout wasn’t overwhelming, but it was enough.  As we stood on our terrace squinting out over the rooftops of Madrid, with the sound of clapping reverberating down the canyons of the streets, our hearts eased a little.  We’re all in this together, I thought, even though I wasn’t sure exactly what this is.

Yesterday, Sunday, was a long day.  It’s pretty easy to fall into a kind of fugue state when you can’t leave your house at all.  In normal times, Spain is better dressed than the US, and I refrain from leaving the house in yoga pants. Now, why bother?  I’ve been wearing t-shirts with holes in them, and yesterday I didn’t remember to brush my hair until mid-afternoon.    I had a list of Sunday-type tasks to accomplish but very little will to get down to them. Inertia took hold. I spent most of the afternoon lying on the sofa reading, and then spent two hours deleting unnecessary, duplicate, or just plain awful photos from my phone, something I’d told myself I’d do for years. The girls skyped and stared at their phones. Mark napped and made a list of things to order from the grocery store.

Throughout the afternoon, the guy who lives in the apartment to the right of ours was playing lovely Spanish-style guitar.  The sound slipped from his open window and  crept through our propped-open terrace door.  Every so often, we’d go out to the terrace and peer up and down the street.  A man on a higher rooftop a couple of blocks away skipped rope for what seemed like hours.  The guy across the street came out onto his balcony periodically to smoke a cigarette.  People sat in their windows to talk on their phones.  Occasionally someone walked down on the sidewalk with their dog.  (I envy them, those dog owners, with their officially sanctioned ability to take walks!)

I was cooking dinner when The Nightly Clap got underway and the girls called me outside.  This time, just about every apartment on our block participated.  The male half of the couple across the street and down a floor disappeared and then returned with a metal bowl and a wooden spoon that he began to bang like a drum. A cold front was blowing in, and it had started to rain.

We stood out in the drizzle and clapped, and clapped, and clapped some more.

Quedate en Casa

The sun still shines in Madrid, but we woke up yesterday morning to this message.*

In a way, it was good to finally hear this, and have everybody else finally hear this. Since Monday,  I’ve been trying to juggle two completely incompatible streams of incoming information —  “it’s nothing” vs “holy f*&K”.  The fact that my Spanish school didn’t actually cancel face-to-face classes until 4 pm yesterday, when it became illegal to hold them, only heightened the dissonance this week.  I had kids at home, a husband teleworking, but at the same time I was getting tips that this was a perfect time to go to the Michelin-starred restaurants in town.  We owed it to the restaurant owners!

This, I think, has been the most stressful thing about this new normal so far.  For days, I’ve been asking myself  whether I was worrying too much  — or not enough.  Human nature seems to automatically swing to one or to the other.

Somewhere in the middle, of course, is right where you want to be.

Mid-morning yesterday, they announced that all the restaurant terraces in Madrid were closing, and Mark and I debated:  did this mean sidewalk cafes, or rooftop terrace restaurants???  (turns out it meant both, but the question was moot within a couple of hours, when they closed down the restaurants entirely.)  My inability to understand nuance might be the second most stressful thing about this new normal.

At 1:30, I learned they’d be closing all bars and restaurants at midnight, and also that the head of the government would be holding a press conference in a couple of hours.

Until that news, things had been pretty chill at our grocery store.  People bought, but just a little more — not a lot.  Yesterday, things felt different.  The restaurants on my route to the store were closing, and the usual throngs at the sidewalk cafes were gone.  When I noticed that, I realized something important:  it’s street life that makes Madrid Madrid. Madrileños live their lives en la calle.  When that stops, you really get that this isn’t business as usual.

At the grocery store, there weren’t many people pushing carts around, but those that were, were mostly wearing plastic gloves. Everybody stayed two meters apart.  On the way home, we saw a line that wrapped around the block at the tabaco as people stocked up on cigarettes.

To tell you the truth, it felt good to get back to our apartment. We’re kind of on top of each other, and we’re going through food at a prodigious rate (stress eating?) but home feels manageable.  Our terrace is a godsend — all of us have gone out there by ourselves and communed for a while. The neighbors in the buildings across the streets are using their terraces more, too. We make eye contact, nod, and smile.

So here we are.  So far, we’ve watched Valley Girl and The Royal Tennenbaums.   We have a pandemic puzzle going, a pandemic hat and a pandemic sweater being knitted. Today, without the structure of online school and work, will be interesting.

Sooner or later, Scrabble will be played.

*Which translates more bluntly to: Stay the Fuck Home.

Of Social Distancing, Flattening the Curve, and Other New Concepts

This time last year, when we were so busy packing up the house and getting  our visas, I sometimes tossed and turned at night worrying about plenty of things  —  but  it never occurred to me to worry about living in a city where the schools had closed because of a brand-new virus.

The moral of this, of course, is don’t bother to worry — what usually comes to pass  is never something you spent time worrying about.

Today is Day 1 of the two-week closure of schools mandated by the Community of Madrid because of the coronavirus. This morning I drank my morning coffee while scrolling through a group chat of school parents whose question du jour was:  what exactly are we supposed to be doing — or not doing?  Is taking your kids to parks okay?  Restaurants? Should people’s maids come to work?  (I hate to reveal that maids sometimes get discussed on parent chats here, but they do).

There’s the real world, and then there’s the online world. En la calle, in the street, people walk their dogs, talk with their neighbors, and drink beer at the sidewalk cafes, the same as they did before we heard of coronavirus.   The elderly people are still making their very slow, very dignified strolls through the neighborhood.  Not many people wear masks, but yesterday, when I went out for coffee with someone, I noticed both of us opened the door to the cafe using our sleeves instead of our hands.  The girls, unprompted, wash their hands whenever we walk into the house.  Spring has come, the sky is blue, the almond trees are in flower, and one of the sidewalk-cafe sitters today was drinking a tinto de verano, warm weather’s celebratory concoction of wine and Sprite.

But in the online world, the count climbs, and I have added El Pais to my daily news rotation.  According to the online world, between the time I woke up and right now the theatres, libraries, and museums either closed or limited the amount of people there at any one time. There are rumors… oh, there are rumors.

My first observation:  when you live in a country where you seldom understand exactly what’s going on, you especially don’t understand what’s going on when things aren’t completely … normal.

Just as there are two worlds, real and online, in my limited sample, there seem to be two philosophical schools of thought about our current state of affairs: over-attention that leads to anxiety and  blithe disregard.  Though the girls’ school is closed, and Mark is supposed to telework, my Spanish school hasn’t yet cancelled classes. (Though it did send me an email asking if I’d prefer to take my classes in Malaga, in the south of Spain). I’d already planned to take this week off, so I haven’t been to class for a while, but we’ll see what next week brings.

The girls’ “online learning” doesn’t start until tomorrow, and they got today off to get used to the new normal.  We went for a long walk and then stopped in a restaurant for a snack.  There were only two other tables occupied, and I chose one 2 meters away from the closest one. A little girl about seven sat at it by herself, entertaining herself with an open laptop.  As soon as we sat down, she spilled her glass of water all over it and the table.  When she leapt up and ran across the restaurant crying, I realized her dad was the boss who had greeted us as we walked in.

— I’m sorry about your computer, I said when he came to take our order.  It’s very sad.

— Yes, he agreed.  No school no daycare no… he shrugged.

Es una locura,* I ventured.

Una locura, he agreed.

It seemed as good a way as any to sum things up, today, in Madrid, in the early spring, in our new normal, when absolutely nobody knows exactly what’s going on.


Cracking the Egg of Language


After 3 months, 2 weeks and two days in Spanish class, I may not be able to speak the language, but I can tell you this — learning a language sometimes resembles counting sand on a very large beach grain by grain.  It’s hard, it’s tedious, and it never ends, which something to bear in mind the next time you stand behind a non-native English speaker who’s ordering something and start to think impatient, unkind thoughts about them.

Right now, I’m in a class of 8 that meets Monday through Friday morning for four hours.

We’re taught by 2 teachers who trade off halfway through the class. It’s hard to know if they trade responsibility for us because being with us for any longer than two hours at a stretch would exhaust even their patience — or if it’s because if we only had one teacher the whole time, we’d never be able to understand anyone else in Spain.

Our first teacher is a younger woman who keeps her own counsel and has infinite patience.  Does she have a boyfriend?  A girlfriend?  A cat?  She never lets on.  In fact, I’ve now spent 80 hours in the same room with her and I don’t even know if she actually lives in Madrid. Last week in class she recommended a vegetarian restaurant, and it was as if a window onto her life had opened for the very first time.

Our other teacher greets us every morning as homey and sista. When we truly make a hash of things, he’s prone to exploding whathefuc’? or fatal, which means terrible, but sounds oh so much better. He likes rap and The Wire.  He lived in Manchester and travelled to China.

And who are we, these eight students? We are lost souls who cannot communicate. We are here for love, for family, to better our job chances.   We are homey and sista.  We are three of us American, three of us Chinese, and two of us from the Philippines.

One of the Americans is tall, one of them is young, and one of them is me.  One of the things I never really understood about us, about Americans, until I started language classes is that we’re, like, the golden retrievers of humanity.  We’re easily recognizable. We assume everybody’s going to like us.  We’re happy to share our opinions about just about anything.

I now see how seductive this might seem from the outside.  I also recognize just how deeply annoying this can be to the rest of the world.

The two Filipinos are young sisters who both work at sweatshop-like language academies where they teach English from 4 pm -10 pm, where they’ve been told by their bosses that if the lessons they’ve planned make their students swear a lot, it means they’re doing a good job.

The students from China have selected for themselves English names, or have had English names selected for them by teachers who taught them Spanish in China in their previous lives.  After having been fed through the meatgrinder of three languages, the names of the three in my class might be Presse, Ugo and Demonio. Unlike us Americans, so downright thrilled  to clamber up on our soapboxes at the drop of a hat, they prefer to remain mum about… just about everything.

This could be because it’s way too exhausting to carry on this way in a third language, or it might be because — just why would they want to get up on soapboxes of any sort whatsoever?

Tomorrow, the eight of us will take our Orales.  Those of us who choke and can’t pass will be booted back to the beginning of B1.

When we were told this today, a collective shiver went through the class.  We might not have chosen this group of people to spend half our time with, but at least we’re familiar with each other.  To start all over again, a new teacher, a new person sitting on either side of us? To have to explain ourselves, all over again?

It would be a fate worse than death. This airless classroom where we sit together every day in this world where we never completely understand whathefuc’ is going on sometimes feels like the only life vest we have.








The Future


It only took me one visit to Puerta del Sol, Spain’s Kilometro 0, Madrid’s touristy, clamorous hub, to start referring to it as the Belly of the Beast.  Everybody in Madrid sooner or later has to fight their way through Sol’s lottery card hawkers and dazed tourists seeking SIM cards for their cell phones and knock-off handbag vendors always with a weather eye out for la policía.  Sol’s the gathering place for the city’s schemers, scammers, and ne’er do wells — long story short, when you’re in Sol, best hang on to your wallet.

Sol is also home to the Apple Store, where today I had to leave my laptop.  On the way there, as I walked up out of the Metro and into Sol proper, I was offered a pamphlet by a man wearing an orange traffic safety vest; thinking it was information about the upcoming closure of the Metro line that gets me from home to Spanish school, I took it.  No — El Camino de Cristo, as it turned out.  I handed it back, intending to say no thanks, I don’t need this, but what came out of my mouth could be translated better as “I don’t like it,” which is just, well, dumb.

Inside the Apple Store I made it through my conversation with the tech entirely in Spanish. O, kind Spanish people, thank you for always telling me I speak well the Spanish even though we both know this is a kind lie.

Sans computer (Diagnosis:  new logic board needed), I walked back out into the chaos of Sol and without meaning to met the eye of a tiny elderly-seeming but oddly ageless woman holding stalks of rosemary in her hands.

She darted; I dodged.  But not quick enough.  Without me quite realizing how it had happened,  was now holding a spring of rosemary, trying to hand it back, and being told there was no cost for whatever was going on, all at the same time.

Sucker! Rube!  She’d hooked me like a fish on a line and was off and running.  I was going to get a phone call from far away.

This made me actually start laughing:  of course I was going to get a phone call from far away — it had never before been so obvious I was a foreigner, otherwise I would have dodged better and gotten away.

Love and the heart; I should kiss the rosemary; her name was Rosa.  It was too late now.  I was well and truly trapped.  When she asked, I opened my hand — the life line, the love line.  I would be separated soon from one of my children.  It was not a bad thing, it would be a happiness.  I would lose something dear to me.

And then, swiftly, smoothly, she pushed a tiny green ball of … something… into my hand.  Nope, she wouldn’t take it back.  I owed her 10 euros.

The truth is, I never carry money anymore, other than a few coins for the buskers in the Metro.  I showed the empty wallet and then, appreciating her skill, dumped what change I had, about 4 euros, into her hand.  The look she gave me dripped disdain.

It’s supposed to be a way you get your pockets picked — in the distraction, but my bag was slung bandolier-fashion across my chest and I’d had my hand on its zipper the whole time.  She walked one way; I walked the other.

And the green pill?  Was I supposed to eat it?  Give it to someone?  My Spanish had not been up to the task, besides she’d been talking awfully fast by that point.  As I walked away, I dropped it on the ground, feeling like I might have a huge “kick me” sign taped to my back.

I admit it:  the whole walk home, I kept wondering if I’d seen through the ruse or been taken in by it.  Had she actually managed to get something from me without me realizing it?

The Husband, of course, is always pragmatic.  Every mother will be separated from her child, he pointed out when I told him what happened.

Yes, but. .. I actually will be separated soon, from my oldest.  Time’s going so fast,  she said plaintively last night.

And it turns out I actually have lost something dear to me.  Replacing the laptop’s logic board will wipe the hard drive I hadn’t bothered to back up in at least 6 months.

10 Things You Use in Europe, But Not in the States


1.  Umbrellas, for miles rather than the time it takes to get the 10 feet from house to car.

2.  Those canvas tote bags you get when you donate to non-profits.

3.  Cobblers. (The person, not the pie.)

4.  A scarf when the temperature gets down to 60 degrees.

5.  Google Translate.

6.  Your national i.d. number, for everything from ordering movie tickets online to picking up your mail at the post office.

7. Bee’s-waxed cheese wrap for the sheep’s cheese you get every couple of days from the store that only sells cheese.

8.  The kitchen counter for your eggs, rather than the refrigerator.

9.  An avocado “for today” that hasn’t been fondled by a hundred people.

10.   A clothes line.

What felt foreign not seems familiar. And now, just to keep us on our toes, we’ll  reverse our locale for a few weeks.



El Puente


8 a.m. Constitution Day 2019, the view from our terrace. Everybody’s still sleeping. 

Madrid is a city of over 3 million (if you include its suburbs, over 6 million) and for me, one of its loveliest characteristics is the way it luxuriates in holidays. Today is Constitution Day; Monday, the Day of the Immaculate Conception (it refers to the Virgin Mary’s conception, not Jesus’s, for those of you, like me, who didn’t know).  A long weekend like this creates what’s known here  as un puente – a bridge.  In the past, whenever holidays happened to fall midweek, it was customary to also take off any days that fell between it and the weekend, creating un puente.  After the Spanish financial crisis, many holidays were moved to Mondays or Fridays, but the habit of calling the long weekend a puente remains.

This morning, the quiet in our Madrid neighborhood is as thick and enveloping as the best feather duvet. You can literally wrap yourself up in itThe narrow elevator in our building, which usually stutters to life at 7:00, either an early-shift worker leaving or a diligent jogger, sits silent.  I’ve only heard one persiana, as the metal shutters  one rolls down over their windows are called, being hauled up, instead of the usual early-morning rattling chorus.  This is the sort of quiet that only comes to Atlanta on Christmas , or a gloriously unexpected snow day.

Today also marks the beginning of our sixth month here.  Six months!  Not much, in the long and short of it, but humans, it seems, are amazingly adaptable.  Whether they plan to or not, they settle in.

Yesterday, I sat for a grueling 2 hour Spanish exam — spoken, written, listening — to see if the language school where I take classes would let me press on to the next level, B1, with a new crop of hung-over youngsters and  tourists who dabble  for a week or two and then disappear and the friend from A2 that I cling to like a port in a storm.

The Imperative will be the death of me, indirect object pronouns are a most terrible pitfall, but I have to admit I enjoyed pretending the examiner was a shopkeeper and I, a customer who needed clothes for a party.

I’ve never been so proud of a score of 77 in my life.

I  went from there to the pharmacy, where I butchered Spanish like a bull in a china shop (como un toro en una farmacia?) But I got what I needed, and the pharmacist even smiled.

El Puente.  The Bridge.  Maybe that’s the stage after You Don’t Know What You Don’t Know and Words Fail — The Bridge.  Things are in flux, we are betwixt and between, neither here nor there, but the view from up here is lovely, and, this morning, tranquility rings though life like a bell.


The pundits, who about as often as you’d expect are expats themselves, have concluded that relocation to a foreign country means not only travel from here to there, known and unknown, and familiar and strange.  It also requires emotional travel  — through a series of distinct stages that actually aren’t all that different, once you really start thinking about it, from Kubler-Ross’s famous stages of grief.

Except that grief’s first stage — Denial — is replaced with the expat’s Honeymoon. (Which one could argue might just be a more positive sort of denial itself.)

During your Honeymoon, a thrill runs down your spine whenever you spot a local strolling down a busy city street with a baguette under their arm (extra points if they’re tearing hunks from it as they go).  Indecipherable packaging for unknown products in the grocery store can entertain you for hours. The old men bellied up to the bar on the corner who drink beer at 8 in the morning are exotic, not to mention picturesque. Even the sound of sirens, so evocative of the foreign films you saw at 20, makes you happy.

Time passes, about six months, according to the experts. If this were grief you were coming to terms with, you’d be moving into Anger and Depression.  The expat version: Frustration. Baguettes serve as the jaunty scaffolding for every canvas shopping bag simply because people here have  to go shopping —and buy bread — every single day.  Otherwise, your baguette will be stale, and besides, your kitchen can’t hold more than a day’s worth of groceries.  In this stage, you’ve stopped noticing the way everybody gathers at the sidewalk cafes, only that everybody who does so is smoking, no matter the tobacco pouches sitting on the wrought iron tables in front of them are printed with photos of cancerous mouths and the words Fumar Mata (Smoking Kills).

Next stage.  Grief requires Bargaining, but the expat has already rocketed ahead and reached — Acceptance.  You’re no longer disappointed when you wake up to yesterday’s rock-hard bread.  It doesn’t bother you that you can’t eat dinner in a restaurant until after 8:30, or that the shop where you buy your baguette is closed whenever you have time to go there.

It is what it is  is grief’s final stage, but the expat gets a bonus, a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow:  Assimilation.  Now, you don’t even get hungry until ten o’clock at night anymore.  You too nibble the end of your baguette as you stride down the street to stave off hunger. You’ve taken up smoking!

It’s a neat exercise, a pretty enough picture (though I’d argue that very few expats ever reach assimilation). But five months in, five months gone from home, I’d divvy things up otherwise, from a first stage of You Don’t Know What You Don’t Know to Words Fail and then to — what?

It’s too early to say.  I haven’t gotten there yet. Words, in fact, fail me.  At the beginning, in my honeymoon phase, I not only figured a year of Spanish taken over 30 years ago would get me farther than it realistically could, I also thought if I applied myself diligently, I could crack the code.

Of what?


I’m of two minds about the whole endeavor.  Which endeavor?  This, these bytes and bits and blogs.  These words. Because instead of bloodshed these days, we seem to have come to a sort of wordshed,  a gout, a spill, a fountain, from the sublime to the ridiculous, from the granulated to the broadest brush.

You should keep a blog, people would say while I was busy packing up there in preparation for here.  I’ve spent four months thinking why?  A blog and five bucks will buy you a latte.  What is there left to say about being a stranger in a strange land that hasn’t been said 5 billion times before, from Baedeker to Hemingway to Rick Steves?

Nevertheless, the impulse remains — to describe. The jamón sits in the shop window at full extension, vegetarian nightmare, a Rockette’s kick.  The cypresses are spears in the park, narrowly European.  The old man with his cane comes into the frutería heaped high — in summer you eat tomatoes and now you eat what God put into the ground to be eaten.  They’ve come!  he says joyfully,  waving his cane toward the bins of chestnuts in benediction.

I’m from a much younger country, our chestnuts disappeared in the 1920s.  I don’t even know how you eat them!  I’ll  never know enough about this country to tell any story beyond that of the typical expat — but then again, maybe, if I’m lucky, I can snap a few good photos along the way, and try my best, to describe things.


Words Fail