The Dance

Yesterday afternoon it was decided that Madrid will move to Phase 0.5.

A couple of weeks ago, when I used the word inching to describe how we might move toward The New Normality, I had no idea how accurate I was. The needle moves

s l o w l y.

What 0.5 really means is that we’re still in Phase 0, just with benefits: stores under 400m employing the proper distancing can open (and you can go to a wake attended by 10 people). No sidewalk terraces, no gatherings at home. The regulations about exercise are still in place.

I’m ok with caution. The more things open up, the more our cases inch up as well. Early on, someone wrote a piece about COVID19 that was widely circulated called The Hammer and the Dance. I’m not enough of a numbers geek to have really dug into it, but I like the imagery of its title, which refers to how to deal with the virus: smash it with a hammer first, then dance delicately around it. Right now, here in Madrid, we’re dancing.

This morning I suggested to M that maybe we could rent bikes tomorrow. Bikes and running are exercise, which means you can do either of them for the entire 4 hour exercise window in the morning — as long as you stay in your municipality. Taking a walk, on the other hand, isn’t exercise, it’s just taking a walk. You can take a walk for an hour, but only within a km to home.

Wait, I said after I made my suggestion about the bikes. We can walk together but we have to exercise apart. This could mean only 30 feet apart, I guess, and pretending, if we have to, that we’ve never seen each other before, but parameters and subterfuge kind of take the joy out of things.

We seem to have about three topics of conversation these days: the daily count of COVID19 cases; politics, genus American or Spanish; and what exactly we can do, and when.

M can take a walk with P between 6-10 a.m. but on Saturday P doesn’t get up until 9:30, so M will take a walk with K. M or K are supposed to go to the grocery store alone, between 9 and 9, although they shouldn’t do it between 9- 10 am, because that’s set aside for the elderly. 10- 11 is the elderly’s time to walk, so they will glare at you if you go out then. And so on…

The Dance.

I’ve kept this diary a little over two months now. Confession: over those two months, also I’ve kept a few things from it. Like the fact that on the second day of the State of Alarm, M had a slight fever and thus was isolated in the bedroom for a week, with me leaving food at the door for him and talking to him via cellphone. (We didn’t want our parents to know about this, but on about day 6, my mom noticed and asked How’s M? You talk about you and the girls doing things but what’s he doing? )

Also during those early days, there was a lot of anxious expat chatter about going or staying. We weren’t going anywhere — this is home now. But people we knew who were planning to leave by summer had to jump or not jump. Rumors flew. Flights got cancelled. It felt a little like Saigon in the days before its airlift. Friends we’d made, a family with two college kids whose colleges had just shut down in the states, who were planning to leave in summer anyway, decided they needed to get while the getting was good. They left me the key to their apartment, so people could pick things up when the lockdown loosened, in a street-side hand-off worthy of The Third Man.

Yesterday, I slipped over to their apartment to leave the key for the leasing company. Someday, somehow, that apartment might rent again. On he walk home, I spotted a little boy across the wide avenue, five or six, proudly carrying a tissue-wrapped bouquet of three roses, sweetheart red, rosy pink, a splash of yellow. his dad trailing behind him. A once-common sight, now rare: somewhere, in the direction I was headed, a florist must be open.

Open, as in you stand in the door and tell them what you want while a queue waiting 2 meters apart gathers behind you.  I bought an armful of tulips and peonies without thought to the cost.  A little spring for the house since we had no spring, I told the salesclerk.  Yes! she agreed enthusiastically from behind her mask. We missed it. A  mother and little boy stopped statue still on the sidewalk in front of the display. The little boy was in ecstasies.  

— Mama! Look! Beautiful flowers, Mama!   Are they open? Are we getting some?  Mama, THEY ARE SO BEAUTIFUL. Are they really open? They’re beautiful.

You didn’t have to be able to speak great Spanish to understand the wonder in his voice, the joy, at this, the commonplace, the world’s most exuberant magic trick.

New Words for a New World

The other day, a kid on a chat group with elder daughter called the Prime Minister a communist; later an expat mom did the same. This was clearly an insult/epithet, but I come from a country where 1. socialist is bad word enough, you don’t bother with communist and 2. you’re more likely to hear social justice warrior and liberal snowflake as pejoratives.

Maybe they were just pissed Madrid couldn’t move to Phase 1. Maybe using the word says something about their own political leanings. I had no idea what they were trying to get across; the subtleties escaped me.

I had no idea what they were trying to get across; the subtleties escaped me.

This is my normal state. The truth is: I don’t have enough words. Other customers six feet in front of me in line at the bakery have conversations with the counter people about their children and grandchildren and dogs and their life philosophies; mine is an exchange of fines, rudimentary talk about the weather, and yes, I want a lid for the coffee but I don’t need the little stick for stirring. When what I really want to ask is what does it mean when somebody calls Pedro Sanchez a communist? or what is it like to sell bread all day in the middle of a pandemic? or Why do you use the familiar tense with me here at the bakery but the lady won’t, no matter how friendly I am, at the frutería? I’d like to blame this inability to get social nuance on the fact that we’re all muffled by masks — but I can’t.

Twenty-five years ago, when M and I lived in Frankfurt, I learned less German than I’m now learning Spanish, but I gained so much admiration for the way the German language jigsaws together words to express complex emotions and states of being:

Weltschmerz. (World pain, the sense of having the world’s weight on your shoulders.)

Mutterseelenallein. (So alone not even your mother can stand being with you.)

Schadenfreude. (Taking joy in other’s pain.)

Ever since La Cuarentena started, I’ve felt like I’m grasping for words that don’t even exist yet. What’s the word for the searing rage and sorrow one feels watching their home country’s political dumpster fire become a conflagration of epic proportions?

For homesickness for a place that may not ever exist again?

For feeling like you need to wash your hands — when you just washed them?

For nostalgia for things that were struck from the books?

For the strange dreams that come with quarantine?

Yesterday, we ventured, not without trepidation, outside the neighborhood for the first time since early March, for the girls’ trip to the orthodontist. No amount of pouring over the newspapers or discussion with expats beforehand made it clear whether 1, 2, or 3 of us could ride in a cab together. Eventually I just walked down to the corner to talk to the cabbie who always waits there. Yes, we could all three go together, because we’re a family, and the trip was to a doctor (we had a special, very official-sounding note). Relief all the way around.

When time came to climb in the cab we’d hailed, that driver said only 2 of us could sit in the back seat. One would have to sit in front with him, on the wrong side of the plexiglass barrier. This made no sense to me. If an American cabbie had told me this, I would have asked questions — but we’re not in Kansas anymore, so I didn’t.

You’d think our drive would have been accompanied by trumpet flourishes, but Madrid looked the same. Just emptier. The orthodontist’s office, on the other hand, was so spotless, it made your teeth hurt. Everyone working there was sealed away like astronauts.

When we left, the thought of sitting up front with a taxi driver made at least two of us feel itchy inside, so we decided to walk home. Whether or not this was permissible was … unknowable. On the one hand, we had that note… on the other, we were an hour’s walk from home. It was during the timeframe when a parent can walk with three children. But are teenagers children? We spread ourselves out, one after another, with 20 feet between us.

One of my Spanish teachers once told his class that, should we ever be stopped by the police, we should just tell them we didn’t speak Spanish. But as it turns out, the policía are much more interested in stopping pairs of adolescent boys than they are women with gray in their hair with surly teens in tow.

It was drizzling. We were close to home when I realized my mask had gotten too damp to do its job. Nobody was walking anywhere near us. I ripped it off and breathed deep.

It also turns out masks do work, at least in some ways: it was only at that point that I realized we’d been walking past a stand of rainsoaked lilacs for the past 10 minutes.

A few minutes later, an abuela at least 20 feet away from me glared. At my maskless face, even though masks aren’t even suggested outside, just in the metro or inside public spaces? At the teenagers, who were laughing?

But oh, the scent of those lilacs! That long walk! The censure was worth it, and someday in this New World, there may just be a word for that.

Limbo/Liminality/Phase 0

Mannequin clad in protective gear; Madrid, 10 May 2020.

Today, half of Spain moves into Phase 1, which means that, among other things, their sidewalk terraces will open at 1/3 capacity — but not Madrid. We’re still in Phase 0. We could’ve seen this coming, but it stings nevertheless.

Another thing that turns out to be true about human nature: you always want what you can’t have. As soon as we could go out for an hour a day between 6 a.m. – 10 a.m. or 8:00 p.m. – 11 p.m., I immediately wanted to go out instead at, say, 2:45, and for an hour and 45 minutes instead of just an hour. Or I wanted to go somewhere else altogether, like the beach.

Opening a door a crack busts open the floodgates. Officially, we can take a walk with one other person from the same domicile or we can exercise alone, but I’d bet money the groups of bicyclists that gather like schools of fish at each red light are only pretending not to know each other. I also don’t believe for a red hot second that all the people walking two-by-two actually live together; you just don’t see that many women in their 50s who have roommates, likewise men in their 60s, or 16-year-olds, for that matter.

In 1985, my sophomore year of college, I took Medieval Literature, for reasons that probably weren’t clear to me then, and definitely aren’t clear to me now. (If liberal arts is truly the most useless of studies, medieval literature surely holds pride of place as the most useless study within it). These past two months of La Cuarentena are literally the first time in 35 years I’ve thought about that class.

But right before the State of Alarm, when those who could in Madrid decamped to their second homes, I remembered how, in the Decameron, those nobles fled Florence during the Black Death, and set themselves up in a deserted villa where they ate well, drank good white wine, and told raunchy stories. It was strangely comforting to think that we’d been here before, that humans tend to behave in predictable, if greedy and self-interested, ways.

Phase 0, our threshold, our pause, our jumping-off place between Lockdown and New Normality, is full of rules and just about as complicated as Limbo was in Dante’s Inferno. Limbo, the first circle of hell, meant traveling through 7 gates, the first of which had, (I think), Abandon Hope, All Ye Who Enter Here written above it.

Tomorrow I have to take the kids to the orthodontist, which is allowed, but requires a paper from the practitioner and a level of trust and organization that may be beyond me. It’s still unclear if the three of us can ride in the same cab. The subway’s running, but only at 30 percent capacity, and it’ll be years before we can convince ourselves to set foot on it.

We might actually consider walking there, but that would take an hour. Besides, the appointment isn’t during the time when we’re allowed out, and even if it was, one of us would have to walk 20 ft. behind the other two and pretend she didn’t know us.

Beyond here, there be monsters. We stand on the threshold.

Que Será, Será (Whatever Will Be, Will Be)

Statue of Important Person Contemplates Facemask.

A fairy tale seemed like a great place to take leave of our story, but fairy tales, no matter how lovely, are never life, entirely. The plot trundles on after the Happy Ever After — likewise, Phase 0 keeps on keeping on after the terrible trombone player stops playing I Will Survive.

Throughout these strange days, I’ve really been enjoying my fantasy that Spain lacked the sort of angry agitation America excels at. Actually, enjoying is the wrong word: I’ve been clinging to this view, brought about by equal parts isolation and lack of language skills, like it was a lifeline. But yesterday, someone in my Moms of Class of 2020 wasap asked us all to write Pablo Casado, the leader of PP, to request that he vote against extending the state of alarm and the dictadura social-podemita (this sort of translates to the far-left dictatorship). Vox, the far-right party, wants us to quit applauding for the essential workers, because applauding for them keeps us from beating pots against the government. (There’s a lot less applause now, but that’s because most adults go outside to exercise right at 8 p.m.) Then an anti-vaxer posted a petition on the Expats of Madrid FB feed.

This, I’m afraid, is the coda honesty forces me to add to The Fairy Tale, just in case some future person reads this diario virus and wants to try to extrapolate things from it.

Back in early April, when someone was dying roughly every minute and a half in Spain, you didn’t see this kind of thing, just pictures of bread people baked and heart emojis. Maybe when you’re terrified there’s no room for bile. Or maybe it all comes down to trying to exert control over something we have absolutely no power over, el mal bicho, el puto virus. Some of us try to control it by wiping down the soles of our shoes with bleach, others by convincing ourselves it’s no worse than the flu.

Before Eldest was born, back when we were young and foolish, M and I spent weeks agonizing over the baby gear: safest stroller, safest car seat, best crib to go with our decor. Because the pregnancy books suggested it, I wrote a Birth Plan detailing how I wanted things to go once I got to the hospital: no bath for baby right away (she got a bath); no interventions unless absolutely necessary (as if I knew anything about that). Around the same time, my mother suggested that maybe my generation tried to control everything. I rolled my eyes, because that’s exactly what you should do when your mother points out something like this.

But maybe there’s something to that, maybe we’ve been lucky enough to live most of our lives in a world we have at least the illusion of controlling. And now here we are, confronted with an implacable adversary whose raison d’être is not to be controlled. It doesn’t care whether we believe in irt or not. It will just keep doing what it does, which is try to grow.

Today’s El País reports Madrid may not be ready to go to Phase 1 next Monday.

As I took a walk this morning, I reminded myself: Breathe deep. I cannot control this. And then my own coda to that, in my head: este mal bicho, este puto virus — this bad bug, this fucking virus. If I could swear with the elegance of a Spaniard, I would.

The Fairy Tale

Madrid has woken up, like an enchanted castle that has been asleep for a hundred years. When we went to sleep in March it was still the tail-end of winter; now it’s the onset of summer. The world is full of normal sounds, for the first time in 50 days: cars (though not as much), horns (though not as many), the swish of a broom as a portero cleans a building’s stoop and sidewalk. The grafitti-inscribed roll-down shutters covering storefronts are halfway up, the proprietors are inside, cleaning and assessing: today, for the first time, people will be able to pick up food to eat at home. There was a line in front of the post office this morning; another in front of the bank. When I woke up, my alarm clock informed me it was May 4, which seemed absurd. I felt the way I feel when I wake up from a dream that I’m back in college: it takes a few minutes, a reckoning, to swim back to the proper time, the actual date.

Saturday, my first time out on my own, I started out walking quickly, wanting to clear the cobwebs from my head, but the truth is, it’s hard to move fast when your eyes are welling up with tears. It’s sweet, this old world, to paraphrase Lucinda Williams, and we’re most alive out there in it.

There’s both a morning and and evening time set aside for exercise (although the evening slot, from 8 until 11, is called an afternoon slot, as the Spanish would have it), and yesterday, M and I went out right on the dot of 8, which let us see the last few minutes of the nightly applause on the streets around us. We finally figured out where the DJ with the loudspeaker lives. He was waxing flowery about mothers, since it was Mother’s Day here: nice sentiments but I sure am glad we haven’t lived next to him for the past two months. It turns out our block-long street is boring: on some of the surrounding ones, they’ve been doing things up, with dance parties and sing-alongs. Who knew that FOMO could be part of a pandemic?

Five hundred lifetimes ago, when I was thirteen, and we were en route to Guadalajara, Mexico, where my father was about to take up a year’s Fulbright, my parents left my brother and me in our hotel room in Saltillo or Zacatecas one night and went out for a walk, and to explore. It was past dark, and taking walks in the dark wasn’t something my parents usually did. But it was different here, my mother said, when they came back, energized: there, everyone went out to dar un paseo, to take a walk: slow-moving old folks, giant clamorous families containing multiple generations , self-absorbed courting couples, gangs of teenagers.

Last night as the sun went down, Madrid indulged in a giant paseo. It was beautiful to see, once I got over my (not small) anxiety over seeing so many people out at once. So many middle-aged, long-married couples holding hands! It did one’s heart good to see them. The kids, who’re only allowed out between 12-7, were all up on the balconies, making noise.

And there on the corner: a guy playing I Will Survive, quite badly, on the trombone.

Phase O

860D41B5-60F5-4005-BE53-BC34EFC7C6EC.JPGYesterday, a friend told me she’d gotten a call from her doctor to talk about scheduling an non-Covid19-related procedure postponed since March.

The doctor said she should plan for it next week, or maybe the week after.

As she told me this, I walked myself through all the steps she was going to have to take, from opening the door of her apartment to arriving at the doctor’s office, and I could hardly get my head around them.  It turns out to be true: it takes a month to make new habits.  I can hardly fathom walking around outside at this point.  Taking the metro?  Seeing a movie?  Right now, I can’t even imagine ever wanting  to be that close to people.

Yesterday, also, younger daughter and I walked down the wide thoroughfare I haven’t set foot on since early March.  The plane trees in the median, bare then, are now completely gowned in hopeful green.  They rustled as we passed. 

There were sadder signs of change as well:  a bakery founded in 1933 with a For Rent  sign across its shuttered door, and two doors down, another one.

The New Normality will not, cannot, be the Old Normality.

We’ll inch toward it gradually here.  Our official lockdown doesn’t end for a while longer, but tomorrow is May Day and no one has virtual work or school.  Saturday we can each go out to exercise.  So I’m proclaiming this, today, the end of True Lockdown.

Funny how it works:  when there’s an end date to something in sight, you can stand it better. During La Cuarentena I didn’t complete the half-finished novel and I didn’t become a proficient yogini.  But I did clean the bathroom grout with a toothbrush and wash all the windows, and that’s got to serve for something. Today I’m planning something excessive and exuberant and time-consuming and ridiculous:  for the first and probably only time in my life, I’m  going to make croissants from scratch.

La Desescalada*


IMG_4649.jpg*The de-escalation.

Yesterday afternoon, I heard via my expat-WhatsApp-chat grapevine that the Prime Minister was about to announce the plan for Spain’s de-escalation, or, as it has officially been named, the “Plan for the Transition to a New Normality.”

Twenty-four years ago, M and I lived in Germany, where, among other things, we learned to carefully sort our household garbage into five different bins, to not hang clothes on the line on the balcony on Sundays, and to be prompt.  For that reason, I was sitting in front of the TV promptly at 2 p.m., more than ready for Pedro Sánchez to end my suspense about the immediate future.

The music Spain’s 24 hour news station has come up with for COVID-19 is vaguely sinister and extremely anxiety-producing.  Likewise, the giant coronavirus projected behind every newscaster’s right shoulder.  I’ve heard some kids imagine El Virus as a gigantic bug, a sort of Godzilla laying waste to the streets—and after spending 20 minutes staring at an illustration of that giant thorny ball, I don’t blame them.

Some day I want to live in a world where we don’t have to see that image anymore.

After those 20 minutes,  I realized just how naive I was being. Ever since the beginning of  the crisis, announcements supposed to take place at a certain time have ended up happening five hours later.

I turned off the TV.  If nothing else, I have to absorb the lesson that I can’t control any of this, not even the flow of information.

Eventually, (five hours later, of course) we received the information.

Beginning on Saturday, we will be able to go outside for an hour a day, parameters to be announced shortly.

The de-escalation will take place in four phases, the first of which is called …Phase 0.

If there’s not a spike in new cases, the earliest we will reach the New Normality will be the end of June.

This morning, El Pais came up with a flow chart to break down the complexity of the phases (30% capacity is a magic number throughout).  I knew they would, and they didn’t disappoint me.  One of the greatest and happiest surprises of the past few months has been how religiously I read El Pais.  I even — and this feels like a huge step toward Europe and away from the USA — purchased a subscription.

So here we are.  Not even at the beginning of the end, as Churchill put it, but at the End of the Beginning.


La Montaña Rusa


IMG_4640.jpg*The Roller Coaster.

A few weeks ago, while talking with a colleague locked down in Italy, M admitted he wasn’t feeling completely super-great, emotionally.

You’re in the valley,  the colleague soothed him.  Week 3 and 4 are hard.  After that, it’s just life.  It feels better, more normal.

Well, yes and no.  Honestly,  from the vantage point of Week 7, I can hardly even make out Week 3 in the rearview mirror.  It feels like eons ago.

And the trip we made to Lisbon at the end of February — we were entirely different people then, foolish people, who rode to get pasteis de nata on a bus so packed that I spent most of the 20-minute trip with my nose buried in the armpit of an elderly Portuguese woman clad head to toe in black, breathing in her (quite strong) smell of wool and sweat.

This is why Southern Europe’s lockdown looks so different from the United States’.  Daily life — normal daily life — means an intimacy with strangers that Americans, outside of those living in New York or maybe Chicago, have a hard time grasping

I certainly couldn’t grasp it, back in my American life when I spent the largest portion of my days either in a car or in a house that looked inward, to a private backyard,  rather than outward to the street.

It didn’t even occur to me how sealed off from things I usually stayed, the way John Travolta was kept away from the scary germ-filled world in his plastic bubble in that old Seventies movie, The Boy in The Bubble.   Shopping — high capitalism — was the main way I rubbed shoulders with strangers.

And maybe that goes a long way toward explaining why Americans are being asked to save the economy instead of their grandmothers.  And I should watch The Boy in the Bubble this weekend, a marathon screening along with Rear Window, and try to make meaning from pop culture, like reading tea leaves.

The other day I sat at my desk overlooking the courtyard between our building and the one adjacent, the vantage point from which I daily watch a neighbor as he washes out his grocery bags.  This time, he  was seated at his own desk, and his head was sunk into his hands, and I had the feeling he was crying.

Another afternoon I sat in our living room and observed Lonely Smoking Guy across the way, as he stood on his terrace and very very carefully wiped off canned goods and a bunch of bananas.

The couple with the corner terrace sometimes eat lunch as late as 5 p.m. and always share a bottle of wine.  They’ve taken up painting, as have Manbun and his Significant Other, four apartments away. I’d like to see the results of their labor.

Eldest was designated hunter-and-gatherer Sunday and went to the store, which is allowed because at 18, she’s considered an adult here — she could even buy a bottle of wine, if she wanted.

On the way back to the apartment, she saw a little kid, three or four years old, sprung out into the world for the very first time since quarantine started.  He was riding one of those wooden bikes without pedals, designed for the littlest kids, who can get up a good head of steam with them just using their own sturdy two legs as pedals.

He was skimming rapidly down the sidewalk, tears streaming down his face — a poignant reminder of what it may mean, to move bumpily, in fits and starts, with many missteps, toward our future normal.