The Long Strange Road

Voting in Atlanta, 2016

On Election Day, 1968, things were different.

Or maybe not. The summer before, the Democratic National Convention had been convulsed by violence. All over America, people were lying down in front of buses of draftees, and weeping, weeping. Weeping with rage, with grief, from tear gas. But I was a four-year-old in Madison, WI; I knew none of that.

That November afternoon, my mother took me and my younger brother with her when she went to vote. The sun sets early this time of year in the Midwest and the polling place was some sort of institutional space I’d only seen before in daylight. My view was a forest of pants legs. I sweltered inside my winter coat, my knitted hat, my scarf, my mittens as we waited, edged forward, waited again.

Once we got to it, the voting booth was a private space, hardly big enough to hold the three of us and my brother’s stroller. My mother drew closed the curtain that clattered on its rings and lifted me to see the strange mechanism of the levers.

Would it be too much — to say there was something about the process that felt mysterious and almost holy?

Todos los Santos

One of the big debates earlier this week this week was whether or not those of us in the (theoretically) confined neighborhoods of Madrid would be able to visit the cemeteries this weekend. All Saints Day is a national holiday throughout Spain, and its celebration yesterday and today is one of the reasons Madrid and the two adjacent autonomous regions closed their borders to travel over the 3-day weekend.* Traditionally, All Saints is the day you visit the graves of your loved ones— to tidy up, to bring flowers, to remember.

Some sources said yes we could go to the cemeteries, some said no. At that point, I just threw up my hands and said who knows? and have been keeping my own counsel (this applies not just to the weekend but to the confinement in general).

The chestnut roasters appeared on the street corners this weekend; the leaves are starting to turn. We are moving toward the quiet still point of the year. This morning, we honored the day with a wander through the Cementerio de La Almudena, Madrid’s necropolis of 5 million dead.

*Well, the other two regions closed their borders until after the next 3-day weekend, a week from today. At the last minute Madrid decided to close theirs just this weekend and next weekend, but keep them open in between. Confused yet? The only thing I know for sure is that there’s a curfew between midnight and six a.m.

Fall Pubs

My first Madrid pub! So very pleased to appear in Madrid No Frills. Begun with a mission “to give a voice to all those wonderful places, people and stories that all other Madrid blogs ignored” Madrid No Frills now takes on some of Madrid’s thorniest issues with passion and love for this changing, complicated city.

A flower stand that beckons to passers-by with its array of colourful bouquets and a churros kiosk redolent with frying oil both jockey for position on the sidewalk in front of hospitals San Carlos and Fundación Jiménez Díaz in Moncloa. A milling throng of people, both whole and hurt, indicates the presence of a bustling urban medical facility nearby.

But a short walk up the service road between the two hospitals takes you far away from the sound of traffic and sirens. There, one of the feral cats that is a fixture of the area emerges from the bushes to lead you to a high flat vantage point overlooking wasteland.

Hyper-local: Day 3

This is not the door to our apartment building.

This morning, I left the neighborhood to go to Spanish class. I had my letter of permission ready to go — but as it turned out, I didn’t need it. Either I’m extraordinarily good at missing checkpoints or they don’t exist.

I suspect the latter. Though Madrid’s health services has posted a template permission-to-leave-the-area letter on its website and various politicos are at this very moment discussing whether or not those of us in the confinement zones will be allowed to leave our zones to visit the cemeteries on All Soul’s Day (November 2), life in the street is the same as it ever was.

Given 2020’s general lack of predictability and follow through, I’d say this is pretty much par for the course.*

*Not that I’m complaining.

Hyper-local: Day 2

So far, our confinamiento perimetral seems to be mainly on the honor system. This morning, I walked the boundary streets and sticking to them rather than just heading down to the park took self-discipline: nobody official was checking anything. Maybe all the people crossing the street from allowable to unallowed were going to work, school, or the doctor… or maybe not.

The usual suspects — tottery old people with their chicas at the ready at their elbows to steady them, dog walkers towing spanish greyhounds and west highland terriers (two of Madrid’s favorite breeds), the hale and hearty carrying barras of bread under their arms — were out taking their morning constitutionals.

One thing that stopping to snap pictures highlighted was how close people stand next to each other. There may have been many epidemiological failures in Spain — but the fact is, this also is a convivial culture.

Usually about ten a.m., students from the nearby universities travel into the neighborhood in huge packs to sit together at the sidewalk cafes to play cards, roll cigarettes, and down a mid-morning beer. Right now, that group is largely absent — but I did catch two businessmen on their mid-morning coffee break.

Stopping to take photos also reminded me how many things I can buy in a few block’s radius of our apartment, from cookies to coffee pots to chestnuts to bookbinding supplies.

Plus hams. Just think how many hams hang inside shops just in Madrid alone. (Note both the ham-drip catchers and the “covid eradication station.”

Hyper-local: Day 1

As of yesterday, all of Spain sits under a newly-enacted State of Alarm. Version II is much lighter than March’s was — we aren’t confined to our houses, just subject to curfews* and building capacity restrictions — but the silence this morning, so complete that it was practically touchable, yanked me back to Covid’s earliest days.

If I wanted to describe the location of our apartment in progressively granular ways, I’d say: we live in Madrid, in the neighborhood of Chamberí, in the sub-section of Chamberí called Gaztambide, inside the six-block area of Gaztambide serviced by the Guzmán el Bueno Health Center.

Chamberí is often labeled the most castizo — authentic or traditional— of Madrid neighborhoods. Though I think that description really depends on how you choose to define authentic, Chamberí is arguably less touristy than the more central neighborhoods and less pijo (posh) than Salamanca, home of Gucci and Madrid’s Golden Mile. Each of Chamberí’s six sub-neighborhoods has its own flavor. Almagro, containing the former mansions of the 19th century elite, feels sedate and fin de siècle. The northern two areas, Rio Rosas and Vallehermoso, dotted with high-rise brutalist apartment buildings, scream out that they were built up in the 1960s and 70s.

Gaztambide, the westernmost area, within a stone’s throw of several universities, feels scrappier. The siege of Madrid during the Spanish Civil War hit Gaztambide particularly hard, because it was so close to the western front. Nowadays, in Gaztambide, students who sit in the cafes in packs, families navigating the streets with scooters, bikes, and strollers, and the elderly who nurse their cañas in the cafes all rub shoulders. Our streets are dirtier; Gaztambide dog owners are congenitally incapable of scooping their poop.

And the Guzmán el Bueno health zone within Gaztambide? Within that six-block by seven block area, we have at least

21,000 neighbors

7 book stores

7 fruterías

13 bakeries

10 supermarkets

3 hardware stores

In short, the area that feeds into the Guzmán el Bueno primary healthcare center is a microcosm of Madrid.


By last Saturday, I’d dreamed, over and over, that I had Covid and was trying to explain to a contact tracer in Spanish where I’d been for the past five days, The will we? won’t we? roller coaster of possible confinement felt unending. My Octopus Teacher, the new Netflix documentary about the year filmmaker Craig Foster spends diving a particular kelp forest and observing a particular octopus, sounded — well, sonorous — but also like just what the doctor ordered.

Early in the film, when Foster talks about why he started making his dives, he points out that it’s only through close, repeated observation of a place that you can begin to truly learn it. He’s speaking as a naturalist, of course, but it made me wonder — what would happen if I took the area of Madrid inside my “confinamiento perimetral” and really looked at it for the next two weeks?

The truth is — at least on Day 1 — this confinement feels pretty nominal. People freely cross from the allowed side of the street to the unallowed one. I saw more photojournalists stopping passers-by than I did police officers. There might be a few less people out on the street, but I don’t know if I’d notice that if I hadn’t been primed to do so.

All the same, the U.S. election is 7DAYS16HOURS38MINUTES away. The Big Picture is just a bit much.

So for the next two weeks, my plan is to dive deep — and to go small.

*The prime minister yesterday described the situation as a “nocturnal confinement” rather than a curfew, but I think they’re the same thing.

El Mundo es un Pañuelo*

The Community of Madrid’s plan for dealing with Covid’s second wave was going to be much more surgical this time around, the powers-that-be said a month ago. No more broad strokes like last spring: we’re going to get in there and excise cases with a scalpel!

Thus, in mid-September, 37 health areas, most of them in the southern part of Madrid, most of them crowded, most of them working-class, were only allowed in and out of their health area for essential activities such as going to school or work, for 2 weeks.

Governmental fisticuffs immediately ensued. The national government said Madrid’s yardstick of 1000 cumulative cases per 100,000 inhabitants in the past 14 days was too loose. (Some European standards set the risk threshold at 50 cases per 100,000.) They had a different plan; Madrid took that plan to court; in response national government decreed a State of Alarm that along with lowered capacity and shortened hours, meant Madrileños theoretically couldn’t leave Madrid during the long weekend on October 12.

As you can see, it’s been a very busy month, governmentally speaking. The right wing Vox party even had time to put forward a no confidence vote in the government (it failed).

Meanwhile, Covid, which cares nothing for niceties or political parties, does what it does best — which is to grow.

The State of Alarm ends this Saturday at 4 p.m.. Did that mean we could go where ever we wanted? Honestly, I’d stopped paying a lot of attention. We wear our masks, we wash our hands, we keep our heads down. We do our best.

Late yesterday I remembered that there’d been a big press conference a few hours earlier and maybe I should check El Pais.

One change: socializing with people outside of your family will not be allowed between midnight and 6 a.m.

Another: 32 new heath areas —a health area is the part of a neighborhood serviced by a particular public health center — with more than 500 cases per 100,000 inhabitants will be will be placed under “perimetral lockdown.”

Which means you can leave the area for school or work or to go to the doctor and that’s about it. I expected the list to be places I’d never heard of, but I’m sure you can guess what I’ve been leading up to with these dense background paragraphs. Our health area has been confined for 2 weeks, starting Monday morning. We can walk around freely within our roughly six block area but are subject to fines if we leave without justification.

There’s a saying in Spanish: El mundo es un pañuelo. The world is a handkerchief! This roughly translates as small world! and is what you say when you have unexpected connections.

For a few weeks, as Madrid moves from fall into winter, my world really will be the size of a handkerchief. This may be less of a physical hardship than it is a conceptual one. I can leave the area to go to Spanish class. And within our six blocks we have a department store, book stores, hardware stores, cheese shops, fishmongers, bakeries. But my pharmacy, where I always pick up my prescriptions, where they know my face and tolerate my language deficits with kindness, is just on the other side of the perimetral boundary.

Just how this experiment in hyper-local living is going to unfold is anyone’s guess.

First Person, Singular

I don’t remember just when or where or why I read this, but recently I learned about scholarly research that concluded that a woman’s propensity toward postpartum depression can be predicted by increased use of first-person singular pronouns (“I” or “me”) in her social media posts.

The first question this raises is — exactly what other pronouns should one use in Facebook or Twitter besides I and me?  Social media is a solipsistic medium.  It’s not called a platform or a brand for nothing.  Expressing oneself is the stated goal, isn’t it? 

(And in a sort of corollary to that first question, would tweeting about “they” all the time really be a marker of better mental health?) 

And in this vein, a good topic for future research might be  — does a woman who will go on to have postpartum depression really use first-person singular pronouns more than our current president?

In the 1980s, when I took my first creative writing class, one of the cardinal rules of literary workshops was that the third-person singular point of view was the gold standard for storytelling.  If you were going tell a story from any other point of view, you damn well better have a good reason for that choice.

That rule was so long ago thrown out the window that it just seems quaint.  First-person narration is the default and has been for years.  In fact, I doubt my younger daughter ever read a book told from the third-person point of view until this year, when she had to read Animal Farm for school (Animal Farm as an assignment = more quaintness). 

In the early 2000s, it became au courant to tell stories in the second-person, sort of like this:  You walk into the kitchen.  You make yourself a sandwich, and then you think…

And right now, there are more stories told from the first-person plural point of view than you can shake a stick at: We had been to the best schools, now we had good jobs and good wives and good children…    

The point is (for me), pronoun use is a choice, predicated by the medium and the times in which you (we?) write. 

The second point is, poor women, having children.  They just can’t catch a break.  These days, we even scrutinize their tweets for evidence of shaky mental health.      

On the Threshold

At Spanish school, people come, and people go.

Pre-COVID, young people on their semester abroad might show up with grand optimistic visions of spending their next 4 months going to class. Within a few weeks they always succumbed to the siren song of going out to bars instead. The other American cohort, the newly-retired tourists earnestly combining a vacation of a few weeks with a blitzkrieg of language-learning, usually fared better, although, since they foreswore the bars, they probably had less fun.

Both sorts of Americans are gone now, of course. Gone also, the Australian who dreamed of being a diplomat, the Iranian woman who only lasted a week and during the break offered me sweet scalding tea from her thermos, and the young Chinese man who told us that when the bureaucrats at a certain office saw him in line (he’d been there every day for over a week), they shook their heads.

What endures: an overarching mood of dumb inadequacy. I’ve seen tears once or twice, and on one exciting day, a guy from Tunisia stormed out, never to return. For the most part, though, we come back, paying good money to be humbled again and again and again.

In intensive classes, one is force-fed grammar the way they force feed geese (it’s not pretty), and the goal is to cover a unit a week. The larger goal is to move from one level to the next in three months. With a schedule that tight, there’s little time for extraneous conversation.

The final exams for each level take place on Wednesdays. The Thursday and Friday after that introduce grammar from the next level — but by that point we’ve either failed the exam and don’t care or have passed and are giddy.

Last Wednesday, 3 of 4 of us passed the B1 exam. After that the teacher wanted to teach us how to use the subjunctive in sentences of consequences but we were having none of it. What I learned instead: one of my companions in class had worked in a hotel in Singapore frequented by the famous. Obama “was nice.” Trump “is tall and and looks like this — straight ahead. He goes through the kitchen so no one will see him.”

Theoretically, we’re now capable of describing circumstances and events, dreams, hopes, and ambitions. In reality, we keep things simple. Our dream, hope, and ambition?

Back in the dim recesses of level A2, a teacher told us that by some point in B2 it would all start to click. The click happened for every single person, she promised, it was unavoidable.

Our goal? That click. We’re at the threshold.

It’s All Gone Pear-Shaped

Every single time I think about sitting down to write anything here, another episode on the Reality Show that is 2020 (aka The ShitShow) gets dropped and I think — why bother? What can anyone on earth possibly say in the face of this?

This morning, I actually got to see the news unfold in real time. At 6:15 a.m. in Madrid, I poured a cup of coffee and opened the New York Times website. It was full of doom and gloom, but it was regular doom and gloom so I clicked on over to El Pais to see if I could make heads or tails of what was going to happen to us here at midnight tonight (more on that later), but I couldn’t, because it was in Spanish and I was having a harder time parsing Spanish than usual, so I clicked over to the Guardian’s website. By now it was a little after 7:00 and I’d gotten up to pour a second cup of coffee and there it was: the President of the United States has COVID. Because it wasn’t an American newspaper I had a hard time believing what I was reading (maybe something had gotten lost in translation?) so I clicked back over to the New York Times — where now there was a completely different, confirming headline.

I shouldn’t have doubted the Brits: after all, they were the ones who thought up the only description that truly works in times like this, which is:

It’s all gone pear-shaped.

This is the equivalent to saying it’s going south (it’s of course meaning everything) but has a better ring to it, especially if it’s said with a posh accent.

Two Mondays ago, before it all went pear-shaped around here, I received a text from my Spanish school that there was a space for me in an in-person class as of the next day. Did I want it? I now realize the reason there was suddenly a space where there hadn’t been one was because someone more prescient than I was was getting the hell out of Madrid.

Because I’m trying to make my motto say yes to life, I took the spot, which has meant I’ve spent the past two weeks struggling with the nuances between por and para and debe de + infinitivo and debe + infinitivo while sitting masked and six feet apart from soft-spoken young women from China.

Meanwhile, the regional government of Madrid and the national government of Spain have been wrangling, in what are described in El Pais as rifirrafis políticos (political squabbles), over what restrictions are needed to curb Madrid’s ballooning COVID cases.

The upshot seems to be that as of midnight tonight Madrid restaurants will operate at 50% capacity. There will be less capacity at weddings, gatherings, and funerals. We’ll still be able to walk around. The catch? We can’t leave Madrid, and nobody from outside can come in, except in particular extenuating circumstances.

Of course this is where we are. To take my mind off the Reality Show that is 2020, I’d been planning a trip to Granada, which was the same thing I was doing before the last lockdown.

I have a special letter from the Spanish school to show the police should I be stopped on my way there on Monday.

2020 isn’t over yet.