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.


Tomorrow, the equinox. But today, we’re balanced on the cusp of fall, the husk of summer.

This morning, doors throughout Madrid were propped ajar to invite in the cooler weather. Porteros swabbed down sidewalks; as I walked past, I peeked into the lobbies of the apartment buildings. They’re neither public or private, not here nor there, but every single one of them sports a chandelier and a plant. In the fin de siecle buildings, the chandeliers hang like regal jewelwork, in the frumpy ones, the chandelier and plant both are plastic.

The smell of coffee issued from the open door of a cafe; I heard the clink of a cup set down on the metal counter that ran the length of the interior. Inside another, a serve idled, above his head, jamones hung in a wreath.

I passed four churches, all with their doors flung open: ten or so minutes into 9:00 mass. A little elderly man shuffled into one, his too-big black suit the sort a character from a Graham Greene novel would wear. I wasn’t quick enough to sneak a photo with my phone.

The equinox; a good walk; the world in momentary balance.


Balcony with Amazon Package 17/9/2020

The press conference was supposed to take place at 11:30 yesterday, and then it was changed to 1:00, and then it was canceled, and then at 5:00 Isabel Díaz Ayuso, the President of the Community of Madrid finally announced the new restrictions: on Monday, people in 37 health areas of the region of Madrid, most of them in the southern part of the city, most of them crowded, most of them working-class, will only be allowed in and out of their neighborhoods for essential activities such as going to school or work. Social gatherings are reduced from 10 people to 6; parks will be closed. 855,193 people — 17% of the population of the Madrid region — live in these areas, but according to statistics in El Pais, they account for 25% of COVID cases. The other seventy-five percent of cases come from elsewhere in the region, but so far, our neighborhoods haven’t been put under restrictions.

We live to the northwest of all that. Last night, the young guys who live on the bottom floor of our apartment building had a party that lasted until 5:00 a.m. They sang and sang and sang, and all I could think as I tossed and turned and punched my pillow was Corona, Corona.

This morning, the temperature was in the 60s, and the Spanish were all wearing their puffy coats.

Things That Are Broken*/Things that Work

*Unfolding in real time.

Yesterday, I was with a friend and she warned me that the lead story in El Pais was that the Community of Madrid will soon be announcing some “strategic” lockdowns in areas of the region with high COVID numbers, but by the time I got home and actually read the article (which, for me, requires reading the Spanish version and the officially-translated into English version and the Google-translate word salad version) other higher-up governmental personages had back-pedalled and said well maybe they would and maybe they wouldn’t. And maybe they’d announce whether they would or wouldn’t on Thursday. Or maybe on Friday. Or maybe on Sunday.

About this time, M and Elder Daughter and I all received emails from Georgia that our absentee ballots for the general election were available for us to access. This was a momentous state of affairs, because we’ve been somewhat concerned we wouldn’t receive our ballots soon enough to get them back by the deadline of November 3rd. This sounds like a ludicrous fear when I write it down — but it isn’t.

Some states allow overseas voters to email their absentee ballots back, some allow them to be some faxed back, and some, like Georgia (why are you not surprised?) require that they be mailed back in a very specific way. We went through all this for the primary. Mailing our ballots back required a number of steps, including printing out a certain kind of cover sheet, putting the ballot in a certain kind of envelope which we then had to sign as well.

The sticking point now is that mail from Europe to the United States is estimated to take 4 weeks, because there are so many fewer flights between the EU and the US. (We received a birthday card for Younger Daughter at the end of August. Her birthday was in May, and the card had been mailed on April 30th.) What this means is anyone voting absentee in Georgia from overseas has 2 weeks from today to both get and then mail back their ballot in order for it to arrive in time to be counted.

(Once we can access our ballots, we do have the option of taking them to the Embassy so that they can be sent in the “diplomatic pouch.” I don’t have any idea what a diplomatic pouch actually is, but its existence comforted me until recently, because it seemed like the mail equivalent of a hot line — until we learned that the Embassy estimates that ballots in the diplomatic pouch will also take 4 weeks to arrive. Are they going by steam ship? Raft?)

The first time I tried to access the ballot, I was directed to the (previous) ballot for the September 29 special election. The second time, I could request access but then was caught in an endless “processing” loop. Now, someone at Fulton County has taken my name and phone number. Luckily, I have a VOIP number I can use in situations like this, because I somehow doubt that the Fulton County Board of Elections would call me at a Spanish phone number. Will I hear back? Time will tell.

I don’t know why it surprises me whenever I see how thin the veneer of exceptionalism is, but it does.

On the other hand, the entrepreneurial spirit is alive and well:

“Personalize your mask strap.”


Last year, I took Spanish classes for four hours a day, five days a week. That was Before, of course. During that time of diligence and optimism, I met more than one expat who’d been in Madrid awhile who confessed they’d worked really hard on their Spanish when they first got here, but then they’d let it slide — they really needed to get back to it.

I didn’t get it. Why work so hard, and then, just … stop?

Theoretically, I’ve now reached the level of Spanish most of those people had attained. And now I get it. A year ago, I naively thought that if I did A, then B, then C, I’d wake up one morning and suddenly be speaking fluent Spanish. I always was, at heart, a rule follower. Aren’t results supposed to follow when you abide by the rules?

Fluency actually feels less attainable to me now than it ever did then.

I can study the subjunctive until I’m blue in the face, but it’ll never come naturally. There will always be a mental hitch, when I have to stop to think over things. Am I making a request? A command? Describing something in the past — or talking about a one-off event?

I’ll always have to watch Casa de Papel with Spanish subtitles. The taxi driver will always start talking about something I lack vocabulary for (last time it was road work, and while I could commiserate with an Atlanta taxi driver about crappy roads forever, I wouldn’t feel qualified to criticize the Spanish government, even if I had the words for it.)

Besides — much larger problem — now that we’re all wearing masks, I can’t understand anybody.

They can’t understand me, either.

While we were in the States, I was impressed* by the sleek black masks I saw people wearing everywhere, so much so that I bought one at the airport. When I unwrapped it, it turned out to be the saggy grandma’s panty-hose equivalent.

That black mask goes into my collection: I have surgical masks, KN95 masks, homemade masks shipped from home, homemade masks made by tailors here in Madrid, masks with elastic straps I’ve cut and re-engineered to avoid the dreaded Mask-Slip, when a mask slides down under your nose when you open your mouth.

Like Goldilocks, I’m not happy with any of them. I’m still searching for The Perfect Mask, the One that’s just right; I have to stop myself from buying more.

But the sad fact is: no matter what color or style it is, a mask is just a mask.

*Those camouflage neck gaiters that seem to be certain Americans’, genus red-blooded white young guys particularly, concession to mask-wearing are not masks.

The Nest* (An Aside)

We all behave as if the choice about how to talk about motherhood is easy, lies either in sentimentality or its inverse, some wry jocularity. I have to believe that the truth is more complicated than that, that it resides elsewhere, spreads and deepens, shifts and shimmers; watery enough to both sustain and drown.

I wrote this over thirteen years ago, when I started this blog. Mother to a six-year-old and a two-and-a-half year old, I was traveling a landscape where there were no smart phones, no Tiger Moms, no Helicopter Parents, no TikTok, no COVID-19. There wasn’t even any Motherlode, that (sometimes irritating) parenting column in the New York Times that’s now called Well Parent. (Sign of the times.) At that point in my parenting trajectory, one of my darkest fears was that there existed somewhere a secret mothering rule book that decreed that being a good parent meant I was supposed to amputate my writer-self from the mother I’d become.

At first, this writing probably fit into the category of what was then being called a “mommy blog.” Then, it was just a place where I posted news about publications. Now, it has morphed into a COVID Journal.

Thirteen years on, I can safely say that my life has folded inward, outward, become a sort of origami of that earliest iteration of itself. My eldest has started college; my younger spreads her wings with four months away from home.

Now, the thing the world hints I should excise from myself is that mother-part.

I was about to write we are awfully hard on women, but the truth might really be that we are awfully hard on people.

*According to the internet, the term Empty Nest first appeared in 1914, in a book called Mothers and Children by Dorothy Canfield Fisher:

The more things change, the more things stay the same. You need only look at any Parents of College Class of 2024 Facebook page to see evidence of parents well on the way to “fretting themselves into nervous prostration.” There are, of course, mitigating circumstances for that—for Exhibit A, see COVI). Nonetheless, the phrase flabby listless inaction strikes fear into my heart.

About 60 years before Canfield Fisher’s take on things, the industrial revolution had torn work and home asunder. No more coming home from the fields for dinner, no more teens working behind the shop counter on the ground floor of a family’s narrow living space after school. Work became somewhere you went, not just something you did, and, once we decided that was the way the world worked we had to also come up the idea of the Angel in the House: a sainted motherly presence who would keep the home fires burning. As Virginia Woolf described her

She was intensely sympathetic. She was immensely charming. She was utterly unselfish. She excelled in the difficult arts of family life. She sacrificed herself daily. If there was chicken, she took the leg; if there was a draught she sat in it–in short she was so constituted that she never had a mind or a wish of her own, but preferred to sympathize always with the minds and wishes of others. Above all–I need not say it—she was pure.

A hundred and seventy-five years on, we we still haven’t shed these constructs. Because both the Empty Nest and that unrealistic angel are constructs. I wondered if the empty nest translated to Spanish; so far I’ve only found actual translations of American articles. I guess if your children don’t leave the family apartment until they’re in their thirties, this isn’t a concept that worries you much.

So here we sit, at this strange Covid-caused crossroads. The kids are at school …. except in many places they’re not. And we’re working, but from our beds, in our pajamas. Except when we’re not. As this global mess drags on, I find myself wondering more and more whether we’re going to figure out solutions this time around or if, when this is all over, we’re just going to go back to the old ways.