Who are your people?

Lunch

When it’s just you and Tolstoy for lunch.

Warning: Don’t start divorce proceedings before a pandemic locks down most of the world. Oh, and maybe think twice about going to what will become one of the hardest-hit countries and getting stuck there, alone, quarantined in a stone house on a hill.

While the rest of the world starts posting couple photos of dressing up like famous paintings, enjoying floor picnics, and engaging in board game tournaments, you will realize you’ve been wearing your panties both inside-out and backwards for the past 24-hours and no one has noticed.

Then, it will hit you. Somewhere in this locked-down world your former husband is probably noticing everything there is to notice about the panties of his new girlfriend. They are probably red, his favourite panty colour, and lacy.

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How yesterday began.

If there was ever a time to hold on to the ones we love, this is it.  This is the time to gather with our people by the hearth. But what if your hearth has been snuffed out? What if the ones you usually love send WhatsApp messages asking if you know the whereabouts of your marriage certificate so they can proceed with the divorce paperwork?

Some, like this particular stone-house-on-the-hill dweller, might have a little cry and then indulge in some GADIS therapy. In pre-lockdown times, a Milka caramel bar and roll of rainbow Mentos may have done the trick, but things have changed.

Who are my people?

No sooner have I asked this question, while weighed down by shopping bags on Rúa de Montero Ríos, than it begins to answer itself. I hear voices calling my name. “Hello! Up here!” they call, in English, and I look up. It’s my friend Loli and her four children, students from Atlantic Coast Playgroup, waving from their terrace.

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Can I be your people? asks Mean Kitten.

“Do you need an umbrella?” Loli asks, “It’s going to rain.” She asks if I want a face mask. If I need a shopping trolley for my groceries. If I want her to drive my groceries home. No, I say, Don’t worry.

Wait, she says. Wait.

As I make my way up the hill pulling my new trolley, a hand-made face mask printed with colourful owls tucked inside, I think about the other people. My people.

Some are on an island archipelago walking up and down a beach. Some are in an Irish cottage playing Bach on the cello. Some are on a street filled with cherry blossoms doing a juice fast. Some are beside a river drinking Manhattans at five o’clock.

Sometimes your people live far away, down roads like this.

Some are in the suburb where I grew up bringing my parents groceries and pansies.

And then some are even closer, usually just two houses up the hill, but now a world away.

But sometimes, like the other day, two-metre-wide contact happens. Miguel dropped off my Amazon package because, for some reason, no delivery driver can ever find Carrasqueira 99.

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Sometimes your people live in a place where the marvellous sumac grows.

And there, nestled among the copper frying pan and French Exit, was The Nun.

Everybody needs a nun in their life. Especially one made out of wax. This particular nun has travelled from the guest room of Miguel’s parents’ house in Zaragoza, where I spent Christmas with them, across the breadth of Spain.

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Coronavirus nun.

At first horrified that Miguel’s mother would think I stole the nun from my room, which, I might add, I did not (Miguel did), now I rejoice in this little game we play.

You never know when or where the nun will appear. You might find her under your covers, or buried in a basket of freshly-picked kiwis. She might be lodged in a terra-cotta planter, or standing calmly reading her bible in the pots-and-pans cupboard.

It might be days, or even weeks, but the nun never disappoints. Just when you think you’re alone, she’s there, with crimson lips and yellow rosary beads, never expecting anything but a laugh.

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Amazon nun.

Better 6 feet apart than 6 feet under

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When lockdown lasts long enough to grow a head of lettuce.

Last night, as Highway to Hell blared on the neighbour’s sound system, and, on the far side of Bueu, a group of motorcyclists revved and revved without going anywhere, I felt the mood of Lockdown Week 4 shift to a slightly darker place.

And when I awoke to find a dead lizard on the doorstep and storm clouds brewing in the distance, I hibernated inside. Stanley meowed, asking if he could come too.

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“What, that’s it?” Stanley after another exciting play session.

For the past five hours, I’ve been avoiding this sense of foreboding by procrastinating. I’ve fed the cats, done two loads of laundry, swept, made the bed, eaten breakfast, written some emails, read a poem, played with Stanley, tried to sign up for online grocery shopping, fed the cats again, ate a bowl of lentil soup. Some may call this “life” but when you’re a stay-at-home writer, the blank page never allows you to fully enjoy such a thing.

As I write (does this count? maybe), three billion people are largely confined to their homes. I read an opinion piece in the New York Times about the 1947 classic The Plague to lift the spirits. The writer sums up the philosophy of Albert Camus with these sunny words: “Being alive always was and will always remain an emergency; it is truly an inescapable ‘underlying condition.'”

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Mastering the fine art of procrastination.

While my mother doesn’t pretend to be Camus, or to have heard of him, lately she’s been offering daily coronavirus gems of Plague-like breadth: videos, photos, inspirational quotes, jokes.

Usually I push delete without opening these gems (sorry, Mom, I’m heartless), but today I opened each one, well, the ones that I could open (80-year-old mom is usually more tech savvy than me, but forwarding a forward that’s already been forwarded is quite the feat).

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Lockdown, always better in the sun.

And so, as grey clouds hover over the green hills of Galicia, I offer you a curated version of this joke list (apologies if  you’ve already been the recipient of one of its forwards) called Reflections:

  • Half of us are going to come out of this quarantine as amazing cooks. The other half will come out with a drinking problem.
  • Still haven’t decided where to go for Easter —– The Living Room or The Bedroom
  • Home-schooling is going well. Two students suspended for fighting and one teacher fired for drinking on the job.
  • I don’t think anyone expected that when we changed the clocks we’d go from Standard Time to the Twilight Zone
  • This morning I saw a neighbor talking to her cat. It was obvious she thought her cat understood her. I came into my house, told my dog….. we laughed a lot.
  • Quarantine Day 5: Went to this restaurant called THE KITCHEN. You have to gather all the ingredients and make your own meal. I have no clue how this place is still in business.
  • Classified Ad: Single man with toilet paper seeks woman with hand sanitizer for good clean fun.
  • Better 6 feet apart than 6 feet under….

P.S. Breaking news. The Nun is back. Decorative candle or omen? Stay tuned to find out.

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The infamous nun of Zaragoza.

Same, same but different

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When you’re not having a rainbow and unicorns kind of day.

It’s amazing how many things can go wrong when you don’t even leave your house.

Stanley pukes all over your cream-coloured rug. Molly pees in the middle of your freshly-washed white cotton duvet cover (soaking through to the duvet itself, of course). A large pimple appears smack dab in the middle of your neck. Your clothes rack falls over in the wind, right on top of an ants’ nest. You bite into a butter-smeared slice of crusty white bread (healthy whole-grain, be damned!) only to discover that the S/Sal on the label is Spanish for “salt free.”

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“Who, me?” says Molly.

And, finally, after a three-week hiatus, Mercedes returns to “the balcony” (see Lockdown #8).

I can feel something is off when I’m playing with the cats, running up and down the concrete path with abandon, fur-ball scrunchie cat toy in tow. I’m wearing my favourite lockdown outfit: the three-quarter length tights purchased from Oshawa General Hospital patterned with a mysterious design –  Carnations? Parameciums? Windmills? – accompanied by fleece-lined reading socks stuffed into faux-Crocs, and topped by a hoodie/Aran-sweater combo.

This is my no-one-will-ever-see-me-who-cares outfit, but never let down your guard when you have Mercedes living above you.

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While I’d been feeling safe since the lockdown began, this feeling, apparently, is over.

“We need fresh air,” Mercedes says while gripping the fence. She points to Husband #3, who, I should add, is called Andrés.

“You are playing with the cats,” she says, stating the obvious. She turns to Andrés and says, “She is playing with the cats.” I think this is one of her techniques to teach me Spanish, and I have to say, it kind of works.

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“You are shopping,” she says when she sees me at GADIS, repeating the phrase, as always, to Andrés. “You are walking,” she says when she sees me walking to GADIS. “You are cleaning the garden,” she says, which I now know means that I’m weeding.

Yes, there are good lockdown days and there are bad lockdown days, but I can always count on Mercedes to keep me on my toes.

I can also always count on the view from my yard.

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Every day the view is slightly different, and it’s the one thing I never grow tired of here. Sometimes a moon is rising, sometimes a storm is brewing. The colours change hues, the water changes shape.

“Same, same but different,” was a saying I learned in India when shopping for just about anything. It was a way for vendors to entice me to pay more for items that may have looked the same, but were, according to them, of much higher quality. It was also a philosophy for life.

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As we enter the fourth week of lockdown in Spain, and the government announces we could have another three to go, a lot more same, same is on the way.

Let’s hope Mercedes and the view will keep doing their thing.

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When life gives you lemons

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Sometimes it’s better to give your fortune cookie away.

“Your life will get more and more exciting,” reads the fortune taped to my fridge. I saved it back in November, back when I had high hopes for 2020.

Now, on this second day of April, I can report that my fortune is finally coming true.

Today was the day I moved the jar of preserved lemons from the counter top into the fridge – one of two dates marked in April on my wall calendar: Move lemons to fridge, and, wait for it, Lemons ready.

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My favourite basket finds its true calling.

When life gives you lemons, preserve them. With a basket full of lemons and no neighbours to safely share them with, I can finally tick item number 11 off my “To Do” list, an item, incidentally, that’s been swimming around my mind for six years.

Ever since that glorious day I spent on the Amalfi Coast in the spring of 2014, where the only limit to what you can do with a lemon is your own imagination, I’ve wanted to try my hand at preserved lemons. I’m only sorry it took a pandemic to get me stuffing salt into their fragrant cavities.

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Stand tall, stand proud, oh vessel of my finest hour.

When I remember to shake my concoction every day and flip it upside down, I feel like I’ve accomplished something. I watch salt and pith and flesh and juice swirl into a brackish cloud, satisfied.

As the sun sets and my bottle of preserved lemons sits safely in the fridge, awaiting the fateful April 24th, the clapping party diehards play a song created to give Spaniards, now finishing their 17th day of lockdown, a boost: Quédate En Casa, or Stay Home (in honour of the ubiquitous social media hashtag taking the country by a storm).

People need a boost right now. To date, more than 10,000 people have died from Covid-19 in Spain, more than 110,000 are currently infected.

But even as I grieve for a country that’s going into convulsions, I think of other countries I have known and loved. As I sit here sipping a glass of port, I think of the article in the Guardian that says while some in India sip viognier during lockdown, millions of the country’s poor have been “thrown to the wolves.”

This scenario, I am sure, is playing out over and over again all over the world, and always has been to a certain extent. But for some reason now feels different. Like a game of freeze tag, so much of what we usually ignore stands in stark relief, immobile and trying hard not to blink.

To shake our jars of preserved lemons, to watch seagulls hover in a rose-coloured sky,  might be all we can do right now as we wait to see what will remain after pith and flesh have settled.

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Even the seagulls are confused.

Let’s live like Galicians

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When your laundry is just dish towels, tights, and T-shirts.

Today’s the day. I can feel it in my bones. For three days I’ve been composing the perfect list, and today, after a week of being confined inside the perimeter of these stone walls, is Gadis Day.

I comb my hair and apply my dual finish powder foundation and Burt’s Bees “pucker” lip shine. I put on a shirt with buttons. I even clean my sunglasses.

As I pull the front gate closed, I stand still for a moment, half in fear because it’s exactly two o’clock and my neighbours will have something to say if they see me sneaking off during lunch hour, and half in sheer anticipation of what lies ahead.

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The formidable cava section.

Gadis isn’t just a supermarket. From the moment my handsome landlord David pointed out the cheery yellow building to me from atop the hill, I knew we’d become friends.  As soon as I’d taken a nap to recover from my jet lag, I was there, walking through its sliding glass doors that face the pier.

With a cherry-red wheelie cart in tow, I perused its aisles, marvelling at things like the paprika selection – dulce (sweet), agrodulce (bittersweet), picante (spicy) – sold in colourful tins decorated with bosomy women. Speaking of bosoms, a whole row of cheeses called la tetilla (small tit) encased in butter-yellow wax beckoned. Ceramic pots filled with thick, dark-chocolate pudding also beckoned, as did candied chestnuts wrapped in gold.

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The “soft cheese” section.

Women working in the produce section wore white uniforms with green piping and matching caps. They took my produce and weighed it for me, twisting the bags closed with expert precision. Another handsome David worked the check-out aisle, teaching me how to say Graciñas – thank you, in Galician.

I’m not the only one enamoured with Gadis (which I discovered should be all caps GADIS, and deservedly so). Francesco Screti published  an entire 15-page paper in the Journal of Argumentation in Context about the Galician supermarket chain, examining one of their advertising campaigns Vivamos como galegos – Let’s live like Galicians.

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Olive you, GADIS!

This afternoon, when the sliding glass doors swish open, I feel like I’m coming home. I put on the plastic gloves. My list quivers in my hands. Where to start first? The dish soap? The onions? As usual, I’m distracted by the cava section, the white asparagus section. I wonder how much I can carry home – can I manage the box set of limoncello and mini shell-shaped pasta?

When I see my produce lady friend I want to hug her. She smiles, the first human smile I’ve seen in a week. She helps me open the produce bags (a difficult task, in case you haven’t noticed, while wearing plastic gloves) and prints off perfect little stickers. I do another round of the aisles, even though I’m not supposed to, noticing a new black truffle mayonnaise, blueberry Tostaditas, a soft drink from Brazil called Guaraná Antarctica.

When it’s time to go I stand at the threshold, weighed down, yet lighter, and walk back out into the sunshine.

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Am I not enough for you, Angie?

Lockdown x 2

Lisbon

When last month feels like last year.

So, here we are. Day Two of Round Two of Spain’s nation-wide lockdown. No less than five people have written (including, I might add, a couple of complete strangers) asking me to continue writing. My apologies to those of you who were relieved when they read the last words of Lockdown #14.

Exactly one month ago I was in Lisbon (see photo above), in awe of a city that’s essentially a work of art. Now I’m about to share photos of toilet paper art recently created by the students from Bueu’s Atlantic Coast Playgroup.

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How things change, and how they change so quickly.

“There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen,” said Vladimir Lenin during other, perhaps more eventful times (but did they have toilet paper art?).

I hope these images will inspire you as they have inspired me. Who needs Lisbon, really, when we all possess the capacity for such greatness in our very own bathrooms?

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Finally, a way to use my $8.00 duster-head replacements.

P.S. Thank you to Patrick from Atlantic Coast for letting me share these images.

Lockdown #14

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When it’s been plane tree versus plane tree for two weeks.

Take back what I said about Bueu getting tired. Someone has rigged up a sound system, which is still blaring one hour and 19 minutes after the 8 o’clock clapping party.  Earlier they used it to play a town-wide game of Bingo. To accompany the jacked-up speakers, the ambulance and police cars did two rounds of the streets tonight, sirens blaring, enticing people I’ve yet to see at their windows clapping with gusto.

Maybe I’m the only one who’s tired.

Today was supposed to be the last day of Spain’s lockdown. Instead, another two weeks looms, with even stricter measures to be enforced. I’m hoping Bueu will be spared what’s become known as the “balcony vigilantes” enforcing these rules, people who hurl insults, sometimes even launch spitballs, at passersby they believe to be breaking shelter-at-home orders.

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A flower for those who may need one.

My bakery excursion during the first few days of the lockdown could now elicit a “Hey, you! Go back to your fucking house! You’re going to make someone sick, you retard!” – the exact words, according to El País, yelled at Cristina, a lab technician from Galicia on her way home from work.

When I started writing this blog, Spain had 9,191 confirmed cases of coronavirus and 309 dead. Today, 78,797 are infected and 6,528 have died. Perhaps such figures explain the spitballs. As psychologist Laura García García (that’s not a typo) puts it: “This fear that society is experiencing in such a difficult scenario is expressing itself in a toxic way.”

Some of us choose to express ourselves in other ways, like by baking cupcakes. Chocolate with cream-cheese icing and confetti sprinkles. I ate one, then two – and then I thought –who really cares? and ate two more.

It was one of those days, another one of those days, that felt vague and timeless, when we question our place in the universe and wonder, finally, why the stove clock’s time seems different than the mobile phone’s time. Why does one say 2:30 and the other one 3:30?

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Sugar – your best defence against toxic balcony vigilantes.

Could it be that day, that change-the-clock day? What day is it, actually? What month? Where am I? Who am I? Can I eat another cupcake?

Yes, answers the universe. Eat as many as you please.

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Seven, Angie? Really?

P.S. That’s a wrap for the Lockdown series. I promised myself I’d write every day for the two-week lockdown, and I did it. But not without a little help from my friends (thank you, Miguel) and this desk he made and delivered the day I started writing this blog. Coincidence?

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It’s all about the desk (especially when you didn’t have one before).

P.S.S. Thank you for reading.

Lockdown #13

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All is quiet on the western front.

It’s 11:07 p.m. Now it’s 11:09. Sometimes there just isn’t anything left to say. 11:12. But I promised myself I would write something every day of this lockdown. If I don’t, my mother will worry. 11:15.

When I think about Day 13, not much comes to mind (obviously). Then I realize I actually accomplished at least two items on my 20-plus-item “To Do” list (which grows more and more bizarre by the day).

I finally read the washing machine manual, for example – every single word – discovering the meaning of all those mysterious symbols. I celebrated with a three hour and 12 minute cotton-eco wash. I also opened my Easy Spanish Step-By-Step book, learning that amable doesn’t mean amiable and emocionante doesn’t mean emotional.

Also, for the first time, I saw Underwear Man. I’d heard rumours about him from my neighbours. As I sat down for lunch outside, there he was, a rather large fellow with a very white belly wearing tiny black briefs. He strutted back and forth on the rooftop terrace to my right, talking on his phone.

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A gift from Bitchy Neighbour, who is now Not-So-Bitchy Neighbour.

There’s a feeling of tiredness hanging over Bueu. Even the waves seemed lackadaisical today, crashing with more of a whimper than a bang. The cats didn’t want to play. When I weeded the patch of garden around the orange tree, just below Mercedes’ house, she didn’t even raise her blinds. In the past, she would have looked out the moment she heard a dandelion being tugged, offering her wheelbarrow to collect the piles of weeds, offering her advice about other areas in need of attention.

The last time I saw Mercedes, which was yesterday, she was wearing a mask and gloves and was in a hurry to get back inside after a trip to the supermarket.

The only child I’ve seen in the past 13 days has been peering out from behind a window.

And now it’s 11:44. And I am tired, too. The only thing I have left to offer you is a poem by Mary Oliver.

The Fish 

The first fish
I ever caught
would not lie down
quiet in the pail
but flailed and sucked
at the burning
amazement of the air
and died
in the slow pouring off
of rainbows. Later
I opened his body and separated
the flesh from the bones
and ate him. Now the sea
is in me: I am the fish, the fish
glitters in me; we are
risen, tangled together, certain to fall
back to the sea. Out of pain,
and pain, and more pain
we feed this feverish plot, we are nourished
by the mystery.

Lockdown #12

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Today’s mood.

I’m not going to lie. Today – despite the sunshine and the scent of orange blossoms lacing the air – was tough. And increasingly surreal.

“The gates of Gorky Park are firmly closed,” said the BBC correspondent from Russia this morning, setting the tone.

Armani makes single-use medical overalls for healthcare workers. Condoms run out as Malaysian factories close down. Ukrainian monks shift from beer-brewing to hand sanitizer. India locks down 1.3 billion people, forcing millions to walk hundreds of kilometres on foot, beating rickshaw drivers with batons.

And here amid the green hills of Galicia, I pull weeds from a stone wall. At first I try to save the mint and the tiny daisies, but it’s easier if I don’t discriminate, ripping out everything at once.

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Sorry, tiny daisies, sometimes life just sucks.

For some reason, this reminds me of something – of a time, just eight weeks ago, when I was lying on a parquet floor in Toronto curled up in a ball, sobbing. The world-wide war against coronavirus was not yet being waged, but I was waging my own battle. The depression, triggered by the end of a marriage and a deep sense of betrayal (both romantically and existentially), left me gasping for air.

But now I am here, plucking a baby fern from its crevice. A woman we’ve taken to calling “Bitchy Neighbour” looks on from the safety of her terrace. I shift my attention to the weed-choked pear tree, shaking dirt from mounds of slender-leaved grass. Bitchy neighbour begins to speak. At first I think she is about to compliment me for all my hard work, instead she says, “It’s time for lunch.”

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The ever-so-fragrant orange blossom – you can see why they deserved to become a Strawberry Shortcake doll.

For those who have been to Spain before, you will know all about lunch time. Choosing a time to eat based on personal preference, or even simple hunger, is not an option. Lunch is at 2 o’clock, maybe 2:30. Some of the more rebellious types have been known to eat as late as half past three.

When the neighbours catch me doing things like hanging the laundry, heading to the beach, or going to the supermercado at the sacred hour, they never fail to remind me, “It’s lunch time.”

So, today, I listen. I join them, alone, in my garden. I get out the green-and-white checkered tablecloth and a linen napkin edged with lace. I even pour myself a glass of Albariño.

As I spear a steamed artichoke doused in fresh lemon juice and survey the scene below, the tears I’ve kept at bay for almost two weeks begin. In the apartment where the family congregates every evening for the clapping party, they have hung balloons from their window, and taped a drawing of a rainbow to the glass. I know these are meant as messages of support, to say we are in this together, to say you are not alone. But as million of Spaniards sit down to eat, I look at the two empty chairs on either side of me.

The balloons hang like a necklace down the side of the peach-coloured building. I watch them, rising and falling in the breeze, and eat.

P.S. The sirens were back in full force at tonight’s Friday night clapping party.

 

Lockdown #11

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Last night’s sunset – a mix of darkness and light.

The honeymoon is over. Today I took the day off from being off. That meant guilt-free doing nothing instead of guilt-laden trying to do something. I did things like eat two cream-filled donuts, pulled out nettles with my bare hands, and bought a box of duster replacement heads for more than eight dollars. None of this made me feel any better.

I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was starring in a version of Groundhog Day, the groundhog replaced by a virus shaped like a spiky-ball dog toy, and the golf course replaced by the entire world. My daily routine – the Earl Grey, the BBC World Service, the sweeping of the tiled floor – all of it sickened me.

The mood started last night when, just before the anticipated hour of 8 o’clock, I poured myself a glass of wine and went outside for the clapping party. The clock struck eight. Nothing.

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Coronavirus particle or dog toy?

The thing about a clapping party is someone has to start clapping. That someone could have been me, and I tried, half-heartedly. But it wasn’t the same without the Bueu anthem playing and the ambulance sirens and the wolf whistles and the people yelling things I can’t understand in Spanish. A family who’d congregated in one of the windows of the apartment building below closed their blinds and left.

After ten days of lockdown and making headlines for surpassing China to become the second worst-hit country in the world with 3,434 dead from Covid-19 and 47, 610 infected, I could understand why the mood might be sombre. More than 700 people died yesterday.

The mood becomes even more sombre when you become curious about how many people usually die per day of other causes in Spain. The country has one of the lowest mortality rates in the European Union – about 9% per 100,000. But that’s still more than 1,100 people dying, at the best of times, every single day.

When you feel it’s time to sit and ponder mortality.

Now that we are counting our coronavirus dead every minute of the day, watching numbers rise and fall like the stock exchange, the statistics of our mortality can’t be ignored. Sealed away in our homes, we wait, the ticker tape ticking.

Last night I waited until about 8:05 for the clapping party then decided to go inside. But just as I closed the door, the anthem started. I should have more faith, I thought. These are a people who have survived wars and a decades-long dictatorship. Plus, they really like to make noise.

People started dancing on their balconies to Resistiré –  a song I’ve since learned means “I will endure” (thanks, Débora).

Resistiré stayed with me, for better or for worse, all day today. Yes, the honeymoon is over and we’re stuck with one another. As my hands stung from the nettles, the chorus played over and over in my head.

P.S. For those of you interested in the English lyrics to Resistiré (complete with images of the cosmos), here you go: