In Praise of the Playa

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Sand, sky, and sea: the perfect antidote to our times.

Yes, there’s the Rioja and the tapas, the flamenco and the paella – but then there’s the beach.

And now in the time of coronavirus, the beach is the one place where you can shed your mask, and even all of your clothing (see Phase 1), breathe deeply, jump into the ocean, and pretend it’s all just been a bad dream.

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The emerald-coloured waters of Cabo Udra.

As you swim through emerald-coloured water so clear you can see every shell, every piece of kelp swaying on the sea floor, you will enter another sort of dream. A dream where, if you look to the west, an island shaped like a woman reclining juts from the open Atlantic, and, to the east, smooth grey rocks jut from a forest of eucalyptus and pine.

But it’s not just about nature. Beachgoing in Spain is a cultural experience you won’t find listed in any events guide. Here, the beach is not the kind of place where you just show up with an old towel and a tote bag containing your sunscreen and trashy magazine (although you will be forgiven for such transgressions).

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The beach umbrella – the first item on anyone’s beach-kit list.

Who knew that beach umbrellas could be so colourful, so jaunty? That towels could be smooth cotton on one side and terrycloth on the other, eliminating the danger of an unflattering imprint upon one’s cheek?

Who knew that grandmother and granddaughter could wear matching string bikinis and walk hand-in-hand along the shore? Or that you could build cute wooden structures (called chiringuitos) strung with faerie lights, and sell freshly grilled fish and crisp white wine? That you could sit there in your wet bathing suit, toes sinking into the warm sand, and watch this whole show in slatted shade from beneath a bamboo awning?

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For those who prefer sunsets.

Anything goes at the beach, and everyone is welcome. The young, the old. The wealthy, the poor. The prone-to-burn Canadian. Wear your swimming trunks or Speedo, bikini or one-piece. Go topless or nude. Don’t worry about fat rolls or cellulite. No one cares (and they’re not just saying that and secretly checking you out). It’s a kind of democracy of the flesh, and as refreshing as the sea.

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Zen and the Art of Entering the Water.

Here we can gather in a ritual as ancient as humankind – to face the sun, to infuse our skin with saltwater, to walk upon entire universes – mountain ranges, civilizations – all ground up into fine particles of white sand.

And such a ritual deserves its very own beach kit.

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Grumpy people named Angie may become annoyed when you play this right beside her head, but just ignore her.

The first purchase I made when I arrived in Spain was what I’d assumed to be a shopping basket. Little did I know I’d purchased the classic beach basket that almost every beach-going individual, months later, would sport in some sort of shape and colour.

Slowly, I’ve been  learning what other objects constitute the perfect Spanish beach kit. There is the low-slung beach chair, the sunscreen sold in bottles that squirt like bathroom cleaner, the insulated Thermos bag, the paddleball set, and, for the more adventurous types, the flotation device.

But beyond the kit is something that can’t be bought – an innate ability to relax, to sit for hours in a mini shade village created by a circle of perfectly placed beach umbrellas, and chat with friends or family, or, when the conversation wanes (which seldom seems to be the case), simply stare out at the blue, blue sea.

Every day I witness this spectacle with increasing admiration. As the tide comes in, I watch people stand and chat, entering the water in increments. Ankles, Calves. Thighs. It’s rare to see someone do what we Canadians do – simply stride into the water without thought, and dive. Perhaps this is because people here don’t like the cold, or maybe it’s something else. Maybe it’s a type of ease, of being able to ease into the moment.

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Sorry, Portugal. I love you but your beach cabanas just don’t cut it.

Poco a poco – little by little – is something I’ve been told many times in Galicia, whether it’s about learning the language, or weeding my unruly garden. And the other thing people say to me, as I rush about or worry about this or that – something everyone I know from Toronto excels at – is tranquila.

The way they say this to me – the tone, the soft roll of the vowels – is as soothing as the rhythm of the waves crashing against the shore. Tranquila, tranquila.. Don’t worry, Angie. Be calm. Yes, these are uncertain times, so squirt on your sunscreen, spread out your towel, and close your eyes.

Some sad news. Our lovely friend Molly went missing five days ago and we fear the worst.

 

Hello mask, good-bye smile

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The popcorn and cotton candy are back.

The manager of William Tell Restaurant (a former Swiss restaurant downtown Montréal) knew right away I was lying when I said I spoke the three required languages – Italian, German, French – and had several years of fine-dining experience. I was 22 and thought knowing the numbers up to 100 and a few greetings could pass for speaking a language. My clothing – a colourful assortment of natural-cotton garments recently purchased in Guatemala– gave away the rest.

“But your customers will forgive you anything with that smile,” he said, and hired me on the spot.

He was right, most of the time. The Swiss Embassy wasn’t pleased when I struggled to open a bottle of nearly $200 wine from a crate flown in especially for the occasion, watching chunks of broken cork plop into the honey-coloured liquid.

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A flower that reminds me of my Guatemala days, and outifts.

After that, the manager watched me like a hawk, only giving me one or two tables at a time. Nothing I ever did was right. I didn’t know a piece of meat should be placed in front of a customer between three and nine o’clock – based on some imaginary clock – or that I should never touch the bowl of a wine glass. I didn’t know wine glasses had things called bowls.

“Will I ever do everything right?” I asked the manager after my first week of training.

“Not likely,” he said.

Miraculously, customers responded to my apologetic smiles with the largest tips I would ever receive (I went on to waitress well into my 30s). One distinguished-looking, and what I then considered elderly (he was probably 40), diplomat even offered me the key to his hotel room.

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Karl, the latest foster kitten named after the usually non-smiling writer Karl Ove Knausgård.

We all know we have at least one good feature. Luckily, mine hasn’t aged. Not only does my discerning Aunt Mary compliment my smile, I once won the “smile of the day” award at my favourite Italian sandwich spot in Toronto.

My smile has garnered all kinds of underserved attention (for who can take credit for the way their lips curl upwards?), often from members of the opposite sex. While traveling in countries such as Guatemala and India, I suspect my smile may have even saved my life.

But that’s all over now.

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A Galician beach during lunch.

Since Tuesday, for most of Spain, the nueva normalidad (the new normal) now includes the compulsory wearing of a face mask the moment you leave your house. The few smiles once enjoyed in a Galician fishing village not known for its smiling inhabitants are now hidden behind a layer of protective material. Our primitive selves are now forced to gauge emotions with only half the package, eyes asking eyes Can I trust you? Do you want to mate?

What happens when we say good-bye to smiles? Researchers say a smile can make you look younger, even thinner. It can induce more pleasure in your brain than chocolate, and, even if it’s fake (apparently there are 19 types of smiles and only six of them are real) elevate your mood. Zen Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh says, “Sometimes your joy is the source of your smile, but sometimes your smile can be the source of your joy.”

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A Galician beach after lunch.

But when you’re in a country that’s not your own and you still (you’re ashamed to say) can’t speak the language, joy is an afterthought. A good smile can bridge communication gaps, win over grumpy government officials (or babies), show a stranger you’re a good person – that even if you order tostada con tomate at eleven in the morning, you’re not a threat.

A smile can say, hey look, I’m always screwing up in your country – I don’t pull down my blinds or go to the beach at the right time – but I mean well, and I like you guys. Can we be friends?

Recently on a break-out-of-lockdown trip to Seville, my BBVA bank card was blocked. The only way to remedy this situation was to go to the nearest BBVA branch in person.

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Yes, sometimes I go for breakfast at 11;00. Forgive me, Spain.

“Do you speak English?” I asked the bank manager. “No,” he said. I took a deep breath and tried my best to explain the situation. My blue surgical mask muffled my soft voice and hesitant Spanish, making it even more difficult to understand my mixed-up tenses and translations of complex banking terms.

When the manager raised his eyebrows and began to rustle his papers, I knew I was losing him. Any second now he would say sorry, give me the number for the English helpline, and ask me to leave. (I knew because this is exactly what had happened the day before at a different branch).

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Seville – a city  whose inhabitants make you want to rip off your mask, and more.

I asked if I could lower my mask for a second. He nodded. I apologized for my bad Spanish, and then I smiled the Italian-sandwich-shop-winning smile. The effect was instant. The manager lowered his mask, too. He transformed from stern bank guy into a caring (and, I must say, handsome) sevilliano.

Within minutes I had withdrawn 300 Euros without a functioning bank card or an inspection of any of my ID, and received my new friend’s business card. “If you have any troubles in Sevilla,” he said, “I’m here.”

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When I saw this street called Verde (Green) in Seville, I smiled one of the six real smiles.

The Wall

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When a wall is so much more than a wall.

The weather was promising – cloudy and slightly cool. I put on a pair of shorts and a T-shirt, slipped on my Laura Ashley gardening gloves, and got out the broom. It was time for The Wall.

Walls in Galicia aren’t just pretty stones fitted masterfully together and draped with wildflowers and vines – they are symbols of identity. More specifically, they are symbols of a person’s good character, community pride, and work ethic. And if your wall is dripping with wildflowers and vines – you have none of those things.

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Some people go for scallop shells to avoid The Wall thing.

Wall greenery is not picturesque in this neighbourhood, it is an affront. It is something to be “cleaned.” Why it took a Canadian woman so long to learn this fact is just another one of life’s great mysteries.

But, when you know, it’s even worse. Sometimes ignorance really is bliss.

While I’m no stranger to hard work – I was a tree planter in the wilds of British Columbia, Canada for six seasons (and anyone who has ever planted before knows you are practically invincible after such gruelling work)  – “cleaning” a Galician wall in public is a daunting task.

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I don’t mind hard work, but check out this beach where we are now allowed to swim.

This wasn’t an interior wall, you see, it was the public wall, the one facing the town, the one everyone passed on their walk up la cuesta, the hill. It was nearly 15-feet tall in some places, and, before yesterday, chock full of weeds. In addition, piles of dead leaves from my kumquat tree mingled with patches of grass and bits of garbage at its base.

I knew the moment I took on The Wall, they’d be watching.

Sometimes it’s easier to just bite the bullet and confront your fears. The coronavirus lockdown provided the perfect excuse to avoid this. Unfortunately, Galicia was now in Phase 2, and going outside your front gate to weed your wall had been permitted for more than a month.

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Travel within the province of Pontevedra is also allowed, where places like natural food stores that sell hazelnuts in baskets exist.

Within minutes, straw-hat neighbour (see Lockdown #10) stuck his head up over his front gate. “You are cleaning the wall!” he exclaimed. After about ten minutes he emerged with a mysterious plastic bag to deliver to the neighbour below. “Be careful of the ticks,” he said in passing. “It’s the season.”

Inwardly, I scoffed – I was Canadian, accustomed to things like horseflies that literally take chunks out of your flesh.

No sooner had I thought this then I looked down at my bare legs and saw several tiny black creatures scurrying for a place to call home. I walked back up the hill and into the house, furiously removing my clothing. But I would not be defeated, re-emerging with long pants and a long shirt. Of course, now that I was fully clothed, the sun came out.

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The more than 400-year old holiness of stone (weeds allowed).

Straw-hat neighbour re-emerged to point at Stanley the stray cat who was assisting me by jumping on the weeds as I pulled.

“It’s good you have a cat here,” he said. “I just saw a rat run into the grass.”

The sun beat down harder and harder, and I recalled my tree-planting days – the heat, the mosquitoes buzzing on all sides. I thought of my ex-husband and his young new girlfriend enjoying a warm June day in Toronto, yanking harder and harder, ripping vines out from their roots.

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“Don’t work too hard, Angie,” says Molly.

“It’s too hot to work,” said the neighbour below as he emerged with a mysterious bucket to deliver to straw-hat neighbour. “It’s too hot to work,” said power-washer neighbour, walking down the hill. “It’s too hot to work,” said a third helper, this time a stranger.

A woman passed with impossibly shiny hair hanging down her back, trotting gingerly down the steps in heeled black sandals. She brushed away at the indignity of the dust-filled air with her manicured red fingernails as I swept piles of dead weeds and dirt into my dustpan, sweating profusely.

“It’s too hot to work,” said the neighbour from the big white house someone told me was a “narco house” (see Fariña, or “Cocaine Coast”) after he’d parked his car. This time, he elaborated.

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Oh, the freshness of spring.

“We work from eight to nine in the morning,” he said, “and after seven in the evening.” It’s fresco then, he said – fresh.

What wasn’t fresh was his breath – the scent of hard liquor mingled with the sun-baked grass. Despite the blazing sun, he was in the mood to chat. I attempted to stoop down and fill the dustpan – I was so close to finishing and being able to hide inside the house again – but then worried that would seem impolite.

Sometimes it sucks to be Canadian.

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Yes, we are too polite – but look at our pretty stamps!

“You did the hard part,” narco neighbour said, sweeping his hand across the now-clean bottom three-quarters of the wall. “The rest is easy.”

He pointed to the high bits I couldn’t possibly reach. “Easy,” he said again. And here I lost him, as I often do when things become too complicated for my poor Spanish. Instead, I did the nod-and-smile combo, a technique I’ve been mastering all over the world for years.

While doing so I noted things you observe when you focus on the person and not the words coming out of their mouth. The pale blue dress shirt, unbuttoned almost to his belly. The sweaty chest and brow. The thinning hair. The missing front teeth, and one of the few remaining ones, black with rot.

His eyes searched the heights of the wall, looking a little lost, until he spotted Stanley watching from above. “He looks like good cat,” he said. “His has kind eyes.”

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Our dear Stanley.

Phase 1

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Walking the path of freedom.

Laziness. Apathy. The lockdown time warp. These are my excuses for a 17-day silence. Oh, and an evaluation of my mental state by certain readers that happen to be family based upon the contents of my blog posts. As any writer knows, such scrutiny is our kryptonite.

Please, dear reader, don’t worry. There’s no need to worry about a woman who spends her days talking to cats and avoiding divorce papers and tax returns. Really. You should see the cupboards she has organized these past couple weeks, and even a couple of drawers.

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Laundry – my new answer to “Do you have any hobbies?”

Plus, I’ve been kind of busy living life again. Life beyond the stone walls of Carrasqueira 99. Last Monday Galicia entered Phase 1 and it was like a magic wand passed over these green hills. Sidewalk cafés and non-essential shops rolled up their shutters. Families and friends reunited in groups of ten or less. Our one-kilometre radius of roaming space expanded to the whole province of Pontevedra.

I literally felt drugged by these newfound freedoms – heading “downtown” to experience the buzz of a café con leche first thing that blessed Monday morning and an albariño in the evening. In between I bought non-essential goods such as an embroidered throw pillow and a set of nesting baskets. I went to one of my favourite beaches – Porto Maior – and sat for hours watching the tide come in.

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Porto Maior. Pure balm for the soul.

But one week later and the pre-lockdown anxieties have re-surfaced. It’s time to push play again, resuming our lives where we paused in mid-March, and all without the next great novel in the works (I wrote two pages and gave up, but thought about writing it A LOT) or a perfectly toned beach body (au contraire).

I learned about the impossibility of this ever happening (the beach body) on Sunday when I went for a hike with Miguel and Débora and we came upon a nude beach. As anyone who has been to Spain knows, people here are very comfortable with nudity in all of its forms.

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O Canada. A family in Bueu flies a different flag each day. Thanks for the photo, Miguel.

Coming from a country that still displays the Queen of England on its currency – a woman whose gaze emits the subtle brainwashing of centuries-old conservative Victorian values – I hesitate to display my form.

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Miguel and Débora wasted no time in stripping off (it was a hot and sunny day, sorry people in Canada who have been experiencing snow in May) and cooling down. I thought about my too-white flesh and my too-many-lockdown-cupcakes jiggly bits. Luckily, I had my period (the first time I’ve ever said this in my life).

So, here we are – a few pounds heavier and none the wiser. What to do and where to go in this post-lockdown world?

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Free to flit from flower to flower – but don’t forget your mask.

After completing its four phases, Spain could enter the “New Normal” as early as July. The taste of true freedom is so near, but much like taking off my clothes in public, I hesitate to take the plunge.

Exposed again to the gaze of the world, will I jump into the wild blue Atlantic, or just want to wrap myself back up in a warm towel?

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Also feeling anxious about saying good-bye to these two – Alaska and Emily – who have been with me since Phase 0. After nearly dying from a cat virus, they’re ready for their furever homes.

The Right of Spring

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Time to smell the roses.

“Happy Freedom Day!” a friend in the south of Spain writes this morning. She sends pictures of a beach at sunrise.

Although my day didn’t begin quite so early, I was lacing up my hiking boots before nine. As I reached the top of the hill just past Miguel and Débora’s house, panting a little (okay, a lot), I reached the furthest point I’d been in 48 days.

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Early-morning surfers in Cádiz. Thank you, Stephanie.

Today is the day adults in Spain can head for the hills if they’re in the mood, as long as it’s between the hours of 6 a.m. and 10 a.m. or 8 p.m. and 11 p.m. and within a one-kilometre radius. If you’re over 70, other time slots apply.

While admiring the rows of grapevines leading down into the port of Beluso, I suddenly felt grateful I’d been stuck in one of Europe’s strictest lockdowns for 48 days. It was May now and March felt like another world. A world where the foxglove had not yet bloomed and the potatoes I’d watched an elderly couple plant still lay buried in neat drills.

A world where I’d been sending emails to my ex-husband that took hours to compose. How to express an all-consuming rage in 700 words or less? How to strike the perfect balance between I hate you and your new girlfriend and you were my family and I will always love you?

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When you live down the hill from a castle.

But March felt far away now. Now the hills of Galicia were alive with the sound of spring water running, birds chirping, hens clucking, dogs barking. Every crevice bloomed green. Flowers belonging in hothouses grew wild: birds of paradise, calla lilies, jasmine.

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Yes, these beauties grow wild around here.

While this isn’t the first time I’ve emerged so wide-eyed from a period of deprivation – 10-day silent retreats at meditation centres, tree planting in the “bush” of Canada’s west coast, living in an off-the-grid cabin 16 kilometres from town with no vehicle – these were self-imposed deprivations involving groups of other like-minded people.

To know you’re emerging into the world at the same time as millions of strangers, a communal awakening to a spring in full bloom, is something else altogether.

Unlike the cities of Barcelona and Madrid and Cádiz, alive with cyclists and joggers and surfers from the crack of dawn, I only passed a handful of people during my allotted hour in Bueu. All of them, in accordance with what seems to be a Spanish rule to always dress for the occasion, sporting what appeared to be brand-new exercise gear.

But what my walk lacked in quantity it made up for in quality. A look passed between me and my freedom-day comrades  – a look of recognition. We’d done it. We’d survived something together.

No, it wasn’t a war, or crushing poverty, or any of the other horrors of this world, but it was something. Something to celebrate if only just between the hours of 6 a.m. and 10 a.m. or 8 p.m. and 11 p.m. in our one-kilometre radius. Within this space, the world was our oyster again.

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I sure hope all this walking won’t affect my eating schedule, says Stanley.

Phase 0

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When this is what dinner becomes.

It’s been one of those days, another one of those days, when you think it’s Monday but it’s actually Wednesday, when you think it’s eleven in the morning but it’s four in the afternoon.

Before you know it, the clapping party has started and you’re watching the Big Bang Theory in Spanish and polishing off a Magnum Double Cherry ice cream bar. Outside, the neighbours are pumping techno through the green hills of Galicia, and you just wish it would end.

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Luckily, there are only three to a box.

And, apparently, it will end. What 46.7 million have been hoping for has finally been announced – Spain’s “deescalation” measures. First step – Phase 0. On May 2nd, this Saturday, we will be released from our homes and be allowed to go out for a walk.

It’s not yet clear where we can walk and for how long, but that’s not important. Already news reports talk of the sunny skies expected for this weekend, an “early summer hot spell” to lead us back out into the light. Finally, something to mark on the calendar. Green pen. All caps. OUTSIDE.

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Where I was walking this time last year.

At the end of June, if we pass Phase 1, 2 and 3 successfully, we will enter what the government is calling the “new normality.” This new normality will likely be wearing a face mask and surgical gloves. But, perhaps, it will allow trains to be booked, even planes.

Maybe some people from foreign countries who’ve said they’re stuck in Spain because of a lockdown will have to quit eating ice cream bars and make decisions about their futures, again.

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The view that just keeps on giving.

While lockdowns around the world have tested the mettle of millions, the return to the “new normality” could pose its own set of problems. Especially for those of us who suffer from what people like to call First World problems.

For some of us the lockdown has provided the perfect cover for the existential angst we usually mask by calling ourselves writers who preach living in the moment whilst storing boxes at our nearly 80-year old mother’s house. We’re kept awake at night by worrying about what address to put on our driver’s license.

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“Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree,” said Martin Luther. How about edible flowers?

While so many complain of lockdown loneliness, I’ve rarely felt more connected. I’m no longer the only person walking alone through the streets of Bueu, or perusing the supermarket shelves. Everywhere I look, people are just like me. Too bad that when I try to smile at them, in the spirit of camaraderie, they’re wearing a mask. But I’d like to think they’re smiling back.

Also, I’m no longer the only one who has no idea what her future holds. Finally, we’re all in Phase 0 together. Welcome, everyone. It’s really not as bad as it seems.

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What about your career as foster mother for the kittens of Galicia?

Do not reply

Dear readers,

It has come to my attention that a few of you have been replying to these blog posts directly. Unfortunately, I haven’t received any of your messages as they instantly disappear into the do-not-reply-WordPress ether.

My apologies if you thought I was just ignoring you. I would never do that.

You are very welcome to write me directly: angelamaelong@gmail.com. Instagram or Twitter work too. There’s also a contact form on my site.

Thank you for taking the time to read my words, and even respond to them. You’re really helping to make me feel more connected to the world beyond #99 Carrasqueira.

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Thank you! says Frankie. You’re the cat’s meow.

Children of the Quarantine

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When children become a sight for sore eyes.

This morning began like most others, with me wondering if I could hold my pee long enough to keep sleeping for another hour. But, after a mere 20 minutes, my bladder won.

Then it was time to feed the seven stray cats. Much to my annoyance, their inner breakfast clock knows when I’ve slept in and they begin to gather by the door, clawing at the front mat, jumping up to the bedroom window, their shadows skulking behind the curtains.

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Playground by the sea is still off limits.

As I filled their dishes, glancing out the window towards the ocean, something on the beach caught my eye. A child. And then I remembered. Today was the day the children of Spain were finally allowed to go outside.

Instead of beginning my morning chores, which I can often make last well into the afternoon, I got dressed. As someone with a reporter’s instinct burrowed deep within my psyche, I knew this was an important day. When was the last time a country of 46.7 million kept all of its children inside for 43 days?

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If you’re going to buy a baguette, might as well throw in some of these beauties.

I needed a baguette, I decided, and maybe some multi vitamins. I could even squeeze in an ATM stop. I wanted to see the look on just one child’s face after they emerged from quarantine. Instead I saw the look on several children’s faces, and it was all I could do to keep my composure and keep walking.

They kept appearing from the side streets, converging at the boardwalk – riding bicycles and tricycles, gliding along on pedal scooters. Some ran along the beach, stooping down to fill their hands with water. Some kicked a ball back and forth, “Papa!” they yelled. “Papa!”

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Now children can join the dogs on the beach. (see Lockdown #7)

A little girl in a spring dress of mint green and light pink tottered towards her mother. The girl stopped to look at me, brown eyes as glossy as chestnuts. “Hola!” I said with my foreigner’s accent, and she smiled wide, even began to laugh. I laughed with her, feeling lighter than I have in weeks.

Even now, at 5:30, I look out my window and the children are still there – roller-skating in circles on the soccer pitch, climbing on the rocks by the shore. They are life, pure life, resuming exactly where they left off. Gulls wheel overhead, waves crash and recede. And I can’t believe these same children ever used to annoy me.

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This walkway hasn’t seen much action for the past 43 days.

Now they give me hope that we adults, when our time comes, might be able to just pick up our soccer balls and give them a kick, not caring about things like goals. Just to be alive and kicking when all this is done – isn’t that enough?

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After its near-death experience, this new bloom also gives me hope.

P.S. Today was exciting for another reason. The preserved lemons are ready (see “When life gives you lemons”) and I tried them out with some pasta topped with roasted vegetables and feta. More proof that you should never judge a book (they look disgusting) by its cover. Zesty yet mellow. I’m hooked.

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Lemony lusciousness always tastes better with wine.

Behind the shutters

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Can’t go to the beach? Wash the curtains!

When I saw the cloudless sky this morning, I knew it was time. Time to wash the curtains.

After nearly half a century on this planet, this was something I had never done before. This is mostly because I’m not a big fan of curtains, and have a thing for natural light.

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Nothing wrong with a bit of shade, Angie.

Galicians, on the other hand, seem fond of everything associated with blocking out the light, especially shutters. Usually these are of the roll-down kind, raised in increments, if at all, depending on the time of day.

I’m not the only one who has made this observation. An El País article examines this phenomenon, noting, “While the use of shutters in Europe is only anecdotal, here in Spain they are part of popular culture – and almost always kept down.”

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Yes, I did put up the patio umbrella. Mean Kitten (can you see him?) forced me.

My first experience inside a shuttered house was on a day just like today. Mercedes invited me over for coffee and cookies. As she led me from the front door to the kitchen, it took a few minutes for my eyes to adjust to the darkness. The mauve-coloured walls didn’t help.

When I asked to see her back yard, Mercedes rolled up the shutters and opened the door. Light flooded in, illuminating her pristine white kitchen. Outside, the warmth of terra- cotta tiles and planters filled with flowers cast their own kind of glow. Sunlight filtered through the branches of a cherry tree. Mercedes smiled, proud of her creation. Then we went back inside, and she closed the shutters.

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Plane trees coming back to life.

While trying to fit into Galician society, I’ve tried doing the shutter thing. I admit there’s a satisfying sound, just like in the movies, when the shutters roll down and hit the stone window ledge with a dramatic thud. Suddenly it feels like anything is possible in your dark cocoon.

Unfortunately, I am just too boring to take full advantage of this.

As a compromise, in the bedroom, and only at night, I pull closed the cream-coloured curtains. As these are not my curtains, as nothing in this house, originally an Airbnb rental, belongs to me, I take my responsibility for their upkeep seriously. This has not been easy while fostering kittens who are attracted, as any kitten worth their salt would be, to the voluminous sway of medium-weight cotton, to the delightful folds encasing hiding spots, to the sheer possibility of climbing to the heavens.

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A lover of curtains.

And so today I washed the curtains I’ve fought so hard to protect, hanging them to dry in the brilliant Galician sunshine.

But once I removed the house’s three sets of curtains – a painstaking task I hope to never repeat again of removing dozens of plastic hooks I suspect had never been removed before – I noticed the windows needed to be cleaned. Once I cleaned the windows, I noticed the couch needed to be vacuumed. Once I vacuumed the couch, I noticed the floor under the couch needed to be mopped. Once I mopped the floor under the couch, I noticed the walls were dirty.

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Another lover of curtains.

On some lockdown days, one chore begets another, and another. Maybe you perform these tasks as though your life depends on them, attacking stains on the wall with such vigour your arm aches. You catch yourself, sponge in hand, heart racing. This is when it’s time to stop and ask – What am I doing?

I struggle at times to answer that question, but does it really matter? Especially now? You can’t go wrong with cleaning, my mother taught me. It’s free. There’s a before and after. Results are tangible.

I look at my results – a pile of white plastic hooks waiting to be re-inserted. What comes down must go up.

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Don’t forget about me! I have such fond memories of your curtains

Happy birthday to me

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Geraniums, always in the mood to party.

I have a confession to make. It’s my birthday. I was going to just keep sitting here, feeling sorry for myself, but then a friend wrote and told me to envision, for 17 seconds, what I’d like to have in life rather than dwell on what I don’t have.

Seventeen seconds is a long time when you have no idea what you’d like in life. Especially when “the future is cancelled,” as another friend said the other day.

I’d like to say I envisioned a birthday party held in my honour, with a cardamom-rose triple-layer cake and champagne and presents wrapped in shimmery paper with organza bows.

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Once upon a time (not that long ago…), an Italian jazz musician made me a cake.

But, even during pre-lockdown times, I’ve never been much for celebrating my birthday. While a festive day for millions around the world who celebrate 4/20 as Weed Day, it was also Adolf Hitler’s birthday, and, 82-years later, the day my birth mother made the difficult decision to leave me in a hospital ward in Ottawa and head west.

Yes, I know, I was then “chosen” by my adoptive parents, who loved me and still love me to this day (even if they’ve forgotten it’s my birthday). I really can’t complain. But, there’s always that little girl inside who comes out once a year to pout. And today’s her day.

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Enough already, Angie. Really.

After 48 years on this earth, I’ve learned some coping mechanisms for the big day. Since I can’t go hide in the forest, or go for a drink with a sympathetic friend, my only option is to buy stuff. But where to buy stuff during a nation-wide lockdown, stuff that’s not from a supermarket shelf?

So, instead of waiting for the Spanish lunch hour of two o’clock for my bi-weekly shopping run, I decided to get dressed and head down the hill before noon for a birthday adventure. Little did I know a whole new world awaited.

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A brand new birthday bloom.

Stores usually closed for lockdown were suddenly open. How did they know it was my birthday? Stationery shops, hardware stores, tienda de chuches (candy shops), a specialty food store.

I read the sign on each door, learning the cold hard truth. These were deemed essential services, and had been open this entire time. Only closed, of course, for lunch.

Hoping for something over-priced and exotic to cure my birthday blues, I wandered into the specialty food store only to discover shelves filled with canned mussels and dusty bottles of Mencia. I considered buying a 50-Euro (or was it 60?) Tupperware set, admiring the rose-coloured nesting bowls. Thankfully, the urge passed.

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You can never go wrong with stationery.

The stationery shop awaited. While mostly school supplies for children, I managed to find items that bridged the generational gap(s) – Post-it Notes, a “colouring therapy” book, a robin-egg blue notepad. At GADIS (because what trip to town would be complete without visiting GADIS?) I finally bought the champagne (technically cava, but doesn’t “champagne” have a much better ring to it?) and box of chocolates gift set I’d been admiring.

And now, it’s eight o’clock. Four more hours and I can say good-bye to Lockdown Birthday 2020. Thank you for celebrating with me, dear reader. When I uncork the champagne, it will be you I toast.

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Care for a sip? How about some dark sublime?

UPDATE: Since I posted this last night, readers have responded from all over the world wishing me a Happy Birthday. My neighbours Débora and Miguel (and our friend Ana by WhatsApp) serenaded me in my garden. They also gave me the perfect lockdown friend to keep me company, one that doesn’t meow for food or pee on my bed.

Thank you, everyone. You’ve warmed the very cockles of my heart.

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My new friend who is nameless for the time being. Ideas?