Notes from a Pandemic: Outside

Going out. I’m going to leave the flat for the first time in three weeks. I can’t believe it has been that long; between working online, checking in with loved ones, reading the news, reacting to the news and sleeping a lot it has all gone by in a surreal, sometimes peaceful often anxious whirl.

Today is the designated day for buying more food. We made a list and checked if we really do need to go out. Talked about the difference between needs and wants. There is caution for ourselves and others. I read an article today about the importance of masks in reducing transmission of the virus. I tell my partner that it feels important to wear one. He listens to my regurgitation of a morning spent reading articles and checking scientific notes and agrees.

There’s a video on YouTube about using just two elastic bands and some material to make a mask. I stand with him on our balcony, the sun shining on us after a week of rain, folding material and laughing at various bad attempts. And this is it – the strange normality that we all have in the moments when we are not thinking about the virus. Human moments. I make a mask out of a pink pillowcase that ends up looking like a ridiculous bottom stuck onto my face. We fall about laughing. Our life here is about reusing and recycling, constantly discovering new ways to consume less and give new life to things we have; we are used to being seen as poor when in fact we feel richer for it. And here we are making masks from old scarves because people are dying, because we don’t want to die ourselves or cause any one else to; yet here we are also laughing and taking a picture because we look like we are going to hold up a petrol station. This is it –  balancing on a thin line between knowing and being.

Ready to leave the house I am wearing, a new improved mask, gloves and hair tied back. I slip on my shoes outside the door and leave my slippers at the ‘disinfection station’ we’ve set up by the front door: a bag for our clothes when we get back, box for the keys, phones, credit cards etc; slippers ready to head straight to the shower. My glasses steam up; the mask feels heavy and the gloves make my hands sweat.

Then I’m outside. Out listening to nothing but birdsong in the city centre. I cross the central plaza. It is completely empty. It is both the set of an apocalyptic film and a peaceful dream. The sound of the birds is wonderful. I can almost forget why my breath is misting behind a cloth mask. I pass a woman with her shopping trolley at a respectable distance. Two women trot through the square in high heels, estilo Córdobesa; wide tan trousers, cream shirts and glossy blond locks; they seem like ghosts from life a few weeks ago. They’re not wearing masks or gloves and eye me pityingly; don’t they know that the virus doesn’t care about beauty or social status?

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Plaza de las Tendillas, the central plaza in the city, deserted during quarantine.

At the supermarket, there is a man sitting in the doorway. A usually busy street with a bar across the road is simply filled with a silence that makes our presence together the more obvious. I say hello, he asks if I have any change and I’m sorry that I don’t and explain that we have to pay by card now. He nods and smiles. I feel like a privileged idiot. He is wearing gloves and has a bag beside him. I think of offering the pair of medical gloves I have in my bag and again feel silly. I could offer the apples I just bought. It is rude not to offer anything but I’m nervous about offending him and end up just hovering nearby as a young man arrives trailing two Shih Tzu dogs. He stops to tie them to the railing and the older man calls out to him, ‘I’ll hold them for you.’  ‘They’ll bite you’ he says and I wonder if it’s true. The older man says he doesn’t mind that he loves dogs, so he is handed the leash nonchalantly. He pulls the dogs closer to him and begins a conversation with them. The delight on his face is beautiful to see. He reaches out to touch the black and white dog and as promised it snaps at him baring its teeth before they both begin barking and yapping as only small dogs can. It makes me laugh and he laughs too. ‘Be careful.’ I call out to him, my voice hidden in folds of thick cloth. He looks at me and shakes his head as the dog rolls over and lets him pet its belly. He is in a world where only he and the dogs exist in the pure joy of this interaction.

The young man comes out of the shop. He’s carrying a large can of energy drink which he pops open with one hand. He takes a cigarette from behind his ear and lights it before grabbing the lead, ‘Cheers mate, see you.’ He calls out, music blaring from a mini boom box on his belt as he struts off. The older man is still smiling and watching the dogs as they go around the corner.

There is a thought I’ve had many times since quarantine began – it begins with ‘What about…’ and there is an endless list; homeless people, victims of sex traffing, abuse, domestic violence; all the way to animals abandoned by their owners. I feel guilty that I don’t have the answers.

I pass the bus stop near our flat and there are three women sat waiting, they all wear the same blue and white polo shirts with the brand of a cleaning services company on it. They are in their late fifties.

Outside, it doesn’t take long to feel the inequality of it.

 

Notes from a Pandemic: The City

Birds. I heard birds in the city centre for the first time as I woke on day two of the quarantine here. Not just the odd caw that we hear off our balcony when the pigeons are preparing for the day or coming home to roost on the abandoned building opposite, but a full symphony of birds making their morning calls to each other. It was beautiful.

Anyone who has ever been to Andalucía will know that one thing you cannot get away from here is the noise. It’s not bad noise, but a low level hum and thrum of life; of animated conversations, traffic, shutters going up and down, glasses and plates clinking in bars, the odd moto piercing your ears, children and dogs. A cacophony of life. It’s both reassuring, you certainly don’t feel alone here, and also overwhelming, especially at times like Easter or Feria when most of the city is in the street at all hours. We live in the centre of this city and sometimes it grates but it’s a small price to pay to live a really good life.

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View of the city centre at breakfast time.

The absence of noise on that first morning after quarantine began was both peaceful and surreal. Andalucía is its people; the warmth and life of the city; an unstoppable energy that goes to bed at 2am and can get up again at 7am. I’m often in awe of people’s stamina and the insatiable need to be with other people outside; in bars, cafés, terraces, parks – life here is lived outdoors.

So, taking the majority of people off the street over these last nine days – the absence of noise is noticeable and has added a lovely peace to the quarantine. But there are moments. Moments for people to express themselves outside – on our balconies at 8pm we all go out to applaud the workers that cannot stay at home. It is jubilant. I’ve seen neighbours in the surrounding flats who I’ve never met but now smile and wave at every evening.  Living in a city is sociable but you tend to have ‘your’ places, the café or bar for breakfast, the fruit shop, market, the neighbours in your building, the bar below you; it’s possible to be greeting people all day here. Yet, all those faces on the balconies are unfamiliar to me. I’ve been wondering if we’ll recognise each other in the street after all this (if we’re lucky enough to make it that far.)

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These balconies are filled with people applauding at 8pm .

The atmosphere has also been subdued. We’re all scared and unsure. But slowly an untameable spirit is coming back – the applause at 8pm  has got longer each day followed by emotional shouts of ¡Viva! and ¡Viva España! There is solidarity. A sense of being in it together. Today I heard friends shouting from the street to a balcony; there was joy in those words; the jaleo and buzz won’t be away for long.

But what about the silence? I have heard owls at night too and this morning a blackbird was perched on the terrace singing. It hypnotised me for a few minutes – I’ve never seen one on the balcony before; in the park yes but not in the city. And that is what’s happening in so many places – nature is taking steps towards us. An entire flock of geese waddled across the Arenal bridge today and were uploaded to social media. We hear the canals in Venice are clearing. What other beauty is there to come from our absence? How long will it take for the concrete to start greening and will anyone really want to stop it?

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Cats enjoying the peace and sun in Parque Orive.

It feels like a wonderful secret; that although for the terrible reasons we are at home –  the wilderness is coming back and it doesn’t take long. Can we bear it? To take a moment to breathe in and know that we are not separate from this in the same way that we are not separate from each other? Can we turn towards it knowing what we have done, knowing it isn’t looking to forgive us, simply to envelop us in the net of symbiosis that we have opted out of.

Will we remember to listen in stillness to the birds when we go outside again?

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Notes from a Pandemic: The Beginning

It’s day 7 of the national ‘lockdown’ here in Andalucía, Spain. Life changed overnight as the rise in cases of the Covid-19 virus caused the government to act quickly and announce legislation for new national measures to protect citizens and residents.

Even typing that sentence feels surreal. I’ve lived in Andalucía for nearly seven years and I’m lucky enough to call the city of Córdoba my home; yet, I would never have imagined that I would be sat here, having been sent home from my teaching job with all my books and equipment, waiting with my partner to listen to the President’s speech.

A week earlier, my students had been regaling me with stories about the virus. The teen groups were especially scandalous and no sooner would they sit down in the classroom than they’d all want to start talking about the latest news they’d read or heard. They were excited, something was happening somewhere and they’d all had new mobile for Christmas so now they could follow the news; but at that point it was still far away enough for it to be the kind of threat they were so used to seeing in films and series, one that wouldn’t touch them. How did we all get so naive?  A capitalist system of growth, growth, sell, sell, pushes us all on and gives this false idea that if we all have things, if we all have work, if we can all have all the conveniences that we desire, if we are all productive and striving then – what could touch us? Now we have the answer.

And we are all at once so human that we are forced to recognise our fragility and for most of us this is terrifying.

The mood here in Spain is one of social responsibility, #quedateencasa was quick to appear on social networks. The President talked of solidarity, unity and collaboration. There is a large police and military resource here to enforce the new legislations should it be needed, although generally people are scared and seem happy enough to be at home if they can (People who aren’t able to work at home and frontline workers are still going to work) I’m very ‘happy’ to be at home and lucky to be able to continue teaching online for the moment at least. No one knows where this crisis will lead us but there is a definite mood here which is – we’re all in it together – and that is reassuring.

We’re all learning things each day as the quarantine continues; whether it’s how to navigate your family relationships, hearing birds in the city for the first time or deciding what is the difference between needing and wanting something. There are lots of online posts about the earth needing this break, Venice’s canals are running clear, people are finding time to switch off and reconnect. We use stories to make meaning and we need some meaning right now.

I thought I’d start this blog series #notesfromapandemic to reflect on being here in a flat in Córdoba with my partner and two cats in the middle of a pandemic; of being scared and yet at the same time having normality and more quiet time; and all the thoughts and feelings that this throws up. I’d love for it to become a conversation with other people about what we are all feeling and thinking; what we are afraid of and how we’re dealing with it; what’s different and what’s the same and what this means on a human level for us all.  If you feel like talking  – leave a comment – write a response – what we have at the moment is connection.

Wishing you all good health,

Stay safe and calm.

Carys x

Listening
I’m Listening A Case for Empathy by Carys Shannon 2013