Life in Spain with the Coronavirus

Between March 12-17 Spain saw coronavirus cases rocket from 3,146 to 11,178. In those five days my husband, Chris, lost his job and our plans to move were put on indefinite hold. Normal life distorted, then vanished, as the government banned travel, locked down the country, and put the police under military control.

Wednesday, March 11

The first broad hint that things were accelerating towards the unknown was when my friend Maria offered an elbow-bump instead of the usual Spanish greeting of a hug and two kisses: for coronvirus, she caroled.

Other countries judge crises by politicians’ statements or the somberness of news anchors. In Spain, EXTRAORDINARY CIRCUMSTANCES are when people don’t hug and kiss at least twice in a two-minute conversation.

I teach English at an academy and private school in A Coruna, Galicia. Tucked in the northwest corner of Spain, daily life in Galicia feels remote from the bustle of Madrid and Barcelona, or the sun-bleached, tourist-swarmed costas. Suddenly, it wasn’t remote enough.

Coruna’s first coronavirus case, confirmed on March 6, was a man from Madrid who came to the city for a job interview. In the subsequent days the word had become a taunt among my younger students – he has coronavirus! No, she has coronavirus!

The Spanish pronunciation, coh-roh-nuh-vee-rus, is gently musical. It chimed in snippets of conversation on the street, in bus-stop chatter, in the rapid dialogue between our secretary and parents killing time while they waited.

On the bus ride home, I mentally reviewed our weekend agenda: clean, pack, pick up rental car and welcome a house-sitter on Thursday; set off early Friday to make the 1,000km trip to Valencia; spend Saturday unpacking in our new home; fly back to Galicia Sunday so I could be at work the next day.

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Photo by Vonecia Carswell on Unsplash

Thursday, March 12

Chris woke me early: “You shouldn’t go to work and I don’t think we should fly.”

He’d been up all night reading about coronavirus, watching the case-count tick higher.

By the time coffee had brewed, I’d called in sick, messaged the house-sitter to cancel: It would be awful if something happened while you were here and they closed the border.

At the time, this seemed about as likely as another moon landing.

I went to the grocery store and piled a cart with hand soap, gloves, toilet bleach, rice, dried beans, peanut butter, potatoes, zucchini, peppers, cheese, wine, water. The only notable out-of-stock item was rubbing alcohol.

Chris and I sketched a new plan: pick up a van Sunday, load what we could, leave first thing Monday for Valencia. Two of our three cats would travel with Chris, I’d follow him in our car with the other. “It feels like fleeing a burning building,” I sad. But we agreed that if we had to get stuck somewhere, which seemed increasingly likely, better Mediterranean sun than Galician rain.

We’ll be back as soon it’s over,” he assured me.

Friday, March 13

Galicia announced it would close schools from Monday. My boss sent a text saying the academy was still open and he wanted to offer childcare service in the coming week. “Very few kids came yesterday,” he noted. “We can probably combine classes.”

We went for a walk, following our usual route along one-lane country roads, past small farms and the curious stares of knock-kneed lambs and cud-chewing cows. The neighbor’s dogs, a little black mutt and a Tibetan spaniel, ran to greet us.

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Photo by Jayden Brand on Unsplash

Saturday, March 14

Shops close on Sundays, so we went into the village to pick up a few things. Chris took one look at the supermarket parking lot and over-spill of vehicles lining the streets and shook his head.

Instead, we went to Razo. A noted surf spot, the beach is usually busy even in winter, but it was deserted apart from gulls. We walked onto the clean white sand, putting up our hoods against the keen Atlantic wind, and watched turquoise water curl into foaming breakers. Driving back past stubbled cornfields, patches of bushy-headed kale, neat houses hedged with purple blue and white hydrangeas, I wondered if we’d see this again.

We stopped at our friend Ramon’s wine shop – texting first to say we would were observing social distance. We often spend Friday evenings there, clustered around a barrel that serves as a table, drinking red wine, carving up cheese and empanadas, yakking about politics or music. This time, Ramon eschewed the usual kisses for a half-bow. We had a drink, bought two five-liter boxes of wine for our new house, waved goodbye and promised to be back when we could.

Mid-afternoon, while Chris was napping, I took a break from writing and looked at my phone: Spain’s state of alarm had become a state of emergency.

From the outside, Spain looks homogeneous. In reality, it is a complex and not always congenial patchwork of 50 provinces, 17 autonomous communities, and several co-official languages. The public health system is administered independently in each community so there was no coordinated response as coronavirus blossomed across the country. The state of emergency gave the federal government control of the public health service and the right to take over private healthcare as well. It also put police and security forces under military control. Suddenly, the lock-down that seemed fanciful 48 hours earlier was real. Nobody could leave home except to go to work, buy groceries, visit the doctor or pharmacy, or care for children or the elderly.

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Photo by Wes Hicks on Unsplash

Sunday, March 15

With no need pack, nothing to plan, and nowhere to go, we spend the day in a limbo that resembles tranquility. He calls the rental car place and arranges a refund. I rebook flights, trying not to think too far ahead. Chris is an audio technician. All his work has canceled. My teaching is gone for the foreseeable future; I try not to think about how quickly freelance writing will dry up.

Monday, March 16

I awoke to a voice message from a friend in Ibiza: police there are cautioning people traveling by bicycle, or more than one per vehicle. The only thing people are legally allowed to do outside is walk a dog. Within hours, ads appeared on Wallapop (a LetGo-style second-hand shopping app) offering to rent dogs out for strolls.

My LinkedIn feed was full of photos of deserted offices in Madrid and Barcelona tagged #yomequedoencasa (#istayhome). National radio played The Police ‘Don’t Stand so Close to Me’ and the DJs repeated “stay home”. Friends sent snapshots of deserted streets, parks, playgrounds. The cats follow us everywhere, as if they knew something was wrong.

Tuesday, March 17

More out of curiosity than need, I went to the grocery story at 9AM. A car pulled in behind me and a couple in matching lavender latex gloves got out. Signs were taped to the floor and at eye-level: ‘1 meter between people’. Strips of tape marked the distance in the checkout lanes. Some of the staff were wearing gloves, some filtered face masks, some both, some neither. The store filled as I restocked vegetables and wine, grabbed the lone bottle of rubbing alcohol on the shelf. Most people were elderly and seemed unconcerned; a younger woman in multi-colored platform sneakers wore a surgical mask and gloves; another hiked her scarf over her face on entering the store, as if coronavirus were a sandstorm.

Back home, Chris and I pulled on boots and tramped through the long grass behind the house. Our cats scampered along, breaking off to chase butterflies and bees. Pink camellia blossoms littered the ground, the olive tree shimmered silver, creamy flowers clustered on the pear tree’s gnarled limbs. We stood facing the sun, absorbing energy for whatever the next days bring.

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Photo by Paul Trienekens on Unsplash

 

To Eat or to Not-Eat

After a childhood eating unprocessed food, my diet swung towards “normal” in my teens. My parents finally separated, my mother, brother and I moving into an apartment in town. Along with freedom from the constant, harrowing stress of living with my father’s moods came a relaxation of the eating regime. My mom was working; I had an after-school job at the outlet mall. This meant less cooking and the financial freedom to buy what I liked. For several months of junior year breakfast was, religiously, a Lender’s bagel (sold-frozen white rings that toasted to an alluring combination of chewy dough and crunchy crust) caked with Philadelphia Light Cream cheese, washed down with Diet Coke. My kid brother got into PopTarts and pizza-flavored Hot Pockets, I discovered a brand of microwaveable burrito and would buy them by the half-dozen.

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Concurrent with the foray into junk food was a – possibly not atypical – adolescent obsession with my weight. At that age, there were a lot of things working against me: untamable hair that veered in texture from ringlet curls to limp waves, higgledy-piggledy teeth, plump cheeks prone to blushing, and a tendency to run to fat. Objectively, at 135-140 pounds, I was a reasonable weight for my 5’6” height. My self-perception, though, was that I was grossly fat and repulsive. The solution that presented itself was dieting. Every month Reader’s Digest, which I’d been reading cover to cover since I was five or six years old, wrote up a new diet or exercise scheme alongside ads for Weight Watchers and Slim Fast.

 

I never joined a club, but I did regularly glug ultra-processed chocolate Slim Fast shakes. Somehow, liquid seemed less dangerous than solids, less likely to stick to my sturdy waist. This rational prompted me to develop a black coffee habit, along with Diet Coke. During basketball practice and track workouts I drank Lemon-Lime Gatorade. Despite these measures, my size and shape refused to morph.

My best friend at the time was blonde, blue-eyed, and fit in the narrow confines of Levis 501s. She work Converse high-tops and wrote Nirvana lyrics on her jeans. In addition to the exoticness of having been transplanted from Florida, she’d had braces not once but twice. It was a close call which I envied more: her straight teeth, or the casual way she’d say things like, “oh, I haven’t eaten in two days”. The boys who fluttered around would respond admiringly, “no wonder you’re so skinny”.

None of the boys admired me for being skinny, nor could I ever claim to have not eaten for two days. The spirit was willing but the flesh got hungry.

Is it strange that between the ages of 15 and 25 I thought that not-eating was actively something to aspire to?

At 17, I moved across the country to go to university. More freedom, higher stakes. The first year I lived in halls and had access to the cafeteria: all-you-can-eat, three meals a day. Pizza, pasta, hamburgers, cakes, fro-yo. Like most of my friends, I put on 15-20 pounds in the first few months. Those who didn’t pursued not-eating in novel ways: one friend eat heaping bowls of plain iceberg lettuce, and nothing else; another gradually reduced her food intake to raw baby corn.

By sophomore year, eating disorders were a competitive sport. Classmates and acquaintances literally wasted away while those of us who ate kept gaining weight.

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No wonder, given our food choices. We lived, like many Americans, in a food desert. The nearest grocery store that sold produce was a Thriftway on 42nd street; mostly, we shopped at the 7-11 on the corner: Cheerios, Kraft Mac&Cheese, Kraft Singles, microwave popcorn, white bread, turkey ham, potato chips. The Papa Johns a few blocks over had a permanent two-for-one special, which we’d scarf down with the emulsified oil concoction it branded garlic dipping sauce. Our rituals included watching Golden Girls while scoffing Swedish Fish and Sour Patch Kids, purchased and eaten in bulk from a basement commissary.

By the time I graduated, I was 160-165 pounds and it seemed inevitable. If the only options were eating and not-eating, and I couldn’t not-eat, my fate was sealed.

Proof of this was the fact that I’d been running regularly and for decent distances since 13. It kept me fit, I suppose, but neither a 20-25 mile a week running habit nor a later-acquired weight-lifting regimen made prevented or reversed the weight gain.

On a trans-Atlantic flight home, I sat next to an older couple who told me they’d lost a collective 50-60 pounds by cutting processed food out of their diet. It was the first time anyone had suggested processed foods as a specific problem, and the idea of not eating “normal food” was as eccentric as a moon walk.

This early alert sailed right past me, and my journey towards a more rational diet continued on mildly self-destructive lines. Developing a clubbing and (concomitant) recreational drug habit during my early 20s peeled off the university poundage. (There’s a reason diet pills were laced with speed – it works.) Finally I could not-eat; finally, I was skinny enough to wear mini-skirts, crop tops, bikinis.

Gradually, I started eating more real food. My then-boyfriend (a slumming it public school boy) had solid British middle-class taste in everything, including food. After a weekend of coke and wine, we’d go to the market and buy fresh vegetables, fish, rice, seeded loaves and fruit. On weeknights, we’d watch Master Chef while we mashed sweet potatoes and roasted chicken breasts. I learned to make roux, red onion marmalade, creamy scrambled eggs.

Near the end of my 20s we split up and I set off for Ibiza with a suitcase. Living on a slender wage, I ate gazpacho, bran flakes, chorizo. In addition to walking 90 minutes a day to and from work, I would often take a disco nap and get up at 2AM to be in a club by three. At the end of the first summer I was thinner than I’d ever been – and had pneumonia.

What the Spanish call the punto de inflexion – the turning point – came in the form of a second-hand paperback copy of Walden, from a bookshop in Mallorca. Thoreau’s remarks about the absurdity of farmers insisting they need meat to be strong, while plowing behind oxen that only eat grass, struck a chord. There was a stringency to his logic that appealed to the part of me that still believed that not-eating is a superpower.

I became a vegetarian then, gradually, for the sake of seeing if I could, a vegan.

During a transitional period, I found a Xeroxed copy of an Upton Sinclair pamphlet about fasting in a Humboldt junk shop. It shed cast a socialist-literary aura over not-eating (The Jungle had already convinced me that not eating meat was a moral duty towards my fellow humans, as much as towards animals). Animated by this new information, I took up intermittent – then less intermittent – fasting.

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During a couple of difficult years I used not-eating as a way to manage things. For nine months in Glasgow, I ate only bread that I’d baked; or would go for days eating only raw foods, or would dine on mugs of vegetable broth laced with hot sauce. At that point, I was clinically depressed and hanging on by my fingernails. Borderline disordered eating seemed like the least of my concerns.

In retrospect, though, it seems significant – part of a pattern of carelessness/awarelessness that is individual yet unmistakably the product of a disordered food culture. The times my body most needed nourishment, I clung to the hollow comfort of not-eating. For more than two decades, self-deprivation was a goal. Though wrong, in absolute terms, I wasn’t wholly wrong about the relationship between conventional diet and overweight. Recent research indicates eating a diet high in saturated fats and sugars can damage cognitive abilities and lead to early death. Not eating ultra-processed foods is the only way to avoid the physical damage they cause – of which fat is a manifestation. However, not-eating should not apply generally.

There is a world of real food – fruits, vegetables, beans, unrefined grains, nuts, eggs and naturally processed foods like cheese and wine – that are better for you, the more you eat. After half a lifetime of treating food as the enemy, it turned out I was fighting the wrong battle.

Food, or An Unprocessed Childhood

Yesterday brought a Guardian article to my inbox: How ultra-processed foods took over your shopping cart. In it Bee Wilson recalls eating slice after slice of buttered white bread, and whole tubes of sour cream and onion Pringles. It struck a chord: those were two of the specific staples of my late-teens/early-twenties diet – along with SuperNoodles, PopTarts, Papa John’s, Taco Bell, chicken cheesesteaks, Dunkin’ Donuts and frozen pizza. These are, Wilson explains, ultra-processed foods: manufactured edibles made from other manufactured items. Their role in the global obesity and disease crisis is emerging, and it fascinates me because, though I’ve eaten my share of them, I didn’t grow up eating them – which has perhaps made all the difference.

There was a lot of strange in my childhood, ranging from benign to destructive. Yet, at the other end of the teeter-totter (as we called the wooden seesaw my father carved and balanced on an salvaged driftwood log), were a few quirks for which I’m grateful. My parents’ stopped-clock moments, I’ve dubbed them, undertaken at random, or for the wrong reasons, but nonetheless beneficial. No TV was one – the edict that set me on the path to becoming a writer.

The other is harder to sum in a phrase, no junk food? No processed food? Plain food only?

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Whatever they might have called it, if asked, the food ethos of my childhood was that anything artificially colored or flavored, anything with cartoon characters or superheroes, anything that could be put in a toaster or microwave, was essentially forbidden. My mother is, by her own admission, not much of a cook. Nor was her mother. What she knew about cooking she must have learned from fellow drifters (hippies, in a loose sense) when my siblings were young and from my grandmother, a reluctant emigre of East Prussian farm stock.

We were also poor – for most of my childhood I thought Food Stamps were colored money – and my father was ardently interested in Eastern spirituality, yoga, tai chi, and Transcendentalism.

Somehow, this combined to determine that childhood meals consisted of variations on the following: potatoes (which they grew in humped rows on the east side of the house), brown rice, beans, carrots, peas, broccoli, zucchini, beans, milk, and cheese.

My mother baked whole wheat bread, brushing the crust with melted butter as it came out of the oven so the thick brown dome gleamed. Her signature dish was spinach souffle, made with a dozen eggs and two frozen bricks of greens. She also made vegetarian chilli with kidney, pinto and black beans, and fresh tortillas to go with it. I’d slice tomatoes, then get out the orange block of Tillamook cheddar and grate a golden mountain that melted through the bowl in unctuous swirls.

Dairy in everything must have come from my grandmother, whose cooking was as weighty as her Lutheran faith. When we visited my grandparents in California, or they came to Oregon, she’d make pound cake and what we called crumb cake. I have no idea of its proper name, but its flavor is ineradicable: dense, slightly sweet base topped with melt-in-the-mouth crumbs of hard-packed butter and sugar. Perhaps it is not surprising my grandmother wound up having quadruple bypass surgery and evenutally died of cardiac-related causes. What is curious, though, is that she was always slim. To my memory, thin, even. Though stockily build, my grandfather, who never missed his afternoon coffee and cake, was fit and vigorous well into his 80s.

Despite the abundance of milk, cheese and ice cream in our diet (my mother was deeply brand loyal to Tillamook Dairy) we rarely ate conventional processed foods. Sweets, apart from ice cream, were limited to elaborate home-made birthday cakes. The most popular among my siblings and I was a chocolate cake covered in chocolate ganache, layered and adorned with chocolate buttercream frosting, and wrapped in a marzipan bow. Its creation was a day-long process, at minimum. The marzipan alone required almonds to be blanched in boiling water, peeled (accomplished by pinching the fat end until the point broke the skin and the nut shot forth), cooled, and milled in an orange-plastic and stainless steel hand grinder before being mixed with the appropriate ratio of powdered sugar.

Even store-bought goodies, as we called them, were outside the usual realm. On our weekly shopping trip to Trillium, a wooden-floored, patchouli-scented health food shop where my mom bought bulk grains and beans, we were allowed to choose a treat: either a peach frozen yogurt pop that you pushed up through a blue-and-white cardboard tube, or a paper-shrouded, sticky-edged frozen sandwich: ice cream between two chocolate graham crackers. These were flavored with carob rather than cocoa, a trend which extended to my mother’s version of hot chocolate: bitter, clumpy powdered carob boiled with hot milk and laced with honey – an anti-indulgence that left me with little taste for the real thing. Other dishes we experienced only in health-food form included chow mein (tofu) and burgers (veggie).

This food ethos felt oppressive, restrictive as the Biblical edicts we were fed each Sunday – and, like any good American child, I craved Wonder Bread, Hamburger Helper, Kraft Singles, Snickers, and Capri Sun. Even without a TV, food advertising found me; the slogan – M&Ms melt in your mouth, not in your hand – has been jingling in my head since I was about six. The difference was, my parents were stubborn/mean/enlightened/impoverished (delete as required) enough to make me to eat boiled carrots and broccoli, brown rice and potatoes regardless. In another twist, they introduced me to foods like hummus and avocados, things my working class British friends didn’t experience as kids.

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Plus I had the tremendous fortune of a big sister who loves to cook, is good at cooking, and helped me discover the joy in food that was the missing ingredient in my childhood. My mom did her best, according to her lights, but daily life was too tense and unhappy for eating to be the celebration it should. One peculiar feature of her cooking was a lack of seasoning. My father didn’t like salt (or perhaps didn’t approve of it; he was a man who could be hostile to a condiment). Herbs, spices, chilli, vinegar – I don’t recall any of them. It was a relvelation to learn how fantastic vegetables can taste when slathered in olive oil, roasted, spiked with rosemary and chilli, sprinkled with lemon, sea salt and coarse black pepper. Like many aspects of growing up, the food could have been brightened, mitigated, with a little effort.

Between then and now, I spent many years in food deserts, actual and self-constructed. Unhappiness shaped my relationship with food and my body yet, simmering beneath, were memories of a worthwhile conjunction of effort and occasion.

My Marriage in 10 Restaurants

Three years ago, on a bright blue morning, Chris and I walked to the Shelby County Courthouse in downtown Memphis and got married. He wore a charcoal grey jumper and Doc Martin Chelsea boots. I wore a black silk mini-dress and the gold leather pumps I wore for my first wedding, more than a decade earlier.

After the judge pronounced us legally wed, we went to our favorite restaurant and celebrated with black-eyed pea hummus and prosecco.

Food has always been central to our relationship. Our first date was in at a Mexican restaurant – vegan mole topped with pickled purple onions, one too many margaritas. Since then, we’ve eaten (and drunk) our way around Europe and the States, finding favorites that, while we may never see them again, are touchstones. We move and travel a lot. The restaurants and bars stay, reassuringly, in place. It is a comfort to know we can go to London or Barcelona, Denver or Memphis, and rediscover our memories in flavors.

Here are a few of the places we love:

Babalu, Memphis

This was the black-eyed pea hummus wedding lunch joint, but Babalu was more than that. It was where we went for happy hour when I finished work, taking advantage of $2-off glasses of wine, chatting with the servers while we wolfed down tacos made with handmade corn tortillas.

Pyro’s, Memphis

A few minutes drive from the house, Pyro’s was can’t-be-bothered-to-cook evenings, and let’s-have-a-treat (for under a tenner) occasions. It is one of those build your own pizza places and, because or despite being a chain, has a credible gluten free base. The staff were always sweet – high school kids, early-20-somethings, smiling in the face of latex gloves and polyester uniforms. Another draw: the hot sauce collection arrayed on the condiments table. As much habanero, jalepeno and ghost chilli as we could stand.

Tostado, London

Our first trip to London together, part of our week-long second date. Of course, I wanted to go to Soho, a few blocks of cramped, crowded streets woven into more than 15 years of memories. We cut through St Anne’s Court and spotted Tostado, a single line of tables along the wall – the whole joint hardly wider than the door. It served Ecuadorian food, comfort in glazed pottery bowls: corn and potato soup thick with cheese and topped with sliced avocados, steaming plantain-leaf wrapped humitas topped with spiky green chilli and coriander sauce, fried plantains. It became our home-cooking away from home.

Siam Central, London

On the other side of Oxford Street lies Fitzrovia, where I worked during my London years. Set on a corner with a handful of tables outside, this Thai place looks unremarkable and vanishingly small. Step inside and it mysteriously expands, finding space for however many friends you happen to bring along. As creatures forced to make habit out of minimal material, food is a ritual. Here, we ordered green curry with tofu, and drunken noodles – a heap of seared, spicy, basil-laced rice stick fresh from the pan – accompanied by flinty chenin blanc.

City O’City, Denver, CO,

The few months immediately after our wedding went like this: Chris goes back to work, I stay in our rented room with the strange room-mate and needy cat finishing my own contract, then cram everything moveable into a couple of suitcases, put the cat in a carrier, fly to Oregon, and spend a few weeks camped in my sister’s basement – breaking up the time with weekend trips to meet Chris. Salt Lake and Denver were excursion, my first trip to the mile high city. While they loaded in, I ran through the thin sunshine, stopping to do a headstand in the park. Later, when work was done, we sat at the bar of this vegetarian restaurant eating arepas and drinking cocktails.

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Mi Mero Mole, Portland, OR

It was a few days before Christmas and almost everyone else in tiny taco joint was drunk and in costume – elves, Santa, fairies strung with flashing lights. A courtesy drink, I told myself. Knees close under the table, I found myself staring into his coruscating blue eyes and thinking: this is something. One of the Santas upended a chair and fell cartoon-style, legs sticking straight into the air. Chris and I tried each other’s food, deciding we’d made the right decision in trying both moles. Our hands met and laced together on the tabletop. When we rose to leave we kissed instead. Walking to my car I thought: I could marry him.

Try Thai, Manchester

Because the boys are, nominally, from Manchester, we wound up spending a lot of time there. Our first week in a comically awful hotel where we could hear fighting most nights, and had to navigate a cluster of unimpressed junkies to get in the main door. Naturally, we spent most of our time out – especially after discovering this Thai restaurant. The décor boded ill, but the food turned out to be spectacular. We ate green curry rice, complete with fat fresh green peppercorns, for lunch and returned for dinner.

Alcaravan, Arcos de la Frontera

Arcos was our longest-lived home to date, a pueblo in the foothills of the Serrania de Cadiz. We walked down one steep hill and up another to reach the centre of town where this restaurant was built into the hill beneath the old fortress. The interior was long and low, like the Arches in London, with an incongruous yet charming water fountain tucked into a nook. We ordered, without fail, the warm goats cheese with pepper jam and a plate of fried potatoes. The cheese unctuous yet sharp, and paired perfectly with a local Chardonnay called Gadir.

Teresa Carles, Barcelona

Chris spent a lot of time doing flight training near Barcelona, and I would go up to visit. Teresa Carles was a lucky Google Map find. We went, the first time, quite early in the evening so actually managed a table – the aubergine rolls and tempeh salad were enough to keep us coming back, again and again.

Tamarindo, A Coruña

A few steps away from the Atlantic, we found the best Mexican food we’ve eaten outside of Mexico and likely the best margaritas in Europe. Run by a mother-son team, it is a testimony to the Coruñés proclivity for doing things properly. Everything is handmade, from the corn tortillas to the thick smoky-spicy chipotle sauce to the salbutes – a fat lightly-fried corn cake that melts in your mouth. Like the other places we’ve dined, drunk and laughed, we’ll miss it when we’re gone.

thai

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Embodying Empathy

It is apropos that I missed posting last week due to lack of sleep. My tiny black ninja cat decided that 2:30AM was an excellent time to sit on my pillow and conduct intensive grooming. If you’ve ever had a cat bathing in your ear, you’ll understand why this put a kink in my sleep schedule.

A day later, Chris had a trip so we were up at 5AM to get him to the train station. Then something came up workwise and I had to get up early the following day to write.

black cat

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Just a normal conflux of niggles and responsibilities, in other words, but enough to throw my system into a spin. My mouth was dry, my head ached, I yelled at the cats for getting underfoot. A layer of chill wrapped me that had nothing to do with the cold, damp day. Every small task was aggravating, painful, like a shoe-bound pebble that swells with each step.

As an adult with, heaven help us, responsibilities, it is up to me to negotiate sleep deprivation without becoming a danger to myself or others. Babies, on the other hand, are immune from expectations about how they should act when they are tired. Well into childhood, Richter scale meltdowns are excused because “s/he’s tired”. Rightly so. Being tired is harmful to health. According to the International Journal of Endocrinology, “sleep deprivation and sleep disorders may have profound metabolic and cardiovascular implications.” It is, “adversely affects the physical wellbeing and quality of life of participants, demonstrated in bad mood, somnolence, and tiredness” (Journal of Family Medicine Primary Care).

Babies, kids, are responding appropriately when they have a tiredness-induced crying jag or temper tantrum; their bodies need rest and are wired to seek it at whatever cost to adult sanity. This is reasonable.

What isn’t is that as adults we expect/are expected to have a different – unnatural – relationship to sleep. Instead of acceeding to our physical needs, we are supposed to keep going, as if our bodies are wrong for needing what they need.

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Cultural deprivation

There is a certain cultural tendency to fetizishation of work at the expense of sleep. Margaret Thatcher famously slept four hours a night. “For the Iron Lady four hours was a badge of almost superhuman strength. It fits the narrative of the “warrior” prime minister…” wrote Tom de Castella in a BBC News Magazine piece. The same article noted that Trump claims to only sleep three hours a night.

That suggests something with deep implications.

As a baby, we are begged to sleep; as a small child, we are made to sleep; as an older child/adolescent we still have bedtimes or curfews. As a young adult, we have the giddy freedom of being able to stay up as late as we want – and do all sorts of dumb things as a result. Then, at some invisible point, we suddenly find ourselves expected to function perfectly, whether we’ve slept or not. We’re running to stand still and those bitterly resented childhood naps sound idyllic.

This was my experience, in any case, with minor variations. When I was very small and expected to take an afternoon nap I’d lie awake, telling myself stories to pass the time. Staying up till midnight was a once-a-year occasion, a thrilling New Year’s Eve pressed up against a space heater, eating Planter’s Honey Roasted Peanuts, turning pages with sticky-sweet fingers until the clock reached 12.

When I was a young adult, immersed in music and club culture, midnight was a starting rather than an end point. The delirium of those years seemed, at the time, like part of the fun. Now, I feel anxiety amounting to dread at the thought of being out at two or three in the morning, much less four or five.

Unrested = unhinged

When duty and distraction combines to keep me from sleeping my first reaction is anger. And, because I’m tired, it is irrational rage. I am minimally patient at the best of times; sleep-deprived, I’m plain mean. I lose the ability, or will, to see things from a different perspective, or have a sense of humor. Incidental slights – a rude driver, a slow shopper – become personal affronts.

Is it coincidence that a three-hour-a-night sleeper is unhinged and meglomaniacal? Or that a four-hour-a-night sleeper was willing to crush entire industries and thousands of lives on an ideological whim?

Trump is, and Thatcher was, remarkable for lack of empathy shading into brutality. It is horrible to witness; like a toddler’s tantrum, a sign of something amiss.

It makes sense, though, that people who deny their own basic needs are willing, even eager, to deny the needs of other. I feel bad, so why should you feel good?

A couple of years ago I had a student who responded to a prompt about homelessness with a devestating account of her own struggle with poverty, homelessness and mental ill health. It was a brave thing to write. Her conclusion shook me: “Nobody ever helped me, so I don’t think they deserve any help. If I had to do it myself, so should they.”

There is a cold, undeniable logic to her statement, but it is a building block to a society I don’t want to live in.

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Photo by Matt Collamer on Unsplash

Cultivating kindness

We have two options: value ourselves and others; or not. If we truly value ourselves, we can’t denigrate others; if we don’t value ourselves, we can’t then magically summon goodwill towards those around us. For all our intellectual capacities, we operate as physical beings. When we are rested, nourished, and secure, we are capable of being expansive, creative, contributing members of society.

If anxious, tired, and hungry, we can’t think about anything beyond meeting those immediate needs. We can scrape by for a while, but we can’t consistently deprive ourselves of essentials without getting pinched and wild-eyed.

Kindness has to begin with ourselves. Respect and compassion for self begin with taking care of our needs – without guilt or apology. Then, fortified and of sound mind, we have the capacity to care about other people.

 

Childless for Sleep’s Sake

There is a scene in J. D. Salinger’s Franny & Zooey where Zooey tells his mother that he doesn’t want to get married because he likes to sit by the window on the train, and once you’re married, you never get to sit by the window.

It expresses, rather beautifully, how my thoughts on children. To paraphrase, I don’t want to have a baby because I like to sleep, and once you have a baby you don’t sleep.

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Photo by Michal Bar Haim on Unsplash

To have or not to have: the baby question

Throughout my adult life I vacillated between wanting and not wanting children. Aged 18 I started a list of baby names. In my early 20s, immersed in London’s club scene, I barely had time to sleep, much less think about kids. Then it kicked through my senses like a police battering-ram. One of our friends fell pregnant and a crazed, logic-free longing rushed through me: I want a baby.

The only problem was, as I said to my then boyfriend in so many words, was I didn’t want his baby. In my defense, I was skunk drunk; which is no defense at all. It was a terrible thing to say and he should have dumped me on the spot.

Whether to it’s his credit, he didn’t, and our relationship stumbled along for a few months. Then I gathered my courage, said what had to be said, and moved to out of the country. At the time, it seemed necessary; now, it suggests a penchant for self-dramatization that does me no credit.

Absorbed in a new life in Ibiza, I didn’t think much about getting into another relationship. The undertone hum of wanting a baby remained, though, reinforced by the Noughties cult of the yummy mummy, epitomized by Kate Moss. Ibiza’s beaches were dotted with plenty of stunning taut, topless mamas romping with catalog-cute toddlers. Even if I hadn’t wanted kids sheer lifestyle envy would have gotten me.

Still, with no potential baby daddy, and a freelance journalist’s intermittent wage, having a child remained an abstraction.

At 32, in a relationship, the baby name list I had been cultivating for over a decade took on new significance. I tried names out with my partner’s surname, and mine, and double-barreled. The only grain of sand in this oyster was my boyfriend’s horror of procreation. As a 30-year-old who lived on Fanta and pizza, and spent hours at a time playing Mario Kart, he felt their was enough youthful energy in the house.

Once again, a case of not your baby.

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Photo by Ana Tablas on Unsplash

The allure of old wounds

For the next couple of years friends and I discussed, semi-seriously, having children as lone parents. One dear friend said she’d nearby and help out (unlike most of these offers, I think she meant it). Another, already a mother, promised me it would be worth it. My ever-supportive sister said she thought I’d be a good mother.

It was this idea, perhaps, more than anything, that kept me hooked – the chance to be a good mother. My sister and I were not blessed with good parents. We, and our brothers, had to find our way through a fog of repression and emotional abuse. In a practical sense, we were on our own from adolescence, working minimum wage jobs while going to school, trying to secure our escape.

Time, distance and my father’s death had helped me be a bit philosophical. Finally, I could see my parents as wounded souls whose sins of omission and commission were grounded in unhealed traumas. Part of wanting to have a baby was wanting to prove it is possible to overcome a crappy childhood. Being a good mother would give me license to keep a little of the familiar old anger.

Axiomatically, this is a poor motive, but no worse than any other reason to have a child.

The right man

When I met my now-husband, one of the first things he told me was he never wanted to have kids. This conversation unsettled me but I figured he would be persuadable.

As our relationship developed, it was me who was persuaded.

Strands wove together, revealing a pattern unseen in earlier years.

Having a child is marketed (particularly to women) as a shortcut to fulfillment, an elevator ride to realms of higher purpose. Having a child is a route to social approbation, as long as you’re a well-educated, middle-class (passing) white cis-woman, as I am. Having a child is supposed to buy entry to some Rockwellian fantasy of family harmony.

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Photo by Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash

Why sleep matters

What I found in the affection, intimacy and adventure of our partnership is that these things thrive in the presence of freedom, resources and – above all – sleep.

The toughest moments of our relationship have been when work and travel schedules left us bone-tired. I learned the hard way that it is obscenely difficult to be a nice person when you’re exhausted. And when you can’t be nice to your partner, things get rough.

Going through relatively mild sleep disruption warned me, vividly, that I’m not built for protracted sleep deprivation. More than a night or two of curtailed sleep is a kick in the face of my mental health in the face. My moods start swinging like a clobbered piñata, my sense of humor vanishes, and my self-control withers – freeing the snider, sadder parts of my personality to wreck havoc. This is consistent with studies that show insomnia is a causal factor in mental health problems.

The idea of chronic sleep deprivation – recent research published in the journal Sleep shows that women’s quality and quantity of sleep suffer for six years after having their first child – is terrifying.

Perhaps choosing to not have children because I like to sleep sounds as petty as not marrying for the sake of sitting by the window. If so, I’m okay with that.

To be a good parent, you have to know yourself – and that includes knowing your limits and being realistic about your resources. It would be a disfavor to a hypothetical child, and to my real and cherished marriage, to do something that would irrevocably change the basis on which it operates.

***

Sleep hygiene for superheroes

Superheroes are vigilant and alert, always ready to leap into action. If, like me, you are blessed with the gift of hypervigilance – but not the cape and outside-in underwear habit – you probably struggle to sleep. Most nights, maybe every night, your mind will churn with plans, tasks, appointments, retreads of your day, ambitions, regrets. As the world lies quiet around you the pressure builds: to be better, do more, to make tomorrow a better day.

Needless to say, this anxiety fouls the spark-plugs of your brain. In the morning, it sputters and farts, never quite catching even as your pulse races in high gear.

Those of us who are, to quote Didion’s immaculate phrase: “lonely and resistant rearrangers of things, anxious malcontents, children afflicted apparently at birth with some presentiment of loss” often fight a losing battle to get the rest we need to stay sane and keep our feet on the ever-precarious ground.

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Photo by Nadine Shaabana on Unsplash

Sleep hygiene, defined by the National Sleep Foundation as “practices and habits that are necessary to have good nighttime sleep quality and full daytime alertness”, is as essential to us as tight-fitting spandex and avoiding Kryptonite.

The following seven strategies are essential to my sleep hygiene; your precise recipe may vary. What matters is that you identify things that help you rest at night, and ruthlessly protect the sanctity of sleep. Trust me, it makes saving the world the next day much easier.

Exercise in the morning

Studies show that exercise improves sleep. However, I know from personal experience it can also throw a spanner in the (clock) works. Running is one of my favorite activities: it clears my head, tones my body, and tunes my emotions. But the last time I ran in the evening, I tossed and turned for hours. The endorphin kick that lifts my spirits in the morning totally sabotaged my sleep. Lesson: beware of when and how you exercise.

Eat more carbs

A survey of scientific literature on the relationship between diet and sleep quality found that lower carbohydrate consumption negatively effected sleep, as did higher fat intake. The same study found that kiwi fruit, cherries, fatty fish and milk all had sleep-enhancing effects. Personally, I find that an evening meal of rice, beans, vegetables and greens is satisfying and sets me up for a good night’s rest.

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Photo by Jo Sonn on Unsplash

Don’t watch things in bed

There are some people who can unwind by watching TV or films in bed. I am not one of them. The speed of moving images, plus drama or pathos, plus my overactive imagination, means that if I watch something in bed it replays in my head long after the lights are out. Moving viewing to the living room creates a clearer divide between alertness and rest.

Read poetry

You know what does help me unwind? Poetry. My dear friend and mentor Paul Hendrickson once advised me to keep a book on the nightstand and read a poem or two every night. The density of language, the clarity of the images, the imagination and empathy imbued in each line, promote tranquility – an almost meditative state. If you’re not sure where to start, try Jack Gilbert or Mary Oliver.

Yoga nidra or meditation

Sometimes, the chatter in my head simply won’t let up. In these instances, replacing my own mental monologue with someone else’s words can be hugely helpful. Yoga teacher Paul Dobson recommends yoga nidra, a specific meditative practice designed to foster restful sleep.

I also love Positive Magazine Guided Meditations – the presenter has the loveliest, most soothing voice imaginable and the 10-15 minute guided meditations are the perfect length for dropping off to sleep.

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Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Cotton bedding

What you sleep on matters. After living in Spain, where polyester is considered a legitimate fabric for bedding, I refuse to purchase anything other than 100% cotton – the finer the weave the better. Nice linen can be ridiculously expensive, which is its own sort of worry-making, so I gravitate towards shops like TK Maxx, Ross or Nordstrom Rack. At a push, Target does decent all-cotton sheets and covers. If there is absolutely nothing else available, Amazon Basics are an option.

Lavender essential oil

Essential oils are touted as the cure for everything from unhappiness to indigestion. In the case of lavender and insomnia, though, there is actually evidence it works. A study reported on in the American Journal of Critical Care found inhaling pure lavender essential oil decreased blood pressure and improved sleep quality in hospital patients. It noted: “Sleep deprivation in hospitalized patients is common and can have serious detrimental effects on recovery from illness. Lavender aromatherapy has improved sleep in a variety of clinical settings.”

In a randomized control trial of healthy subjects, including lavender essential oil as part of a sleep hygiene routine got better results than the sleep hygiene practices alone, according to the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine.

Dabbing lavender essential oil on my wrists just before I switch out the light is a welcome signal that it is time to relax.

Orgasms

Getting off is an almost guaranteed way to drift off. Remember, our bodies need sex like they need food and sleep. Neglecting our sexual self is easy when we are worried or stressed (not to mention that anxiety is a stone mood killer) so then, more than ever, is the time to love yourself.

Sex is wonderful, but it it isn’t always available. Or it can come with expectations, hang-ups and emotional entanglement (happily married or not). Masturbation gives you total control which is, in itself, relaxing and empowering. I keep a bottle of lube in the nightstand by the lavender oil and a folder of photos on my phone for inspiration.

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Photo by Taras Chernus on Unsplash

Superheroes need shut-eye. Though it may be fashionable to brag about how little sleep you get, stinting on rest is a shortcut to long-term physical and mental fatigue – and worse.

Prioritizing routines and habits that promote sleep increases our personal well-being, and gives us the mental, physical and emotional energy to be better friends, lovers, creators, citizens and human beings