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

 

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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Photo by Chad Montano on Unsplash

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.

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Photo by Timothy Dykes on Unsplash

Blame it on the rain

Why do I feel uprooted (panicked, dismayed, trapped)?

I blame a four-letter word: Rain.

Remember Milli Vanilli? I was nine when “Blame it on the rain” came out. We weren’t supposed to listen to “secular” music but my big sister sneakily tuned in Casey Kasem’s Top 40. The chorus never left me: “Blame it on the rain/that’s fallin’ fallin'”.

 

Growing up on the central Oregon coast rain was a constant. The occasional days a high north wind pushed away the clouds were bitter. Wet and cold were the warp and woof of my childhood. They crept past windowpanes and under doors of the crumbling ex-holiday cottage where we lived. The small, square black wood-burning stove and ancient electric heater never made a dint.

The other constant was the wild fluctuation of my father’s moods. Fear permeated the air like water, raised goosebumps like a chill.

The things I carry

My brain learned, fast and young, to blur the present and project itself to the safety of the future. This let me survive and escape. It also sapped my ability put my experiences and emotions in context, leaving vast gaps in my self-awareness.

It took moving to Glasgow in an unusually cold, wet year to acknowledge rain’s hold over me. Rainfall elicits anxiety, hopelessness, depression, anger, helplessness. I feel like a child again.

Living in Glasgow catapulted me into clinical depression. I wanted to die; also, stubbornly, I wanted to live. Which, at that point, meant leaving as quickly as possible and promising myself to never again live somewhere that required GoreTex.

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Photo by Milada Vigerova on Unsplash

Plotting the resistance 

Now, I’ve broken that promise in style, husband and cats in tow.

Maybe it’s a dumb risk to leave a lazy, sunny town for a cold house in rain country, thereby putting my mental health and relationship on the line.

How else can I overcome my fear of rain?

I don’t want to be a prisoner of my childhood anxieties. Avoiding uncomfortable emotions and circumstances is a strategy, not a solution.

To be happy anywhere, I need to cultivate my capacity to be happy everywhere.

As Rainer Maria Rilke wrote:

People have (with the help of convention) found the solution of everything in ease and the easiest side of easy; but it is clear that we must hold to the difficult…. We know little, but that we must hold to the difficult is a certainty that will not leave us; it is good to be solitary, for solitude is difficult; the fact that a thing is difficult must be one more reason for our doing it.

Whatever the year brings, I want to live with intention and integrity, in the rain.

 

This is what the Odyssey means

As we bid farewell to 2017 I’d like to share a favourite poem: ‘Trouble’ by Jack Gilbert,  and some snapshots.

Trouble | Jack Gilbert

That is what the Odyssey means.
Love can leave you nowhere in New Mexico
raising peacocks for the rest of your life.
The seriously happy heart is a problem.
Not the easy excitement, but summer
in the Mediterranean mixed with
the rain and bitter cold of February
on the Riviera, everything on fire
in the violent winds. The pregnant heart
is driven to hopes that are the wrong
size for this world. Love is always
disturbing in the heavenly kingdom.
Eden cannot manage so much ambition.
The kids ran from all over the piazza
yelling and pointing and jeering
at the young Saint Chrysostom
standing dazed in the church doorway
with the shining around his mouth
where the Madonna had kissed him.

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Unexpected

Saturday, 19 December 2015, I plotted a route around Portland’s used book stores. In the back of my sister’s red Wrangler, a box of Oregon Wine Pioneers. In the seat beside me, a show-copy, its gloss paper cover softened with wear. I hoped to sell a few copies, or inspire a few orders.IMG_20161225_115917

On my phone, a string of Tinder messages from some guy who spent Friday evening trying to cajole me out of the house to the some downtown bar. “The feet are up,” I had replied, by way of refusal. He seemed nice, though, so I agreed to meet him in Old Town at 6PM on Saturday.

The day started out sunny. I navigated between bookshops using Google maps print-outs since my phone didn’t have roaming. Clouds gathered in the afternoon. By the time I got lost on my way to my last destination, a wine distributor’s office in north east, it was raining and prematurely dark.

Driving back to the west side, I thought about heading straight home. I could message my excuses from there. Throwing in the towel by 6PM was lame, even for me. Anyway, this guy, Chris, said he had to be at work by eight. No danger of date creep.

We were meeting at the Roseland Theater, a few blocks from my mum’s apartment. I parked near her place, to have a clear line of retreat. The rain had stopped; the air was cold. On my way to the Roseland I passed a small, colourful Mexican dive.

At the theater, I stopped in bafflement. The building, the whole block, was six deep in teenage girls, a barricade of hormones and cheap perfume. How the hell was I supposed to find this guy? No point in checking my phone — no roaming.

After one full lap, I stopped and stared at the red-and-green lights twinkling high on an adjacent skyscraper. If he didn’t magically appear in the next few minutes, I’d call it a night. Almost as soon as the thought formed, someone walked toward me from the corner I just passed. Please don’t talk to me, I thought.

“Hi.”

One drink, to be polite, that’s all.

“Hi,” I replied.

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This morning Chris woke up at 4AM and couldn’t get back to sleep. I dozed, intermittently aware of his restlessness.

I am tempted to say something florid like, I can’t sleep/live/breathe without him, but that would be untrue.

What I thought, as we yielded to wakefulness was, if you don’t have any expectations you won’t be disappointed. 

Anything is possible, even the absence of us. That is what makes this so precious.

I fell for him like rock tossed into a canyon (still falling). One drink, to be polite turned into three margaritas and a long kiss in the middle of that noisy Mexican dive. It turned into a relationship built on air miles: Ibiza, London, Rome, Brussels, New York, DC, Detroit, Denver, Salt Lake City, Milan, Vienna, Manchester, Glasgow.

We got married in Memphis. Adopted a cat, sold a car, moved to Spain.

All of it unexpected, none of it inevitable. Loving was a fact from the outset. What we did about it was a choice. Of all the things I learned, and am still learning, this is the most important. Life is full of surprises. What comes of them is down to us.

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Storytelling: Suspense

Storytelling is the essence of communication. The elements of storytelling are like letters of the alphabet. When you know how to use them, you can tell your best story.

Element 20: Suspense

If you want to keep an audience hooked, don’t tell them how the story ends.

Case study: Relocating C Warncke Writer

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What it is:

After fifteen years in the UK and Europe, C Warncke is moving to the American South, and there is absolutely no telling how things will turn out.

Why it matters:

Successful stories combine action with unforeseen consequences. In this case the action is a person — me — leaving behind her entire life (country, cat, cutlery) to move thousands of miles away and live with someone she met on Tinder.

As for consequences, who knows?

Romance, disaster, or reinvention are all distinct possibilities.

In typical damn the torpedoes fashion I charged into this with minimal consideration for what happens if it goes, as the Brits say, tits up. I’m as curious as anyone to see how things turn out.

If nothing else, it will make a great story. And the perfect conclusion to the Elements of Storytelling series. Thanks for following and stay tuned for more storytelling adventures.

In other words:

“Every life, Transtromer writes, “has a sister ship,” one that follows “quite another route” than the one we ended up taking. We want it to be otherwise, but it cannot be: the peoploe we might have been life a different, phantom life than the people we are.”
~Cheryl Strayed Tiny, Beautiful Things

Practice: “Create characters that live and breathe on the page… I realised I had come to know some of these people so well that the idea that something bad was going to happen to them had become almost unbearable. I was turning each page with a sense of dread and it dawned on me that here was the most satisfying way to create suspense.”
~Mark Billingham via The Guardian

Remember: “We all live in suspense from day to day; in other words, you are the hero of your own story.” ~Mary McCarthy

Elements of Storytelling 7: Belonging

Storytelling is the essence of communication. The elements of storytelling are like letters of the alphabet. When you know how to use them, you can tell your best story.

Element 7: Belonging

Good stories make the audience feel part of something special, feel a sense of kinship.

Case study: Agrotourismo Cas Gasi

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Cas Gasi

What it is:

Cas Gasi is an internationally famous boutique hotel in the heart of Ibiza that bucked the odds to become a success. Its  challenges included a converting an old farmhouse, stables and outbuilding into luxury rooms; and marketing an Ibiza destination located away from the clubs or beaches that are the island’s biggest attractions. It is also, to borrow the Stella Artois slogan, reassuringly expensive. Yet it thrives year-round, catering to a loyal audience of celebrities, aristocracy and captains of industry who come for a simple reason: at Cas Gasi they feel special.

Why it matters:

There are a few things every luxury hotel must do well: exquisite linen, top-of-the-range TVs, delicate room fragrances, weighty bathrobes, fine food and gracious service. Beyond that, success is down to who has the best story. Cas Gasi’s pitch is short and sweet: When you’re here, your family.

Everyone who visits from financiers and minor royalty to Hollywood stars, tax exiles, and well-heeled young couples is treated like part of an extended family. A cultured, urbane, educated family that has superb taste in food, wine and art and the means to indulge these interests.

Cas Gasi nurtures this sense of belonging by eschewing advertising (though friendly write-ups in Vogue, Conde Nast and Harper’s Bazaar are welcome) in favour of word-of-mouth recommendations. Guests are further encouraged to unwind by discreet service and an institutional obsession with privacy and quiet. Cleverly, the owners realised at the start that not everyone will like the hotel, so they created a space that a select group of people love.

In its own words:

Ibiza-born Luis Trigeros Juan grew up between Barcelona and the island, for which he developed a deep love. A lawyer and passionate sailor, Luis sailed around the world in 1986 before making Ibiza his permanent home alongside wife Margaret von Korff, Barcelona-born with German family roots in Baltic nobility and French, Austrian and Russian family connections.

Together they have found their niche, setting up a organic farming project, transforming their home into the beautiful boutique hotel to welcome guests from around the world – the Cas Gasi ‘extended family’ – and promoting their personal philosophy of fusing life’s luxuries with sustainable living.

Read more

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Clara, house dog

Practice: “The concept of a tribe transcends a customer merely liking or being satisfied with your brand or product. Your tribe is made up of your brand’s biggest fans – customers or prospects that will often take to Twitter and Facebook to share your praises or recommend your product….

Remember that word of mouth is still the best marketing. Consider setting up a referral program that rewards customers that deliver leads to your doorstep – in effect, have your existing fans recruit more tribe members.” via Wasp Buzz

Remember: “In writing, your audience is one single reader. I have found that sometimes it helps to pick out one person—a real person you know, or an imagined person and write to that one.” ~John Steinbeck