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