Category Archives: Writing in progress

Covid BCN 04: reporting from the containment zone

Wednesday, 18 March 2020

Day five and I’m considering hammering nails into the walls so I can physically as well as mentally climb them.

Yesterday, having donned both mask – a single-use one from Jordi since he gets them free from hospital (civilians can no longer acquire masks for love nor money) – and latex gloves – the latter from a glove pack I bought to keep the oil from my hands off my charcoal drawings – I leapt out the door, desperate for any excuse to savour the outdoors, however virus-laden it might be. I was hoping my organic veggies woman had turned up and so was thrilled to spot a Covid queue immediately. They are recognisable by the number of apparently unrelated, disparate individuals randomly scattered across an empty space like a 1980s grunge band LP cover. Proof the veggies woman was open for business.

I called out in my best Catalan, ‘Qui és l’últim?’ (who’s the last in line?), that particular rallying cry traditionally used in the markets since Catalan people are thoroughly queue-phobic (one of the reasons I love living here). It is serving them well in the Covid crisis, where linear order is a thing of the past. I was pointed to a solitary woman communing with her phone in the centre of the square over three metres distant from anyone else. I found my own suitably lonely spot and settled in to wait.

People not obviously standing in a queue outside the organic veggies pop-up shop
Spot the queue: A Covid queue in action, camouflaged within the urban landscape

Returning home with my basket of veges, I activated recently learnt glove-removing skills to avoid getting any icky virus on my hands or into the house. If you don’t know how to do this, here’s a good video on hygienically removing your latex gloves. I do love that accent!

At noon today there was a cacerolada, that popular protest when everyone comes out onto their balconies banging pots and pans until we’re all good and deaf. I couldn’t work out what it was protesting against and wondered if it was due to the sudden rise in cases in Spain. In the last 24 hours they have risen by over 2500, an 18% increase, bringing the total to just under 14,000. It should be borne in mind that people on the street are no longer being tested, only those in hospital, so the true figure is likely to be far higher. However, according to the director of the Health Emergency Coordination Centre, 18% is an increase similar to the day before, suggesting that the infection rate might be peaking, though it is still too early to say. Spain in total has 28 cases for every 100,000 residents. There are 774 people in Intensive Care (i.e. requiring ventilators), and 5717 hospitalised. Over a thousand people have now recovered.

The king of Spain is slated to speak at 9 pm tonight, and there is another initiative to hold a cacerolada while he speaks, as a protest against the alleged corruption and right-wing political stance of this head of state who is supposed to remain politically neutral. It is also to demand that the money his father, the king emeritus, salted away in tax havens for him is donated to the health authorities. Politics enters every facet of life here, and the Covid19 crisis is no exception. Apparently the 12-noon cacerolada was promoted by the king’s sympathisers so he wouldn’t be drowned out this evening.

Masks and gloves are also political. The Catalan health service is complaining that Madrid is intercepting orders of surgical masks destined for Catalan hospitals, while the mayor of Igualada, focus of Catalonia’s biggest outbreak, has officially complained that 4,000 masks destined for Igualada Hospital have been held up in Madrid. Madrid claims it is “redistributing” material throughout Spain, but the Catalan Health minister is saying this is creating unnecessarily long bureaucratic delays. A Zaragoza company has been caught holding a secret auction of surgical masks.

My income this month has shrunk to a pale vestige of itself, minus 15% tax retained at source and monthly Social Security payments that do not shrink regardless of my income. So I am now officially paying out good money to be self-employed here in Spain. Most other self-employed people here are in the same boat, but then nothing has changed in that regard since the days of Felipe – and I don’t mean Gonzalez but the one who built the Escorial palace.

What we really need now is a sudden burst of early hot summer weather to take the temperature above 27ºC, which it is reported would kill off the virus. Come on Global Warming, we’ve been investing in you for almost two centuries – time to do your thing!

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Covid BCN 03: shop till you drop

Tuesday, 17 March 2020

Yesterday it was time to eschew my quarantine and head out into the world to stock up on perishables. After 72 hours, in which my computer has been my only window onto the world – except for my balcony, which faces a brick wall – this was a big deal.

First things first: this meant putting on my outdoor shoes, careful not to tread virus deeper into the house. In many countries, people remove their shoes when they enter a home, but in Catalonia, with its predominantly tiled floors, shoes inside remains the norm. That’s a thing of the past. Shoes that walk on the street now stay in the entrance hall, since virus-containing sputum coughed into the air ends up on the street and from there onto the soles of your shoes, where it can live for several hours.

I take my shopping bag and head downstairs – I’ve been advised not to use shopping trolleys as too many people have handled them (I’ve been trying not to use plastic for several months already because of the environment). Once below, I realise I have no gloves (or a mask!) and have to open the street door with the cuff of my jacket. So many simple actions now need to be rethought to help contain the spread of this virus.

At my local supermarket, a few dodgy characters can be seen hanging around the entrance, but there are no queues or hysterical mobs in sight. Yet as I go to enter, one of them hauls me up. Thus I am introduced to the new Covid queue: far more spacious, with oodles of room between you and the next person. I assume I’ll be here for hours so I take a selfie, but in just a few minutes, I am waved in by a masked and gloved supermarket cashier, who in these post-Covid days has assumed the role of traffic warden. Inside, there is none of the usual shoving and jostling that generally goes on in this small but popular shop. Customers edge around each other warily, aiming to maintain that crucial one metre of viral-free breathing space.

Photo showing people in BCN queuing 1.5 metres apart
The new Covid queue is far more spacious: over 1.5 metres between members and no nasty pushers-in

I’m surprised to find that many products are available: no eggs, pasta, fresh milk or my particular brand of yoghurt, but plenty of paella rice (fair enough; it isn’t the season for large family gatherings), and meat and poultry. I came for juice, yoghurt and other perishables and these are mostly available. That may be unique to this supermarket, which though small is popular, offering high-quality products at excellent prices, so endless restocking of shelves has always been a big part of their working day.

It is tempting to want to pile goods into my bag. The whole atmosphere is post-apocalyptic, and the goods I am seeing now may not be here tomorrow or next week. But I stiffen my resolve and heed the government warnings not to hoard, buying just what I came here for, not a half dozen more.

Today is Tuesday, and I am worried that my organic veggies woman – who normally comes into town on Tuesday evenings – will have bailed. Last night my remaining veggies were looking extremely bedraggled. I made soup, reader. There is something about this lockdown that inspires domestic endeavour (being shut within these same four walls, no doubt). There’s been a frenzy of vacuuming from neighbours above and below over the last 48 hours).

Today’s figures are six deaths and almost 500 new cases in Catalonia. Five of the mortalities are linked to the city of Igualada, which has been totally closed off from the rest of Catalonia. Spain is still being laggardly about closing its ports and airports – or about isolating Madrid. The city has become a major focus of viral infection – and spread: the capital’s wealthy have apparently been fleeing to their summer homes in Valencia and so importing the virus there, which the Valencians are none too thrilled about.

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Covid BCN 02

Since it looks like Barcelona will be locked down even beyond the next two weeks, I’m posting a few choice diary excerpts about life in the containment zone. Without the raunchy bits – unless you count me sitting on my balcony watching pigeons copulate (lucky buggers!). In terms of entertainment value, I doubt it will have Netflix quaking in its boots, but it passes the time.

Monday, 16 March 2020

On Sunday my plan had been to put on my cycling gear and get in a decent ride before we were all totally locked down, but in the event I just lounged around home watching Netflix. So when that evening, Jordi told me that two Lycra-clad cyclists had been fined on Avinguda Paral·lel to the tune of 600 EUR, I thought: “There but for the luck of the Irish …” As a middle-aged man who goes cycling in Lycra, I know that middle-aged men wearing Lycra is a crime of fashion in the first degree, but I still find the punishment extreme.

At 8 o’clock every evening, neighbours have been coming out on their balconies and continuously applauding in support of the health workers and other workers who are on the front line in the fight against covid19. Apparently, it’s a trend that started in Italy and has taken off here. I take part. It almost passes for socialising.

Wholemeal and spelt sourdough bread with rosemary and olive oil topping ready for baking
Into the oven … Sourdough bread with olive oil and rosemary topping to give it some perfume

This morning I baked a fresh batch of sourdough bread. This has been my homebody thing for several months and now it’s my small contribution to the covid19 crisis. Not that I can divide a few loaves among the five thousand who are combatting the crisis – that’s been done before anyway – but it offers at least some semblance of community support to a couple of Poble Sec residents. The flour combination I used for this batch was about 70% white, and 15% each of spelt and wholemeal flour, giving a nice light but chewy brown bread. I managed to get good aeration in this batch.

Freshly baked sourdough bread of wholemeal and spelt flours
The covid loaf: sourdough bread of wholemeal and spelt flours with added immunity against the virus!

Yesterday I also downloaded an app from my gym, as I’ll need to start exercising at home if I can’t get to the pool or take my bike out. This blog post by the Travellothoner also offers a short workout you can do in just a few square metres with no equipment. So yes, that middle-aged man in Lycra doing knee bends on his balcony c’est moi. Or maybe I’ll take up Tai Chi again.

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Covid BCN 01

Since the whole of Barcelona is going to be locked down for at least the next two weeks, I thought I might post a few excerpts from my diary, detailing the ongoing craziness. It will depend on interest (my own and others) as to whether this becomes a regular thing.

Thursday, 12 March 2020

The Cercle Artístic Sant Lluc has said it will close its doors from 16 March because of the Covid19 hysteria, so I need to take advantage of the days left to get some drawing in. I think the next few weeks are going to become crazy. The other day I did a big shop at BonÀrea, stocking up on jars of lentils, beans, pasta and other non-perishables as I suspect that this week people will start swamping the supermarkets, bulk-buying against the scare of a lockdown as part of anti-coronavirus measures. Being a trendy liberal Guardian reader, I’ve seen this is already happening in the UK and elsewhere (worldwide toilet paper shortage!), so forewarned is forearmed.

As my working life is pretty much a model of self-isolation anyway (working at home, not forming part of large groups), I think I’m unlikely to be stricken down any time soon. My friend Jordi, working in the hospital reception is totally frontline, so if it does enter our orbit, it may be from that direction. For people like us, young(ish) and fit, the symptoms are likely to be mild, so I’m not too concerned. It is interesting to watch the world’s population at work though – a fascinating study for a science fiction movie: so this is how the world really reacts to an alien invasion!

Saturday, 14 March 2020

Barcelona life has undergone radical changes yet little has changed for me personally. Last night the government closed all sports and entertainment centres, bars, restaurants and non-essential shops. Most businesses are now working from home – it is in this sense that little has changed for me. Though it is a bummer that I can no longer go to the pool. I’ll have to get my bike rideable in the next few days. Last night, we had an early beer at Saïd’s, went home for dinner, and then Jordi and Andreu came round to mine and we had beers on the balcony. In that time, the Catalan government issued a decree to close all the bars and restaurants.

Inauguration of Concòrdia’s Balcony Bar – only Jameson’s whiskey served in honour of my Irish grandpa
Inauguration of Concòrdia’s Balcony Bar – only Jameson’s whiskey served in honour of my Irish grandpa

So my larder is full, I have beers, gin and Irish whiskey in stock … Hence these days should be an intensive of writing and art … Let’s see.

Sunday, 15 March 2020

I tried to go for a final bike ride today down to the beach and the police turned me back at Plaça del Mar. From tomorrow everything will be in total lockdown. I have food stocked up for a month though apparently food shops will be open. We’ll see how much translation work comes in over this time.

Actually I quite like having the excuse to do nothing but sit at home and write or paint.

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Children of War

As part of my research for City of Children, I’m reading Hijos de la guerra by Jorge M. Reverte and Socorro Thomás (Ediciones Temas de Hoy, S.A., Madrid, 2001). The book is a series of testimonies by different people who were children during the Spanish Civil War, from all over Spain, raised in diverse ideological contexts. It conveys the reality of war’s complexity, a far cry from the black-and-white simplicity of a film reel.

The children watch the adults executing their enemies against the white cemetery wall—both sides, always in retaliation for a previous crime. The daughter of a nationalist remembers Italian fascist troops straggling one by one into her village after their defeat at the battle of Guadalajara; the soldiers’ friendliness, offering her fresh-baked bread dipped in olive oil; but also her whole family’s horror when a judge, a friend of the family, is executed for being a freemason, and her father’s realisation, listening to Queipo de Llano’s discourses on Radio Sevilla, of the lies that the nationalists were propagating: “[Dad] told us he had a bottle of sherry at the radio. Sometimes he interrupted his speech, filled his glass, burped and said: ‘There, to the Pasionaria*’s health!’ My Dad didn’t like him at all.”

Other children remember spending days in bed, unable to venture outside because of the bullets whining past the house, forbidden to lock their doors by the nationalists, in case they are harbouring “reds”.

These children’s memories, retold by their adult selves, reveal the quotidian horror of war, mixed with a matter-of-fact acceptance of the situation. The horror is real, creating understandable trauma, yet these young people function, are capable of pushing the terror into the background, integrating it into their daily routine, and continuing their existence. It strikes me that despite how vulnerable children may be, they are also endlessly resourceful in their ability to overcome traumatic events and to go on. Maybe this is true of all human beings; that no matter how bad the horror gets, we are genetically incapable of giving up.

*La Pasionaria, Dolores Ibárruri Gómez, was one of the Spanish Communist leaders throughout much of the 20th century, a member of the Spanish parliament for Asturias, exiled in the USSR from 1939 to 1977, General Secretary of the Spanish Communist Party in exile, and once more an MP after her return to Spain. She died in 1989.


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