12.04.20 — Journal


After my previous blog post, in which I looked back at everything I got up to before that fateful 13th March, it was pretty obvious that my next post had to be about the one and only topic on everyone’s lips: coronavirus. There are plenty of trustworthy sources of information (see: not social media) and plenty of interesting articles about the virus and the resultant lockdowns currently in place all over the world, so I shan’t be delving into this much-covered realm. Rather than rattle off any facts or advice, I thought it would be more interesting for me, and hopefully for you too, if I were to share my personal experiences thus far.

Immediately after having said that I won’t be talking about any facts, I shall now talk about some facts – but I think they form an important preamble in order to provide you with some context.

Madrid, where I live, is the worst-hit area of Spain, a country with around 900 COVID-19-related deaths being reported every 24 hours at the peak of the outbreak. The country has been on official lockdown for over four weeks now, with people only able leave the house for food, medical reasons, to work (in essential sectors only), to walk their dog, or to assist those who are dependant on them. Every establishment which doesn’t sell food, medicine, or essential products has been closed. I live alone and have been working from home for the past month, leaving my flat only to buy food a few times and visit the laundrette.

It’s a lot of information to take in, and it does sound rather drastic, but I will be touching on all this as we go along. In order for me to make some sense of what I am about to write, I shall break this reflective post down into four sections: the descent into lockdown, life in my flat, life outside my flat, and what’s to come.

The descent into lockdown

As touched on previously, the descent into the current state of emergency was chaotic at best. It all began with the announcement on a Monday that all education centres were to close by the Wednesday, which sent every parent I know flapping and every student I know cheering. I wasn’t amongst those directly affected by this, but the announcement definitely marked a turning point.

As well as watching all the parents I know frantically trying to work out how they would secure childcare, I also saw students’ initial celebrations slowly turn into doubts and worries about how and if they would graduate. That night, I had to take a taxi home, as my colleague who usually drives me into the centre had to rush back to make plans with her family. The taxi dropped me off at the shop, where I had to pick up a few extra ingredients to cook a meal, but something was off.

The supermarket had queues like I’d never seen before. Nothing too crazy, it just seemed a lot busier, and there was an air of unease. I say unease and not panic because I don’t think I can compare it to the histeria which seems to have descended over the United Kingdom, but people did seem to be preparing for something. I did my best to not let this get to me at all, strolling casually amongst the aisles, picking up a few extra bits and bats along the way – some cans of food and some soups.

I suppose now is the time when I must make a comment about the red mist which has descended and caused people to panic-buy toilet roll around the world: what ever for? This is not a virus whose primary symptom is diarrhoea, nor has a disastrous world event threatened the supply of toilet paper. I can only assume that people have been buying so much of the stuff because they foresaw themselves spending a long time in isolation, but in this case, why has nobody been panic-buying non-perishable food in such quantities? Without being crude, I think having to clean oneself via alternative means is a lot less daunting than the thought of running out of food altogether. Maybe there’s some deep psychological terror associated with the thought of losing this everyday item, but in my head, starving to death is a lot harder to deal with than having to take a quick shower after going to the toilet. It may be more hassle, but while we’re all stuck at home it’s not like we’re in a rush.

I have to catch myself to stop myself panicking.

Anyway, back to the supermarket. It’s during these uneasy moments that I remember that I live alone and far away from my family, and I have to catch myself to stop myself panicking. This was a skill that I mastered as the week continued, for the next day, we were all called to a meeting at work about our company’s plan during what were looking to be uncertain times. We were given the option to begin working from home, and so a small team (myself included) assembled in order to implement new protocols to facilitate remote working. Over the next 48 hours we had to configure tools for remote email and server access, new project management software, communication software, and team organisation tools. We had then to draw up plans for how these tools should be used, and brief the rest of the team on how we were going to try and make this new dynamic work.

Said days were some of the most chaotic I have ever experienced, with the strains of various considerations at the same time piling on from all sides. I had my personal health and wellbeing to worry about, including ensuring that I had all the necessary supplies and medicines at home in preparation for the looming lockdown; I had said task of implementing remote working protocols; and at the same time I also had to keep on top of all the ongoing projects at work, keeping the output as steady and uninterrupted as possible.

With the government’s advice changing daily, we saw the number of people in the office drop to just a handful by the Thursday of that week. This Thursday was a whirlwind for me, as I attempted to set up my work space at home, as well as being on constant call to try and iron out all the teething problems that everyone was experiencing as they began their first remote working experience.

I left a note on the back of my door reminding myself not to leave, and settled down for the start of life under lockdown.

After a rocky first day, Friday came around, and with it the total closure of our office. There was still no official lockdown order from the Spanish government, but many of us, myself included, decided that Friday would be the first day of our confinement. Just 24 hours before the official state of emergency was announced, I locked up my front door, left a note on the back of it reminding myself not to leave, and settled down for the start of life under lockdown.

Life in my flat

Friday was my first day of working from home, and saw my usually hourlong commute reduced to a five second walk from my bedroom to my improv working space in the living room. This meant I could snag an extra hour of sleep, which was rather welcome, and kicked off my quarantine with an optimistic energy which I would soon need.

Working from home has been a positive experience overall, with its ups and downs as it to be expected. We’ve definitely had to pull our socks up and get more organised, which has made things flow a lot smoother, but then quirks like slow server connections and dropped call connections have slowed us down a bit. I shan’t detail too much the trials and tribulations of remote working, however, as I feel like the time spent outside of work but stuck at home during these past few weeks is much more poignant.

I say this because I don’t believe that the lockdown has fundamentally affected my working life. At work, I have always been restricted to a particular place and a particular activity: I have to be in the office, and I have to be working. Lockdown may have me trapped at home, but I still have to be in a certain place (at my laptop), and I still have to be realising a certain activity (my work). Nothing has really changed.

I don’t believe that the lockdown has fundamentally affected my working life.

Once I sign off for the day, however, things have really changed. The commute to and from the office, which I have repeatedly cursed and complained about in the past, at least served to physically and mentally separate me from my work. For my own wellbeing, I still abide by my rule of completely disconnecting at the end of the working day, but storing a laptop away doesn’t provide the same physical experience which mentally distances the stress of the working day from my home, a space which should be for rest and relaxation.

I have always been one for associating certain moods with different physical spaces, which is why I stopped studying in bed and why I have never really been a massive advocate from working from home. If I spend eight hours stressing over work in my living room, I find it impossible to then kick back with a glass of wine and watch TV in that same space. When I used to work on freelance projects from my bed in the UK, I would then find it impossible to stop thinking and fall asleep, and so I eventually stated working from the kitchen (much to the annoyance of my poor mother).

If I had a separate office room in my flat, I might not have so many reservations about working and living in the same space, but for now I have to do the best that I can with the space that I have. I have expressly prohibited myself from ever working from anywhere that isn’t my table, and have conversely forced myself to immediately move away from this table once I put my work laptop away. It’s not much, but the small things are amplified thousandfold when most of my daily life is now spent within 40m².

I have always been one for associating certain moods with different physical spaces.

My flat isn’t the best place to be confined to, but of course I never considered that I would ever have to work from home when I was looking for a place to live here in Madrid. I wanted a separate living room and bedroom in order to have some privacy when guests came to visit, but I wasn’t fussed about having a balcony or views out on to the street, as I would much rather head out and enjoy the atmosphere on foot during warm summer evenings or fresh winter days. In fact, I was happy to have an interior-facing flat, as it meant that I enjoyed near silence at home, great for kicking back after work or a day out in the city.

As you can imagine, this decision hasn’t really been ideal during these times of quarantine. While the majority of the city leans out of its balconies for the daily 8pm applause, or even to sing and dance together, I have to make do with a view of the neighbours’ windows and the small square of sky that can be seen when I look up from mine. I am just thankful that my flat, being on the third floor of a four-storey building, receives lots of daylight and even a good few rays of sun during the day.

I shall try to refrain from excessive moaning, however, because I know that many people are in much worse situations. I have friends who are struggling to study, have had to apply for financial help from the government as they cannot work, and even some who find themselves – for one reason or another – ineligible to apply for said support. If I ever catch myself sulking about these relatively frivolous strains, I try to put my situation in perspective and count my lucky stars.

I’ve also a variety of ways of cheering myself up outside of work hours, including regular calls with family and friends from across the globe, as well as the odd spot of exercise, watching TV, cooking, baking, and even a spot of trying to learn new things. I’ve been refining my Spanish omelette technique, improving my Photoshop skills, and even trying to complete some Irish lessons on Duolingo, but I must stress that I’ve not been pushing myself too hard to be productive. I have seen many a well-meaning post rousing us to be as productive as possible during this lockdown, but I think that it’s important to remember that we are all trying to do our best in the middle of a global crisis – let’s not berate ourselves if we don’t come out the other end speaking another language and playing a musical instrument.

The best way by far to lift my spirits has been the rare opportunity to venture outside, as I am quite a claustrophobic person and have caught myself a couple of times panicking when remembering that I cannot leave my flat. It has almost been amusing to see tasks that I once complained about, such as taking out the rubbish or going to pick up some extra food, now becoming treasured opportunities and the highlight of my day. It’s a double edged sword though, which I shall now explain.

Life outside my flat

The act of leaving home is often a bittersweet experience, and it might not be for the reasons that you imagine. The isolation and solitude enforced by staying in my flat can be overwhelming, but the knowledge that I am safely isolated against the virus can also be of great comfort. Leaving the flat, be it for food or for medicines (the only two reasons for which I can/do leave), can often be rather nerve-wracking. I don’t have a mask or any decent protective gloves, so I often find myself hyper-conscious about maintaining distance between myself and others, often for their safety more than for my own. I sometimes find myself in a tizzy as I mentally repeat the mantras of safe social contact: maintain a 2m distance from others, don’t touch your face, cough into your elbow…

These considerations are certainly a mental drain, but they do not form the main reason for which the outside world now leaves me with a bittersweet feeling. I shall try to explain how two different ways of observing the outside world as I wander the streets can now uplift or sadden me in equal measure.

The outside world now leaves me with a bittersweet feeling.

Naturally, it’s a joy to be back on the streets. It’s lovely to speak to the occasional person, catch some rays of the springtime sun, and exercise my tired body a little. Watching the world carry on as much as it can, with people following the new norms and working together in order to protect each other, is lovely to see. Just the other day, I left the shop at around 8pm out of pure coincidence, and I found myself on a street which was suddenly alive with the roar of clapping, cheering, and even the buzz of a ratchet that an elderly gentlemen was swinging around with great gusto from his balcony.

This oxymoronic combination of a sense of normality mixed with such extraordinary outpourings of community spirit prompted by equally extraordinary circumstances have calming and uplifting effects respectively, and make such excursions into the outside world so enjoyable. There’s also the tonic offered by the mere reminder that I am not 100% trapped in my flat, which serves to relax my claustrophobic mind just enough to maintain my cool until the next time I’ll be out and about.

There is another way of seeing, however, as I pace the streets of the uneasily quiet city. No matter how much one may wish to cling to these glimpses of what the Spanish call la vida cotidiana, everyday life as we knew it, something is always amiss. There’s people on the streets, but nobody is stopping to greet each other. There’s no “hola” to strangers, and passing smiles are now hidden behind face masks. This I find particularly poignant, as I have always been delighted by the openness and chattiness of Spanish society, and to see this energy extinguished is sobering.

Then there’s the streets full of shuttered businesses. Bars, restaurants, book shops, flower shops, bakeries, gift shops – in my area there’s all sorts of services on offer, and they bring a real liveliness to the neighbourhood. Now, a silence has descended, and the usually rich texture created by the goods displayed behind their windows has been flattered into a wall of metal shutters. I’m also haunted by the possibility that many of these businesses may not survive the financial crash sure to be caused by this crisis, especially seeing as most of the offerings around me are independent and even family-owned.

This very real prospect also invokes another uneasiness, as I realise that what I considered to be my daily life may never return. There’s the awful possibility that some of my favourite haunts such as the terrace of a local bar, the bakery below my flat, and a Lebanese take-away across the road may not reopen. Just as I was settling into life here in Spain, building relationships and forming routines, it does seem like this crisis is pulling the rug out from underneath me. I reiterate that I, of course, have it relatively easy, but it does nevertheless leave me slightly disorientated and disheartened.

I have always been delighted by the chattiness of Spanish society, and to see this energy extinguished is sobering.

Little details also signal that not all is well and good, as the usual “muchas gracias, hasta luego” from the cashier in the supermarket now comes from behind a face mask and a large transparent acrylic screen suspended between me and them. There’s lines marked on the floor of pharmacies and shops alike, indicating where people should move around and how much distance they should maintain when queueing. Security guards act as bouncers outside of shops, directing the flow of people and instructing us to don gloves and disinfect our shopping trolley with alcohol gel before proceeding. Announcements remind us not to stockpile food, there’s a good spattering of empty shelves, and some staffed and self-service areas such as the bakery now have been shuttered or have had their produce pre-bagged.

As I say, the mood that my time outside my flat can leave me in varies depending on the way I look at things, and that can vary from excursion to excursion. One night I took out some recycling to be greeted by a dark and quiet street devoid of life. Another time, I saw colourful balloons and messages of hope reading “todo irá bien” (everything will be fine), and spoke to a group of old ladies – all stood meters from each other, of course. Sometimes a trip outside can result in a mini rollercoaster of emotions, as I complete the trip to the supermarket, looping back to my house in order to pass by the pharmacy. I can chat to people whilst shopping, pass by the sad sight of restaurant terraces now dusty and full of leaves, and then be reanimated by the cheerful music leaking from open windows.

What’s to come

Nobody can tell what will come of all this. I don’t know to what degree we will be able to return to normality, both because of the financial uncertainty caused by this crisis and health risks posed by the eventual lifting of quarantine measures. The Spanish government has emphasised that the eventual lifting of the state of emergency will be slow and stepped, indicating that certain activities will be gradually permitted as the numbers drop, all in an effort to allow people their freedoms without overwhelming the healthcare system.

Speaking of the healthcare system, I shall now do something that I dislike using my blog as a platform to do, and I will get a little political. To all those in the UK, please do not abuse the little freedoms that the government have left you in order to discretely meet people. In fact, wherever you are from, and no matter how much you want to see your family, spend time with your partner, or chill out with friends: don’t. Stay at home. Do not be so selfish as to think that because you nor the people you are meeting will be affected, that others will not suffer because of you. It is our collective responsibility to keep as many hospital beds free for those who need them.

Wherever you are from, please, stay at home.

As I have reiterated throughout this post: I am lucky. I can work, albeit with some caveats, from the safety and comfort of my own home. I would like to extend my gratitude to all those workers who are still out and fighting to keep all essential activities running. Let’s remember that these are the people that have often been looked down on, and who are still paid a pittance for jobs which many have suddenly begun to realise are, in fact, essential. Once we have are in more stable times, it might just be time to hold those in power accountable for ensuring that we prioritise what is truly essential, such as our public healthcare and many other professions which have not been able to simply pack up shop and go home during this quarantine.

I am also cautious of calling these essential workers heroes, as that implies that they have an alternative other than working. With the populous in lockdown and many legally obliged to stay at home, many workers have no other option than to work their now somewhat risky jobs in order to keep a steady income. I am also averse to hearing the privileged and those in power hail these essential workers as heroes, only to then refuse to reward them for their work. I am not in any way casting in doubt the bravery and stoicism of these people – they deserve all the praise and recognition that they can get – but I think that calling them heroes is a shallow gesture when they often have no alternative and are rarely awarded for their invaluable contribution by the same people who are supposed praising them.

Anyway, and to conclude, I wish everyone a happy and healthy spring holiday. I am in good health and good spirits, and I wish the same for you and everyone that you know. In these strange times, we’ve to talk openly about how we’re feeling, and keep in touch with each other as much as we can. Even if I have been calling friends just for the both of us to complain about being stuck indoors all day, a problem shared is a problem halved.

Thank you to everyone who has been calling and messaging to check in with me, and to all my family and friends who have to deal with my constant video calls when I need some virtual company here at home.

Todo irá bien.