The confinement diary: counting from zero

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Here in Spain, they like to start counting from zero. So we’re currently in Phase Zero of emergence from lockdown, which means that trips to the beach are permitted first and last thing, and visits to the hairdresser are allowed at any time, as long as you wear a mask and agree to have the soles of your shoes sprayed with disinfectant.

After a month and a half of complete lockdown, it’s astonishing to step out of my door and see a conveyor belt of human motion. Masked and bare-faced, Donostiarras are taking up their right to go somewhere that isn’t the bins or grocery store; to cycle, run, and congregate, albeit discreetly.

Since May 2nd, when lockdown was lifted, I’ve been for four swims and counting. The beaches appear different after almost two months’ absence. New rocks have emerged on Zurriola, and green seaweed has grown long and silky over them. The Cantabrian sea in May is cold, but not as bone numbing as it was in March, and I soak it up like a sponge. Then, there’s the night, which is warm, and full of the sound of the waves. I’d not seen the night since March 14th and walking freely in it, makes me feel like a teenager who is just getting to know its possibilities. Even the eleven o’clock curfew that’s currently in place, adds an adolescent appeal.

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You could get drunk on the freedom, half-kid yourself that things have gone back to the way they were before.  But only half.  The boyfriend and I got told off by a policeman each for sitting on the ledge of a stone bridge and leaning against iron railings. The virus travels through metal, didn’t we know? We did, but in that moment we forgot.  We’re also not supposed to touch the sand with any part of our bodies other than the soles of our feet.  Sitting and lounging on the beach are not yet permitted because there are no conclusive studies about coronavirus transmission through sand.

We’re all aware that a resurgence of the virus is a possibility, and by the end of the weekend, we’ll know how Phase Zero has affected the rate of  contagion.  My fear of it all being taken away, has led me to organise my days around going out in the morning and evening.  Which is a challenge, because whereas at the beginning of lockdown the empty hours mounted, by the end there almost wasn’t a spare moment. I was able to plan and fill whole days without venturing beyond my flat. So this new commitment to going out, is a bit overwhelming,  along with the early summer. Boris Johnson’s baby wasn’t the only premature summer fruit, because as of last week, grocery stalls were filled cherries and peaches. These stone fruits, normally associated with the month of June, are my favourites, but I was almost sad to see them so soon. Their early appearance confirms that I’ve missed Spring, the season that ought to most naturally follow a state of hibernation.

Next week, if all goes to plan, Phase One gets underway; clothes stores will open, and groups of up to ten will be able to congregate on terraces.  I have to say, I’m not ready for all of that. Not only due to a fear of contagion, but because I’d like to open up my life in a slower, more organic manner. I don’t want to rush to embrace everything that was, but to cherry pick and savour my experiences. I want to retain the license that lockdown gave me to have unproductive time to myself; to not have my inner peace shattered by a sense of social duty and fear of missing out.

This is the latest of a series of posts on my lockdown experience in San Sebastián, Spain. Don’t touch any metal, if you can help it. 

The confinement diary: self-isolating by the book

 

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In her new memoir, Rebecca Solnit compares books to stars, owing to the time-lag between the original idea in the author’s head, and the moment, many years later, when the reader gets hold of it. She explains how readers engage with what the author was passionately immersed in long before, sometimes only because of the time it takes a book to be written, edited, printed, and distributed. When you think about it, the time-lag between writing and distribution, makes the possibility of a reader finding a book relevant, or interesting, a chancy business. Perhaps this is why some people give up on books; they want to consume content with a smaller space-time lag, stories that are more directly relevant to today’s world.

As for me, reading continues to be the ultimate form of relaxation, a break from the news cycle and worry. I don’t mind the time-lag between the authors’ pre-quarantine freedom and my confinement; if anything, I marvel at how scripts from a star-like distance can illuminate present conditions. Since entering quarantine, on March 16th, I’ve read the following:

A Line Made By Walking, Sara Baume (fiction 2016, ordered pre-quarantine)

Actress, Anne Enright (fiction 2020, ordered pre-quarantine)

Recollections of my Non-existence, Rebecca Solnit (memoir 2020, ordered pre-quarantine)

Untamed, Glennon Doyle (memoir/ self-help 2020, ordered in quarantine)

Handiwork, Sara Baume  (artistic memoir 2020 preordered pre-quarantine/ published during quarantine)

The Seas, Samantha Hunt (fiction 2004, ordered pre- quarantine)

The Professor and the Siren, Giuseppe di Lampedusa (fiction 1957, ordered in  quarantine)

Watching: My Brilliant Friend; The Story of a New Name, Directed by Saverio Costanzo. Based on the books by Elena Ferrante

Certainly, nothing on the list was intended for a quarantined readership; even if four of the books have 2020 publication dates, with Handiwork by Sara Baume coming out as late as March 26th. There’s no denying that words land differently when you’re self-isolated, and only allowed out to buy groceries. For example, the recurring metaphor of the unlocked door, in Glennon Doyle’s self-help memoir about reclaiming female wilderness, was intended as an inspirational call to witness the option of leaving unsatisfactory situations and roaming free; these doors, they’re not even locked, she promises. However, from the position of confinement, when governments and our own consciences are forcing us to lockdown, the unlocked door trope feels nonsensical. I can’t help but think that if Doyle were writing her guide for a quarantined world, her metaphors, and even her thoughts would have been different.

But, on the other hand, reading Untamed, and my other feminist memoir – Solnit’s – during this time of pause, presents a kind of chrysalis for new ideas to take hold and develop. Interestingly, both books provide a physical example of these chrysalises: it’s young Solnit’s writing annex in an African-American neighbourhood in San Franscisco; it’s the room/womb at the bottom of Doyle’s house, where her sister hid and regrouped after the explosion of her first marriage, and emerged as a woman with a vision. Such places cut off from the ordinary flow of space-time, enable reflection, planning, and practice on a small scale, as far as the limits of the confined world permit, before our horizons expand again, and life with all its distractions rushes in. Solnit and Doyle have inspired me to be moved and act on behalf of causes I care about, something I wasn’t doing enough of before quarantine. Both women write persuasively about how my good, and that of humanity, are at the deepest level, inextricable; and this has never been more apparent than in quarantine, where it’s an almost symmetrical effort to look after my well-being and that of others.

Small, interesting worlds. All the books I’ve loved during quarantine have them. I don’t want the sweeping narrative that boomerangs me from one side of the planet to the other; I want writing that makes me excited about what I can experience now, from my little studio space and sea-view balcony. Sara Baume writes how the birds I want to see, the birds I want to recognise, are the ones that live – or visit, or get lost – in the places where I live. These words are a comforting companion to the obligatory constrained perspective, the forced slowing-down of confinement; they’re an invitation to look again, to begin a breathless search, for what’s near and elusive. There’s so much I’ve missed, by not paying attention; so much to catch up on, if I start.

Baume’s Handiwork, is also pattern for life and objects in a microcosm. She assigns different stations to the house where she and her partner live and make things; where distinct tasks such as gluing, cutting and painting, have their proper place. Though I have a tendency to work in all parts of my studio, I made a quick doodle of the space, and the types of making that could be specific to different areas. Even as a fantasy, it gives me the reassurance of a real plan.

While Baume’s book reads as a map for life in quarantine, others on my pile bring me what I’ve most missed – my beloved sea. These past few weeks of intermittent sun, the sea has been my forbidden fruit – even Zurriola, the wavy, made-for-surfers beach, which is the only one I’m able to see these days, has lately resembled a turquoise lake. The sea is a break from the small places, the sense of making do with restricted possibilities. It’s turned up in Solnit’s memoir, in the second chapter that takes a break from her life and catches a bus all the way to Ocean Beach, where she can see the Pacific and eternity. It’s tempted me in di Lampedusa’s peacock-coloured Sicilian waters, in the Ferrante screen adaptations, where the island of Ischia with its pornographically blue waters is a break from the square confines of the dusty neighbourhood.  The signorina must go and rest on Ischia, the signorina is too exhausted, the heroine’s mother mocks.  Italy, only the width of France away, and suddenly inaccessible, is another forbidden fruit. I think enviously how that sea, that sand, those swimsuit frolics are real; that they’ve been captured on film, and that beautiful place goes on without me, without any other human visitor.

Closer to my current experience of the water, is Samantha Hunt’s novel, The Seas, where the inhabitants of a Northern American seaside town, have been turned odd by looking out to the ocean. Passages like this – the street was dreaming it was the silver asphalt of fish scales – draw the tide up to my stone balcony, and make me see everything as sea-matter; for example, an escaped cellophane glove dragging across the concrete, becomes a dozy jellyfish. On a metafictional note, I even had a drip from my bathroom ceiling, to match the mermaid heroine’s predisposition to leaks, and only now, has the balance of wet to dry been restored.

 

The confinement diary: can we sleep through it?

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In Ottessa Moshfegh’s novel, My Year of Rest and Relaxation, the heroine tries to force sleep on herself by taking a cocktail of pills. Spoiler alert : this updated Sleeping Beauty experiment doesn’t go as planned, and she’s worse off than before. Still, the idea of pure rest and uninterrupted slumber, was so seductive, especially at the beginning of quarantine – which for me, was nearly three weeks ago – when I fantasised about sleeping through this time of isolation, and waking up when the bars and beaches were an option again.

Of course, work was always going to get in the way, as well as my body,  which does not have the biological capacity to feed itself or manage its own waste without me being a conscious player. In that first week of quarantine, though, my sleep did change, as my body was responding to increased levels of melatonin from the lack of daylight. It became heavier and more continuous  at night, and featured vivid, sometimes frightening dreams of the sea I was missing. One dream saw two giant mating stingrays leap out of the ocean and attack me, while another saw a killer-whale/shark hybrid zooming around La Concha bay like a speedboat, while I watched from the window of GU, the swanky nightclub that looks like a ship. Later, I noticed that the sea creatures took on the navy and white colours of police uniform, and were perhaps an animalisation of the authorities who barked at me when I was walking too close to the sea, on the way back from the grocery store. Dreams of ocean attacks aside, waking up later in the mornings, going to bed earlier, and collapsing onto the sofa for an afternoon nap, was blissful.

Alas, it was not to last – my body’s since become used to the lack of daylight, and now I’m back to having a lot of kinetic energy (it feels like having a spring up my arse) throughout the day, a second wind that gets me out my evening slump, and light broken sleep in the night. My boyfriend’s doing better at rest and relaxation.  When I met him, he said that if he were an animal, he’d be a bird, because he’s curious and would like to fly.  I was impressed with this answer, especially as previous boyfriends had said they’d be bears – a conventionally masculine choice.  Anyway, as it turns out, the current boyfriend has an inner hibernating bear. Quarantine often has him passing half of the day horizontal, either asleep or listening to music and podcasts, until work, the news cycle, or a really good olive oil causes his bird self to fly back.

Though quarantine continues, and some report that they’re losing track of the days, there are enough spectacles to keep us out of bed and on our toes – especially given that Pedro Sánchez likes to spring his life-changing announcements on Saturdays! FOMO, is another culprit in keeping us awake – checking on people and trying to keep their spirits up, is a full time job outside of the usual full time job. So no, those of who are blessed enough to be healthy, can’t sleep through it.  Though when unconsciousness comes to give us some relief from our frazzled minds,  it’s welcomed.

This is yet another chapter of my confinement diary. I learned how to turn my phone into a Wi-Fi hotspot, so this is a combined phone and laptop production. 

The confinement diary: napolitanas and the collective good

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Week 3 of quarantine sees me engaging in such antisocial activities as eating out the filling of a napolitana (pain au chocolat) with a teaspoon, and leaving begind the pastry wreckage.

A plastic tray of napolitanas is not something I’d normally have, my habit with desserts being that I buy a specific sweet that can be eaten in one sitting. But my boyfriend brought them, during the first phase of quarantine, when he was allowed to work from his school and stay here. Now, when everyone has to work from the place where they sleep, this tiny room doesn’t have enough space and internet for the both of us. So he’s gone for now, but the napolitanas are still here, and I didn’t want to waste them completely.

The habit of eating the juicy,  chocolatey, custardy filling and leaving the soggy base behind, was one I picked up in my family, where there was almost too much to go around, and I had to find some way of limiting myself. Taking what I wanted, and leaving behind the rest, I was able to have my cake and eat it, and gain the unrealistic idea that I had control over my life. Since buying my own food, and having relationships outside of my family, I’ve mostly given up that princessy habit. But now that I’m alone, and the pastry is dry, the chocolate rich and hazelnutty,  there’s nothing stopping my extraction procedure.

Ironically, in this crisis, staying at home with my ravaged napolitanas, makes me a not-bad citizen and a potential life-saver. In the new hierarchy of selfish behaviour,  meeting people from beyond your household, is obviously at the top, while scooping out the chocolate from leftover napolitanas is a lot further down.

Seeing myself as part of a species, and not as an individual,  is new for me.  I was raised as an individual,  and even now, my parents seem more bothered about my comfort than whether I might catch the darn virus, or be a good citizen. It’s the first time in my life that my needs and desires are truly inimical to the collective good; to my own good, because like everyone else, I have a body susceptible to the virus. Since my last post, a friend contracted a painful case of Coronavirus, which left her struggling for oxygen, and another friend, a midwife, has had her ward turned upside-down. Now that I’m able to put faces to those battling the disease, it seems ten times closer and more frightening.  And my part in preventing it is the quietest one – to stay away, to stay at home. Still, there’s things to be learned here, another phase of growing up to do.

This is my third post about being quarantined in Spain. Wishing that everyone who wants a napolitana can get their hands on one, to eat in the manner of their choosing.  

The confinement diary: birdbrain

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My balcony has filled up with sand. Barely three arm-spans long and one arm-span wide, it’s a space I’d taken for granted, using it only to dust the sand off towels, and take a gasp of air when working up to deadlines.  But today, on the balmy fifth day of quarantine,  I’m out here,  looking at the sea, which continues,  in spite of everything.

Five days into confinement, I have never felt so powerless as a human being, and fancy trading in my body for a more avian form.  The seagulls, pigeons, and chubby little brown birds, who hop all about this city, and whose name I never bothered to learn, are free to go, gather and take zig-zagging paths, unquestioned.  They’re also (as far as I know) completely immune to coronavirus. Their smugness is evident in song that is ever chirpier and shriller: it’s spring, the days are longer,  and this time, there are far fewer humans to disrupt the party.

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I am an animal too, of the corralled variety. For the first time on my balcony, I’m properly paying attention to the beings living opposite: the man with binoculars facing the ocean, the  gym-addicted smoker who wears superhero pyjamas, the older woman in her pink bathrobe, the girl decking out the table-cloth, making the pigeons scatter. We’re all guided by instinct out to the sun, to glance warily at each other,  because after all, we’re strangers ( and this is the Basque country, not Andalusía). Every night at 8pm, we clap and cheer for the health workers, and are united by something,  that as of a week ago, affects us all. In some ways, we’re forced to copy the birds, who never had any illusion of being in control, and pardon the cliché,  flock together. It’s by remembering the others in my species – those who are strange to me, as well as familiar, that I can be accepting of the current restrictions on my freedom, a policeman bringing me back in line; when I take that extraneous step on my outing to the grocery store.

Right now, it’s time to be a roosting bird,  and clean the sand off my balcony, which nowadays isn’t just a spot of airy relief, but an extension of my nest.

This is my second post about being quarantined in San Sebastián.  As this situation will continue indefinitely, it likely won’t be my last 

The confinement diary: a tiny phone production

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The first morning, I wake up to the sound of the rain. It’s louder than any human imprint, be it footsteps or motors. The birds are still singing, because talkers will always talk. I’m grateful for their company: it makes the beginning of quarantine less apocalyptic.

When I pull up the blinds, and look out over the balcony, there are amply-spaced figures, holding black umbrellas, on one of a handful of designated missions: work, acquisition of food or medicine, caring for the vulnerable, or taking out the bins. I’ve been saving my own food trail for about 4.30pm, so that it’s not over too quickly, so I don’t run into the panic buyers,  because I like the buttery texture of the light. It’s weird to have to choose between one time of day and another. I imagine that my favourite hour – sunset-into-twilight – will have to be sacrificed, for the sake of getting enough Vitamin D, especially as the days get longer, and the 8 pm supermarket curfew takes place in broad daylight. Will it come to that? Most people predict that the current regime will last more than the anticipated two weeks – that it could go for months, even.  My morning beauty routine doesn’t account for any of these changes: I’m still putting on sunscreen first thing, even though I’m not sure I have to.

Though I look forward to my outings, and make sure I buy in comically small amounts,  so that I’ll have an excuse to go again tomorrow,  I don’t exactly enjoy them. They are not meant to be fun, anyway. For one thing, the police have sectioned off not only the beaches,  but any part of the promenade that’s purely recreational and couldn’t double up as a route to a primary convenience. Still, yesterday when I was walking on one of those double-purpose roads, there was a strong smell of weed – and given that all I could see in front of me was a police car, the smoker must have been in hiding.

But the most striking thing,  in this city of couples and cuadrillas (gangs of 5+), is the solitude of those who walk the streets. Only one person is allowed to walk the dog; enter a shop at a time, and once inside, people must be at least a metre apart. Things which I took for granted, only as long ago as Friday – such as walking down the street, hand in hand with my boyfriend – would now be viewed as germy and suspicious. It’s surreal; at this stage, I’m too overwhelmed by the novelty of it all, to be despairing.

At home, in the nine waking hours before my outing, and the six after,  I have no shortage of things to do. There’s the arm-length document of projects, while I wait for my next piece of work to come in, the Spanish grammar I need to consolidate,  the limbering stretching sessions I force on myself, every few hours,  and my flat,  which being white and small, always makes cleaning for me. Also, a friend and my dad, want to add another item to my list: that I figure out how to use my mobile to get internet on my laptop, so I don’t have to do everything on this tiny phone. I’ve told them I will, when I can’t get away with it any more – as if I need more homework! As with before quarantine,  I fail to check off all the items on my daily to-do-list, and feel the same anxiety about my lack of productivity/super-humanness.  Then I berate myself for focusing on these tiny, selfish things; remind myself that they’re nothing in the face of this global health epidemic, the people suffocating to death.  I know that in the grand scheme of things,  it wouldn’t matter if I stayed in bed for a while, watching self-isolation memes. It’s just that I can’t allow myself to – in a situation which is completely out of my control, my mind latches onto the things it can shape and invent. It insists on shaping and inventing.

This is the first in a series of posts about being quarantined in the beautiful city of San Sebastián! I did have a life before this, as my previous posts will testify. Incase you’re interested, the above pic is from a Starbucks mural, at a time when I had free movement.