Near Barcelona, Spain
For the last seventeen years, I have lived just outside Barcelona. My husband Jose and I live with our two cats in a comfortable but modest apartment in a quieter part of town, a few minutes’ walk away from the (normally) bustling tourist-packed centre.
So, here I find myself sitting at a little wooden table on our balcony. I am surrounded by potted plants, looking out over our tiny narrow street, drinking my coffee and thinking back on recent events brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic. I am reflecting on how all of this is affecting me personally, and also on the impact it is having on the culture in which I now live.
We are half-way through the proposed nationwide lockdown, referred to as “la cuarentena” in Spanish. But who knows if it will be extended?
I commute regularly to the UK for work, and because I speak Spanish and French, I am often jetting off all over the globe. Putting it mildly, I am not proud of my carbon footprint. Bizarrely, I was recently talking with friends and colleagues about the fact that I would like to travel less, and my plan was to use 2020 as a year in which to reduce my workload, to free up some time to reflect upon other types of work I might fancy doing a bit closer to home. “Be careful what you wish for”, as the ancient Chinese saying goes.
I specialise in well-being and resilience. I have been teaching techniques of present-moment awareness (sometimes called mindfulness) for the last twenty years. It is fascinating to practise mindfulness techniques on myself, observing my thoughts, and noticing those times where I am perhaps wishing things to be different from how they currently are, thereby creating a raft of uncomfortable feelings inside myself such as annoyance, boredom, or frustration. It is a great lesson for me to practise what I preach around being fully present to an experience, and to be curious, open and non-judgemental. Some days this is easier to do than others.
Under lockdown, we are allowed out to go food shopping. On day one of our confinement, lots of people (including myself) dashed out to the shops. There was no “panic” buying such as we see happening in some parts of the UK, yet in the supermarket that first day, I found myself buying a few more tins and packets than normal – and noticed everyone around me doing the same. That has calmed right down now. The supermarkets have good supply chains and restock their shelves regularly. The fruit and vegetable co-operative across the road is a veritable cornucopia, and we count ourselves very fortunate to have fresh food available each and every day.
So I am glad to say that I have stopped “dashing” to the shops. In fact, I treat my outings into town as something to be savoured. “Mindful shopping”, I have started calling it. I walk slowly (where else do I need to be?), enjoying the sunlight and a gentle breeze on my face. Numbers are limited to a few at a time, so I stand patiently in line outside the shops until they call me in. One in, one out. Once inside, we are all given plastic gloves, and we respectfully keep our distance from one another. Most shops have placed lines of tape on the floor (even on the pavement outside) to mark two-metre gaps. The urge to buy extra quantities of food has gone. We all buy only what we need for a few days. And it works. Because I no longer feel the need to rush and dash around the shops, I enjoy deliberately taking my time to choose items, and to really appreciate “the joy of shopping”.
On a more general note, it is interesting to observe how here in Spain people have accepted and adapted to the lockdown without complaint. They understand that this is a societal and communal effort. They see the strict rules and regulations as a sign that the government cares for everyone, not as something to be resisted or rebelled against.
We hear that in some countries and cultures, people are taking the threat of COVID-19 less seriously. This reminds me of when I lived in London during the HIV/AIDS crisis in the 1980s and ’90s. Back in those days, at least to begin with, many people thought it was something that affected “others” (i.e. gays, Africans, drug addicts). Until it started affecting people closer to home. Then the penny dropped. On social media a few weeks ago, there seemed to be a similar mindset towards COVID-19: “It only affects the elderly and people with underlying health conditions”; “I am young and healthy. It won’t get to me” etc. I have a feeling that the tide is now turning, and more and more people are realising that COVID-19 is a thing which affects each and every one of us.
I mentioned my husband, Jose, at the beginning of this piece. He has given me permission to share the following observations.
Jose is a mental health specialist working in Barcelona. He sees patients with serious conditions such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. He loves his patients, and normally sees them face to face each day. As with all of his colleagues, Jose has been told to work from home, and now calls his patients by phone. At first he was worried that his patients would suffer increased anxiety levels brought on by the lockdown. To his delight, he is finding that this is not the case. Although not ideal, it seems that two thirty-minute phone calls per week are more than compensating for one ninety-minute face-to-face appointment. Jose and his colleagues are considering incorporating telephone support for patients as part of their routine once “normal service has been resumed”.
There will no doubt be plenty of insights to be learnt and shared by many people who now find themselves working from home. The technology is there, and is constantly evolving and improving. Perhaps my wish to reduce my carbon footprint will be granted. You never know.
Whilst I am reflecting here on my balcony, I am sad to learn that, day by day, the number of infected people here in Spain is still going up – as are the fatalities. They say things will continue to get worse before they get better. Just as in the UK, frontline staff don’t have the right personal protection equipment (PPE), and we see each evening on the news stories about doctors, nurses and carers who are battling valiantly to help an ever-increasing number of sick and desperate patients. It is heartbreaking.
Yet in amongst the upsetting news, there are stories which help lift our spirits. The famous Spanish department store, El Corte Inglés (situated in cities right across Spain) are donating their stock of sheets and bedding to nearby hospitals. Likewise, IKEA have just announced that they are giving mattresses and bedding to old people’s homes. There have been some generous financial donations from big football clubs (e.g. Real Madrid) and even from a couple of banks. Long may this continue. One of the most heart-warming images from TV news was that of a convent of nuns sitting around a huge refectory table, sewing hundreds of protective face masks to be given to a local hospital.
Although times of difficulty can often bring out the worst in people, they can also bring out the best. My feeling right now that “best” is winning.
So to finish, I would like to share a real “view from a Spanish balcony” – our balcony, in fact.
Each evening at 8 pm, all across Spain, people stand on their balconies and applaud non-stop for around five minutes. This is our way to thank, each and every day, frontline medical staff and caregivers for the extraordinary work they are doing. It is a simple gesture, yet a powerfully moving one. For a few minutes at the end of the day, we stand on our balcony, in amongst our potted plants, clapping like crazy, and looking at the other quarantined people standing and clapping on their balconies. We feel a sense of connection with one another. Before this all happened, most of us did not know each other – the “busy-ness” of life kept us all apart. Now, with our shared experience of COVID-19 quarantine, perhaps we all feel just a little closer.
A few balconies down from our apartment, an elderly lady comes out, on her own, to applaud. Her hair is always well coiffed, and she wears an elegant pink dressing gown. She smiles at her neighbours, and waves goodnight to everyone once the clapping has died down, then she goes back inside. I can’t help but wonder if this five minutes of communal clapping each evening is the time she most looks forward to – when she sees other people, connects with her neighbours and feels part of her community once again. I might be completely wrong, of course, but whether it is the case or not, I have made a promise to myself – that once this episode is over, no matter how busy things get again, I will ensure that I take the time to greet, with a smile and a wave, the lady in the pink dressing gown.
Maybe I can run some errands for her when I am doing my “mindful shopping”? Just a thought.
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