Last night before I turned off the mobile phone at midnight 1,000 people had died in Spain as a result of COVID-19. While I lay there waiting for sleep to do its thing, I could feel myself trying to physically distance myself from the virus by thinking of those living closer to the epicentre. In case you are not aware, 60% of Spain’s deaths have taken place in Madrid. For now, at least, the situation in Cantabria is bad with one death recorded as of last night, but could be a lot worse. It’s not clear if we are lagging behind or have flattened the curve. Traditionally quite a remote region, Ryanair and other low cost operators have embraced Cantabria’s proximity to the Basque Country and up until recently we’ve had direct flights all over Europe including three direct flights to Italy. All that has stopped now and as of today, we have a single flight connection – to Madrid.
But I didn’t start this post to write about who flies where. I want to write about what it is like to being in Santander in lockdown. With three children and two dogs. Those of you who know me in person, will know that I now live in the city centre – having moved just last May from what used to be the city perimeter. I’m still getting used to being in the thick of things. Usually weekends are pretty noisy here in what I call the Temple Bar of Santander. On Friday and Saturday nights, we go to sleep with the sound of hundreds of people socialising outside our windows. You get used to it. And it can be funny to be out walking the dogs in the morning and seeing people heading home, a bit worse for wear, from the night out. Reminds me of my own misspent youth. New Year’s Eve is particularly crazy and the Semana Grande in July is wild. But all that has changed. Now we go to sleep in silence. No bars, no nightclubs neon signs flashing up from below, no broken glass as we step outside in the morning. No bottles of beer or rum on our doorstep. It’s empty.
Just like most people living in apartments in the city, we don’t have a garden or a roof terrace, but we do have large windows onto small balconies (standing room only – don’t be thinking sun-loungers and BBQS) that help to break the feeling of cabin-fever. We can open these windows (no tiny tots to worry about now) and let lots of fresh air in. In the square we also have an Italian flag hung by an Italian resident – honouring the situation in her country of birth. I’m getting to know my neighbours a lot better during lockdown – especially at the daily 8pm applause for the health professionals, when get to see their faces and voices, as we listen to a singer living here who serenades us with just one song each night. In the interest of fair reporting, I should add that there are a few neighbours banging pots and pans to complain. Not about the singing. About the handling of the current situation. Being in Santander, which is generally supportive of Madrid, the protestors are complaining about the Spanish monarchy and corruption. Last night I heard about three people banging pots and pans compared to maybe 70 people clapping. (I’m making a stab in the dark, quite literally there!)
But that’s outside the flat. What’s it like to be on lockdown inside? The children have been on lockdown since they came home from school on Friday March 13. Myself and my husband alternate food shopping (three trips since lockdown) and walking the dogs (three times daily). I’ll start with the food-shopping which is turning into an unpleasant experience. Like many people around here, I usually buy food every day or almost every day, heading out with my trusty shopper on wheels. But when we saw what was going on in Lombardy, we decided to do a large shop at the end of last month, which feels like some time last year. Shopping excursions under lockdown are becoming more and more uncomfortable. Not because of what’s on the shelves – which are well-stocked. I think it’s the atmosphere that is becoming unnerving. My husband went last Saturday morning to the local ‘Lupa’ supermarket and said it was fine. I went on Wednesday morning to the ‘Día’ supermarket and it was actually very quiet but yesterday at midday it was very busy and a few shoppers were not understanding the need to keep their distance. I will now attempt to shop once a week and see how we get on. I don’t wear a mask when I go out because I think, for now, I am better off learning not to touch my face and washing my hands when I return.
Dog-walking is about the same. What was routine and straight-forward is now uncomfortable and unpleasant. Those of you who know our dogs will know they are strong and tug quite a lot. They are rescues are probably lived up the mountains herding sheep so they need the fresh air and get excited when they go out. One of my arms is constantly sore from the pulling and tugging and with my husband working from home, we initially decided to walk the dogs together when possible – as the only requirement in lockdown is one person per dog. We have been very prudent about maintaining the usual walking route and times – all in all about 15 mins three times a day. At the beginning, dog-walkers were very friendly – with an extra special nod as we respected social-distancing when out with the hounds. That’s changing. We all seem a bit more nervous. Yesterday morning I was told by another dog-walker that we (my husband and I) should not be walking the dogs together. Perhaps she didn’t realise that we live together. We didn’t reply as she was probably just trying to be helpful. And last night, my husband took the dogs out and was told by a police officer that he should only be walking the dogs in front of the apartment which is a concrete square. Again, my husband didn’t say anything – he was aware that a ‘guardia civil’ had just died yesterday and everybody in the force was hurting. He came home with the dogs who were wondering what happened. We usually don’t allow them to do their business in the square because the area is usually filled with children playing and people eating and drinking. Not any more. Most dog-walkers are wearing masks and gloves. I even saw a dog wearing some type of special socks this week. I haven’t changed what I wear but I do ensure I don’t touch my face from the moment I leave to the moment I return home. And I’m very careful not to touch the lift buttons and the doors we share with our neighbours in the building. I do a lot of elbow nudging or use the tip of my keys.
Now that you know about the shopping and the dog-walking, you might be wondering how the children are faring. I’m very proud and really impressed by our 10, 12 and 14-year olds. They do miss their friends at school and playing their matches at weekends and I’ve even heard them confess that they miss school itself and can’t wait to go back. It’s a lot easier to be distracted when doing schoolwork at home than at school, they say. They are doing schoolwork from home. Each weekday they download their assignments in the morning and upload their work in the afternoon. And they have had a few online chats and video-conferences with their teachers and classmates. It makes you realise that lockdown would be totally different without technology. We do try to limit the free time they spend online. Usually they have two to three hours in the afternoons if they finish their classwork properly. Phones and online games are switched off at 7pm when we try to do some exercise videos from YouTube and watch a movie after our evening meal. Nobody is complaining or asking to go out. They completely get the reason for the lockdown. And they are tolerating me asking how they are feeling all the time and telling them they have to stay healthy and eat, sleep and exercise. Actually, that might be the best part of this lockdown – being able to eat family meals together. Often, with school, work and sports commitments, we don’t get to eat together at the same time.
Of course, we are very conscious of the families who can’t be together. Those at the frontline. With them in mind, I look outside Spain and find myself baffled at what is going on. Nothing as dangerous as the recently converted – they used to say about ex-smokers and drinkers. It’s true – I find it very hard to understand why Ireland hasn’t gone into lockdown and why the UK took so long to close schools. But I forget that only 10 days ago, I was living a very different life. A day during the Corona Virus is like a year in ‘old money’.
I am concerned for my family here but even more concerned for my family in Ireland. Both my parents are in excellent shape but I’m concerned when they need to leave their homes. I worry that they aren’t careful enough – as I’m sure they worry about me and my brothers. The one thing I’m not worried about is how my family will handle lockdown, when it comes to Ireland. We are great at being on our own. I never thought this was such a positive attribute, but now I do. I just hope it gets to be put in practice sooner rather than later, so less people will have to fight the virus.
As I read back over these lines, I wish I were here on my keyboard writing about something else. We all want our old lives back and I want Santander and Spain to return to the bustling noisy place I fell in love with back in 1992. A few weeks ago, I was listening to the Irish writer Anne Enright on Desert Island Discs explain that she writes to shut the world away. I do think we need some space to try and digest what is happening and I suppose that is what’s happening here. I’m documenting this time, however long or short it is. The numbers will probably be out of date within an hour of publication but I’m not writing this to highlight the numbers.
I’m writing to highlight that this state of lockdown we are experiencing in Spain is as a result of something I learned a long time ago – the interconnectedness of all things – which is both magical and terrifying. We need to acknowledge this and act collectively over the coming days and weeks. Staying at home is not a sacrifice. It is an act of respect to those who can’t. [Since last night, the death toll has risen from 1,000 people to 1,350 in Spain. In Cantabria it was risen from one death to four.] Please stay safe and stay in touch. I’d love to hear how you are spending your time, wherever you are. I’ll leave you with a photo of one of Santander’s squares which is so quiet under lockdown. I look forward to documenting the days (and the nights) when the plaza is pounding with people again. There’s a whale of a party to be had here and I’m planning on being here in the thick of it when the time comes. In the meantime, here is the scene for the 8pm applause…