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Banished in Barcelona

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Wadda Rios-Font writes for this blog from Barcelona. Wadda is a Professor of Spanish and Latin American Cultures at Barnard College – Columbia University.

My Quarantine Diary

I’m a New York college professor who came to Spain for my January-July sabbatical. Coronavirus surprised me here, and I decided early on I’d stay. My apartment in NYC is rented out, and visiting my “mature” mother in Puerto Rico (she would refuse to be called “elderly”) did not seem like a good idea.

Spain has been one of the hardest-hit countries in the world, but I’ve been glad not to be in New York and the US for this. So here I am in a rental apartment in Barcelona. I miss my own place but this one is quite nice. I normally live alone, and having someone else here would definitely drive me crazy. But I’ve now been by myself for 37 days (!!!) – 21 to go – and “solitary confinement” (they do call quarantine confinamiento in Spain) can get hard.

There isn’t exactly a typical day, but writing this “diary” has made me aware that everything is much more structured than I thought. It’s also made me notice how tremendously reduced to what’s immediate the world has become, despite the enormity of what is going on. There’s always, however, room for a little surprise.

11:00 is generally get-out-of-bed time (I confess)

Today I woke up briefly at 9:00 but didn’t see the point of making the day even longer. At 10:00 I was woken up again by a 4-year-old whose parents take her out to play outside my bedroom every morning. Most days I love her (shrill? cheery!) little voice but other times… well, children aren’t always precious.

Early on in quarantine I was often sleepless, but these days I sleep a lot (9 hours a night!), and heavily. Soooo hard to get up in the morning! Sometimes I wish I could sleep for 100 years like Sleeping Beauty, but with social distancing they won’t even let a Blue Prince wake me up… I read everyone’s been having vivid dreams; I keep dreaming of travel (Berlin and Tel Aviv, most recently, who knows why).

11:00-13:00 I start most days reading news and watching the Health Ministry’s press conference,

with official stats on new cases, hospitalizations/ICUs, deaths, recoveries… I wish I could limit my exposure especially to vile politicians, but obsessing over data gives me the illusion of control. Also, by some sort of Stockholm Syndrome, I have fallen in love with the national Director of Alerts and Health Emergencies. He was out for ten days with Covid-19 himself, and my mornings just weren’t the same. I must acknowledge that he is not objectively a sexy man, but authorities forbid hanky-panky with anyone outside one’s “sphere of cohabitation” and, well, one needs romance. 

13:00-14:00 Brunch

I’m trying to have only two meals per day, no snacks: I really do not want to gain weight (it’s very hard for me to lose it again). I eat as late as possible most days (sometimes even 15:00 to reach the 14-hr minimum for intermittent fasting). Sometimes I fit in some aerobics on my wonderful terrace, for which I thank the Universe. I miss my gym’s fabulous pools.

This is also shower/grooming time, when I become hysterical about my feet and my hair (I look like Rapunzel’s great-grandmother). I’ve now experimented with spray root concealer but keep getting it all over my face and the entire bathroom. Have now sent out for actual hair dyeing materials on Amazon and we’ll see if I dare go through with that. Maybe my stylist will guide me through it on Zoom. No, I can’t just get a little drugstore box, period.

14:00-19:00

One of my biggest problems stranded in this apartment was not having a proper desk (I used to work at the library). So the rental agent (who is adorable) gave me keys to an empty apartment downstairs (with a good table). I go to my “office” several afternoons a week, and even wear “work clothes.” That apartment has balconies over the street, and I truly rarely see anyone go by—people here are taking confinement very seriously.

I feel very guilty about all the people locked up with entire families in tiny flats, but also lucky and relieved. So many articles telling people to forget productivity now, but being unproductive makes me feel worse (also if confinement ever eases, I want to have as much free “play” time as possible). I am especially grateful to the Universe that I wasn’t teaching this semester and didn’t have to produce an online course suddenly as if by magic. I do research and read grad students’ work, and when I finish, if I’m feeling peppy, I climb the stairs back up (five floors).

17:30

Daily break for the New York press conference with Governor Andrew Cuomo (data, data, data). I’ve become Cuomosexual too.

19:00 This time has become the highlight of my quarantine…

My next-door neighbor, whom I’d only met casually before this, proposed that we “get together” and talk from our kitchen windows, so about every three days we each grab a drink (mine is Cava, hers Gin & Tonic) and chat. The first time, I realized that she was the first nonvirtual person, other than masked store cashiers, to look me in the face in over a week. I cried.

The other day she left me (black-market?) mint and cilantro plants outside the door, because I’d lamented that all the plants in this apartment were fake. I cried again; I have become a wuss. Today it’s raining and she messaged she was going crazy, so I opened the window with the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction” blaring and we both danced like maniacs in our kitchens. I’m not sure the rest of the neighbors liked that, but it was only four minutes.

Anyway, the point is that the most surprising people have ended up being enormous support.

I also text a lot with wonderful friends in San Juan, Saratoga Springs, Newcastle UK… and video-chat with yet more wonderful friends in Barcelona, rural Catalonia, Bilbao, New York, Seattle, even Saronída, Greece. Or I should call it what it is: cybercocktails, cyberwine, cyberaperitifs. (Alcohol purchases in Spain have increased 74%!).

20:00 This is when everyone in Spain claps for health workers, so I join (enthusiastically).

Then I call my mother. While I talk to her (20-40 minutes) I walk up and down my apartment hallway (I’ve found this corresponds to 2000-4000 steps). It makes me feel insane, but my body feels like it’s slowly atrophying with disuse. This cannot be survived without some insanity, anyway.

21:00 Dinner. Ugh.

I like to cook, but since I moved to New York in 2005 only do it for dinner parties and special occasions. Workdays are long, and meals-for-one at home are a simple affair that must not take longer to cook than to eat, and must not make a mess. I order take-out and delivery frequently, and more often than not stop at a neighborhood restaurant on the way home. Being stuck here having to cook and clean every day has been an absolutely royal pain in the butt.

Because I’ve long shopped for food online, I hate being able to go out only for groceries, which I do on Thursdays (Spain doesn’t allow outdoor exercise or walks). And I despise having my pantry and fridge just packed with stuff I have to arrange so it will fit, and having to worry about what’s about to go bad.

(You can’t go out for just a couple of items, so, for example, yesterday I really needed a shower cap, but bought 60€-worth of foodstuffs in case the police stopped me.)

People’s joyful Instagram photos of the elaborate dishes they presumably had fun preparing annoy me, but I also envy their feasts. I don’t think I’ve had an excellent meal since, specifically, the 13th of March (on a wonderful rooftop restaurant by Barcelona’s Old Port). That is the first thing I will do when it’s allowed (and maybe some “sphere of cohabitation” misdeed). 

22:00 By this time I start melting away like the Wicked Witch in The Wizard of Oz

I sit on the couch with dessert (I’m embarrassed to say, usually a piece of sale-priced chocolate turrón left over from Christmas at the market) and a bottle of Cava. Normally I sip wine while doing different things at night because I enjoy the taste; these days I’m afraid I do it as anaesthesia (we’ll tackle this little alcohol problem once this is all over).

So I swill and swallow while watching Netflix or HBO or Prime. I also don’t normally watch TV and don’t enjoy it at all, but just reading made nights too long and quiet. I’ve become one of those people who keeps the TV on for company.

(Sometimes I also just stare at fireplaces and beaches on Youtube.)

1:00 I go to bed but still read until I fall asleep, an hour or two later.

In reality, this is my body’s natural cycle; pandemics just let me return to my vampire biorhythm. While my friends/colleagues are reading philosophers and cultural theorists, Nobel-Prize novelists and the classics (give it a rest, really), I just want escapist mysteries: someone gets killed, someone exposes the killer, we’re all happy. I’m upset that none of my favorite authors have sped up the release of new titles during this difficult period, it’s very “insolidario”. (That is, “lacking in solidarity” – a term now ingrained in my mind from its daily use in the news to shame those who break quarantine rules. It’s funny to me, that Spaniards care if they’re called insolidarios or worse, incívicos; they react very differently than Americans to labels.)

What’s not in this schedule? Too much Facebook (and I get scared when friends don’t connect for a few days). And the (damn?) phone: Whatsapp, Messages, Messenger, PING PING PING even throughout the night because I don’t turn notifications off in case there is an emergency. I guess technology is quarantine’s double-edged sword. Speaking of which, I just discovered European online shopping (my mother was supposed to visit in May—bringing all of my warm-weather clothes with her). 

The sheer excitement I’m feeling in anticipation of a package containing a dress is freakish… I guess our emotions are also out of whack. I’m worried about the people I love and heartbroken for all my friends who are losing loved ones, but am now much less apprehensive than early on. Still, I can go from boredom to bewilderment to sentimentality to bubbliness to euphoria to nervousness to sadness to depression to annoyance to anger to delirium and back again in the blink of an eye. Let’s leave it at hopefulness, and wish for a world that somehow becomes at least a bit better after this lapse (and might I wish for just a tiny tail-end of sabbatical to still enjoy?).

See you all after May 9th, I hope.



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