The streets are completely silent, with the exception of the birds. I find myself wondering if the birds have noticed a difference- if they've been wondering why everyone else is no longer socializing. As I arrive at our local supermarket, Ahorramas, I notice a long line down the street leading to the building, each person standing at least one, often more than two, meters away from each other. The store is now operating with a one-in, one-out rule. When one person leaves, they allow one person inside. While standing in line, the other shoppers and I exchange looks and reserved smiles in a peculiar mixture of camaraderie and suspicion. We feel empathy for each other, but at the same time, there's an underlying mistrust as well, as if each person may be knowingly carrying the virus and spreading it to all of us. Everyone is silent, and the air feels heavy with an almost reverent respect. It's not a time to joke or laugh. There are many terrible things going on in the world that are out of our control. Maintaining this fragile, glass-like silence in this moment is the only thing we can control. I begin wondering if any of these people know someone who has it, or if they're worried about an aging parent or an immuno-compromised friend.
I pause as I let my mind linger on the word "immuno-compromised." It's a word that had never entered my vocabulary before all of this madness. Now, it's become a word that, in order to be an empathetic human being, one must comprehend and respect. A patron leaves, the clerk calls another person inside, and all of us shift to the next position, mindfully maintaining our careful distance. After reviewing my grocery list, I put my phone in my pocket reminding myself what a privilege it is to be able to stand outside around tall, green trees and a bubbling fountain. It's not a time to be buried in my phone. I have plenty of time at home with my "adopted" Spanish family during this lockdown to stare at a screen if that's what I want to do. The calming sounds of the fountain ease my mind as I slowly allow myself to begin grasping the idea that we will never be the same after this ends, whenever that may be.
When my turn finally comes, I walk slowly into the store, choosing to skip the shopping cart and use the bag I brought to carry my things instead. I move toward the paper aisle because Vanessa needs napkins, but as I turn the corner, a small, elderly woman is browsing through the paper towels. I do a quick 180° and move to the next thing on my list in an effort to ensure I don't put her at risk, just in case. I make my way to the candy aisle because Valeria, Vanessa and Javier's daughter, who is 8 years old, asked me to get her a white chocolate candy bar. I'm shocked to find that the chocolate shelves are mostly empty. I settle on a milk chocolate, cookie-filled bar hoping she'll forgive me. In the next aisle I discover that the alcohol shelves are almost picked clean as well. However, as I return to the aisle with the napkins, after first ensuring that the precious abuelita has moved along, I notice there is plenty of toilet paper on the shelves. Americans buy all of the toilet paper. Spaniards buy all of the alcohol and chocolate. I'm giving the point to Spain on this one.
As I take my items to the register, I pause to observe the cashiers. They look tired, but they continue to treat each customer with kindness and patience. I ask my clerk how she's doing while she's ringing up my items, and she responds with a weary smile and what could best be translated as, "I'm surviving, but what else can I do?" I do my best to express in my outrageously inadequate command of the Spanish language how grateful I am for her and her hard work. She nods and thanks me genuinely. I quietly wonder if, in the high stress of these difficult times, others have been unkind or impatient with her, and it makes my stomach turn. Our supermarket workers deserve so much more gratitude than we are able to give them right now.
At the beginning of all of this, before I fully understood the impact of the virus, my greatest fear had been getting stuck in Spain. Now, "stuck" is my new normal. It's interesting to look back on how fear dug into my brain so deeply a couple of weeks ago.
But that's how fear works, isn't it? Fear tries to paralyze us and keep us from moving forward. But in the end, if our fears truly come to pass, what else can we do but put on our bravest face and lean into our new normal?
Later that evening, as I sat at my desk trying to put my experience into words, I lit my "homesick candle." My mother makes candles as a hobby, and she sent me to Spain with a lavender-scented one when I first moved here. I only light it on my "homesick days," the days when I'm missing my family, friends, and my country a little extra. As I watched the candle burn and let the comforting smell wash over me, I realized that my homesickness wasn't specifically directed at the United States this time. My homesickness was simply a mourning of life before Covid-19. There have been, and will continue to be, countless lives lost to this horrible virus, and my heart breaks for all those who are feeling those losses. After a few minutes of reflection, I blew out the candle and went out onto my terrace. As I breathed in the chilly nighttime air, I said aloud to myself, "You'll miss this when you go." And I meant it. When I return to the USA, I will miss this place and its people, as well as what they taught me. I would never have wished for my last few months in Spain to go this way, but what good will fear or anxiety do me now? Stuck is my new normal, and I'll miss it when I go.