• Mary MacCarthy

"A strange ballet of not running into each other": life under lock down in Spain

Updated: May 6, 2020

Early morning view from Tinka's apartment

Today’s story is from Tinka - an Austrian-Slovenian journalist who lives with her French partner, Jean, and their three children (Max 12, Anna 8, and Iris 22 months) in a fifth-floor apartment in the heart of Barcelona. Spain currently has the third-highest Covid-19 death toll in the world: 17-thousand deaths, close behind Italy's 19-thousand and the 22-thousand dead in the U.S.

I chatted with Tinka on WhatsApp, and our conversation reaffirmed my belief in the power of the driving question of this blog: "how are you getting by?" Tinka is one of my closest friends - yet her response taught me things about her that I never knew.

I learned how she thinks, where she finds joy, and what some of her daily routines are - parts of her life and personality that have always existed, but that we had never really taken the time to discuss.

My interview of Tinka made me realize that the Covid crisis is pushing many of us to get to know each other in new and different ways. That can be in the course of conversations with friends in far-off places - via quarantine-inspired conversations that take us in unexpected directions. Or, it can be in similar conversations with the people right in front of us - the family or friends with whom we are spending this strange moment in time.

HOW ARE YOU GETTING BY? How am I getting by? Thanks to serotonin. A small dose. It takes the edge off. I was already taking it before the quarantine, but I don’t know what kind of place I’d be in now if I weren’t taking it. I wake up and I’m happy. The weather is nice. Everything is ok. I’m fortunate to not have any financial stress or work stress. But there’s a subtle unsettled feeling. The thing that’s so unsettling is that - in my home - everything is basically the same as before.

The only difference is that we can’t go out. Of course I know that havoc is raging outside. Intellectually I know it, but I haven’t been affected yet. For now, the only real difference is that my kids can’t leave at all, so I’m spending more time looking after them. The unsettled feeling… It’s like being stunned, or paralyzed. It’s very stressful. The first time I cried was yesterday when I went out shopping, and I saw all these strangers doing this strange ballet of not running into each other. It was in this horrible supermarket with unnatural light. And it hit me: this is everything in the modern world that I don’t like. In Spain, parks are closed - the only place you can walk to is to the grocery store, these awful places that are artificially lit, where everyone is wearing masks.

Supermarkets are the worst of places, anyway, they are so dehumanized. And yet it felt like - now, this is the only place where the hamster can run free! There’s no other place we can run to. I had this thought: what kind of world will our children grow into now? It’s thinking about our children that makes me sad.

How do I get by? At first it felt like a holiday camp. We had all sorts of projects planned. Like - let's learn sign language! Then, those high ideas simmered away.

I was confronted by logistics. The kids have homework to do. I need to put food on the table.

In many ways, I’m doing what I did before. But now, I’m doing it better. I’m more self-sufficient. I get a lot of joy out of his. I’m taking out books that were gathering dust. Opening a book to get a recipe - exploring what I wouldn’t have done before.

I’m also getting by thanks to my flowers. I’m a very disorganized person. My thinking is arborescent, not linear. I can be very scatterbrained. But my relationship to my flowers - that helps me.

I don’t watch any television series because they are vampires of our time, stealing away our lives. So my tv series - is my flowers. Every day there is something new, a new episode. I don’t do a lot of things with the kids, because I’m trying to keep the whole house together - keeping it clean and stocked, and everyone fed.

With the youngest, Iris, I have her tag along with everything I do. She helps me water the flowers. When we found a worm she stopped and played with it for ten minutes. And I involve her a lot more than I used to. When the quarantine started, I googled “Montessori methods” to learn how to teach her things, but that quickly fell to the wayside. Instead, she just potters along while I do stuff. She’s learning more than when she was in preschool. And it’s incredible what she can do now. Like sort the cutlery! There are many joys, actually. For me, getting the house clean is a joy. I love cleaning, decluttering, organizing, And now I have all the time in the world for that. I get the biggest kick out of being on my knees scrubbing the floor, while listening to an intellectual podcast!

It's funny, a man would never say that - never want to do that. In quarantine, I let my neurotic side out, pushing it to the limit. Anyway - doing household chores has never felt like a Sisyphean task for me. I quite like it. It makes me do really down-to-earth things - which is good for me, because my mind is always away with the fairies, all over the place.

As a couple, we go our own ways. We are quite united and quite separate. United in that we are in this together, and as soon as we get a bit annoyed - it won’t blow out of proportion because we just can't afford that right now.

One thing i really like is napping. Napping is a big pleasure now. I still breastfeed Iris, and when she's feeding I have a chance to listen to podcasts undisturbed. The other kids might be fighting in the background - but I don't have to manage anyone else.

I use this time to catch up on the news, for about fifteen minutes, I go through the websites of the Guardian, the New York Times, some French newspapers. I look for what gives me new insights into what's happening with the virus. It's not being a news junkie - it's really about getting the information I need in order to survive.

Then, I have two things I do. I listen to a "visualization" track on YouTube, by Michael Sealey - he does these fantastic visualization/meditation/hypnosis tracks. I can "go for walks" in my head with these, or fall asleep.

Sometimes I also treat myself to an audio book, listening to classics. The latest one was Kafka's Metamorphosis. One last thing I really love - I read mangas by Jiro Taniguchi - he writes the most poetic mangas, for people who appreciate good literature.

With my older kids Max and Anna, I have to do homeschooling now. It’s a drag, because the way they do distance learning here is antiquated.

At the beginning, I was super involved, but Max started to tune out. I said to myself, do I want to lose my mind now, or stay sane? So I shifted my priorities. First, I told him that right now grades don’t matter. And I want to help him love the subjects he hates. Like history. I haven’t yet found a way. Maybe with films. Right now, we’re trying to have discussions over dinner and lunch. I read a book with him about Japanese food. He said he learned so much. That’s what I like. Getting them to learn more about what I like. And getting insights into what they’re learning. Max would always tell me that he was bored at school, and now I understand why

Max and Anna are both in the French educational system, where they have the most boring way of teaching. It’s so useless.

As for Anna - she learns with her father. Jean could play with the kids all day. We're lucky in that as parents we balance each other out.

Anna misses her friends, but with her father and brother they play so much - they're having a great time.

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