People of the Pandemic: Lockdown in Barcelona among the cacti
May 25, 2020
Amelia is spending lockdown in Barcelona with a part-time cactus farmer (if that is the term) and a quantitative physicist (she thinks).
She moved to Barcelona late last August. She is from the States, but she had spent a semester studying there during her university years, so she knows the city well. When she returned last year, it didn’t take her long to settle in. She found a job teaching at a prestigious English-language school in the city, in charge of seventeen two-year olds (no mean feat) for the day. Her boyfriend, Albert, is from just outside Barcelona, and they met online when he recently moved back after a couple of stints abroad.
And good thing they did, as she has now moved in with his family for the lockdown in Barcelona.
Her entrance into lockdown was quite dramatic. A co-worker left work early on Monday March 9th, as she was feeling unwell. Shortly after, Amelia started showing the same symptoms. She feared the worse, but luckily, the doctor confirmed she had bronchitis rather than coronavirus. Nevertheless, she went straight into self-quarantine. Schools shut that Friday, and she was still feeling quite sick. Her boyfriend came to collect her on Saturday to bring her to his place in the outskirts. She packed a small weekend bag, thinking she would go back to her apartment when she had recovered. Her lease was up at the end of March, so she would need to go back to move out at some stage.
However, she had not anticipated the strictness or suddenness of the lockdown in Barcelona.
Even though she paid the landlord for two extra weeks, hoping she would be able to go to her apartment before mid-April, she could not. New regulations meant that only one person per car was allowed, and being American, she could not drive the stick-shift cars which were common in Spain. Her boyfriend ended up going solo to her apartment, and moving her out via video call – which took 4 hours. He needed to bring a copy of her lease, showing that it was due to end shortly, as well as her passport, to prove the journey was essential.
Before the lockdown, Amelia and Albert were due to move into a city centre apartment together. They had begun the process, importing some of their belongings, and starting to assemble furniture. Throughout the lockdown, they continued to pay rent to the apartment in question, despite not living there. Now, she worries it may have been inhabited by squatters; a common occurrence in Barcelona. Once squatters move into your place, it can be very hard to evict them under Spanish law, she tells me. They cannot go into the city to check, so she lives in hope that this is not the case.
She currently resides with his family at their home in Argentona, about thirty minutes north of the centre. It is a relatively wealthy suburb, although it currently looks like a crime scene, certain areas sectioned off with bright tape.
Their house has a large garden and a pool, which she has appreciated during the strict lockdown. In the thralls of the lockdown, the only time people in Spain could leave their house was to go to the supermarket or the pharmacy – and they needed proof for both of these outings. As of early May, people are allowed out to exercise at certain points of the day. She tells me that her friends in smaller inner-city apartments definitely suffer from the lack of access to the outdoors, and that many said they felt just ‘off’. “There is anxiety in the air”, she says.
Despite the difficult circumstances, Amelia’s living situation makes me laugh.
Albert’s family is super interesting. His father grows cacti in his spare time, and continues to receive large shipments of the prickly plants to the house. She tells me five hundred mini cacti arrived last week, and the constant influx drives his wife crazy. Albert’s mother owns a small clothing boutique, which was closed throughout lockdown. She spent her time during lockdown learning about marketing on Instagram, working out, and dolling Amelia up as a model for some of her clothes. His brother spends his days working on mysterious IT projects, in a dark room. The main bathroom in the house is only accessible through this room, and Amelia describes it like passing through another dimension; black and filled with the sound of furious typing.
There are a few cultural differences which remain hard to adjust to.
Bedtime is always quite late, midnight at the earliest. Breakfast is just hot chocolate (she continues to defiantly make oatmeal). Lunch is always pasta. Dinner is a very late affair, often eaten at ten or eleven in the evening. Eggs are always a dinner item and not a breakfast item, like she is used to. Only one person from each household can go to the supermarket, and as she cannot drive, it is mainly Albert’s mother who shops. Although she enjoys the communal mealtimes, she misses her usual dining routine, and her usual foods.
And then there is the language barrier.
Amelia speaks some Spanish, but Catalan is a whole different ball game. Very often, the family will switch between the two languages without realizing, leaving her unable to understand a word. She doesn’t seem to mind this too much though. Albert and his father both have technical roles, and when their complex job-related discussions over dinner turn to Catalan, she is fine with it. “It’s kind of a relief honestly. In moments like those I’m happy I don’t understand Catalan”. His mother, with whom she spends most of the day while Albert works at his newly-created home office, does not speak much English. A lot of their communication is done through gestures, and bits of Spanish. Overall though, she feels quite at home there; “It’s a very free house. I can walk around in a bikini and feel comfortable”.
She has been productive during lockdown; helping Albert’s mother with the cooking and cleaning, along with the aforementioned modelling for her boutique. She has been taking a Spanish course online, which she can put into practice straight away. The family watch Spanish movies together regularly. When I ask her if this is difficult, as she is still learning, she tells me “I have accepted my fate and embraced it”. She has also been especially creative; doing pottery and painting on a daily basis.
Being so far from home can be hard, as I well know.
On days when she feels particularly down, she feels me-time is so important. She allows herself to feel bad, given the circumstances, and takes a few hours for self-care. “You can’t change the reality” is her mantra, and after some downtime she feels recharged again. Interestingly, the main take away for her from the pandemic is her ability to be in a bilingual relationship so happily. She has known Albert’s family from quite early on in their relationship, but living with them during the lockdown in Barcelona has accelerated their closeness.
She misses her family in New Jersey, especially as they have not met Albert or his parents.
The couple were meant to fly to New York over Easter for the grand introduction, but the pandemic put a stop to that. Since we spoke, she and Albert have moved into their apartment together, and things are looking up. They are back to completing the half-finished pieces of furniture that they had to abandon before lockdown. She has been accepted into a master’s program in Barcelona due to begin in September. Overall, she has been very grateful to Albert’s family taking her in, and looking after her, over lockdown. But she is delighted that life is moving forward, and the situation seems to be improving in Spain (and elsewhere). Oh, and that there were no squatters in her apartment.
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