One of the biggest stunners in this whole global catastrophe is how well the Spanish are managing it. Government directives are clear, sensible, and consistent. Here in Seville, a city known for its die-hard scofflaws, there’s wholehearted compliance with the quarantine. And across the nation, every evening people go to their balcony, window, or rooftop to give a three-minute standing ovation for the healthcare workers risking their lives for us all. It’s a time of physical distancing but emotional solidarity.
Seville went into quarantine with astonishing speed. One day people were out drinking and slapping each other on the back in crowded bars, the next, everyone was hunkered down inside their apartment. I don’t know who wrote Spain’s lockdown regulations, but they ought to be nominated for a Pulitzer; the wording didn’t cause outright panic yet was powerful enough to make every man, woman, and child go inside and stay there — two days before the official start of lockdown.
Overnight everyone knew about the only authorized reasons for leaving home and the 100 euro fine for cheating. You were allowed out to walk your dog or to visit the grocery store, pharmacy, tobacco shop, bank, or hairdresser. Yes, that’s right, your hairdresser. The logic was that elderly ladies who can no longer shampoo or manage their own hair would need professional assistance. Sadly (although sensibly) hairdressing salons have now been removed from the list due to being potential virus vectors. Bummer! Yesterday I actually had to trim my own bangs. Quarantine; it’s the little things that get you.
So how are we supposed to keep our mental and spiritual equilibrium while walking a tightrope of anxiety and juggling changes to every aspect of our lives? How can we live with social isolation while experiencing what, for some, may be a bit too much togetherness with our nearest and dearest?
“We have already started to fight,” a Spaniard with three teenagers in the house told Rich in an email on Day 1. “7 hours together is already a long period of time.”
“Yikes! What’s he going to do in the long term?” I said, when Rich read this aloud. “I guess we’re all going to have to work on some strategies.” Mine are a still in progress, but this is what I’ve got so far.
Resist the temptation to binge-watch the news. I know, it’s hard to turn your gaze away from this ongoing global train wreck, but I find if I check in mornings and evenings, I can usually keep up with vital news while avoiding excessive spikes in my anxiety level. And if anything really exciting happens in between, like they come up with a vaccine or aliens arrive from outer space, no doubt I’ll hear about it soon enough.
If you have money in the stock market, avoid making constant calculations of how much you’ve lost. Yes, you need to keep an eye on your finances and make decisions, but starting every conversation with “Want to know how much less we’re worth now than we were at breakfast?” is not going to elevate the mood around the house.
Exercise. Right now my Stairmaster (and by that I mean a small cheap knockoff) is in daily use, with lighthearted action moves keeping me motivated. Rich and I have worked out a rotation schedule for sharing it. Occasionally we climb up to the roof, and even more rarely, one of us ventures out to the market for supplies.
Get some sunlight. Lawrence Palinkas, who conducts research in the Antarctic, says, “When exposed to restricted light and limited environmental stimuli, the brain slows down to conserve energy… You may find people essentially dropping out of conversations. They refer to it as ‘the Antarctic stare.’” To avoid that fate, Rich and I have started taking meals by a sunny window and are exploring slighty more substantive entertainment options.
Discover something new. Rich found an article with links to virtual tours of some of the world’s greatest museums. Unfortunately I am terrible at this kind of navigation. I had the dizzying sensation of lurching past distorted images of great masters and slamming up against a wall, from which I extricated myself with some difficulty, only to do it all again. It was rather like visiting the Musée d’Orsay roaring drunk. Other options we’re looking at include free online university courses, TED Talks, and a night at the opera with the Met. For more, here’s a long list of entertainment and learning options compiled by the NY Times.
Choose your entertainment thoughtfully. It’s important to stay sharp, but you don’t want to get even more edgy. Personally I’m avoiding Outbreak, Contagion, and Pandemic like, well, the plague. Instead, I’m diving into thrillers and mysteries, such as Vera and Line of Duty, that don’t happen to involve a virus taking over the earth. To end the evening on a lighter note, we sit back and enjoy the comic genius of Dawn French as The Vicar of Dibley. These are all Amazon titles, as the connection with Netflix is currently overwhelmed around here, causing interruptions. We’re hoping that gets sorted out soon.
Find a daily structure that works for you. My sister has created a full daily schedule, to which she hopes to add learning to paint and make bread, plus a film-study program on Martin Scorsese. Her recently retired husband, on the other hand, is reveling in utterly unstructured time. You’ll want to discuss preferences with your quarantine companion(s), if only to sort out how to share the Stairmaster and organize movies and meals.
Make great food. For once, you have plenty of time to spend in the kitchen, and the Internet is loaded with fabulous recipes. For a start, check out some of the comfort food recipes on this site. I'm trying not to stress-binge on carbs, so I'm looking at somewhat healthier options, like the One Pan Greek Lemon Chicken and Rice that Rich and I made for lunch today.
Be kind to yourself. You’re living in unprecedented and stressful circumstances, so cut yourself plenty of slack. For instance, if you are determined to spend your lockdown coming to grips with great literature, don’t freak out if you flounder over Tolstoy’s dense prose or the existential angst of Franz Kafka. Maybe start with a list chosen by readers, rather than academics, such as BookBub’s Best Classic Novels of All Time or Book Riot’s Must-Read Strange and Unusual Novels. Or stick with the thrillers or romance novels or whatever it is that you usually love. You have enough on your plate without putting pressure on yourself to buckle down to a new project you don't actually enjoy.
Take care of each other. Talk with your companion(s) to find out how they are feeling and coping. And check in online with family, friends, and colleagues. One of the greatest frustrations of this kind of situation is feeling helpless. You’re not. Sharing supportive, encouraging words will give comfort to others, and may allow you and those you care about to tap into unexpected reserves of strength, grace, humor, and resilience.
Never forget we’re all in this together. I just heard that in California, motorists are starting to give a thumb’s up to medical workers and first responders they pass on the road. It’s not a standing ovation, but it’s a feel-good moment you may want to get in on, and a small way to start showing appreciation to the heroes in your community.
That’s my list. What are you doing to keep yourself (relatively) sane, sharp, and free of the Antarctic stare? I’ll be posting a lot more about food, entertainment, online learning, and other survival strategies, so if you’ve found anything useful, or come across funny videos, photos, or memes, send them my way.
I'm an American writer living in Seville, Spain and traveling the world with my husband, Rich.
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