I don’t actually believe in jinxes, but watching WWII movies as a kid, I soon figured out that any soldier who said “When this is all over, I’m going to buy a farm…” soon became the next casualty. This made such an indelible impression on my young psyche that since then I've never tempted fate during a crisis by talking about “when all this is over.” But then, during a recent Zoom gathering, a friend said, “Boy, you must really be missing your dive bars.” And just for a moment, I let myself recall all the fun Rich and I’d had visiting the world’s loonier taverns; maybe someday… Then another friend sent me the Quarantine Diary I published last week, with the entry “Day 9 – I put liquor bottles in every room. Tonight, I’m getting all dressed up and going bar hopping.”
“Bingo,” I said to Rich. “We are doing that one.”
So Tuesday night, we got all dressed up and went bar hopping around our apartment.
Rich transformed the living room into a dive bar (an American expression describing a funky, downscale bar with local character and tacky charm). I was grateful he refrained from pouring beer on the carpet to create the usual stickiness and fragrance; otherwise the setting was classic, colored lights, rubber chicken, and all.
After sharing a beer there, we each had a glass of wine in my office, which I’d remade into San Francisco’s famous Tonga Room, where he’d once taken me on a date. Their theme is tropical kitsch, with a pool in the middle where musicians play on a barge while “rain” falls from the ceiling. Sadly my shower nozzle didn’t reach far enough to recreate the downpour, but I found a YouTube video of the bar and played “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” to set the mood.
Our final stop was The Cave, which Rich set up much like the forts we’d constructed as kids, from table cloths draped over furniture, except now he included a video fireplace and rum.
“One thing about the quarantine,” said Rich, sipping his rum thoughtfully. “I really appreciate stuff I used to take for granted. Maybe I needed a bit of shaking up. It’s like that time all those years ago — you remember? — when I went out for a haircut and got all the way across town to the barber shop and realized couldn’t remember a thing about that walk.” He’d been so shocked to find himself on automatic pilot that soon thereafter he proposed the first of our three-month train trips. It certainly did the trick; when we got back, we saw the city with fresh eyes. “I’ll never again take for granted the pleasure of walking in Seville,” he said now.
“Or getting a haircut,” I added. My last salon appointment had been cancelled due to the lockdown, and the last forty-odd days hasn’t improved matters.
One of the great things about getting older is that I am a bit better at managing my own hair and considerably less worried about how it defines me in the eyes of the world. In fact, I find people in my age bracket, while we’re obviously not pleased at being on the front lines of medical risk, often cope with quarantine better than younger folks. It helps that we’re not juggling remote jobs and homeschooling kids. Beyond that, as the New York Times reported, many older Americans thrive in lockdown, modelling strength and resilience, “skilled at being alone, not fearful about their career prospects, emotionally more experienced at managing the great disruption of everyday life that is affecting everyone.”
“It’s easier for you,” a young friend said during a Zoom call. “You’ve been through this sort of thing before.” Afterwards I said to Rich, “We have? I wonder how old she thinks we are. Old enough to have lived through the 1918 pandemic? The Black Death? Asteroids killing off the dinosaurs?” While I missed out on those exciting times, I remember plenty of other shockers, such as the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, the assassinations of two Kennedys and Martin Luther King, Jr., and the attacks of 9/11. In the weeks after the Twin Towers fell, I happened to catch a radio program in which young reporters interviewed people in their eighties and nineties, seeking perspective about how to handle the unimaginable.
One woman cut directly to the real issue on the reporter’s mind. “Don’t worry,” she told him kindly. “You’ll do just fine.”
Now, nearly two decades later, I find myself saying much the same thing.
Time teaches us we are capable of surviving more than we ever imagined. As Eleanor Roosevelt said, “You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, 'I have lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.' You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”
Speaking of horrors, last month, Texas Lt. Governor Dan Patrick (and others) said that the elderly should be willing to die to help the economy. Really? Because even from a mercenary perspective that’s a non-starter; an enormous number of movers and shakers are over sixty, including 90% of the world’s billionaires and 63% of Americas millionaires. Eliminating a host of powerful people over a short timeframe would send companies and global economies into freefall. And let’s face it, putting any government in charge of making judgements about which categories of human beings deserve to live is a very slippery slope. Especially when it’s a category everyone's going to find themselves in one day — possibly in twenty or thirty years, when the world is being run by kids who were homeschooled during quarantine by day-drinking parents.
Beyond all that, society needs older people around, if only to say, “Don’t worry, you’ll do just fine” with the authority of experience.
Nobody knows what life will be like in the future, lending a strange, zen-like, live-in-the-present-moment quality to our days. But we’re catching a glimpse of things to come in the Spanish government’s just-released “Plan to Transition to a New Normality.”
Spain’s kids are already allowed to play outside, this weekend adults can walk for exercise, and starting Monday — thanks, St. Martin of Porres, patron saint of hairdressers — beauty salons will open. (Did I hear cheering?) Outdoor bars aren’t far behind. (Yes, I definitely hear cheering!) The plan’s four phases include restrictions, mandatory protections, and warnings that if our curve pops up, all bets are off. But with luck and social distancing, the “new normality” is expected to be a way of life by the end of June.
How will it all work out? Who knows? As the joke says, nobody ever expected 2020 to go viral. And I suspect the year still has a few whopping surprises up its sleeve; personally I’m braced for anything from aliens to zombies. We’ll just have to wait for events to unfold, remembering that, in the words of Yogi Berra, “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.”
What does the new normal look like from your quarantine location? How's your hair holding up? Your wine supply? What have your stopped taking for granted these days? Let me know in the comments below.
More Pandemic Perspectives & Humor
Scofflaws, Naysayers & Coronavirus Myths
In the Pandemic: Desperate Situations, Ingenious Solutions
Why We All Feel Hopelessly Unproductive in Quarantine
Quarantined? Take Mini-Vacations. For Betty White's Sake
Months of Quarantine? OK, If That's What It Takes
Yes, You CAN Stay (Relatively) Sane During Lockdown
One of the most astonishing things about America is that just when you think it has reached the limits of its own excess, that the hullabaloo and brouhaha have escalated to the ultimate crescendo and the tomfoolery has plumbed the lowest depths, it manages to surpass even itself. It’s a living embodiment of the saying, “Well, if you’re going to do something, you might as well go too far.”
This week I’ve been gobsmacked by news reports about Americans gathering to protest the quarantine. Here in Spain, which has the strictest lockdown in Europe, possibly the world, we're all jealous of the freedoms currently enjoyed by those in the US. For the past forty days we’ve been home 24/7 except for short walks to buy essentials like food and medicine. We cannot, as we see Americans doing on TV, visit marijuana dispensaries, gun shops, tattoo parlors, and take-out restaurants; we no longer stroll or drive for pleasure, or gather in public places. If you tried to stage a mass protest, the police would instantly arrest you and slap you with a fine that would make your head spin.
As drastic as all that is, the Spanish quarantine makes sense to me. I am very clear about its survival value when pestilence is abroad in the land. And while Sevillanos certainly do their fair share of grumbling, most are compliant. A quick glance at the past may explain why. During the Great Plague of 1647 to 1652 the city was rife with scoffers, deniers, and corrupt officials, and “quarantine measures were evaded, ignored, unproposed and/or unenforced.” As a result, while 5% of Spaniards perished in the pandemic, in Seville the fatality rate was 25%.
Quarantine wasn’t an attractive option in 1647, before God gave us Netflix and Zoom, and we still struggle with it in 2020. This just arrived from a friend.
My Self-Isolation Quarantine Diary
Day 1 – I Can Do This!! Got enough food and wine to last a month!
Day 2 – Opening my 8th bottle of wine. I fear wine supplies might not last!
Day 3 – Strawberries: Some have 210 seeds, some have 235 seeds. Who knew??
Day 4 – 8:00pm. Removed my Day Pajamas and put on my Night Pajamas.
Day 5 – Today, I tried to make hand sanitizer. It came out as Jello shots!!
Day 6 – I get to take the garbage out. I’m so excited, I can’t decide what to wear.
Day 7 – Laughing way too much at my own jokes!!
Day 8 – Went to a new restaurant called “The Kitchen.” You have to gather all the ingredients and make your own meal. I have no clue how this place is still in business.
Day 9 – I put liquor bottles in every room. Tonight, I’m getting all dressed up and going bar hopping.
Day 10 – Struck up a conversation with a spider today. Seems nice. He’s a web designer.
Day 11 – Isolation is hard. I swear my fridge just said, “What the hell do you want now?”
Day 12 – I realized why dogs get so excited about something moving outside, going for walks or car rides. I think I just barked at a squirrel.
Day 13 – If you keep a glass of wine in each hand, you can’t accidently touch your face.
Day 14 – Watched the birds fight over a worm. The Cardinals lead the Blue Jays 3–1.
Day 15 – Anybody else feel like they’ve cooked dinner about 395 times this month?
This week my sister-in-law Deb wrote, “What do you do in an Airbnb in Sevilla during lockdown ... well, at Day 38, you carve veggies.” The result? Frankenspud. When I asked where she got the idea, Deb replied, “I just looked at the potato for inspiration. You know, like Michelangelo said, ‘Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.’”
Yes, we all have far too much time on our hands. One of the ways I’m spending my days is doing random bits of research. For instance, did you know the so-called Spanish Influenza actually started in America? Patient Zero was Private Albert Gitchell in Fort Riley, Kansas, who fell ill in March of 1918. As Gitchell’s fellow soldiers carried contagion across the battlefields of Europe, wartime governments suppressed the story, feeling it was bad for morale. Being neutral, Spain had no such compunctions and filled its newspapers with gory details, giving people the false impression it was the epicenter of the pandemic. The Spanish, on equally erroneous evidence, called it “French Flu.”
On the home front, US officials insisted this was ordinary flu, but as death tolls skyrocketed, medical experts finally convinced lawmakers to deal with the public health issue. Milwaukee got the message and jumped on containment early, closing businesses, sending people home, urging them to wear masks; they had the lowest death toll in the nation. Philadelphia, on the other hand, simply advised residents not to spit, cough, or sneeze on each other, then held a long-planned Liberty Loan Parade designed to raise money to cover war costs. I probably don’t need to tell you — although some of the liberty-or-death types may need to hear this — after the mass gathering, cases of the flu spiked horribly, making Philly’s fatality rate the worst in the US, triple that of Milwaukee.
In any pandemic, one of the first casualties is common sense. In 1918 word went around that the flu “didn’t like” the color red. Other “cures” included noxious fumes, sliced onions, quinine, and bloodletting. All of which proved as effective as wearing red. It’s easy to scoff at such foolishness, yet our own health experts have to post warnings not to attempt to ward off COVID-19 by spraying your body with chlorine, eating garlic, avoiding ice cream, or drinking bleach. Snorting cocaine won’t help with the virus either, although it might take your anxiety down a notch.
2020's "infodemic" includes a myth that we may have to trade human lives for faster economic recovery. You’ll be glad to know this is not true. Just this month a study by MIT and the Federal Reserve found that in 1918 “taking care of public health first is precisely what generates a stronger economic rebound later… Indeed, cities that implemented social-distancing and other public health interventions just 10 days earlier than their counterparts saw a 5 percent relative increase in manufacturing employment after the pandemic ended.”
Myths, misconceptions, and conspiracy theories spread faster than the coronavirus. For instance, it’s not true, as Jimmy Kimmel jokingly suggested, that the virus was started by Netflix. Nor is it a government science experiment run amok; it passed to humans naturally in China’s quasi-legal wild animal market, and has nothing to do with 5G technology, GMOs, or a sinister plot by Bill Gates and/or Dr. Anthony Fauci. It’s not a fake. And you can’t make it go away by announcing an end date, as if it were Daylight Savings Time.
Whenever I’m overwhelmed by loony cures, farfetched conspiracy theories, and the furious clamor of those who want the freedom to spread more coronavirus across America, I like to visit reality-based resources such as Snopes, BBC News Reality Check, FactCheck.org, CDC, and WHO. And here’s what I’ve learned.
The science community has figured out that the spread of coronavirus is based solely on two things:
1. How dense the population is
2. How dense the population is
UPDATE! Deb's sister, Cyndie, has carved this wonderful Frida Kahlo parody potato, with licorice eyebrows and a radish rose in her hair. Marvelous! Just had to share it with you all.
I don’t like to brag, but I can’t resist sharing my good news: I am now the proud owner of four surgical masks and six of those cool blue nitrile gloves — all brand new and never worn or washed! I know, thrilling, right? I’ve been sanitizing and patching our old latex gloves for weeks and was down to my very last one, plus a few flimsy, floppy produce gloves Rich brought home from a grocery run.
You can imagine how delighted I was when Rich arrived home bearing his treasures.
“I could have gotten more,” he said, as he emptied his pockets in our Decontamination Zone (formerly known as the front hall). “But it just seemed wrong to take anything beyond what we absolutely need.”
We’ve all read about supply shortages forcing doctors, nurses, and other frontline workers to fashion substitute face shields from random materials like plastic report covers; some healthcare workers, including those in LA County, have been instructed to reuse surgical masks.
Back in the 1990s, when Rich and I were doing volunteer work in the former Soviet republic of Georgia, I was shocked to discover doctors washing out surgical gloves to use over and over again.
I’m even more shocked to find myself doing the same thing now.
Desperate situations require ingenious solutions. At I write this, people all over the world are devising their own unique protection measures, using simple household items, a spirit of resourcefulness, and often, more flair than common sense.
These makeshift masks offer yet more proof, as if any were needed, that we humans are the Earth’s most adaptable species. Five million years ago we were clustered on the savannas of Africa and today we inhabit every climate and terrain on Earth, with six of us living in outer space. Three of those astronauts —Andrew Morgan, Jessica Meir, and Oleg Skripochka — return to Earth tomorrow after 90 days on the International Space Station. I wonder if anyone has told them what’s been going on down here. Do they know they’re going to be stepping out of their spacecraft to discover a shockingly different planet than the one they left? No doubt the debriefing will start with, “The good news is that after 90 days you get to leave the space station's cramped quarters and social isolation …”
One positive effect of the pandemic is that it’s reminding us just how much we owe to science. Remember polio? Smallpox? When was the last time you heard of anybody getting rubella or whooping cough, let alone bubonic plague? Like the astronauts, we rely on scientists to keep us as safe as possible in this hazardous universe. We follow their guidelines for avoiding contagion and reassure one another that it’s just a matter of time before researchers develop a vaccine for COVID-19.
Unfortunately, in recent decades dark money has been funding a campaign to undermine our confidence in science and encourage us to ignore concrete data about problems even more worrying than this pandemic, starting with climate change. Right now the world is applauding our heroic researchers, doctors, nurses, and technicians. I’m hoping we continue to give them the same respect and support in the future when the pandemic is finally under control and we’re dealing with the next global catastrophe.
Science and technology have transformed our lives, especially in the last century. Where would we be without cell phones, antibiotics, or airplanes, to name but a few? And then there’s the really important stuff, like movie wizardry, online games, and social media. Without connectivity, we might never know about extraordinary feats of engineering like this.
Brilliant! As for the following photo, I’m not sure the person who took it was an actual scientist, but the shot would have been impossible if French astronomer Pierre-Jules-César Janssen hadn’t discovered helium back in 1868.
One of the technological advances we’ve all come to know recently is Zoom, the nine-year-old video conferencing service which has skyrocketed in popularity; since March 2 installations of the app have jumped 728% and stock is now valued at $1 billion. Not only do we all now speak of “Zooming” with our family and friends, some of us (and you know who you are) are “Zumping” — that is, dumping their lovers via Zoom. More sinister uses include “Zoombombing” — that is, crashing a Zoom call to cause disruption or chaos, often to spread messages of racism and xenophobia in educational, religious, or business settings. Zoom has overhauled encryption to tighten security with passwords and admission protocols. Still, I suspect some of those who have Zumped in haste may now be claiming it was all a big Zoombombing mistake in hopes of smoothing things over. If anybody uses that excuse with you, they have a lot of 'splaining to do.
If you’re innocently Zooming (or using other video conferencing systems) with friends and family, you may want to take the focus off the pandemic with themed, costumed Festiv(ir)us gatherings or online talent shows known as Coronapaloozas. Or if you’ve been baking lately, you might try creating a cake that looks like something else (here’s a starter how-to video) then astound your fellow Zoomers by casually cutting into it during a session.
Humans are a very clever species. We never cease developing new skills and inner resources in response to evolving circumstances. Our ancestors survived for millions of years, outliving all sorts of other bright primates, largely because of an astonishing ability to adapt to change. As Dr. Rick Potts, who runs the Human Origins Program at the Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC., explains, “Going from upright walking, the first tools, changes in our body, the invention of fire, the increase in brain size and then the invention of specialized tools and ultimately the ability to take a story of something you saw outside and bring it inside a cave and paint it — all of these things represent a ratcheting up of adaptability in our lineage.”
That’s why I’m confident that we can adapt to life in lockdown, even as it keeps getting extended. Astronauts, explorers like Earnest Shackleton, aviator Amelia Earhart, navigators such as Columbus and Magellan, and countless others learned that cramped quarters and social isolation can be endured for a long time in a good cause. And there’s no better cause than saving human lives. Just ask any of these heroes.
Stay strong, stay considerate, and above all, stay home, my friends! And let me know how you are holding on to your sanity, entertaining yourself, and adapting to the new lifestyle of our global village.
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If anyone is rejoicing at the arrival of the coronavirus, it’s the Spanish dogs. We humans are on absolute lockdown, allowed out only for strict necessities, and subject to fines, even jail time, for noncompliance. But with a canine on the end of a leash, you can roam freely, so locals are sharing their dogs with neighbors in a daily rotation. Every dog in the city is basking in its newfound popularity and buff physique — although they’re also pretty exhausted, paw-weary, and ready to go on strike unless they get more treats to keep up their strength.
In New York, a foster dog is the latest quarantine accessory, right up there with hand sanitizer and masks. City animal shelters have depleted their entire supply of canines as people realize it will be more fun to shelter in place with a furry friend for comfort and companionship. Dogs are a blessing, but also a responsibility. In Hong Kong, two dogs tested positive for COVID-19, launching a flurry of creative homemade protective gear.
Officials are not recommending protective gear for pets, so don't worry if yours are seen on the street clad only in their birthday suits. Scientists reassure us there are no documented cases of animal-to-human transmission, and it’s possible the virus is now adapted exclusively to our physiology. You can keep cuddling Fido and Fluffy, who are probably thrilled to have you around 24/7. “This morning I saw a neighbor talking to her cat,” a friend emailed me this week. “It was obvious she thought her cat understood her. I came into my house, told my dog..... we laughed a lot.”
By week whatever-this-is of quarantine, many of us have an entirely new appreciation of frivolity. Most of us went into lockdown with grand thoughts about using the time productively, perhaps perfecting our Spanish, mastering the ukulele, and/or reading the world’s longest novel (which for the record is the thirty-volume Artamène ou le Grand Cyrus by Madeleine de Scudéry published in 1649 – 1654.). When the pandemic hit, I was deep into writing a book about our Mediterranean Comfort Food Tour, and at the news we were soon to be housebound I thought, “Great, I can finish the book in no time!” You know how much I’ve written? Not one word.
And that’s OK. Because I’ve finally realized that the universe hasn’t given me a sabbatical for accomplishing projects, it’s thrown me a staggering challenge requiring every scrap of my strength and resourcefulness. Look at the spot we’re in. Our lives have been disrupted on every level. The entire planet has been invaded by a deadly hostile force we can’t see or contain or counteract effectively. Our future is uncertain. We are weighed down with constant unwelcome news. My routine activities include disinfecting all groceries and their packaging, sanitizing my hands and shopping cart, and re-arranging my entrance hall into an ever more efficient decontamination chamber.
Is it any wonder I can’t find time to read a 30-volume novel?
A grief counselor once told me that in the face of profound loss (such as a loved one, a job, a home, or a way of life) our bodies react physically in ways we don’t always expect. We feel tired, eat too little or too much, can’t concentrate, lose sleep, lack creativity, find ourselves losing track of … what was I saying? And because these are bodily reactions, we can’t solve the problem with our intellect or willpower.
“Grief is bigger than us. It’s bigger than our efforts to manage it,” said Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat Pray Love, in a TED presentation on the pandemic. Grief, like life itself, is a mystery to be lived, not a problem to be solved. We must fully experience all the stages — denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance — before it begins to loosen its grip on us. What makes today’s grief unique is that we’re going through it collectively, and everyone on the planet wants to talk about it, all the time.
Like so many people, I spend hours every day connecting with friends on social media, looking at memes, and reading emails like this.
“Just be careful because people are going crazy from being in lockdown. Actually I’ve talked about this with the microwave and toaster while drinking coffee, and we all agreed that things are getting bad. I didn’t mention anything to the washing machine as she puts a different spin on everything ... and certainly not to the fridge as he is acting cold and distant. In the end the iron straightened me out as she said everything will be fine — no situation is too pressing. The vacuum was very unsympathetic ... told me to just suck it up, but the fan was more optimistic and hoped it would all soon blow over! The toilet looked a bit flushed when I asked its opinion and didn’t say anything, but the door knob told me to get a grip. The front door said I was unhinged and so the curtains told me to ... yes, you guessed it ... pull myself together.”
I can’t believe I’m typing these words, but I believe that anonymous author’s curtains have a point. Because in spite of everything, we are somehow managing to pull ourselves together. We’re dealing with our grief, our cabin fever, and the barrage of terrifying headlines. Our homes, street wear, and shopping habits have been revamped to meet antiviral hygiene standards we would have considered impossible even a month ago. We’ve mastered Zoom and various other technology to keep in touch with those we love. Every day we manage to get out of bed and draw on depths of strength, compassion, and resourcefulness we never knew we possessed.
“Resilience is our shared genetic and psychological inheritance,” Elizabeth Gilbert said. “We are each and every one of us — no matter how anxious you feel you are, no matter how riddled by fear you feel — every single one of us is the genetic survivor of hundreds of thousands of years of survivors. Each one of us came from a line of people who made the next correct intuitive move, survived incredibly difficult things, and were able to pass their genes on.” That’s a comfortingly solid collective heritage to have at our backs.
At the end of every day, the weary dogs of Seville gather with their humans on balconies and rooftops all over the city for the nightly applause in honor of the healthcare workers. The valiant efforts of these heroes, and of everyone who supports the effort by staying home, are beginning to turn the tide. The slight flattening of Spain’s curve is offering us all a glimmer of cautious optimism. Each night, the applause and shouting gets a trifle louder and more boisterous, and sometimes the dogs join in the chorus. No doubt they’re howling, “Hey, enough already. Let’s end this thing so I can get some rest!”
Stay strong, stay considerate, and stay home, my friends! How are you surviving the emotional roller coaster of quarantine? What are you doing to lift up your spirits?
“I’ve seen a lot of people posting about how Shakespeare and Sir Isaac Newton came up with some of their greatest ideas while quarantined under the Plague,” said late-night host Jimmy Kimmel. That’s a pretty high bar, he noted, but never fear, modern-day folks in isolation are rising to the challenge. And then he played this.
“You see,” said Jimmy Kimmel. “Times of crisis really do produce works of great art.”
Need further proof? Look at the responses to the Getty Museum’s challenge to recreate favorite paintings using stuff found around the house.
With one third of the world’s population on lockdown — or, as my California friends put it more cozily, “sheltering in place” — there’s an immense pool of talent with too much time on their hands, and the biggest, most bored global audience in history. It’s a match made in entertainment heaven. I’m sure that if John, Paul, George, and Ringo were in lockdown together they’d be producing stuff like this.
Dare I say it? Genius!
Meanwhile, Rich and I held our first Festiv(ir)us, an online party with themed costumes — in this case, attire from a favorite country. Undaunted by sparse resources (stuck in a rental condo, no stores open) Kathryn and Pete came onscreen gorgeously attired as ancient Greeks in bedsheets: flat for her, fitted for him — or as we soon dubbed them, relaxed fit and slim fit, like jeans. Rich went all out, inventing our own nation, Blogvonia, with a suitably eccentric dress code.
Festiv(ir)us is wide open to goofy ideas and wacky themes, but there is one ironclad rule: no talking about the pandemic. Because right now we all need to take mini-vacations that let us mentally disconnect from the catastrophic events raging across the globe.
The key is finding activities that are so absorbing they transport us to another state of consciousness, freeing us from everyday worries and cares. I wish I could report I’m achieving this altered state through zen meditation, but the truth is I’m mostly immersing myself in books, movies, and TV shows. Many people are testing their wits with challenges such as sudoku or the famous Nine Dots Puzzle, which back in the 1970s inspired the catchphrase “thinking outside the box.”
Another great psychological getaway, at least for me, is cooking. I have learned the hard way that if I let my mind wander to the latest harrowing headlines, it’s all too easy to leave the honey out of the Healthy, Moist Banana Bread or put the World’s Best Irish Soda Bread into an oven set on broil rather than bake. Now I take care to give kitchen tasks my complete attention. I am not about to risk botching a recipe and having to throw out precious ingredients I won’t be able to replace until the next scheduled shopping expedition.
Here in Spain, where people are taking the virus very seriously, most of us shop once a week, less often if possible. Grocery shopping day is an occasion, celebrated with a lunch of fresh fish, usually something simple such as Five-Ingredient Pesto Salmon; I prepare extra to put in a salad or Buttermilk Salmon Chowder for future meals. The next day we dine on poultry, such as my Chicken Marbella or Rich’s Foolproof Maple-Dijon Chicken Thighs. And when we’ve enjoyed every bit of the leftovers, we move on to vegetarian meals such as last night’s Cozy Autumn Wild Rice Soup. I like to think of it as Meatless Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday.
Eating well reminds us to celebrate life’s small pleasures. It takes our minds off our anxieties for at least a few moments while we savor the first, glorious bites and utter a blissful “Mmmmm.” Let’s face it, if we’re going to hold on to whatever shreds of sanity we have left, we all need those kinds of respites, however brief. And (while we’re being totally honest) we also need respites from our quarantine companions.
“You’ve got to write something about space rules,” a harassed friend said to me during a phone call last week. “How do you negotiate them? You and Rich spend months on the road together. How do you make it work?”
I thought back to 2013 when we set out on our first three-month railway journey. We'd spent the early weeks establishing guidelines for organizing our time, occupying cramped quarters, and navigating differences. NASA astronaut Anne McClain, who knows a lot about sharing space, emphasizes that it starts with communication. “Talk so you are clearly understood,” she advises. “Actively listen, pick up on non-verbal cues…Talk about your intentions before taking action.” Sound advice.
Even without NASA training, Rich and I learned early on that we had to be absolutely clear with each other about space. Despite our undying love and eternal friendship, we each need to be alone with our thoughts and our computers for hours every day. As a writer, I find this as essential as breathing, and I respect the fact that just about everyone has an online life to pursue — preferably without constant interruptions.
Rich and I set aside specific blocks of time in the morning and afternoon for solitary pursuits. On our travels, such as our recent five-month journey, we agreed to leave each other in peace even when sitting next to each other in a tiny hotel room. In lockdown, with a whole apartment at our disposal, I retreat to my office, and Rich ensconces himself at his desk by the living room window. These are our sanctuaries, and we make it a practice to ask permission to interrupt one another if we need to pop in and check on, say, when we’re scheduled to Zoom with friends.
In addition to computer time, there’s a daily schedule for sharing my small, inexpensive stair step machine, replacing our daily hours of walking with hours of exercise in front of the TV. I’ve been watching the news and the third season of Stranger Things, and to be honest it’s not always easy to tell them apart.
Mini-vacations, space rules, and daily routines are vital, but I believe the real secret to surviving the lockdown is kindness. Like the the kids in Stranger Things, we’re all terrified of a monster that’s turned our world upside down. If there was ever a time to cut our companions some slack, it’s now.
Nobody ever said quarantine was going to be easy, and it doesn’t help that the end date keeps getting pushed back. So how can we stay motivated over the long haul?
“I'm doing this for Betty White,” commented long-term reader Shéa last week. “Because I'm not going to be the person who passes it to someone who passes it to Betty White.” We all live within six degrees of separation from one another, including the iconic 98-year-old actress. You’ll be glad to hear that as of this writing, she is safe in home quarantine and showing no symptoms of the virus. I’ve taped a picture of Betty to my bookcase as a reminder that it’s my job to keep her that way.
Stay home and stay safe, my friends! Let me know how you're surviving the challenges of quarantine. What are you cooking? Are you finding ways to exercise your body and your creativity? What can we do to take care of one another — and ourselves? Were you able to solve the Nine Dots Puzzle? Here's one solution.
You can see what they mean by "outside the box thinking"!
Now that a run to the store has become an act of death-defying bravery, I made sure to send my grocery warrior out into the streets yesterday in full protective gear. Rich was swathed from head to foot in pestilence-baffling layers and wore our precious, next-to-last pair of latex gloves — washed VERY thoroughly after my food shopping expedition last week, the tiny rip in the thumb meticulously mended with duct tape.
Here in Europe, we are taking this virus very, very seriously. You may have seen footage of the Italian mayors, who are using ever more colorful language to convince their headstrong constituents to honor the quarantine — or else! It never gets old. Here’s one from the Guardian staff, who carefully cleaned up the translations to avoid offending sensitive readers, while maintaining the I’m-coming-for-you-with-a-flamethrower attitude.
My favorite scenes are the ones where the mayors personally chastise scofflaws, because something like this happened to me the day before lockdown became official here in Seville. Rich and I were headed out for one last, long walk, but first we met up briefly with my brother Mike and his wife, Deb, to make sure they had everything they needed and wish them luck. We were standing a careful six feet apart in Plaza de la Alfalfa when an older Spanish man walked up to us.
“You shouldn’t be out here," he said. "It’s dangerous. Get off the streets. Get off the streets now! Go back indoors and stay there! You aren’t safe here!” He couldn’t have sounded more urgent if flesh-eating zombies were coming over the city walls.
Gadzooks! Suddenly being out and about didn’t seem like fun anymore. In fact, it felt foolish and irresponsible. Rich and I went directly home and have basically been there ever since.
But that doesn’t mean we aren’t leading a full and interesting life. Our calendar is jammed with virtual morning coffees, virtual happy hours, virtual dinners, and other online fun. Talking on Zoom seems to minimize awkward pauses and jerkiness (in the technology, that is, not the conversation), but we also use FaceTime, Google Hangouts, and Skype. I haven’t even had time to explore Delish’s new How to Throw A Virtual Dinner Party page, or Netflix Party, which lets you and remote friends watch the same movie or TV show and enjoy a live chat throughout it. To be honest, I’m not entirely convinced I want to be distracted during peak moments by my pals typing, “Hey, isn’t that the guy we saw in … in … no wait, it’ll come to me. You know, the one with the thing. The one about the guy with the thing.”
And now there’s Festiv(ir)us. One of Deb’s in-laws is a fan of Seinfeld and the holiday created by George Costanza’s father: “Festivus for the rest of us,” featuring an aluminum pole and feats of strength. Deb’s family is gathering soon for an updated version they’re calling Festiv(ir)us, a festival for those in quarantine. I love this idea and have enlisted a congenial California couple to give it a go tonight. You pick a theme — NOT one associated with the pandemic! — and come up with costumes, decorations, and activities.
“We’re in,” my friend Kathryn replied to the invitation. “But some consideration please that we are in Tucson with limited wardrobe options and closed stores!”
I confess that I’d overlooked the fact that she and Pete were out of town when the pandemic hit. But they are legendary for their creativity, so I have no doubt they will come up with something. I can’t wait to see what.
As you can imagine, I’m cooking a lot these days, mostly comfort foods such as granola, One-Pot Creamy Smoked Salmon Pasta with Spinach, Greek Gyro Skillet, and Skinny Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Cookies (which are much yummier than they sound!). Luckily I discovered a recipe for the modestly named World’s Best No-Yeast Irish Soda Bread; it’s quick and easy to make, has the flavor and texture of “real” bread, and eliminates hazardous expeditions to the store when all you need is a loaf of bread. For a real change of pace, Stefania — a talented cook from Parma I met on our Mediterranean Comfort Food Tour — is offering private online Italian cooking courses. Buon appetito!
My days are astonishingly full, but I always stop at 8:00 o’clock to applaud the heroic healthcare community, including all the service and support people. My friend Ann wrote in a comment on last week post, “I work at a nursing home locally and transport three residents to dialysis six days a week. I do everything I can to keep them and myself safe during this difficult time.” Ann, and countless others like her, are risking their lives on the front lines every day, and God only knows where we’d be without them.
You’ll be glad to hear communal nightly clapping is beginning to catch on, cropping up in Atlanta, Georgia; San Anselmo and Mill Valley, California; Vancouver, Canada; and elsewhere. And some brave souls are going it alone. Catherine wrote me that reading my blog about Spain applauding healthcare workers inspired her to launch a one-woman nightly ovation on her front porch in Memphis.
In Seville, the clapping grows louder each night as more neighbors join in; occasionally I hear snatches of music. My brother Mike, who is taking delivery of a new guitar today, says he plans to join in. “As soon as the clapping stops, I’ll pull a chair out into the street in front of our apartment building and play.” I only wish I lived close enough to hear him.
How much longer will the quarantine be in effect? Weeks, possibly months. And I have come to terms with that.
Yes, I long for the day when I can walk in the sunshine. Go out with friends. Shop without head-to-toe protective gear. Visit my home state of California (where I was scheduled to fly today). Wash my hands without singing Zip-a-De-Do Dah for twenty seconds. But much as I want all those things, the cost is simply too high; I can’t justify risking human lives for a more pleasurable daily routine. Anne Frank spent 761 days in a secret annex, with little to eat, constant fear of discovery, and (horrors!) no Internet. I think we can step up to the challenge of spending too much time on the couch scrolling through Netflix trying to find something we haven’t seen yet.
Staying home isn’t easy. It creates a profoundly disturbing disruption in our lives, in many cases daunting economic hardship, and often an excess of togetherness that gets on everyone's nerves.
But if you’ve ever wondered whether you had it in you to be a hero, to do something to help save the human race, now’s your chance to find out. Staying home for weeks or months takes grit and fortitude, but most of all, it requires clarity of purpose. When you consider that the first life you save could be your mom’s, your kid’s, or your own — or mine for that matter! — it becomes a lot easier to do the right thing.
Good luck, my friends. Let me know how you’re doing, whether there’s anyone clapping in your area, and what you’re finding to help you stay (reasonably) sane in these crazy circumstances.
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.
Right now, the few tourists left in Seville are scrambling to get flights out, often paying insane ticket prices for roundabout routes involving multiple stops and layovers. On Monday, Spain goes into lockdown, with everyone confined to their homes except for short runs to the grocery store or pharmacy. Seville being a city of total scofflaws, I’ll be interested to see how much creativity goes into complying with the new regulations.
People are forking over thousands for flights to the US and Canada. In Paris, when New York Times reporter Mike McIntire heard the US borders were about to close, he paid $5000 for a pair of economy seats. Seconds later he learned the ban didn’t apply to American citizens — and seconds after that, he discovered that those pricy seats were impossible to cancel. To cheer him up, somebody told him another passenger had paid $20,000 for economy tickets (almost certainly an urban legend).
“Fortified with that tale of someone else’s woe,” Mike wrote, “we boarded the flight to New York, joining other frazzled Americans, wiping down seat armrests with sanitizer and wondering if being home would really be any safer than staying away.”
A very good question!
Rich and I were scheduled to leave for California March 25 and considered leaving weeks ago, ahead of the pandemic, but instead we decided to remain here in Seville.
I’m literally betting my life that I’m safer in Spain than in the US. And boy, am I going to feel like an idiot if I lose that bet.
I’m know right now I’m safer avoiding such hot coronavirus breeding grounds as international airports, long-distance planes, and cruise ships. But hey, this virus is loose in the world, and the only way to avoid it completely would be to hide out alone in the woods with a year’s supply of food, megapacks of toilet paper, and a shotgun. And frankly, that way lies madness.
For those of us trying to hold onto some semblance of sanity, our best bet is to take sensible precautions — starting, of course, with hand washing.
Now, I wouldn’t describe myself as germ phobic, but I have a very healthy respect for hygiene and tend to wash my hands rather a lot at the best of times. So I was somewhat aghast to discover how skimpy my ablutions have been up to now, utterly failing to hit the twenty-second mark dictated by health experts. Yes, of course, I’ve tried humming the “Happy Birthday” song twice. That got old fast, so I tried singing other songs. Sadly the only ones that seem to pop into my head are hideous earworms like Bye, Bye Miss American Pie and that bizarre one about leaving a cake out in the rain, Macarthur Park. Aughhhh! Stop! Bring back the birthday song!
But then I discovered this highly appropriate tune, which hits the twenty second mark somewhere around the line, “in my brain.”
As an alternative, you might try one of these Beatles hits, adapted for our trying times.
Or do it Texas-style.
As for hand sanitizer, I’ve used up or shared with friends nearly all the store-bought, off-brand varieties I’ve been able to scrounge up and am now starting to make my own. There are many formulas out there, but most are pretty similar, and you can’t really go wrong with the simplest: two parts alcohol (91% to 99%) which kills germs as it evaporates, and one part something to make it gentler on your skin, usually aloe vera gel. Mix it in a bowl, funnel it into bottles, and you’re good to go. Here’s an easy-to-follow video:
And just to clarify, we’re talking about rubbing alcohol. Tweets about using vodka prompted Tito’s to issue warnings that even their vodka, which is 40% alcohol, doesn’t meet the standard required for medically effective hand sanitizer. To which one public spirited citizen replied, “Please increase the alcohol content of your Vodka to help combat coronavirus, thank you.”
Beer is even less useful as a hand sanitizer, but it is offering plenty of opportunities for a little innocent fun at the expense of a major brand that is now ruing the day it chose its name.
The World Health Organization advises against using alcohol as a way of dealing with our emotional upsets during the crisis. Seriously? I’m placing that recommendation in the optional category. In fact, I’m pulling out all the stops in an effort to keep my mental equilibrium. I’m checking in with family and friends, limiting the time I watch news reports of the crisis, doing yoga, watching lighthearted TV shows, reading entertaining books, and eating well. I have fond memories of being snowed in during Boston’s blizzard of 1978, spending long, cozy days writing letters (by hand!) and baking pies and cookies. I’m doing much the same now. I was up early this morning making granola and am planning a batch of banana bread soon, making an extra loaf for an 85-year-old friend who is no longer able to bake.
“There’s always a little bit of heaven in every disaster area,” remarked activist clown Wavy Gravy during the chaos of Woodstock.
As usual, Wavy was right. Now that we’re all living in the scary new normal of a global pandemic and nation-wide lockdown, it’s up to each one of us to find a way to be that little bit of heaven for those around us. We’ve all seen the footage of screaming women assaulting each other over the last package of toilet paper, which Is a sad commentary on what happens when people are desperate and afraid. But such demented moments don’t have to define our new normal; instead we can seek ways to show kindness and human decency. In the days ahead, we’ll all have opportunities to help each other weather the storm by lending a helping hand, passing along a funny story, or sharing some of the supplies from our own cupboards with those in more urgent need.
Like all of you, I am doing my best not to worry. I trust the Spanish health system to provide everyone with equal access to tests and any vaccines that are developed. My pantry has enough food for weeks. We just started a long-running British detective series and spend our evenings discussing clues and trying to guess whodunit. And I’ve bought a canvas so I can start painting again. Silver linings.
"When we least expect it, life sets us a challenge to test our courage and willingness to change,” wrote Brazilian author Paulo Coelho. “At such a moment, there is no point in pretending that nothing has happened or in saying that we are not yet ready. The challenge will not wait. Life does not look back. A week is more than enough time for us to decide whether or not to accept our destiny." Ready or not, we have arrived at the hour testing our collective courage. Let’s work together to rise to the occasion.
Good luck out there my friends! Let me know how you are holding up and what you are finding to sustain you through these challenging days.
These days we’re all looking over the contents of our cupboards and wondering how we'll manage if the supply chain becomes seriously disrupted due to the coronavirus. The announcement last week that Costco stores had run out of toilet paper rocked Americans, who count on being able to purchase the basics, in bulk, at a discount, at all times. And really don’t want to have to wait 23,000 years for a resupply.
Here in Seville, we still have plenty of toilet paper (let me know if you want me to send you a care package), food, water, and other essentials. True, you can’t get face masks or brand-name hand sanitizer for love or money, but other than that I’m not seeing any signs of panic buying. Of course, this is a city that has weathered plenty of terrible times, such as the Great Plague of Seville in 1647 – 1652 and the post-Civil war era called The Hunger because nobody had enough to eat. Here in Andalucía, the poorest part of Spain, people are experts at making do with less and long ago developed the knack for turning a bowl of cold soup into satisfying comfort food.
Given Andalucía’s hot climate, it’s no wonder we love our gazpacho and the lesser known but equally delicious cold soups, salmorejo and ajo blanco. They are all rich and cool and soothing, as well as a practical way for thrifty cooks to use up leftover vegetables and day-old bread — things much too valuable to be thrown away. “When I was a kid,” my Sevillano friend Julio told me recently, “we always kissed the bread before we ate it.” Here, food is treated with respect and affection.
With warmer weather and fears (hopefully unfounded) of shortages ahead, I decided to discuss the subject of cold soups with one of Seville’s most popular young chefs, Victor Silvestre. Five years ago he taught me how to make my favorite, salmorejo, at one of his cooking class at Taller Andaluz de Cocina, located in the historic Triana Market. This week, I asked him how Andalucía's cold soups got their start.
“Gazpacho and salmorjeo, very regional soups, came from the Romans,” he said. “Roman soldiers, in this part of Spain, used to mix olive oil with a little bit of onion, salt, and vinegar, mash it all together. They used to drink that to rehydrate. Imagine a Roman soldier, two thousand years ago, heavy armor, and sweating all the time; they need electrolytes. So they used to drink that. But then, after Columbus, people in Spain started adding tomatoes to those kinds of soups. Not just for the nutritious part of it, but for the taste.” When they added stale bread as well, they created mazamorra, the forerunner of salmorejo, the creamier cousin of gazpacho.
If you haven’t had the good fortune to sip gazpacho in its native land, you may have tasted the international version: a chunky red mix of vegetables that’s akin to an over-chopped salad. Here on its home ground, it’s pureed in a blender (in the old days, of course, it was mashed by hand) until it’s the right consistency to drink from a glass. Ingredients include ripe tomatoes, green pepper, cucumber, garlic, extra virgin olive oil, vinegar, and salt. Be sure to chill it before you guzzle it down.
Here’s your chance to use up that day-old bread (be sure to kiss it first!). Toss bread, tomatoes, extra virgin olive oil, garlic, salt, and vinegar into the blender. The bread makes the soup paler and creamier than gazpacho. Often it’s topped with bits of ham, hard-boiled egg and a drizzle of good quality extra virgin olive oil. This is my go-to tapa on hot days in Seville, when the thought of a heavy meal is just too much.
Ajo Blanco (Malaga)
I love persuading visitors to try this soup. While Spanish speakers will be able to translate the name as “white garlic,” nobody ever guesses the ingredients. Spoiler alert: it’s almonds, garlic, stale bread, extra virgin olive oil, vinegar, and salt. It passes through the blender in specific stages, resulting in a creamy yet slight grainy texture. This one’s served in a bowl, often with a few white grapes hidden in the bottom, giving the dish a wow finish. Victor prefers to garnish ajo blanco by placing a surprising bit of mackerel on top. I’ll let you decide which you prefer.
[Get all of Victor's Cold Soup Recipes here.]
Naturally, Victor recommends seeking out the best possible ingredients, which is easy for him to do, as his cooking school is located in Triana’s 200-year-old market, famous for its fresh seasonal produce and cozy neighborhood atmosphere. “Normally you go to the vendors where your grandmother used to go. So they know you, they know how you want your stuff,” Victor told me. “The guys with fruit for example, José and Miguel, they know exactly how I want my tomatoes. I’m very picky about that.”
[See the video of my interview with Victor here.]
Not all of us are blessed with knowing vendors whose grandparents sold produce to our grandparents and remember precisely how ripe we like our tomatoes and bananas. When I’m in the US, I often find myself shopping at chain supermarkets where I don’t even interact with a human when I hand over the money. And I can tell you from personal experience that the automatic checkout machines aren’t really interested in passing the time of day or discussing the difficulty in finding hand sanitizer.
But the most essential ingredient has nothing to do with what we purchase to make the meal.
“Mediterranean food, in Spain, Italy, Greece, is all about eating together,” said Victor. “We couldn’t conceive of going to your room or living room or wherever it is by yourself to eat, rushing it. No, it’s not about that. It’s about sharing the act of cooking and tasting and talking and enjoying it. And eating all together and keep talking. And then talk a little bit more.” He laughs. “We’re very talkative in Spain.”
In these challenging times, many of us are going into self-imposed isolation even if we are perfectly well. And I respect that decision, knowing that soon we may all be on lockdown like millions of Chinese and Italians, and residents of one small Spanish town, and an increasing number of America's lawmakers. But I also respect the need for human interaction. And until health officials tell me otherwise, I am still gathering with friends, drinking cold soup, talking through my fears, and sharing advice about where to get the ingredients to make our own hand sanitizer. And I suppose I should be thankful that at least for now, I’m not trying to figure out how to make my own toilet paper.
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The decision to move abroad often comes as a sudden, blinding, rapturous epiphany, when you realize you actually can — you should! — you will! — boldly change the course of your life forever. I’ll never forget Rich sitting me down at a sidewalk café in Seville and earnestly trying to persuade me that we should live here “for a year” while I kept attempting to break into his monolog long enough to gasp “Hell, yes!” But, as the Buddhists are fond of saying, “After the ecstasy, the laundry.” When the first giddy thrill wears off, the mundane details need to be addressed.
Which brings us to the subject of residency visas.
Spain, like many countries, requires you to get a non-lucrative residency visa to live there, without working, for more than 90 days. When asked about the visa process, expats tend to shudder and remark through gritted teeth that it “involves a fair amount of paperwork.” Which is like saying that the Great Wall of China is long, that Mount Everest is high, or that the Spanish Inquisition caused a bit of inconvenience. So last year, when my brother Mike and his wife, Deb, announced they were moving to Spain, I did my best to prepare them for what was in store. I believe “a nightmare of Biblical proportions” may have been mentioned.
Rich and I first went through the process fifteen years ago, in the dark days before everything was online. Shocking but true: we actually had to actually pick up paper forms and make appointments in person, then spend hours waiting in an airless office at the Foreigners’ Office in Seville’s Plaza de España. I used to bring snacks, a bottle of water, a newspaper, and a paperback to pass the time.
Fast forward to February 2020. Mike and Deb booked the appointment online and were seen in less than twenty minutes. Mike handed over a tidy stack of papers. The clerk reviewed the documents, took their fingerprints, and told them they could pick up their residency visa cards in mid March.
Rich and I were gobsmacked. Our original, one-year visa took nearly 12 months of repeat visits, misinformation, missed deadlines (on their part), and total confusion (on ours). By the time it was finally sorted, we had to start prepping for renewal.
“How did you organize all this?” I asked. They agreed to reveal all, and this week we met up at a café for a full debriefing.
“The process is a three-legged stool,” Deb explained. “Legal, medical, and financial. The legal takes the most time.”
“But first you need an appointment at the Spanish consulate in the US that's nearest your home,” said Mike. “We booked online in May; the first available appointment was in October. You download the forms, starting with a background check with the police or FBI. You submit fingerprints; we did ours at a UPS store. Deb’s were sent directly from there. But they couldn’t get a good set of my prints so I had to make an appointment at the police station to have them re-taken there.”
“The background check lasted weeks,” Deb recalled. “Meanwhile we had to get our marriage certificate re-issued so we could submit an original, not a copy. And when we finally had everything, we had to submit the whole kit and caboodle to the US Secretary of State for an apostille, which certifies everything is legal and correct.”
“The tricky part is,” said Mike, “that all of your documents need to be less than 90 days old when you bring them to the consulate. So we had to wait until July to start all this.”
“You mentioned an immigration lawyer,” I said. “How did you find her?”
“We Googled immigration lawyers in our area and her name came up: Debora Eizips-Dreymann.” He grinned. “At first we kept saying, ‘Yeah, that’s good advice but we could have figured it out ourselves.’ By the end of the process, we were saying, ‘Wow, absolutely worth it!’”
“She began,” put in Deb, “by explaining that every consulate is different, every destination city is different, so you really have to know the very specific rules that apply in your case.”
“Here’s one small example,” said Mike. “When we got the police report back, it wasn't signed. We didn't know that this mattered, but the lawyer immediately spotted that it was a problem; it couldn't be apostilled, and so would be rejected by the consulate. She knew the specific guy to email to ask for a signed version of the report. Who knows how long it would have taken us to figure all that out on our own?”
“What about the medical stuff?” I asked.
“You need your doctor to sign a document, in Spanish and English, with an official stamp, saying that you are in good health and can travel,” he explained. “The wording is dictated by the Geneva Convention. They want to know you don’t have the plague and a few other things that would make you a burden on the system.” The list includes smallpox, polio, Ebola, and a dozen other grisly diseases; no doubt coronavirus will soon be added. “Luckily we don’t have any of that.”
“Good to know!” I said. “So the final leg? Financial?”
“Actually, that was the easiest,” Deb said. “As soon as they heard Mike had a 401k, they were satisfied. They wanted to see a steady income. The actual amount didn’t seem to be a big concern.”
“The lawyer reviewed all the documents, had us fix a bunch of small stuff, and told us how to arrange everything,” Mike said. “In October, when we arrived at the Spanish consulate in San Francisco, they seemed stunned to find our papers in perfect order. They said that never happens.”
Four weeks later their passports were returned stamped with a visa. But the process couldn’t be completed until Deb and Mike arrived in Seville with two final forms: an application and the payment voucher. As the website didn’t specify where to pay the small processing fee, they simply visited every bank until one said, “Sí” and took their money. They’d already made an appointment with Seville’s Foreigners’ Office, booking online using a letter drafted by their lawyer. You know the rest: they’ll be collecting their residency cards in two weeks.
“How many hours did you two spend working on this?” I asked.
Mike considered. “About 200 total hours.”
I figure Rich and I spent about that much time, too, although our process included far more befuddlement and pandemonium.
Motivational speaker Zig Ziglar liked to say, “A goal properly set is halfway reached.” I can assure you that this is not the case with residency cards. Setting the goal is 1%, and without the 99% perspiration, not much is going to happen. Is it worth all that effort? It certainly has been for me. As for the newest expats in the family, Mike is growing a beard and Deb is getting her first tattoo. Somehow I think they’re going to do just fine here.
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I'm an American travel writer based in Spain and currently living in California.
This blog contains the best pandemic survival tips I've found, along with ideas, recipes, and a few lighthearted observations to help us all get through these dark days.
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