Locked down abroad
Three months, one 24 year-old and an 8X8m² flat
A trip to the supermarket had become the equivalent of a long-awaited, meticulously planned weekend excursion. The ‘dacronion lockdown’ as the politicians liked to call it, (a fancy phrase for prison-like) meant a weekly shop now required maximum organisation following intricate procedures. Or else, you risked a rookie mistake like forgetting to buy milk and eating water-only porridge until the next trip to the supermarket the following week. After a month of this prison-like existence (and a few weeks of bland breakfasts), I no longer felt like a rookie.
With all this in mind, after checking for the fourth time that my bag was fully equipped with hand sanitiser and reusable bags, I was ready to begin the military operation of The Weekly Shop. I cautiously peeked down the narrow stairway to make sure the coast was clear. God forbid I’d meet some old lady halfway down and have to come all the way back to my flat to let her pass and not compromise my safe 2 metre bubble of air.
The next of a long list of obstacles was figuring out a way to open the communal door to the street without directly coming into contact with the handle. It is laughable that for my entire life until March 2020, I actually opened communal doors using handles. With no thought whatsoever as to how many dirty, sweaty, sneezed-on fingers had grabbed before me. Most of the time people left the door open but on this day some short-sighted fool had let it close. Lucky me. But I was no longer a rookie. I used a tissue to turn the door handle, hooked my foot between the door and the frame then shimmied my foot backwards until there was a big enough of a gap I could squeeze myself through. Stepping out, I squinted my eyes to look up at the bright orb in the sky I vaguely remembered was called The Sun. I was outside.
Turning the corner, I saw a hefty queue outside of the shop. Queueing was a phenomenon I hadn’t previously witnessed in my 3 years in Spain. The Spanish don’t queue on principle of their blasé lifestyle but now, thanks to the gift that is 2020, they no longer turned their noses up at this very British tradition. The long line of people reminded me of home and it meant I got to spend a bit more time queuing in the light of the thing I was now certain was The Sun. My flat only had a sliver of a balcony and exercise was illegal. I was quickly becoming concerned about getting a vitamin D deficiency, despite me living in Valencia. In June.
The fact that I couldn’t leave the house for exercise meant I felt a lot more isolated than my friends and family back in the UK. I say isolated because honestly I don’t remember feeling lonely; only removed from the physical presence of other people. In fact, I’d caught up with friends I hadn’t spoken to in years and was, quite frankly, racking my brains to think of excuses to evade what was beginning to feel like a hectic schedule of 3 or 4 daily Zoom and Whatsapp calls. 1 month before and I hadn’t even heard of Zoom; now it was my salvation to maintaining any sort of social life. The only non-screen interactions I was having was the daily clapping session that happened at 8pm, 9pm and 10pm. I wasn’t sure what the official plan was in Spain, or if there even was one. However, I later found out that it just depended on what neighbourhood you were in. As soon as someone felt the overwhelming need to express some appreciation, thanks, or pure frustration, everyone in the near vicinity would suddenly be clambering around to clap, shout or bang their pots and pans too. There were balcony discos, balcony concerts, balcony DJs, balcony dances or just ordinary balcony clapping for the less adventurous. I was grateful for this ad-hoc community spirit. I was also grateful for balconies.
Back in The Sun, the queue continued to shuffle forward and I was called up to the makeshift counter at the shop entrance. I was asked to present my hands, which were then squirted with a thick layer of hand sanitiser. I was then given 2 plastic bags to use to cover my hands (last week they’d had plastic gloves but it now looked like they had run out). With a nod of the head and invitation to enter, I was deemed Ready To Shop.
The shopping itself consisted of expertly navigating other shoppers; giving an especially wide berth to anyone who looked slightly old, ill, or just plain incompetent at following the rules. A bakery assistant thanked me for keeping my distance after three people had walked right up to her as she was restocking the shelves. I was grateful to see that pasta was back in stock, but sadly still no hand soap or flour. My choices as a vegetarian living in Spain were already pretty dire, and even more so now that the specialist shops selling Quorn mince and veggie burgers had been forced to remain closed.
On my 2 and a half minute walk home, I spotted 3 policemen patrolling the area on motorbikes. This had become the norm since the restrictions were imposed and the constant police presence quickly felt very intimidating. Perhaps it was the language barrier, the fact they carry guns, or merely the sheer number of them. I was always on edge out in public. Yet, I also felt somewhat safe knowing the police were having an effect. In the previous couple of weeks I had been considering walking to visit my friend, who lived about an hours walk away. I figured I’d have to carry my supermarket bag to make it look like I was going shopping. But, in the end, I wasn’t brave enough to risk it. Later, I did get a taxi to their house. The taxi driver didn’t seem to take much interest as he was just grateful for some business.
The whole ordeal of a simple trip to the supermarket was exciting, anxiety-provoking and frankly quite terrifying. But I was grateful for it: it maintained some routine and served as a reminder that the outside world still existed. Everyone I saw on those trips was somehow juggling the Covid-19-induced obstacles that continued to be hurled our way and there was significant solidarity in avoiding each other at all costs.