When the lock-down started here in Spain, I had just read a book about Manuel Cortes who returned home from the Spanish Civil War in 1939. Late at night, he arrived at his house in Mijas, a village near here, and was reunited with his wife Juliana and their baby daughter. His wife told him that, as a former socialist mayor, there was a warrant for his arrest and execution. Their house were already under constant surveillance. Rather than have him flee to the mountains, Juliana hid him in an alcove in their house. They endured regular police searches, watchful neighbours and even a house fire. Manuel remained indoors, in isolation and undiscovered, for 30 years.
Like most other countries, Spain was slow to react to Covid 19. When lockdown started on March 14, the restrictions were more severe than in most other countries. We could not leave our homes apart from essential trips to the shop, pharmacy or for a medical appointment. The only exception was for people who could go out to walk their dog once each day.
My wife and I live in a reasonably spacious apartment but, in general, dwellings in Spain are small. Families often comprise children and grandparents so that space is limited. Despite this, the lockdown rules were specific and strictly observed. Our roof or our long corridor would have been ideal for exercising but, as communal areas, they were out of bounds. Our leafy and shaded garden with the trickling fountain was also cordoned off. From our balcony, we overlooked the deserted promenade and beach.
Our pre-covid routine had involved breakfasting regularly at a local cafe. We often visited favourite restaurants for an evening meal, a tapas lunch or a mid-morning coffee. These outings were punctuated by a “buenos dias” and sometimes a chat with the staff or the regulars. A wave or a shouted greeting as one walked along the Paseo was also the norn. Our weekly Spanish classes provided another social outlet. My wife also regularly met a group of knitting and stitchcraft enthusiasts. Now, all social contact ended.
We changed out routines. A daily YouTube “seniors” workout replaced my morning walk. My wife combined a similar workout with a walking circuit through the balcony and the apartment. She repeated the route up to thirty times each day. She continued with her patchwork and quilting while I wrote. My writing schedule consisted of planning, researching, procrastinating and sometimes actually writing.
Our son in Belfast and daughter in London increased the frequency of their calls to check on our progress. Brothers and sisters were pinging greetings, enquiries, jokes and encouragement on WhatsApp. My online writing group had regular Facebook live or Zoom sessions. Netflix and reading also helped to occupy time. My wife spent many hours online enjoying the productions of the Metropoltan Opera.
Further motivation came from an unexpected source. On the first evening of lockdown, people applauded the health workers at 8pm. As in other countries, the response was entusiastic. But here in Spain, the ritual continued at 8 pm every night until the lockdown eased 7 weeks later. Each evening we stood on our balcony, checked that the usual residents had appeared and applauded for a few minutes. Then we took time to wave and acknowledge the greetings of the people on the opposite building. The result was a feeling of belonging and mutual support which was invaluable.
We realised that a constant feed of TV news was not helpful and we limited ourselves to two Irish or UK news bulletins per day. Spanish news came from the website of the El Pais newspaper and from the local cable news channel. As the lockdown continued, it was motivating to watch the number of daily Covid deaths in Spain drop from a peak of 950 to single figures.
The Fuengirola Town Hall website raised morale by providing updates on local initiatives:
-School caretakers were repainted the empty classrooms with the help of council workers. This work resulted in a saving of over 100k Euro to the council.
-A sports pavilion was equipped to provide lockdown beds and meals for the homeless.
-Volunteers were delegated to feed the colonies of stray cats who were without food due to the lockdown.
-The Town Hall made contact with all over 70s who were living alone to check on their welfare and needs.
We moved from Ireland 8 years ago to live permanently in Spain. Most of the Irish and English people who spend time here returned home before lockdown. It has become very rare to hear English spoken. We both have a good knowledge of the Spanish language so can function very well. Without it, mundane activities such as ordering takeaway food or online shopping could have been problematic.
After 49 days of complete lockdown, we were allowed out once each day for a brief walk within 1km of our home. Since then, the restrictions have been gradually eased. Exercise options were extended. At first, restaurants commenced a home delivery service. Soon, cafe’s opened their outdoor areas under strict conditions. After a few weeks, they commenced to serve meals indoors.
Spain is different. In order to combat the virus, other countries had guidelines, recommendations and restrictions. Spain had laws. State of Emergency legislation allowed for the imposition of on-the-spot fines for non compliance. The level of adherence to the restrictions was and continues to be, very high. There are many reasons for this. Spanish people regard it as their duty to report any non-compliance by others. Since the beaches reopened, wardens patrol to ensure that social distancing takes place. The police patrol regularly on foot, in cars, on motorbikes or beach buggies. Their strategy is to issue guidance and clarification and warnings. Any argument, disrespect, or refusal to comply results in a fine. We watched as police called at a nearby apartment. For two weeks, they visited at different times each day. We assume that they were checking that an arrival from abroad was self isolating.
The Costa Del Sol has escaped the worst ravages of Codid 19. The vast majority of infections have been further north in Catalonia and Madrid. But the impact on the local economy here is worrying. As I write this, I can see clusters of people socially distancing on the beach and masked strollers on the Paseo. Cafes and restaurants are doing a steady business but at a fraction of the normal August levels. Most of the tourists are Spanish people and there are also some visitors from the Arabic and north African countries. Holidaymakers from northern Europe, who tend to spend more, are absent. Many local businesses which rely on a bumper summer income, may not survive. There are parallel concerns that a return of tourists from overseas could result in new outbreaks of the virus. People are apprehensive.
For us, life goes on. My wife and I are in our late 60s. We do not have any underlying health problems but must take reasonable care. We have resumed our practise of going out for breakfast and the occasional meal. Tables are socially distanced and meticulously cleaned after each usage. We wear masks when we leave the apartment and wash hands on our return. We shop online and, when the delivery is made, we wipe down the groceries before putting them away. Similarly, Amazon deliveries are subjected to an anti-viral wipe. Our community garden and the roof are accessible again.
From the roof, I can see the white village of Mijas, where Manuel and Juliana Cortes lived. An amnesty for Civil War activities was granted in 1969. Manuel, with Juliana by his side, stepped blinking into the Costa del Sol sunlight. The only people who knew their secret were Juliana’s father, their daughter and eventually, her husband. Spirit and resilience had enabled them to survive 30 years of lockdown. Perhaps their example will inspire the current generation to persevere against the Covid adversity.
(c) Colman Rushe
About The Things We’ve Handed Down:
This book is the antithesis of the Irish misery memoir. It is an inspirational and joyous celebration of courage and resilience in the face of adversity; an account of how a couple managed to raise seven children in a happy, carefree environment while encountering a potentially disastrous sequence of set-backs and tragedies during the first fifteen years of their marriage. The book provides a vivid description of life in the rural west of Ireland during the 50s and 60s and is an uplifting celebration of the happy family, hitherto grossly unrepresented in Irish writing.
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