By Audrey Giongco
MADRID – Everyone knew it was bound to happen.
Local neighborhood general stores, informally dubbed as chino by the Spanish, due to an overwhelming number of store owners being of Chinese descent, have already been closed for weeks.
Kids have begun bringing their own hand sanitizers, willingly letting their schoolmates get a few drops on their hands, replacing the usual playground galleon trade collectibles of football cards and little figurines resembling Shopkins.
Farmacias were slowly running out of medical face masks, vitamins, and flu medications.
Asian tourists and residents alike have started to be more cautious going out for drinks at night, in fear of being thrown racial slurs by drunk underage teenagers and middle aged men as they bar hop.
The announcement finally came on March 12 at around 8pm –– just as mothers were adding the finishing touches to their fabadas (beans), lentejas (lentils), tortilla de patatas (Spanish omelette) and cocidos (stew) in time for dinner.
School children were either enjoying their extra hour of play time or wrapping up their football, dance, music classes at their local sports center or conservatory.
Schools were to be closed for a period of two weeks, with a grace period of two days before it takes effect.
This left teachers with a mere two days to convert to online classes, a medium most of those who live in countries that are 5G-compatible aren’t even familiar with.
Language assistants like us are tasked to collaborate with our teachers in disseminating information to students.
Parents scrambling to find someone trustworthy (and healthy!) to look after their children at home while they’re at work during the day, because extended families living under one roof isn’t a thing here (and is now probably a good thing, too, to practice proper social distancing).
People started rushing to their nearest supermarket (all within a block’s radius) to gather supplies: rice for paella, cans of tuna bathed in olive oil, canned beans and pickled vegetables in jars, 96% ethyl alcohol (even herbal-scented alcohol used for massages!) and rolls of toilet paper as many households aren’t privileged to have a bidet in their bathrooms.
Each day that passes, groceries’ stocks become scarcer, and people are left with no other choice but to stock up on gluten-free dry pasta and premium jamón from the carving station which is meticulously shredded from the leg right in front of you.
Days go by of this schools-only lockdown and more policies are being enacted.
Elders housed in nursing homes were asked to be sent home to their families, a seemingly counter-productive move that hopes to minimize the infections among the riskiest demographic.
“Non-essential business” (read: all establishments that aren’t supermarkets or pharmacies) are asked to close to limit the places people can gather in.
Walking in two’s, three’s, and in groups has been prohibited, but you can still go out to walk your dog since your apartment probably isn’t big enough to roam around in, balcony and all.
Closure of all non-essential businesses is in full swing. Panaderías and churrerías are suddenly not being patronized by the morning crowd hoping to get their breakfast fix.
Normally packed tapas bars are now empty, with bottles of wine and cases of Mahou, Estrella Galicia, and Amstel left untouched.
Some small local and family run businesses still offer delivery via popular delivery apps like Glovo, Deliveroo, and UberEats. Reggaeton and the hits of Bad Bunny, ROSALÍA, and J Balvin aren’t heard anymore in the streets from the bars at night.
Popular landmarks around the city like Puerta del Sol and Plaza Mayor, usually teeming with tourists busily taking photos or engaging in walking tours, have become eerily empty. Siesta––a cultural tidbit Spaniards would like to let us know that not everyone does it anymore––has returned and has been taken to the next level.
My friends, Jan Noel Villarroel and Nico Asi and myself, live together in an apartment outside Madrid city center, but with a well-connected train system, we are not too far away from the action.
Every few days or so, our family and friends would ask how we are doing as they read about what’s been going on over here.
Spain quickly appeared on everyone’s radar as it had one of the highest spikes in the number of cases. Plus, everyone’s eyes are on us as the world waits to find out if we follow in Italy’s footsteps.
Currently, we are behind the US in terms of the number of cases, and second in the world after Italy with the most number of deaths.
We reply by saying we are doing fine, as we are confined to our apartment with nothing to do, anyway. We are actually more concerned for our families back in the Philippines, as not everyone there has access to healthcare like here.
But even as foreigners who aren’t even permanent residents here, we are fortunate to have private health insurance coverage.
In case we suspect we might have contracted the virus, we are to call a local number and healthcare professionals would come to our place of residence and test us right then and there.
Only when one is diagnosed with a severe case of COVID-19 will he or she be taken to the hospital.
Since the quarantine took effect, a normal day consists of us waking up to the sounds of street cleaner vans disinfecting the roads and sidewalks. We are up at around noon, as opposed to 7am or 8am on a school day.
As we are all English language assistants, we wait for our teachers to contact us regarding activities we’d be assigning to our students while staying at home. We have to adjust to uploading activities online, and recording videos of us teaching grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation.
However, on most days, there isn’t much to do, as not every teaching moment can be conducted online.
At this point, we have adjusted to the Spanish culture of eating five to six small and medium sized meals a day, but to limit our food stock and avoid going outside to buy food, we have succumbed to eating at least twice a day, but completely disregarding meal times.
Breakfast at 1pm and lunch combined with dinner at 6pm as opposed to the norm of 9pm? Sure.
On March 29th, daylight savings time pushed through. We added an extra hour. Now the sun sets at 8:40pm the earliest, ultimately adding to the confusion as to what day it really is already. At 7:58pm (when the nationwide agreement is 8pm), you’d start hearing the claps your neighbors make as a form of salute to all the healthcare workers.
Ambulances and police cars sound their sirens and honk their horns in reply, acknowledging the support.
Sadly, every day, the sound of the applause lowers in volume exponentially, but that doesn’t mean all hope is lost.
After the applause, someone from our neck of the woods would blast reggaeton music from his balcony to cheer everyone up. This continues until the sun goes down. Afterwards, everyone goes back inside and goes on with their lives inside the four corners of their household.
Every Spaniard looks forward to the two week-long Semana Santa vacation. Every year, the week that precedes Holy Week is blocked off, dedicated to giving teachers and students a much-needed holiday before starting a new term. This break lasts until after Holy Week, making it Spain’s version of Spring Break in the US. But since COVID-19 has been declared a pandemic, airline companies have forlornly decided to cancel an array of flights ranging from mid-March up until mid-April all across Europe as international borders close, directly affecting everyone’s Semana Santa plans.
My friends and I had a Vienna-Budapest-Prague trip that we planned months ago, but all that’s out the window now. We now spend days we supposedly should be exploring those three countries handling flight and accommodation cancellations and refunds. One of my friends, Jan Noel, had booked a trip to Italy’s outbreak epicenter Milan, but that trip has since been cancelled. I also have upcoming trips to France and Italy to celebrate my birthday in May but given that these two countries are among the hardest hit, I won’t be surprised if I’ll just be spending my birthday at home.
Every two weeks, usually right before the two-week quarantine period is up, rumors spread of it being extended another two weeks.
Currently, as of this writing, the second two-week period supposedly would end this week, April 12th, but as of yesterday, news of adding an extra two weeks started going around again. This would make our quarantine period a total of a month and a half.
Over the past few days, the decrease in the number of new COVID-19 cases has been promising.
There’s lesser new infections every day, so much so that people are starting to think that we’ve reached our peak a few days ago and it’s going to go down and back to normal from here. Gone are the days people called it the Wuhan virus as it’s become more than just an epidemic.
The entire region of Madrid is now cooperating, because the outbreak epicenter is not just in Torrejón de Ardoz, Madrid anymore (where coincidentally, my friend Nico is currently assigned), but now Madrid as a whole accounts for half of Spain’s total cases.
Since that very first day I arrived in Spain over two years ago, I haven’t experienced any form of discrimination. In fact, the locals here in Madrid (and in the Valencia region where I was first assigned), have been nothing but friendly, accommodating, helpful and generous. That is, until the fear of the fast-spreading coronavirus made some of them— but not our friends and colleagues— paranoid.
And so we are hopeful that this quarantine period will put an end to the constant glares random Spanish people would throw at us whenever we get on the metro or the bus. It would also help stop our students from calling us the virus while insisting we come from China.
But for now, as we all await for the worse to be over, everyone is watching from their balconies, their view of the world confined to their next-door neighbors and the streets surrounding them. And as the 20th hour strikes and the applause begins, the world watches with them, too.
Audrey Giongco is an Auxiliar de Conversación (English language assistant) in CEIP Benito Perez Galdos, a primary school in Arganda del Rey, Madrid. She has been in Spain since 2018. Audrey used to write for the De La Salle University organ The LaSallian, and is the daughter of Manila Bulletin sports reporter Nick Giongco.
(Photos by Audrey Giongco)