Day 5: Supermarkets; food; should I stay or should I go?
Spain: 17,147 cases
Asturias: 292 cases
On day three I go to the supermarket. This is not small thing. What six days ago was something of a ball-ache has now become a treat I’ve been saving up for myself since the beginning. I make a list, collect my bags, put on my coat, and then waver slightly with nervous excitement. I am leaving the house. I might even see people who aren’t my housemates. I don’t know what the regulations are re: which supermarkets we’re allowed to go to and I’m a bit on edge about straying too far from my local. There’s one about one and a half kilometers away that has a far better range of vegetarian and vegan products. I decide to throw caution to the wind and go there. Hopefully if I get stopped they won’t ask too many questions.
It’s a grey day and the temperature has dropped slightly after an unseasonably warm couple of months. This and the almost deserted, noiseless streets give the town a dour sense of stiff morbidity. Have you ever jumped the fence to your school outside term time and had a wander about? It feels like that; like I’ve been locked inside after the holidays had begun. No kids. No chatter. No life. Posters and signage in darkened shop and café windows designed to inspire joviality only heighten the sense of abandonment.
But there is some life. I see the odd person. Bizarrely, I see pairs and trios of elderly people strolling and chatting seemingly oblivious to any danger. Even a couple of cars go by. And, naturally, there’s the odd cop car or two.
When you reach the entrance, a guy squirts some hand sanitizer into your palms and you’re directed to a box of plastic gloves. They crinkle when you try and put them on and they stick to the hand sanitizer. There are signs—even in English!—instructing everyone to keep their distance from one another. There weren’t enough people to justify it today but I’m told they run a “one in, one out” policy when there’s a crowd. Other than that, it’s business as usual. Everything’s there; they even have a re-stock of their new “meat-like” vegan burgers. I buy two packs. Then some frozen falafel. Then some veg. We needed more washing powder. I forget the garlic so I do another lap. I treat myself to some crisps then waver next to the beer. Best not, immune system, et cetera. People give each other wide berths. One younger woman looks appalled but says nothing when an older lady reaches across her to get at the peppers. It reminds me of the U.K. Is this what Spain will become when this is over? Like the U.K.: a nation of stand-offish, permanently passively aggrieved instinctive spatial distancers.
At the checkout there’s tape on the floor marking out each one meter. The check-out girl is one of the ones who’s there every day. There she is, scanning products as a global pandemic unfolds around her. If there’s one good thing that might come out of this mess it’ll be an appreciation for the “un-skilled” heroes in our society who keep things ticking over: The bus drivers, check-out clerks, bank tellers, street-sweepers, sanitation workers, truckers, couriers, delivery people—the life-blood of society whose’ monthly wage wouldn’t even cover the wine bill at a luncheon of society’s sacred untouchables for whom, since 2008—since forever, really—the poorest in society have carried the burden of austerity so that the aforementioned may keep their yacht and maybe buy a couple more if they fancy it.
Meanwhile, health workers across the developed world care for patients without the necessary protective gear because public institutions have been hollowed out and stripped bare. There aren’t enough beds in hospitals. Millions have no guaranteed income and no rent relief. Richard Branson—British billionaire owner of airliner Virgin Atlantic once heralded as a new brand of “rock star” man-of-the-people rich guy because he has long hair and can surf and shook hands with Tony Hawk once or whatever—has given his staff eight weeks unpaid leave. He is personally worth £4,000,000,000. Business as usual in the form we know it now is probably dead, and in many ways—should all this lead to a major recalibration of society’s priorities and values; who’s worth what in a societal sense and not just monetarily—it’s probably for the best.
When I get home I unload my purchases into the fridge and cupboards and it dawns on me that for the first time in my adult life I actually have a substantial choice of meals. That insidious sense of dread that has resided in my being for the past five days induced in me a subconscious and largely false need to buy several more items than I would usually. This is an unexpected upside to all of this: as I write, I could at any time today prepare what I would estimate to be roughly ten different meals encompassing several international cuisines. Just planning the meals in my head sees off a good twenty minutes of my day. I keep forgetting I bought that big cylindrical roll thing of seitan. Usually, I’d be thinking about it all day; “I can’t wait to get stuck into that shrink-wrapped tube-type seitan dumbbell thing I bought yesterday.” Now it’s way down the list behind other more perishable consumables. I feel like a suburban mum.
On the way back from the supermarket, I have a minor brainwave. My route back runs very close to my girlfriend/not girlfriend’s street. I send a hasty WhatsApp message telling her to look out her window in one minute’s time. I get there. I deduce which is her living room window. I wait a couple of minutes and a cop car crawls past on the road running perpendicular to hers. It doesn’t stop but it gives me the shivers. I am loitering for no apparent reason, staring up at a building during a nationwide state of emergency lock-down. The construction workers in the gutted building to my right are giving me the eye. I leave; our Romeo and Juliet moment will have to wait.
I feel like a coward and decidedly not punk. But there’s another element to all this that only a tiny proportion of Gijóneses will relate to. I am foreign. A migrant. White, middle-class, British, endlessly privileged but foreign all the same. I can speak, read, and understand spoken Spanish to an adequate degree but nonetheless in every conversation I am, off the bat, on the back foot. Those quips and intonations, the little verbal winks one uses to blag or ingratiate oneself don’t come easy. If they come at all they come late or labored or clumsily. It’s embarrassing in a normal situation, but with a cop, him or herself not used to adjusting their speech for a non-native speaker? Fuck that. They have a word in Spain, guiri. It roughly translates as clueless foreign fuck-wit ripe for mockery, probably British, probably sun-burned, probably drunk. And as prideful as it may sound, I don’t want to be that dumb guiri the cops laugh about back in the precinct. Later I message my girlfriend: “there were cops.”
Speaking of migrants, I got a call on Monday from an Irish former teaching colleague I still get on well with. She says she’s booked a flight home for Wednesday (Day four). I can hear a slight shake in her voice and the lump in my stomach gives a shudder. Leave? As in go back to our families and loved ones? We discuss it. Her mum lives on a farm, large and very isolated. Her mum is elderly and not in great health but she was stuck in Seville when her dad died and doesn’t want to be stranded in Asturias, a notoriously difficult place to leave, if the worst should happen this time. She assures me there’s an outhouse she can quarantine herself in for fourteen days to ensure she doesn’t pass it on to her mum. But there’s still the journey. How will she get from the airport to the farm without catching it/giving it? We’re in a strange situation; both with Irish passports and unaffected by a looming Brexit (remember that trifle?) we live here freely but we’re not residents. This is our place of work where we pay rent and live out our daily lives month to month, but it isn’t home.
In my most irrational moments (usually between 10 PM and midnight, it seems) the thought sometimes springs to mind: do I want to die here? Is my Spanish good enough to reason with a Guardia Civil officer so that they might spare my life? Do I want to watch the U.K. collapse from the inside or outside? Will conditions in the camps be better in Spain or the U.K.? Could we reach the point where I can’t access U.K. and U.S. TV and films and be stuck watching Spanish sitcoms? Honestly though, I don’t think it matters either way. Word from the U.K. isn’t encouraging; a thoroughly half-assed approach and an unwillingness to follow through with the measures the rest of the continent have already enforced. I know too much about Boris’s government of over-promoted private school prefects to have any trust in their competence or their will to put the safety of citizens over their stock market sponsors. The Spanish government are at least socialist by name with a twist of actual, genuine socialism in the form of Podemos (imagine Bernie Sander but he’s a whole party.)
Anyway, I’ve paid rent for March. And maybe someday we’ll be allowed to surf again.
As I write it’s 8 PM now and the clapping’s started; the nightly applause across the city to show our collective appreciation for the Asturian health workers and their services to the community. It’s nice and it beats church bells. Before I sign off on this dispatch, I’d like to say a huge thanks to Specialist Subject records in Bristol for their live-streamed gig on Tuesday night. Things like that make a difference.
Next time: forming and keeping to a routine when there’s nothing pressing to do; maybe something about music?; how best should we hunt and kill the billionaires when all this is over?
¡Solidaridad para siempre!
John Miskelly lives in Gijón/Xixón, Asturias, Spain. He is thirty-four years old and is so far showing no symptoms.