The Quarantine Blog IX: April 28, 2020

My cobbler opened this week, a good surprise, causing me to think, mangling Shelley, “if my cobbler comes can my flower lady be far behind.” Yesterday she was open. I bought two stems of tightly budded lilies and, as there were no lilies of the valley, too late in the season for them, three big mottled pink balls of peony buds. My flower lady is thinner, worn, her dark eyes large in her long face. The tension of this time has marked her. When she spoke of the future it was not with optimism but concern about the recurrence of the virus. But I am so grateful to have her back.

The lilies have been reluctant to open but the peonies are ruffling out like a closet of fin de siècle dresses in a Parisian closet. They even have a slight scent. When I was a child, peonies had a wonderful perfume but they have been improved until they are odorless.

My other memory around peonies is that they attracted ants and Japanese beetles. I don’t think the ants are harmful but the beetles, which have the most gorgeous, metallic, green and gold backs, munched right through the buds, destroying any possibility of bloom. My insomniac Aunt Liz used to drift out on summer evenings with a jar of kerosene to collect and drown them. She did this in her white night gown, a horticulturally appreciative ghost, a wisp of misty white in the gloam of the garden.

An aside. If you have never read about the Japanese beetle man in Gerald Durrell’s MY FAMILY AND OTHER ANIMALS you have missed a fine portrait. He is a hunchbacked peddler on Corfu who ties thread around the beetles and attaches them to his hat. He sells them to children on his route or at fairs since if you whirl them about they make a satisfying buzzing sound as they circle over your head.

Further gratitude. The café on the corner opened earlier this week. I had my first café con leche in over two months under the trees in the minute square containing the monument to Margarita Xirgu. When I make coffee at home I drink it black. The café con leche followed a lunch of callos with chickpeas and spinach salad. What heaven to eat what someone else has cooked. How superb to not have to wash up. The tables were properly separated and we smiled shyly at each other across the open spaces.

As if to prove that nature is in tune with us, opening up as well, the gulls brought their two fluffy babies up to the roof ridge of the hospital. There seems to be an equal amount of care from the parents, the one with the broken leg doing both guard duty and food gathering. She/he stands on top of a little metal chimney and screams at any with the audacity to come near or stands, meditatively contemplating the webs of her feet, until she regurgitates while the babies dance frantically about her squeaking in my imagination, “Throw up, Mommy, throw up.  Hurry up.  Throw up. I’m starving.  Hurry.”

But I don’t see them today. I hope everything is all right.

Before my flower lady opened I walked up to Valencia to see if the stores and the flower market there were open. I like just inhaling the their wet earth and greenery odor. But they were closed, sealed tight. However, it did give me an opportunity to admire the stained glass in windows on Valencia in that neighborhood, appropriately of flowers, iris I believe, which is exceptionally beautiful.

I did find a florist shop open near my cat food store on Aragó but the cat food was so heavy I was unwilling to add to my load. Also they didn’t have lilies. I am glad I was faithful.

Some stores seem to be open fitfully; the Chinese ones on Balmes, which bless them, are not at all nationalistic but have Thai, Indian, Indonesian ingredients, fresh as well as packets, boxes and cans. One, the smaller, has used the pandemic to do a thorough housecleaning, so thorough it was hard to find things. But I can never tell when I come by if I will find them open or closed. The pair form a sort of tiny Chinatown.

The disturbing event of the week was an email from a friend in Hong Kong that included a video of women demonstrating the apparent dangers of hand sanitizer as an inflammable liquid. My first thought was, have I heard of any cases of people being burned when cooking after using sanitizer? Or have there been reports of smokers with burned hands from lighting up after using hand sanitizer? Surely this would be all over the TV news as well as in newspaper headlines.

My friend had not fact checked the video, so I did. What I found was that the only danger from sanitizer being inflammable is if a bottle is in direct sunlight perhaps in your car or in an airplane. If you leave a bottle on your dashboard in direct sun your car will not explode but you may have a gooey melt down of bottle and plastic dash.

Much more disturbing was to find that this video is available in a number of languages with women whose faces are appropriate to the language. The one my friend sent me features women with Chinese faces. Another in Spanish features “Spanish looking women”.  In other words this video is being calculated to a linguistic audience. It is also telling that the women are not pretty, indeed a bit homely, as that makes the video appear more authentic, not like an commercial.

It is not an innocent video. It’s intent is to do harm by causing people to distrust and stop using hand sanitizer. It is a malignant video. I am nonplused by the desire to do this kind of gratuitous damage. I reminds me of the incident in the U.S. years back when strychnine, or was it cyanide, was introduced into Tylenol pills causing a small number of people to die horribly. The perpetrator was never found.

What is further alarming is how easily people accept these “informative” videos. My Internet attitude is, everything is suspect until proved innocent.

A young man I know, not the brightest button in the box, asked me this past week if I thought the Corona-virus came from a laboratory in China.  I was horrified that a man in Spain would have “contracted” the Trump lie. I told him I did not think it came from a Chinese laboratory but was a relative of the SARS virus, which never made it to the West.

Then there are those people burning cell towers in England and America because they think Covid is being transmitted by 5G technology. Some of us, and I suppose this will always be true, are mentally, emotionally and informationally in the 12th century. We might get a few Baptist preachers to rant at people that the virus is their fault; God is punishing them for their sins and issue them whips with which to lash themselves. The reference here is to a scene in THE SEVENTH SEAL.

I don’t want to end on this note. I had lunch again today at Mendi’s at an outside table from which I watched the cat ladies cleaning up the cat park while a small, white Scottie-type dog ran along the fence peering in at the cats with intense excitement and an elderly man with his mask covering his chin fed the pigeons. A gull came down to see what the pigeons were getting—the pigeons gave him backed off; the males even stopped chasing the females—ate a few large chunks of bread, it looked uncomfortable as it went down his throat, before deciding it was “pigeon food” and leaving.

The Quarantine Blog VIII: May 20, 2020

This past Sunday I walked to the Sagrada Familia and back, ten kilometers. After a morning of threatening clouds, the streets glowed with sun. People were out, couples walking together, fathers with strollers, mothers with boys on scooters, most with masks, including the children. I had not realized that at noon, perhaps only on Sunday, there is a small concert given by the carillon bells of the Sagrada, a melodious pealing to listen to as I stood beneath the moving green shelter of the street trees. Why should the shadows of leaves on a Barcelona street seem more emphatic to me than those in other cities?

Having read Clara Laughlin’s commentary, I was happy to go to see the church again. There’s lots I am not happy with in what has gone up over the last ten years but what I do like, even when I disapprove of other things, is the piece-meal effect of the building. That is in the spirit of the great medieval cathedrals built over a hundred or hundreds of years as people changed their minds about what they wanted in their building, as architectural ideas altered. I have never cared, for instance, for the finials on the steeples, although I appreciate the touch of color they give to the immense greyness of the building. They look like plastic geegaws to me. Now there is a white, bar like thing that I think is an aesthetic error.

But the Sagrada is a unique expression as Arthur Stanley Riggs, whoever he was, said. The Catalan architectural outburst, and I think it is an outburst of voices clamoring joyously in their own language, in the late 19th early 20th century is an outrageous singular occurrence whether by Gaudi or another architect of that time. I took an American architect friend to see the Hospital de Sant Pau y Santa Cru designed by Lluis Domènech i Montaner. As we wandered through the buildings while I told him about it. He turned to me and commented, “This is astonishing. He was either crazy or on drugs.” A very contemporary compliment.

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People were walking in a desultory way, enjoying the sun, the air, looking in shop windows just being alive under the balconies where geraniums bloom in fierce reds. There were cars but not many. I am not looking forward to the return of traffic.

And Monday the traffic was much greater as I walked up to my trainer’s studio. His wife was there with their baby who found me much less interesting than the spoon her mother was wielding. I had Alberto video me doing some exercises my grandson and I have discussed which help you keep your back straight. Alberto, since there is a distance problem, no longer stretches me. He has acquired a thing that looks like a sci-fi ray gun that massages you. It vibrated me furiously until I wondered if my vertebrae were going to be in their usual alignment when he finished. It also made me feel I was being reduced to the condition of tomato aspic in a violent earthquake.

Having worked out I had a thoroughly self-indulgent half hour at the basement grocery in Corte Inglés. I bought a Japanese steak, some of the biggest blue berries I have ever seen, the size of large red grapes, and two exquisite figs—I felt I should hire a Dutch painter to do their portraits, they were so beautiful—and other things, such as chocolate, before happily walking home in the sun.

Coming home down La Rambla I passed my florist’s little glass box. I keep hoping all those glass boxes will open up and pour their colors out onto the pavement in a panoply of bloom around potted orange trees, avocados and other ambitious tall, but usually gangly trunks available for purchase. Last week I saw her sweeping her box out, rearranging the orchids which seem to do well living there alone, and had a surge of hope that she would be open that week, but no. I am still waiting for her.

This morning I was startled to see an I-beam go swaying by my front window. When I went down to shop, I found the street was cordoned off and I-beams were being raised by a winch on the roof of the convent. Repairs are going along. My day is punctuated by the sound of pounding, drills and saws. The deconstruction part seems to be over. I am intensely curious to see what they are going to do with the part of the building I look down on.

On my route to the Boqueria I pass one of my favorite restaurants, Bacaro, an Italian place, small and boisterous with excellent food. I was first tempted through their doors by a menu that offered liver Venetian style, actually liver with onions. They do it well. I saw the steel door was raised and poked my head in. They are cooking for doctors in the hospitals while waiting to reopen. I touched elbows with one of the owners. His news is that he is thinking of opening another venue in Sariá.

There was something in the air today. The contacts with people sparkled, an intrepid warmth slipped out from masks that hid smiles, eyes above masks shone. We seemed in the beautiful day, customer and seller, to be so happy to see and be with each other. There was a strong sense of camaraderie, of here we are after months still selling and buying carrots, still asking each other how we are, how the family is. There was a sensation of strength, of congratulation so far at mutual survival.

Coming home with my purchases I looked in my mailbox. One of my kvetches about living in Spain is that the mail service is terrible, particularly for things coming from overseas. I now tell people not to send me any package from abroad because I get yards and yards of forms on line from the customs office that never have anything to do with the book or gift I am receiving. This time I found the box stuffed with six issues of the TIMES LITERARY SUPPLEMENT which has been arriving two months late, and that is if I am lucky. Now I have lunchtime reading material for over a month.

I went up stairs, cooked, plugged in the fountain on the terrace; this is a green ceramic snake who wriggles down the wall, sticks his head out and sends a liquid chime of water into the bowl beneath him. I will read a TLS over my omelet.

The Quarantine Blog VII: May 8, 2020

I am going to go back to Calcutta for a few paragraphs. Nirmal Hriday, however much I found it grim and earnest, at least provided people with a place to die that was clean and as comfortable as things get for the direly poor in India. It was not trying to solve a large problem.

The foreigners with whom I worked were varied as the jars on a spice shelf. I spent most of my time with a Dutch woman who was a psychiatric nurse in Holland, taking care of people out in the countryside. This couldn’t have been a big change of occupation for her, although the work was more physical than mental. There were a couple of Danish girls who had come for a week or two. There were Catholic groups organized by parish priests from all over the world. One such group was a dozen women from Malta, among them a dwarf. She attached herself to me because, as she explained, “You know what you are doing.” This, of course, was not true. But we had a good time together. She had a sharp wit in four languages.

We were given buns and tea at some point in the morning. Usually we went up to the roof to sip and nibble while viewing below us people buying fish cooked on a wooden spits over a tiny charcoal fire. There was a barber who shaved men, trimmed beards and one day cut a woman’s hair and then shaved her head. We thought it might be lice but it could have had a religious meaning.

We may have been sad at the state of the women but we all accepted the situation and our work whether unpleasant to us or not. I found bathing the women difficult because their mortality was a fact beneath my hands, the tactile certainty of bone under the thinnest integument of skin communicated the fragility of life, what would quickly and what more slowly be consumed in the fire at the ghat.

However, one day a young American woman arrived who it became apparent had thought she was coming here not to wipe up diarrhea but to sit sweetly, in a nice outfit, next to the suffering, hold their hands and say kind things to them. She was aghast by what surrounded her and walked around in rubber gloves doing nothing. I finally handed her a rag and said, “Wipe that up,” pointing to a pool of yellow diarrhea in the middle of the floor. She did wipe it up but that was the last we saw of her.

A very beautiful Italian girl sat, as instructed by a nun, beside a dying woman, holding her hand. She complained to me afterwards, ”I couldn’t talk to her. She wouldn’t understand me. I don’t know that she could even hear me. It all seemed so useless.”

The reason there is little contribution from the Indian community is due to the idea of karma. Your karma is the result of your actions in your past life. If you are a beggar dying on the floor of Howrah station it is quite possibly because you were a rich miser or you were mean or even violent to your daughter-in-law in your last life. Your fate in this life is a result of your deeds in your last life and you deserve it. This is a philosophy that certainly makes not giving guiltless.

Out of India and into Barcelona where this was the week children were allowed out of their houses. When I saw my first stroller occupants I was astonished, as though I had come across a furry duck billed platypus in a forest. They have such wonderful tiny fingers. They were looking a bit stunned too. Having been deprived of the outside world for almost two month must have made the streets a terra incognita with all those strange adults wandering around in masks, and then your own mask. They were very good about their masks. I wish I could say the same about the adults.

I have taken to scowling at people who don’t wear masks and occasionally asking them why they aren’t. To those who wear them dangling around their necks I want to say, “Is that a necklace? Do you have earrings to match?” Then there are those who wear their mask below their nose. For them my question is, “Do you breathe through your chin?”

I did a 10km walk, actually three of them, this week, one from Hospital up to Lesseps along Gran de Gracia where I turned left and wandered among small streets with delightful small houses until I came down again, stopping on Gran de Gracia to call a friend so that I could wave to her up on her balcony. Another walk took me up Balmes to Sant Gervasi where I took Via Augusti back down, switching over to Aribau to go to the cat food store on the way home. The third I started by walking down to the Post Office which I love for its beautiful stained glass ceiling—they had sent my package back to HK—up Laietana to Urquinaona, continuing on Bruc to Diagonal and coming down Balmes, all wearing a mask. The one to Sant Gervasi was a killer because the up hill part is aggressively steep.

There were people out but not too many on each walk; the sun was shinning. I would stop to gaze at flower shops, being tempted, and then not buying because it was a long way home and the weight sufficient to discourage a purchase.

I have discovered how difficult housework is in your 80’s and how boring cooking for one can become. However I have shelved books that have been lying about for months and weeded out about 35 that can be given away. I still have to go through my travel section where I cling to out of date guides to India. I would like to cut that in half. But I will not give up my family’s collection of Baedeker’s from the 1910’s or mother’s So You’re Going books.

These date from the 1920’s and were written by Clara E. Laughlin, a woman of great respectability and the very best taste. She knew her American audience was historically ignorant so she delivers small vivid dramas of great moments from the past to enable them to understand the importance of certain sites, saturating them with atmosphere. Her history is sometimes history and sometimes the richest gossip but it works.

When I was deciding to come to Barcelona to live I looked up Barcelona in So You’re Going to Spain, published in 1931. There is very little about the city in her book, which covers Gibraltar, Málaga, Granada, Córdoba, Seville and Madrid. I have to quote this excerpt because it reduces me to laughter every time I read it.

“He (Arthur Stanley Riggs) says the Church of the Holy Family is characteristic of both the city and its spirit and the Barcelonese regard it as their finest expression. Have you ever seen a picture of it? Those I have seen have given me such a feeling of horror that I have never wanted to go to Barcelona. Foolish, of course! I’ll get over it—or, at least, I’ll learn not to look at that church, or to think about it, and enjoy the things in and near Barcelona that are beautiful, even sublime.”

Ah, the opinions of a refined, cultured American lady, in the 1920’s and 1930’s.

The Quarantine Blog VI: April, 30, 2020

I needed cat food the other day, which took me out to the Rambla for the first time in at least a week. It is now wearing its leafy arches, but is totally silent except for bird song, and almost totally empty, the shops on the margins shuttered unless they are a pharmacy or tabac. The waves of the pavement stretch away under the trees like a lost, wind-ruffled stream. Even pigeons seem fewer.
Pigeons and various sectors of the population dependent on others for sustenance are in difficulty. Someone bought baguettes and stuffed them into the holes of the monument for Margarita Xirgu, transforming it into a sort of avian buffet.
The Sisters of Charity, Mother Teresa’s nuns with whom I worked for two months in Calcutta, Kolkata, at her hospice for the dying destitute next to the Kalighat Temple, are feeding long lines at the back of Sant Augusti. But there are those who either do not chose to frequent the Sisters or perhaps are not welcomed by them. The Sisters are strict about behavior, talking and prayers. You pray before your meal or you don’t eat. Mumbling, however, is accepted. My two months at Nirmal Hriday did not elevate me to a Mother Teresa enthusiast.
There is a black and white couple that have been camping out and looking desperate in tiny Dr. Fleming Park. He is a black man going grey; she is white and totally out of her mind. While he begs in front of the Dia supermarket on Carme she sits up under a quilt roaring in a hoarse voice in English, American English I believe, about unidentified “bastards” and “assholes”. She retains a faded prettiness along with blond curls going grey. I bought them some cheese and ham. When I did it this week again, she was sipping a beer, looking pleased with life and lucid enough to thank me.
But there seem to be fewer street people than usual. I am supposing many have gone into shelters. What is on the street is exclusively male, decidedly rough, definitely drug and alcohol addicted and living on the salvage edge of the fabric of sanity likely to fray out into madness at any moment. When I walk through the open area behind the Boqueria I do not look at anyone.
Another group, thieves, must also be suffering since their source of income is no longer on the street. Pickpockets have no pockets available and with everyone standing a meter away from each other pickings must be extinct. Unfortunately what may have happened is that the normally nonviolent thieves have taken to violence. A friend walking home one night from shopping had a rope thrown over his head. He was garroted to unconsciousness, robbed of his phone and left. Luckily he survived. This is not the only case I have heard of. Everyone is trying to make a living, however precarious that may be for yourself or those who are your source of income.
I cut over to Universitat on Tallers, zigzagging through narrow streets where there was no one. The plaza before MACBA, my least favorite BCN museum, was silent, without the usual roar of skateboarders gliding at an unnerving pace over the pavement and leaping on and off platforms. Since there are a number of these platforms in the plaza this is a favorite place for practicing this maneuver. It leaves an interesting hiatus in the roar followed by a clunk as the skateboard lands again sometimes with and sometimes without its passenger. I wonder if there are statistics about the number of broken ankles achieved in front of MACBA. I was in an abandoned city, until I heard the traffic on Gran Via.
Once across Gran Via, however, I reentered that abandoned metropolis, silent now in a soft rain that slicked the pavement and pebbled with shiny droplets the parked cars lodged at the sidewalk edge still as chloroformed beetles in a display case. There was nothing particularly sad about these cars packed tightly into their block long cue but the stores, rain dribbling down their fronts, seemed pathetic castaways with their accordion gates looking permanent.
The store, Kiwoko, was new to me, a pet supermarket replete with every variety of food for gerbils to Great Danes and every source of amusement for that species span as well, from exercise wheels for the former to gargantuan rawhide bones for the later. The other customers, there were three, knew what they wanted and darted about loading up their baskets. I wandered in wonder at the infinite varieties of cat foods, cat beds, cat scratching posts, cat towers upholstered in a variety of plush and fake fur, selecting cans of tuna and chicken in a leisurely manner.
It says something about our society that our companion animals eat a plethora of hygienically prepared foods that children in desperate pockets of the world would gobble given the chance. I had a Vietnamese student who said to me once, “When I am reincarnated, I want to return as your cat.” I quite understand his point.
I am about to digress from Barcelona to Calcutta for no better reason than I can. I went to work at Mother Teresa’s, she was dead by that time, partly because having lived in the American culture where attitudes toward death are odd and artificial I thought a dose of reality might be good for me. A friend who had worked there a few years before told me all I had to do was walk into the hospice, pick up a rag and start to work. I would understand what to do by watching others. She suggested I bring boxes of latex gloves and any left over medicines I had.
The hospice is next door to the Kalighat Temple where each morning hundreds of goats have their throats cut as sacrifices to Kali until the gutters run with blood. Kali is usually portrayed in her fierce aspect as a blue or black woman with many arms who sticks out her tongue. She wears an opera length necklace of severed heads and sometimes a skirt of severed human arms. To the Western eye she is at the minimum disturbing and not someone you would be eager to trust, but ask any cab driver in Calcutta and he will tell you, “Kali is a good mother. Bring her a goat and ask her for what you need. She will give it to you.”
She is either sticking out her tongue or biting it in embarrassment because when her “husband” Shiva tried to calm her rage, she twisted in his grip and committed the appalling solecism of stepping on his chest.
This is the neighbor of the Christian hospice of Mother Teresa. Every morning I went to work there, six days a week, I found the contrast between the two religions as bracing as a dip in the Atlantic off the coast of Scotland.
On my first day I found, as my friend has told me, that all I had to do was walk in and work. Someone showed me where to lock up my things. I put a box of gloves I had bought on the counter, pulled on a pair, grabbed a rag and entered the women´s section– the house is divided into a male and a female section with the kitchen and laundry in between—where skeletal women of unknowable ages were lying on hard beds with plastic under the sheets stained and pooled with yellow diarrhea. Many could neither stand nor walk. Those who were capable of locomotion of any kind, including walking on their knees or hopping went down the center aisle on their own power to the bathing room. One woman walked in a squat; she could not straighten up but she was adamant and angry if offered assistance.
The nuns ran the kitchen and the laundry but the foreigners with a little assistance bathed the women, washed the nightgowns, sheets and blankets in home-made lye soap, wrang them out and carried them upstairs where they were hung out on the roof. From there one could look down on the Kali temple and the lively very un-Christian neighborhood.
Part of the Mother Teresa philosophy is that the hospice should be run at the level of a household in the neighborhood—no washing machines, dishwashers, refrigerators, modern devices or conveniences. No medicines or doctors to speak of either. A local doctor did turn up once a month. Sometimes, rarely, someone in Calcutta would donate medicine; therefore, the leftover, out of date medicines the foreigners brought were of use. With very rare exceptions the women were of subnormal intelligence due to lives of malnutrition.
It was a place to die in. The nuns received calls from people who noticed that the beggar on their corner was comatose or that someone was lying on the floor of Howrah Station unconscious. Volunteers went and picked these people up.
It was a severe place. The inmates were prayed over but not actively encouraged to become Christians since they understood nothing. There was one Christian patient. She said grace before each meal. The others had no idea what this was but knew you didn’t eat until it was over.
Death was constant, not every day, but every few days, someone would die. I spent time caring for a woman whose main symptom seemed to be infected bed sores which made her moan. She died of them as I sat by her feeling as useless as if I had been trying to cure her with chamomile tea and rice crispies.
Once while I was there two women recovered and left—they had been temporarily saved from malnutrition and starvation—but although they were joyous at leaving the hospice what was ahead of them but more starvation and malnutrition.
The atmosphere was grim, of that variety of Christianity, which in its earnestness seems incapable of imagining even small pleasures or a space in which laughter or beauty might breathe for a moment. Sorrow and sadomasochistic sainthood are its themes. I met the Mother Superior, a woman dedicated to Mother Teresa’s principals, without imagination, and rule bound.
Some years later I returned to Calcutta where I was joining a group of friends to do a trek in Sikkim. Arriving a day early I decided I would go over and do a day at Mother Teresa’s. The very air seemed different when I walked in. I was astonished to see in the arches above the women’s beds cages with birds singing and aquariums in which bright fish darted amount colored rocks.
There was a new Mother Superior. She asked me to help with changing the bandages of patient who had been severely burned when her nylon sari went up in flames as she bent over her cooking fire.
“Hold her hands and talk to her while we change her bandages,” the Mother told me. “She thinks foreigners are a sort of television.” I took the woman’s hands, looked into her dark brown eyes and said, ”Let me tell you if our places were exchanged, I would be screaming this place down to its foundations. You aren’t making a sound, not a moan. How do you do that? I couldn’t.”
When they had re-bandaged her, they asked her, to my amazement, what side she wanted to lie on—back, front, left, right. They didn’t approve of her choice but they put her on that side. I was amazed. The nuns under the earlier management, treated patients as objects, they were never asked anything, and if a patient protested, or cried out under treatment they were scolded.
Then the Mother told me that the woman was eating very little and was likely to die. Some one had donated some sweets—Indian sweets have a decibel level of sweetness that can only be heard by saccharine bats—which they wanted me to feed her since sugar was the one thing she ate. I spoon-fed her the entire hyper-sugar desert while she stared at me.
I asked the Mother Superior what happened to the women who never recovered enough to go out of the hospice but did not die. They are sent to an institution in the country she told me.
“We have tried to teach them things but their brains are so damaged by starvation and malnourishment that you cannot even teach them to peel garlic.”
I told her I thought the birds and fish were an exceptional idea. She became a little flustered and said defensively, “But we don’t take care of them or buy them. The foreigners buy them, feed them and clean the cages and aquariums.”
No Mother Teresa would not have approved of birds trilling in the hospice. But what a difference a thinking person can make in an institution.
To return to Barcelona the line for the Sisters of Charity soup kitchen at the side of Sant Augusti is now enormous, following the side of the church and then snaking in front of the church and spilling across the Plaza de Sant Augusti.
And to return to a Barcelonan convent, one morning this week I heard the rushing sound of debris hurtling down a chute. They are gutting the convent next door. My upstairs neighbor tells me the convent is being reorganized as a halfway house for abused women. Nuns will run it. However, I don’t suppose the nuns I knew will return. The gardening nun’s garden also went down the chute. But if she does return I am going to La Rambla and investing in a garden for her. I would love to do that.
The swifts have returned but they do not come to the back of my building. I think this is because the French pilot has turned his huge terrace into a sort of spa cum Coney Island. There are hammocks, canvas beach chairs, tables, a wadding pool, cushions, planters full of tomatoes, lettuce, zucchini. And he has ordered more things from Amazon. I don’t think the swifts approve.
And the court of the Hospital is now open. At the moment the homeless have not moved in so that it is a quiet, enchanting place to walk through smelling the single white roses and looking up at the last of the oranges clinging to the branches overhead.

The Quarantine Blog V: April 22, 2020

Because these wings are no longer wings to fly
But merely vans to beat the air
The air which is now thoroughly small and dry
Smaller and dryer than the will
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still.

That is T.S. Eliot from his poem ASH WEDNESDAY. It feels appropriate. We are having difficulty with our empathies, our will is useless, it may be a detriment to us, and though we know stillness is both a remedy and a necessity we squirm within our skins like six year olds at an incomprehensible grownup event.
My latest evidence of this was when a friend told me she had heard on the radio that those 80 and above would not be allowed out of quarantine when everyone else was. I was precipitated into immediate belligerent rebellion and outrage not a notch above the reaction of the teenaged daughter of a friend who when told her boy friend would not be allowed to visit her caterwauled in anguish, “Oh Daddy, you’re soooo unfair.” It may not be true. I hope not.
Among my many luxury problems, I am tired of cooking. I cooked two to three meals a day for about 20 years. I was a very good cook; I enjoyed cooking. Somewhere around the age of 78 I stopped enjoying it and took to restaurants, even traveling the metro three stops to a favored one. I have not been doing badly but I’m definitely sullen about exercising this slightly atrophied muscle. I look in cookbooks for inspiration but what they inspire are thoughts such as, “Too complicated. Too many pots. I can’t get up to Balmes to the store that has shrimp paste.”

Too many pots is a bottom line objection. I find I want to clean two pots at the most at the end of a meal. But I also know that to leave the pots in the sink is not only the act of a sloven but that there is a mysterious retributive backlash for such minor acts of procrastination. Some how the abandoned pots have a malign, accusational quality about them. They shame.

Part of my cooking has taken the form of a game. Various people, of divergent tastes have stayed in my apartment over the years leaving behind edibles, mostly starches. I have spent recent weeks using up half or quarter boxes of spaghetti, macaroni and bow ties, a couple of half used bags of quinoa. But the big challenge has been a large bag of lentils I bought myself for an Indian receipt. I didn’t feel like lentil soup, which would have been the obvious solution. I found a receipt for dhal in an Indian cookbook that can be frozen. You serve it with a topping of garlic butter. It is very nice but still it is going to take a long time to consume all those lentils. It was a big bag.

Along with using up edibles, I am “using up” books. I inherited my Aunt Liz’s library. It was small and largely composed of histories, biographies and historical novels written from the 1930’s to the late 50’s. I have been making my way through these, most old and out of date, but not the less interesting for that. I have read now in fact and fiction about Richard III, one of the first biographies to absolve him from the Tudor slander, so stirringly told by Shakespeare, of having killed his nephews, Warwick the Kingmaker, an earl whose reach for power exceeded his life, Queen Elizabeth, a survivor if ever there was one, Sir Thomas Moore, one of the rare righteous in English or any history, a superbly written novel about Harry of Monmouth (Henry V) and a slender volume about Jane Shore, a goldsmith’s wife who became and stayed the mistress of Edward IV. She is mentioned in Shakespeare’s RICHARD III.

They are all interesting personalities but I was hooked by Jane Shore, despite the fact that the novel by Jane Plaidy is not particularly well imagined. Plaidy has her tricked into the arms of Edward by a woman Pandarus, I suppose to make her more blameless. But Jane interests me, not because of her sexual adventures which were many and varied, but because she was by all accounts a nice person, even Edward’s wife liked her. She successfully talked the King into helping people and forgiving them.
Under Richard, who was a prig, she had to walk through London in her kirtel, a one-piece undergarment. It increased her popularity and the men of London came out to see what King Edward had admired. I found myself annoyed that Plaidy gives Jane the kind of end a bad girl is required to have. In the novel she dies in poverty, a beggar on a street corner in London. The actuality may have been that she retired to a not unpleasant middle class life and died in bed.

There is a forty-page poem in MIRROR FOR MAGISTRATES, a source much used by Shakespeare, about her. I have been trying to find this poem on line with no luck. When Edward died she went on to other well-heeled lovers. I like to think of her comfortable in a cottage outside of London in her old age.

I pile these books up as I finish reading them to be given to my son, my grandson and others who are interested. At the moment I am on Churchill’s HISTORY OF THE ENGLISH SPEAKING PEOPLE, the first volume. I am amused at how thoroughly it reflects his worldview.
Once I am finished with England I go on to France and then Egypt, which fascinated my Aunt. It was the last foreign trip she took, a Cook tour. She became very ill, returning to the U.S. That experience made her give up her foreign travels. I believe she was eighty.
So in quarantine I am spending time with my Aunt Liz who has been dead for thirty years. She was born in Reed`s Landing on the Mississippi in Minnesota when paddle steamers took travelers up and down the river in 1887. She went to New York to study at Columbia and get away from her mother, a ring-tailed witch. One night she went to see a Japanese dancer and was so entranced by his performance that she went back stage and asked to become his student. She learned Japanese dance from him, then Indian dance from an Indian woman who was his friend and toured with her troupe. She danced with the Ziegfeld Follies, although she was not one of the long stemmed roses, being a diminutive five foot three. I thought she was the most interesting woman I had ever met until I was eighteen or nineteen and began to know women who ”did things” besides cook tuna casseroles.
The clapping has started. I must go to my balcon and join.

The Quarantine Blog IV: April 15, 2020

I am now in absolute quarantine, lodged there by my upstairs neighbors. When I told them I thought had had a form of the virus last week they responded by declaring I had to stay inside; they would do my shopping. So here I am on a rainy Barcelona day looking out on the tiled roofs of the Hospital made a richer red by the rain. I feel like a grounded teenager who has been apprehended sliding down a drainpipe to a midnight tryst with a dubious young man.
My experience with what may or may not be the virus might be useful to others, therefore…
Last week I began to feel seriously terrible in that way the flu takes you where you feel that death would be an enormous relief. Something is sucking all your energy leaving you flapping about like a scarecrow’s empty glove. I was not coughing. I had no temperature, indeed, my temperature was subnormal but I felt nauseous and my intestines after breakfast were severely upset, although not at all in the kind of dramatic state I have known them to be in India or Tibet.
I slept and awaited developments. I had the day before received a call from my red button people who keep track of the elderly here. They urged me to call them if I felt unwell while saying in the same breath that all hospitals were on overload.
The next day I felt slightly better but not much and nausea was still lurking slyly. However, I did not feel worse and that seemed to me the important factor. I slept more and I decided to wait another day.
On the third day I felt better although tired and unenthusiastic about life. As time goes on I am a little more enthusiastic.
I wrote in a previous blog about housework and forgot an area of that activity, ironing. I find ironing a contemplative occupation but in one aspect I am totally defeated. I cannot fold a fitted sheet. Every house cleaner I have ever employed has been able to do this, has demonstrated it to me, and still I cannot do it. Even the man from Chile who worked for me for almost ten years in New York, and was divorced by his wife because he was faithful and didn’t beat her, could fold a fitted sheet. But I cannot. I will try again on Thursday when I do the ironing but I know defeat awaits me. It did, abysmal defeat.
Shopping has taken on the aura of adventure in this time. It feels like a slightly illicit activity. I go out with my bag as I might otherwise go with luggage to some exotic clime, Madagascar or the Seychelles. My supermarket has never been so crowded that I have had to stand outside of it. Although the shelves are a little sparse, they have never been so clean. I find that pleasing. However, I have had to wait for as long as twenty minutes at my local Veritas. Most of us, six feet apart, took this fairly easily but there was one young woman who needed to get in there NOW. It was like watching a racehorse trying to break out early.
I also notice that people often seem to be in a controlled state of rage and are not nice to each other. As I was walking along my almost entirely empty street one afternoon, a woman, coming up from behind me, thrust herself violently between the buildings and me. There was no reason to do that. She was wearing what looked like either nurse’s or pharmacy clothes. Fear usually manifests itself as anger. I could understand that she might be fearful in either of those professions.
We are all afraid. I find, for instance, I am annoyed at my butcher for not wearing a mask. That’s my meat he’s breathing on. At my vegetable stand in the Boqueria I am sometimes passed over and have to assert myself to pay.
One day the man, not the usual one at the stand’s cash register, passed over me with a brusque nod when I told him I had everything. I was impressed when the woman he chose to wait on, in mask and gloves, a careful meter away from everyone, told him I was next on line. I was grateful because in this time it takes certain courage to do what she did. I find one of the results of lockdown is people tend to just fall in line; they go limp and passive. There is little effort to push against things.
Going to my cheese counter on the other hand is like a reunion with an old friend. The proprietor and I greet each other effusively. I ask about his mother—she’s younger than I am, in her seventies—about his wife and daughter. He wants to know how I am before we get down to the intense decisions about Brie, Stilton and Gorgonzola with truffles.
I went to a pharmacy on the Rambla for masks. It was the first time I had been on that broad and beautiful avenue since we shut down. The trees were budding in pale green overhead but there were no more than four of us in sight. Farmacia signs were blinking, tabacs were open but people were absent from the picture. It was surreal. Who was the Italian painter who portrayed architecturally elegant town centers that look as though they have been hit by the hydrogen bomb erasing all humans? It had the eerie quality of those endless corridors in LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD. My grandson tells me that he runs utterly alone through Columbus Circle.
But now I am deprived of even the entertainment of shopping. My house is beginning to be as clean as the supermarket’s shelves. I move between three forms of reading, 1) The TIMES LITERARY SUPPLEMENT over lunch, 2) a mystery by Michael Innes or a P.G. Wodehouse novel, 3) a fairly serious historical work, usually out of date because either it was inherited or has been on my shelves waiting for me for years.
Next week I shall be able to do my own shopping again. I am still waiting for the swifts to arrive.

The Quarantine Blog: Chapter III, April 9, 2020

I have not done house cleaning for years. I am one of the lucky who has someone, young and vigorous, to do it for me. When I came to Barcelona a friend said to me,” If you want a really clean house find a Russian.” A couple of days later an acquaintance said he had a Ukrainian cleaner who needed more work. So began my association with Ukrainian cleaners. They are wondrous. I am on my second, the first having had to withdraw her services because of a sick husband. This one is young, embroiders vestments for the Orthodox clergy in her spare time, and because of her abilities I never take down a book and have to wash my hands. I consider this miraculous.
In my first week of returning to housekeeping I learned how to use my Dyson vacuum, succeeding, without reading the manual, in learning how to empty it. I consider manual reading a sign of intellectual failure. But I also rediscovered the truth of one of Betty Friedan’s dictums in THE FEMININE MYSTIQUE that housework expands to fill the time available. Things began to appear that needed “doing”. Therefore, I firmly initiated a list of “no’s”. No windows. Only lower books shelves. Furniture polish once a month. Silver, brass and copper objects once a month.

 

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My mother-in-law was Betty Friedan’s literary agent. One night at a small gathering when someone mentioned Friedan she said crisply over her martini, “She never would have written that book if she hadn’t had that nose.” I was amused, startled, I wondered how often a physical characteristic created a writer. I know of two cases, at least, where an inadequate father created a writer—Thoreau and Twain. The next evening at a family dinner I mentioned what she had said and asked if she really thought it was true. She looked at me wryly saying, ”Oh dear, I wonder how much I had to drink.”
I have always done my own washing. I own a dryer but only use it on rainy days, not only for ecological reasons but because I like the smell of a sheet that has dried in the sun.
There is an open space in the back of my building above the patio of the French pilot on the first floor, the principal, whom we do not approve of because a) he found a legal loophole that has allowed him to turn the apartment into an Air B&B, b) he refers to women as girls. These are serious offenses. He understands he is compromised by the first and, therefore, works very hard to be “nice” but I don’t think he has any idea about the second. I am planning a mild grandmaternal lecture for him in the future.
His patio, at the moment, is humped and lumped with athletic equipment and plant containers he has hauled out of a sort of closet at the back of the patio, which he is painting. This is definitely a quarantine activity.
In his favor, it should be mentioned that he has preserved the large plant on top of the closet that once a year puts forth a multitude of white blooms. On the wall behind the closet there is the sad tracery of a vine, which was executed before I moved in. My neighbors tell me it used to cover the wall with green leaves and once a year adorn itself with white flowers. But it dug its roots into the basement of the hotel causing them to cut it off near its base.
To the right of his space there is, beyond a high wall, the patio below and the roof garden above of what used to be the convent next door. It faces the street with a great arched door followed by another implacable door that I presume leads into the patio. To the side, in the gloomy vaulted area between doors, is a little window with a sliding panel through which you could make known your business.
When I hang out my sheets I look down sadly on the empty spaces of the convent. The nuns left, it may be five years ago now, lured away by the Church’s promise that the building would be renovated and they would return. They were elated. I was fairly sure this was a lie. My father worked for the Catholic Church, I was raised in it, and I have a thoroughly jaundiced view of that ecumenical corporation.
There were not many nuns and the youngest was in her late fifties. They were occupying a nice piece of real estate. I was quite sure the Church was coaxing them out so they could either sell it, BCN property values have been escalating, or alter it into apartments. A few months ago an architect came to look at it but nothing has happened since. Certainly they will not return. I have had friends who were nuns and priests and I know like many another international corporate entity the Church treats its elderly employees poorly.
Hanging out sheets I would often see one of the nuns tending her garden. She had no money to spend on plants, of course, so all she had in the way of flora she had acquired through gifts or cuttings from friends. She multiplied those cuttings and presents into her garden that bloomed and thrived under her love. Much of it still does although the little palm tree has died. Once when we talked across the evening air she said to me, “Soló los animales, y las plantas son inocente.” She was of Dostoyevsky’s belief. I didn’t tell her about sea gulls.
Beyond the high nunnery wall are the backs of the houses along Carrer d’En Robador. This translates loosely as Thieves Street. It is a narrow alley, not long, with an evangelical store front church that tries to help alcoholics and drug addicts, a bicycle shop, a laundry and a couple of tiny Pakistani supermarkets. It is a tough little lane and where it debouches into the square before the Filmoteca prostitutes of various colors gather, sitting on plastic crates or big water bottles or, if energetic, patrolling the street with their long black hair swinging behind them. But the backs of these houses are hung with laundry and the tenants I see are often in my age group.
I have been praying that nothing goes wrong in the house while we are in quarantine. However, the other day I walked into the kitchen to find a pool spreading slyly out from the dishwasher. I shut it off and mopped. Now I do my dishes by hand.
It put me in mind of things I am missing in quarantine. Not big things, because I don’t miss them with the same persistence as the little things. Outside of the obvious ones, the company of others and walking freely through the city, I think the main, irremediable one is flowers. I buy mine from a woman on the Rambla.
When I moved into my apartment I walked up the channel of flower sellers lining that famous street looking at the offerings. Since they were largely the same I then looked at who sold them. I chose my seller because she was a woman alone. Her thin, bespectacled face seemed a little withdrawn, slightly bitter to me but I became her faithful customer buying anemones and jonquils in season (we will miss them this year) and deeply scented lilies either pink or white.
Last Christmas I glimpsed what might be the cause of her withdrawal. In the local bank, she was urging forward gently, a smiling, awkwardly shy, ill looking little girl, holding a bouquet. She was perhaps nine and was almost bald. The bouquet was for one of the clerks at the bank. There was so much to guess and infer from that small scene. My flower lady did not see me but I felt guilty as though I had witnessed an intimacy from which I should have been excluded.
I wonder how she is managing with no income. So many are in that situation all over the world. A friend in Bangkok WhatsApped to say she is moving back in with her parents. She has had no income this month. Others are working from home and rearranging their lives. My grandson has a friend with two children who has lost his job in New York City. Luckily his wife, a lawyer, is still employed.
One of the first things I plan to do once the quarantine is eased is to walk to her stall and buy more than I need of lilies and if she has them anemones, jonquils and one of her tiny bouquets of violets.