I live in Barcelona, Spain in a neighborhood, a barrio, called El Raval. When I announced to my young banker that I was buying an apartment in El Raval he exclaimed with much distress, “Señora Swenson” (Swenson is not a name that rolls easily off a Spanish tongue) “that is a very bad neighborhood. You can call off the sale immediately.” It is a bad neighborhood because there are Pakistanis, many, Africans, not many, and poor people some of whom live in places that I can’t believe are legal. They are storefronts with no windows, no air, only a door onto the street. Frightening.
However I persisted in my error and live in a two thousand square foot, two hundred year old apartment with views of the roofs and waterspout gargoyles of the 15th century Hospital de Santa Creu. It is the hospital Gaudi died in, unrecognized in his shabby clothes. It was built because of the plague with a sculpture of San Roc at the base of one of the stairs. He was, so to speak, the patron saint of the bubonic. He is posed displaying a plague scar on his leg with the dog who fed him at his feet offering him a bread roll. So it seems appropriate to live here in this time of plague. An alternative way of getting into the spirit of things, a friend in Hong Kong is reading Defoe’s A JOURNAL OF THE PLAGUE YEAR or one might watch THE SEVENTH SEAL.
I have been under lockdown for a bit more than a week. A gift from the, dubiously, benevolent gods before we went into quarantine was a 4 to 6 year old rescue cat, Galata who had been managing on her own on the Costa Brava. She did not feel like a gift in our first weeks together. She peed and pooped indiscriminately, howled both from pain due to crystals in her bladder and because she had received, from some maladroit idiot, a botched hysterectomy which had left her wombless but with other bits that kept her in continual hormonal hell. First we got rid of the crystals with an expensive special diet and then we got rid of the bits. In between there were pills for worms in her intestines and snails in her lungs.
She has two deeply ingrained beliefs. One, she is starving to death and food must be consumed immediately at top speed. Two, the world is a terrible place in which people steal your food and hurt you. The proof of the last is that she has four broken teeth. I was told that the boys in the village she came from would tempt her with food and then kick her. Is that how her teeth were broken, by being kicked in the face?
This relationship may not work, however, because while she no longer howls, she still poops in a corner of the living room, on the tile floor not the rug, from time to time.
The quarantine came upon us in stages. First restaurants and cafés shuttered. Our café on the corner, Mendizábal, also known as Mendiz, run by a couple of hard working, resilient and utterly amiable men assisted by a gaggle of young women, curvaceous with rings in their noses and ears. They all rush about from inside to outside where there are tables under trees in a tiny square with a cat park on one side, and an angular, bronze memorial with Henry Moore holes and a snip of a nose in its middle, to Margarita Xirgu, a Catalan actress who was a friend of Lorca, carrying coffees, pastries, salads and delicious small plates—rabbit ribs, beef stew with mushrooms, tripe in spicy sauce, oxtail—and sandwiches, often exotic—duck confit with poached pears—and some oddities—asparagus tempura. There is also an outside bar on the Junta de Comerce side of the restaurant where people stop for a café solo or un cortado, a beer or a glass of cava. I miss them. I miss passing the coffee and beer drinkers, the people under umbrellas beneath the trees just opening up their tender leaves to the Barcelona sun. I even miss the crazy man who sometimes appears at the edge of the little square by the ancient public water fountain let into the chapel wall to rant and rave and damn us all.
Saturday I went to the supermarket for paper towels and Frit Ravich pumpkin seeds, chicken broth, distilled water for the iron and Conejo, a cleaning fluid. There was toilet paper if you wanted it and though the shelves were a little empty, not seriously so. There were no Frit Ravich pumpkin seeds. But there were a lot of people about, not a crowd, but more than seemed healthy, however, it was the beginning of quarantine and the numbers seemed reasonable.
I also went to the Boqueria to buy vegetables, a couple of fuets, dried sausages, and honey. I shop as little as possible in supermarkets, which I loathe. My vegetable stand wasn’t very busy. I found honey at a counter that has since closed. My favorite purveyor of Serrano and Bellota was open, although they too have since closed. Customers were sparse but the fish circle in the middle of the market had glittering, fresh fish elegantly displayed in silver fans. I bought shrimp shiny in their grey armor lying on an icy bed and on the way home lamb chops from the Pakistani butcher.
My solitary life has become incredibly social, more so than before the arrival of the virus. I have Skype calls, WhatsApp messages and phone calls coming in from Thailand, Hong Kong, Australia, New Zealand, French Polynesia, Vietnam and, of course New York.
I have listened to Lohengrin on YouTube with Placido Domingo and Jessye Norman. Magnificent. And watched it with subtitles with Domingo and Cheryl Struder. Struder is good but can’t compare to the mighty and majestic Norman.
I am reading WARWICK THE KINGMAKER by Paul Murray Kendall, which is a bit out of date but an entertaining biography of a man who thought in terms of Europe rather than England. Incredibly efficient as a warrior, diplomat and ruler, I find him also scary in the intensity of his reach and grasp for power. That reach and grasp, of course, cost him his life.
I keep track of friends in town with phone calls. Two women I know here have had intense fear reactions. In one this resulted in her talking so fast, bullets of words flying by my ears, that I couldn’t talk at all. It was a monologue, not a conversation. But in a day she had adjusted and we did have a conversation. The other is more worrying. I have talked to her twice and decided I will only call her once a week because her fear is so intense that she cannot hear anything I say, or miss-hears it, and gets information twisted. But what is most distressing is that her fear is infectious. I have to detox emotionally after we talk.
And my own fears? I have to confess on Sunday afternoon, out of nowhere, I decided I had the virus, no symptoms, and that I was going to die. That lasted about 3 minutes.
We are quiet on Hospital. Normally a narrow river turbulent with noise from La Rambla to Sant Antoni, it is silent except for the occasional yap of a dog, heels tapping along or the rattle of a shopping cart on its way to the Boqueria.