It's Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) right now and my original plan was to spend in at Auschwitz, taking part in the March of the Living, walking along the Auschwitz train tracks - as a tribute to my Jewish heritage and the 6 million dead. Also as a fitting way of marking 2020 - the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the death camps. Instead, I've now been in Cómpeta, Andalusia, for over seven weeks now, five of them under lockdown.
I've come to love the fog - the cold, all-enveloping blanket of water droplets that shrouds the village on a regular basis during this unseasonably cold and wet spring. My gaaaad, they're having a warmer spring in East Anglia than we are in Andalusia. Come to Spain, they said. It's sunny, they said.
I have come to appreciate the fog and inclement weather in general because it allows me some short outings without locals staring at me and judging me. No one is out when it's pouring down with rain and the whole place looks like the set for "Silent Hill" and zombies seem on the brink of emerging from the swirling mist at any second. I literally disappear from view and can recharge my batteries by walking around outside and listening to the Recode Decode podcast. Only near where I live, mind you, since hiking in the Sierra de Almijara in thick fog is a sure way to end up with broken bones at the bottom of some ravine. A friend of mine was telling me about some climbers in the north of Italy who escape lockdown by heading into the mountains late at night, with head torches, and returning before daybreak. "But I wouldn't advise anyone to do that by themselves", he added hastily, worried that I might take inspiration from their example. So short walks will have to do, and foggy ones are best, since my perambulations are not monitored by Big Brother. Or worse. I'm reading "The Testaments" by Margaret Atwood right now, and everything is feeling a bit Under His Eye as a result.
The Spanish government is currently considering how best to loosen the current restrictions. Praise be. Apparently, there are calls to let children out for exercise from April 27th onwards. But only the under-12s, as if the age of twelve is some magical cut-off point after which humans stop requiring things like daylight and outdoor exercise for their mental wellbeing like night-blooming plants, perhaps, or orcs.
While I find terms like 'self-care' and 'mindfulness' to be rather cringeworthy and twee and New Age-y, and associated with tofu and beansprouts and oat milk, I'm coming to accept that I'm currently operating at a state of hyper-alertness that's just not sustainable in the long run. And as much as I'm loath to admit it, I'm no use to man nor beast unless I find ways to resolve the situation. The short spells spent outside are key to that.
What's quite sobering is that I'm not the only one's who finds themselves spiralling out at times. My various friends get in touch, including those who are normally very good at keeping it together.
- "I have a job, things to do, my own house, I'm not at risk...I really have nothing to complain about when I think it through, but the resolve to stay cheerful is wearing thin. Does anyone else just feel this kind of pressure weighing them down?"
- "Can't get to sleep, yet can't wake up. Feeling exhausted most of the time...My perspective is slipping."
I can occasionally relate.
"I’ve been feeling extremely guilty. I feel guilt that I’m not productive enough. Guilt about how drained I feel. Guilt that I’m not even one of the people really suffering at the moment."
Agreed. I'm nowhere near the 'front lines', but occasionally feel guilty that I'm not out there, helping out more, even though I know that with my lungs that would be a really bad idea. Then feeling guilty because my lungs make me such a sickly little weakling. Guilty that my anxiety levels are skyrocketing even though I'm not in any immediate danger, guilty that I have no right to feel guilty.
Then, astute words from someone I've known for a very long time but haven't given enough credit:
- "Don't beat yourself up about feelings down. It's a traumatic event and total change of life. You're allowed to be affected by it."
This kind of echoes my sister's sentiments, expressed when I confided in her about the random, embarrassing tearfulness:
"PMT? You've thought of that, right? But seriously, there doesn't really need to be a reason beyond EVERYTHING."
In my quest to break the occasional vicious circle of displays of weakness - guilt - berating self for weakness and guilt, little things, like short walks, have come to mean a lot. I was lucky enough to have another short outing this week - a legitimate one. My friend and LP writer colleague lives outside the village, so I managed to combine the delivery of some groceries with a very damp ramble...
...along an overgrown, partially flooded trail that departs from near the square with the little chapel. I've been in less jungly places in Borneo. There is a drier and easier way - the so-called 'goat track' that runs through the olive groves between Cómpeta and the neighbouring village of Canillas, but that's where the dog walkers congregate. It seems that the overgrown track has been used by no one in weeks.
After many days without any contact with people, having a cup of coffee in John's garden (while maintaining proper social distancing, of course) and being on the receiving end of some uncomplicated affection from his three cats is a very welcome thing.
As the pandemic drags on, a cottage industry of mask-making has been flourishing in Cómpeta. A women's volunteer group has been set up, stitching cotton masks for the entire population, sewing, delivering. Given the limited efficacy of masks against microscopic droplets (though obviously there is less contagion if everyone is wearing one), I imagine this mask-making brigade effort is as much about feeling people's need to feel useful and to boost morale as it is about providing potentially life-saving equipment. I'm not one of the women who's Sewing for Spain. I'm afraid I was too traumatised in my youth by a Home Ec teacher named Mrs Lloyd, who shouted at her students and made me cry when I was 11 years old, and the most I can do with a needle is darn holes in my clothing.
But there are other diversions. Since I live on the first floor and have no garden in which to plant food crops or from which to expel vermin, I do my small but of vermin expulsion on my balcony. When I spotted the beginning of a wasp's nest in the far corner of my balcony alcove, I knocked it clean off with a broom, and then observed the return of a single wasp that looked rather puzzled at the disappearance of the foundations of its home before it took off for good.
There are no stray cats to feed where I am, unlike in Greece, for example, or the island of Mykonos where one of my acquaintances had found himself quarantined with his mother. A stray cat with a poorly paw has found him and adopted him. Greek island cats seem to have a sixth sense about who is likely to feed them and lavish them with attention. When I was on Amorgos last year, I fed three adorable strays one evening on my terrace, left the windows open as I slept, and then woke up the next morning with two of them sprawled sleepily on the bed next to me. But I do chirrup a feline greeting to the cats who live across the street from me, and the tabby answers with a miaow. And a couple of cats on my street come and join me on my short rambles after dark.
I am not yet 'Marie Kondo-ing' my flat - purging old papers, rummaging through the decades-old contents of boxes - simply because much of that stuff is in boxes in my parents' and my sister's garages, across the sea. When I relocated to Spain, I only brought the barest essentials (which included a wooden skull and a Central African carving, because one must be surrounded by objects of beauty), and have a shortage of things to purge. Though after overshopping a couple of weeks ago, I may sort through the contents of my fridge to determine which shrivelled organic remains no longer 'spark joy'.
Because many of my cooking ingredients do spark joy, and the more esoteric, the better. One activity I've been engaging in a great deal lately is cooking. A couple of care packages have arrived from the UK...
...bringing me such delights as fermented black beans, sweet bean paste, Sichuan peppers, heaven-facing chillies other core components of Sichuan cuisine.
For the first time ever, I've been able to recreate one of my favourite Sichuan dishes from scratch: double-cooked pork.
The staff at "Seven Days" in Cambridge don't bother handing me a menu anymore, since it's the only thing I ever order.
I've made dandan noodles...
I've stir-fried cumin lamb with vast handfuls of dried chillies in my new carbon steel wok.
I've ever made stock from scratch, finding myself in the possession of a) lamb bones and b) plenty of time at home.
The mysteries of black bean sauce have now been revealed to me, and I can now see it as the sum of its core parts: fermented black beans, light and dark soy sauce, Shaoxing wine, garlic, ginger, spring onions, sugar, rice vinegar, potato starch, chillies.
I have plans to make mapo tofu and gazpacho from scratch, to experiment with robust Sichuan flavours and their solid punches of heat, salt and sour, and the subtler textures and flavours of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cooking.
Then there's a correspondence. As of last week, I have one death row pen pal less, and am worried about my three remaining ones in San Quentin; James and Little Melvin are in their late 60s, having spent over 40 years behind bars, and Paul Nathan is 50 this year; all three have underlying health issues. I must remember to email Paul's mother; it's a gesture of considerable trust that he wants us to get to know one another.
Actually, there are four remaining pen pals, if you count Rasheed in Pennsylvania. But he and I have been estranged for two years, ever since I'd spent a year not answering any of my letters while going through some personal upheavals. When I did write back, my letter to Rasheed bounced back, even though he's still very much alive. Perhaps he wanted someone more dependable. I may try again. Glad that since last year, inmates at SCI Greene are at least able to have physical contact with their loved ones, having been subjected to sensory deprivation for decades.
Keeping tabs on my parents is another diversion. I tried calling them yesterday, and no one picked up. It could be that they were out for their daily constitutional. But there's also a concern that my mother is in the garden, attempting some overly acrobatic pruning manoeuvre that may temporarily incapacitate her, like last time. She managed to strain muscles in her back and shoulder, as a result of which she was unable to clean the house and it was only a matter of time before the compulsion to vacuum would win out over health and safety considerations.
Finally, there are the digital commitments. Virtual coffee mornings with Celeste, Georgia, Rob and others, phone calls with my sister and an assortment of friends, messaging and texting with friends who enjoy neither video calling nor talking. And the remote events: Zoom meetings with my fellow LP writers, pub quizzes.
But they are all diversions, distractions from the serious business. How will I earn a living if I don't go back on the road anytime soon? Will I be able to find other, sufficient work as a freelance writer and editor to support myself? Will I still be in Spain, come the end of the year, or will I have relocated to Portugal, where it's not necessary to give up one's citizenship if you apply for theirs? Or perhaps hedge my bets and move to Scotland, where the weather may fill one with gloom, but there is plenty of wilderness to roam? I fear the implications of a UK government, full of zealots, trying to push the UK off the no-deal Brexit cliff, for which they have no mandate, and the economic privations and repressions of civil liberty that would surely follow. To quote a song by Freddie Mercury: "Where can I be safe? Where can I belong?"
Will a change of career be necessary? (As I write a neighbourhood guide to Venice, I'm under no illusion that the world won't stop turning if I stop churning out general travel pieces). So far, I have no ready answers.