By Julian Ward
As I munched on a chorizo tortilla for my Christmas Eve meal in Madrid, I reflected on the weird last four months I have had in the Covid capital of Europe. I arrived here in August against advice, instead of taking a virtual year abroad, as the idea of speaking Spanish on Zoom all year – albeit with assorted tapas to get me in the mood – was even less appealing than a five-day old, cold paella.
I had just spent time with my family in Bologna, where the coronavirus infection rate was at a stable 200 cases per day, when Covid once again convulsed Madrid, rising to 7,000 cases a day. Told by my department that I could not get insurance for the trip, but with a job offer to teach English still pending in Spain, I hopped on a near-empty flight to the capital.
My fellow passengers were mostly Madrileños, flying back into the eye of the storm. As probably the only British passport holder on the flight, I was curious to see how I would be greeted once I arrived in Spain, but nervous of a bad outcome. Despite this, an Airbnb had been booked, my health declaration form was to hand, and I felt prepared.
What followed was a series of bizarre and interesting events that I would witness in the city. As the cases soared to 11,000 infections per day, Madrid resisted pressure from the national government to impose tighter restrictions on the region, forcing Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez to declare a state of emergency on the country’s capital, introducing a night-time curfew and closing the region’s perimeters.
As I roamed the city during this period, a billboard on the streets of Gran Vía read: ‘volveremos a abrazarnos’ (we will hug each other once again), showing the depth of optimism displayed by Madrileños. Slowly, more Erasmus students began to trickle into the city, fitting into what has become a new normal of mask wearing and social distancing. I even ended up sharing my city-centre flat with three German students, one French, one Spanish, and another fellow year abroad Englander.
It is clear that Spain is not the only nation polarised on the restrictive measures that aim to keep the pandemic at bay. A controversial topic everywhere has been the decision to keep schools open during the second, and now third, waves of the virus. I have been part of this new school experience, undertaking my role as both a teacher and professional social-distance enforcer in a private language academy.
My school, like every other, fights the spread of the virus through mandatory social distancing and face-mask wearing, temperature checks, and ‘class bubbles’. On the whole, this has worked very well, yet the strange sensation of teaching a class that had been placed in quarantine online, and not recognising a student without his face-mask on, will be one of those 2020 memories that shall haunt me forever.
Despite the inherent woodenness of this new social experience, I have been able to maintain a social life of sorts here. As Covid ripped through my friends back in Durham, I was able to go to cinemas, bars and restaurants.
Yet, reaping the social benefits of Madrid in this period has not come without its complications, as the issue of Brexit finally fell upon us poor Brits living abroad. Bluntly turned away by the Spanish police for presenting them with my British passport at an appointment to obtain my foreign identity card (NIE), I remain in the long, bureaucratic process of making my stay here legal – over four months after my arrival. While my friends enjoyed a sovereign swim in the newly-liberated waters of Portsmouth, my home city, I was being advised by the local police not to travel back to the UK for Christmas due to complications on re-entry into Spain.
In this way, although I welcomed and enjoyed my Christmas tortilla, chorizo was not the meat I had expected to taste. Due to go back to the UK and spend Christmas there with my family, I had hopes of tucking into a traditional English roast. The new strain of Covid-19 in the UK was the icing on my Christmas cake, forcing me to cancel my flight home. The door to Europe and much of the rest of the world was slammed firmly shut; if I travelled back home, I would face the prospect of not being allowed back in.
I am due to finish my stint in Spain in late February, before heading off to the Middle East in March to complete my year abroad. Yet, once again, I face the prospect of a virtual experience as most Arabic speaking countries have currently barred entry to foreign students, making the prospect of face-to-face classes even more remote.
Nevertheless, I am grateful to have lived a happy, healthy four months in the Covid capital of Europe. While I would rather have an in-person, fully-immersed experience in an Arab country, I shall get some Lebaneat to hand just in case I have to stay at home.
Photo by Julian Ward