Half my heart making its way across the peninsula; the uncertain hope your loved one will return home. If I had a hanky, I would wave it.
I am unsure in this city that may be home, or not.
Then a tug – a reminder to walk, breaking asphalt into country tracks; blocks replaced by blossoms, breeze and birds.
The cornfields glow in praise of early risers. I walk past huertos tilled and toiled with such care that I am sure they are growing love itself in those beds. Sunflowers turn their heads to watch me and the sun walk by.
Onto the little path down, down into the forest where I used to hold my breath as I passed through; wishing for a dog to keep me safe from the fears that skulk and skitter in my mind, lodged there by news and life.
A trickle of the river accompanies me, no longer the winter torrent, and I name it as I cross over and back, learning the seasons through water. An acequia quenches the fields and parches somewhere else.
Chirping, cricking, buzzing in the long grasses. A shuffle of movement or scurry of fear at my footsteps. A burble of water tumbling over old trunks or the hush of absence where man has dammed it.
Clouds. Hazy layers languish overhead until the heat melts away their indolence. Later they will storm in again tall as castles, hail, thunder and lighting raining down from fluffy ramparts.
Wildflowers alive like disco lights rebel against the dead grass. A dandelion leans into the wind waiting to be blown into purpose.
Looking up at the trenches on the hill I want to shout: boys, there are red butterflies where you shed your blood, and they know nothing of war.
Hay cut and stacked leans to the side like a farmer´s tired hip.
And light and water and birdcall.
Is there anything more alive than this?
And people tell me I should come home. But they do not understand that snails grow like flowers here, roots stretch under water and home is anywhere you listen to and love.
A swan circles in close patrolling the lido steps.
A white haired Italian lady arrives early shaking her towel and announcing her desire to ‘take the sun’ today.
There are couples who come only for a quick photo. One that turns into takes and re-takes smiling only when they push the button.
A paddle board glides across the water; silent as if appearing out of the last of the morning mist. Two teenage girls sit cross legged on top tossing their long hair and giggling. There is a third younger girl sat on the very end of the board her legs moving in the water. Her only job is to paddle the newly found sophistication of the others around the lake. Her face is upturned to the sky, eyes closed and smile wide.
Women wear bathers not bikinis here.
There is a loud cheer for the first person to jump from the lido into the promising green water of the lake. It is a woman and her euphoria disappears when she realises the great task of getting herself from the lapping water back onto the wooden jetty. Everyone looks away as she hoists herself up onto one of the vertical jetty poles, clambering and turning like a bad dancer.
Bombastic boys bask in the best days of their youth; they arrive noisily but no one minds as they shove and shout to each other their energy reminding us of what it was like in those golden days. They whip off t-shirts and shorts but there in their trunks the jostling stops as they wonder who will be bravest to jump in first.
The swan returns circling carefully and watching the action for food or danger.
The morning mist takes leave of the water and returns it to the turquoise of daytime.
Then a splash, the natural order of things meant the best looking of the boys dived in first feeling the pressure of his group and not wanting to lose his place. His entry is met with jubilant whoops and cries of delight from his gang. The other sunbathers smile indulgently. Four boys follow him like bullets and leave only their largest friend on the side still cheering loudly but unwilling to jump.
The colours roll green and grey from the mountains through terracota rooftops and down to the emerald green of the water.
The boys use their large friend to jump easily out of the water pulled up by his great height. His smile is wide this time. They settle in for sunbathing. All is peaceful.
The lake retains a stillness and only a large boat cruising in the distance makes the water lap hurriedly against the wood of the lido.
The paddle board enters from the other side this time. The silver haired lady chuckles as the boys’ heads bob up in a line. The younger sister this time steals the limelight by managing a standing dive into the water. The two sisters scrabble to follow her, trying desperately to keep their hair out of the water; false laughter covering their irritation.
The nonchalant gaze of the boys wills the girls to swim over to the lido. The circles between the girls and the lido as if warning them off. The older girls scrabble aboard pulling their younger sister up only to push her off again cruelly. But she is fearless, untouchable in her connection with the lake and simply glides alongside them; a smiling mermaid.
One by one the bathers leave the afternoon heat for a shady lunch somewhere.
When all is quiet the swan makes her final circle of the lido; a soloist waiting for her applause.
This is the first post in a series called Armchair Travel. It’s not a travel guide or a list of ‘must do’ things; it is simply the photos I took interspersed with the notes that I wrote in my notebook.
By the Lakeside:
“I am at the lakeside watching the clouds rise and roll over the high peaks set over the greenish water. There is peace here. Quietude. The sense of being in the company of others much older than I – the cliffs; those sentinels; eternal observers; guardians of the lake perhaps? Last night the lake was celestial. Water like liquid silver with a heavy mist hanging over every upright shape; transforming them; softening everything into pastel colours. There must be legends here, there is too much magic for a human mind not to have been driven deep into its own imagination.
How many people have sat here, at this lakeside, over thousands of years? How many people have watched the clouds, felt the freshness of a breeze over the water, the steady presence of the rock? And before that? What has lived here, thrived, died and decayed? And why do we feel the need to set ourselves so much apart from that? Is it our collective fear of death? That which makes us cling to life, to our possessions, to what we think we can control… I wish we used the word ancestor more.”
I’m feeling uncertain today about a lot of things, inner and outer.
Whether to go further inwards into books, meditation, yoga and writing or to engage and ‘stay outside’ with video calls,social media and news. The instinct goes towards both; swinging wildly back and fore; the desire to sleep a lot or the anxious ceiling staring hours of not sleeping, the calm mindfulness of presence or worrying about the future, the act of eating everything in the cupboards or having no appetite at all, of there being enough space in the flat for two and not enough room to even breathe alone, the fear of an unseen enemy and the desire to run outside shouting, ‘come on then, let’s get it over with.’ The yin and yang of it all. The balance of that.
A feel sometimes as if I am nosediving into nostalgia; re-reading old notebooks full of yearning and potential, feeling the empty space at my side of all those who have gone already, re-feeling things. Wanting to go home in the truest sense of hiraeth, that inexplicable longing for a place or moment in time that no longer exists; a time of safety, of grandparents and estuaries, sepia photos and bikes with stabilisers, playing in the garden and believing the stories we were told; before we knew better, before we knew that we we should have known better.
And curled around that. The deep peace of having arrived at this moment as I am. Of being here now and having to accept what is and what will come. Falling back into it. Trusting. Noticing small details; watching the birds each morning and evening over the rooftops; a flower has opened purple petals and is reaching for the sun; the voices of friends; the rise and fall of my cats breathing and the softness of their fur; a heartbeat – mine or his that means we are still here. The feeling that all that has been lived has been lived well because I have learnt, survived, adapted and forgiven.
The simple act of putting of one foot in front of the other, no matter what is behind or in front that we as humans we are capable of; even after great loss or even with great joy; one breath, one step at a time – leaving or arriving or simply resting on the way home.
Going out. I’m going to leave the flat for the first time in three weeks. I can’t believe it has been that long; between working online, checking in with loved ones, reading the news, reacting to the news and sleeping a lot it has all gone by in a surreal, sometimes peaceful often anxious whirl.
Today is the designated day for buying more food. We made a list and checked if we really do need to go out. Talked about the difference between needs and wants. There is caution for ourselves and others. I read an article today about the importance of masks in reducing transmission of the virus. I tell my partner that it feels important to wear one. He listens to my regurgitation of a morning spent reading articles and checking scientific notes and agrees.
There’s a video on YouTube about using just two elastic bands and some material to make a mask. I stand with him on our balcony, the sun shining on us after a week of rain, folding material and laughing at various bad attempts. And this is it – the strange normality that we all have in the moments when we are not thinking about the virus. Human moments. I make a mask out of a pink pillowcase that ends up looking like a ridiculous bottom stuck onto my face. We fall about laughing. Our life here is about reusing and recycling, constantly discovering new ways to consume less and give new life to things we have; we are used to being seen as poor when in fact we feel richer for it. And here we are making masks from old scarves because people are dying, because we don’t want to die ourselves or cause any one else to; yet here we are also laughing and taking a picture because we look like we are going to hold up a petrol station. This is it – balancing on a thin line between knowing and being.
Ready to leave the house I am wearing, a new improved mask, gloves and hair tied back. I slip on my shoes outside the door and leave my slippers at the ‘disinfection station’ we’ve set up by the front door: a bag for our clothes when we get back, box for the keys, phones, credit cards etc; slippers ready to head straight to the shower. My glasses steam up; the mask feels heavy and the gloves make my hands sweat.
Then I’m outside. Out listening to nothing but birdsong in the city centre. I cross the central plaza. It is completely empty. It is both the set of an apocalyptic film and a peaceful dream. The sound of the birds is wonderful. I can almost forget why my breath is misting behind a cloth mask. I pass a woman with her shopping trolley at a respectable distance. Two women trot through the square in high heels, estilo Córdobesa; wide tan trousers, cream shirts and glossy blond locks; they seem like ghosts from life a few weeks ago. They’re not wearing masks or gloves and eye me pityingly; don’t they know that the virus doesn’t care about beauty or social status?
At the supermarket, there is a man sitting in the doorway. A usually busy street with a bar across the road is simply filled with a silence that makes our presence together the more obvious. I say hello, he asks if I have any change and I’m sorry that I don’t and explain that we have to pay by card now. He nods and smiles. I feel like a privileged idiot. He is wearing gloves and has a bag beside him. I think of offering the pair of medical gloves I have in my bag and again feel silly. I could offer the apples I just bought. It is rude not to offer anything but I’m nervous about offending him and end up just hovering nearby as a young man arrives trailing two Shih Tzu dogs. He stops to tie them to the railing and the older man calls out to him, ‘I’ll hold them for you.’ ‘They’ll bite you’ he says and I wonder if it’s true. The older man says he doesn’t mind that he loves dogs, so he is handed the leash nonchalantly. He pulls the dogs closer to him and begins a conversation with them. The delight on his face is beautiful to see. He reaches out to touch the black and white dog and as promised it snaps at him baring its teeth before they both begin barking and yapping as only small dogs can. It makes me laugh and he laughs too. ‘Be careful.’ I call out to him, my voice hidden in folds of thick cloth. He looks at me and shakes his head as the dog rolls over and lets him pet its belly. He is in a world where only he and the dogs exist in the pure joy of this interaction.
The young man comes out of the shop. He’s carrying a large can of energy drink which he pops open with one hand. He takes a cigarette from behind his ear and lights it before grabbing the lead, ‘Cheers mate, see you.’ He calls out, music blaring from a mini boom box on his belt as he struts off. The older man is still smiling and watching the dogs as they go around the corner.
There is a thought I’ve had many times since quarantine began – it begins with ‘What about…’ and there is an endless list; homeless people, victims of sex traffing, abuse, domestic violence; all the way to animals abandoned by their owners. I feel guilty that I don’t have the answers.
I pass the bus stop near our flat and there are three women sat waiting, they all wear the same blue and white polo shirts with the brand of a cleaning services company on it. They are in their late fifties.
Outside, it doesn’t take long to feel the inequality of it.
Birds. I heard birds in the city centre for the first time as I woke on day two of the quarantine here. Not just the odd caw that we hear off our balcony when the pigeons are preparing for the day or coming home to roost on the abandoned building opposite, but a full symphony of birds making their morning calls to each other. It was beautiful.
Anyone who has ever been to Andalucía will know that one thing you cannot get away from here is the noise. It’s not bad noise, but a low level hum and thrum of life; of animated conversations, traffic, shutters going up and down, glasses and plates clinking in bars, the odd moto piercing your ears, children and dogs. A cacophony of life. It’s both reassuring, you certainly don’t feel alone here, and also overwhelming, especially at times like Easter or Feria when most of the city is in the street at all hours. We live in the centre of this city and sometimes it grates but it’s a small price to pay to live a really good life.
The absence of noise on that first morning after quarantine began was both peaceful and surreal. Andalucía is its people; the warmth and life of the city; an unstoppable energy that goes to bed at 2am and can get up again at 7am. I’m often in awe of people’s stamina and the insatiable need to be with other people outside; in bars, cafés, terraces, parks – life here is lived outdoors.
So, taking the majority of people off the street over these last nine days – the absence of noise is noticeable and has added a lovely peace to the quarantine. But there are moments. Moments for people to express themselves outside – on our balconies at 8pm we all go out to applaud the workers that cannot stay at home. It is jubilant. I’ve seen neighbours in the surrounding flats who I’ve never met but now smile and wave at every evening. Living in a city is sociable but you tend to have ‘your’ places, the café or bar for breakfast, the fruit shop, market, the neighbours in your building, the bar below you; it’s possible to be greeting people all day here. Yet, all those faces on the balconies are unfamiliar to me. I’ve been wondering if we’ll recognise each other in the street after all this (if we’re lucky enough to make it that far.)
The atmosphere has also been subdued. We’re all scared and unsure. But slowly an untameable spirit is coming back – the applause at 8pm has got longer each day followed by emotional shouts of ¡Viva! and ¡Viva España! There is solidarity. A sense of being in it together. Today I heard friends shouting from the street to a balcony; there was joy in those words; the jaleo and buzz won’t be away for long.
But what about the silence? I have heard owls at night too and this morning a blackbird was perched on the terrace singing. It hypnotised me for a few minutes – I’ve never seen one on the balcony before; in the park yes but not in the city. And that is what’s happening in so many places – nature is taking steps towards us. An entire flock of geese waddled across the Arenal bridge today and were uploaded to social media. We hear the canals in Venice are clearing. What other beauty is there to come from our absence? How long will it take for the concrete to start greening and will anyone really want to stop it?
It feels like a wonderful secret; that although for the terrible reasons we are at home – the wilderness is coming back and it doesn’t take long. Can we bear it? To take a moment to breathe in and know that we are not separate from this in the same way that we are not separate from each other? Can we turn towards it knowing what we have done, knowing it isn’t looking to forgive us, simply to envelop us in the net of symbiosis that we have opted out of.
Will we remember to listen in stillness to the birds when we go outside again?
It’s day 7 of the national ‘lockdown’ here in Andalucía, Spain. Life changed overnight as the rise in cases of the Covid-19 virus caused the government to act quickly and announce legislation for new national measures to protect citizens and residents.
Even typing that sentence feels surreal. I’ve lived in Andalucía for nearly seven years and I’m lucky enough to call the city of Córdoba my home; yet, I would never have imagined that I would be sat here, having been sent home from my teaching job with all my books and equipment, waiting with my partner to listen to the President’s speech.
A week earlier, my students had been regaling me with stories about the virus. The teen groups were especially scandalous and no sooner would they sit down in the classroom than they’d all want to start talking about the latest news they’d read or heard. They were excited, something was happening somewhere and they’d all had new mobile for Christmas so now they could follow the news; but at that point it was still far away enough for it to be the kind of threat they were so used to seeing in films and series, one that wouldn’t touch them. How did we all get so naive? A capitalist system of growth, growth, sell, sell, pushes us all on and gives this false idea that if we all have things, if we all have work, if we can all have all the conveniences that we desire, if we are all productive and striving then – what could touch us? Now we have the answer.
And we are all at once so human that we are forced to recognise our fragility and for most of us this is terrifying.
The mood here in Spain is one of social responsibility, #quedateencasa was quick to appear on social networks. The President talked of solidarity, unity and collaboration. There is a large police and military resource here to enforce the new legislations should it be needed, although generally people are scared and seem happy enough to be at home if they can (People who aren’t able to work at home and frontline workers are still going to work) I’m very ‘happy’ to be at home and lucky to be able to continue teaching online for the moment at least. No one knows where this crisis will lead us but there is a definite mood here which is – we’re all in it together – and that is reassuring.
We’re all learning things each day as the quarantine continues; whether it’s how to navigate your family relationships, hearing birds in the city for the first time or deciding what is the difference between needing and wanting something. There are lots of online posts about the earth needing this break, Venice’s canals are running clear, people are finding time to switch off and reconnect. We use stories to make meaning and we need some meaning right now.
I thought I’d start this blog series #notesfromapandemic to reflect on being here in a flat in Córdoba with my partner and two cats in the middle of a pandemic; of being scared and yet at the same time having normality and more quiet time; and all the thoughts and feelings that this throws up. I’d love for it to become a conversation with other people about what we are all feeling and thinking; what we are afraid of and how we’re dealing with it; what’s different and what’s the same and what this means on a human level for us all. If you feel like talking – leave a comment – write a response – what we have at the moment is connection.
These are my notebooks, if the building was burning I’d go back for them, they are years of pouring heart out onto pages, ideas, reflections, sketches, poems and writing. I return to them regularly, it’s a beautiful act of time travel to go back into your head before you knew what you know now.
I love reading them they are raw and inspired, honest, sometimes uncomfortable but always great tools for reflection, and the purest memories of feelings, sensations and moments that needed to be written. I’ve only every thrown one away… into the fire, an act of spiritual exorcism at the time, the first part of a chronicle of a mad, passionate and unhealthy love affair that nearly took me out, I’ve got the second part, and often wish I could re-read the first. Not for the memories, I’ve got those to work with but for the words, the choice of the words is everything, the shape of them, the way they were thrown onto the page, exhaled or bleeding, the form they naturally took, line breaks, space the gaps between things happening.
I couldn’t sleep last night so I got these out looking for a specific poem that I wrote and used to perform at readings, I didn’t find it but got lost in another dream of things written when life was all sea walks, music and night fires. I wrote another one looking from here to there and knowing a lot more, a blank page was filled, a little more expressed, and I found one, a recent one about dreaming of rain and I breathed some space into it on the pages. It feels full of something, a notion that’ll come clear reading it back years later, and so I write my truths, and for that life is good today.