Freshly connected

Freshly connected

It took a bit of time to get used to wearing a mask. Initially it was recommended but it soon became mandatory and it has been adhered to very seriously here, with 86% of Spanish people reporting that they always wear one to go out.

There was an adjustment period before it felt like a “normal” part of everyday life, and I was guilty of forgetting the rules. More than once, I pulled my mask aside to speak to someone, aware of how hard it can be to make myself understood at the best of times! It was only when I saw the looks of horror that I realised the error of my ways. After that, la mascarilla stayed firmly on my face.

Not only was it providing protection, but it seemed to be providing me with something else – confidence!

During lockdown, I had started to worry about how my language progress would be affected, amongst other things. Even though I had been receiving extra lessons and studying more than ever, I was concerned that there had been months of lost opportunities. Instead of being out practising in public, I had been confined to la casa, reading articles about coronavirus and learning lockdown-related vocab.  

So, I surprised myself when I first ventured out with my face covered. I headed to la farmacia (to collect more masks), and the encounter was effortless. I seemed to have no trouble being understood and I felt emboldened by my new guise! Afterwards, I joined a long queue for the post office and one by one, we were asked (from a distance) which service we required. Not only did I have to think on the spot and shout out in the street, but I also had an audience. However, with my face hidden behind a mask (and sunglasses), I felt less exposed and more confident than ever. Nothing was going to overthrow my joy and relief of being outside again!

But my confidence was short lived…

Last week, I answered the door to two men wearing masks and carrying tools (side note: one had a ponytail, the other was bald). I spied ID badges and heard the word “Wi-Fi” and before I knew it, they were in the apartment searching for the router!

It had been so long since anyone had been in my apartment, or my personal space, so I was taken aback to have two unexpected visitors roaming freely, looking for wires to wiggle.

I knew we hadn’t arranged this visit but couldn’t think how to communicate this. It was surely the worst time to forget every word of Spanish I had ever learnt, and I frantically searched my internal translator for: “I’m sorry, should I be expecting you?” (How very British).

I put on my mask (you can never be too careful) and we began a broken “conversation” with me trying to find out their intentions and them quizzing me about our provider. Communication works both ways of course and the confidence I once felt behind the mask soon turned to confusion when I struggled to understand a word they were saying! Deciphering their muffled speedy Spanish was impossible!

I loosely gestured at my mask, this time using it as an excuse for my mispronunciations and was waving my hands as I tried to tell them that there must be a mistake. I pleaded with them not to disconnect us, particularly during R’s important work call, which he quickly abandoned to come to my rescue, also trying to communicate that the router was to remain untouched (por favor).

(If only they knew how much effort it took to set-up our internet contract here. R had spent hours stretching out his limited Español over several phone calls, tirelessly translating and trying to spell out our names to the company who insisted they had no English speakers to help. It was an exhausting process but a huge step, and I was so impressed by his efforts so early on)!

Anyway, after about 10 minutes of this highly animated exchange, one of the men (the one with the ponytail) checked his phone and read out a name…

It was the name of my neighbour!

Now this, I could explain. I marched him to the front door and pointed out my neighbour’s apartment, all the while wondering how either of us could have been mistaken for José-Luis…

There was no answer at the door, but I gave them his phone number, glad that we had solved the misunderstanding that it was he, not I who wished to change internet provider during a global pandemic. They commenced their admin from my kitchen, and I hovered, unsure whether to offer café or begin disinfecting.

Eventually, they gave up calling and thanked me (IN ENGLISH) before taking their leave. I presumed they went to wait for my MIA neighbour in a more appropriate social distancing spot.

Con-mask or sin-mask, it wouldn’t have mattered. I decided this experience would have been just as strained and confusing either way.

We had a close call, almost being disconnected from our loved ones when the distance is already great enough. I suppose that’s the risk of inviting two masked hombres into your home without question!

Being unable to communicate what you want to say puts you in a position of vulnerability, and despite what I first thought, wearing masks has made things that little bit harder. But we are adaptable and as we learn to live as a masked society, we will find fresh ways to connect. We might master the art of reading deeper into each other’s eyes or express ourselves more through gestures.

And the muffled words that we do exchange will be precious, in any language (whether we understand them or not)!

Language efforts:


Hot water and lemon

Hot water and lemon

(Language learning in the time of corona)

Well, this is a strange one. We had just returned from two glorious weeks away celebrating my ancient husband’s milestone birthday…the BIG 30! He needed a bit of convincing that he really wasn’t THAT old, and he didn’t have THAT many grey hairs. I reminded him that he should be grateful for his health at least. Oh, the irony!

As we boarded a near-empty plane back to Madrid on the eve of the national lockdown, we hoped that good health was one thing we did have on our side.

Mild fear was setting in. We had been travelling around Cuba, using every form of transport you could name (save this for a quarantine game).  A beautiful and fascinating country, but not renowned for its hygiene standards and we soon got used to paying $1 for the pleasure of washing our hands in public! Then on to Miami where we arrived bang in the middle of Spring Break (WOO)! Hygiene standards here may have trumped Cuba, but so did the number of people, excitedly breathing over each other around the hotel pool while deciding where to brunch.

One night, in a South-Beach restaurant, a super enthusiastic waiter (read: American) began to drip feed us horror stories of hotels beginning to shut down, flights being cancelled, and restrictions on travel to Europe. We thought he was being dramatic, thriving on the growing media hype. Afterall, we had just spent a blissful Wi-Fi-free week in Cuba, shut off from information and free from worry. (But yes, of course we left a tip).

“Luck” had been on our side so far. We saw Miami Heat play the last game of the season and hopped on one of the last flights back to London to continue the big birthday celebrations with the family! Then we made it home to Madrid, as mentioned, just hours before the official lock-down began. It was a tense flight. R made the grave error of clearing his throat during take-off in an attempt to dislodge a stubborn piece of popcorn, and received a glare from a fellow passenger, who was both masked and gloved (a look that was soon to become the norm but at this point was terrifying)! As soon as we were high in the sky, a member of the cabin crew approached to check if R was sick. I quickly confiscated the popcorn and silenced him for the remainder of the flight. Too risky.

And here we are, 8 weeks into el confinamiento. We have enough food to make some much missed hearty dinners, but not so much that we could be accused of stockpiling. After all, we need an excuse to take an occasional outing to the supermarket, and there is only so much you can hoard in a rucksack and a bag for life! We learnt the do’s and don’ts along the way. On Day 2, still foggy from jet lag, we boldly ventured out together but soon discovered our mistake when an army guard shouted at us from across the street to move apart. And they say romance is dead…

Just a few months ago, we were travelling around Cuba without a care in the world, exercising a freedom that we took for granted – even holding hands! We had the invaluable opportunity to practise our Spanish and at times, felt elated with our notable progress and level of understanding. The mild surprise and encouragement from the Cuban people when we “tried” was a great incentive.

With weeks ahead confined to la casa, what better time could there be to improve even more? Now, I sign in for two Skype classes per week (looking semi-presentable from the waist up), then work my way through a free trial on Babbel for around one hour per day and listen to a range of language podcasts to help me drift off to sleep (I haven’t dreamt in Spanish yet but I am lead to believe this is a pivotal moment).

Last night we even watched ‘First Dates’ in Spanish! It’s amazing what you can learn from following the subtitles of people’s awkward first encounters! I currently have no one to practise my hilarious newfound phrases on, but my Spanish teacher could be in for a treat during our next online date… I mean class!