It’s hard not to keep referring back to the first experience of “lockdown”, especially one year on from when it all began. It was a time that we will never forget; it changed the way we think, communicate, prioritise, and live. Health, mental health, education, and relationships were all affected, as well as our daily routines.
At a time when we were urged to maintain distance from everyone, we were brought closer together, with frequent video calls helping to maintain vital communication with family and friends. For me, while living in a different country, under different restrictions during these times was one thing, spending confinimiento in a traditional Spanish apartment block was a whole other experience.
I gained a unique insight into the lives of mis vecinos that otherwise, I would never have had. We shared our daily lives in such close proximity, since no one could actually leave the building except for a closely monitored trip to the shop.
As a result, I learned a great deal, which has ultimately changed the way I live here.
It didn’t take long for the days to become structured by the sounds and smells of Spanish living, which drifted up through the shared internal courtyard and into our apartment.
As March turned into April, and April into May, the days got warmer. Every morning, shutters and windows opened almost in unison, everyone eager to entice the cool morning air into their homes to regulate the temperature for the heat that was sure to follow.
Washing was then hung out on lines that spanned window to window across the courtyard, sheets and towels dried in record time with barely a breeze, whilst creating welcome shade for the floors below.
Lunch – the main meal of the day – would be announced by the smell of garlic, meat stews, seafood and fresh bread wafting in through open windows in the middle of the afternoon. Having already eaten my “lunch” (a sandwich) hours before, the tempting smells prompted me to start prepping our next meal early, thus, falling even further out of sync with the rest of our neighbours.
It takes time to realise that you are living out of sync with an entire building (or society), but I won’t forget the day that it was brought starkly to my attention…
Unlike other countries, Spain had no daily exercise allowance. There was no precious hour to spend outdoors, breathing in the fresh air and stretching our legs. The only way to save my sanity was to get creative and start a hot and sticky home workout regime. And so, substituting weights for jars of chickpeas and lentils, I laid out my mat 3-4 dedicated times a week, turned the music up, and did what it took to loosen my limbs and clear my head.
One day, during a particularly tough session, I heard some commotion outside. I looked out into the courtyard to take a breather and have a nosey, only to see our downstairs neighbour hanging out her window, waving her fist and shouting – at me!
Still dizzy from tuck jumps but suddenly very aware, I tried to tune in to what she was saying. I panted an apology, sure that either the music (or my jumping) was the cause of her distress.
And so, I sheepishly continued with a gentler adaptation of the workouts and weeks passed before I felt bold enough to chance a burpee once more. I had already sacrificed all forms of cardio and the walk from kitchen to the couch just wasn’t enough…
Mid-workout there was a bang on the door. No visitors (except the delivery man) had frequented since pre-lockdown. Through the peep hole, I could see the angry little woman from downstairs standing in the doorway, with her hands on her hips.
I find it very difficult to grasp “expression” in Español, particularly with the addition of masks. I can’t tell if someone is apprehensive, angry, annoyed or amazed and the number of situations I have blown out of context as a result is frightening! But this time, I got the jist. A sweaty culprit, I opened the door and had nothing to offer in way of explanation, so I apologised profusely once more, and she retreated, mumbling something about “guiris”.
I felt desperately disappointed to have been denied the last opportunity to release the pent-up energy and tensions from weeks and weeks of confinement, and to have even more “restrictions” placed on me. But I was also upset to think I had been responsible for annoying one of my neighbours, so much so that she had to come and hunt me down. This was no time to be making enemies!
Could I really be that loud? I tried to reason it, maybe she had a chandelier or something. And then it dawned on me…
Everything goes quiet in the afternoons and when the only sound that can be heard is the sizzle of heat rising from the ground below, it must be la hora de la siesta. I realised with horror that I must have been the only person jumping up and down on wooden floorboards whilst the rest of the building was resting post-lunch!
It made me really tune in to all the other noises that can be heard day and night in our shared habitat, and I had to wonder if I was really the worst. Spanish apartments are full of LIFE. From the old lady singing along to songs of worship religiously every morning, to what our neighbours watch on TV. I know where the musicians reside and what songs need more practise than others. I hear the students upstairs partying far too late into the morning, I hear couples arguing, and often doing a lot more than that too…
After all, the windows are open, the walls are thin, and we live within breathing distance of each other. Yet now, we are still scared to share an elevator or touch the same door handle.
In the evenings when we opened our window for the nightly clap of appreciation, we would use this opportunity to make small talk (albeit limited) with our neighbour who was leaning out of hers, barely a metre away. We lived our lives just through the wall from her, day in, day out but it was moments like this which helped to connect us.
In time, we adapted. As noise resumes once more between 9 and 10pm, I am no longer the only one in the building boiling the kettle for a pre-bedtime cuppa when everyone else is tucking into their evening meal. Our mealtimes and bedtimes started to shift (as did the workouts), and this new schedule has become the norm. It fast-tracked us into the way of Spanish life that may otherwise have taken years to observe and grasp.
As always, it wasn’t the guidebook cultural immersion experience that one dreams of. There have been adjustments to make (including to our alarm clocks and digestive systems) and awkward encounters to navigate, but this is the brilliant reality. It was more than just a space we shared with our neighbours; it was an experience. An experience unique to every person but undeniably similar in some ways..
Of course, when the time came, I was overjoyed to leave the cramped apartment and take my thunderous tri-weekly jumping routine to the park where the grass had never looked greener.
But it is only then that I realised, that even when constricted, I had still found space to grow.