The tall avenues of nothing

I watch the scene at the top of the tall avenues: there's nothing. Barcelona is a city of fiestas and insofar as it's a city of siestas, the difference now is that the sleep people fall into is morose, immoderate.

It’s time to shop. It’s the only thing I can do, save procrastinating.

I go to the kosher supermarket close by, a mask covering my semitic nose. I’ve no idea why I’m buying expensive packets of frozen potato latkes. Perhaps it’s because I find it more purposeful than scrolling through Twitter or taking a bath.

I’ve heard the reports, we all have. The virus can be transmitted by touching surfaces – who knows, possibly even packets of potato and onion latkes?

It’s mildly reassuring to scan shelves stocked with the beef viennas, slices of smoked salmon and hardened biscuits of yore. I’ve no real reason to be here, but there’s a peculiar familiarity to the empty shop, even though I’m irreligious and not at all observant.

There are the excessively sweetened chocolate bars we only ever got to eat for Passover, and the dull comfort of powdered soups. I take my time. Its anomalous setting on this Sant Gervasi back-street means it’s unlikely anyone will soon step in. In any case, it’s closing soon, it’s ten-past five.

I value the shop’s Jewishness. The best description I can muster is that it’s not unlike smelling the lavender scent of Lenor on the guest towel a friend lends when you stay for a night at their house. You can dig your face in it, breathe in its warmth.

There’s nothing rational to my constant reaching out for new items, an orange sponge, or a marble cake which I’ll tear into like a caveman. I take a business card from the kippahed man in case he can later be of any assistance: what assistance it’s hard to forecast.

The curd-coloured apartment blocks outside are lit in sepia. It’s a scene fitting of a city like Napoli or Catania, but only in my imagination, visualising them caked in volcanic dust. A lone pharmacy on the junction with Muntaner shines sickly green, a cowboy tavern in the city’s Wild West.

I take a photo. ‘No,’ says a policeman who emerges from his parked car, ‘go home’. Only moments later, do I reflect, he probably didn’t want me to take photographs of the neighbouring synagogue. I explain, ‘Soy Judio’, which seems to have a calming effect.

I watch the scene at the top of the tall avenues: there’s nothing. Barcelona is a city of fiestas and insofar as it’s a city of siestas, the difference now is that the sleep people fall into is morose, immoderate.

A couple of weeks before, prior to lockdown, the nothingness was unsystematic and relative. The flashy designer stores on Passeig de Gracìa were emptier than usual. I went on a jog and looked inside Adolfo Dominguez, dressed in my jogging bottoms and stained hoodie. The handsome clerks manning the door looked at me with arched eyebrows, seemingly a badge of pride. There was an occasional tourist popping in; the sales continued.

The chatter was contracted; sales agents hurried over to see whether there was anything I wanted to purchase. In a similar store, further north, oversized XXL sweaters were still on sale, many weeks after the coldest and rainiest weeks had passed. A woman in middle-age nodded sympathetically, inwardly edging me on, hoping I’d secure her a commission and buy one, but I couldn’t. Elsewhere, the majority of stores had slashed their sale prices; many shops were in a fourth or even a fifth phase of their liquidacíon.

Bakeries were doing a roaring trade but was I right to pop in for a chocolate muffin in El Fornet, the high street café chain? Not many people were wearing masks. Very few distanced themselves from the women at the counter serving coffee. I walked up Muntaner, zig-zagged across Las Tres Torres, bounding higher to Sarría to reach Martí and Jina, my students.

Every Monday, I privately wondered whether this would be my last class – at least in person. The two of them would make occasional references to Coronavirus, jokes that were circulating in the playground. I tried to play it cool and would take a sip from my jug of water.

I didn’t indulge. Instead I’d deflect, imagining their yoga-teacher mother would favour lessons focused less on the virus and more on the imperative they pass future exams. Elsewhere, I heard at my nephew’s school in Paris, a classmate of his is facing racist taunts for being Chinese. I agreed with my sister we needed to double down and teach all the necessary lessons.

I pitched for various travel writing jobs but it seemed so obscene, or if I’m being kinder, irrelevant. Everyday, I’d check whether Jewish News had printed my trio of promised pieces on Lviv, Puebla and Aït Benhaddou, and every day I’d feel a droplet of disappointment. But then, even if they were published, I reflected, I’d hardly be publishing them in the most auspicious of circumstances. What luck! I’ll be pushing international travel just in time for its unholy nadir.

I was surprised the N for Norway in-flight magazine for Norwegian, the cross-Atlantic airline, was still commissioning travel features. I pitched something inconsequential about Barcelona’s hidden parks, having just sat in one, Jardi de la Fundació Julio Muñoz Ramonet. I warily avoided anyone else’s path, making a beeline for the one available bench. I was having little luck, an article here and a potential lead there. But then, days later, I heard Norwegian were probably going to need to lay off half of their staff. I received a curt but predictable email response, to the effect, ‘thanks, but no thanks.’

In my head, I railed at someone who I’d heard had acted unjustly to one of my closest family members – it’s better I don’t say who, not here. I also railed at the crushing sense of despondency their actions always generate.

And yet, nothing I experienced that week – Monday March 9th to Friday March 13th – felt suffused with the fixed dread I came to associate with the events of the following fortnight starting Monday March 16th.

Everything felt contingent, on future declarations from politicians and on that familiar, hoped-for miracle of the 21st century news agenda – a new story blowing in.

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