With a bit of perspective

Nothing seemed especially different that day, except perhaps the dissonance between the honeyed glow of the sun in people's smiling faces and the intuition none of us could afford to be complacent.

We’re a month on from those charged days in Barcelona, when I took up with morbid fascination the daily routine of reading the news from Lombardy, speculating how the Spanish government would respond.

I regret my actions, but did I really know what I was meant to be doing? It wasn’t clear carriers of the virus could unknowingly pass it on. I am a hypochondriac but I doubted I was sick (even doubting I am sick sits somewhere on that continuum). Even though I had a day where I was reclined on the spare room bed, and another where I had a tickle in my throat, if I had the virus it was mostly asymptomatic.

If I was experiencing the first signs of Covid-19, nothing progressed. It seems the vast majority of carriers had no idea they’d even caught it. If they went to the shops or marched in the streets of Madrid, as hundreds of thousands did on International Women’s Day on Sunday 8 March, they did so innocently, unwittingly catalysing the spread of the virus.

And yet, on Saturday 7 March, the sun shone bright – there was still a chill in the air – and I made a personal choice; I bounded up to Gaudí’s forgotten Bellesguard tower. That now counts as a regret.

The tour guide extended his hand to shake ours’, a trio of bewildered out-of-towners. Like me, the German couple on holiday seemed keen to drink from Barcelona’s cup, to absorb whichever museums and monuments remained open that we hadn’t hitherto visited. I calculated that my mental health was important in safeguarding my physical health and that without an excuse to venture outdoors, I’d sink into a depression.

There was a day or two where I had the whiff of despair and its pungent and claustrophobic properties. It wasn’t the deep swell of hopelessness I felt in November 1999 when I was informed Mum’s cancer was terminal, but it wasn’t an altogether alien emotion. It wasn’t from a different universe, since, in the moments after waking, I’d still look around the bed, to check the night hadn’t morphed into morning. And then the crushing acknowledgement would arrive that yes, events are inexorably rushing to a dreaded conclusion.

The point is this: those final few days before Pedro Sanchez’s lockdown announcement, I calibrated and calculated what was permissible in the absence of certain guidance. I mostly stayed indoors. I watched another Pedro, Pedro Almodovar’s Power and Glory – a second time – but this time I couldn’t concentrate and the film was drained of its colour. I watched Emmanuel Macron’s dramatic – dare I say it, sexually appealing speech – with the French tricolore silhouetted by his dark navy suit. He is ridiculously young and has a forgettable frame, but detailing new restrictions in France, he was very much the leader I was looking for.

On other nights, I followed Boris Johnson’s jockeying – the familiar jocular act, highlighting how he’d visited hospital patients and deemed it acceptable to shake people’s hands, all delivered with smiles and winks.

And yet, I return to Saturday 7 March, my personal act of failure. When I sat outside a restaurant designed with a nod to French architectural sensibilities, basking in the sunshine, content to speak to my Dad about his business and all the usual content that fills our conversations. I decided to walk. When I walked in Barcelona like I’d never previously walked, past the Modernista mansions on Avinguda de Tibidabo and later, steeply up to the narrow vegetated paths circling Parc de la Creuta del Coll with its high quarried walls. And then bounding again below, to a mix of Mediterranean shrubs, palms and acacias. I was invigorated by the clean air and the mental act of exploration.

Up again I went, past a hospital where even then, it’s true, I speculated some of the inpatients might have Coronavirus. Nothing seemed especially different that day, except perhaps the dissonance between the honeyed glow of the sun in people’s smiling faces and the intuition none of us could afford to be complacent.

I was utterly inconsistent, one moment applying sanitiser gel – after the Bellesguard guide bid us farewell with an ominous handshake – and yet, only moments earlier, I’d been blowing my nose.

Solitary in the cooled gallery at the bottom of the incomplete tower, I went for it big time, I blew my nose with all the might of a trombone player. A video was playing something inconsequential about Gaudí in the background. During the tour, I’d held my breath long enough to avoid spluttering and sneezes. Hindsight is a wonderful thing but who’s to say I wasn’t spreading the virus?

Who’s to say dozens of arty types and students weren’t spreading the virus hours later, when drifting amidst them on the Bunkers del Carmel, I went to check on the site’s World War Two history. Affecting the air of an accidental visitor, had I known then what was to become apparent days later, I too would have pumped myself with gasoline-coloured beer.

That was then. Tempers are now fraying; paranoias are becoming all-consuming. Some are judging, others are accusatory, for the most part, I’m seeing generosity. We’re all trying our best – with a little perspective.

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