The View From Spain

aerial photography of high rise buildings

Photo by Aleksandar Pasaric on

By Alex Finley

Growing up, my school was only ever canceled for snowstorms.

My son has had school canceled for snowstorms, windstorms, floods, an attempted coup, political protests, and now a pandemic.

My family and I moved to Barcelona from Rome last summer. It has been surreal and agonizing to watch my former home fall to the virus, while people in my new home carried on with their regular lives, somehow thinking Spain would be different than Italy. As Spain woke up to the crisis and slowly rolled its lockdown regulations into place, I watched the United States, where I am from, somehow think it would defy the odds.

My husband and I have had flashbacks to 9/11. Then, our apartment in Washington DC looked out on the flight pattern leading into National Airport. Before that tragic day, we would sit on our balcony and watch the planes come in, two minutes apart. After, we noticed the absence. The sky was empty.

Unlike then, there are no burning buildings now. There is no snowstorm. No hurricane. No shooting in the streets, as during an attempted coup we experienced. We don’t see the threat. We don’t see inside the hospital five blocks from our new home, where Barcelona’s first coronavirus patient was admitted less than a month ago. We don’t see the desperation on the doctors’ faces as they must choose who lives and who dies. We don’t see the hotels being converted into hospitals in Madrid. We don’t see the patients suffocating, wanting to rip tubes out of their own throats. But as we knew when those planes hit, we know the world is about to change.

It comes like a wave. You know, conceptually, that it is coming. Each day, you hear the tallies of infections and deaths. But you cannot comprehend the reality of what this pandemic will entail, even for those who manage not to get sick. And when it hits, it hits fast, crashing down on society.

First, my son’s soccer training was canceled. Then there were rumors about school closing the following week. Why wait five more days, if you know there is a threat? My husband and I discussed keeping our son home. In the end, the government made the decision to close schools the following day, much to my relief.

I was angry at the Spanish government for dawdling. Why did Spain think it would be different than Italy? With a full week of evidence and data out of Italy, Spain bickered and devolved into political battles. On March 8, the government encouraged everyone to go out in the streets to celebrate Women’s Day. Thousands marched in Madrid, Barcelona, and across Spain. One week later, we were in lockdown, the health care system cracking under the burden.

Throughout each day, we track the numbers. Less than a week before I wrote this, we were at fewer than 2,000 cases. Within two days, it had nearly doubled. When I wrote this a week ago, we had more than 9,000. And now as I edit it, we have more than 30,000. I check in on our elderly neighbors, who are afraid to open the door. They speak to me from a window. Going food shopping or taking out the trash is a respite from being cooped up in the apartment. We joke with our friends that we plan to borrow their dog, since walking pets is one of the few legitimate reasons to go outside. At least one person ran an advertisement offering to rent his dog for this purpose. These dogs are going to be exhausted.

Sometimes we watch a movie or exercise or dance in the kitchen. For a glorious period, everything feels normal. Then the movie ends and we come back to reality. Again, it is the absence that is most striking. The silence outside. The absence of life and energy in this normally vibrant city. We can’t leave our house and a war is being fought just up the street at the hospital.

Each night, we join the entire city, all of us on our terraces or hanging out our windows, to applaud the health care workers. We only moved here a few months ago. I don’t know the woman in the bathrobe on the terrace below me, or the young girls in yoga clothes on the rooftop across, or the young man banging on a pot from the next building over. But in that moment, we are one community. We are together. We are part of something bigger than ourselves. I wonder if the doctors and nurses five blocks away hear us. I hope so.

I understand that no one in the United States understands. We didn’t either, despite what we saw in Italy. But it is real, and it is coming.

My husband and I have done crises. Too many, in different countries. Once our son was born, we always had in place an emergency plan for him in case something were to happen to us. When I was working for the CIA in Europe and my son was a toddler, the Agency had a stream of intelligence suggesting terrorists were planning an attack in Europe, possibly in the city where we were. I remember the look on the face of the director of my son’s daycare. She thought I was crazy when I handed her the phone number of my parents in the United States. Just in case, I told her.

Now my son is old enough to take care of himself, to a point. We sat down the other day to discuss what to do if his father and I are in the hospital. We are in a new country. Who does he call? I showed him where his passport is, explained how to get money. How does he get to family in the United States? This is a discussion I had with my teenager, growing up in the time of Covid-19. I long for a simple snow day.





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