Sundays at Cafe Comercial

I’ve lived in Spain twice, once taking a semester off at the start of my junior year in college, and once four years later. Both times I mostly lived in Madrid.

Madrid seemed familiar to me at first, a big city that reminded me of my hometown of New York. But Spanish culture and the patterns of daily life were very un-American at the time. The siesta still existed, meaning long breaks at 2pm for lunch, and the workday stretched to 8pm. You couldn’t start dinner at a restaurant before 10pm unless you wanted to eat alone.

The thing I noticed most, though, were Sundays.

On Sundays, nearly everything was closed. A whole vibrant, dynamic city shut itself down for the day.

When I first lived in Spain, those Sundays felt endless. I spent a huge amount of energy grumbling about things being closed, noticing all the things I couldn’t do, and, finally and reluctantly, finding ways to fill my time.

I moved back to Spain four years later, and this second time around I more quickly slipped into the culture and rhythm of the place. I began to notice the beauty of the different way things were done: going to lots of little shops one at time to shop on Saturdays (a fruit shop, a cheese shop, a butcher) wasn’t worse than having everything at one supermarket. Yes, it was slower, but I got to know the couple that ran Tomad Mucha Fruta, and they got to know me. I talked each week to the butcher, and to the many abuelas on line with me, about how a stew or a roast had turned out and what I would make the following week. My now-wife and I would have long conversations with the cheese guy (she also had a crush on him…and how can you compete with a guy who is good looking AND sells cheese?) All of this wove us into the fabric of our neighborhood and the local community.

Sundays were the biggest difference. This second time around, ‘nothing to do’ was something I began to understand intuitively. A few months into the year, my wife and I created a lovely routine. We’d print out the NY Times Sunday Crossword (newly possible thanks to the internet) and make our way to one of Madrid’s big old coffee shops, Café Comercial. We’d settle in with a big café con leche, maybe a palmeira or other snack, and pass half the day reading, talking and doing the crossword.

Those Sundays were far and away the most peaceful time I had during that year.

Everything being closed meant we had nowhere to be. Having nowhere to be meant we could embrace moving slowly, letting time be expansive, and truly taking a day of rest.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m as ready as you are for “shelter in place” to become a thing of the past. But that’s not happening any time soon.

So, let’s allow ourselves—those of who are not on the front lines, bravely serving others with a fraction of the support they need or deserve—to reframe this moment.

Let’s allow time to pass differently.

Let’s be thankful for what we have, and sometimes, just sometimes, to experience our inability to do all we want to do as a new kind of freedom.

The Second Wave

A week ago, I felt ahead of the coronavirus curve. Our town had closed schools as of the prior Sunday night, so our kids were already at home. Our community had started social distancing and I was already staying home from work. Meanwhile, the rest of the country, and most of the rest of the world, was going about business as usual.

What a difference a week makes.

If last week my community was living through a first, early wave, this week everyone everywhere got hit head-on with a mammoth second wave, and it’s knocked us off our feet.

My sister-in-law runs a wonderful commercial bakery in Nashville, and nearly all the restaurants in town are running skeleton operations and will soon be shut down. She and countless others running small businesses have no playbook for “the economy grinds to a halt.” For now, she and the restaurants are doing what they can to keep paying their staff, but that can’t last forever. What happens 3-4 weeks from now?

She, and I, and every small business owner in the country and the world spent the early part of this week running all the numbers: our revenues, our costs, our cash. We’re trying to make plans but have no crystal ball to tell us how big a hit this will be and how long it will last.

Are we stopping everything for a few weeks or for a few months?

Come mid-April, will we have adjusted to a new normal, a pulled-back version of what we know, one in which everything functions, albeit at 60-70% its normal capacity?

Or is it possible that major parts of the economy, our school systems, our houses of worship, our community service organizations, and our social fabric all stay offline for months or longer while our healthcare system gets crushed by demand that is a multiple of its current capacity?

Honestly, it is all too much to get my head around.

And, in truth, while all of this worries me, I quietly fear that in a few months’ time I will look back longingly to a time when I was mostly thinking about changes in regular life instead of worrying about the health and well-being of people I know and love.

I pray every day that what we’re all doing will buy us the time we need and avert the worst-case scenarios.

Instead of trying to make sense of it all, I’m doing what I can to keep focused on the present, to do what I can to take care of my family and myself, to stay connected to the people I work with and the customers we serve, and to find ways, big and small, to support one another.

I notice that our 60 Decibels team is much more active online—new Slack channels are coming to life, and everyone is much more responsive. It’s become OK to spend time on a Zoom call just asking how people are doing, to speak about feelings and experiences. These are all good things.

I’ve also noticed is how differently time is passing. Without a regular schedule, the days have lost their structure, so they are bleeding into one another. A morning or afternoon might fly by, but the days themselves feel slow, sometimes plodding. Every time I count how long it’s been since schools shut down–8 days, as of today–the number feels woefully small compared to what’s to come.

I, along with a number of people around me, have…some sort of illness. It’s some combination of a low fever, a tight chest, aches, listlessness. Normally we’d take a DayQuill and get on with things, but now we realize that we could be the ones spreading this thing if we’re not careful, and of course its scary to think of the worst scenarios. So, we alert everyone we’ve been in contact with over the last 10 days (nearly nobody), while at the same time all deciding that there’s no point in trying to get tested because tests aren’t available.

This means we don’t know, and we won’t know, if we have a cold or the flu or the coronavirus, and I expect most of us never will. Even the relief of catching the virus, getting over it, and having immunity eludes us because of the embarrassing, dangerous lack-of-response to this pandemic that’s our reality in the United States.

At the same time, there have also been many wonderful moments over these last eight days. I’m definitely spending more time, and different time, with my children. We, and they, have gone for many more hikes. They are, by necessity, much more independent, venturing off on walks and through parks without us, the sort of unstructured free play that’s all but vanished in our modern, over-parented and over-scheduled era. I’ve taught my third-grade daughter how to add fractions—I didn’t just help her with her homework, I taught it to her from scratch. We’ve brought the ping-pong table back out and everyone’s eager to play. We are eating all our meals together and cooking even more than we normally do (which is a lot). Mostly, we can get the groceries that we want.

When they ask, we tell our kids this has never happened before, that it’s unprecedented. I think we’re failing to communicate the scale of our un-knowing. We are all children in the face of this new era that’s smacked us in the face, with no experience to guide us, no intuition to inform where we are relative to where we will be.

Stay safe, stay positive, and let’s take good care of each other.