I’ve come for a morning coffee, I’m allowed to here. The insides of bars and cafés are closed but we can sit outside. Actually I shouldn’t need to make the distinction here. They’re all bars, in that everywhere serves plenty of alcohol. Cafés are cuter places in the UK, with a variety of cakes and pots of tea. Here’s it’s coffee in small glasses, pale brown with a thick froth of milk on top. At some point towards mid morning, depending if it’s a weekend or not, glasses of wine and beer will creep in amongst the coffee orders, wine comes in tall stemmed big bulbed glasses with precious liquid carelessly sloshed in without measurement and available at about a quarter of the price of the UK.
I order my cortado, a shot of espresso with a few drops of milk under the foam lid and it comes in a tiny cup with a churro on the side, an extruded piping of choux pastry dough, deep fried. It’s crusty and greasy all at once, the star shaped nozzle of the piping bag creating many small ridges for the oil to fry up. I find them great in small doses, but also tasting very strongly of the oil they were fried in; however they are much loved here, people dipping them into coffee for the breakfast snack. There’s a churro truck at the bi-weekly market, billowing out the smell of old oil, always with a queue, as has the cheese truck.
But the closures. Yes. Nobody can cluster together any more, nobody can stand at the bar in full flow of loud chitchat, forcing others to shoulder between bodies for their order of drinks and nibbles. Tables are placed out in the street, sometimes one or two and sometimes a thin line along the length of the bar front, creeping a little at either end, trying to maximise the space for customers. The most unlucky business have simply closed, those without enough outdoor space to cover running costs stand at maybe 30% of all the bars I see. Another 30% are the luckiest in these times of restriction, those who have conservatories, gazebos, rooms in all but name. There are outdoor spaces that can hold customers, gas heaters pluming a barely contained streak of heat up to the ceiling and out through all the many gaps to open air. Here is where we all gather now, the brave Bierzan Spaniards in their winter coats. With masks at varying degrees of mast they gesture and sip and talk. A lot. There is always talking, perhaps the taciturn ones stay at home, relieved by the pandemic of this constant oratory peer pressure.
To listen as a foreigner is to hear language gone galloping, sometimes rabbited out so impressively quickly that it blurs from identifiable words into staccato syllables.
There are faint flicks of hands for emphasis, fleeting touches of arms, and I wonder just how much more restrained the pandemic has made people. What would I have seen a year ago? Or more now, so long has this pandemic been going on.
Carnival was cancelled; the big street party celebration for the start of lent. A scattering of parents brought their children out to walk the pavements that Sunday, with a few sprinklings of fancy dress that hinted at the event that wasn’t, the incongruous sight of a child running along the street in a princess dress, a few firework booms that night, echoing guiltily.
Short men gather outside shops, plant their walking sticks and pass the news around.
A middle aged woman and a very old one sit on a bench at the edge of the main square and play cards, placing their plays onto a flattened shopping bag.
I have no idea what is normal here, what has distorted and what is maintained.
The strangest feeling is when I have forgotten that I am wearing a mask, that I am sitting here comfortably obscured rather than consciously, that when people look at me they only see eyes behind a shield, same as everybody else.
I order an orange juice and am offered a small square of tortilla with bread, a beer comes with a tiny bowl of chickpea and tripe stew. The ubiquitous pinchos continually make me wonder how these places turn profit when they give food away with every coffee. The waitress passes, tray of glasses balanced high in one hand, she has curly brown hair and large beautiful round eyes. I wonder what her smile is like. The man ahead of me watches her bum, encapsulated in tight jeans, as she walks through the gazebo, I guess he doesn’t need to know today.
I walk to another place, through the streets which are neither bustling or deserted. It’s another normal quiet day in this city of 65,000, an unknown proportion of whom are staying at home. There’s another pair of women on a street bench, another younger one with a very old one. The younger plump girl is showing the elderly lady something on her phone and speaking very loudly into her ear. They look up as I walk past and I not only catch the younger one’s eye but we exchange a smile, squeezing our eyes in synchronised acknowledgement from behind our masks. It’s a small victory in this walled off world, where flickers of eye contact are so difficult to turn into connection without other facial signals.
I’ve come to a restaurant today, in search of pizza. It’s almost my birthday and on that day I will treat myself to a full three course menu del dia with bottle of red wine, but today I’m having a pizza. The albergue I’m staying in has a basic kitchen but the oven is broken so my desire for cheese melted onto dough is thwarted unless I pay elsewhere.
I’m enjoying the genteel smoothness of my service, black clad waiters zipping glasses and cutlery in and out. The menu was a QR code, slid onto the table on a laminated card.
A woman comes to my table, the first inside the gazebo, clutching an armful of children’s colouring books, which she tries to sell me. Her eyes are tired, ringed with dark skin. I remember her from last week, when I was having coffee with a couple who welcomed me here when I arrived, a pilgrim in need of shelter, and we were approached by the same woman. When we all declined the puzzle books she burst out that she had a disabled child at home and no work. That time we all said no, something about the group refusal, one coldness leading to another. This time though, I pull out my handful of change and palm it over to her. She tilts her hand to count the coins before she says thank you, assessing the gift. I recognise her in her brusqueness, the tiredness and desperation of having minimal choices right now.
There is a social kitchen here, where an average of 70 people turn up to eat two meals a day, seven days a week for 1 euro a time. When the pandemic first hit, a year ago, the church owned pilgrim hostel was opened to bring the homeless in off the street, until they could be housed. Now, I still see men begging for money, people who don’t look like typical street homeless, just ordinary middle aged guys. Spain’s unemployment rate increased by more than 600,000 people in 2020.
I am very lucky in this time, I know. It is not merely that I have enough money to stay alive, it is that I have enough to keep pursuing my dreams, in no small part because those dreams consist of living on much less than most consider acceptable.
Life appears to continue as normal, clothing shops await browsers, the bread vans make deliveries, the cafés are full of chatter, a bottle of orujo, grape liqueur, makes the rounds of all the tables for people to add a few drops into their coffee. But there are hidden stories in each apartment of the tall buildings that surround me, as impenetrable right now as a smile behind a mask.