- Countries Visited: 9
- Travel Wishlist: I’d love to go to Italy again. Greece and Portugal would also be wonderful!
- Locked down in: Spain
“Then once the diplomatic flights stopped, it simply became financially unviable to return. At one point people were being told a flight to Australia from Europe would cost about AUD$17,000 and then you need to add another AUD$3000 for quarantine.“
In 2016 I moved to Spain and started living in Madrid. When I emigrated from Australia there was always some awareness that there would be times when it might be difficult or even impossible to travel back to Australia. I was fortunate enough to have an Italian immigrant as my grandfather and was aware of how much more difficult travelling to Australia was back in the 1940s and 1950s. He didn’t travel back to Italy until his own children were grown adults in the 1970s, so I felt lucky that these days flying between Europe and Australia is not nearly as long and arduous or expensive a journey as it used to be. At least not until the pandemic went into high gear in early 2020.
Rumours and panic started around cases coming from Italy into Spain during the month of February 2020. I had since moved from Madrid to the small city of Cuenca, which is a couple of hours away from the capital to pursue my university studies. In late February, my faculty, the faculty of fine arts (Facultad de Bellas Artes, UCLM) organised a bus excursion to Madrid for Art Week. All of the Spanish students were acting as normal, but my Chinese classmates were all donning face masks. I understood their panic as I was aware of the situation in China, but felt it was unnecessary when visiting some art fairs in Madrid.
Within two or three weeks of this excursion to Madrid, all of Spain was officially locked-down. We were given little more than two days notice that this would happen, and then once we were put into lockdown during the first wave, we were trapped in our houses for the next three months. We were only allowed to leave our house to go to the supermarket, the pharmacy or the doctor. We weren’t able to leave the house for exercise unless we were walking a pet dog and we definitely weren’t allowed to visit friends or family.
Spain has been hit incredibly hard. During the first lockdown, all non-essential businesses were closed and even some of the essential ones, such as fruit and vegetable shops closed as well. As a country, Spain is incredibly reliant on tourism and I think in 2019 it was the most visited country in Europe. The current economic statistics in Spain are terrible – there’s been an 11% drop in economic output during 2020, the worst since the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s. Many Spanish people I know personally that are around the same age as I am are either unemployed or are on the national furlough scheme. There’s also what’s happened on the health front… A lot of people have had or do have the Coronavirus in Spain (I think we’re up 2.7 million total cases), but the situation in terms of mortalities has been tragic. A lot of families and neighbours have been affected by what’s gone on in the community.
Fortunately for myself and other English teachers or native English speakers who work in education, our work has mostly been moved online. Children still need to learn and adults still want to upskill and add English to their CVs. I personally have only taught classes online since the beginning of last year and won’t be doing in-person classes until I am vaccinated (whenever that might be). I feel very lucky to be working online and earning a decent wage for Spain at this time when so many other people are doing it tough. As a result, I have been trying to be as generous as I can with the money I have, making donations to food banks in Madrid, helping out friends and regularly going out for coffee or a glass of wine when bars and cafes were open.
No, I never considered flying back to Australia during the lockdown. At the time of the first wave in Europe, I was aware that Australia was running regular diplomatic flights to evacuate Australians in Europe via the UK, and many did choose to leave Spain at this point as the conditions we were under here in Spain were incredibly tough and the economic situation can be classified as dire. I’m aware of at least one Australian acquaintance who took this option, but everyone else decided to stay due to family or work ties here in Spain. Then once the diplomatic flights stopped, it simply became financially unviable to return. At one point people were being told a flight to Australia from Europe would cost about AUD$17,000 and then you need to add another AUD$3000 for quarantine. I think the price has come down a bit since then, but I can already tell that travel between Spain and Aus isn’t going to be viable this year, and well, Spain is my home now.
Currently, the restrictions are changing daily. At the time of the first wave lockdown, the restrictions were being enforced by the central government, much to the annoyance of the 17 autonomous regions and two independent cities of Spain. So after we came out of lockdown in early June 2019, the central government decided to get out of the way and let the autonomous regions handle everything, which means that there is a literal picnic quilt of different restrictions throughout Spain. For example, I live in the autonomous region of Castilla La Mancha and right now all bars, restaurants, sports centres, gyms, libraries, art galleries and museums are closed. Over the border in Madrid, everything is still open, but trading hours are restricted. I could go on, but I won’t. At the moment I am more or less choosing to stay at home most of the time, as the infection rate in Spain is incredibly high.
I think 2021 is still going to be a tough year for those of us living in Spain. At the moment we can’t visit other cities or regions in the country, and the World Health Organisation has advised Spain to go into confinement again due to the number of Coronavirus cases, but we’ll see if that happens or not. I think the worst part is probably going to be the economy. So many people are out of work now and a lot of businesses have closed due to the pandemic. The government is continuing to pay the furlough scheme to try and contain unemployment, and it’s also introduced a minimum basic income, but implementation has been lacking. The same can be said about the vaccine program. One can only hope that the vaccination program gets up and running again soon. It would also be great if we can avoid another total collapse of the health system, but on current numbers, I’m not too sure that this will be possible.
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Update March 31st 2021
ANOTHER QUIET EASTER
It’s hard to believe that a year ago I was sitting in my apartment living through Spain’s first confinement, the harshest confinement in Europe at the time. In the weeks and days leading up to Easter, traditionally the most important religious holiday in Spain, a cloud of mournfulness shrouded the country as none of the traditional festivities would be celebrated. No street processions, no masses, no family gatherings.
I would sit in my living room, eating my breakfast and listening as the sirens of the ambulances whirred by (at this stage of the pandemic, Cuenca, a town of 55,000 people had more fatalities than the whole of Australia). Sometimes I would go out to my balcony during the day and look out onto the deserted street. Where once the terrace of a bar would be open and people would be talking loudly over a coffee or a beer now there was only the silence of stacked plastic chairs and tables, chained together. Even before the pandemic, most of the shops on my little street in Cuenca, a small interior city located between Madrid and Valencia, were already closed. Cuenca is the first stop of the so-called “Spanish Lapland”, the most depopulated region in Europe, a region which has been largely abandoned as the Spanish economy moved towards tourism in Madrid and the coastal cities of Barcelona and Valencia.
As the pandemic has continued in Spain, even more bars and shops have closed under the constantly changing regulations and economic hardships caused by COVID-19. I recently completed a new comic strip called “Home Alone” which depicts life during the months of January and February, when once again all bars and restaurants were shut during the third wave of the Coronavirus in Spain. I look out onto the depressing little scene that is my street devoid of life. In Spain, as in all of the Mediterranean, life is always happening in the street, it’s where you see your friends and family, enjoy the outdoors and be a part of the community. To see all of that put on hold is truly a sad sight to behold, as my Spanish teacher said to me at the time, “Us Spaniards can’t live without our terraces”.
Even though this year no-one in Spain can travel outside of the autonomous region they live in, and there’s a curfew in place, we still have the freedom to go outside and enjoy the sunshine. This Easter we can sit on the terrace with our friends or our family members and enjoy all the sights and sounds in the street. Today I walked up to the historic centre of Cuenca to see people walking around dressed in their Sunday best while carrying palm fronds, even if there was no procession. Again this Good Friday the plan will be that the musicians will be performing El Miserere from the balconies, but unlike last year I will be able to get a good view of the performance from down in the street rather than craning from my balcony to try and see and listen to the event.
Las Turbas de Cuenca perform El Miserere from their balconies during the confinement of 2020.
Easter, or Semana Santa as it is known in Spain, is truly a magical time of the year, even if you are like me and not at all religious. To see the sculptures, the processions, the music, the costumes, is always a moving experience and I’m genuinely hopeful that now the vaccination program is underway that Easter in Spain will be resurrected in all its glory in 2021. In the meantime, if you find yourself without much to do over the holiday break do a search for Easter or Holy Week processions in Spain so that you can see what the experience is all about! Wishing you and all your loved ones a happy and healthy Easter.