by Nicholas Benning
It was Friday, March 14th. I woke up for my job as an auxiliar de conversación (a foreign language teaching assistant). The schools had been closed to the students all week, yet I still had to go into the school to prepare lessons in case classes would resume after the two-week shutdown. I spent the day painting hopscotch squares, plain-colored mandalas that looked like bullseye targets, foursquare markings, and footprints for the children to jump on. The teachers were in high spirits and there was a lot of joking and camaraderie as they painted numbers and shapes together.
Late in the afternoon my roommate Jace, waking up from his siesta, told me rumors that they would shut down Madrid. I was nervous but decided to keep to my normal routine, so I went for a walk and got a café con leche. The streets were no less empty than before, the difference being that the elderly were walking with carts full of groceries. The cafes were still lively. I chose one near my apartment. It had large windows with plenty of natural sunlight for reading. I opened the novel Beloved. I was midway through and struggling to finish, but it recently had become easier to read. I needed something to take my mind off the crisis. The characters were so well written, their descriptions so lyrical, that it became easy for me to imagine the way they walked, talked, and how the lines of their faces changed while laughing or crying. My focus lasted for an hour and then it became impossible to keep reading without looking around and daydreaming. I became distracted by the scenery outside. In their usual haunt, a group of old men were smoking cigarillos and drinking pints of beer. The faint conversations I overheard would be about the coronavirus and the eventual lockdown; the impending change of life for many men and women who had kept to their daily routines and traditions since childhood.
That evening Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez had declared an estado de alarma. No one knew what restrictions would be in place. By then I was walking in the Ebro Park (el parque del ebro), pacing nervously on a path along the water. I had to answer a question and answer it quickly: should I stay in Spain or rush home? My friends, auxiliares as well, had told me that leaving was overreactive, that this would blow over in two to eight weeks and that our lives would resume again, teaching and traveling. My parents told me that if I didn’t leave immediately that I should prepare to stay indefinitely. They talked about being together as a family during this global crisis. I felt caught between two futures; to stay in Spain with hope that I could keep my former life or leave and have the company of my family.
In a time when questions had uncertain answers, my nerves turned to fear. Would it be the same lockdown that was in place in Italy? Would the airports be closed? If I was to get sick would my student health insurance cover me from a financial burden? Logic told me to go home, yet my emotions compelled me to stay longer, to be hopeful. I could rationalize my desire to stay too. I had made wonderful friends during my stay in Spain. And then there was Ezgi; an intelligent, loving person whose hand could sketch anything seen in nature, and the thought of leaving her made me feel sick to my stomach, made my head spin. A few days before, we were together having a picnic. Now, I was now thinking in that same park. Just the night before, we had met at three in the morning, and I told her of the possibility of me leaving. We sat on a bench, arm in arm, and didn’t say a single word, only looked at each other. Then I told her about my concerns with the virus, my family, being trapped in a foreign country. At the same time I daydreamed the romance of love under quarantine, of how close we could become. I could stay with her and become as close as ever, or I could leave and have the comfort and security of my home and family. I was scared and I needed a day to make my decision, but I eventually thought about our future after Spain. One of us would leave sooner or later, whether it was from the virus or after the program ended. If we couldn’t be separate from each other now than what would be different then?
And so, I decided to go home. I made my decision in the Ebro Park, pacing between the river and grass, and told my roommates shortly after. Graham was on a date watching Breakfast at Tiffany’s and I felt uncomfortable interrupting. I told him, commented on how much I loved the movie, and let them be alone. Jace was relaxing in his room, and I told him when he came out. He responded sympathetically to my decision. He knows how close I am to my family and that the best place to be during a crisis is wherever one feels the safest. The timing was not the best, as I would be leaving in the afternoon the next day and needed to pack that night. Our last night together was kept short. I was to leave on Sunday at six in the morning.
Packing was stressful, as it always has been to me, but the least concerning part of leaving. The biggest concern was the lack of euros I had on me. We wouldn’t be paid for another two weeks, and the American dollars I had couldn’t be converted as the banks closed on the weekends. I looked online to find if there was a baggage fee but couldn’t find any useful information. I knew that if the airport charged me more than fifty euros for my bags, or if they tacked on another fifty euros for oversized luggage, then I would be returning to Vancouver empty handed. It didn’t make sense to leave all my belongings in Spain though, so I packed a bag under fifty pounds and hoped that the airline didn’t charge for luggage.
I left some clothes and some books that I read in Spain: the script for Jean Renoir’s Rules of the Game (La Règle du jeu) and a book length collection of essays showing Carey Grant on the cover, retreating from an incoming airplane. I also had to leave Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and Kazuo Ishiguro’s An Artist of the Floating World. It seemed fortuitous that both novels dealt with themes of societal change, and how individuals react to this momentous burst in history. One shows the leader of the Ogbo people in Nigeria in a pivotal encounter, and the other shows a Japanese artist disgraced after World War II. The protagonists in both novels are apart in history, culture, language, and fortune, yet they are both confronted with the realization that things will never be as they were before.
As I was sitting on the bus to Madrid, this thought occurred to me in the context of my own life. How would the coronavirus and the measures imposed against it change how people treat each other? I was already nervous about sitting so close to everyone on the bus. Before the bus departed, a man offered me a chocolate chip cookie. Having not eaten all day, I accepted it without thinking and ate it. I was struck with the rational but bizarre thought that I shouldn’t have eaten it, that I was putting myself and my family at risk of contracting the disease because I touched food that was touched by someone else. It was an act of kindness, one that would have reminded me of the need for help and compassion, yet at present it is considered socially irresponsible. I wondered if this was to be the new normal. If people were going to be more distant from each other, not necessarily due to fear but out of habit.
People coughed on the bus and others looked at them with suspicion. Everyone was guilty in some way or another. Yet there was also a pleasant surprise amid the panic. I received messages from friends who I had not heard from since graduating college a year ago. Questions about my situation in Spain, news about how their countries or cities were handling the crisis, and the conversations evolved into the most basic facets of our lives, our hopes, our daily routines, our reading material, the films we have watched and will watch with our schedules remaining open indefinitely. One friend of mine, who has always struggled with anxiety, told me about how calm she has felt with her new lifestyle. She reads, is learning a language, waters her plants, exercises and eats healthy. The simplicity of each day brings the pleasure of completing small tasks; and with them the reward of self-improvement. I wondered if I would feel that same joy. If I would be organized and self-disciplined in my home. Or if the alternative would happen, if it would feel like house arrest, and I would waste my time away.
I arrived in Madrid. I spent half of the money I had left on a small hotel near the airport to get some sleep before I began my journey the next morning, so I was left with little money for dinner. It was the first night of the lockdown. Within a day of my decision to leave, all the bars, cafés, and sidewalks that make Spain such a lively country at night had come to a close. I asked a hotel employee where I could buy a simple, inexpensive meal and she directed me to a small market less than a mile away. I walked and didn’t see a soul. The only sign of life were the illuminated windows in all the apartment buildings. When I arrived at the market, I was sad to see that it had already closed for the night. I was angry and confused at the situation because nine o’clock is the usual time for dinner in Spain (actually, it is quite early) and all of the sudden it was taken away from me. However, on the walk back to the hotel the most surprising thing happened. Everyone stepped out onto their balconies and began to clap and cheer. I was confused, and so I asked a passerby in front of the hotel why. “Es para los medicos,” was his reply. I had never seen such solidarity before. I was delighted to see the Spanish people who I had grown to love so much over the last months so happy, and I slept more easily that night.
The next morning I got a taxi to the airport. The driver assured me with a warm smile that I would be one of his last clients before the lockdown. At the airport, I was surprised to see that there was a currency exchange. I wouldn’t have to say goodbye to my belongings. I suspected the process of going through customs would be a nightmare, so I arrived well in advance. To my surprise the customs agent stamped my passport and sent me on my flight to London just as quickly as my arrival to Spain months before. The flight was quick, and I read a chapter of Beloved before drifting to sleep.
In London, I couldn’t recognize a face. Everyone was wearing masks. It was new to me because in Spain no one was wearing them before I left. Now I was the one standing out. I went to a store but they were all sold out, and with a mixture of curiosity but also fear I wondered how everyone around me was able to buy one. It was the first time that I had experienced the shortage of certain essential goods. Of course in Spain, hand sanitizer had become a rare and precious commodity, but I didn’t realize just how drastic this shortage would be until I was sitting in the airport for a three hour layover. I read a few more chapters of Beloved (I often measure the course of my days by the novels I’m reading) and went to my gate. At the gate was the longest line of people I had ever seen at the airport. It dawned on me immediately that the flight would be filled with Canadians desperate to return home.
The flight was uneventful. I watched two movies: Terrence Malick’s A Hidden Life and Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel. I have always been a fan of the two filmmakers, and Anderson’s movie in particular has always had a special place in my heart, so I was able to get my mind off of things and be emotional about nothing related to the news. I don’t know the scientific reasoning behind it, but I have heard before from filmmakers and film enthusiasts that watching a movie on an airplane can make one more pensive and sad compared to watching it on the ground. Perhaps it is the recycled air. Regardless, I felt it while watching The Grand Budapest Hotel, a movie that I associate with an earlier, integral part of my life.
I fell for cinema at seventeen. I had lived in Boston for eight years and was soon to leave for college. At the same time that I left for college, my family was to move to Vancouver, so little did I know that I was in my final months of being a Bostonian. I went to see the film with a friend also named Nick, who I since haven’t seen or spoken to since leaving for college. We went downtown to the AMC Theater Loews adjacent to Boston Common. My parents and sisters were away. I had all the freedom that a seventeen year old could afford. I didn’t know a single quality about movies then, yet I had watched them every night with my mother to help pass the time between dinner and sleep. As a seventeen year old, I didn’t have the rebellious spirit that I would hear with most other teens. I didn’t drink yet, never smoked. Days without family were spent watching movies or reading in parks, nights involved seeing a friend and getting a cannoli in the North End. This evening was hardly different. We met up for a movie and were satisfied with that.
We sat in the middle of a sold-out show, and soon enough we heard the sound of faint yodeling. Then, we saw a girl walking, book in hand, outside of the snowy cemetery in a European village. The whole picture has a faint pink and orange hue. In the cemetery, there is a bust of a mustached man with glasses, and keys are attached to the plinth below his head. She opens up a book and we see a picture of the author. Suddenly it is his story, and he begins to tell it, transferring us to 1968 shortly before the hotel’s eventual demolition. Within the author’s story he is vacationing at the Grand Budapest Hotel, where he meets Mister Mustafa. They dine together, and the aging Mustafa begins to tell his story about Monsieur Gustave, the original concierge of the hotel. The chapter on Monsieur Gustave is entrenched in the history of the 1930’s, and through this backdrop Anderson is able to play with the outdated grace and decadence of the age. I had never seen anything like it before on the screen. I was taken away. The timeline of the movie spans a century, yet it felt unbelievably natural, more real than lived life. I didn’t have the vocabulary then to describe it, but the narrative device used in the film is a frame story, within a frame story, within a frame story, within another frame story. Four different yet interrelated lives, on the outside tenuously connected by something as simple as a book.
As a thinker in his early stages, I left the theater with a vague perception about the beauty of simple things taken for granted. How light hits the side of someone’s face, how the color pink makes one crave sweets, how a light hand gesture reveals more about a person’s thoughts than their words. Art became a vehicle for me to make sense of the world. I was also astonished with the beauty of Europe. In the movie, it is portrayed as a fantasy, yet being young I didn’t know any better. For many Americans, especially the young and slightly romantic, Europe is the ivory tower. It is as well-ordered and fated as the stone that makes up the square buildings. Me and my friend Nick walked back to my apartment to watch a few more movies. We didn’t say a word the whole walk home.
What I can say now is that, from that moment on, there began two important desires within me. Desires that I have never fully understood until recently. First, that I would carry an intense desire to learn European language, culture, and customs. For the next four years in college, I learned Spanish, studied the writers that defined a century, and wrote about them. Studying abroad in Sevilla and then returning to Spain again to teach English in Logroño would not only help me make my final leap with my comprehension of Spanish, but would also help me live the languid pace, the long nights drinking and dancing, the short mornings reading, the afternoons eating pinchos, and in the evening, going for long walks without a destination. “Esta es a cultura española,” said a friend Javier outside of a bar at 3 a.m., emphasizing a stereotype that Spain is a haven for the restless. Yet to me it was more than a good time. It was a sanctuary. I loved my time in Spain because of its impermanence. I was lost and alone, two qualities that can give one absolute freedom. I could watch any movie I wanted, read, practice my language abilities, and meet exciting new people just as lost as me. We were young and not ready to begin our lives. The cubicle, marriage, children were nothing more than an intangible idea. We were paid little but it was enough to live comfortably. We didn’t need any more.
I loved my time in Spain because of its impermanence.
I was lost and alone, two qualities that can give one absolute freedom.
The second desire was to understand and learn as much as I could about art. I became obsessed with it in college, over-consumptive. I have calmed down in recent years, yet it is still an impulse. I have to watch a movie or read a novel, a poem, a photograph, everyday or I feel a void stretching inside. It is a desire that I have never understood, and one that surely motivated my decision to live in Europe. There, I only had to work part time, so I had plenty of afternoons and evenings to read and watch films. I tried to rationalize to myself that a year in Europe would be like my own personal film school. I would watch as many films as possible. I would learn as much about cinema as possible. And indeed I fulfilled that dream (though there is always another film to be seen). I watched one nearly everyday. I watched the films that inspired the filmmakers I admired, and when I didn’t watch a movie I would read about them, talk about them with anyone who was willing to listen, practice visualization so that my mind’s eye was stronger. Like any person trapped between the artistic and lived reality, I would closely observe the sights and sounds of a city so unknown to me. The moving images of those old men laughing outside the bar, children playing football in the park, the lights on the floats with crosses on them — traditions outside of my own that I had come to know as an outsider — images of Spain that I now carry within me.
It was an eleven hour flight from London to Vancouver yet it passed by quickly. When the plane landed, the fasten-seatbelt sign did not turn off, and the other passengers and I sat waiting for several minutes. One of the flight attendants announced that members of the CDC would evaluate us. I expected a team of people wearing white hazmat suits to enter the plane and take our temperatures. Instead three men where whisked off the plane for evaluation while the rest of us grabbed our belongings and left as we would usually leave a plane. As I waited in the crammed aisle to exit the plane, a flight attendant joked about the three men coming from high risk countries. I didn’t find it funny but other people laughed, and I wondered if they were reacting out of fear or humor.
Before I got on the flight, I had heard the horror stories occurring in American airports at the time — the seven hour long lines of people standing inches from each other. In Canada it was business as usual. The customs officer asked me where I was coming from. I expected to see his face express concern when I told him I was arriving from Spain. It had become the epicenter of the disease alongside Italy. I thought they would separate me from the line and evaluate my health, but nothing like that happened. The officer gave me a sheet of paper detailing how to self-isolate from everyone else. It said to maintain a two meter (six feet) radius from other people, as well as to avoid large crowds. I was surprised to see that I was allowed to leave my apartment as long as I respected social-distancing, and when I left to go get my bags, I thought the restrictions seemed lax in comparison to Europe’s. Just twenty four hours before, it had become illegal to lie in a park in Spain.
I was not able to hug my mom when I saw her again, and for two weeks I stayed apart from my family. There were moments where the anxiety about me having the disease were high, and other times when we would forget about our self-imposed household restrictions and were grateful to be with each other. In those moments, we would break our unwritten rule and watch a movie on the couch, sitting next to each other. But for the most part, I was alone. At first, I was comforted with the influx of messages from old friends, who like me, had nothing on their schedule anymore and all the time to talk about how the virus had impacted their lives. After a few days, though, people established their new routines under quarantine, and it no longer became imminent to talk. Even with less to do people were distracted, and our connections became latent again, unread.
During those two weeks, the sun rose every morning, and while the view from my window is a brick office building, I could see the blue skies and birds flying in the reflections of the windows across from my building. In my extreme boredom, I learned every detail about my room. My routine was dramatically simple, and for that reason, psychologically challenging. Between waking, eating, reading, writing and sleeping, I had all the time to think about where I had just come from and where I would be next. Nothing came to my mind more than Ezgi. When I said something she always responded, and likewise I to her. As days passed I could tell that it was becoming harder to sustain a conversation, and no matter how delightful it was to receive a message, or hear the other’s voice, it felt like our thoughts kept returning to the distance between us. When I would talk about long distance relationships with friends in the past, their tone was usually skeptical and different from mine. I always thought that it was a great opportunity to truly know someone, to learn as much about the person in their own words, to say that you love them not physically but intellectually. I understand the counterargument against my own, though. When two people are oceans apart they can become an idea, and like all ideas, it is easy to lose them somewhere.
Yet to become an idea to another person is only one possibility. To say that we don’t care for each other is a lie. Despite the distance being a barrier there is no reason for us to not talk, and we do so everyday. I have learned a lot about her childhood and she of mine. She is honest and tells me when she needs space. I sometimes lose track of time and don’t respond to her. I see her drawings and she sees my writing: what we aspire to become, extensions of ourselves. By her example, I’ve learned a lot about humility, and I’m grateful to have met her in that bar along a boulevard.
After the two weeks were up, the first thing I did was go on a long walk with our Dalmatian, Valentina. Walking in Vancouver is different than in Logroño. I no longer have the fun of hearing Spanish on the streets and deciphering it in my head. I no longer have the hazy afternoons, the siestas at two when I felt like the only person in the city, the nights where people stay out until three or four in the morning, talking and dancing. Vancouver is far more baroque. The glass and steel buildings, the water reflecting on them, all of it surrounded by snowcapped mountains. Strangers walking with quiet reservation. All cities have a personality and Vancouver, like the constant reflection occurring inside of it, is one of unspoken introspection. To me, at least. After my walk I finished reading Beloved.
Nicholas Benning was born Sherwood, Oregon, and lived there fully until he was eleven years old. He lived in Boston for eight years, visiting his family in Oregon every summer, before attending Bard College in 2015. He loves playing hockey, riding horses, film, and reading whenever the opportunity presents itself.