This is part of an ongoing Das Tor series: T-birds Under Quarantine. We asked current students to write personal narratives of their experiences while in quarantine during the COVID-19 Pandemic, varying in location, restrictions, and personal situations.
A night in Spanish quarantine
It was day 35 of coronavirus quarantine in Bilbao, Spain.
My neighbors were singing “Start of Something New” from Disney’s High School Musical at the top of their lungs.
Was I surprised by this impromptu karaoke session? No, not in the slightest. A welcome relief to desperately bored Spaniards under quarantine, Disney’s new streaming service had just launched in Spain. I could always tell which movie my neighbors had watched during the day based on the slightly off-key songs I heard trickling through our shared apartment walls at night.
As I bustled around my kitchen cleaning up dinner, the rush of water from the faucet and the clink of plates melded with the song, and I smiled slightly at the irony of the chorus. “The start of something new” was the absolute opposite of the reality we were living under quarantine. However, quarantine in Spain was not without its surprises, whether it be nighttime High School Musical karaoke, an impromptu neighborhood concert, or even a missing turtle. By this point in quarantine, nothing surprised me.
How this all happened
If you asked me at the beginning of January 2020 what I thought I would be doing during mid-March in Spain, my answer would have been very different. I had been living in Spain since August, participating in an intensive international business and cultural immersion program. In January, coronavirus was a flu-like illness that was causing problems in China. Concerning, yes, but not for someone in Spain. I was enjoying the immersion program and classes at the local university, working in an internship at a local consulting firm, and making plans with fellow program participants to travel around Europe during spring break. As coronavirus began its steady march across the globe, we watched with concern but without a full comprehension of the impact it would soon have on our lives.
I remember the day I received the news the in-person immersion program was canceled like it was yesterday.
I was cleaning up the kitchen after dinner when my phone pinged, alerting me to an email. When I opened it and started reading, my stomach sank.
“We regret to inform you that due to the rising number of COVID-19 cases in Spain, we are terminating the in-person program effective immediately,” I was informed. “All coursework will transition online, and you are expected to return to the United States as soon as possible.”
It then became almost impossible to read the email, as my phone exploded with messages on the group chat for program participants. A wave of expressions of disbelief, crying emojis, and anger washed in. The next couple of hours were a blur, as students worked to arrange transportation and say goodbye.
I had a different strategy.
Earlier in the program, I had negotiated a private apartment contract in Spanish and was not dependent on the immersion program for housing. I also had made several connections in the local community and was informed by my internship company that I could continue working with them, regardless of the status of the in-person program.
When the email came regarding the closing of the program, I sprang into action, finding private insurance, arguing my case with the program provider, and ultimately negotiating special permission to remain in Spain to finish the cultural immersion program.
By the time the dust settled, I was the only program participant remaining in Spain.
A couple of days later, the Spanish government declared a state of alarm and imposed a nation-wide quarantine to stop the spread of the coronavirus. This marked the start of one of the longest and most restrictive quarantines in all of Europe.
As I settled into my apartment, alone, to wait out the quarantine, I had no idea the experiences I would have during quarantine. However, I can say without a doubt that living through the coronavirus pandemic in Spain is something I will never forget.
The first days
The first day of quarantine in Spain was quiet, too quiet.
I live on a quiet residential street in Spain, but there are always runners out in the morning, people walking their dogs, or older folks strolling to the bakery to pick up their pan del día.
When I woke up on the first day of the quarantine, it was eerily silent on the street.
As I opened up my window to breathe in the fresh morning air, I surveyed the landscape of apartment buildings and noticed something strange. I wasn’t the only one poking my head out the window. Rather, I saw my neighbors, peering out of their windows and venturing uncertainly onto their balconies. We waved to each other, hesitantly at first, but then with a smile, acknowledging the odd, dream-like moment we were all living.
On the first night in quarantine at 8 p.m., I was alarmed for a moment when I heard a loud noise coming from outside. Opening up a window, I saw neighbors hanging out of windows, on balconies, all fervently clapping and cheering. I joined in, puzzled at first. I then saw my neighbors, Laura and Borja, whose balcony was located right next to my window.
“Isn’t this great?” Laura shouted to me in Spanish as she clapped. “We’re thanking the medical workers for their hard work fighting against the coronavirus.”
After that evening, I participated every night in the clapping. As time went on, it evolved from a thirty-second event to a social hour for the entire neighborhood. Afterward, we would leave our windows open and chat, balcony to balcony, about the day. As we watched the sunset, we made plans about what we would do when coronavirus ended, where we would go first. Amazingly, I met people who lived a couple of apartments down from me for the first time during the quarantine.
Laura and Borja even celebrated their first anniversary on their balcony with the neighborhood, squeezing in a small card table and having appetizers and a bottle of wine with us as the sun set.
Finding a routine
Aside from the 8 p.m. social hour, the hour before lunch became a sacred hour as our time under quarantine continued. One beautiful day during quarantine, I was talking to Laura and Borja across balconies, enjoying the feeling of the sun on my face. Suddenly, the opening notes of a guitar drifted through the air up to us. Pausing our conversation, we looked around in confusion before realizing the sound was coming from our neighbor below. Our surprise and delight increased further as she began to sing, a rich, throaty sound that drew more neighbors out onto their balconies. When she completed the first song, a wave of applause cascaded across the neighborhood. This daily concert became a staple of quarantine life, an opportunity for us to break the monotony of the day by talking with each other and enjoying the talent of our neighbor.
As the days went on in quarantine, I settled more or less into a routine. I’d get up lazily around 9 a.m., eat some breakfast and watch the news, clean up the kitchen, and start working at my computer. Around noon, I’d poke my head out the window, enjoy a neighborhood concert and chat with my neighbors, and then make lunch. Afternoons were filled with more work, often with my windows flung open and my chair turned around so I had a clear view of the blue, cloud-dotted sky. The evenings were reserved for yoga, clapping and social hour, and a late-night dinner before I went to bed, knowing I’d wake up to the same situation as the day before.
While I had a routine, Spanish quarantine was anything but monotonous. There were days where it rained, and the neighborhood concert was postponed to the next day, replaced by chats across the apartment hall and exchanges of piping hot containers filled with homemade soup or tortilla de patata (a Spanish omelet). There was a day when my neighbor with the guitar began playing a traditional Basque song, a classic in the Spanish Basque Country, and the rest of the neighborhood joined in singing, their voices swelling in a shared melody that seemed to send the message that we would all be okay. There was the evening that I watched a sunset while talking about the future with Laura and Borja, the sun painting the sky in breathtaking purple and pink hues as it descended.
There were funny moments under quarantine, too. There was the day Laura calmly walked out onto her balcony, screamed “Me aburro” (I’m bored) at the top of her lungs to the whole neighborhood, and walked back inside without further comment. No one even blinked.
There was the time I saw an elderly woman walking around in her bra and underpants on the rooftop of her building. One time, my neighbors across the street brought a radio out onto their balcony, put on music at full volume, and started jumping up and down wildly, even bringing out their dog, grabbing his paws, and making him dance along as well.
And, of course, there was Pepa, the missing turtle.
The day Pepa made her first appearance (or disappearance, rather) was a normal Tuesday under quarantine. I was seated on my couch, legs tucked under me in the same position as always, working on the computer. Suddenly, however, I heard a loud rumbling coming from Laura and Borja’s apartment. It was followed by an ear-splitting scraping sound and more rumbling. It sounded like they were tearing apart their apartment.
I shrugged and returned to my work, a testament to how much quarantine had desensitized me. I forgot about the noise until the evening when I saw Laura and Borja after our 8 p.m. clapping session.
Borja came out onto his balcony first, a sheepish grin on his face. “I don’t suppose you’ve seen a turtle…” he began.
Of all the things I was expecting to hear, this was the last. I asked him to repeat himself because I thought I heard him wrong.
The story that followed was the most epic tale to come out of Spanish quarantine.
Borja had been out buying bread when he found a small turtle in the middle of the road. In a quantum leap of faith, he picked it up, christened it with the name Pepa, and brought it home as a pet for him and Laura. When he arrived home, he stuck Pepa out on the balcony and went inside to take a traditional Spanish mid-afternoon nap, leaving the door between the apartment and the balcony open. When he woke from the nap, Pepa was missing, lost somewhere in their tiny apartment.
This explained the loud rumblings I had been hearing all day—Laura and Borja had been tearing apart their apartment, moving around their furniture, and trying to find a missing turtle.
The most stunning thing about this situation was the fact that they hadn’t yet found Pepa. Our apartments were small, so small that I could walk from one end of my apartment to another in exactly 14 seconds (not that I was counting during quarantine or anything).
The fact that a small turtle was able to hide in our comically small apartments was astounding. As a result, Borja had concluded that Pepa had possibly migrated from his balcony through my open window, meaning that I had an unwelcome houseguest.
By this point, Laura had wandered out onto the balcony as well. As she listened to Borja talk, she sent me a bemused look that seemed to say, “I can’t believe I put up with this every day.”
Since we were all out on our balconies after evening clapping, the rest of the neighborhood soon got involved in the discussion about Pepa’s whereabouts. Suddenly, theories were flying across the balconies in rapid-fire Spanish, one neighbor talking over the other in their excitement to solve the mystery of the missing turtle.
Some neighbors believed she was still in Laura and Borja’s apartment. Others thought there was a hole between apartment walls that she had found and slipped through. Others were firmly convinced she had made it through my window and was enjoying life as my new roommate.
Cell phones came out, as people began searching what foods would draw out a missing turtle from hiding. One of my neighbors across the street had owned turtles in the past and recommended leaving out a piece of fresh lettuce until Laura and Borja could buy traditional turtle food from the store. More than eager to find Pepa and prove she wasn’t living uninvited in my apartment, I immediately provided this lettuce.
By the time we went to bed that evening, the neighborhood was in a fervor, waiting with bated breath to hear whether Pepa would be found during the night.
The next morning, Laura and Borja stepped onto the balcony solemnly to share the news: During the night, Pepa had reappeared on their balcony in the same position as the day before, almost as if she had never left.
The neighborhood rejoiced.
I was just happy I didn’t have a turtle for a housemate.
After that saga, Pepa became our neighborhood mascot during the quarantine. During neighborhood concerts or after clapping in the evening, it was very common for neighbors to inquire about her, wanting to know how she was doing that day.
Pepa had become a shared neighborhood project, a shining symbol of one good, lasting moment that came out of our coronavirus quarantine.
On 2 May 2020, almost 50 days since the beginning of the state of alarm in mid-March, the Spanish government began the slow process of lifting quarantine restrictions.
When I began classes at Thunderbird in Fall 2020, living the new normal that is life post-coronavirus, many things had changed since the end of our springtime quarantine.
Our midafternoon neighborhood concerts and evening clapping sessions had stopped. I saw my neighbors less often since we became able to move about more freely.
Most tragically, Laura and Borja moved to another part of town, into an apartment they had been renovating when coronavirus first hit. Pepa went with them.
While things changed since the end of quarantine, some things remained. Of course, the masks I saw every time I left my apartment were a clear symbol of how life had changed since the beginning of March 2020.
More importantly, however, I left quarantine with a better understanding of my neighborhood and the community I lived in. Every time I ventured out of my apartment, I was greeted by familiar faces, whose stories I now know due to our shared time under quarantine.
I also feel that I have a better understanding and appreciation of the Spanish culture, better because of my time under quarantine. The strength, empathy, and sense of community that I saw every day during the daily neighborhood concerts, evening clapping sessions, and even our quest to find Pepa will remain imprinted in my memory for the rest of my life.
While coronavirus disrupted my plans and transformed the entire world in a matter of months, I know I will always remember this unprecedented era not just for the disruption and tragedy, but also for the friendships, bonds, and community that came out of it.
That, and one very popular turtle named Pepa.