OPINIONColumns
i

Life under lockdown: The view from a Madrid window

EL PAÍS journalist José Manuel Abad Liñán describes looking out over Avenida de América on to a city that has been deeply changed by the coronavirus epidemic

The view from the author’s window in Madrid.
The view from the author’s window in Madrid.José Manuel Abad Liñán

Everything I can see from my window works. The buildings house people vertically and distract from what would otherwise be a flat landscape extending as far as the horizon. The tower blocks function, each of them different, robust, self-possessed. Balconies once relegated to open-air storage spaces have become a space for living. Architects designed them for human enjoyment, and now two, maybe three people are leaning on the railings. An everyday habit consigned for years to oblivion.

Those trees don’t care that I never wondered what species they were. They don’t care, since, before my eyes, they are budding for another year. And I suspect that birdsong was always there, only drowned out by the din of cars. Because where there was noise there are now sounds. Distinct, sequenced, predictable. Take ambulances. For the first few days, they still screamed insolently over the rumble of traffic. Now alone, without competitors, their sirens sound as civil as they are necessary. One went by at 8pm, just as people were applauding for Spain’s health workers.

What you can see is that the avenue no longer needs six traffic lanes. That the pigeons have stopped scrambling for leftovers on bar terraces

It’s not statistics I see from my window. Individuals are not the atoms of the crowd. What I see is just a woman with a basset hound, a girl in an orange anorak disappearing quickly round a corner. A solitary old man shuffling along in a pair of felt slippers. What will he do on his own now? What will he do on his own later?

Every day my window had showed a re-run of the same film and I had long ceased to notice. Now what it shows is more like a still frame, but one rich in detail. And for once in this city doing nothing is not a punishable offense.

From here you could not see the economy collapse as we started buying only the bare essentials. What you can see is that the avenue no longer needs six traffic lanes. That the pigeons have stopped scrambling for leftovers on bar terraces, and are eating the young leaves off twigs. The Madrid sky is finally the one Velázquez painted. The days have turned the blue of maps. Sleep comes shamefully easily. Outside of Twitter, the air smells like a village. It is as human to mourn for a specific person who has been lost to the virus as it is to read, with increasing numbness, about the “700”, “800”, “900 dead.” “The bare essentials” used to be “a roof, medicine, food.” Just that. Not even a window.

I see all that I can of Madrid from my window. To see further, I have to imagine. I imagine that the rest of the city, rid of people, will continue as before: everything ready for when we return, although it does not need us to go on existing.

I imagine, rather than see, one, two – my mind does not make it to 10 – strangers clinging to life with their respirators: motionless divers submerged in air. I imagine the curve of hope outpacing the curve of resignation, and the feverish activity in hospitals that are so close, but not there yet. Imagining is an act of faith for the non-believer. Better still, let’s call it trust.

English version by Karen Welch.

More information