White Clouds

A New Yorker moves to Madrid, March 1, 2020

Family portrait taken by our neighbor and new friend from the balcony across the street.
Family portrait taken by our neighbor and new friend from the balcony across the street.

A New Yorker moves to Madrid, March 1, 2020

It’s 7:59pm on Calle de Argensola. I step out onto the small, but profoundly adored, balcony beyond the French Doors in our living room. Across the street I see a vanilla colored building with warm white shutters, and sometimes, when the light is right, I see the lovely Mediterranean blue and butter yellow damask wallpaper on our neighbor’s Southernmost wall. Decorative plates hang symmetrically against the wallpaper, and an heirloom grandfather clock sits regally in the corner.

If our eyes meet, our neighbor will lend a sort of sheepish wave within his pressed button-down shirt and fine wool sweater (I’m impressed because it’s Sunday morning). I reply with an awkward, overly enthusiastic wave in my postpartum leggings and faux sheepskin house slippers, thrilled by the notion of a human interaction beyond my immediate family.

Our small street is located in the Justicia neighborhood (picture Williamsburg cool with a hint of Tribeca refined), of Madrid. The view from the sidewalk is lovely with enormous brown wooden doors that lead up to beautiful apartments, maybe 8 units per building, each with romantic ceiling moldings from days past. There’s a darling gourmet cheese shop at the end of the street that looks right out of a Wes Anderson film, and a children’s store whose windows boast toys your kid would own in your sweetest dreams (wooden, handmade, noiseless). On the corner there’s a chic tapas spot, famous for their razor clams, and next to it a camera and printing shop (a la 1999). That is of course what I remember our block to look like in the 13 days I enjoyed it between moving here from Brooklyn on March 1st, and going into government mandated quarantine on the 14th.

My regard for my physical appearance has begun to dwindle despite my best efforts to stretch out my pre-quarantine blow-dry with daily baby powder and spritzes of dry shampoo for longer than I’d like to admit. My raw, untamed bushel of curls has been set free, as have my varnish-free nails, now naked and cut very short to avoid capturing germs.

My reflection in the mirror strikes me as raw with dry forehead lines and violet tinted under-eyes that are typically concealed, even from myself. I’m exposed. I wince slightly at my reflection, yet sip in a breath as I marvel at the unexpected allure of a vision so untouched. I remember the Reinke Dykstra photographs I saw at the Guggenheim once — images of preteens in bathing suits at the beach, standing awkwardly as if their bodies were unknown to them. Their faces were unguarded, so undeniably embodied in the present moment.

It’s like when I was a kid and I’d come home from our annual father daughter camping trip with dirt between my toes and that campfire stench steeped into my skin. I remember savoring that crude reflection of myself in the mirror for a few moments, as the shower steam began to build in the bathroom, beckoning to polish up the rough surfaces. My reflection was earth-bound, feral even. She was, quite unexpectedly, beautiful.

I had fought the notion of a quarantine in a foreign country with the helpless inevitability of a paper airplane on the edge of a windswept cliff. Each syllable of news I took in unleashed that dreaded checker-boarding-vision-blur clouding up behind my eyes, and a quick plunge in blood sugar. Our dreams of a life here — wine bar hopping with new friends in Salamanca, pushing our baby’s carriage on early evening strolls through Retiro Park, and weekend getaways to the Douro Valley — these plans began to sink into the earth like a seed in winter soil, unable to blossom for months to come.

I shut myself off from all media for days, lighting a protective ring of fire around my consciousness, and forbade any entry. Like the Hypnobirthing trance I entered to deliver my son, I carefully sieved through the thoughts in my mind and allowed only the pearls of calm to seep into my psyche. This is sensation, not pain. I shrugged off concerned messages from back home, lest I crumble right then and there. The mere mention of New York began to tug me into the quicksand of doubt below, so I swat it away like a pest and nestled back safely into the cocoon in my mind.

Day two, day three, day four, and I allowed this cocoon to thin and wither, until I finally swallowed my reality: This was our home now. My husband and I agreed to wait out the storm from here in Madrid, thousands of miles from everything we knew, but safe somehow huddled up together. Once we had made the decision, we poured another glass of red and clinked in a solidarity that felt echoed cosmically by the ancestral constellations of our collective Chinese and Jewish pasts. Our people had been through worse than this, and that sent a surge of courage through the veins.

The surrender into full quarantine brought peace, like the relief of finally ducking your head under the water after wading into the cold, inch by painstaking inch. Like sitting on the back of a stallion, the giving over to the inevitable momentum of forces greater than myself allowed me to begin to dance with the danger of the unknown.

I haven’t so much as dipped a toe out of this apartment since March 14th, but within these walls a full universe exists. Words of love, bedtime lullabies, and even raucous laughter are shared through this small screen from Madrid to New York to Los Angeles to Tel Aviv. Time and space begin to melt away in a haze, as these limitations prove far inferior to the shared experience we are living across oceans and time zones. The camera on my sister’s phone takes me on a stroll through her fig tree lined backyard, while the microphone on mine echoes the hum of “Nuvole Bianche” (meaning “White Clouds” in Italian) as it’s played on the piano each afternoon by the man who lives in the flat below us. The song is dream-like, and yet aching, like watching the clouds drift through the sky in the movie version of your life.

As time stretches and bends, and days begin to blur together, moments are marked by the sweetness of each day, and a glimpse of the world through the eyes of a small boy. He kicks with excitement when I reach into his crib in the early morning, and echoes uproarious laughter from the most basic of peekaboo skills. No longer a sporadic luxury, our daily naps together (yes I often doze too) are now the norm because time, the ultimate luxury, is now something we possess. So I take in the way his breath smells of sugar-milk, and the feeling of his bunny-soft hair under my chin as he dozes off on my chest. And I love these moments with the forbidden desire of something you’re not supposed to prioritize anymore — simplicity. This string of days where lofty productivity dissolves, and tackling the simplest of needs is all one must do. The heirs and masks of accomplishments earned and talents celebrated fall away, and we are left with simply ourselves.

It’s now 8pm on Calle de Argensola. One by one, the lights flicker on up and down the block, as balcony doors open and strangers emerge. At first disparate, the clapping begins with the pregnant young couple across the way, and the small white haired woman behind the green shutters. More hands trickle in as communally, we humbly and wholeheartedly applaud our heroes on the front lines with all that we have because truly, this exile is a luxury, as we sit safe and warm in our homes while they claw towards another day. Clap by clap, the applause swells to an orchestra of gratitude. Until suddenly, we are all alone together, pulsing as one heartbeat.

I scan the faces to make sure everyone is still here, as if they were my ducklings, or second grade students on a field trip to the aquarium. Our neighbor across the way blows us her nightly kiss and sends a wink in the direction of the 7 month old on my hip, shaking his maraca in rhythm. I don’t yet know her name but in this moment she is my family.

Just as my weekly lighting of Shabbat candles reveals something holy by putting the tribulations of the week to rest, this nightly clapping reminds us that we are not just bodies susceptible to disease, but spirits capable of miracles. It’s a portal to a united catharsis that towers in strength above our individual solitude.

My young family is so new to this city, we don’t even speak the language.  Yet our unwavering commitment to this nightly choreography makes us an undeniable part of this small street, a vein of a city at an unprecedented moment in time. For in this moment, the barriers of culture and country have melted away, and a shared human soul echoes from home to home, down our street and onto the next. Lights flickering on across the globe, as we breathe together, watching one world crumble, and perhaps, the flicker of a new one beginning. 

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