EXCERPT: Living through the coronavirus pandemic abroad

Read the full story here: https://themilsource.com/2020/03/16/an-american-in-madrid-living-through-the-coronavirus-pandemic-abroad/

I wrote this about the last week in Madrid as the COVID-19 pandemic spread and Spain imposed strict rules to fight the spread. This is just the first portion, follow the link to read the whole piece.


Thursday was a tipping point. It felt that way when I woke that morning. United States President Donald Trump spoke to the US on Wednesday from the Oval Office to explain the US government’s efforts to address the COVID-19 pandemic. On the list of measures was a ban on travelers from Europe’s Schengen Area.

I learned of the travel ban a few hours later after waking up in my apartment in Madrid, Spain (inside the Schengen). In less than a month, my girlfriend, Helen, and I were set to travel to the US. It would be my first time in my home country since the summer of 2017, and her first time meeting most of my family. With the president’s announcement, though, plans were suddenly uncertain.

As an American citizen, I am permitted to travel to the US. Helen, however, is British and has lived in Spain for 11 years. There is no reason to hope she would be granted an exception.

It’s Thursday morning, and everything is up in the air.

Spain amidst COVID-19

Earlier in the week, the Spanish government designated three regions of the country – Madrid, La Rioja, and the Basque Country – as transmission hubs for COVID-19. Schools were required to close in those regions for two weeks, starting March 11.

In Madrid, that directly affected my friends who are part of the sizeable “expatriate,” or expat, community. They are teachers and auxiliaries. The program of “Auxiliares de Conversacion,” which literally means “conversation assistants,” places thousands of native English speakers in elementary and secondary classrooms around the country.

We are among the many Americans, Canadians, Britons and more who came to Spain to teach English as a second language. There is a considerable market here for English speakers, as Spanish people are eager to learn the language.

With concerns about COVID-19 intensifying, the expats in Madrid were adapting to their changing situations.

“It’s been very chaotic since no one really has a clear understanding about what’s going on,” explained James, a friend who works at an English academy. Shortly after the original announcement of school closures, he learned the language academies were not required to close, so his situation remained uncertain for days. Eventually, like most businesses in Madrid, his school closed.

My friends told me they’ve been in contact with people back home. Both Casey, originally from Minnesota, and Calla, from Kentucky, said they had spoken with family back home about the situation both here and in the US.

“I think we’re all at about the same level of concern,” Casey said of her and her parents. “I’d give that about a six out of 10. I feel much safer being in Spain than if I were back in the states because one, the healthcare system here is very good and two, with the amount of Americans that don’t have access to proper medical care and treatment, I believe things are going to be much worse in the United States than here.”

They all expressed a desire to keep living life as normally as possible, but acknowledged that might be easier said than done.

“I would prefer to be out as I normally would,” Calla explained, “than to complete self-quarantine until it’s totally necessary.”

In less than 48 hours, it would no longer be a choice.


Papel higienico

I’m leaving the country.

These are not the circumstances under which I thought I’d be announcing this.

It wasn’t just that I had studied the polls and aggregators daily, or that I had read a hundred thinkpieces and waded into the discussions that were overtaking every online article and comment thread, no matter how unrelated to politics. I believed there were secret pockets of this country whose voices were not being heard; I knew it. I just thought those voices were spread across the spectrum.

I didn’t think I would fall asleep on Tuesday feeling such raw anguish, and I certainly could not imagine I would wake up Wednesday with a gaping wound in my psyche. This fresh hell.

None of these possibilities seemed real when I decided I was moving to Spain.

I made this decision not out of a spirit of protest or anger, not out of disgust or dismay – feelings I cannot shake as I write this. It seems almost a cruel irony that I had made this decision because of quite the opposite: Feelings of inspiration and goodwill that had been reawakened by a recent trip to Spain, a two week excursion in which I met and got to know people from all over the world. It was a fresh reminder of all the things that had inspired the 10 Cities/10 Years project.

For ten years, I lived in a new US city every year, from the Northeast to the Southwest, from the Pacific Northwest to the deep South, and spots in between. For ten years, when people talked about “Real America” I rebuked the notion that any one region of the US was realer, that any region was more deserving of our nation’s reputation for exceptionalism. I grew up in a small Midwestern town and I currently live in the most populous city in this country, and many, many of the places in between. Even when I was dismayed by our country’s political choices or by pockets of the population, my informed opinion – because I had seen it with my own two eyes – was that this was a nation of extraordinary people.

I’m not sure I can argue that anymore.

For the Pro-Lifers who just voted to strip me and millions more like me of health insurance; for the Christian Right who bemoan their perceived persecution in America while denying the video evidence of racial, sexual, and non-Christian religious oppression; for the Americans who strive to make the world better for their children while ignoring the undeniable long-term consequences of Climate Change; well, I can’t defend you.

Nor would you have me. You will say, “Good, leave.” You will say you don’t need me. And on that point, we are in complete agreement.

My only response is that I wish I could say I’m leaving the country as a moral rejection of the United States that exists, but that isn’t true.

What is true is that I’m leaving America because, counter to what much of this nation believes, the world extends beyond these borders, and on the outside there is beauty and kindness and hope. Those things still exist in the United States – they always will – but right now they are overshadowed by thick, black clouds.

If I had my choice, I would not return to this country until someone else was the leader of the land – preferably a woman, or another minority, or someone from the LGBQT community – but I know, as America’s reputation diminishes in the rest of the world, that might not be an option.

I will leave the details of my plans for another time. For now, just know I look forward to a world in which our commonalities across borders mean more than our differences within them.

There will be those who say if I’m disappointed in what this nation is becoming, I should stay to help make it better. That isn’t my fight. I will always support and respect those who are in the trenches, but for my own fraying sanity, I need to move on. There are other causes in this world; America is neither a lost one, nor the only one that matters.

And to those who would say that I do not love the United States, that I am not a true American, I would challenge you to find a single person who has dedicated more time to intimately getting to know this nation’s stunning variety and awe-inspiring splendor. I have traveled her roads, lived in her many neighborhoods, and cherished her boisterous revelries.

It’s just time for me to move on.

That has never been more evident than today.