You can travel all around the world and back
You can fly or sail or ride a railroad track
But no matter where you go you’re gonna find
That people have the same things on their minds
Well, hello, hello brother, hello
I said hello, hello, brother hello — Louis Armstrong
Day 50 of Spain’s lockdown dawned early, at 7:00am to be exact. But a good half-hour before, the birds began chirping, starting, as always, with those initial few plaintive tweets, very quickly followed by the whole avian chorus. From the bedroom window I watched as the predawn sky turned a faint rose and then a brilliant fuchsia with smatterings of purple and orange. Then the sun breached the horizon, at first a fierce orange ball of fire, until it finally rose, full and strong above the sparkling sea. It was already warm, with temperatures projected to be in the mid-20s by noon. But the humidity was low and a gentle breeze was blowing. In short, it was a perfect morning.
But it was not the weather that had us hopping out of bed and drinking coffee by 6:00am that Saturday, May 2nd. Rather, it was the first day in a long while that we were allowed to exercise out of doors. For the previous forty-nine days—unless one had a dog, which we do not—it was forbidden to venture beyond the confines of one’s property for a walk or a run.
It was a glorious feeling to run again, and that joy almost overwhelmed me. But I realized quickly that my heady elation was not caused as much by the thrill of exercise as it was by being back in the land of the living. After weeks and weeks of streets and walkways almost devoid of human life, seeing others out and about was beautiful. Along our way we passed fellow runners, hikers, and couples strolling along hand-in-hand, all enjoying the day and their reborn freedom. Everyone smiled and waved, calling out to each other in a mix of languages. By now it was almost 28 degrees. But the warmth I felt was as much from the smiles of those we passed as it was the sun; it was the warmth of strangers suddenly transformed into friends.
Since Day 50, we have been out every morning without fail; refusing to ever again take for granted a freedom that, pre-pandemic, had been simply a given. Back in our routine, we are once again seeing all those fellow exercisers and dog walkers on our same routes; those whom we know yet without really knowing. We see Mateo, sinewy and spry, hailing us in Spanish as he strides along briskly, his affable blond lab ambling along in tow. We see Roz and Graham, British to their core with their understanded manner and wry wit, hiking through the pine forest with Lottie, their elderly, sweet spaniel. We see Renata and Reiner, waving hello on their daily climb up the brutally steep hill from their Ambolo Beach residence. We see Francine, elegant as ever in her oversized sunglasses, walking along at a fast clip with her little terrier, Lucy. We see the Polish grandmother, whose name we do not know and who speaks neither Spanish nor English, yet with whom we still manage to communicate through smiles and hand signals, as she pushes the stroller with her twin grandchildren, in her signature T-shirt that reads “Sun, Surf, Sex.”
I never knew how much I had counted on these people to be there in much the same way I count on my family and close friends; how seeing them each day adds a measure of reassurance to my life; how they show me through the way they once again continue about their daily routines, doing that which needs to be done, that life indeed goes on. I remember learning that “Hello” in Zulu is sawubona, which literally translates to I see you as you are. Since that first day, I have realized what I am actually doing whenever I greet Mateo, Francine, Roz and Graham, and everyone else I pass is more than just saying hello: I am bearing witness to their humanity — wherever and whatever they are that day—their joys, their worries, their victories, their vices, their vulnerabilities. And they do likewise for me. We see each other as we are. What a beautiful gift it is.
There are still many pandemic restrictions in place, yet life seems immeasurably better. Although masked and gloved for every shopping excursion, we are also once again in shorts and T-shirts. Two days after our inaugural run, I bought a box of popsicles; the first of the season and Tom inflated the pool floats. Watermelons are back on supermarket shelves. At night, with the windows open, we drift off to sleep to the sounds of the lateshift couples talking and laughing as they run or walk past our house. I love these sounds. They signify what really matters in this world. They are the sounds of life.
Spain’s quarantine was draconian; one of the strictest in Europe. But it worked. Active cases have fallen steadily, giving the hospitals and health care professionals time to regroup. But it also worked on another, more profound level. It made us realize how we are in this together; how deeply connected we really are to each other; how, at the most basic level, we care about and strive for the same things: health, family, community, security, hope. In short, this global pandemic and my time in quarantine has allowed me, finally, to appreciate the little things. Which of course, when you get right down to it are not so little. In fact, they are everything.
Sawubona. Hello, hello, brother, hello.