It was our first lunch under lockdown. Gabriel’s school had just closed, and the three of us were sitting around the kitchen table, looking outside at the eerily empty streets. Next to the window, a picture frame cycled through the photographs we had taken a year ago in Madrid. Those images of bustling streets and crowded terraces seemed to belong to a distant past. The airport photos were even more out of place, as if depicting a bizarre alien building of mysterious purposes.
“Maybe we should come up with an alternative calendar for our travels. These Madrid images right here? All taken at year 1 Before Coronavirus”, I proposed, between two sips of wine. ─ ”Yes, I’m sure nobody will get irked by that”, ironised Jules.
We continued staring at that picture frame. Every minute or so, a new image popped up, prompting a flurry of reminiscences.
High fashion and fast knockoffs
These days, someone walking through ‘Puerta del Sol’ is probably wondering how to navigate through the busy square without getting too close to anyone. When we were there, well before face masks had made their debut outside of hospitals and bank heists, our wonderings were instead about the odd cloth and rope contraptions used by the street vendors.
Its use become clear when a police car rolled over the corner. In a heartbeat, the street vendors yanked their ropes, turning the damning floor displays into innocent shoulder bags. Once the patrol car was out of sight, ‘Louise Vutton’ handbags and ‘Armini’ fragrances were back in stock.
The Habsburg jaw
Inspired by the street vending smarts, we skipped the long queues at Prado and went to ‘Plaza Mayor’ to appreciate some street art instead. An invisible line divided the big plaza in two: one side had all the fancy shops and restaurants, while the other side was the turf of painters and vagrants. In the middle, looking disapprovingly to either side, stood a statue of Philip III of Habsburg.
“Hey guys, come here and I’ll draw you!”, urged a painter. We inched closer and had a look at his work, most of which drawn in a cartoonish style with prominent chins. “No thanks, we’d rather have a family portrait with no obvious signs of inbreeding”, taunted Jules.
Secluded by choice
To escape the hustle and bustle of a city that never used to sleep, we went to ‘El Retiro’, a park that the Spanish Monarchy ceded to us commoners in the 19th century. It was mid-morning of a weekday, so the park was nearly deserted.
As our picture frame cycled through those pictures of empty paths lined with manicured shrubs, we talked about the illusion of choice. The three of us enjoy solitude (some more, some less), but seemingly only when it is voluntary. Locked in our own home, the present forced seclusion was far less appealing.
The alien hub
We returned to Madrid several times that year, sometimes going into town and sometimes just staying at the airport for a few hours, waiting for a connecting flight. We initially dreaded those hours, but over time we learned to enjoy them. Slowly, our memories of running through an entire terminal and arriving to the boarding gate sweating profusely were replaced by less taxing moments, spent in what is arguably one of the most beautiful airport terminals in the world.
Gabriel often talks about the playgrounds of castles and fire trucks, scattered in front of the gates. Jules recalls buying a paper book and reading it in one sitting, before reluctantly getting up at the last call announcement. I remember leisurely strolling down the terminal, stress-free and mask-free, taking pictures of the wooden ceilings and colourful steel beams. Memories to be soon relived, we hope.