Sixteen Euros

I arrived in Madrid to a great sense of déjà vu: it seemed closed. As with Calahonda, it was not a pleasant experience. I’d managed to catch the Air Nostrum flight ­– which despite only being half full still managed to contain a group of American evangelists, making their way to England to get back home despite Trump’s travel ban – with no trouble at all, and arrived at Madrid Barajas just before 11 p.m., as scheduled. Not that times matter at the present time. There was free shuttle to the hotel – on which I was the only customer – and I arrived in the hotel just before midnight.
Ah, what can I say about the Hotel Meliá Avenida América? Surpisingly little. It was a decent enough hotel with an impossible to regulate air conditioning system (actually, it worked perfectly: I switched it off and opened the window) and a bar that remained open till 1 a.m. The staff were polite and helpful, and offered me sanitizer with my hotel key. And told me the bar was open. I had been pegged as a drinker.
Eager, as always, to not disappoint, I had a quick shower and went down for a nightcap. And the bar was nice. The barman looked rather surprised to see me – the only other patron in the bar was asleep in an armchair – so I ordered a drink. Listening to him reeling off a list of malts was slightly surreal (there are only so many Scottish syllables the Spanish tongue can wrap itself around with ease) but I settled on a Cardhu. (In hindsight, I should have held out for a Laphroaig – it is my favourite and listening to his pronunciation would have made the whole trip worthwhile on its own.)
Now, I am well used to Spanish dosage. On my last visit to Barcelona, my friend Frédéric and I ordered a Pastis at a little café a stone’s throw from the Basílica de la Sagrada Família. The Pastis was served over ice in a gin goblet, which might conceivably also been used to serve beer at a Munich Bierhalle. The glass was half-full before he asked if we wanted water with it. “The trick,” said Frédéric later, “is to not look surprised as he pours or to speak, even when asked a direct question. The waiter will stop of his own accord, either when cramp sets in or the bottle is empty.” We’d been charged 2€ per glass. I had learned my lessons well. This time it was no different – and having received a tumbler with a measure so generous I might feasibly blanch serving it to myself at home on Christmas Eve – I was well satisfied at my globetrotter’s insider knowledge. I might conceivably manage a couple more, I thought, before the second hand ticked its inexorable way to closing time. That was before he told me how much it cost.
“That will be 16€ please sir,” he said.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“Of course,” I smiled. That’ll teach me to be a greedy sod.
So I took my glass up to my room (353, very bijou) and used the free wifi, calling Mrs. Ottawacker to tell her about my journey and listen to the latest travel advisories. Then I managed a couple of hours’ sleep before the 7 o’clock alarm call.
The next morning was beautiful, sunny and crisp, so I waited for the shuttle to take me to Barajas. The streets were deserted. No moving cars, no people. Just silence. Finally the shuttle turned up – and as the night before, I was the only person on board. The airport was also pretty sparsely populated, except for the Air Canada line up, which some four hours before departure almost snaked out into the concourse. By the time the agents opened their desks, the whole planeload must have been there. Other agents patrolled the lines, cracking whips to make sure a gap of six feet was maintained between each customer. “For your own and our safety,” intoned the message, in Spanish and English. For some reason, as the queue entered the interminable corral to take it to the desk, this distance was maintained. I say “for some reason” because while the six-foot rule was strictly enforced to the person in front and behind, as we snaked around the corral, you could only ever be about a foot-and-a-half away from the person to your right and left. This distance was, of course, increased should one of these two people appear ill or not be wearing a mask.
Once through the line-up and security, Barajas Terminal 1 was quite surreal. The Spanish PM had put in place a state of emergency as of midnight, and no shops other than supermarkets and pharmacies were allowed to be open. Seeing the entire range of duty free stores closed was the strangest sight of the whole trip. Of course, I have seen it before, arriving in godforsaken places at ungodly hours, with nothing open anywhere. But at 11.30 a.m. on a Saturday morning? The lights in the stores were still on, advertising alcohol and perfumes and clothes that nobody could buy. But that wasn’t what made it surreal, it was the people. It was as if having been conditioned to the Six Foot Rule in various queues, people were unable to move normally in public spaces any more.
I had stopped to check one of the boards and ended up watching people zigzagging around the airport, moving in a straight line before catching sight of a stranger hoving into their path, and then suddenly moving in a new direction to maintain the space. Repeating the scenario ad infinitum, sometimes tracking back to keep the space intact even though it meant delaying their arrival at their destination. It was quite incredible. I was almost overcome with an urge to get out there and become a disruptor – to stalk people and see what they would do. Then I remembered the seriousness of the situation and matured, albeit briefly.
Needless to say there was no Six Foot Rule on Air Canada’s actual flight either. The flight was full, and we were crammed in the 787 to our full three-four-three capacity (or whatever the seat configuration is). I tried to sleep, but it is hard in a mask when you are not allowed to touch anything. So I read (a re-read of Donna Tartt’s magnificent The Secret History), started drinking red wine (until I realized the mask represented an almost insurmountable barrier… I briefly contemplated asking for a straw before deciding it was probably better to not drink), and watched the Maradona documentary, which was magnificent.
It was a good flight, and at Pearson Airport I sailed through customs. Not a single person asked me where I had been or whether I was ill. I was wearing a mask, granted, but I had flown from a country that is the current epicentre of the coronavirus. Then, as I was getting off the shuttle that took us from one terminal to another, an elderly woman who had been on the plane from Madrid with me turned round to me and asked: “Have you got the virus?”
I was stunned. First, I looked well: I wasn’t coughing or sweating or making any unusual noises. I was wearing a mask, admittedly, but was far from alone in this. “No,” I said. She turned round quickly.
So I leant forward and said “have you?”
“No, I haven’t,” she said quite angrily. And got off the bus as fast as her stubby little legs would carry her.
This was of course the wrong approach. What I should have said, once I realized she was an obstreperous little harridan and not a sweet old lady, was “No, I don’t think so, but there again, nobody does. I am wearing this mask because I don’t want to get it. And if I have it, I don’t want to spread it around. Pray tell, dear lady, who is in the high mortality group, why are you not wearing a mask?”
The things I could have said in my life had I been quicker on my feet.
While the flight from Madrid to Toronto had shown people to be generally responsible in their behaviours, the flight back to Ottawa showed that people still have a lot to learn in terms of living in a pandemic. I had the misfortune of sitting in front of couple – he a short, bearded ginger man wearing an Ottawa Atletico badge, she a blonde about 20 years younger – and in between being forced to listen to a fascinating conversation about the book she was reading, trips to Las Vegas and deals being done involving Fernando, I had the pleasure of listening to her cough endlessly. She was, of course unmasked, coughing as she talked (so one assumes not coughing into her sleeve or a tissue or anything other than the air)… bloody irresponsible and annoying.
I just don’t get people, I really don’t. I recently read an excellent article by Marina Hyde in The Guardian in which she was commenting on Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year. Essentially what she said was that there is nothing new under the sun. People are still people regardless of the age in which they live. What jumped straight to mind was her quoting of Defoe’s phrase “they did not take the least care or make any scruple of infecting others”. Of course they didn’t. For these two were what they themselves clearly considered to be VERY IMPORTANT PEOPLE, and as such the normal concerns and considerations of existing in society NEED NOT APPLY TO US. Wankers, she says, are everywhere. She nailed it. The thought that I may have made it all the way back from Málaga to be infected on my own doorstep is enough to make your blood boil.
After that, I made my way home and, despite being cream-crackered, was thrilled to receive a rapturous welcome from Mrs. Ottawacker and an especially-allowed-to-stay-up Ottawacker Jr. “I’ve left the laundry for you in a basket,” she said, as I made my way in through the side door to the basement, which will be my isolation ward for the next 14 days. “There’s no problems about washing clothes that might be contaminated with those that haven’t been.”
It’s good to be home.

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