I am imagining Gloria Delgado in her Spanish village. It’s early morning. She shuffles from the bedroom to the kitchen, lights the stove for coffee, fills a pail with water from the sink. She steps outside, waters the patio plants, walks down the footpath to the garden.
In March, even in these days of the coronavirus, which vegetables would she be tending? Asparagus season has ended, tomatoes are long gone. Perhaps she looks after onions and potatoes, digging into the soil with her bare hands to pull a bulb from the earth. The onions would go well in a stew or roast; potatoes would pair nicely with meat or fish.
Where will she get the meat? The butcher’s truck comes to town once a week, announcing his arrival with a honk. The baker drives in every few days. Will he keep coming? I wonder. So much, it seems to me, is uncertain.
She drinks her coffee alone. Later in the day, she might walk 200 meters to the bar for a beer with whomever’s around. There are about 30 of them who stay in the village during the wintertime, folks older than 70.
They pass the day picando: raising glasses, picking at olives or potato chips, gossiping. They joke about the Spaniards in a frenzy over COVID-19. On Saturday, the country declared a state of emergency. Highways are cut off; travel is limited. Schools and universities are shut down, grocery stores are running out of stock. It’s like that all over the world.
But in Valparaiso, the village where Delgado was born nearly 80 years ago, life goes on in unbroken rhythms.
She and her friends are the most vulnerable population, but, she tells me when I call her from a Starbucks in Bilbao, a few hundred miles away, that they aren’t worried. Better to be sick here than anywhere else. During these winter months, they have little contact with outsiders. The specter of illness does not bother her, aging and achy as she already is.
“We’ve already lived life,” Delgado tells me. “When death comes, it comes.”
Is she being nonchalant, or is this wisdom the years bring?
She lives half the year in Valparaiso and the other half in Toledo, near Madrid. She lived in the village until she was 2 or 3 years old. Then, her family moved to the Toledo province, where there was more work during the first years of Francisco Franco’s dictatorship. When her father died, her mother returned to Valparaiso. She built a stone house, where Delgado lives today.
On Tuesday, her daughter drove her four hours across Spain to Valparaiso. They drove past vacant villages and wide stretches of farmland. They turned off the highway and drove through a thicket of trees, then crossed a small bridge over the reservoir, and wound their way through the town’s narrow streets. When Delgado stepped over the threshold into her home, she felt relieved.
In Toledo, she spends the whole day in her dark flat. To go shopping, she must walk down flights of stairs with a bad knee. In Valparaiso, she can stroll outside and smell the air, feel the sun, water her plants, chat with the neighbors she meets on the street. “Here, there are 30 people and you talk with everyone,” she says. “In Toledo, there are 20,000 people and you talk with no one.”
I’ve been thinking about Valparaiso a lot recently. Pining for it, almost. Delgado is the grandmother of a friend, and I’ve been to the village twice before, to attend the annual town party held each August.
My memories of Valparaiso are dream-like. One day in Valparaiso would slip into the next, as though time were suspended. My friends, a group of twenty-somethings from the Basque Country and Madrid, and I would spend our days at the reservoir beach and our evenings at the town bar, the nights stretching until 4 or 5 in the morning.
Sometimes, we would drive through the moonlight, looking for wild deer. Outside the house, we would eat ham sandwiches and ice cream, drink shandies and red wine. At home, grandmothers cooked us big lunches and we napped through the afternoon. It was as though no other place existed.
As I watch Spain’s major cities succumb to COVID-19, I wonder what it must be like to live there, in that small village, isolated from the constant barrage of coronavirus news and the panic overtaking much of the world’s population. In Madrid, hospitals are overcrowded, and all bars and restaurants have closed. Supermarket home delivery systems are overwhelmed. More than 100 countries have prohibited visitors from Spain, and thousands of flights have been canceled. Several high-profile politicians have contracted the virus.
The virus briefly threw my own living situation into uncertainty. When I went to Spain to report on the virus, I had no place to live: The family I normally stay with had all their kids at home after universities were closed. Other people from whom I tried to rent a room said their flatmates were too paranoid to let me in.
On my way out of Spain, the airports were full of students fleeing the country. President Trump had just announced his travel ban, and many European study abroad programs had been canceled. On Friday, the supermarket where I normally shop in Brussels had run out of bread, eggs and pasta.
There is no want in Valparaiso, Delgado tells me. They have everything they need, even though the town has no medical centers, no grocery stores and no schools. The nearest hospital is 50 kilometers (about 30 miles) away.
At first, I was worried — what would she do if the virus came to town?
She calmed me down.
A doctor drives in on Tuesdays to give regular check-ups. If she needs additional medical assistance she can arrange for a bus to take her to a neighboring town. In the worst case scenario, the regional government can dispatch an ambulance, or even a helicopter.
“It may feel like we’re isolated and forgotten, but we’re not,” she says.
The other day, the man who drives the general store truck, stocked with fruits and notebooks and soap, came to Valparaiso. He’d been driving from village to village to sell his wares, and so far, he hadn’t heard of a single COVID-19 case nearby.
See, Delgado tells me. Everything’s normal. The virus is, for now, happening elsewhere.