Estepona: Between cabin fever and living in a sunny bubble

A group of five twenty-something year old students traveled to Estepona, a town in southern Spain, to sit out the Coronavirus pandemic in a holiday home. Ten weeks into their quarantine, the students reflect on how they have become so used to their surroundings that their habits, routines, and rituals now carry them effortlessly through the days.

We are a group of five twenty-something year old students: Cailin, Elsa, Teus, Hannah, and Matty, hailing from Ireland, France, the Netherlands, Germany, and the United Kingdom respectively. Before Covid-19 hit, we were studying together in Madrid for our fourth and final semester on the 4Cities Erasmus Mundus Master programme. Needless to say, everything has not turned out as planned. The coronavirus situation in Spain intensified very quickly, and we had no choice but to pack up our things and get out. Like many international students across the world, we also had to deal with lease agreements; visa and travel arrangements; and university assignments all at once. Our last couple of days in Madrid were a whirlwind of preparation and hurried activity, but luckily we were offered the chance to stay in a friend’s unoccupied holiday home on the south coast of Spain. So four of us decided to rent a car and travelled down as fast as we could. Elsa joined a few days later, after flying in from Vienna.

Matty, Hannah, Cailin, Teus and Elsa quarantining at a holiday home in southern Spain.

At the time of writing, three of us (Cailin, Elsa, and Matty) have been here for nearly ten weeks, with Teus and Hannah having left three weeks ago. And despite our comfortable surroundings, the lockdown rules in Spain have not always made life easy. For most of the time we have not been allowed outside even for exercise. Thankfully, this restriction has been eased, but still we are only permitted to exercise outdoors in groups of two (from the same household) and at certain times of day. Shopping trips must be carried out by one person per household, and notionally not more than once or twice per week.

Since our only method of transportation is walking, we have had to take it in turns to lug a heavy hand trolley two kilometres down a highway to the nearest supermarket. Sound exhausting? It is. But strangely enough, shopping trips quickly became a sort of treat for us. Because we have no car and cannot transport a large amount food, one of us has needed to walk to the shops approximately every other day. This means that our plans for dinner can more or less be based on whatever we feel like—a small sense of freedom that we’ve all greatly enjoyed. What’s more, grocery shopping gives each of us a bit of time alone, and the chance to see some different faces.

"Strangely enough, shopping trips quickly became a sort of treat for us"

Some days this has felt really important. When you’re stuck in the same place with the same people you get cabin fever pretty quickly, and being in quarantine with your friends is a bit different to being in quarantine with your family. Most people are used to being straightforward with their parents or their siblings, but here some of us have found it difficult to address issues with one another. Naturally, everyone has different routines and rhythms; thoughts and opinions; and feelings and emotions. And we all have our individual strengths—the things that make each of us good friends and housemates. But we also all have our deficits—things we don't do very well, things that get in the way of our relationships, and mistakes we make (sometimes more than once). Whilst in quarantine together you quickly become aware of these things. Some of them can delight you. Some can piss you off. Some of them can really piss you off. But you have to live with them. So what do you do?

We are fortunate to love each other’s company. But like many families, there is still the occasional disagreement. To iron these out we've tried to hold meetings on a semi-regular basis to discuss how each of us is feeling, and whether we think anything needs to change. That could include little things, like: “please don’t leave your shoes there”, or “you need to remember to use the toilet brush.” But at times it’s included bigger things, like: “I really don’t like the way you speak to me sometimes”, or “you’re being really inconsiderate with this”. We’re getting much better at settling our differences, but to be honest, it has felt like a teething process at times.

"When you’re stuck in the same place with the same people you get cabin fever pretty quickly, and being in quarantine with your friends is a bit different to being in quarantine with your family"

It’s almost like we’ve been in a five-way marriage. In some ways we have. We spend all day, every day together, and like an old married couple, sometimes run out of things to say to each other. But this is probably the case for most people living together in quarantine. Without really realising it, we’re all constantly communicating with one other in some way, on one social media platform or another. All this back and forth can be exhausting, so sometimes when we get to dinner time, the most one or two of us can muster is a smile and a thumbs-up. And that’s fine. To quote Mia Wallace: “That's when you know you've found somebody really special. When you can just shut up for a minute and comfortably share the silence.”

Being around someone day in, day out means you see nearly every side to their personality, and the experience has definitely brought the five of us closer together. But for those living alone, quarantine means being more cut off than ever. To have had little or no face-to-face conversation and no physical contact for the last two months would’ve been tough; it’s no surprise that video calls (through Zoom, FaceTime, Houseparty, etc.) have become a part of daily life for many since the pandemic hit. It’s almost hard to imagine living without them now. But are they ever really satisfying? Sure, it’s nice to see people’s faces and hear their voices, but the dissonance between being with the person, and yet not with the person, is a bit tiring. Half the time there’s nothing new to say, and if you’re not close enough with the person to talk nonsense, conversation can be stale (“How’s it going?”, “Good”, “Still in the same place?”, “Yep”). It’s much more fun, of course, to talk to people when you actually have something new to talk about.

Cooking and eating together.

We are well aware that our current lifestyle is a luxury, and that these complaints with it are trivial. All of us are incredibly fortunate to have our health, friends and family that support us, and access to the tools that allow us to complete our studies remotely. Quarantine has given those in privileged positions the time and space to discover new elements of their personalities, and rediscover old ones. And as we mentioned earlier, cooking and eating together have been especially lovely. Every single meal we’ve sat around a table, talking, laughing, and scoffing, and eating a diverse, healthy diet has ultimately helped us all to feel less stressed and more fulfilled in our daily lives (if you want to see some of our recipes, check out our food diary ‘isolateonaplate’ on Instagram— shameless plug!). We’ve also learnt about the food cultures of our respective countries, hosting ‘international days’ to introduce one another to French cuisine, Irish cuisine, and so on.

"Quarantine has given those in privileged positions the time and space to discover new elements of their personalities, and rediscover old ones"

As well as eating healthily, we’ve tried to keep fit by practising Cross-Fit, yoga, and tai-chi, and, since we’ve been allowed outside, walking and running. Our motivation to exercise has of course gone up and down throughout quarantine, and we’ve all put on a bit of weight. But for the majority of the time we’ve kept up a ‘respectable’ routine, whatever that means. Some of us have found ourselves asking what it is exactly we want from exercise—be it physical fitness, self esteem, or just to be able to eat whatever we want. It can be hard to maintain body positivity when you’re constantly being bombarded by workout videos in which Instagram influencers display freakish and wholly unnecessary levels of fitness. With that being said, the coronavirus outbreak has been extremely stressful for people, and exercising has definitely helped us to sleep better, feel happier, manage anxiety, and regain control of racing thoughts.

Celebrating a birthday in lockdown.

It’ll be strange when our time here comes to an end. Human beings naturally become accustomed to their surroundings, and here in Spain we have become so used to our surroundings that our habits, routines, and rituals now carry us effortlessly through the days. Teus and Hannah leaving was a bit of a shock to the system, but things returned to normal relatively quickly. The three of us have built up a kind of momentum that keeps things ticking over. Days of the week and times of the month have become totally irrelevant; we’re sleepwalking, and it’s quite nice. But it’ll all have to come to an end sooner or later. The day we finally leave is not one any of us is looking forward to. Our sunny, comfortable little bubble will be popped, and we’ll be forced to face real life again. But until then, we’ll stay home, stay safe, stay the course

This story was shared by Matty, Cailin, Elsa, Teus and Hannah. Before the Coronavirus hit, they were studying together in Madrid for their final semester on the 4CITIES Erasmus Mundus Master programme. Check out their food diary ‘isolateonaplate’ on Instagram.

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