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Madrid: Senses of a ghost town

As of yesterday midnight, the Spanish government demanded the closure of all businesses except supermarkets and pharmacies. I live in Chamberí, one of the liveliest neighborhoods, always full of people in the terraces of cafes, bars and restaurants.

Citizens were also asked to not leave their houses except for very particular reasons like walking their dogs or buying groceries. Today, first day of the ordinance, my neighborhood was a ghost town. I ventured to walk around the neighborhood with my doggie excuse.

Photo by Alejandra Rivera

As I walked down the streets, I only saw parked cars, empty streets like I have never seen before, shut doors and windows. I was only able to salute a couple of people also walking their dogs, there was another lady in the distance with groceries bags and a facemask, she seemed to rush back home. If you have lived in Madrid in August, you would make the association with that time of the year when there is less commercial activity due to vacationers fleeing from the heat. This time however, the streets were more deserted.

Oddly enough, I could hear the silence in the streets. I heard the wind, the birds, and the rest of natural sounds that usually get covered by motorcycles, cars, or people talking. In a sense, it was beautiful to give space to nature and the other living things to be heard. I kept walking and made a turn. I heard voices but did not know where they came from. I realized there was a conversation three floors over my head between balconies. Neighbors made company to each other, had taken chairs out and took advantage of their limited social life while some others quietly observed the scene and smoke. I also heard the sound of crystals like those that sound with the wind and are placed at door entrances or windows, but it was not windy at the time. I looked up to find out the sound emanated from the hand of an older lady in her balcony, purposefully moving the crystals to try to fill out the empty street with their sound.

Video by Alejandra Rivera

As I reflected on that, I took a deep breath. I realized the air was cleaner. Usually the four-lane street where I was standing is full of noise and smog. Today it was not. I also sensed the smell of homie food, something was being fried but not too heavy nor greasy, it was like tomato and onions, but it was more challenging to detect which balcony was emanating the delicious smell. As there are no restaurants to go, people have to make use of their culinary skills, or take the opportunity to acquire them.

As I turned back to return home, I passed by all the closed business, I saw nobody, and the voices from the balconies were slowly left in the distance. The taste of that moment was bitter-sweet. It was a strange sensation to see such a transformation in the lively streets I walk every day. I was bitter not to know what would happen or how long it would be like this. But it was also sweet to break the routine and withdraw from public life, to have time and space for oneself, I thought. I began to talk to my dog to make him realize as well how social human beings are. It is our nature to talk, to express ourselves, to listen to others, to see what others do for entertainment, to feel company in the crowd.

I felt a sense of uncertainty on the atmosphere. It felt people are missing from the scene, the protagonists of everyday life in the city have withdrew, and what is left? The built environment, the streets and buildings which seemed to lose their purpose when not utilized. Perhaps, we can also use this experience to recognize the importance of what we build and what we do, always has the purpose to serve and improve the quality of life of human beings. Otherwise, it is just a pointless mass of concrete.

Also, perhaps this experience may serve us to recognize we are all connected, we have the same desires, to go out and talk, and express our feelings and thoughts. We are all the same as we also want to hear from others and their stories. We are all the same, so separated but so united too. We have nowhere to go and nothing is certain, but the balconies are full of hope.

This story was shared by Alejandra Rivera, a Colombian Urban Studies graduate and student of international development in Madrid, Spain.

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