Postcard from Oviedo The COVID-19 Chronicles: Somber bells of Spanish mourning

Spanish dust storm | Provided photo

| UNDER THE SHELTERING SKY

This is one of a series of first-person accounts of how COVID-19 and shelter-in-place orders around Monterey Bay are affecting us all. If you would like to share your thoughts about living under the sheltering sky send your essay to us at admin@vomb.org.

By Mike Hale

The sound of Spanish church bells has always lifted my spirits. The hourly calling marked not just the time but a sense of place — an audible reminder of our feet on Spanish soil.

We arrived in Oviedo’s el casco viejo in February, this time as residents on a year-long visa. The hourly bells from the cathedral tower and the nearby chapel sang to us daily.

It didn’t take long, however, for them to ring hollow in both tone and meaning, clanging in an eerie vacuum left by a punitive virus that forced Spaniards (and Spain-loving expats) to retreat into their homes.

Not long after the hibernation order came down on March 15, someone with good intentions extended the usual noontime bells to an almost interminable 12 minutes. What was undoubtedly designed to lift spirits during this unprecedented time instead set a melancholy mood. The sound caromed off medieval stone walls and across empty plazas — and fell on our ears as mournful, discordant, even grating — a sad soundtrack to this confinement.

I wondered: Did our Spanish neighbors feel similarly bitter? I suspect they have suffered self-isolation with a scowl. These proud people are especially ill-equipped for social distancing. Spain’s emphatic, close-talking, tapas-sharing, double-kissing, dog-walking, produce-squeezing, convivial culture clashes with this new ecosystem — and I fear that the lockdown may mute the Spanish spirit for many months (or years) to come. After all, the coronavirus has eclipsed even the power of Franco himself — effectively confining and controlling the people.

Before the lockdown, we spent five happy weeks in this vibrant, vivacious city, swollen with chattering locals strolling through the calles and plazas as part of a daily see-and-be-seen ritual. At night, street musicians played everything from Sinatra to Vivaldi. Tartan-wearing Asturians brought out the bagpipes (called gaitas here) as a nod to their rich cultural heritage. In crowded bars, locals stood nose to nose, elbow to elbow, passing nibbles of Spanish tortilla and thin ribbons of jamon. Germs be damned.

A return to that is inconceivable given that the entire population sits inside in its underwear.

This surreal scene really crystallized three days into our isolation, when a pall of brown dust draped the city, obscuring the dramatic gothic cathedral tower that once delighted us from our new seventh-floor perch across the plaza. Seems we caught an atmospheric fallout from a dust storm in Algeria. We shut the windows and lowered the privacy blinds. We slumped and sighed and waited for the inevitable locusts.

Instead we got nieve. One evening a relentless rain quite suddenly defied gravity, retreating from its downward fall. As the night air chilled, rainwater droplets  — boosted by the breeze — turned to silver flecks that began to dance and float. A swirl of soft snow.

What the holy hell is happening?

Nothing to do but sit and wait. And scream back at the bells. Currently the Spanish army roams the streets to keep people out of the sunshine. Once a week I walk to the mercado, and the locals avoid eye contact, even with each other. We watch a young woman  “jog” around an obstacle course of potted plants and outdoor furniture on her tiny patio. We nod to our neighbors through our open windows as we join in applause for health care workers each night at 8. We play cribbage, watch comedies (including daily White House press briefings), inane television shows and debate whether or not Carole fed her husband to the cats. We cook and eat, and drink way too much Albarino.

But as time has passed (it’s Day 27), the clang of hourly bells that once seemed to cruelly mock us in isolation has taken on a different tone. My attitude shifted tectonically, thanks to something familiar I re-read from late English scholar and poet John Donne.

You see, all across Europe one can hear bells toll repeatedly in churches at funerals. It’s a fairly common practice for each bell to ring once for every year the deceased person lived.

As I write this, more than 16,000 people have died in Spain due to an unforgiving, unrelenting virus. Many have died alone, or with only a nurse standing by with FaceTime activated. Thousands have been buried without a procession, or a single wet handkerchief. It would take years for the bells to count off all those years. But we can try. Let them ring. Let us count the years.

No man is an island. Entire of itself.

That’s the opening to Donne’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls.” I read the passage again last week and it reminded me how much we are all connected … how we all suffer in solidarity. How could the bells have annoyed me? The final stanza snapped me to attention.

Each man’s death diminishes me,

For I am involved in mankind.

Therefore, send not to know

For whom the bell tolls,

It tolls for thee.

If we can’t come together now, then when? This is an obvious opportunity for renewal. For new attitudes. I’m officially putting away my pettiness. I am grateful for what I have and for my loved ones. I look forward to whatever the future holds.

So when the bells ring now, I open the windows and allow a somber but somehow hopeful sound to wash over me. In thrall all over again. I hope my new neighbors here feel the same.

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Mike Hale

About Mike Hale

Salinas native Mike Hale is a freelance writer who shares his time between the Monterey Peninsula and Europe.