Digital Diaries: Spain under Quarantine

Victoria Benefield, Reporter

In the newest episode of Digital Diaries, the Daily spoke to Weinberg sophomore and international student Isabel Azpiroz, who took one of the last flights connecting the U.S. to Spain. Even after she arrived at her home in Madrid, Azpiroz dealt with the challenges of Spain’s coronavirus restrictions and maintaining ties to Northwestern while in an entirely different country.

ISABEL AZPIROZ: This week is supposed to be the harder week, when it comes to the pandemic in Spain. So we can see that there’s a stronger presence of the police. Today, my dad went to the supermarket and he was stopped by the police three times asking for proof that he actually was going to the supermarket. So it’s getting increasingly difficult for us to go outside at all.

VICTORIA BENEFIELD: From The Daily Northwestern, I’m Victoria Benefield. Welcome to Digital Diaries, a podcast capturing people’s lives in their own words. A few months ago, we asked Northwestern students and professors to record themselves in their daily lives  what they were thinking, feeling and doing as the effects of COVID-19 began to hit Northwestern’s community. 

ISABEL AZPIROZ: My name is Isabel Azpiroz. I am from Madrid, in Spain. I’m in Weinberg. I’m currently studying environmental science and I’m in the class of 2023. 

VICTORIA BENEFIELD: Isabel started recording during finals week of Winter Quarter, when many Northwestern students had already returned home. Isabel still had to make a decision: whether she should fly back to Spain now or stay on campus, knowing the height of the pandemic was still yet to come. 

ISABEL AZPIROZ: It’s the 18 of March of 2020, 1 p.m., and today I wanted to talk a little bit about the uncertainty international students live with, since they told us that campus was going to be closed during Spring Quarter and that more students should go home as soon as possible. This uncertainty has had like four steps, at least. The first one was when they told us that campus was closing and most of us decided to stay a little bit longer because it was really expensive to go home. Most of our countries were also more dangerous than the U.S. at the time, and also, we didn’t know if campus was going to open up and whether we would be able to come back or not. 

The second one was when the travel ban got approved, which meant that if we went back home, we would probably not be able to come back in case the University decided to open again in April.

The third step was when the number of flights started to decrease and it became more and more difficult to go home. And at that point we knew we were running out of time because at some point we would just not be able to go back home. We still didn’t know if the campus was going to open again in April. We didn’t know if we were going to be able to come back to the U.S. in case we decided to go home. And we didn’t know what was going to happen in the U.S. in case we decided to stay because most of us didn’t have a place to go to.

And finally the fourth state came, which was when things started to get worse in the U.S. and we started to think about the possibility of us being quarantined in Chicago, which was a pretty terrible possibility because we didn’t know how things would work. Would they let us stay on campus, knowing that workers wouldn’t be able to go there? Would they just kick us out? In case they kicked us out, would they just give us an apartment to live in, or would they just tell us to go back home? In that case, we wouldn’t be able to do so because of the travel ban and because of the reduced number of flights which were starting to disappear.

At this point, any choice we made was just basically crossing our fingers, touching wood and hoping for the best because we just didn’t come with the necessary information to make any kind of informed decision.

ISABEL AZPIROZ: It’s the 19 of March, 7 p.m., and campus is already almost empty. They don’t let us sit in the dining hall anymore. We can’t see our friends in the dining hall, which is what we used to do. So it almost feels like we’re already quarantined because we spend most of our days alone in our rooms doing nothing because there’s nothing to do and anywhere to go to. There’s also a very weird vibe on campus because even though we’ve already spent time alone in college during Thanksgiving or Christmas or during the international student orientation week, this feels different because people are already starting to pack and it’s just very sad.

VICTORIA BENEFIELD: At this point, Isabel had already rescheduled a June flight to Saturday, March 21. But that flight, and the others that she booked, all ended up canceled.

ISABEL AZPIROZ: It’s the 20 of March, 9 p.m. I’m starting to lose hope that I’m going to be able to go home because the flight keeps getting canceled every day, a couple times. So it’s probably not going to happen. 

Actually today I called the airline to change my flight again and the guy I was talking to, I knew from the beginning that he was very nervous, probably because he was feeling overwhelmed.

They are getting many calls, like hundreds of calls, I’m assuming, because the wait list is longer than two hours when you first call them, and he sounded very, very tired and overwhelmed, and at some point he wasn’t being able to find any other flight for me. So I noticed how his voice almost broke and almost started to cry in a very awkward moment and it was very weird, a very weird, strange situation. And I ended up having to hang up the telephone and call again later because he couldn’t find anything and he was clearly feeling terribly. So that was something that had never happened to me.

VICTORIA BENEFIELD: On Saturday, March 21, Isabel managed to catch a flight to Boston, and then a flight home from Boston to Madrid. She landed in Madrid on March 22 at 7 a.m.

ISABEL AZPIROZ: Apparently that flight was a rescue flight sent by the government. It’s one of the last flights connecting the U.S. with Spain. There’s no more commercial flights. And this is why it took me so long to find a way to come back because there’s no more commercial flights.

All the available flights right now are offered by the government and all the flight attendants and the pilots are volunteers. So when we first got into the plane, one of the flight attendants gave a speech explaining why they wanted to volunteer. And she told us that they understand that in times like this, it is difficult for everybody and everyone wants to be with their family and in the country where they feel safer. And that’s why they wanted to volunteer because they wanted to make that possible for us, especially knowing that most of us were students or even underage people. And she asked us to please, please remain seated as long as possible because the plane had 300 passengers, despite the recommendation being only 150 people per plane. So she said that they’d rather bring more people home than follow their recommendations, but because of that, they really, really wanted us to stay seated.

And then the pilot gave a final speech, almost crying, saying that this was his last flight and that he was very emotional about all this and blah, blah, blah.

So, it was complicated. It was a very weird feeling thinking that the whole plane was to repatriate people and that was sent by the government. And as soon as we got to the airport in Madrid, everything was empty. There was nothing except for us and a couple of policemen. Everybody was covered in protective suits. And we could hear the voice in the airport just telling everybody to stay at least 1.5 meters apart from each other. 

So it is definitely a contrast with how things are right now in the U.S. which is way more calmed.

ISABEL AZPIROZ: It’s the 22 of March, 7 p.m. in Spain, and it’s my first day here. People have been quarantined in Madrid for over a week now, and they just informed us that the quarantine is going to be prolonged for 15 more days. So people are starting to get more tired, and you can see that in how everyone here fights to see who’s the one going to the supermarket or walking the dog, because it’s probably the only moment in days in which they can go out.

Also every day at 8 p.m., everybody goes to their balconies or their terraces or their windows and clap, thanking doctors and nurses and all kinds of sanitary workers that are right now exposing themselves to very high risk. Also, something else they do everyday at 9 p.m., people go out again with their pans and spoons and make noise, protesting against the king, because we recently discovered last week that the previous king had been involved in illegal businesses and he had millions of euros in these businesses. Everyone is angry at the situation and they want this money. There’s millions of illegal euros to be put into the public health care system, which is being completely overwhelmed by the number of cases we have here.

Actually, yesterday I read in the news that they are starting to use ice rinks to store dead bodies, and things are getting a little bit apocalyptical here. 

And my mother got today a vertigo attack, and she called the doctor, and the doctor had to treat her from the other side of the garden because they couldn’t be in contact with each other. So that also was very weird to see.

ISABEL AZPIROZ: It’s the 23 of March. It’s 3 p.m. and it’s my second day in absolute quarantine here in Madrid. So some of the things we do here, not to go crazy or that I’ve seen people do, are talking and playing with their neighbors. I’ve even seen people playing ping pong with their next door neighbors from window to window. I also call my friends. I’ve spent hours talking to my friends today or playing Houseparty, which is an app for smartphones. Also watching movies and working out every day because I would go crazy and fat probably. And also staying creative. I’ve found that super useful. Maybe, writing and reading and painting and maybe even creating some kind of artistic community with some other neighbors. 

ISABEL AZPIROZ: It’s the 24 of March, 6 p.m., and I’ve already been here for a couple of days, but because I’ve been to three different airports trying to come from Evanston to Madrid, my family doesn’t want me to go outside at all. So it’s probably going to take me two or three more days to actually touch the street.

And sometimes I get dizzy from spending too much time inside, but, whenever that happens, I try to go to the balcony and breathe for a couple of minutes and then I go inside again. 

I am also trying to get into routine, as stupid as that sounds, because we are in our holidays, so there’s absolutely nothing to do. So I’m trying to study German for a little bit every day, then work out, then read, talk to a friend, then cook with my mother and watch a movie or something. And I think that is helping to make the days go by faster. 

Also, this week is supposed to be the harder week, when it comes to the pandemic in Spain. So we can see that there’s a stronger presence of the police and the army on the streets. Today, my dad went to the supermarket and he was stopped by the police three times asking for proof that he actually was going to the supermarket. So it’s getting increasingly difficult for us to go outside at all.

I have friends also that try to walk their dogs and the army or someone stopped them, and told them that they were too far from their houses or that it was taking them too long to walk the dog and they had to go back inside as soon as possible. So I feel like this week is going to be the hardest one. I’m crossing my fingers hoping that it will get better after this.

ISABEL AZPIROZ: It’s the 25 of March, 11 p.m., and today, absolutely nothing has happened, but the weather was so, so nice, even though we could barely enjoy it. It is funny because every time the weather forecast comes on TV, everyone just turns off the TV. Nobody cares what the weather is like outside because nobody can go outside.

But it was really, really nice today. I went to my terrace and I could feel the breeze on my face and it wasn’t too warm or too cold, and the birds were singing the whole day. It was sunny as well, and you just wanted to hang out there, for the whole 24 hours. Also, one of my neighbors played music very loudly for everybody to enjoy, and that was very nice too. 

Not only was the weather very nice, it has also been raining more, which is very strange for a place like Madrid where we have been losing precipitation constantly through the past decade more or less, or maybe I would even say for the past 40 years, and we know for a fact that the air and water pollution are decreasing because of humans staying inside and the reduction of economic activity. And we know that that is going to vanish as soon as everybody goes out again. But at the same time, it brings me hope that we’re still able to take radical measures as this when the climate crisis becomes more clear and we can still reverse it and make things better again.

ISABEL AZPIROZ: It’s the 26 of March, 5 p.m., and today we’re having very high death numbers in the community of Madrid. I am very lucky because all my family and friends are okay. But we were constantly hearing of people whose loved ones just disappear into the system and they never, ever know about them again.

Sometimes what happens is that when there’s a case of coronavirus in a nursing home, they directly close the nursing home. There’s very little communication with them. They close each other person into a room and they lock them down. They can’t get out, they can’t get in. They have no TV. They have nothing to entertain themselves with and you can’t communicate with them so we have all these people that are dying in their rooms without anybody knowing until the army goes into the nursing home and takes the bodies and the family can’t know whether their grandparents are dead or alive until the army publishes the names.

That’s the situation in many nursing homes right now. And then there’s the hospital situation, which, again, it’s very similar. You have to be in a very critical situation for you to get a spot in a hospital because they’re already overwhelmed and they only take in people that are between death and life. So, once you get into the hospital, you need to wait for hours until you get the attention you need. And it’s impossible for any of your family members to be there with you. So there’s a lot of people dying alone in hospitals. And their family can’t even know whether they are dead or alive until days after because of how overwhelmed the whole system is.

ISABEL AZPIROZ: It’s the 27 of March, 11:30 p.m. My parents are divorced, so I usually live for a week with my dad and then a week with my mom. And today I had to move to my mother’s house, but with the whole quarantine situation it was hard to do. My brother is underage so my mom could come in the car and pick him up as a dependent and take him to her house, but because I am already 18 years old, I am not allowed by the government to be in the same car as my mother. And actually even though my brother still could do that because he’s a dependent on my mom, they had to sit in the opposite side of the car, so they have as less amount of contact as possible.

But I couldn’t even do that, so, because I can’t drive either, my only option was to walk to my mom’s. They don’t live very far apart, so that was okay. But I had no proof. I wasn’t walking any dog. I wasn’t going to buy any groceries. I didn’t have any check to prove that I had bought anything. And we were unsure whether me going to my mother’s house as an 18-year-old was allowed or not. So I literally had to almost run there in the afternoon trying to avoid police officers or army posts as much as possible so that nobody saw me. I actually didn’t see anyone on the streets, so that was fine.

But it was a little bit stressful because I could have gotten fined for at least 600 euros just for crossing the street. It was a little bit of adrenaline, but it was okay.

ISABEL AZPIROZ: It’s the 28 of March, 7:40 p.m. and I’m starting not to dislike this too much. I would still rather to be at NU than here and I would still rather see my friends in person than FaceTime with them. But, at the same time, it kind of feels like we have absolute freedom right now. Within the walls of our houses, we can do anything and we have infinite time to do it. There’s absolutely anything that I have to do. Everything I do is just because I want to, and even though I can’t go outside, there’s so many other things that I can do inside. I’m starting to see that good part, I guess? I’m trying to enjoy this as much as possible.

VICTORIA BENEFIELD: I caught up with Isabel at the end of May to find out how her life has changed since she stopped recording. Even after two months of quarantine, Isabel could still point to positive aspects of her situation.

ISABEL AZPIROZ: I think I still have that new sense of freedom in the sense that I have been able to enjoy my individuality in ways that I hadn’t seen before. I don’t depend on anybody else to feel good with whatever I’m doing. There’s no comparisons anymore because everyone’s doing basically the same thing. And I can choose what I want to do independently from what anyone else wants to. 

VICTORIA BENEFIELD: But taking classes remotely proved to be a challenge.

ISABEL AZPIROZ: I really, really struggled with keeping in touch with reality because the new reality was just like my room and that was it. And the only thing that connected me with Northwestern’s reality was my computer. And that felt so weak and so unstable that sometimes it was almost easier just to close my eyes and ignore reality. At some point I felt like I was starting to go crazy. Like, I didn’t know where I lived anymore. I was in some kind of limbo in between. It took a conscious decision to keep working. But I guess that’s the same for everybody because we’re not there anymore. 

VICTORIA BENEFIELD: As Isabel’s classes ended, restrictions in Spain began to loosen. The country was divided into sanitary zones, each of which was put into one of four phases with different rules.

ISABEL AZPIROZ: I live in Madrid’s sanitary zone and we are now in Phase 1. So we still have restrictions. Like we can only go out from 8 (a.m.) to 10 a.m. and from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m., people our age. And then there’s some kinds of stores that can open, some others can’t. Some people can go together in a car, some others can’t. It’s very, very confusing and people still don’t know how to act. People get fined for no reason, because there’s so many rules and they change every two weeks. Whenever we see the police or the army, everyone is just afraid that we are doing something wrong because we don’t really know the rules anymore. And they are very, very strict. So everyone just runs away from the police or the army all the time. Everything feels illegal now, even if it is not. 

VICTORIA BENEFIELD: That’s all for this episode of Digital Diaries. Thanks for listening.

VICTORIA BENEFIELD: This episode was reported and produced by me, Victoria Benefield. The managing editors of The Daily are Sneha Day and James Pollard, and the summer editor-in-chief is Emma Edmund.

Email: [email protected]

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