It is the first time in a long time — and definitely in the past seven weeks — that the morning alarm has brought excitement.
Yesterday at 7.30am, I rolled out of bed, got dressed and brushed my teeth. Then I stepped out on to the sunny streets of Valencia, Spain, for the first time in 48 days.
The coronavirus pandemic has hit Spain hard. Only the United States, UK and Italy have reported more deaths. At the time of writing, nearly 25,000 Spaniards had died.
As a result, residents have been living under some of the world’s toughest lockdown conditions. Only essential trips, to the supermarket, pharmacy or for your dog to relieve itself, have been allowed.
My wife has ventured to the supermarket a few times, for fresh produce or in the first weeks of lockdown when online delivery spots were as rare as toilet paper.
The only trips I’ve made beyond our small apartment have been to the rubbish bins.
Neighbours probably judged as an impressive collection of empty wine and beer bottles crashed into the recycling and shattered the silence on the street.
Spain’s toll has been deadly
In the past few weeks, as the daily number of deaths has reduced, and the hospitals have had fewer patients to treat, the Spanish Government has cautiously begun easing restrictions.
One week ago, amid concerns over how the lockdown was impacting on children’s mental health, under-14s were allowed outside with a parent. The freedom was limited to one hour and without going further than 1 kilometre from home.
Those of us without a child (or dog) had to wait another week. Though any bitterness quickly faded as little ones scurried and scooted and skated past our windows, giggling behind medical masks.
As I stepped outside yesterday morning, I felt a cool breeze and heard birds tweeting. I walked past the shuttered bars that line the streets of every Spanish city, wondering how many will ever reopen.
The rules are as follows: from 6:00am to 10:00am and 8:00pm to 11:00pm, adults aged between 14 and 70 are allowed out for walks and individual exercise. If walking, you may go with one other person that you live with, but only within a 1km radius of your home.
If you want to run or cycle, you can go further but must be alone. There are different time slots for children and those over 70 and their dependents.
Now everyone’s a runner
I am fortunate to live near Valencia’s Turia Gardens, a 9km-long former riverbed with green spaces, running tracks and cycle paths. The Spanish are late finishers rather than early risers, so I was confident I’d have the place virtually to myself before 8:00am. I was wrong.
Lycra-clad cyclists greeted each other with socially distanced waves, and a steady stream of walkers and runners pounded the paths. Exercise on a Saturday morning has never been so appealing.
Valencia is a flat city and running was already de moda (fashionable) before lockdown. Now, everyone is a runner. Some, wearing T-shirts of past marathons, looked focused and athletic. Others grinned broadly even as it looked like they were running for the first time in years, let alone seven weeks.
Police leaned against vans and patrolled on horseback but seemed relaxed, giving advice or warnings for now, instead of the heavy fines available for breaking lockdown rules.
My only serious exercise during lockdown was brisk walks on the shared roof terrace of our building, ducking under clotheslines and dodging the neighbours’ bedsheets.
So, running in open space, even with scores of others, felt truly freeing. And not just for the chance to start working off the quarantine belly only the most disciplined have been able to avoid.
Jealousy from afar
Of course, being in lockdown is not the same as being imprisoned. Prisoners don’t have Kindles and Netflix and Tik Tok challenges. They can’t have beers with lunch because “why not? We’re in lockdown”.
But when you’ve lost most of your work projects, days can quickly become monotonous. It’s hard not to feel jealous when loved ones in other countries talk of long walks on the beach or through a forest, while you’re planning your next trip to the bin. It’s hard not to think about the future, however unadvisable that may be.
And it is jarring when something you take for granted — lying in the grass, or the feeling of the sun on your face — is taken away.
After a bit of jogging, I tried running like a kid. Children don’t run for a summer beach body or to share their 10km time with long-suffering Facebook friends. They run for the feeling of whirring legs and wind whistling in their ears and heart thumping in their chest. They run like nothing can stop them.
Do this, and for a moment you stop thinking about work drying up. Or the flights to see family and friends in Australia that will be cancelled. Or whether you’ll get your money back if the German airline that was flying you folds because it can’t get a multi-billion-dollar bailout.
This is just the beginning
Despite this easing of restrictions, Spain is technically still in Phase 0 of a four-phase plan to return the country to a “new normal”. In the best-case scenario, this will be at the end of June.
The tourism industry, one of the pillars of Spain’s economy, will be badly affected. It seems unlikely the coastal towns that fill to capacity in summer will be able to welcome sun-seeking international visitors this year. Many businesses will close.
Spain’s economy had barely recovered from the global financial crisis and its unemployment rate was high even before the pandemic.
Most importantly, many continue to die. The latest daily death toll in Spain was under 300, a morbid cause for optimism given that a month ago, three times as many people died within 24 hours.
This isn’t over. You can go outside but you can’t go to your favourite restaurant or for a beer with your friends or to hug your mum.
This was only the first step in a long journey. But it felt like a big one.
Robert Kidd is an Australian freelance writer in Valencia, Spain.