Gijon – Coronavirus Decisions Far From Home
It is two o’clock in the morning – Spanish time – and Iggy the Hymer motorhome is parked in the free “Area de Autocaravanas” in Gijon. I have woken from a dream I can’t remember. But I can feel the taste of it in my head even though it’s substance evades me. I feel that peculiar sense of change. Of something, somehow, having moved in a subtle yet irrevocable way. That I am, in some way, not quite the same person that fell asleep here just two scant hours ago. And that the world I fell asleep in, is also, in some strange way, not quite the same as this one I have woken to.
As I sit here in the dark, the words you are reading appear before me like magic on the glowing screen. The unformed, half feelings in my head, turning to tangible thoughts as my fingers dart to and fro across the keyboard.
The “sensible” part of my head thought it was madness to get up and start writing at such an hour in the morning. But the part that has sung stories since before she was able to write, has been reborn in that unknown, forgotten dream. She slips from the grasp of that sensible head like a dragon shedding old skin. Re-emerges from years of motherhood, and bills, and finding the answers for. Of never quite knowing, but always trying, to do “the right thing”.
The new – old – me, smiles softly under her breath as the words she writes give form to this sense of change. A world of “need to” slips from my softening shoulders. Slides to the floor and dissipates silently into the wee small hours of shadows at my feet. And I open my heart to the change that has come over me in my sleep.
If this was last night I would have worried about sitting here writing at this hour. I would have worried about being too tired to get up in the morning. My mind would have buzzed with all the things we needed to do. With how many days we had left to travel. How many miles from here to home, and how many hours it would take to cover them. And all the things we had to fit into those hours too.
I would have wanted nothing more than to get up and write. All the stories I had not yet found time for yammering to be released from my head. But, most likely, I would have settled for being sensible. For tossing fitfully in my sleep beside Jay’s cosy warm body. Waking as early as I could and trying to force four hours of writing into half that time so we could be on the road by ten.
But this isn’t last night. This is tonight. And tonight there is no need to postpone my date with my laptop. No need to force myself to sleep like a good girl. All the plans that Jay and I made before we went to bed are unimportant now. And I know that he will be fine with that. Know that he’ll smile and say…
“Whatever you think darling.” when I talk to him about it in the morning.
He’s not a fussy man our Jay. He just likes life. Whatever it brings his way. And I know that it was our conversations yesterday that have been the final click in the key to this feeling of newness I have woken to tonight.
Yesterday was a funny sort of day. Funny peculiar as they say. Decidedly not “funny ha ha”! It was our third day back in Spain and Iggy was parked in the motorhome area in the old Spanish city of Lugo in the autonomous community of Galicia. I had struggled all night with my recurring sinus problems. Tossing and turning in pain. Getting in and out of bed three or four times for different remedies before it subsided enough for me to fall properly asleep around seven in the morning.
I was still feeling fragile when I woke again at half past eleven and was immediately stressed to be starting the day so late. The coronavirus situation had been taking up more and more of our time since we’d crossed over from Portugal on Friday afternoon. The number of cases there had just risen to twenty the day we crossed over. But in Spain and France those numbers were rising rapidly.
We spent the previous afternoon wandering around Lugo’s old town. Surprised by how quiet it became after the International Women’s Day event was finished. We know the Spanish love their siestas, but a sunny Saturday afternoon in a historic city plaza is usually busy.
Was it the coronavirus? Were people going out less? Or were they just at home, sleeping, watching TV, doing Saturday afternoon chores?
We didn’t know, but it was discomfiting nevertheless. We had two weeks left before we had to be home, but the number of cases of infection were rapidly increasing in our path. I crunched some numbers and could easily see that France would likely have thousands of cases before we got to Calais. We didn’t want to get caught in a lockdown. Perhaps we should move a little faster.
Now that we were in areas of increasing infection I was having to pay more and more attention to the coronavirus updates. We travel on a tight budget and couldn’t risk being caught in a lockdown on the way home. We also didn’t want to find ourselves in a situation where the UK government placed us on the self-isolate list because we’d travelled through the wrong town.
For now there were no restrictions on Spain or France. But numbers were likely to reach the current Italian figures within a week or so. What would that do to our plans? To our ability to keep on top of our bills? Jay is an agency worker – no work equals no pay.
He is also a healthcare worker caring for vulnerable people. We have a responsibility to be as sure as we possibly can be that we take all sensible precautions against him catching the virus and passing it on.
And so we were already talking about moving a bit faster towards Scotland when I saw a breaking news item from Italy. The Italian government was about to lockdown an area of sixteen million people in Northern Italy. The French had been making declarations that they wouldn’t do this – but would they still think the same in ten days or so? When they were in the same situation as Italy?
I found a news item from a couple of hundred miles ahead on our route. Spanish police had been sent to enforce self isolation of infected people in a town near Vitoria Gasteiz. Would Spain also start locking down towns once the numbers went up? Could we really be sure we could guarantee getting a ferry to the UK in another two weeks time?
There was no way of knowing. Speculation was absolutely pointless as to what each country’s government might or might not do as the situation evolved. But I can do research, and I can do math. The one thing I did know was roughly what the numbers of cases were going to be in one week and in two weeks. And our chances of an unimpeded journey was most likely going to be better while there were fewer cases.
And so we decided it was time to push our daily mileage up a bit. We weren’t going to make a mad panic rush for Calais. I was selfish enough about wanting our journey to continue that I wasn’t quite ready to do that. But we would speed it up. Drive four hours a day instead of two.
Like it or not it was time to go home.
We decided we’d have one last proper day in Spain on Sunday. Take a two and a half hour drive to the coastal city of Gijon, and then do four or five hour drives from Monday onwards. We would be back in Scotland before the week was out.
I swallowed a couple of ibuprofen to try and subdue the last of the inflammation causing a niggling pain in my right temple, and we set off on the road to Gijon. Blatters of cold rain and sideways nudges of wind making me think I probably wouldn’t be going outside today anyway. Between my sinus pain and checking the coronavirus news the trip wasn’t quite as much fun as it had been just a week before.
But as we always say we don’t travel to have a nice time on a beach somewhere. We travel to push ourselves a little. To see and experience for ourselves a little more of the reality of the world around us. And, inevitably if we travelled enough, things like this were going to happen.
We talked about it as we drove. Of how this was what we had signed up for. Of how weird it felt to actually be in this situation. To be the people in a foreign land wondering whether to head for home or not. To feel the sudden desire to have the family just down the road. Not fifteen hundred miles, two country borders and an international ferry crossing away.
Making the decision to move faster had taken some pressure off though. We still needed to keep an eye on the news for sudden changes, but we had made our best choice and could relax a bit again and take in the views. And the views were well worth taking in.
It had been our intention to take our time along this part of the route. There is a lot of planet to discover out there, and I had come this way thinking it would probably be the only time we passed through this corner of the world. And as we watched the landscapes rolling out around us I felt a twinge of sadness that we couldn’t take more time here.
Viaduct turned to tunnel. Tunnel turned to viaduct. And we were reminded of the stilt road from the French Côte d’Azur to San Remo in Italy. It wasn’t as extreme here. The valley’s are not as deep. The hillsides greener and not as steep. There are pauses to catch one’s breath in between the tunnel, bridge, tunnel, bridge combinations. It does not continue for quite the same, vertigo inducing, “Give me earth beneath my feet before I die!” length of time that the Italian road does.
Instead it is just a little bit giddy in places. Driving over strangely curving viaducts, that enable the sight of other vehicles hanging in space on a thin sheet of suspended concrete. The knowledge that you look just the same to them. Quick sips of vertigo. Gulped down and gone in a flash as the bridge straightens and returns the pretence of solid ground.
It was a fun drive, but we were growing tired when Gijon hove in sight and the satnav guided us down to the free area de autocaravanas by the docks. Some of the comments on park4night had been less than complementary about the aire. There was talk of it being very busy with truck noise and too far to walk into the city. And the approach had little going for it. A petrol station, a busy roundabout, the sign for the dock gates.
And then we were into the motorhome area itself and parked directly by a beautiful, golden sanded beach. Yes there was traffic. Yes it was busy. On one side. On the other a few yards of grass, pine trees, picnic tables and boats tossing on the wind tossed waters of the Atlantic lay right outside our door.
As luxury waterfront apartments go it was fine and dandy for the crew in the Travel Malarkey van. It was a shame it was so windy and cold, and my sinuses were making me feel wobbly and sore. But this was probably the only time I would ever be in Gijon. And I could manage to walk outside without feeling like crying. So I had to at least head off in the general direction of the old town and see how far I got.
And I’m so glad I did. A couple of times the rising wind made me worry that I would struggle coming back again, but it was nowhere near the forty minute walk we’d been led to believe. Or it certainly didn’t feel anything like that long anyway, and once we were in the old town we were well protected from the cold wind by the tall buildings and narrow streets.
It would have been good to be in Gijon on a warmer day. Without a sore face and sore head. Without the threat of coronavirus and lockdowns hanging over our heads. Because it would have been a good place to hang out for a day or two. To explore all the nooks and crannies of the town. Seek out all the points of interest. Visit the museums. Walk on the main town beach when it wasn’t being hammered by breakers.
It would have been good to sit with a glass of wine in the plazas. Buy a couple of the nice items teasing me from the Sunday shut shop windows. Sit on a bench and watch the pleasure yachts ride the waves in and out of the marina.
Instead we watched paddle boarders surfing on the breakers as people incongruously fished from the harbour walls in the gale. Scooted along a few of the quirky streets around Playa Mayor. And settled for a take out Burger King to warm our chilly hands in a sheltered corner.
We used the automatic menu boards to order. Immediately regretting it and scuttling off to the loos to wash our hands before we ate. And the old man outside the shop paced relentlessly, hat outstretched, asking for money for food. Skin darkened and worn from years of street living, and who knows what that had come before.
I watched him as we ate. He didn’t bother people, just paced to and fro, repeating his begging speech over and over in a loud, practiced voice. I couldn’t make much out, just “comida” and “por favor”. Food, and please.
Not one person put a penny in the old man’s hat, nor stopped to say hello, or ask him if he was okay. And it tore at my insides to watch him pacing there, ignored in the cold.
I was tempted to give him some money, but after my years of working in homelessness and addictions I find that very hard to do. There is always the thought in my head that the money I give may be used for the hit that finally kills them. Don’t get me wrong – I don’t care what they spend the money on. Once given it is theirs to do whatever they want with. I just don’t want to kill them.
I didn’t know if free food was available in this town. And I didn’t know if this man needed food or just needed a bottle. And my Spanish was not very good for lifestyle chats with homeless people. But I couldn’t ignore him.
“Hola. Quieres comida? Quieres hamburguesa?” I hoped I had said “Do you want food? Do you want a burger?”
The old man looked into my eyes with an expression of surprise, and his dirty, beautiful little face bobbed up and down.
“Si.” he responded in a definite, considered kind of way.
“Una momento” I smiled and returned to the germ riddled, auto-menu of coronavirus hell.
Five minutes later and we made our way back through the city as the old man sat in our vacated sheltered spot eating his hot burger and fries. I hoped he liked coke and onion rings. But I have learned that hungry people are usually grateful for whatever they are given. And the chances were if there was anything he didn’t want he would give it to someone else on the street. Another one of the “lost people” as we have heard the Spanish call their lonely, street dwelling addicts and mentally ill.
Back in Iggy we watch Netflix in the warm. Talk to my daughter on the phone. I have a mini meltdown as I suddenly wonder what the future will bring us. I’m wracked with guilt for dragging Jay away from a house and a life of normality to wander the four winds with me in a tiny old van. We are getting older. Our possibilities are shrinking. Our vulnerabilities are growing. What was I thinking of?
I look at him across the table. Lost in the story he’s watching. I drink him in, his big heart, his kindness, his sturdy, mountainous strength. And I break a little with fear that I may have made his life worse than it could have been.
He sees me watching and all my sudden fears pour out. What if this. What if that. What if the other. And my rock hugs me. Laughs at me. Wonders, understandably, why his crazy woman who usually says things like “Let’s go travel the world in a van. It’ll be cool. We’ll be fine.” is suddenly a snivelling worried wreck.
Maybe it was the old man. All alone and begging for food in a world that has gone coronavirus crazy. Maybe it was my sinusitis. Maybe it was a sudden dip in perimenopausal hormone levels. Perhaps just another step on the pathway to getting old.
I think it was probably a mixture of all of these things. And maybe it was a stepping point too. All the things that have ever been in my life. All the moments that lead to those little change points. Those points of growth that never stop happening to us in our journey through life. That mostly happen gradually, slowly, over months and years of time. That can only be seen with hindsight, when we stop and look back on who and where we used to be.
But sometimes… Not very often, but sometimes. These moments of growth stand out in time like Deja Vu. We find ourselves paused in an invisible doorway. It can be anywhere. In a restaurant, a taxi, the middle of an empty street. An eighteen year old Hymer motorhome at two o’clock in the morning fifteen hundred miles from home.
We can see the past stretched out behind us in a long, golden thread. And the same thread stretches out before us – leading on into the unknown. In a second we will step out of the doorway and become the new person who will walk the next portion of our thread.
And as I sit here and type I no longer feel any urgency to get home. I’m not worried if taking my time to write this story means we can’t visit somewhere. Or there is less time for something else to get done. All my worries from a few hours ago are gone. Dissolved in Jay’s hugs, common sense, and my toes crossing that doorway – from old me into whatever comes next.
I wonder what it will be?