MADRID, SPAIN – 2020/03/15: Plaza Sol empty during the corona virus lock down.
Due to the state of emergency decreed by the Spanish government following the COVID-19 threat, the streets and viewpoints of the cities are empty. (Photo by Guilermo Guterrez Carrascal/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

By Katrina Trinko,

Spain is one of the European countries struggling to stop the spread of coronavirus, also known as COVID-19. Right now, Madrid is on lockdown: Residents can’t leave their homes unless it’s for something essential, such as getting medicine or food. You can’t take walks for no reason. Only one person per household is allowed to go to the grocery store, to cut down on crowding and contact. Police enforce these measures and fine violators.

Kate Trinko’s sister, Therese Trinko, a high school teacher in Madrid, shares what it’s like, what she’s hearing from the Italians she knows, and how Spaniards are keeping their spirits up. Read the lightly edited transcript, posted below, or listen to the podcast.

We also cover these stories:

  • President Trump suggests the coronavirus pandemic could last into the summer.
  • More states close restaurants, bars, and other businesses.
  • Some European nations are tightly restricting their borders.

In these trying times, we must turn to the greatest document in the history of the world to promise freedom and opportunity to its citizens for guidance.

Kate Trinko:  Right now, Spain is one of the European countries taking severe measures to halt the spread of the coronavirus.

According to CNN, Spain has over 9,000 cases of the coronavirus and over 300 deaths so far, making it one of the European nations most effected currently.

Joining us today is my sister Therese Trinko. She is a high school teacher in Spain. She lives in Madrid, which is currently under lockdown. Therese, thanks for coming on and daring to talk to your big sister.

Therese Trinko: Thank you. At least I get credit for this one.

Kate: Absolutely. I want to get into what life under the lockdown is like. But first, why did you move to Spain and when?

Therese: I moved to Spain right after college five and a half years ago because I wanted to be a Spanish teacher and realized, to properly teach Spanish, I needed to be completely fluent. So I needed to just move to a Spanish-speaking country. That’s why I came here. Then I stayed because I love it.

Kate: Why did you pick Spain as your Spanish-speaking country to go to?

Therese: Honestly, because I got a job here first. I was looking in Argentina, Spain, Central America. The first school to get back to me was a school in Spain. I was like, “Perfect. That’s it.”

Kate: As you said, you’ve lived in Spain for over five years now, which is kind of crazy. What are some of the big differences between life in Spain and the U.S.?

Therese: I would definitely say the general social culture.

In the U.S., I know from a lot of my friends’ experiences that it’s a lot of go to work, go home, watch TV, go to bed, repeat. In Spain, it’s much more of a culture of you work so that you can enjoy yourself.

People every day will go out for tapas or go to the bars or go to the park and have a picnic or whatever. I really like that social life is an everyday activity.

Kate: … One of the other differences that I know you’ve mentioned to us that [is] very different between Spain and most of the U.S. is that in Spain a lot of people live in apartments. They don’t live in houses. It’s much denser, right?

Therese: Absolutely. Even in small town, obviously, in the center of any city in the world, most people live in apartments. But even if you go to like villages and small towns, most everyone lives in apartments, which is nice most of the time. But it’s not great under quarantine.

Kate: Right. That’s what I was thinking. Speaking of the quarantine or the lockdown, what is that like in Madrid right now? What does that mean?

Therese: Basically, we can’t leave our houses unless it’s something really important such as going to the grocery store or going to the pharmacy or if you need to work or you need to take care of somebody, then you can leave. But otherwise, you can’t.

It’s basically all of us are just stuck in our apartments until this ends. A lot of us [are] working from home, but it’s a weird experience.

Kate: You can’t just take a walk outside if you want some fresh air or if your dog needs to walk? How are situations like that handled?

Therese: You cannot walk just because you want to go for a walk, which [is] a cultural thing. There’s a special word in Spanish, pasear, for going for a nice long walk. We cannot do that here.

They said, basically, it’s a very hazy interpretation of the law right now, but it seems that you can take your dog out, but just for a very, very short walk and very near your house. The police have to determine if the length and distance from your house is appropriate for that.

But you definitely cannot go out with somebody else. You can’t go out with your children. This has to be an urgent situation.

Kate: You said if you’re going to the grocery store, you can’t go with your fiancé, you have to go by yourself. It has to be only one person, right?

Therese: Yeah. One person per household can go on any of these things. I think part of the idea … is fewer people going, less contact.

Kate: I know that you’re stuck inside the apartment right now, but are policemen patrolling the streets? Would it be likely that you would run into a policeman, or do you have any idea?

Therese: The official “We will start fining you if you are outside without a good reason” started today. But the recommended quarantine of basically, “Do it, but we’re not finding you yet” started on Saturday.

Two of my co-workers have texted our group chat and been like, “Yeah, I was outside to go on a bike ride and two cops stopped me. I lied and said I was going to the grocery store.”

Or a woman who was walking her dog who said that she was stopped and said she had to return home, that she wasn’t allowed to run with the dog.

Yesterday I was looking out from our balcony and saw the cops stop a homeless man who was sitting on a bench doing nothing, obviously, and tell him he had to leave, that he couldn’t stay where he was.

I mean, they have homeless shelters obviously available at this time, but even the homeless can’t just stay outside right now.

Kate: What are the penalties if you were outside for no good reason?

Therese: It’s a fine. I’m not 100% sure. I feel like it’s like 600 to a 1,000 euro. But it’s basically you do not want it if they actually do fine you.

Kate: As you alluded, this wasn’t as strict on Saturday. This began gradually. I think you were still going to work at the beginning of last week, right?

Therese: Yeah. Last Monday was business as usual. We heard rumors that Italian schools had closed and there were some parts [that] were under quarantine. Obviously, we heard about China.

Then some people were saying it was going to happen here in Madrid. I was like, “Oh, God. Please. Then I can stay at home and sleep in and go out during the day and do my schoolwork grading it in the park.”

Then on Monday night in our group chat for the teachers, one of my friends—her boyfriend works for the news here—she said, “Get on Channel 24. They’re going to close the schools almost guaranteedly.”

They said on last Monday night that they’re closing them starting Wednesday, last Wednesday, and will be for 15 days. Then when we found out that, on Tuesday we went to school, prepped our kids, picked up all our materials, and came home.

Since then we’ve been teaching from home. It’s almost guaranteed it’s going to be more than those 15 days though.

Kate: They closed the schools last week. Have they officially closed bars and restaurants? When did they start closing virtually everything else?

Therese: I believe that was Thursday or Friday, but it didn’t come [to] “You cannot leave” until today. It was “You should not leave” to “You cannot leave.” Bars and restaurants I believe are starting to be closed on Thursday, Friday.

Kate: What has the attitude been among the Spanish people and your friends? Are they alarmed? Are they a little bit like, “Oh, it’ll be nice to work from home for a bit”? What are people thinking and saying? I mean, I know you can’t obviously communicate in person right now, but what [are you] hearing via your phone?

Therese: It’s a lot of solidarity. A lot of people are like, “This is obviously not going to be enjoyable.” Tons of people are sending, “Well, look at this website offering this. Or you can check out these videos here.”

But everyone is coming in with the attitude of, especially most of my friends who are younger, ” … Even if I get coronavirus, I’ll be fine. But if I stay home, I can protect people from dying who were more vulnerable from coronavirus. This is what I can do to protect my community and so I’m going to do it.”

That’s been the general attitude, which I think is really, really admirable.

Kate: I know you’re staying with your in-laws in the guest room right now, or your future in-laws. Have you been inside for, what, three days now?

Therese: Yes. We didn’t leave.

Kate: Are you going crazy yet?

Therese: I brought a backpack of stuff from my place. Honestly, just the idea of it made me go crazy. I had many a tear shed over the idea that I couldn’t leave for a while. I feel like since it actually officially started, I’m more accepting it. But from what I’ve heard, especially from Italians, is that … after two weeks you start to go real crazy. We’re only in two days.

Kate: Are you in touch with any Italians right now?

Therese: I have a couple of friends from church who are in Italy or who I know who are in Italy right now. They’ve been messaging our church groups and saying, basically, “Guys, you need to self-quarantine,” when it was optional. Then now that it’s mandatory, they’re trying to give tips and stuff because they’ve been in quarantine for so much longer.

Kate: Do they have any tips besides at the two-week point you’re going to go crazy?

Therese: A lot of, basically, “You need to take care of your mental health. You need to make sure that you’re communicating with people, that you’re doing things. You’re not just lying around all the time.”

I haven’t, obviously, officially seen this in any way, but Spaniards go out onto their balconies and at 10 every day everyone cheers for the doctors and the nurses and everyone else in the medical profession who are helping with this virus.

Kate: That’s so nice.

Therese: I’ve seen also videos … I know. It’s super nice. It’s really, really beautiful to see. I’ve seen Italians going out on videos and singing, etc. to their neighbors. I think we kind of got that idea from them. That even though we’re all separate, since we’re so close by, we can still be in solidarity with each other.

Kate: Which is kind of nice because, of course, in the U.S., most areas … I don’t know, I guess we could all go out in our backyards and cheer. I’m not really sure how this would work.

Therese:  I don’t think it would work as well.

Kate: Yeah. I mean, [it would work for] some cities in the U.S. …

Therese: Yeah, for sure.

Kate: President [Donald] Trump has restricted travel to Europe and from Europe. What is the attitude of both the Spanish people, the Spaniards, I know you work with other American expats, how do people view this?

Therese: I haven’t heard a lot of opinions on this. I don’t think I’ve heard hardly anything for many Spaniards about this because, for the most part, they don’t really care. They weren’t planning on going to the United States anyways.

But the general attitude is, “Thank God that the U.S. is doing something to prevent this disease. … It needs to be taken seriously and taken seriously quickly.”

A travel ban, including a travel ban including us, is much better than pretending nothing’s happening or it won’t hit the United States.

Kate: You’re a high school teacher. As you mentioned, you’ve switched to online teaching for … the foreseeable future. You had never taught online before, right?

Therese: No. Never.

Kate: How is that going? How is it affecting the students from as much as you can tell? Obviously, you’re the teacher and they’re not going to be totally honest with you.

Therese: Honestly, I’m kind of pleasantly surprised about how many are doing work because, obviously, in the classroom there’ll be some students who they’ll be sitting there, but they won’t really be present.

… Students are, it seems, to be reading assignments and then they’re definitely answering me back. I only have a very few amount of students who aren’t doing anything as of yet. That part I’m actually very impressed with.

It takes a little bit out of the joy of teaching now because the fun part is talking to the kids and having them express their opinions and then having them engage in a discussion.

Obviously, that’s much more difficult to do over the internet. I mean, obviously, it’s much better than just classes ending, which I would hope that wouldn’t happen to anybody.

Kate: How are people communicating with each other right now? Are they texting? You mentioned that your church group has a WhatsApp group, which is, for those Americans who aren’t familiar, … I guess you could compare it to Facebook Messenger. It’s like a group chat thing.

Therese: But honestly, it’s used like texting.

Kate: Just texting. Are people doing FaceTime so they can see each other’s faces?

Therese: We actually had a book club meeting for Saturday. We just had our book club on Google Hangouts. There’s definitely more communication than just texting.

Kate:  I can’t believe you guys didn’t cancel your book club.

Therese: We were all bored at home.

Kate: As you mentioned, people are still allowed to go to the grocery store and the pharmacies. Are they running out of things?

In the United States it’s pretty crazy. I was at the grocery store just now and in the meat section, basically, the only options were … corned beef, chicken gizzards, and vegan burgers …

Therese: That’s extremely dire.

Kate: I mean, not obviously compared to the people who have the coronavirus or are scared of getting it. I realize this is a first world problem. But anyway, yeah, there’s bizarre shortages. Toilet paper is out in a lot of areas. You can’t get hand sanitizer for love or money. Is Spain also having shortages?

Therese: When this first came into the news, I know it was really difficult to find hand sanitizer. You were able to, but it wasn’t necessarily going to be at the first pharmacy you went to. But since then, after a couple days of that, it seemed that everyone restocked and there was plenty of hand sanitizer. Then when the schools shut down, some stores ran out of some things, but it wasn’t a lot.

Actually, the meat thing that you said kind of surprised me because the day that they announced the quarantine, we went to the grocery store and we had to get like this not tasty cut of chicken. I don’t remember what it was, but they had tons of fish. There was tons of meat. It just … wasn’t the best cuts, but there was still a lot of it available.

I think people are panicking more. But also, in Spain, you have the smaller refrigerators. You don’t have a second refrigerator. You don’t have a second freezer. Space is more limited in general. I think people can’t stock up the way that you can in the United States.

Kate: But there were some things out, right? Because I think you sent us a photo where the pasta aisle was …

Therese: But there’s still one type of pasta. There was a really thin, short noodle still available. But besides that, yeah, that’s right. They did sell out of pasta.

Kate: I’ve noticed nothing quite like that at the grocery stores I’ve been to. But the bean aisle is pretty picked over, canned soup. I don’t know, it just, at least in the United States, it’s very random.

I noticed frozen pizza, there was still an abundance of it. Ice cream was still in abundance, but some of these other things were definitely picked over.

Therese: Yeah. The last time I was at the store we couldn’t find tomatoes. There are no more tomatoes left. I think some people are just also with the attitude of, “I’m going to stock up so I don’t have to go for a week,” but not for a year.

Kate: How are people entertaining themselves?

Therese: Luckily, in a weird, strange, healthy sense, most of us, at least that I know, are able to work from home. That’s obviously a huge portion of your time.

Then beyond that, it depends on the person. I know a lot of people are doing online exercise videos. A lot of people are offering those for free right now, which I should be doing, but haven’t yet.

A lot of people are picking up on things that they had meant to study, but hadn’t. I’m trying to study more French, read books I hadn’t read before. I think it depends on the person. But basically, people are trying to be a bit more ambitious with what they’re doing at home.

Kate: Do you think that’s going to last or do you think it’s going to end up everyone’s just watching Netflix and going online within two days?

Therese: There’s only so much Netflix. I don’t think if this goes on for more than two weeks that we’re really going to be satisfied with Netflix.

Kate: That’s a dark thought. The churches, are they closed all over Spain or is it just Madrid? I mean, I know in the United States we have a lot of churches closed as well.

Therese: They held it off for as long as possible. Even after they announced the quarantine, they hadn’t announced that churches were going to close. But the Archbishop of Madrid had said that there was a dispensation, that no one had to go to mass unless they wanted to.

But then it was announced that the churches needed to be only at one-third occupancy. Since they couldn’t guarantee that for a Sunday—because normally, honestly, it appears to be over 100% occupancy with people standing—a lot of churches were closed.

I don’t know if that was a universal thing, but it seemed to be a universal thing. But most churches offered online masses. They would live stream from YouTube. That’s how my fiancé and I went to mass on Sundays, our local church had their mass online and we just followed along.

Kate: I think that the Spanish prime minister’s wife, whose name I can’t recall and probably couldn’t pronounce correctly, was just diagnosed with the coronavirus. Have you heard of anyone you know being diagnosed with this? We know the actual numbers, but does everyone in Madrid know someone who has it right now? How is that working?

Therese: Thanks be to God, I actually do not know anybody who has it. From what I heard, this was on some news website a couple of days ago—

Kate: That sounds real legit.

Therese: … Oh, I know. I only have the most reliable sources. But that only 1 in 5 people from Madrid know somebody who has it. Which is actually saying something also because we have more than half the cases in Spain in Madrid.

But I think … the big first attack of coronavirus here was [at an] old age home. I think that since … it is disproportionately affecting the elderly, etc., maybe there’s people who also have smaller social circles so that people are less likely to [know someone that has the virus]. It’s not like, “Oh, somebody from my office has it.”

Kate: There’s a lot of concern in the United States right now about a lot of people who have jobs that can’t be done online, whether they’re restaurant workers—I mean, there’s a gazillion jobs that can’t be done online.

There’s also concern about people who work in grocery stores, who work in pharmacies. I mean, they’re not health care professionals. Now [those are] some of the only shops that are staying open.

Is Madrid also wrestling with concerns over these matters?

Therese: Absolutely. I actually teach Spanish as a second language. I gave my students today an assignment that was to read an article about how to go to the grocery store with coronavirus. It included all these tips, like wear gloves, bring a contactless card or at least pay with a credit card so you’re not handing cash to the cashier, make a list beforehand so you go in and out as quickly as possible.

The grocery stores have a limited capacity of how many people can be in it, which is, obviously, much more limited than normal. People are told they need to wait outside in a line 3 meters apart from every person and then go in when somebody else leaves.

To the best of my knowledge, everyone is following these procedures. Everyone’s being really, really respectful.

Kate: You should send me that article. I need to learn these best practices.

Therese: With the Google translation?

Kate: Yes. Or your own translation if you love me since you have nothing to do right now. OK, probably too far.

Last question. It’s hard to know what the future is anywhere in the world right now given we don’t know how fast the coronavirus will spread. We don’t know if it’s going to recede in the summer. There’s so many factors we don’t know right now. Does Spain have any sense of how long you guys might be stuck inside or what are you guys thinking? Or are you taking it one day at a time?

Therese: I think the official platform right now is, it’s going to be more than they originally looked upon 15 days, but as to how much more we can’t know.

I see in the news every day talks of like, “Oh, well, we might have found a vaccine. We might have found a cure.” But realistically, obviously, that’s not going to be coming around for like six to 12 months. Between now and then, all we can do is pray and hope that it ends much, much, much faster than that.

Kate: Therese, thank you for coming on. I certainly hope that you stay OK.

Therese: Thank you. But even if I get it, then it probably won’t be anything bad.

Kate: I hope not.



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