I arrived in Madrid on January 15, 2020, ecstatic to finally be realizing two long-standing dreams: living in the exciting, stunning Spanish capital, and participating in the Fulbright Scholar Program. My Senior Fulbright Scholar award consisted of two parts. First, I was to teach a class in comparative political economy (“Varidades del Capitalismo”) at the Universidad Carlos III Madrid (UC3M). Secondly, I was to conduct field research for my project on Spanish wine politics. I rented an apartment in the center of town, hired a Spanish language tutor, and began to get settled into una vida madridista.
Little did I know, of course, that my sojourn in Madrid would not be a typical Fulbright experience. COVID hit Spain and seven weeks into my seven month stay, I received an email from Fulbright terminating the program. Despite the end of the program, and unaware of how bad the virus would soon become in Spain, I elected to remain in Madrid. In March our strict lockdown began, and I could not leave my apartment, except to go to the grocery store or to the pharmacy. Lockdown didn’t completely end util late June. Without a mask, even essential tasks like grocery shopping became risky, so I ordered groceries online and did not leave my apartment. The normally bustling central square beneath my window turned quiet and empty, with the exception of a gaggle of police officers. It was isolating. It was, in a word, surreal.
However, the thing that initially drew me to Madrid was the spirit of the people. A few weeks into the lockdown, I noticed a large sign hanging off of the balcony across from mine “Vecinos concierto hoy! Aceptamos sugerencias de canciones”. Later that night, my neighbors Betta and Andrea stood on their balconies and began their concert. Other musicians on my street got in on the act. The first night, there were three different concerts emanating from different apartments on my street and a neighboring side street. The music continued long into the night.
After this first night of concerts, performances by Betta and Andrea became relatively frequent. During a good week, there could be 2-3 concerts on the calle. My neighbors and I would all come to our windows or balconies, wave to each other, open some wine, and dance and sing along to some music. It felt a bit like a very socially distanced party. We all got dressed up. We celebrated each other’s birthdays. And most importantly, I felt very connected to my community, and grateful for the warm, convivial Spanish spirit.
This sense of solidarity was reinforced by other collective balcony activities. Every night at 8 pm, from March until June, my neighborhood would come together and applaud for at least 4 minutes. And everyone would be out there. We would clap until our hands hurt. And sometimes we’d go on our balconies to express discontent. On several occasions, my neighbors and I took to our balconies banging pots in political protests. Undoubtedly the most common protest issue was related to the political controversies surrounding the former Spanish King, Juan Carlos.
I look back on my experience in Madrid with mixed emotions. On the one hand, I missed out on a typical Fulbright experience in Madrid. On the other hand, my time in Madrid was intense and genuinely unforgettable. I left with a deep understanding of what a special place it is, and I hope I have a chance to return soon. And if I was ever in a mandatory lockdown again, there’s no place I’d rather be.