Spanish people greet each other with a kiss on both cheeks. They repeat this when they say goodbye. They do it automatically, without question in nearly every situation, both informal or formal.
Not to do so is considered rude, a little cold. I have struggled with this at times over the last seven years, since I first came to live in Valencia, but I do my best, even though I sometimes bungle it.
Since I returned here two weeks ago, having been in Britain since early March, I have been observing Covid culture, Valencian style. There is something poignant and a little sad about seeing the Spanish keep their distance. Elbow bumping just doesn’t cut it for them. One lovely friend I met yesterday in the market was tearful because he couldn’t greet me in the customary, warm, two kisses manner. His eyes welled up above his mask as we shrugged at the strangeness of the situation.
Having weathered the Covid months so far in Wales and England, I think it’s easier for we British, as a more reserved nation, to keep our distance. I know I am not alone in feeling relief at not bothering with the kissing ritual. During my lockdown months spent in Wales, however I found it irritating being greeted with a pretend hug, executed from a two metre distance. I was happy to get to London, where some of my more rebellious friends just hugged me straight off, showing a warmth and trust which meant a lot.
Here in Valencia they are sticking strictly to the rules, unnerved perhaps by the rising Covid cases, particularly seen in Madrid.
It is mandatory to wear a mask if you’re outside as well as inside in shops and presumably offices or other public places. You can take your mask off if you’re doing exercise, when you’re sitting down in a cafe or restaurant or thankfully when you get to the beach. Swimming in the warm sea or walking along the sand, it’s easy to forget about Covid and its horrors.
It feels difficult to wear a mask in the heat. I find it hard to breathe properly and it deters me from walking around, but I am trying to get used to it.
It’s cheering to see the way people here are using masks to express themselves or perhaps as a fashion statement. Some are wearing the pale blue disposable ones that sadly littered the streets of London. Others are favouring the pointy black variety, making them look liked sharply beaked birds. But many more have chosen particular prints and colours to reflect their personal interests or styles. My neighbour has dogs and cats on hers, other women are wearing pretty masks in floral patterns. Small children – obliged here to mask up from aged 6 – are sporting superhero designs.
Today I treated myself to a pirate print face covering, handmade by local shop Coser y Cantar. It makes me feel more individual and helps to replace wearing lipstick, which I have reluctantly cut back on.
Valencia is perfect for outside distanced eating. Nearly every restaurant or cafe has a terrace with plenty of spaces for spreading out the tables. Most places seem strict about sitting separately with seats blocked off or removed.
It’s fun to see Bar Ponton, the small bar on our square, with its tables outside. I had always wondered what the clientele – all men of a certain age – were doing within its dimly lit interior. Now I can see that they were playing innocent games of Dominoes, chatting and enjoying a cold beer or a coffee.
It’s a relief to be here. The weather is lovely and it’s a delight to get up early in the morning and swim in the sea. Sitting in cafes is second nature to me and another way to be outside mask-free and socializing. I am glad to see that wearing a mask does not stop the Valencianos from talking a lot, whether in the bank or the bakery.
Yesterday I left El Cabanyal and headed for the city centre – my first journey since I arrived. I was nervous, which seemed ridiculous considering that I had just been in London, a far bigger city. My incentive was to attend my wonderful weekly painting class, which is run by talented artist Josie McCoy. I can’t aspire to paint like her but she’s a great teacher and I don’t want to let Covid stop me learning from her.
As usual I took the 19 bus into Rusafa. The bus was almost empty and everyone was wearing a mask and sitting as far away from one another as possible. There were twice as many tables on the pavements as cafe owners used outdoor space and the glorious weather to keep their businesses afloat. It was a lovely afternoon and I had an agua con gas in the sunshine as I waited for my class to start.
Josie has taken great care to make sure that all the Covid restrictions are observed.
No sharing of brushes, plenty of space between students and hand sanitizer on arrival made everyone feel comfortable.
I waited a while for a bus home as the first three were a bit busy. The fourth had plenty of free seats and I travelled back to El Cabanyal calmly, enjoying the views of this magical city as the sky darkened. I had taken another step towards living a normal life in Covid Valencia. So far, so delightful.