Bifana Alfacinha – Blog & Post-Pandemic Nature Fix
Portugal’s second lockdown is in response to the Covid pandemic in January 2021 had been a long time coming. In contrast to Spring 2020, when the Portuguese government acted swiftly and decisively, waiting for a second hard lockdown felt like being tied to the tracks as the train rumbled ominously and inevitably towards us.
The powers-that-be prevaricated before and just after Christmas, implementing a variety of measures which often felt arbitrary and self-defeating. Several weekends when 1pm curfews were put in place only gave rise to bottlenecking the supermarkets in the mornings and irritable shoppers who struggled to socially distance.
While shops, schools and restaurants remained largely open for business, we weren’t allowed to travel between districts unless it was for work. Our family couldn’t take advantage of outdoor spaces or beaches outside of metropolitan Lisbon. As we took what was intended to be a breath of fresh air in Monsanto parkland one Sunday morning in January, we did so alongside what felt like a significant portion of the city’s population. Our sole, judicious use of the Christmas travel corridor was in order to procure festive pork products from the Anglo-Irish butcher’s in a neighbouring borough. Christmas was low-key, but not devoid of chipolatas and as 2020 drew to a close, I was thankful for small mercies.
As the rate of infection and hospitalisations soared in the new year, it was clear that harsher restrictions were looming. In response, I did what any rational person would do in the circumstances and arranged to have a haircut severe enough to see me through what I realised would potentially be many weeks of confinement. When it was finally announced that the schools would shut at the end of January, I waited for the children at the school gates on a fittingly grey and damp afternoon. When they emerged, laden with school equipment and books, it was clear that the teachers didn’t expect them to return anytime soon. As we walked to the car, the children bickered over who was carrying the most. One wrestled with his rucksack and two 50cm rulers and the other struggled with a soggy and forlorn-looking art project. As I was in charge of another rucksack, two lunch bags and two games kits, I can categorically state that it was actually me, but decided to let it go, as I was in no mood for an argument.
That evening, we, along with every other parent in the land, were left staring into the abyss all over again. As lessons had been suspended for two weeks we contemplated possible scenarios: once again having to cajole unenthusiastic children into undertaking independent projects in between paid work, or quite literally leaving them to their own devices and surrendering them to an academic vacuum while we pressed ahead with business as usual. Contrary to expectation, the two weeks passed relatively productively and peaceably before online lessons were reinstated.
This lockdown does feel different though. The void left by last year’s photos of banana bread on social media have been replaced by near-silence; no one’s really talking about it. This time we knew what we’re letting ourselves in for and resigned ourselves to our fate, although life started looking less bleak in our house when I came across a tin of Quality Street that I’d stashed away for Christmas and then forgotten about. I simultaneously rediscovered a box of Mon Cheri liqueur chocolates, but kept this quiet. I reserved these for personal use during the moments of crisis I anticipated in the coming weeks.
We are better at confinement this time round. In a Pavlovian response, we all scurried to our individual work stations, only emerging for meals, tea or snacks. For a while, more or less constant rain scuppered any opportunity to take outdoor exercise in between lessons and work. Once it stopped, the aimless ambles recommenced, but if we’re honest, everyone’s fed up with the same old routes and scenery. We crave the variety and adventure of discovering new places that we once took for granted.
The real issue is that the restrictions in place are just so, well, restrictive. As a result, the most mundane tasks have taken on extra meaning and significance. Recent highlights for me were a trip to the recycling bins and purchasing emergency stationery. Our interpretation of essential travel has incorporated shopping for essential wine and in an unexpected turn of events, I’ve taken up jogging in order to take advantage of my right - now enshrined in law - to practise individual exercise. There’s no doubt about it, we are living through exceptional times.
Working online requires tolerance of unexpected events. One student, who works for a high profile consultancy company, participated in a Zoom meeting during which her 4 year old refused to leave her lap. During one of my online classes, the son of another student joined to announce live to the group that his brother had just done a poo. The same student related how her husband had accidentally dropped a mug into their goldfish bowl during their young son’s online contact with his nursery school teacher. The bowl broke and pandemonium ensued. The child started screaming while three goldfish thrashed around, surrounded by shattered glass, in a puddle on the kitchen floor. The fish were quickly rescued and transferred to a Pyrex bowl, but it seemed that one of the fish hadn’t survived the trauma. Just as the husband was about to dispose of the corpse, it miraculously came back to life and the unfortunate goldfish was reunited with its friends in the makeshift container. The next morning, my student found the same resurrected fish on the kitchen counter next to the Pyrex. It had clearly enjoyed its moment of freedom the day before so much that it had attempted to replicate the experience by leaping out of the bowl. Remarkably, it was still alive and was popped back into water, surviving its second excursion in a 24-hour period. The family has since bought a taller, sturdier fish tank.
The parallels are striking: we are all that goldfish, torn between the safety and sanctuary of our homes and our desire to escape. For the time being at least, we are similarly trapped, yearning to explore the world that exists beyond four walls, our goldfish bowl. We daydream of what lies beyond these confines and tread water as we wait for the day we can roam freely
From Bifana Alfacinha Feb 2021