Now this is where is gets interesting. Here in Marina Baixa – including the main population centre of Benidorm – we are given the green light today to go out and enjoy some limited freedoms in “Phase 1” of the staggered ending of the lock down.
What wonderful post-lockdown opportunities are now open to me? I could go out to a bar (outside terrace only) and enjoy a drink and tapas with friends, observing social distancing. Or I could go to the library and return my books or borrow new books, but not touch any computer keyboards. If I could find a theatre prepared to put on a performance for a maximum of 30 people, that might also be an option, except that Alicante is still in “Phase 0” and no theatres are open.
I could visit a garden centre, although – if I have understood the instructions correctly – I should first phone and make an appointment. “Good morning, I would like an appointment to buy an oxygenating pond plant.” “Are you an existing customer? Can you provide any paperwork with proof of former pond plant purchases?” “No, but I know someone who once met Jacques Cousteau.” “That will suffice: can you make 11.15 Tuesday, here at the garden centre?”
Sorry for the trivial imaginings!, but the Theatre of the Absurd comes very easily to mind in these times. I am still chuckling over the story reported in the local press of the man stopped by police for riding his motor scooter around during the lock down, who claimed medical reasons, offering the excuse that riding the scooter helped stop his toothache. Now that we are in Phase 1, he can ride his scooter around all day, or even visit a dentist if he might choose a more conventional cure.
Such a full variety of earthly delights such as the above – published in today’s Información de Alicante – might tempt some to venture outside, but here, the donkeys are eating their breakfast and I am not going anywhere.
I am not alone. Both here in Spain and in the UK – where the clown Prime Minister seems to have upset everyone with the confusion of his new “Stay Alert” instructions – people are staying at home and resisting the official attempts to “get the economy moving”. There simply isn’t any incentive to go out there into the Coronavirus landscape and poke around in the ruins. Whatever the reduced level of risk. Better to stay at home. We have got used to it now. My gates remain locked.
And for the following thoughts, I must thank Paco Amillo Alegre, who posted a painting by Camille Pissarro on the Agoraben Facebook group yesterday and prompted some reflections – once again – on the subject of The Hermitage. (Agoraben is a Benidorm cultural association and provides the best in local intellectual discussion, with a lot of the focus recently on the history and imagery of plague through the centuries.)
Paco posted the painting as an image evoking “social distancing” and he wrote, “Starting tomorrow in Marina Baixa we will have more freedom of movement for moving to phase 1 of confinement… The author of the painting I chose today could not imagine that I would use it as an example of what we should do in these confinement times: relaxed walks, avoiding physical contacts and keeping the appropriate distance to circumstances.”
I looked at the painting and saw something in it too: that Pissarro’s “Les Coteaux de l’Hermitage” works well as a signifier of “separation” (or in the language of Barthes’ semiology a better phrase might be “signifier of separateness”).
The eye is directed to the scene along the path in the right corner and enters the domestic “enclosure” of l’Hermitage. The name of the hamlet could not be more evocative of containment: a hermitage is a chosen place of confinement, not a forced confinement. The figures in the painting are calm: they belong to the place and do not desperately say to each other, “When can we escape from here?” or “How long must we remain closed up in this place!”
In the narrative of this painting, we know that others are waiting for you when you return indoors: we know this because the smoke from the chimney of the central white house is a sign that food is being prepared. It is not a cold day, so the fire should be from a kitchen stove. And that is our destination, because the path does not lead any further, and at the end of the path is the high horizon, enveloping the hermitage in its careful embrace.
Irrational fear of the unknown doesn’t just apply to the outside world; we must be careful with the fear that – in some way – we are “losing our lives” by staying at home. As Saint Benedict wrote in his Rule: “Stay in your cell and your cell will teach you everything.”
Learn from Benedict. Learn from Pissarro’s painting. Upon entering the first day of “Phase 1”, I see no reason to open my doors and leave. A beer and tapas with social distancing in a bar is not a remotely attractive proposition! That is an experience that can happily wait until next month, or two months from now; or better yet, I will wait for normal times. Times when I can wander into a garden centre without the need for an appointment with a plant.
At home, life is still normal. I am happy with my normality and I join the growing resistance of all who now say, “We are not leaving home just to get the economy moving again.” It doesn’t matter much to us. #StayAtHome