Saturday, August 29, 2020

Adjusting in a Covid World

If you would’ve asked me at the start of the year what I thought 2020 would look like, I can guarantee my answer would have been much, much different than the reality. In March, my mom and I took a girl’s trip to Chicago, and I remember talking with her excitedly about all of our plans for the coming months. I was looking forward to going to Supply Side East in New Jersey at the end of April, visiting friends in Colorado sometime later in the summer, and had a stretch dream of going to Italy with a friend from Germany over Labor Day. My mom shared how excited she and my dad were to take our family to a cabin up north mid-July (an annual trip that involves my three siblings and I, seven nieces and nephews, tons of board games, and just a touch of chaos), take their usual trip up to Mackinac Island, and celebrate their anniversary in Frankenmuth. Little did we know, as we drank our coffee in front of Millennium Park, that those plans would all come to a crashing halt in just a short few weeks.

Not long after we returned, it happened. It started with watching the news report about a cruise ship that had to quarantine because there was some virus contracted by those on board. Then a few days later, having a “huddle” with my coworkers to discuss the possibility of working from home. The following day, watching someone from our IT department come to my cube, pack up my monitor, and neatly wrap up all of my computer cords. I remember hoping things would go back to normal after a few days.

That was over five months ago now.

Without diving too far into the weeds, it goes without saying that our world truly changed over the past 120 days or so. Restaurants shut down. Businesses were forced to close. Schools transitioned to virtual learning. Movie theaters and gyms were closed. Then came riots and protests and the greatest political divide many of us have ever seen. Not to mention, parts of my own life changed beyond just having to wear a mask. In April, my grandmother passed away after a long battle with Alzheimer’s. I was thankful we were able to have a (very) small graveside ceremony for her, but with how few people were allowed to attend it hardly felt like a proper burial. Later that same month, I had to move out of Ann Arbor and into a new apartment that is (fortunately) closer to family. Trips were cancelled (though I did manage a quick visit to some friends in Nashville, TN and Newton, IA). Church went remote (I actually spent Easter Sunday watching the sunrise service with my family from my parents’ living room). It felt like life was just doling out one thing after another and I couldn’t do much about anything (a sentiment I’m sure we all share). Is it just me, or is it all too easy to focus on the negatives when it seems like there have been so many?

(view from the Pedestrian Bridge in Nashville)

BUT (yes, there’s a but!) the truth is, there have been a fair number of positives that have come out of this entire situation as well. (It takes a little extra effort to focus on them, but they’re there!) To start, I actually enjoy working from home: fewer distractions, a more comfortable work environment, not having to pay for gas…it’s been wonderful. It takes a little extra self-discipline to not wander into the kitchen every thirty minutes for a snack, but setting up a home office has overall been a great experience. And despite being remote, my leaders at NSF International have done a fantastic job of keeping things “human”; we have daily check-in meetings on Teams and they started sending out a Daily Digest email to share important updates and fun tidbits from the day. While I do miss the camaraderie in the office, I’m thankful that we have been able to continue working and adjusting our services as needed, as I know this has not been the case for many.

Additionally, restaurants shutting down (and now having strict rules around masks and social distancing) has done wonders for my bank account. Living on my own again has given me back a sense of independence (with the added bonus that I’m 30 minutes closer to family). My grandmother passing away was anything but positive, however she’d been in a losing battle with her illness and I know she’s now at peace in heaven. And then I have an adorable new niece and nephew who were both born within the past few weeks, meaning baptisms and family gatherings to celebrate. Throughout this entire situation, I’ve been reminded of how strong my family is and how we support each other through times like these (and of course, how much I love being an aunt!).

It’s likely going to be awhile before things get back to normal, whatever that means. There’s a lot of uncertainty and adjustment in the world right now and whether we want to admit it or not, each and every one of us has been affected. Professionally, personally; our lives have changed in some pretty major ways. There’s no telling what the next few months will look like, so for now it’s a matter of perseverance, positivity, and making the most of a less-than-ideal situation. It might be weeks, it might be months. But stay strong, stay focused, and know that we’ll get through this!

Thursday, January 2, 2020

Madrid, Part 2

Happy New Year! I hope your 2020 is off to a great start. I'm finally sitting down to write, and realizing how difficult it is to condense such a full experience into just three posts (well, Madrid will be three, Barcelona will be two.) There's so much I can say about Spain!

If I thought my first day in Madrid had been an adventure, it was nothing compared to what I experienced over the days that followed. The part of me that lights up when thrown into a totally foreign place had sparked, and I felt that familiar buzz of excitement from Berlin, from Athens, Dublin, Paris, Salzburg...that elated feeling of being so out of your element that it doesn't even seem real. Yet there I was, waking up in the AirBnb ready for a few more days in Madrid. As I fully woke up, I heard a woman and her kids were shouting in the street below my window. The other AirBnb-ers were stirring. Somewhere a car horn honked and more shouts from the streets. The sun was fighting to shine through my window. It took a few minutes before everything sank in as real; the city already seemed too good and too full of life to be true.
I started with coffee at a little brunch place near the Museo de la Reina Sofia, doing my best to remember the way from my outing with Javi and Miguel the night before. It fueled a morning exploring the Museo, even climbing up to the Terraza overlooking the city. I tried to remember everything that Javi had told me the night before - the inner-workings of the building and how the museum's roof came within inches of the roof that hovered just above it, designed so intricately as to allow air to come in but keep rainwater out. Inside, there were several floors of exhibits, and I wandered through one about the life and mission of Delphine Seyring. She apparently had a very heavy feminist influence in French films in the 80s. It was so interesting! 
Afterwards, I decided to find food and head towards Plaza del Sol, so I headed back past the AirBnb and off in the other direction. I found a colorful little place called "El Libre" with bright walls and mismatched furniture, and spent some time writing while I enjoyed avocado toast, roasted tomatoes, and incredible homemade bread. I even had a brief conversation with a group of students learning English, who were as thrilled to meet a native speaker as I was to meet them. 

It's something I've really grown to love and appreciate about big cities. Whether in Austin, New York, or Chicago here in the States or somewhere like Madrid or Athens, people always seem open to getting to know newcomers in coffee shops. In my experience, it's something you just don't find in small towns and certainly not in the suburbs. People tend to keep to themselves, or is it just me? 
From El Libre, I admittedly got lost for a bit and ended up at the southernmost part of the city, but was set straight by a young couple and their two kids. I explored Mercado San Fernando, where I met another Miguel who wanted to have a long conversation with "an American" about Chicago, then wandered through the bustling Plaza Mayor. Stores, people in costumes, sculptures, shoppers, people speaking every language, and wafting smells came from every direction - it was incredible.

I found Mercado San Miguel on the other side of Plaza Mayor, similar to the Mercado San Fernando but much bigger with many more food and drink stalls. It had been on my "must-see" list for Madrid, and it was obvious to see why. The glass counters showed every kind of tapas imaginable - fried seafood, mini margarita pizza rolls, tiny toasts, little plates of olives and sardines, you get the idea - and the smells coming from the stalls got better and better as I made my way inside. It was so overwhelming; I made a note to come back and decided to continue on to Puerta del Sol instead.
Puerta del Sol was a much larger, more chaotic version of Plaza Mayor. There were more crowds, more street performers, more costume figures, and statues of the Mariblanca and of King Carlos III, as well as the more famous "Oso y el MadroƱo" (a bear with a strawberry tree). Children were running to and fro, and apparently it's custom to rub the heel of the bear, because the paint had rubbed off completely, revealing the goldish-bronze color of the statue. 
I popped in and out of shops, and Madrid just grew busier and busier with each new place I went. I walked along Gran Via, something of a mix between The Magnificent Mile of Chicago and New York's Fifth Avenue. Stores like Zara, Tous, and Primark were swarmed with people and there were street performers building towers (human towers!) in the middle of the streets. I was starting to feel tired from all the walking I'd done, and decided to head back towards Atocha to find something for dinner. I passed so many places along the way that I'd noted on my "must-see" list: Edificio Metropolis, the Circulo de Belles Artes, the Plaza de Cibeles, and even past the Museo Naval. I wound up at a place called La Rollerie on Atocha, a nice but casual place with white, wooden chairs and bottles of olive oil decorating the tables. I ordered una rioja (a type of red wine) and a tropical prawn (shrimp) salad. I asked the waiter for recommendations as I planned out what to do in subsequent days, and we talked for awhile of the best spots in Madrid.

I stopped in and out of a few other places on my way home, including a tavern-style restaurant and wine bar called Mas al Sur. It was right down the street from my AirBnb, so I thought it would be a great spot to end the day. I had another rioja and to my surprise, the man sitting next to me at the bar was another American. His name was Max, and he lived a few hours outside of Madrid teaching English. He was originally from Philadelphia, working in a small village in Spain, and decided to visit the city for the weekend. We talked for some time, discussing our plans for the weekend, and when I mentioned the next day's plan to go to El Sobrino de Botin (supposedly the world's oldest restaurant and a popular spot for Hemingway back in the day), he decided to join. We decided on a time to meet the next day, then said our good-byes and headed out.
After Mas al Sur, I made it home and fell asleep instantly. It wasn't until 4:30 in the morning that I realized how awful I was feeling, and woke up with a terrible cough and sore throat. I could hardly swallow and had a massive headache, so it took some time before I fell asleep again. Maybe it was just exhaustion, maybe it was allergies to all of the smoke from people in the streets. Whatever it was, I certainly hoped it would be gone in the morning. I still had over a week to go in Spain!

Adjusting in a Covid World

If you would’ve asked me at the start of the year what I thought 2020 would look like, I can guarantee my answer would have been much, much ...