A letter from Spain: Prof. B.W. Powe shares his experience living abroad during COVID-19

writing notes schulich
The following is a letter to YFile from B.W. Powe, associate professor in the Departments of English and Humanities at York University. Powe is living temporarily in Spain and has shared his account of living abroad during the COVID-19 pandemic. The letter is dated April 3 and is reproduced with his permission.

To YFile,

I began my sabbatical leave in Andalusia, Spain, in early January. My family came to Cordoba to live and be near our family here, and so I could write. My wife is Spanish, and our little daughter has dual citizenship.

Bruce Powe
B.W. (Bruce) Powe

Every day, I walked across the old bridge into the old city and walked to the University of Cordoba Faculty of Arts and Letters in the Juderia barrio. The library is old and quiet, and it has a superb collection of books in English. The University halls have inscriptions on the walls by Whitman and Neruda. In the lobbies there are homages to Simone de Beauvoir and Madame Curie.

I was working on a new book on on the nature of inspiration, set in Cordoba, and a book on melancholia and the media – the latter a follow up to my recent book, The Charge in the Global Membrane. I was revising another book for Hamilton Arts and Letters (HAL), a revision long overdue. And writing poems. And translating for myself Lorca’s poems and his essay on “Duende.” It’s a way for me to learn Spanish. I was reading Ibn Arabi’s commentaries on the Koran. And reading Unamuno on Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. Every day when I walked into the old city, I passed the Mesquite, and walked up the narrow, white-painted streets to the library and to my desk.

Then everything changed.

The virus hit Spain in early March. It swept through the country, and by mid-March, everyone was told to go into quarantine. By March 14, Cordoba was deserted, spectral. The beauty of the old buildings stood in stark contrast to the empty streets. Cafes and tabernas, stores and shops were shut down. Quiet came over the city. Cordoba is a fine city for walking (“strolling,” they call it in the tourist posters), but people immediately withdrew into their apartments and homes. And for the first time, you could hear birds singing when before you could only hear traffic and conversations and radios and children playing and calling out to one another.

We decided to leave the city. (I had invitations to speak about my new book in Bilbao, Naples and Rome; the talks were cancelled.)

We heard Justin Trudeau’s call to come home.

But we decided that leaving was more risky than staying.

My in-laws have a farmhouse outside of Cordoba, at the foot of the Sierra Morenas. We came here over three weeks ago. The campo is small, and nearby other family members have their homes. There’s a fenced-in field, where our little daughter can play. The winter and spring have been unusually warm and sunny, for the most part. (Except for rain and cold earlier this week, with flash flooding in Cordoba and Malaga.)

We talk to our family members and friends through holes in the fences.

Just before the pandemic took hold, I received temporary residence status in Spain – so, I have health care. If you’re living here for a long time, this is automatic for partners of Spanish citizens. My daughter has coverage because she’s a dual citizen.

We were, and are, very lucky.

While it’s greening here, and the Sierras look beautiful, and the air is fresh and clear, and the sun is getting warmer, the news is hard. We have family members who work in the health profession. They’re overwhelmed. One of my wife’s great aunts is in a Cordoba convent nursing home, where the virus is spreading. She’s receiving good loving care. But she’s not allowed visitors and can’t speak to anyone on the phone. My wife does her mindfulness work online, helping people who are in the lockdown here and in Barcelona.

The daily information from Madrid gets harder every day. Shortages are coming. And the Internet is overloading. There have been evenings with blackouts and brownouts. The military has been deployed around the major cities. The borders are closed; air-flights in and from Spain gave been mostly stopped. Only one person at a time is allowed out to the grocery store; each person must wear a face mask if you leave your place. Police patrol the streets, making people comply with the new laws. People comply. Images on TV show well-known sites vacated.

Still, we have good things. We can wave to our nearby family members and sometimes we sit in a circle and have coffee ourselves and talk to them through the fences. My in-laws are happy to have our company. My little daughter likes to sing (off-key, but enthusiastic) and dance in the morning, in the sun, under the palms. Everyone works to keep the farmhouse clean. We’re constantly washing things down, doing laundry. At 8 p.m. every night, people rally to porches and balconies and front steps and rooftops to applaud and cheer for the healthcare workers. You hear the applause and cheers sounding up and down the valley.

I have a small room with a window looking on a green field. I write everyday, and read. I’ve put aside some of my manuscripts because it’s too soon to write about what’s happening. No one truly knows.

Still, what’s struck me is how quiet and still the streets and neighbourhoods are; how dependent people are on the Internet to talk to their families and friends. I keep in touch with York students on email. I’ve marked papers that just came in, and written letters of recommendation. I hear from my colleagues and friends at York University and around the country, who write with concern, when they see CNN and other information sources about the virus in Europe. There’s no sign of an early end to it. But, of course, we hope.

Our return air tickets may not be honoured now. We’re looking at trying to come back in early August. I resume my teaching in the fall.

With good wishes and courage and inspirations and stamina and hope to all at York,


Do you have a story to share about how you are coping, or what you are doing differently, during the COVID-19 pandemic? Email us at yfile@yorku.ca.