We're all Swedes now

Several years ago a friend of mine from somewhere well north of Santander and her young daughter were visiting me in Malaga. Wandering around the shopping streets, the child asked, "Mummy, why do the people keep bumping into me?" In all those years, my surprise at the question and my inability to answer has never really left me.

I was reminded of this again recently, a couple of weeks into lockdown on a first trip out to Carrefour. This is the kind of trip, in normal times, I would always dread. Whatever my reason for being there, I would leave more ill-at-ease with my life when I left than when I went in. Now with coronavirus, those close to me had come back with tales of the oppressive tension in the air as people nudged forward to collect a trolley and go inside, the suspicious glances at fellow shoppers and the sense of anguish rising inside you as you feared for your future in those very aisles. I had not been looking forward to coming on this trip any more than I usually do.

Yet, as I stood there clutching my number for my turn for some boiled ham and surveying the scene in Fresh Produce, a warmth started to surge inside me from my toes to my head. My number was called so quickly I almost missed it as I eyed the packaged cheese to kill time. I was relaxing. I leaned towards the counter and gave my order basking in my own uninterrupted space as I discussed my ham choice. Others stood close to me eagerly, also enjoying their own space and focused on what they were ordering rather than a News Feed or whatever their neighbour was doing. I was enjoying this.

As I moved off, circling the sushi counter, I realised that almost everyone I passed was there alone, in Japanese robotic trances, with a clear shopping list in mind or hand, and an objective to get done and get out as soon as possible. I realised that I was no longer in the Carrefour I had known but in some sort of social-distancing Paradise. It was bliss. Things that were meant to be happening to me, were.

I reached the self-service checkouts, which were curiously all working that day. Suddenly everyone seemed to understand these contraptions and there was no craning around for assistance while loosely waving a barcode wand.

My usual dreary exit was optimistic this time, as I sprang along reflecting on the pros and cons of focus and objective. As I passed the doors a sign read, 'Due to exceptional circumstances our opening times have changed to 9am to 8pm'. It seemed, I decided, that lockdown had indeed transported us all to somewhere near Sweden.

When I got in the car on that March day, the dashboard reminded me that it was 28 degrees. "Bugger Sweden," I concluded and reached for sunglasses and hand sanitiser.