“Live in the moment,” they say. “Bullocks,” I think.

There has never been a better time to live in a dreamworld, of your own making or one created by others. TV, TikTok, movies, books, Instagram…they all offer escapism from our grim reality of coronavirus, racism, sexism, empowered authoritarians and wannabe dictators.

 

Any excuse for some Paris shots…

I just got back from Paris, where I was working for talent agents to the stars. What a bunch of connivers! Some had hearts of gold deep down, and they all truly cared about cinema. I was put off by how often they hopped in bed with each other, but what do you expect? In France, sex steps in when writing isn’t up to par, versus violence in America.

No, I didn’t go to Paris for work. I just binged on “Dix Pour Cent,” aka “Call My Agent.” It was fun, it was escapism. There were famous people in beautiful clothes, great shots of the City of Light. It was a return to the office–I’ve been working remotely for years and desperately miss being around colleagues. It was fun, even if it was very lightweight. Formulaic. Every time I thought the characters were going to be developed more deeply, they reverted to what I suspect was their list of descriptions: Mathias the power-hungry cheater, Andréa the anti-woman, Gabriel the mess, Camille the victim, Arlette the wise sage. The lies and inventions were over the top. And when things got too crazy, they went a little farther and unlikely people paired up, to make it all crazier. Maybe the point was to keep the storyline in the fantasy world, away from reality, which is far more boring and less attractive.

Two things struck me as dated: stiletto heels and the absence of masks. Other things, too: eating indoors at restaurants, parties…The head of the World Health Organization recently said he hopes the pandemic will be over in less than two years. How much stranger will everything feel to us by then, if we already feel shock at the sight of bare faces and people breathing on each other?

Will it be like the difference between the Paris of “Dix Pour Cent” vs. the Paris of “Les 400 Coups” (The 400 Blows), which I also watched recently? The same streets, the same landmarks, yet everything so, so different. Little details that I remember but that my kid has never known–a milkman, for example. In this era of everything delivered, it’s odd that this no longer exists, at least not in an everybody-in-a-working-class-neighborhood-does-it way, on schedule rather than on whim. My grandma had a box next to her front door, where the milkman would take the washed empty bottles and leave filled, fresh ones.

Timeless

Before Paris, I went to Naples, again. My second trip was easier than the first, because my guide was Ann Goldstein. It was quite a voyage–not just to a place I’ve seen only in passing, two decades ago, but also in time, to an era before I was born but whose remains were still prevalent in my childhood. The same era as “Les 400 Coups.” I read Elena Ferrante’s “My Brilliant Friend” a few months ago in French and while it mostly went OK, some of those passé simple verb conjugations have no resemblance whatsoever to the root verb. Take être–to be. Je suis (I am); tu es (you singular are); il/elle est (he/she is); nous sommes (we are); vous êtes (you plural are); ils/elles sont (they are). Half start with e and half start with s. OK. After all, “to be” turns into am and are. Passé simple is hard because it’s used only in writing, not in speaking. You have to go looking for it; you can’t just get familiar with it gradually. Être in passé simple conjugates as fus, fus, fut, fûmes, fûtes and furent. What the F? Where did that come from? I had already learned être and some others, but such a literary work as Ferante’s used verbs I didn’t recognize at all, much less in passé simple. Sometimes I took dictionary detours and boosted my vocabulary; other times I powered ahead, driven by the story line and hoping context would provide comprehension.

Reflections?

I found “The Story of a New Name,” the second book of the Neapolitan quartet, in English and devoured it. I was back in Naples, with images of beaches and streets and shops and apartments and dresses and cars flicking through my mind’s eye, assembled from vacations and movies and simple imagination. I see rooms lit in garish fluorescent light, like that in my grandma’s kitchen, like that in a restaurant in Florence I went to years ago that was trapped as if in amber, everything from an era long ago but still in perfect condition. The brilliant friend’s new apartment must be in one of those buildings like where Paparezzo (who gave his name to paparazzi) lived on the outskirts of Rome in “La Dolce Vita.” The buildings where the characters grew up must be like some of the insalubrious places I’ve visited lately and will describe more later.

Do you do that? Assemble a mosaic of bits from life and cinema and TV and pictures and come up with a place that exists only in your head, that only you can ever see because the pieces of your mosaic are unique to you. The same set of words–a book, for example–can set in motion, like some kind of Rube Goldberg contraption, the process that leads to completely different mosaics in different readers’ heads, but we’ll never know how different because the pieces can be a mystery even to ourselves. Where did that detail come from? A place I’ve been? A place I saw only in a magazine? A TV show?

I used to have a recurring dream. I was in a dark, cool tunnel. It smelled a little earthy. There was blinding light at one end. I don’t know what I was doing there, but I was in a happy place. After many years of this mini dream, I went back to where I had been in Peace Corps in Africa, and noticed, in the capital city, a seed shop where I would buy supplies for my attempts at gardening. Tourists don’t need to buy seeds, but I went in anyway, for nostalgia’s sake. And I was in my dream. The tunnel was a real place! It seemed dark only because the equatorial sun outside was so bright and because nobody in Africa is so foolish as to turn on electric lights during the daytime. It made me question how many pictures in my head, those fleeting images that are triggered by a whiff of a scent, a few notes of an old song, the gait of a stranger passing, how many of those are real, lived experiences? And the others–the images from, say, “La Dolce Vita”–are those not real as well? The pictures on Instagram? Real or not?

Maybe this is it: Nostalgia. But isn’t nostalgia a kind of escapism? A very specific kind, escaping to a place that’s known and loved. Not like sci-fi escapism, for example, or dystopian escapism. Funny, but my recurring dream in the tunnel stopped once I knew it was the seed shop.

I was just talking to someone back home who was telling me that while Covid-19 is bad in the U.S., it is under control where he lives. I looked it up. 100 cases per 100,000 people in his county, which indeed is about middling for the U.S.–and that is not a compliment. What does it say about the future, about November, when somebody thinks things are fine when they are terrible, just because it’s even worse elsewhere? “We’re not as bad as Florida.” As if that’s ever been a measure. Here, in Aude, we have fewer than 1 case per 100,000; for France overall it’s 34 cases per 100,000 population. Masks are obligatory, indoors and out. People obey. OK, most people pull them off when they’re out of the center, walking alone on a street. Shops are open, schools are supposed to open Sept. 2, lots of workers have returned to offices, restaurants are full–outside only. There are no lines at the supermarket and the shelves are well-stocked. Nobody wants to return to April. It felt like dystopia. For real.

I don’t know what I’ll read or watch next. Maybe something historical. No matter how bad the present is, the past was worse. But I’m more into nonfiction. Current events. The thing is, with the Internet, one gets incrementalism. Constant updates. What’s new, rather than what’s important. We lose perspective, context, analysis. Oh, yeah, everybody analyzes and opines today, rarely with qualifications. I risk going on another rant here–my original plan was to excoriate the U.S. coronavirus non-response, and then I thought, no, I’ll write about coping with Covid craziness. But another thing nags at me: the distain for experience. Granted, some people can live through things and learn zilch. Introspection isn’t a universal skill. Not just introspection about the past but the present. Instead, there is so much focus on process. And the process that consumes most of our time is keeping up with technology. But technology is nothing more than the grease for the machinery that gets things done. Technology is incrementalism at an exponential scale. It isn’t substance itself. It’s being busy but not necessarily productive. Updates, new apps, new tricks. Yes, we need to constantly adapt. Yes, new technology makes life better, work easier. But sometimes I suspect we are changing for the sake of change, not for the sake of improvement. Different isn’t always better. Sometimes it’s just churn. As for the work itself? The thinking that goes into it? I despair about that.

I’m working with a new person. Her emails are larded with phrases like “soft proof points” and “widen the aperture” and “usecase.” The guy before her loved “inflection points” and “sea change.” Neither fully grasped the projects, the substance. It felt like they were running alongside, hoping the projects stayed on the rails, rather than actually driving the projects. They didn’t know how to drive. And forget about finer details.

Part of me thinks, fine. Let them learn to swim by throwing them in the deep end. But what if they’re incapable of learning, of introspection? Or if they’re like the agents in “Dix Pour Cent, so busy keeping up with one crisis after the next that they don’t stop and think? On the other hand, there’s the ancient agent, Arlette, who takes under her wing the brash new owner of the agency and gives him the cultural education he lacked. The French are big on structure–on training, on mentorship, on passing exams, on proving oneself before being promoted. A criticism is that this system stifles innovation and creativity. Maybe. Or maybe it celebrates real value over churn. They say history doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes. Maybe it would be good to have more people in charge who aren’t learning the words for the first time.

Do you feel a need to escape from reality these days? How are you doing it? Reading and watching suggestions welcome. Good Instagrams, too. I am thinking about some vicarious travel posts for you, and some live-the-good-life-in-France-wherever-you-are posts. BTW, the title is an allusion to “The Year of Living Dangerously,” a great movie, if you’re looking for one.

47 thoughts on “The Year of Living Vicariously

  1. IT is so wonderful to see you posting! I hope this means that your arm is better and that it is not too painful to type. I too have been “traveling” but only thru books, I’ve been reading several book about Italy, Quatrocento was one of my favorites lately, also I am listening to The Vineyards of Champagne. One of my favorite documentaries that I watched in the last few years was https://www.imdb.com/title/tt3149796/?ref_=ttpl_pl_tt The Most Dangerous Ways to School. Aside from that listening to podcasts, The Earful Tower is a favorite.

    Have a great day!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re also in Italy! Molto bene! What is the Vineyards of Champagne? A podcast? Checking out your documentary tonight. And yes, the Earful Tower is delightful!
      (Arm much better, but still unable to straighten it or use it much.)

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      1. The Vineyards of Champagne is a book I am listening to, it does back and forth between the present and the WW1. It is very interesting.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Happy to see a post from you!… Your arm? I missed that somehow. Are you alright? Everything has changed during covid., especially how we see and interact with others. Americans are not a “get in line” bunch, but rather a break the rules and strike out on your own country so it is not surprising that most of us… particularly those under 30… aren’t following the mask rules. Even when San Antonio was under lockdown, with orders to wear a mask in public, no one wore a mask and stayed at home. I don’t think it’s so much because of leadership at the top. Right or wrong it’s just how the American mindset is: You can’t tell me what to do.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The US was a leader in getting rid of smoking everywhere, which was similarly something people did that was bad not just for themselves but for bystanders. What changed?

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    2. AND SHE IS BACK!
      THANK GOD!
      I NEARLY SPIT OUT MY YOGURT ON YOUR WORDS OF MAYBE” HAVING PEOPLE IN CHARGE WHO AREN’t LEARNING WORDS FOR THE FIRST TIME!!!!!!!!!!!”
      GOD HELP US IF HE GETS RE-ELECTED!
      I can NOT SAY YOSEMITE correctly ANYMORE!
      I WAS SO FLABBERGASTED!!!!!!
      ADORE YOU!
      XX

      Liked by 1 person

      1. CNN isn’t in the same league as the other two. It’s serious journalism but TV, so lite. NY Post is gossip. And HuffPost is plagiarism of other reporting. Subscribe to a real paper and pay. It’s a patriotic duty.

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  3. Dear TofF–It has been a while, and so glad I now have time to devour your writing. It is good to reconnect.

    The job I recently left was very much ‘churn-without-learn.’ Reflection was deemed a nasty word and implied negativity if voiced. With the US turning to cancel culture with ease, churn is the “IT” girl of the moment. Probably because everyone is scared to death to be without insurance and money right now. Our work ethic ensures we are burnt out, and, therefore, too tired to question if there is a better way.

    Your phrase, “…that was trapped as if in amber, everything from an era long ago but still in perfect condition,” genuinely evocative. There are corners I will turn in to, and encounter whiffs of the past. Sadly, they are becoming fewer and fewer.

    My sister says that recurring dreams happen because you haven’t figured out what they mean. Once you figure out the meaning, they will never return. Well done, you for figuring out your dream’s meaning.

    As far as escapism, I am viewing documentaries from a couple of decades ago. Up until 9/11, these appear to be hope-filled, as if we truly were moving forward. Fresh-faced and filled with wonder, the world seemed to be figuring it all out. Maybe, as WHO suggests, in 2022, we will have a fresh perspective and get back on track.

    Stay safe. Stay well.

    J

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I am honored to have such erudite readers. I hope your new workplace is better. I was listening to a podcast about tech leaders and how being a jerk was seen as proof of brilliance instead of just being a jerk. It seems so on a corporate scale as well. The pendulum needs to swing back.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. If you have the name of that podcast, please post. I would be interested in listening to it. The idea of being a jerk seems to have crossed into many arenas now. It’s a strange world. ~J

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Well, don’t bother reading the book I’m currently wading through. It’s a French 1980s version of The Da Vinci Code, and just as silly — not as badly written, but full of sections that I’m just rolling my eyes at. Apparently it was made into a TV miniseries when it first came out. I’m only reading it in the interests of improving my French, and I picked it up by accident at the village book exchange box, after swimming, when I wasn’t wearing my glasses. I thought it was going to be a historical novel based on ‘true facts’, but while the characters are all people who really existed, the story of Father Berenger Sauniere and the treasure he found is a load of tosh.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You know that was down here, not far away?
      I am in tears from laughing at the idea of swim-blurred vision leading to a disappointing literary slog.
      Check out “Chanson Douce” by Leila Slimani.

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      1. Oh yes, I forgot that. Carcassone gets a mention every now and then, as characters go there or come from there.
        Did you like Chanson Douce? A lot of people hated it according to the reviews — and of course she struck exactly the wrong tone during the lockdown by thoughtlessly flaunting her lovely safe rural home.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. We’re holed up in our little cabin on Lake Champlain in VT…without heat, so our days here are sadly numbered. Kayaking, walking, book deliveries by the UPS man are keeping us sane. Our hometown of 30,000, near Boston, has had 46 covid deaths. so we have taken this seriously. Our last sit down in a restaurant was end of January. “Holed up”, is no exaggeration!

    This whole covid thing has shaken my core beliefs in my country. When the northeast was hit hard, early on, the rest of the country had weeks (months?), to prepare. Yet, they did not. There is no reason why the US should have 25% of the world’s covid deaths. There should have been a national policy to coordinate a response. A national mask mandate. Instead we have a leader who called it a hoax, said it would go away. The willful ignorance is appalling.

    On a lighter note…love “Dix Pour Cent”…all three seasons. We’ve gotten into the K-dramas (Korean series/movies), on Netflix: Crash Landing on You, Mr Sunshine, Stranger, Rookie Historian, Chocolate, et al. And, yes isn’t it bizarre to think while watching a show, where are their masks??, why aren’t they social distancing?? My ultimate Instagram escapism is a dose of Mimi Thorisson…sigh.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m so glad to hear from you and glad you are well. Korean series sound fascinating. And very escapist. Thanks for the suggestion!
      And you are 100% to about the COVID debacle.

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  6. I always enjoy your blog posts and photos. I don’t usually comment, but can’t resist recommending a book with an Italian-American connection, Juliet Grames’, The Seven or Eight Deaths of Stella Fortuna. It’s a family story, not a murder mystery and might help to take your mind off the pains of a pandemic.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Welcome back, ToF! So much to think about, here, before launching into a considered reply but I’ll confine this today to focussing on your less philosophical questions:

    First up, home-delivered milk, why has that fallen between the cracks? It should have been one of the first things embraced! (I do know the answer, but the romance of the small-businessman in the little van and the tinkling bottles etc just overcame me)

    As for distractions literary and televisual, I’m all over the shop but essentially existing in Past Times. Books are far-reaching and varied but you’ll have a good handle on what will tickle you. “Babylon Berlin” is amazing tv, the only criticism is the dubbing when sub-titles would have been better. I’d given Mr. P the first Volker Kutscher book as a gift a while back and he said the tv show was different but better, which isn’t often the case. Other shows like “Peaky Blinders” and “Vikings” and whatnot had been on a drip feed earlier in the year but I abandoned them as the violence/storylines/acting just became absurd. “Perry Mason” has just been released and is excellent as well. But generally speaking, I’m preferring the company of lighter fare and revisiting old shows. “The Collection” (Paris fashion house 1950s) was on recently and was good but I’ve also rewatched “The House of Eliott” from the 90s which is much more up my alley. “Poirot”, “Campion”, “Miss Fisher’s Murders” for costumed crime-lite shows, “Maigret” for something a bit more sombre. Finally catching up with “The Crown”. But it’s all leavened with garden docos by the likes of Monty Don and great train journeys with Michael Portillo etc. Bottom line: too much telly and my specs prescription has gone up another .25!

    I think I’m over Instagram. Too much time being wasted on such things when there are books to read and am preferring blogs for company. Occasional podcasts when I’m ironing or sewing – Slightly Foxed for my kind of bookish and I did the interviews by India Hicks with her mother, Lady Pamela Mountbatten which are gentle, good-natured and fun.

    Glad you are on the mend and I love your photos, as ever.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I caught bit of “Peaky Blinders” but didn’t get into it at all. Will check these out. Speaking of Mountbatten, I did enjoy “The Crown,” even though I can’t wrap my head around the idea of royalty.

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    2. I second watching Perry Mason – the first episode is pretty dark as it sets the tone for the character. But it gets better from then on. hope they do another season.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I’ve just finished reading Joan Didion’s “Miami”. Not a new book, but it explains a very great deal about Florida, its politicians, US politics, and a good bit of the history of the last half century or so. I’d even say it explains nearly all of US political activity since then.
    I suspect the romance of milk delivery was perhaps more on the side of the recipients — and it would have required milk from local herds, not the aggregate-in-central-points that exists now. Lots of economic factors working against it, alas.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. A great post and the title is very apt! I do urge you to read the rest of the Neapolitan novels (Elena Ferrante) in English. I loved the series. The story is too good to miss words or sentences because of language and you are a native English speaker, after all. The TV adaptation is very good as well and closely follows the books because EF was involved in the screenplay. Somehow everyone looks exactly how one imagined them! I have also been reading Caroline Moorehead’s books about France during WW2 and Italy during Mussolini’s time and the comparison to what is going on in this country now cannot be missed. Enough said! We have watched all 7 seasons of a French Village which was well done and historically accurate. I love series or books that take me traveling vicariously!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I have several of the Caroline Moorehead books. Highly recommended. Good writing about history (which, as you know, is not always the case), very readable.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Crazy–I have been following a parallel path of vicarious living, rolling through the Neopolitan series for a second go-round and binging Dix Pour Cent. As for Ferrante, on second reading I felt I had not really focused the first time; everything now was more nuanced, richer. I hated leaving Lenu and Lina behind, so that now, though quasi-fictional characters, they have become part of my worldview.

    I, too, have been reflecting on responses to COVID around the globe and came up with a little different take than your own: https://wordpress.com/view/bbreaden.wordpress.com

    Are we living dangerously or deeply? I find myself dutifully following the rules but ready to throw caution (and mask) to the wind in rebellious moments around friends, family, and familiar places. The Year of Living Dangerously: what an appealing title. I’m eager to check it out.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. This is such a good post – full of thought and feeling and interesting perspectives! But I was surprised to see bullocks instead of bollocks in the title – “young bulls” isn’t a particularly emphatic exclamation.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. That photo with the sun going down behind the trees (and the MMA Agency around the corner!!), may I ask where it is? It looks really familiar but I’m not quite sure…

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Have you watched Engranages, aka Spiral? To my mind, it is one of the best series with wonderful character development, good acting, great shots of Paris, thought provoking scenes involving the French justice system, moral quandaries, etc. etc. I am watching Season 7 and it is not as gory as other seasons which is good actually. Although it is not gory all the time, the first episode of the season always seems to have the requisite violence as it sets the scene for the cast of characters. I usually look down at my knitting for those bits and come up for air when it has passed. Not much to suffer in the grand scheme of things as the rest of the episodes are always excellent. Anyway, I highly recommend it.

    Liked by 1 person

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