It is heartbreaking to see what the pandemic is doing to French culture. Yes, the deaths and long-term suffering are far more important than complaints about culture. I hope the changes don’t take hold, either. It seems the major method of transmission is in family/friends settings, and so life has largely returned to normal with the exception that we have a 6 p.m. curfew in order to rule out get-togethers after work. Restaurants and bars are closed, and I see more and more of them dropping their flimsy lifelines of lunch takeout and “for sale” or “for rent” signs appearing in their windows. I think the survivors will be mobbed when they are allowed to reopen. It’s all everybody wants to do–go out, have a meal or drinks with friends. We crave company.
Because you can’t go out to eat, those people who can’t work remotely from home are stuck at lunch time either eating outside in a park, weather permitting, or eating at their desks–something that previously was actually illegal. When I worked in Brussels, I usually ate both lunch and dinner at my desk. Once when I was feeling under the weather, I dared to go to the restaurant across the street, figuring a square meal instead of a to-go salad would boost my immunity. Midway through my meal, the waiter came and said there was a call for me in the kitchen. It was my boss, who was too lazy to look up my cell phone number but who had the restaurant’s number on speed dial; he had an unimportant question he correctly figured I would have the answer to and he didn’t want to wait 20 minutes for me to finish eating and return to the office. His name was Rich (an American) but it should have been Dick; this was far from the worst thing he did–others suffered outright cruelty from him.
I have a lot of respect for the French for codifying sane behavior like lunch hour. The insanity of the pandemic is upending it. It isn’t just desk dining. Businesses are staying open continuously, because they have to close so early. Usually, they would shut down from 12 to 2 p.m., a holdover from when everybody lived close enough that they could pop home for a post-prandial sièste. Groups of three to six people would stroll the town center after their leisurely lunches, or head over to one of the parks to bask. A real break, in fresh air.
I saw a lot of this on a recent outing in Toulouse–streets full of people, every church step and park bench occupied by workers eating their takeout meals. But a few days later, Montpellier was deserted–it was raining cats and dogs and Saharan sand. My friend and I had to eat our poké bowls in my car in the underground parking garage.
One of the things that utterly charmed me when I arrived here was the way shopkeepers and vendors at the market would get coffee to go, delivered in china cups, carried on trays. Who wants coffee out of a paper cup? Now, paper cups are the only option. Will they stay? Will e-commerce stay and continue to ravage IRL retail? Crazily, there are two new shopping centers being built on the edge of town, almost next to each other, and near the town’s first shopping center, which is barely hanging on.
More groups are out walking in the park along the river, and on Wednesdays–when French schools close in the afternoons–grandparents are there with their grandchildren, whose usual activities like sports have been canceled. But the bise–the two- or three-kiss greeting–is rare, and almost startling when you do see it. What are they thinking! Mostly people keep their distance, careful not to so much as pat a friend’s arm, at this moment when we all could use a hug.
Around the few cafés offering takeout coffee, groups of people meet to chat. Café terraces might be closed, but people will not be stopped–they will stand with their coffee in its horrifying paper cup and socialize, ready to start walking if a police patrol comes by–nothing to see here! The Saturday market has never been more of a social event, happily outdoors. The central square is being redone to put the electric wiring underground rather than strung through the plane trees–seems like an overdue idea. So the market has moved to a parking lot on the edge of the Bastide, where some of the original fortress wall from 1260 still stands. The aisles are much wider than in the square, probably a good thing. And the vendors are mostly arranged next to or near their former neighbors, but I still haven’t memorized all the new spots. A carousel is next to the market, with the clothing/housewares market continuing beyond it. The carousel plays Mozart. I love it. (I put a clip on Instagram.)
At the market recently, I went, per my new habit, to the very funny cheesemonger. He is our own incarnation of Robin Williams, singing, doing voices, making jokes. He speaks many languages and talks to passersby in whatever language he has heard, proffering slivers of cheese to taste. For the past year, it’s been almost exclusively French. Anyway, he wasn’t at his stand, probably having stepped away for a bathroom break. I examined the cheeses–there are so many–and observed the crowd. A woman came up to me; she was a vendor at another stand that usually is on a different side of the market from the cheesemonger. We chatted. She greeted by name many people going by; when you work at the market you eventually know everyone. She called out pleasantries to the other vendors nearby. “Where are you?” one asked her. “I’ve been bad. They’ve sent me to the corner,” she answered, pointing to the far edge of the market, against a tall wall of enormous hand-hewn pale yellow stones. “Au coin” is what a teacher would tell a naughty student–go to the corner. She suggested I walk around and come back. “I don’t mind waiting,” I told her. “I like watching the people.” “Me too!” she exclaimed. “It’s so nice to be around people!” I made a point to visit her stand later, though I usually do anyway; she is unfailingly cheerful while her co-workers glower. She greeted me like an old friend and threw in a lemon as a gift. It made my day–a small exchange, a human connection.
One of the news programs here had a segment on the “battle of generations” because of Covid: the young are being asked to sacrifice the landmark moments of their youth (which mostly are social–parties, dating, even travel to discover the world), as well as their future prospects (with education being disrupted, especially for university students, and the economic cost of keeping people afloat is going to have to be repaid one day–by the young, not the old). One expert worried that employers will shun people who are coming of age now, because of the possible impact on their educations and skills. How can young people do internships when so much work is now remote from home? Meanwhile, I see my neighbor, who must be in her 80s, continuing to receive her lady friends throughout the week, with bigger gatherings on weekends, none of them ever coming or going with a mask on. An 85-year-old resident of the village went to church despite forgetting her mask; she caught Covid from one of the approximately half dozen other old ladies who are the only attendees and was hospitalized, but not before infecting two more generations of her family. None of them wore masks when together, because family.
There are some signs of hope. The vaccines are being distributed, though slowly. Judging by the people weighed down by shopping bags during the recent solde season, some people have money to burn. And spring is coming. The almond trees have been flowering for a few weeks, now joined by cherries and daffodils. The days are longer and warmer. After a very tumultuous year, a new life is starting. I hope.
Sorry for the long absence. It’s complicated. A big project is in the works. One of the benefits of lockdowns is that nearly all administrative hassles can now be tackled via email, phone or by appointment. Gone is the old standard operating procedure of get there early and stand in line forever only to be told you need some obscure document and you’ll have to come back, to stand in line anew. I recently won a battle of wills against bureaucracy, something I never thought possible. Either I’ve adapted, or the system is becoming less infuriating.
How are you holding up? Many of you feel like friends even though we haven’t met. I’m sure we would be, too, because some of you have come to Carcassonne and we’ve met and instantly clicked. The Internet can be a wonderful place.