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.

Mid-February in Toulouse. Shorts, T-shirt and enormous scarf, because February.

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.)

The riverside park (there’s a path on each side) is a popular place for a promenade.
The view along the path is stunning.
Clockwise from top left: morbier (the line is ashes), fromage frais with red peppercorns, unpasteurized butter from the farm (another stall, where the soft cheese comes as well), and a goat cheese.

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.

34 thoughts on “People Who Need People

  1. I especially agree with your last few sentences. I’ve made wonderful friends via the internet, and especially at the beginning via the photo site Flickr (which now sadly is in free fall and will disappear one day – and nobody will miss it). I have even brought ppl from different countries with the same interests together and they have become firm friends too. And I’ve met virtual friends from N.America to UK to Switzerland at some time in ‘real’ and we are still friends now, years later. Others will likely to stay virtual friends but are just as close to my heart as those in ‘true flesh and spirit’…..
    We have less restrictions here than in France and the most bothering bit is the curfew. Even if we wanted to come, we couldn’t – as we need more time to travel to and fro than we are allowed. 6 to 6 doesn’t do it for us!
    Wonderful post – and don’t worry about being more absent than you’d like. We all adapt to different time-settings nowadays and different priorities are valid. All is good…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, travel is problematic at the moment. I wanted to make a little trip to the Atlantic coast to see the Dune du Pilat–driving in my own car, bringing food, activities are all outdoors–so it seemed safe enough. But I worried so much about getting in before curfew that I just went to Toulouse instead.
      Re Flickr, I see the adorable vlogger David Dobrik has a new app, Dispo. I haven’t checked it out yet.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. I hate when that happens!
      Sorry to hear of your friend’s passing. And your post about closing of a class brought back memories of my first experiences participating in French strikes for the same thing.

      Like

  2. Nice to see a post from you. As we don’t live in or near a larger city we have seen very few people in the last year. We chat at a distance to our neighbours, we walk the dogs, we occasionally visit the outdoor market, we go to the supermarket, but it all feels strange and a bit contrived. We’ve had three grandchildren born during the pandemic whom we cannot meet. Small potatoes compared with illness or death, though, so we stick it out like we must and feel lucky we’re still here. The French vaccine “rollout” is surprisingly bad – they have not lived up to their reputation in healthcare this time around. Very disappointing. Hope to see you (and stay in one of your beautiful apartments) when we can travel again.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think the vaccine issue is unintended consequences of good intentions. For the big H1N1 flu outbreak a few years ago, vaccination centers were set up in big buildings. I recall going to a kind of military barracks. The government worried that such distribution might be more efficient but ultimately not because the very elderly wouldn’t be willing or able to go to such places, and they decided to take the vaccine to the people. Much more complicated. They are changing procedures as they vaccinate different population groups and we all hope it will speed up.

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      1. I’ve lived in France for 10 years, so I understand some of the complications the French are facing, but I’m still surprised by how difficult it seems for them to handle the rollout. My doctor has said she will get 10 doses of Astra Zeneca this week but is having trouble finding French people to take them. We etrangers are more anxious to have them, she said – among her patients, anyway. Like you, I’m hopeful they’ll get on top of it soon.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you for this welcome slice of French life! Glad to see you posting again, though I do understand that sometimes life gets in the way. Nice that you’ve adapted or that France is bending — either way, it’s a win for the good side! Stay well. x

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I too hope that France can go back to the things that make them unique in this world, when all is open again. How sad if having a fine lunch with friends or work comrades falls by the wayside. That’s a big change that impacts life as the French know it. But we are all resilient and the French people will find a way to be who they are deep down.
    Happy to hear from you again. I suspect you’ve had to draw on your resilience these past months too.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. I was in bed trying to fall asleep when you and your blog popped in my mind. I wondered if I had been blocked! Naturally, the next morning I forgot about my concern. This was yesterday, so you must have sensed many friends missing you as well! I pray this year will return to a more normal life for us all. I hope you have healed from your prior fall as well. Hugs…

    Liked by 1 person

  6. WHAT A FULL POST OF LIFE IN FRANCE AT THE MOMENT!I LOVED EVERY DETAIL…….THANK YOU for describing each and every little “things” you have observed!
    I donot go to our towns Farmer s Market I donot know why but its just not the same as it was in ITALY.I tend to compare a Lot of my days there verses HERE in the STATES and ITALY ALWAYS WINS!The American way seems to always CREEP into the EUROPEANS LIFE!For example Paper cups………GOOD GOD NO!
    I hope you are well…….and that has not been the cause for your absence.I have met so many WONDERFUL PEOPLE through these BLOGS…………thats all I do I have-not stepped outside MY BOX!VLOGS, PODCASTS, etc.
    Let’s Hope this is coming to an end by years end…………
    CALIFORNIA has reached 50,000 DEAD.AND of course you know from the news 500,000.DEAD in all of the USA.
    I admit I am going a bit STIR CRAZY!
    HANG IN THERE PLEASE!
    XXX

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Let’s hope the paper cups are temporary only.
      You have a lively variety of guest visitors on the blog, even if they’re physically far away. You seem to be coping well, and I hope you are feeling better, too.

      Like

  7. Que je suis contente de te lire enfin !!!
    J’ai moi aussi plus qu’envie de retrouver le côté convivial de la vie… des repas entre amis… au resto… un bon café crème ou capuccino à la terrasse du café habituel après notre marché… tous ces moments me manquent terriblement 😦
    J’attends le vaccin pour REVIVRE ENFIN
    BIZ

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I’ve worked through the pandemic, deemed essential, though of course the work routine has had to adapt to the current circumstances like everything else. And I live alone, haven’t seen family in over a year now. I’ll admit, I’ve had more than enough of the current situation. It’s hard to imagine there’s any hope this will ever end.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. With the arrival of spring in Europe there is new hope, new beginnings and new opportunities. And yet a wish to return to the old, not the new that is upon us. We have a long road back and forward from Covid-19, but we are feeling the same emotions, missing the interactions, hugs, kisses and laughter.
    It will come, we just need to be patient.
    Suzana from Australia

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Hello ToF and lovely to see you again!

    Despair not about these changing times on the cultural landscape, I suspect it won’t be permanent and that it won’t be long after the world is vaccinated that things will go back to much as before, albeit with some modifications. Our collective memories are, after all, short when it come to times of hardship. I reflect on the Spanish ‘flu and other health crises over the last century, where masks, hand-washing, distancing and the like were second-nature for a while, and here we are having to learn it all over again in the modern age; or the Great Depression where frugality and deprivation were quickly forgotten when better times came. Maybe there’ll be room for eating at your desk if one so chooses in the future, you just won’t get fined or ostracised? The on-call nature of working from home right now is already taking its toll of some workers, and I suspect the French will lead the charge back to work-life balance in the end.

    It’s a world of swings and roundabouts here. Luxury goods sales are through the roof since those whose incomes haven’t been affected have nowhere to spend their money – travel both abroad and within the country, being such an expensive exercise for us, would have taken a big chunk out of the disposable income of most whose travel plans were scuttled. There has been a moderate amount of change in our immediate neighbourhood – some tired old business have gone, some have adapted their ways and yet more have sprung open from nothing. Annoyingly, our postal service has been cut back, despite deliveries of online purchases skyrocketing. A mean-spirited gesture in my view and hopefully it will go back to normal one day.

    We have a kind of tracing system in place which has become normalised in such a short space of time, whereby the government can track your movements, and if it had ever been suggested pre-Covid, the authorities would have been drummed out of town … and yet here we are. We do joke that scratch the surface, Australia is just a glorified penal settlement and we will always do our overlords’ bidding without demur.

    However, “lucky” we have been with our drawbridge more or less up, and we are going out, seeing one another and so on, but there has been a large-scale abandonment of the Frenchified kissing among acquaintances and a resumption of our more stand-offish Anglo-Saxon ways.

    Your photos and snippets of local colour are delectable, as ever, and your cheese selection mouth-watering! I hadn’t heard about the sandstorms – so eerie … such a mess when they come. In my time I’ve had to clean up after a red dust storm that came over the city from the country – even the walls inside my apartment had to be washed down as a window had been unknowingly left ajar. And shopping malls?? Whatever is the thinking there? They’re amongst the poorest performers here in an economic sense. They’ll probably be white elephants in a generation as the fashion for these things is cyclical.

    We nearly got to visit Carcassonne last year and it would have been nice to sit in a square with you and sip an aperitif. One day … 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Glad to read your post!
    You’ve described the situation really well. I’ve also noticed these changes here, the paper cups, the ruined retailers, the bars and restaurants which closed forever. These local businesses are essential to keep our small city lifestyle, there is not a lively city without them and now we’ve realised this is such a fragile thing!. Hope this situation doesn’t devastate our spanish culture, nor french one.
    Recently our non-essential shops were allowed to open again, and I went to pay a visit to my favourite ones: haberdashery, cobbler, workshops and retailers. It was my first ‘social occasion’ in months and felt really heartwarming that everybody called me by my name. We’ve missed each other!.
    I’ve noticed that many people are investing in their homes, lots of work for builders, plumbers etc. which I hope bring some economical improvement!
    besos

    Like

  12. Bonjour. It’s been a long time since I have commented on your excellent blog! I just caught up on a few recent articles. This one caught my eye. It includes factual observations on French life, and as always, reveals deep understanding of the French way of life. I have just shared it with the France with Véro community on Facebook. Merci encore! Be well. Véronique (formerly French Girl in Seattle)

    Liked by 1 person

  13. I enjoyed your current account of life in France and would love to read your future blogs.

    I had planned on visiting Paris this fall, and now postponing until 2022. Hopefully, it will
    be better worldwide. I have made the best of these down time, by learning the French language with a Zoom class and Duolingo. It had kept me busy. Best Cynthia (California)

    Liked by 1 person

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