As the curse goes, “May you live in interesting times.” We are indeed in interesting times. France started another lockdown on Oct. 30. We aren’t supposed to go out except for essentials–work, exercise, appointments, groceries. Basically it means life goes on except for fun. This was brilliantly captured in a German public service announcement (scroll to the one with subtitles–you shouldn’t miss “lazy as racoons”!). The main hiccup is that we have to fill out a form, un attestation, swearing on our honor that we’re really going to work/the doctor/the supermarket/on a run or risk a €135 fine.Read more
If you have a pulse, you probably haven’t escaped Tik Tok. For all my deep suspicions about lack of privacy and tracking on the Internet and applications, there’s a lot to love about Tik Tok. Maybe because of its algorithms of showing you more of what you like, I haven’t been led into its dark underbelly. But from what I’ve seen (been shown, if I am being honest–I don’t have the app myself), Tik Tok has to be doing some good.Read more
Have you seen “Emily in Paris”? It’s fun, but oh-la-la! the exaggerations!
The story is about a young social media whiz sent at the last minute to fill in for a French-speaking senior colleague. Our heroine, Emily, is neither senior nor able to speak French. She doesn’t even have experience in the same sector as the Paris office she’s sent to. But she bubbles over about how she’s going to teach them. No wonder they aren’t happy with her.Read more
It’s crazy. We’re halfway through September, nearly to the official start of fall, and I still can stand only the thinnest sheet I own, no blanket, and the fan on during the night. It was 23 Celsius (73.4 Fahrenheit) here in Carcassonne when I got up this morning. That’s not unusual in August, but now? Our Septembers have an average low temp of 14.2 C (57.6 F) and an average high of 24 C (75.2 F)–perfection. But lately? It’s been in the 30s, which actually is higher than the average high temperature in summer. It’s worse to the west of us–Toulouse is setting records.
Obviously, it’s far worse much farther west. On many levels. But we won’t talk about that.Read more
“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.
Despite the pause, I have been thinking of you. It is slow and frustrating to type with one hand. I usually go very, very fast. Do they still teach typing in school? They don’t in France. It’s crazy, because typing is so much more important today than it was in the 1970s. I see young professionals hunting and pecking with two fingers and think, WTF. I took typing in summer school, not wanting to waste an entire precious year on it, and indeed two months was enough to learn to touch type. Speed comes with practice.Read more
When I was in the Peace Corps in Africa, we were told about “mob justice.” In a place with few public services, like fire, rescue or police, people were on their own. We had serious debates over whether it was better to get one of the two or three passenger spots (on one seat) in the cab of the pickups that provided transportation, or to be in the covered bed, where two wooden benches would hold seven people each (room for five with blood circulating to the legs), and then six or eight or ten more people would be sardined in, crouching over the seated passengers, breathing on those on one bench and butts in the faces of those on the opposite bench, holding a rail attached to the ceiling. The thinking was, with the prevalence of head-on collisions due to pot-holed roads and overloaded lorries that ground their way up hills at a pedestrian pace, and also, especially before cell phones, the impossibility of first aid or getting to a hospital, perhaps it was better to die instantly in the front rather than to die slowly in the back, where who knows whether you would even be able to get out, but then again, maybe all those bodies in the back would cushion each other, and one would survive.
Mob justice was another moral dilemma, also life or death.Read more
When it rains, it pours.
Back in January, I made up a 30-day plan for self-improvement. It was mostly OK–I definitely made an effort most days. But what really made the difference was the combination of spring and the lockdown.
Earlier sunrises and gorgeous weather made it easier to get out of bed, even though I had no work waiting for me. I used the free time to walk and run. I read. Snacking was limited to a daily piece of fruit because we cut back on grocery runs, thanks to the pandemic lockdown.Last week, I set off on a high-intensity walk/run. I am not a good runner. My sprints are a normal person’s trot. But it isn’t a competition–or it is, but just with myself. I “sprint” up hills, jog the flats and walk the descents. I was pleased with my first hill, and was just shifting from a jog to a so-called sprint for the next one when I wiped out.
I picked myself up and realized my left arm was dangling strangely, with my hand facing the wrong way. I shrieked and was back on the tarmac, yelling bloody murder. It was just past the last houses of a village, early in the morning, Nobody came. I managed to get my phone out and to call my husband. I kept screaming.
Finally two guys came running; they had been working in a vineyard and at first thought the screams were kids. They called an ambulance and directed the start of rush-hour traffic around me. A bus came within inches of my head. I hadn’t fallen in a good spot.
I hadn’t called an ambulance because I thought that was bit much for a broken arm. No spurtin’, no hurtin’, as a friend once put it. Also, in the U.S., an ambulance can cost a fortune, and getting the bill paid can require many phone calls and emails with the insurance company. But I am in France! Such idiocy doesn’t exist here, or in almost any other developed country.
The volunteer firefighters from a neighboring village came. They helped me up, and if the ambulance had been one step farther I would have passed out before getting in. They put a blow-up brace on my arm and got me to the hospital. I was put on an IV for glucose (I ran before breakfast and my blood sugar was very low) and pain meds and put in a room to wait for an opening in the operating room. X-rays and an MRI showed my elbow was dislocated, with a small bit broken off.
The charming anesthesiologist with beautiful eyes was shocked I had heard of his hometown, Timisoara, and told me about his childhood memories of Nicolae Ceausescu and the revolution. He numbed my arm from the bicep down. I expected a tranquilizer; when I had foot surgery, I was awake but the tranquilizer made everything–even the buzz of the saw–just fine. But no tranquilizer was necessary.I looked out the big window with a view of vineyards and the mountains. Do operating rooms usually have windows? The surgeon had gorgeous eyes, too. So did the male nurse who tried but failed to put in the IV. I have never seen such a concentration of beautiful eyes; I suspect they are all good-looking in general, but with masks and identical scrubs, it’s hard to confirm.
In minutes, my arm was back in place and being wrapped in a cast–no need to cut it open to put in a pin. I was surprised by how many people were in the operating room and impressed by how congenial everyone was to each other and how sweet they were to me. It seemed like a nice place to work.Because it was late, I was released the next day. I had the impression that the orthopedic section had only a few patients. Quietude reigned.
My husband had gotten my carte vitale; no need for other questions about how it will be covered. I will share the cost of my clumsiness when I get the paperwork. We have a supplemental insurance for the co-pays.I can’t drive for three months; after the cast comes off in three weeks, I have to wear a brace for two more months. It couldn’t come at a worse time, when so much is in upheaval. And I am disgusted that the past five months of workouts are getting a setback. I increased my average daily steps to 13,000 from 8,500, lowered my resting heart rate to 59 beats per minute from 64 and lost two kilograms (4.5 lbs.). My sleep quality improved. No more. I did some one-handed yard work the other day and it was a mistake–my bad arm and fingers swelled. Forced rest. Yuck.
I don’t know what my point is here. How the January resolutions got derailed? How the French health system is wonderful? How a small slip can turn one’s life upside down? Or just an excuse to whine? Maybe all of the above.
Meanwhile, completely unrelated, in the what-were-they-thinking department:Cropped sweater over longer T-shirt on top and cut-off jeans over yoga pants (not leggings) on bottom. Please tell me this isn’t a new thing. Also: why would a sweater exist with short sleeves AND a hood? Sweaters/sleeves/hoods are for keeping one warm. If you aren’t cold, you don’t need a sweater, right? So why does this garment exist?I could do a whole post on misspelled signs. Bazard?!?! It’s bazar–a bazaar. Although it also means “mess,” “junk” or “stuff”–C’est le bazar ici = it’s a mess in here; C’est quoi, ce bazar = what is this junk/stuff? I also thought the phrase “la piraterie n’est jamais finie” (pirating is never over) to be a dubious advertisement for a bazaar, but it turns out to be a brand name. Go figure. Showing my age!
I went exploring, as one does during a pandemic lockdown. All within my one-kilometer radius. Not even! It was just a tiny slice of my circle. I’d never ventured off-road. Once, years ago, when I was new to the area, I went for a walk/hike with a neighbor. She was so absorbed in our chat that she missed a turn and we were lost for a while, until we walked on to within sight of a landmark. There are other places, not far, where it’s a bad idea to get lost, because you could walk for a really long time if you’re pointed in the right (wrong) direction.This hike was low risk. I would stay within a perimeter of tarmac road. Impossible to get lost. Usually I run on that tarmac circuit, from one village to the next and the next and back around to home. But I was tired of cars and, above all, curious. I looked at it on Google Earth. The outskirts of the villages aside, no houses were in the interior of the loop. There was a stream, some vineyards and other fields, and lots of woods.Tracks for farmers to access their fields would peter out into narrow footpaths, or not even. I saw boar tracks. Taking a photo of a little waterfall in the stream, I sensed movement. Fearing a dog (which I’m more scared of than boars), or, worst nightmare of all, a dog off leash, I froze. But instead, an enormous hare rounded a curve on the path across the stream, apparently to get up speed to leap over the water. Until it saw me, froze for a fraction of a second, and did a 180.
I explored these paths, free of all-terrain bikes for a change (more ferocious than boars) day after day, trying out different forks in the paths. I found a truffle farm, surrounded by electric fencing. Many capitelles, or stone refuges, built without mortar from stones found in the vineyards, to give workers a place to cool off for a midday sieste, when walking home would have been just too much work on top of the heavy manual labor they already did from dawn to dusk.
One place reminded me of a story. When the Carnivore and I were newlyweds, he wanted to take a honeymoon to Strasbourg. I’d never been to Strasbourg and wanted to see it. I still haven’t crossed it off my bucket list. Some turbulent events at the time of our planned trip had created bargains for travel to where I’d been in in the Peace Corps. I booked flights on a Wednesday; we left that Friday. I also called one of my favorite hotels, and the Carnivore was astounded when I asked for room 12. What on earth was he in for?
When we got to the first hotel, where I hadn’t specified a room number, the doorman greeted me by name. I’d last been there almost exactly a year earlier. It was a smallish hotel that was very mid-century modern in a way that was vintage back when I first went there in the mid-1980s and that had never been changed since. I loved it.
But we weren’t staying in the capital. I rented a small four-wheel-drive vehicle to go to where I used to live. No need for a map. This was not at all reassuring to the Carnivore. One could say his knuckles were white. Plus it was a former British colony, so I had to drive on the opposite side of the road. And “road” was a grand name for the bits of tarmac we traversed.Over an hour later, we were close. The countryside was very hilly, rising from plains of rice (the most delicous, aromatic I’d ever had) and pineapples to cornfields, then coffee. Above, in altitude, was tea. I lived just on the line between coffee and tea.
The road went up and down and around curves. Besides the enormous potholes, there were other obstacles—overloaded buses with people hanging off the back; overloaded pickups, their beds enclosed, where people would be squished seven or eight to each flat board that served as a seat (there was room for five butts, which meant one’s legs tended to be compressed to numbness during the ride); overloaded lorries that ground their way up hills and then went full speed down the other side in order to get maximum momentum to coast as far as possible up the next hill; overloaded people on foot, on bikes, motorcycles, ox-drawn wagons, all balancing impossible burdens.
We stayed at a hotel in a nearby large town, where, back in the day, I would stop for a milky tea when I would go to the big market on Saturdays. How I loved the market! I would buy a wedge of very local pineapple, which would be hacked with a machete before me, and wrapped in a dusty scrap of old newspaper. I would choose my rice from the open sack that had the most bees resting on it—a sure sign it was heavily perfumed. I would half-heartedly haggle for my fruits and vegetables, only because to not do so was considered arrogant. I would take my heavy bag home after an hour-long, two-leg trip on a bus followed by a pickup; the same drive in a private car was 20 minutes.
The hotel manager explained that for reasons I’ve forgotten there was a problem with the hot water. Instead, each day, several women hustled across the lush grounds with big basins of steaming water balanced on their heads. A different definition of running water.
I wanted to take the Carnivore to see one of my former students. We got in the car and headed even higher into the hills. “Watch out!” the Carnivore hollered. It’s true that there were often sheer drops and no shoulder on the side of the road. It’s why everybody drove in the middle, in both directions. I turned left, and since I was driving on the left, the Carnivore was certain I was doing a Thelma and Louise. “It’s a road,” I told him. “THIS is a road?!?!!?” he answered.
We went through a collection of shacks. Everybody came out to see; a car on this road was a big event. I waved. “Do you know them?” the Carnivore asked. “No, but it’s polite to wave,” I said. Honestly: same thing in rural France.
I turned right onto a much smaller lane. “Are you allowed to go here?” the Carnivore asked. “Sure,” I said. “It’s a road.” “THIS is a road?” he answered. It was admittedly harder going. Boulders gouged up through the red dirt in some places and deep ruts nearly swallowed us in others. I gingerly picked our way through. Non-native blue gum trees towered over us.I turned right again. “You can’t tell me this is a road,” the Carnivore said. “Yes, it’s a road,” I told him, driving over cropped thick grass. “You can tell because the grass is cut.”
Then I cut the motor. “We’re here,” I said. “But you said this is a road,” he exclaimed. “You’re just going to leave the car here?” “Sure,” I said. “There won’t be any other cars.”
I thought about that moment when I came upon this grassy lane. So similar. Coffee trees and grape vines are about the same size. The birds singing. The sweetness of the air. The absence of motorized sounds.I thought, too, about my housegirl, Jane. During training, we had been introduced to the concept of houseboys and housegirls, and I was sure I would be quite able to do everything myself and would never have hired help. In the 1980s in the Midwest, regular people didn’t have somebody come to do yard work or house cleaning. Kids—boys, usually—might make money mowing lawns or shoveling snow, usually for retirees. If you were able to do it yourself, you did. Plus, racism.
After a while on the job, my headmistress and another teacher I was close to invited me to tea. It turned out to be an intervention. Why hadn’t I hired a housegirl? Oh, I really can’t do that, I said. You have to, they told me: “If you have a job, you have to make a job.”
Well, that changed everything. I had been viewing the situation in terms of myself, proving that I wasn’t racist because I didn’t have a housegirl. The very term was offensive to me, even though my African neighbors and colleagues all had houseboys or housegirls and called them that.
Instead, the important framing was economic. If you have a job, make a job. My headmistress and friend informed me that they had found just the housegirl for me, and that she would be starting the next day and that I would pay her so much.
My housegirl, Jane, was a delight. She was indefatigable. When elephants trampled the pipeline bringing water to our school, she went to the river to fetch buckets. She washed my clothes by hand, then used the water to mop the floors. She sang as she worked. She always smiled. She gave most of her earnings to her parents and saved the rest to start a beauty shop. I was proud of her.
Back on the grassy lane, my former student, Editor (that was really her name), was surprised to see me. Our hasty trip hadn’t allowed time for a letter to arrive, and she didn’t have a phone. Or electricity. Or running water. She, her husband and two children lived in a two-room house (a sitting room and a bedroom) made of rough wooden slats. The kitchen was a separate hut outside, where Editor cooked over an open fire. She grew coffee and tea and vegetables. She once took me to pick tea. It is not easy.
I asked about a severe drought the year before. “Pff,” she said (just like the French do!). “We weren’t really affected.” But how did their crops survive? “The crops failed,” she said. “Everything.” How did she and her family survive? “We didn’t starve,” she said proudly. “We just ate every other day.”
Those words have stuck with me. There are people doing fasts to body hack, but this wasn’t about denial in the face of abundance; it was about survival in the face of famine.
Times are tough these days, but for some people, times are always tough, and lately they are worse.
I hope you are surviving and staying healthy. If you have a job, please do make a job. And I hope everybody gets to eat every day.
We’re all naïve. All 7.8 billion of us. In more ways than one.
I saw the word used technically, to describe humans in the face of the new coronavirus. Because the virus is new, none of us had ever had it before, and so we are “naïve.” It’s the perfect word in other ways, too.
Like many people in February and early March, I thought it was a lot of hubbub about nothing. Cover your coughs, wash your hands, not that bad unless you’re old and sick with something else. Remembering SARS, which came with so many gloomy warnings, and which sounded so scary. It was deadlier than Covid-19. People caught it from the plumbing in their apartments. Way worse than being near somebody coughing–you can at least step away from such people, but to catch a deadly disease while sleeping in your own bed? SARS was under control fairly quickly, and no vaccine or treatment was ever found…. Thinking it would always be so efficient to control pandemics was naïve.A microscopic string of RNA has changed everybody’s lives. Not just today, under various lockdowns, confinements, remote learning/working, etc. It is going to haunt us for a long time. Perhaps forever.There will not be a switch that flips us back to Before, to some date in November 2019 or so (probably earlier), when the threat hadn’t yet crossed over into humans. When the world economy was humming. When the future looked, if not bright, then as a glass somewhat more full than empty.As far as the future goes, we are still naïve, in the other sense of the word, of lacking experience or understanding. We don’t know for sure whether people who were infected will be immune for life, or whether it will be like colds (also caused by coronaviruses, different ones) that we get over and over. We don’t know the long-term effects. We don’t have a cure or even a treatment besides oxygen. We don’t have a vaccine.I wondered about the 1918-1919 influenza. I have a set of Encyclopedia Britannica from 1929, which I figured was both close enough to the event for the pandemic to still be remembered as a big deal and distant enough to have some perspective. Indeed, the entry covers almost two full pages. It mentions the previous influenza outbreak of 1890–which was only 39 years earlier itself; of course there were still people around who had lived through that. Interestingly, a decade after the “Spanish flu” pandemic, the cause was still in dispute–was it bacterial or viral?
Now experts say that influenza not only was viral but that it was a kind of H1N1 virus, like the kind that broke out in 2009. It hit in three waves: the first was relatively mild, the second very deadly, and the third was similar to the first.
“Frequently the lungs became severaly affected and the patient passed into a state of anoxaemia recalling that due to exposure to the ‘pulmonary irritants’ of gas warfare.”The 1890 outbreak, which also actually had three waves between 1889-1892, is described in detail as well:
“The invasion is sudden; the patients can generally tell the time when they developed the disease; e.g., acute pains in the back and loins came on quite suddenly while they were at work or walking in the street, or in the case of a medical student, while playing cards, rendering him unable to continue the game. A workman wheeling a barrow had to put it down and leave it; and an omnibus driver was unable to pull up his horses. This sudden onset is often accompanied by vertigo and nausea, and sometimes actual vomiting of bilious matter. There are pains in the limbs and general sense of aching all over; frontal headache of special severity; pains in the eyeballs, increased by the slightest movement of the eyes; shivering; general feeling of misery and weakness, and great depression of spirits, many patients, both men and women, giving way to weeping; nervous restlessness; inability to sleep, and occasionally delirium. In some cases catarrhal symptoms develop, such as running at the eyes, which are sometimes infected on the second day; sneezing nd sore throat; and epistaxis, swelling of the parotid and submaxillary glands, tonsilitis and spitting of bright blood from the pharynx may occur. There is a hard, dry cough of a paroxysmal kind, worst at night. There is often tenderness of the spleen, which is almost always found enlarged, and this persists after the acute symptoms have passed. The temperature is high at the onset of the disease. In the first twenty-four hours its range is from 100 F in mild cases to 105 F in severe cases.”
It also said that, in the 1890 outbreak, stress around the pandemic caused a 25% increase in suicides in Paris.The Covid-19 virus’s complete genome was sequenced and put online in mid-January. And yet there’s much we don’t know. It might seem as if experts are changing their minds, or that they don’t know what they’re doing, but in fact they are honing and updating information as it becomes available.
France is supposed to gradually reopen as of May 11. It already is happening, though. I see more cars on the road. Businesses that had been closed have found an excuse to reopen. One change is that almost everybody is wearing a mask now, even while driving alone in their car. Maybe they don’t want to touch it?
I was going to our mairie, or town hall, to get recycling bags the other day, mask in hand, because usually I would see nobody out in the village. However, lots of people were out, going to the bakery, to the little grocery, for walks. I saw a friend sweeping the sidewalk in front of her house, and she was talking to a little old lady who was out for her constitutional. I’d met this lady many times, including on a run in winter where she responded to my bonjour with “bonjour, j’ai 89 ans” (hello, I’m 89 years old). My friend asked her whether she had a mask and she said no, she didn’t know where to get one in the village and had no way to go out of the village. How old are you, my friend asked. “Ninety,” she answered, adding, “in July,” which she pronounced as “juillette,” adding many rolls of the tongue in an especially heavy local accent. I handed her my homemade mask (I was still holding it–we were talking–shouting at top volume–from a distance of at least three meters from each other). She was thrilled. I can make more. My friend, a retired nurse, instructed her on cleaning of the mask. So I ran back home to get another mask and go back to the mairie. A sign on the door said it was closed and that if villagers needed anything they were to call. So I called. They told me to come and ring and they would hand the recycling bags through the window. “Oh, you’re outside now,” the secretary exclaimed. A window opened a crack and the roll of yellow bags emerged–not even a fingertip of the person inside was evident. I hollered merci as I grabbed the roll. The window shut the the instant the roll passed through.The Saturday market reopened. It is far superior to shopping at the supermarket, as always for quality and price but also for hygiene. The central square is barricaded, with a single entrance and exit, and a table with sanitizer at each. And police, who were neither wearing masks nor social distancing as they shot the breeze. There were just a few vendors, but they included the family of vegetable farmers, the goat cheese guy (who rocked a gorgeous tie-dye mask), and the local apple grower. A ribbon separated shoppers from the produce. We waited in line, spaced by tape on the marble, and the vendors served us, so there was nobody else handling the produce. Almost everybody had a mask except for the oldest shoppers. I was among the youngest, so that tells you how skewed the demographic is at the market.It was very sad, though, to see all the cafés closed, their terrace tables stacked up under tarps. I wondered whether this was what it was like during the war, when people ventured out to stand in line to buy food. It was sad, too, to see the other shops, mostly for clothes and jewelry and such, closed but in a way that felt like “Sleeping Beauty”–as if they were about to fling open their doors but were frozen in mid-step.
I wonder about life afterward. Will people be afraid to take the bus or métro, and flood the streets with individual cars? Or will they feel the same way and commute by bike? Will people be afraid of being cooped up in a small space and move to suburbs, eating up more and more of the precious farmland that needs to feed more and more people? Or cutting down the little wild nature that is left, so they can have their individual houses with yards that function like private parks, like buffers from neighbors, full of grass that needs watering and mowing and that they almost never spend time in? Or will people who are hearing birds for the first time realize that it’s important to preserve and even enlarge the space for nature?
How are you holding up?