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.
“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.
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.
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?
The other night at dinner, I told my husband about something, and he informed me I had told him the same thing just the day before. Of course, it isn’t as if he has anything new to tell me, either. Just like everybody else in the world, stuck at home. Well, no–the lucky ones are stuck at home while the brave continue to keep the world moving forward, so we still have electricity and running water and enough food. Which is more than about a billion people had on a pre-Covid-19 good day.The top photo translates to “underwater bridge,” which seems to negate the very point of a bridge. Actually, it’s a culvert that usually is above the stream, except for when you REALLY need it. Somehow, the concept of an underwater bridge seems appropriate right now. The title reflects my gallows humor at the moment: the song from Monty Python’s “Life of Brian.”Are you also losing track of the days? It isn’t even as if I thought it was Thursday or Saturday; I had no idea at all. What does one do on Fridays? I don’t remember. Oh, yeah–the recycling goes out. Otherwise, all the things that made one day different from the next have evaporated, and now each day is nebulous–a shape-shifting fog. We are trying our best to eat well. Homemade pizza. Squash risotto with sautéed zucchini. Crispy tofu with mushrooms, peppers and avocado. Our avocados were still too hard to make into a guacamole, so I added some tahini-miso sauce (a tablespoon of tahini, another of miso, another of honey, another of sesame oil and two of olive oil). The key to the tofu dish is to cook things separately but to reuse the same pan. First the mushrooms. We like to get them very brown and borderline crispy. To do that, let them steam off the moisture before you try to stir them. They went into a bowl, a tiny bit of olive oil was added, then the peppers and onions were cooked until softened. Into a bowl, more oil and the tofu was cooked.To get tofu crispy, pat it dry with paper towels. Cut it into pieces. Put some corn starch (maybe three teaspoons? I just eyeball what looks like it will coat the pieces) and curry powder and a little salt in a plastic container with a tight lid. Shake to mix. Add the tofu and shake to coat it. When you cook the tofu, make sure there’s enough oil or it won’t get crispy.The nice weather has lent itself to weed-pulling, but the other day (which day? who knows) I overcame my aversion to sewing and made us a stash of masks. I should make some more to give to, say, the couple who operate the village grocery, or the bakers at the boulangerie, who are keeping us all as comfortable as possible, considering. The next time it rains…It is crazy how quiet it is. It’s always quiet here, but wow. Birds. A rooster. A far-off dog. No cars. No planes. Yesterday there were a bunch of helicopters; probably the army training–there’s a very doomsday-looking area in the mountains that’s for training not far away. And on the weekends, the peal of gunshots as hunters go after boars. The season ended March 31, so it’s once again safe to go off the road and onto the backwoods paths. Speaking of which, long ago, I climbed the rock wall on the edge of some woods and realized, as I looked for a way to get back down, that the paths I was traipsing along were made by boars. That same woods now has a sign saying it’s going to be the site of a new solar farm. I am furious. Just across the F-ing road is a gigantic fallow field where vineyards were pulled out several years ago. It’s just sitting there, bare and basking in the sun. Why tear down a stand of trees? I’m sure it’s all about who was willing to sell the land. As much as I’m in favor of renewable energy and solar farms, it seems very counter-productive to tear down a pine forest. I also suspect that the new housing development just meters away plays into the calculation. People don’t take kindly to boars running through their yards. I’m on the side of the boars. “Development” is the euphemism for destruction. Pave paradise and put up a parking lot.
Life under lockdown is about the same in the south of France as anyplace else. Boring! No–like others in the countryside, we have the benefit of being able to go outside without worrying about viral load. Stay safe and do share how you’re coping.
Yesterday I ventured to the supermarket. I didn’t want to go right at the open, figuring I’d be in line behind elderly early birds, and why not let them just go ahead. While on Wednesday it was warm enough to open all the windows to the brilliant sunshine, yesterday brought driving rain that turned to sleet and then to big, fat snowflakes. Surely the prospect of standing in line in such weather–our first snow, five days into spring–would drive away the weak of heart.
There was a line anyway. Two masked guards kept us corralled behind barriers, barking to stay two meters apart. I got glared at by a few waiting shoppers, probably because I didn’t have a mask. I did have a scarf (I’m in France after all), and I pulled it up over my nose and mouth. That steamed up my glasses completely, as if I weren’t already blind enough, and the scarf didn’t stay up anyway. I didn’t take a purse; just a card in my zipped pocket. Less to disinfect later.
The guards barked some shopping protocol, but what with the masks, the shoppers talking and the guards’ strong accents, I didn’t catch much. Something about so many people per aisle, and only two people waiting per checkout. Nobody obeyed anyway. The cheese and yogurt aisles (there are two cheese aisles and one yogurt-only aisle) were the most crowded. Fresh produce also bustled. You have to weigh your produce on one of the scales in the produce section, and enter on the touch screen (ICK) what it is, then it spits out a price tag that you stick on the bag. Anybody waiting their turn for the scale at the required distance got cut in front of by people who didn’t want to wait. Maybe clueless? Maybe not.I profusely thanked the cashier for her service. Nobody was behind me in line. I spent about 40 minutes in the store, and it only took me that long because I don’t usually go to that supermarket but the Carnivore does, and I needed to get some of his preferred stuff: pâté, rillettes. I forgot to buy junk food or comfort food and am regretting it sorely. The experience was supremely stressful. Is this what it was like during the war? Waiting in line? Wondering whether you would get home to your loved ones? I would get home, but would I be bringing in the enemy? This enemy is microscopic yet bigger than anything we’ve ever faced. In his address to the nation a week ago, President Macron said France was at war with the virus. A war where the danger isn’t hidden snipers but hidden germs. A war with a rising body count but no bullets. A kind of neutron bomb that is destroying the population without destroying buildings. Things still look normal, but in a closed-for-the-holiday kind of way. A temporary pause that is turning out to be less and less temporary.Today I soaked all the reusable shopping bags in bleach and hung them out to dry in the sun.
Last night I watched TV with our kid, who hasn’t been out at all since schools closed. I went out three times: for groceries, to do laundry, to donate blood. Our kid has gone running but nothing else. I worry about the effects. Is my internal terror showing, spreading? As we watched “The Good Place,” about two episodes in I stopped being shocked at the lack of social distancing. I forgot all about the virus. Life felt normal. We discussed the kid’s English homework, in which a verb exercise included a participle used in the text as an adjective. My kid skipped it (oversight, I suspect, rather than outright mistake), and was devastated not to get a perfect score. We went over the grammar of the situation, and my kid argued via email to the teacher and got the point restored. I was so proud. Speaking up isn’t easy for some people. I left my kid’s room to go to bed and suddenly got slammed with reality again. The world without a cure was still out there. We were still cowering in our house. The illusion of normalcy shattered. We can speak up but the virus won’t listen.
The restrictions keep evolving. We could go out for exercise, but, as I heard on the Earful Tower podcast, in Paris people were dressing as joggers to just go out. (I do sympathize. We have a big yard, whereas many Parisian apartments are smaller than just the bedroom of La Suite Barbès–the bedroom alone is 35 square meters, or 350 square feet.) To tamp it down, we are now confined to one kilometer from our homes and to exercise of 20 minutes. I might be defiant and take my walks; I can duck into a vineyard and off the road if I hear a car coming, or even take quite a long walk on narrow paths. Even without the lockdown I never encounter anyone on these back roads. The point is to avoid contact with other people; so much better on back road, regardless of the distance, than to stay in my kilometer perimeter in the village, with everybody else doing the same.The day before I took laundry to our empty AirBnBs, since I have neither repaired nor replaced our stupid Samsung washer. Seven loads. Two machines. It took all day–machines here heat the water, so cycles take up to three hours for really hot water. Technically I should have gone to the local laundromat. I went there a couple of times when our machine first broke down. It is a tiny but bustling place, always with people waiting their turn, in tight quarters. No sink for hand-washing, or for cleaning the counter or the chairs. I would have to take my own bleach-soaked rags for wiping off the selection buttons on the machines. Would I also need to wipe out the inside of the machines? I would not want to put my basket on the counter nor on the floor. All of it grossed me out. Instead I put the laundry into duffel bags and drove to the apartments in the safe space of my own car, hauled it upstairs without seeing anybody, and sat in the gorgeous space, windows open, while the machines turned. Nobody but me has been in there. A safe space. But technically not allowed. Rules that make sense for cities (take your laundry to the nearest laundromat) don’t make sense here. I managed to not see any gendarmes.
Laundry clean, groceries stocked, I plan to hunker down with my loved ones for as long as possible before sticking my head out of our cozy foxhole again.For perspective, Katherine Anne Porter wrote about the 1918 pandemic in “Pale Horse, Pale Rider,” among the few literary works about the influenza, merged with the anxieties about the other war, World War I, that was also raging.
Since Tuesday, when France closed almost everything, I have awoken to birdsong rather than rush-hour traffic. It’s quiet all day and even more so at night, except for the various animals that live in the woods along the nearby river–owls hooting and who knows what else. When the sun is shining and the birds are singing and the noise and air pollution suddenly absent, it feels like utopia. We putter around the house and yard, deep-cleaning everything. The piano moved and its backside vacuumed, something I tend to do only when the tuner is about to come. Weeds pulled. More weeds pulled. A Sisyphean task.
The dystopia isn’t far. Calls to friends, especially the ones who live alone. Everybody hunkered down. So many worries. The sun is shining brightly but there is a dark cloud menacing all of humanity.
This shutdown feels like everybody is treading water. A terrifying metaphor to me. I can’t swim. I hate water. Our pool is just shoulder-deep but I avoid it unless we’re in a canicule (heat wave). I can paddle its width but not its length. I can’t tread water.
We went to the supermarket on Monday afternoon. It was strange. There were parking spaces but inside it was bustling. Everybody very intense. Canned goods, pasta, frozen vegetables mostly gone–just the fancy brands left. No baker’s yeast. Plenty of flour and sugar and butter. Disinfecting wipes all gone. Toilet paper aisle diminished but not empty. Promotions on fresh stuff like yogurt–they want to move it before it’s a loss? And huge lines to check out. We waited for close to an hour. Everybody a cart’s length apart. Nobody pushed. Nobody tried to cut the line (unusual). Everybody was patient, polite and quiet. Only a few shopping carts really piled high; most people seemed to get only what they need. Why do people buy bottled water? We are in a developed country with decent drinking water! My kid spotted somebody with two shopping carts. The exception. We gave some coins to the homeless man at the mall entrance for karma. How, where will he survive? Will he survive?
A quick run yesterday to the village grocery. Groceries remain open. The government doesn’t want people to freak out about food. I wanted to have food for two or three weeks in case I got sick; what would my family do? But we hadn’t gotten chocolate (most important for mental health), so I picked some up locally. Tape on the floor to keep people the required distance from the couple who operate the store. They seemed stressed. Unhappy. They don’t want to be heroes. They are young, and I hope they won’t get sick. Their mothers also tend the shop to give them a break; I suspect that will be stopped.
At first, like many, I thought the fears were overblown. Just stay home if you’re sick. Sick or not, wash your hands a lot. Lay off la bise. It’ll be fine. But I saw with my own eyes and heard from others tales of incredible selfishness and carelessness. People do not stay home if sick and they do not wash their hands.
One person counseled taking Tylenol before flying to evade fever detection–as if that individual’s desire to make a flight were more important than the health of the other hundred or four hundred people on the flight and the thousands working at the airport or passing through.
A doctor friend, in mask and gloves like all the medical office workers, had a patient who was coughing like mad. The doctor offered the patient a mask, and the patient refused! WTF! “I won’t be able to breathe with that. I just have bronchitis,” the patient protested. As if the doctor, or all the unmasked patients in the waiting room, didn’t mind getting bronchitis! Especially now! And this was not a doctor who treats things like bronchitis but a different kind of specialist.
A person in delicate health had a visitor who had the flu (the regular, snotty-nosed kind). The visitor coughed constantly (phlegmy, not dry) without covering her mouth and never once washed her hands after blowing her nose. Luckily the person and all other household members had been vaccinated against the flu. I’d been lax about flu vaccinations in recent years but no more. We did get shots in November. It wasn’t covered, so I shelled out €10 apiece. Well worth it. I can’t wait to get the one for the coronavirus, as soon as it is developed.
Vaccines work. I saw it firsthand when I lived in Africa. There was a mission run by Italian priests and Polish nuns that educated and trained kids who had been paralyzed by polio. The kids were amazing. They would play soccer, hauling themselves around the field like lightning despite being on crutches. They learned trades like shoe repair. I went back 15 years later with a colleague. We stayed at the fancy hotel I never could afford before, a base for mountain-climbing, which we were there to do. I asked the concierge about the mission. She said it was still there, but now just had kids with birth defects. “There’s no more polio,” she said (in a tone like “what kind of dinosaur is this chick?”). I broke down crying. The idea of no more polio was just so emotional. Vaccines work. We went to the mission and gave the nuns fistfuls of euros.
A tangent: I also remember urging my friend to hurry up because it was getting late, and it would take a good 30-45 minutes to walk back to the village, then we’d have to walk along the fence of a wildlife refuge to the hotel. There were lions in the refuge. It would be dark in half an hour. But sunset on the equator is sudden, like a light switch, and at that instant the sun was blazing. My friend didn’t believe me, said I was overreacting. I said, LIONS. We hustled, but when a pickup came along, I waved it down frantically. The cab was full of people already, but the driver said we could ride in the back, with a bunch of sheep. My friend was not happy (me either; I keep my distance from animals). I made her get in. Even with the ride, it was so dark by the time we got to the final track to the hotel that we could barely see our hands in front of our faces. Clearly we met no lions. That doesn’t mean I overreacted.
In 2009, I had to do research on pandemics. It was in a business context, about handling disruptions. It was just after SARS, at the time of the H1N1 flu, which hit children and pregnant women worst. There were vaccines, which helped rein it in, but as a result of that success many people said there was a needless panic. Here is what one expert, a globally recognized epidemiologist, told me:“In last 30-40 years there is a gathering and grave concern that the same antecedent causes that created climate change and historic droughts and famines are all caused by same conditions and a new group of viruses, especially pandemic viruses, have begun to emerge. Too many people are behaving unconsciously in the world. As we cut down green swaths of forest that separate animal and human habitats, we live in each others’ microclimate. So diseases that once could find that quiet reservoir now jump from animals to humans with increased rapidity.”He also said: “There is an increasing risk of unknown or barely known diseases emerging, and we lack people who are trained, we lack surveillance reporting systems that are simple, cheap, easy and replicable.”That was in 2009. The experts knew this could–would–happen, but like Cassandra, they were ignored. Even a week ago, people here were pooh-poohing the situation. I spoke to someone in the U.S. just a few days ago who told me it’s a hoax, fake news propagated by libs, panic fueled by the media, nothing to worry about. The fact that so many Italians are dying is pretty much proof that this isn’t a liberal hoax. The speed with which things are changing gives me whiplash.
Before all this, I realized I needed to apply for French citizenship. I’ve been saying it for about four years, but I didn’t actually do it. It was like living happily in a couple without being married and suddenly seeing the benefit of tying the knot. So I ordered all the birth certificates and such and took the French test. I knew I would pass; my worry was making stupid errors as someone who touch-types on a QWERTY keyboard having to use an AZERTY keyboard where the keys are in the “wrong” place. One needed 43% correct to pass. My average was 562 out of 699, or 80%. I got 95% on written comprehension and 92% on oral comprehension–better than I expected–and 64% (!!! possibly the lowest grade of my life, physical education aside) on written expression and 70% on oral expression–both humbling. The written test was an essay for or against mobile phones. I needed to use French expressions but couldn’t think of any that were relevant. Anyway, I passed. I wonder about another test taker, a young man, about 20, who grew up in a village in Morocco and who moved to Carcassonne when he was in 6th grade. I asked which schools he’d attended and he looked at the floor and said he never went to school here, that he had to work to support his family. Clearly his French was fine, but would he manage to write a well-organized essay, not having finished school? He showed up two hours early for his test (we had staggered times). I hope he passed with flying colors. If I had a business, I would want to hire him. Two hours early!Anyway, I got my results on Wednesday and spent all day Friday tying up the last bits of my dossier. I just needed to request an attestation from the income tax department. The notary was mailing an attestation saying we own our house. And today, very bad news: all the post offices are closed and mail is suspended. That means I can’t get my attestations, which must be originals, no scans or printouts. I also can’t buy the certified mail envelopes I need to enclose with the dossier, not even online–no delivery. Nor can I send anything. I have until the end of April, otherwise my documents will be more than three months old and I’ll have to re-order them all (and the UPS delivery cost a small fortune). I’ll also have to re-take the French test, but you have to wait six months between tests. Maybe they’ll make exceptions, and allow for more time. I was so proud of my dossier, too, in an expanding folder with labeled tabs, each with checklists of the documents for that section, in the order specified by the government.
I can start the dossier over again if need be. There are other, bigger worries that are out of my hands, that will arrive inexorably, virus or not. It is not the time or place to dwell on those.
The uncertainty about the future feels like the days after Sept. 11, when it seemed like the world was ending. In fact, the world as we knew it did end. Things didn’t get better; other tragedies followed. But ensuing airport security aside, many people weren’t affected by Sept. 11. This coronavirus is going to affect every single human.
Be smart. Stay home. China stopped the virus through draconian, authoritarian, dystopian measures; if people in democracies continue to fail to stay home voluntarily, draconian measures might follow. Don’t let us get there. Do something positive with this time. A hobby. Le Bon Coin (the Good Corner), the French equivalent of Craigslist, has a campaign right now (because buying stuff on it is impossible at the moment–social distancing!): le bon geste (the Good Gesture), where you can put up offers or requests for things like help with homework via Skype, picking up groceries for someone, dog walking, etc. At the very least, make a list of the people you know who live alone or who are elderly and call them regularly. Send them photos, if they have a phone or computer.
We have to stay out of the way of the health-care system until a treatment and/or vaccine is found. Going out is just selfish.Your coronavirus stories welcome in the comments.