The further adventures of Sara and Bijou

Perros Guirec is a village in the Cotes d’Amor department in Brittany. It has been a seaside resort since the end of the 19th century. Along with other villages along the coast, it is famous for the pink granite rocks which have been sculpted over the years by the sea and resemble animals and objects. In the winter, the population is around 7200 people. During the months of July and August, when Parisians and tourists alike descend on the many beaches, the population quadruples.

Men playing with mechanised sailboats in the port area
The marina of Perros Guirec

This is the part of Brittany that Bijou and I have landed and spent the last almost four weeks. From my window where I work, I look out on part of the English channel (Perros is directly south of Bournemouth). Today, though cold, the weather is magnificent. The sea is that turquoise blue with whips of white toped waves in the distance. The sail boats are out in force. There is hardly any Covid in this area. A boy at school reportedly was diagnosed with the virus last week but no one else has gotten sick. At the marché and along the streets in Centre Ville, everyone wears a mask. Walking along the sea, people have masks on their wrists or under their chins. They put them on if they pass another being. But one can walk for two or three miles and only pass a handful of people.

Along the shore walking towards the town of Louannec

Two weeks ago, Brittany suffered some of the coldest weather ever known in this area. It can be much like the Bay Area in California–warmer in winter and colder in the summer. But in early February, it snowed, stuck to the ground and one morning, I awoke to a huge patinoire (skating rink) that was the roads and driveways. Wednesday morning, as it was starting to warm up, I walked down to the marché at the port of Perros. There were twice as many stalls out as were out two weeks ago. People look forward to the three marchés in this area: Friday morning, there is one near the Poste in centre-ville, and Sunday morning the market is in La Clarté, high on a hill overlooking the beaches. Many people prefer the outdoor markets although most French have become habituated to American-style supermarkets. They can get eggs that were laid the same morning, vegetables with dirt still on them from being pulled the night before, Bretagne honey and Bretagne beer made in this region plus the hundreds of cheeses from all over France but the freshest are from this area.

Wednesday morning marche at the port of Perros
Les Fromages

This was the area I was to visit over Christmas and due to the new variant from the United Kingdom, I chose not to deal with the train station and the rest of the places it would be hard to socially distance. When it seemed a good possibility that France might have a third lockdown, my friend, Roland who lives in Perros, said “Come stay with us.” “How long will you be gone?” some friends asked. “If there is a confinement, I’ll stay to the end. If not, probably two weeks.” Yet, here it is almost four weeks later, no confinement- although all of France still has a 6pm-6am curfew – and I am still here. There is so much air and there is no Covid. For some unknown reason, my friends have not gotten sick of me. They beg me to please stay longer. I’m not sure I would have that kind of tolerance!!

Bijou watching the birds near the sea
View from my bedroom window, looking out at the point of Perros Guirec and one of les sept îles

Prime Minister Jean Castex and health minister Oliver Véran have been holding press conferences as the health situation has deteriorated sharply in France over the past week.  https://www.thelocal.fr/20210225/what-can-we-expect-from-the-french-prime-ministers-latest-announcement/ According to the French, they are the best at everything. Not true. There is still very little vaccine and what there is is not being given to the 65-74 year old group because “it hasn’t been proved that it is helpful for those over 65 years of age.”

Moon rising over Perros last night

So here I am in this beautiful area of Brittany where there is no Covid, contemplating going back to Paris where there is plenty. It is only because of the kindness of my friends that I even have a choice. Since I have Bijou with me, there is no reason to rush back. Each day, we watch the news wondering if Brittany will have the 6pm curfew lifted. As of yesterday, Friday, it seems they are thinking in terms of regions and not one size fits all. Dunquerque and Nice have been hit very badly. Both cities and areas around them are in a weekend lock-down. Paris was warned that if things didn’t improve, they will also be put in lockdown for as long as three weeks. All this will be decided Saturday, March 6. So I’ve accepted I’ll be here for awhile. My hortensias on my terrace may die from lack of care but I will probably be safe. And taking more long walks along the beautiful blue sea.

jonquils blooming along a walk down at the Port
Huge dice made out of pink granite, which is everywhere on the Côte de Granit Rose

A bientôt,

Sara

France and Vaccinations

In early December, word was out, in the French news, that one of the vaccines, Pfizer, was ready for distribution. It had a 90% efficacy. A couple of days later, we heard/read that the Moderna vaccine was also ready with a similar efficacy. To me, this seemed unbelievable. I had been told early on not to get my hopes up–that the fastest a vaccine had ever been developed was for the measles. That vaccine took 4 years to develop.

So when it became obvious that this not “fake news”, that there really was a vaccine, my spirits soared. I blocked out time to visit California and see my home I still own in Oakland. I wasn’t sure enough to make plane reservations but only because of the three week wait period after the second dose. I wanted to know the exact date the vaccine would actually take effect.

France rolled out a plan in five tiers. The top tier of people receiving the vaccine would be the most vulnerable, all people over 75 years of age, and those in any kind of nursing home. The second tier was all the health care workers, people over 65 years of age with compromising conditions. The fifth tier was called “everybody else.” At 73 and healthy, I fell into that category. OK, I’m glad I’m so healthy but I really didn’t want to have to wait that long!

Then around Christmas time, the tier levels changed. Why I’m not sure. At over 65, I was now in the second tier. I was to be vaccinated in February said the french experts. But that knowledge did me no good at all. By the end of December, the news outlets were reporting that France was failing completely at the job of vaccinating her people. They had hoped, outloud and in writing, to have 21,000,000 people vaccinated by December 31. In actuality, the report was 500-10,000 had been given the first dosage.

France vowed to do better. I still get my neighbourhood listserve from Oakland. Everyday, people were sharing with each other where they had gotten vaccinated. By the end of January, almost everyone I knew 75 or older had at least the first jab. My older friends in Arizona had both jabs and described an extremely well organised, well thought out process of drive-thru vaccinating. I don’t think President Biden had anything to do with this turn-around. My sister, who lives in Michigan, described total chaos in the University of Michigan Hospital. Perhaps it’s the states having control of how it’s done.

Meanwhile back in France, things were moving at a snails pace. For the first time, I found myself jealous of the US and how vaccinating was being handled. In Brittany, where I am at the moment, my friend called to find out when he, at 71, could expect to be vaccinated. He was told June at the earliest. I asked my friend, Barbara, what was going on. Unlike me, she listens to the french news most evenings. It wasn’t just France, she said, it was the EU. They were very slow out of the gate to order vaccines of any kind; way behind the UK and USA. “European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen admitted Wednesday that the EU’s much criticised approval and rollout of vaccines against Covid-19 could be partly blamed on the bloc being over-optimistic, over-confident and plainly “late.” (France24) She added that the EU had received 26 million vaccine doses and that, by the end of the summer, 70 percent of adults in the 27-nation bloc should be inoculated.

Once a bit of vaccine arrived, a photo of our health minister, Oliver Veran, began circulating on the internet. Our new heartthrob? it asked. He had to take his shirt off to get the jab. A nice distraction I think. Nothing else seems to have changed. Ask anyone here in Brittany if they know any more information and they just shake their heads.

Well, it seems French pride has taken a real hit. Last week, President Macron, told the nation that France would start making both the Pfizer and the Moderna vaccines in France. But production won’t start until March to be ready in April. The vow is that all adults will be vaccinated by the end of summer.

Meanwhile, France has been developing a test that will be an alternative to a poke in the nose. Labs have the green light to start the roll-out of using one’s spit. It must be tested in a lab so no on the spot results. And before you ask, I don’t know anymore. But here is an article in English that will tell you more: https://www.thelocal.fr/20210211/france-rolls-out-saliva-tests-to-detect-covid-19?utm_source=piano&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=213&tpcc=newsletter_members&pnespid=m_5ysalIV1GNfQzw8MGBMhEA5wXl_kueJbY6Ik4

So here we are, almost exactly a year since we first heard about Covid-19 in Wuhan. And what a year! Another article from The Local compares how European Countries are presently handling all aspects of the virus. https://www.thelocal.fr/20210210/compare-ten-charts-that-show-how-european-countries-have-fared-since-the-second-wave-peak. France is not doing very well. France and Spain are the only two countries who have seen a rise in Covid-19 since the second wave officially began.

https://www.thelocal.fr/20210125/opinion-is-frances-vaccine-programme-a-disaster-not-any-more05e4002c

From my friend, Jay Mac’s blog “JaySpeak” She is a wizard at finding wonderful and timely pictures like this one.

A bientôt,

Sara

Postcard from New York

I met a lovely woman, Marlena Maduro Baraf, through my publishers She Writes Press. She and I decided that, periodically (once a month if we can do it), we would post each other’s blog. Marlena was born in Panama and now lives in New York City. Her blog is called Breathing in Spanish. I encourage you to take a look at it. On our last phone conversation we were comparing the vaccine roll-out–France vs New York. Here is her latest blog:

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When we fly somewhere D does this anxiety bit…walking around all night. Last night he didn’t sleep, insisted we must leave at 8 sharp for our 10:30 appointment in Queens—45 minutes by GPS.  We’d tried the New York State website just pastmidnight. We googled “NYS find your vaccine” and plugged in our zip code. We scanned through the listings

Westchester County Center (closest), 0  Jacob Javits Convention Center, 0
Jones Beach, Jones Beach?, 0  
Aqueduct Raceway, where is that?  Jan 18, 3; Jan 25, 54!

Spaces evaporated like bursting bubbles. D got a spot on the 25th. Had to book me on the 26th.

                                                                        *
horses…racetrack…jockeys…death
I grew up near a racetrack in the bushes in Panama City. Our house was surrounded by tall grasses, lizards, snakes, and serenading frogs. My little brother, sister, and I liked to push through the bushes to the outermost curve of the hipódromo to hear the rushing sounds of hooves on dirt and watch the jockeys in brilliant colors fly on their horses. At dinner time one night, we heard shots in the distance. They were coming from más allá, más allá, by the racetrack!Papi turned on the radio. After a while we heard that our president, Jose Antonio Remón Cantera, had been shot while watching the races. I can still feel the rush of excitement—and the worry. Who did it? Is he dead? 

                                                                        *
D is doing the driving. Highway onto highway. As navigator, I look out for the Lefferts Blvd/Aqueduct Raceway exit, but we miss the sudden onramp to the Raceway Casino, so we continue ahead while our GPS circles us back. The place is desolate—roadways, miles of cement, an occasional building. Orange cones lead us to a sign that reads  “vaccines.”  

A soldier waves us through to parking in the vast expanse. We walk to other men and women in rumpled camouflage who examine D’s appointment sheet and driver’s license. Three weeks ago we watched on our tv as thousands of National Guard soldiers assured the safety of our Capitol and capital city. Can they feel the gratitude in my heart?

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We pass tiny statues of jockeys. Inside are rows of booths for betting and strings of seats facing the track on the other side of giant windows. The “Big A,” a year-round racetrack, is holding live racing without fans—but there are no horses in sight.  In 1973 the champion racehorse Secretariat paraded for the last time at the Big A. Pope John Paul II said mass for 75,000 people in 1995. And now vaccinations.

Win, Exacta, Trifeta, or Pick 4. We approach a betting booth to check in. D cracks a joke. The check-in guys laugh and counter with theirs. People under masks, that’s all we are. Tomorrow’s forecast is snow. Will they vaccinate me today?. A young Hispanic woman with a shirt that says SOMOS Community  takes my ID and my appointment printout to a supervisor. Within ten minutes it’s done. No rigid bureaucracy; instead, basic human competence and good will. 

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Table 7. The nurse asks for our names to which D answers, Donald Duck. She takes mini histories–previous allergies, reactions to vaccinations….  I go first. The prick is like the prick of a very thin mosquito.  Who is paying the gargantuan cost of this day? The state alone? The work day is 7 am to 7 pm,  500 doses per day, the nurse explains. Enters the number of our Pfizer first dose on a small card, with return date for the second dose in 21 days. A weight we’ve been feeling since March begins to lift.

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We left home at 8:22, 
arrived at Aqueduct parking, 9:22. 
vaccine, 9:47. 
rest at assigned benches 15 minutes 
left racetrack, 10:02.

D and I feel  sleepy in the afternoon and the day after.  We talk about the pleasure of even brief interactions with real people, the individuals entering our data into computers,the National Guard, other guards—all kind and efficient. We feel a deep sense of gratefulness. A glow—even—of love.

                                                                        *

Remón Cantera who earlier had been Panama’s Chief of Police and had ousted several elected Panamanian presidents did die on that fateful afternoon at the races. I was nine at the time. It was the first time I understood the finality of life.    

***


In the United States, each (of fifty) states develops its own criteria for prioritizing vaccinations, generally based on protecting the most vulnerable. New York is vaccinating  Groups 1A and 1B:  people in the health professions, people over 65, mass transit workers, firefighters, grocery store workers in contact with the public, and teachers.  As is true most everywhere in the world, there are not enough vaccines.  

 In poorer communities here—deeply affected by the illness–people don’t have easy access to the internet or transportation or hours off from work.  New York and other states have begun programs of door to door visits to assist people. The state is about to open a vaccinating facility in Yankee Stadium for residents of the Bronx (only) with large numbers of low-income communities. Rhode Island has prioritized neighborhoods that have been hardest hit by the disease.  Rich and poor countries have different access to the vaccine. I’m afraid we’ll experience a new category of have and have nots in the world for a very long time.

But there is hope. New vaccines are being developed and approved surprisingly quickly. Let’s take care of ourselves and one another. News changes daily.


.

Marlena Maduro Baraf is author of the memoir At the Narrow Waist of the World, available where books are sold.

A bientôt,

Sara

Slouching towards Inauguration*

Tuesday, I had an ophthalmologist appointment. A reader had written to ask me what the French thought of the insurrection in Washington D.C. last Wednesday. I thought I could answer that: that they were sad for us ex-Pats, couldn’t understand how we couldn’t see it coming, and that it was the nail in the coffin for America as the shining example of democracy. So I asked the good doctor. He laughed at me and said “Have you forgotten the Gilets Jaunes and all the destruction they did?” Actually, I had forgotten. Since the pandemic started last February, much of what happened before is gone from my mind. “The French love to dissent” he said.

“But they don’t use guns,” I told him.

“That’s true. But they did an awful lot of damage over the year of weekly protests. Remember the Champs Elysees?” I never saw it but I remember the photos of stores broken into, glass everywhere, looting, and fires in the street.

“And they weren’t goaded on by the President,” I added. He conceded that point. But he had also made his point. It is not unusual for the French to protest. They love to protest. When I was in university back in the late 60s, Paris was often shut down because of transportation strikes and postal strikes. Since I’ve lived here in Paris, there have been many transportation strikes. But the Gilets Jaunes was the longest protest I’ve seen. And who knows, if we hadn’t had a pandemic, they could still be protesting.

‘This is not America’: France’s Macron laments violence by pro-Trump supporters in US

President Macron is not a very popular president. But, in my opinion, he has done a good job of protecting us, as best he can, from the virus. The pandemic has taken all the focus away from how he was handling the Gilets Jaunes. However, getting the vaccine out to labs and given to people has proved very challenging for him and his administration. I’m not clear where the breakdown is but of all the EU countries, France seems to be the slowest. It’s even hard to get clear information even though someone from the Administration comes on TV to talk to us most Thursday nights. As of today, there is not another lockdown, but the curfew has been changed and extended. For all of France, the curfew is 6pm to 6am. If one has to go out, the ‘attestation’ is absolutely required.

French Prime Minister Jean Castex has announced a new evening curfew will begin nationally across France starting at 18:00 (17:00 GMT) on Saturday.
The move is a tightening of a curfew already in place since December, which restricts movement from 20:00-06:00. BBC News

I have been reading Barak Obama’s The Promised Land. I don’t remember his other books but I am absolutely sure he is much improved as a writer. He is thoughtful, self-deprecating, and generous. Too generous. The book is long at almost 800 pages. He doesn’t repeat his earlier books. He skims over his growing up years, and then starts walking us through his many political decisions whether to run for office, their consequences, and how Michelle felt about each one. I couldn’t help but be awed. He clearly had written this book during most of the Trump presidency while Trump was publicly making it his mission to undo everything Obama. Yet, his elegant writing of his hopes and dreams, why he decided to run for President, and his basic humanity never miss a beat while, outside his study, the US was moving into crisis and the direction was clearly not what Obama has worked his whole life for. Visions of the insurrection kept coming to mind, as I was reading about the all the Hope put on Obama’s shoulders, the certainty on November 4, 2008 that finally things would change in the US. I thought once more of Van Jones’ question on CNN January 6, “Is this the death throes of something ugly in our country, desperate, about to go away and then the vision that Biden talked about is going to rise up or is this the birth pains of a worse disorder? Jones asked. “That’s where we are right now tonight. And I think the country has got to make a decision.” I thought of the Greek myths that I read in middle school. The hero has to deal with challenge after seemingly hopeless challenge as he gets closer to the prize. Is this violent outpouring of Trumpites one of the last challenges for American Democracy and the country can again move toward ‘equality for all’ or has the hero fallen and we will witness the sad flutterings of a dying dream?

And so, the world is holding its collective breath. Three and a half days until Biden’s Inauguration. The National Guard has been called out, streets are closed off in Washington. Already one person has been arrested using an unauthorised ID to get in past the “circle” of armed guards that is surrounding DC. He had a loaded Glock pistol and 500 rounds of ammunition in his car. People are being asked not to come to Washington. All 50 states have been warned that violence could erupt in their Capitols. I have canceled everything for late afternoon Wednesday so that I can watch Biden being sworn in. And, like most of my friends around the world, I’m praying for no violence. In the words of my old hippie self, “That may be a pipe-dream.”

Sonia Sotomayor

One historical note that hopefully will get air-time: Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, the first woman, the first Black and Asian, to be elected to such a high office, has asked Sonia Sotomayor, the first woman of color to be nominated to the Supreme Court, to swear her in on Wednesday. Ms Sotomayor has sworn in one other Vice President: Joe Biden in 2013!

A bientôt,

Sara

*apologies to William Butler Yeats

The Second Coming 

Turning and turning in the widening gyre   
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere   
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst   
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.   
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out   
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert   
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,   
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,   
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it   
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.   
The darkness drops again; but now I know   
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,   
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,   
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born? —–William Butler Yeats

Watching insurrection from France

I was watching Legends of the Fall last night. I often watch a movie after dinner, all the dishes washed, e-mails read and written, and a few phone calls made. It was 9:30pm and I was ‘closed’ for business. I heard a text come in. Most people know I don’t check my phone after 9pm so this had to be important. “Have you seen the Capital? I’m stunned watching this terrifying spectacle of unhinged rioters smashing windows & storming the capital. I’m afraid this is going to end in a very ugly way & to think this was all created by that monster in the WH. A tragedy. A woman has been shot. It’s out of control.” I had to think about what I would do. If I turned on CNN, I probably wouldn’t get to sleep until very late. I turned it on anyway.

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All the photos except the news covers were taken from the New York Times. The photos of the covers were taken from The Guardian.

CNN was doing that thing where they have a panel of ‘experts’ opining on what’s happening and why while the cameras are on the Capital outside and inside. There is also a blue dialogue box informing us who is speaking. You have to rush to keep up with them and be able to jump tracks when they do but, in the end, if you listen for an hour, you pretty much hear the same thing over and over. When I came on, Rick Santorum was speaking against the mob but not understanding how this could happen. David Axelrod jumped in disbelievingly and said ” how can you not know how this happened? Trump was out there this morning telling them to march on the Capital. To be strong and how he wished he could be with them.” Meanwhile the cameras were showing rioters mobbing the capital steps, pushing aside cops who definitely did not look like they were up to the job, more of the mob breaking windows and crawling into the building where they got onto the Senate floor and into individual offices. You could see them taking selfies of themselves in Pence’s chair, in Pelosi’s office.

Unlike baseball on TV where the announcers will give you a blow-by-blow description of what was happening visually, these many reporters and guests were asking each other and themselves questions. Like ‘Where are the police.? Why are there so few?” And everyone watching heard the understory–if this was Black Lives Matter, the police, riot squad, National Guard would be here in minutes. Van Johnson tried to spin a new way of looking at this. That we were either witnessing the death throws of this crazy movement that has ended in an attempted coup. Or we could be watching the birth of Trumpism without Trump. He pointed out that much of that choice was up to the Republicans to decide what they were going to do next-support the Coup or denounce it.

When it was quite obvious that Trump was not going to come make a statement (He was so angry at Pence that he was ‘home’ in his chair watching all this unfold), Biden, as he has done several times since he became President-Elect, called a press conference. He looked old, and in a lot of pain, but he managed to remind us all what the Capital building stood for, a citadel of democracy. He ended by saying straight to Trump “Step Up”. Ten minutes later, Trump was video’d telling his ‘crew’ to go home. Yes, the election was stolen right out from under us, everyone knows we won by a landslide. I know you are angry. I feel your pain. But go home” He then repeated the lies before asking them to please go home.

By the time I turned off the TV at a little past 11pm/5pm in Washington, the DC Mayor had announced a curfew of 6pm, a camera was showing the Nat’l Guard getting prepared to do something and we were told that all the police from Virginia and Maryland had been activated and were on their way. Even I was thinking by that time about the hypocrisy of it all. According to CNN, this had been going on for four hours. The perimeter had been breached-easily. They were inside the building. One announcer said the last time this kind of assault on the Capital had happened was in 1814 when the English attacked and burned the Capital down. The word Treason was being used more and more. Yet, four hours later, there were still only a handful of police to deal with hundreds of rabid, angry Trump lovers. When I woke up this morning, no newspaper had an explanation. Everyone I know knew absolutely there would have been violence. We would have been prepared for the worst.

Four people have died. Fifty-two people have been arrested (only 52?? I shouldn’t be surprised). The Guardian is calling for Trump to be removed by the 25th amendment or impeachment but the 25th is faster. There is a headline somewhere that announces that Ms. Pelosi has already started that process. My own personal fear is that he would start a ‘little’ war, let’s say… with Iran and dump it in Biden’s lap. There really is no end to the damage he can do in fourteen days. The good news is that since the Democrats won the two seats in Georgia — can you remember that far back in history? That there was an election day before yesterday?–the Democrats have control of the Senate and the House. Proceedings to remove Trump from office would be very different that the last impeachment.

One Opinion piece I read, and it was the only one, underscored QAnon’s responsibility in what happened yesterday. The author is Farhad Manjoo: “With One Presidential Phone Call, QAnon Shows Its Power. The sprawling online conspiracy network is at the center of Trump’s attempt to overturn the election.” This was the last thing I read last night so I hope I get it right. I don’t know if Q is a person or a group but Q will fabricate a lie and post it, it will go viral. Trump will see it and report it which then validates the lie as real news. Some of the kinder announcers last night said it was very possible that if QAnon and all its offshoots were the only thing these Trumpers read, then they really did think they were patriots. They really did think the Washington Swamp was stealing their country from them. And this is what politics and a two party system has come to. Those who believe science and the news and those who think it is all a scam by the devil to steal the country.

God please bless America

And all of us. Stay safe, stay healthy, stay alive to see a better day

A bientôt,

Sara

Christmas in Paris

The weather is chilly here in Paris, very cold (37oF)in the morning, rising as high as 43oF in the mid-afternoon. Sunday, the wind was so strong that TV and internet were advising people not to drive but, if you had to, to take special care. Yesterday, snow fell in Normandy where my friends live and here in Paris, we were supposed to get a glimpse of white stuff but no such luck. Snow is no longer a frequent visitor to Paris. When I was young, snow fell and stayed for weeks. Men selling chestnuts wrapped in newspaper would stand on the bridges and anywhere else that tourists would frequent. They were delicious and warmed your hands as you munched.

Covid-19 has changed most lives here in Paris. Fearing another French Revolution (my opinion), Macron lifted the second lockdown on December 15th. The idea that Parisians could not spend Christmas with their friends and family was unthinkable. At the same time, we had new curfew hours: 8pm-6am. The curfew would be lifted for Christmas Eve but not New Years Eve. The roads leaving Paris were parking lots for miles. I had plans to go to Brittany to spend Christmas and New Years in the tiny hamlet of Kerprouet where my friend, Roland, has property. Ninety minutes before the train was to leave, the news from the night before went through my head. A new strain of the virus had shut down most of the UK. It seemed like russian roulette to think it hadn’t made it to Paris. It had broken out in spain and in South Africa. I didn’t want to be one of those people who thinks I’m the exception, that when we are advised not to travel, those suggestions applied to others not to me. So I canceled out of prudence and had a very sad day–one of the saddest since the Pandemic started.

Champs Elysees

It didn’t seem like anyone was going to rescue me so I settled in for two weeks of reading, Netflix and other streaming stations, and a bit of purging. My cutlery drawer in the kitchen is sparkling and has far less things to choose from. I found some very interesting movies from 1947, the year I was born, on YouTube. One was Christmas Eve starring George Raft, George Brent, Joan Blondell. I consider myself a movie buff but I’d never heard of that movie. It is terrific. Maybe they line up the 1947 movies one after the other because, without my doing anything, the original Heaven Only Knows, that has inspired many remakes (or is that Here Comes Mr Jordan?), came on. This one stars Bob Cummings as Michael the archangel who comes down to set straight one soul. It is also terrific, easily as good as the Warren Beatty remake Heaven Can Wait. So if I have all these angel movies mixed up, I do apologise. Then there is the Christmas ritual with Jimmy Stewart and Donna Read from 1946: It’s A Wonderful Life on Amazon Prime, the yearly opportunity to review our own lives. It is also showing today on Arte in France.

Bijou, the cat.

I think many families must have left Paris. It’s quiet in the 16th, but stores are open for food and holiday “cheer’. On Tuesday, the powers that be met to decide if we would be going into a third lockdown. It was announced yesterday that No, we wouldn’t be. However, much of Eastern and Northeastern France will be starting a 6pm curfew. They also announced new groupings to get the vaccine. I am now in Group 2 whereas I was in Group 5 known as “Everybody Else.” They are predicting that Group 2 will be vaccinated end of February and March. I know that many people are hoping and praying that things will change in 2021 but the truth is that no one has informed the virus that things are to change on January 1. I fear a long, dark winter of things getting worse before they get better. What’s surprising to me–and much of French culture surprises me–is that 60% of the French do not want to get vaccinated. They are quite suspicious. All the more reason for me to get the vaccine so I feel safe walking amongst my neighbors.

So today ends 2020, the strangest year of my life. Someone in my writing group, said the cleanest joke she heard this season was: ‘Picture Snoopy at his computer typing a goodbye letter to 2020: “I just want you to know that I am typing this with my middle finger.”‘ It got a good laugh out of me. Most of the people I know will have dinner and go to bed before midnight–something we’ve done for years. But it is also a time of reflection. How did you survive 2020? Much to my surprise, I can honestly say that I mostly lived in acceptance and carefulness. I never questioned what the experts told us. I anticipated a lot of what would happen, I think, because I read my history. Pandemics don’t seem to change that much. How people deal with them changes.

I took some wonderful photos of lights in Paris but for some reason, WordPress won’t let me upload them–for reasons of security!!! So you are getting some recycled photos from last year!!!

Have a safe, a healthy, and hopefully a happy New Year. My very best to all of you. Thank you for being readers of this blog! I appreciate each and every one of you.

A bientôt,

Sara

Reading in Lockdown- Part 2

“You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, who had ever been alive.”

James Baldwin

BOOK POWER
by Gwendolyn Brooks

BOOKS FEED AND CURE AND
CHORTLE AND COLLIDE

In all this willful world
of thud and thump and thunder
man’s relevance to books
continues to declare.

Books are meat and medicine
and flame and flight and flower,
steel, stitch, and cloud and clout,
and drumbeats in the air.

If you have never heard of or read Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings, now might be the time to discover her newsletter. In lockdown, we have the opportunity to read much more than we usually do. Why is reading important?

“Someone reading a book is a sign of order in the world,”wrote the poet Mary Ruefle. “A book is a heart that beats in the chest of another,” Rebecca Solnit asserted in her lyrical meditation on why we read and write. But whatever our poetic images and metaphors for the varied ways in which books transform us — “the axe for the frozen sea within us,” per Franz Kafka, or “proof that humans are capable of working magic,”per Carl Sagan — the one indisputable constant is that they do transform us, in ways which we may not always be able to measure but can always feel in the core of our being.

Maria Popova

I love to read. I probably read a book a week, sometimes more, sometimes less. It is a great distraction when the noise of the world is coming at me too fast and too furious. Most days, I prefer a good book to TV or Netflix. When I read a wonderful piece of literature like Amor Towles’ A Gentleman in Moscow, my breath is taken away. Being a writer myself, I find myself admiring how each sentence is made up of everyday words placed in perfect order to bring a vision to mind and to feel like one is there. That is genius.

When I read a good mystery writer, Peter Robinson, Val McDermid (some might say she is more thriller), and now Tana French, I am transported to a world I hope I never visit but get a glimpse of. The best mystery writers write literature not just a fast paced, stay awake all night, who done it. And when the books are a series as with Peter Robinson or the great Donna Leon, whose Ispetattore Brunetti is beloved the world over, we become part of a family one only knows from reading. It is such a treat and we await the next chapter of the “family’s fortunes” as one waits for Christmas as a child.

This lockdown will end. The pandemic will pass eventually. Maybe some of us will have slowed down enough that we love it, don’t want to speed up again as before Covid-19 made it’s deathly visit on earth. Many of us will look to re-invent ourselves into what we’ve learned about the best of ourselves. If there is one constant in life it’s that things change–always. But reading, and learning from reading, and being inspired by reading is always available to us. So I encourage you to start now. Read an inspiring book during the day and an escapist book at night. The worlds you will travel will almost make up for the traveling we cannot do at the moment.

A bientôt,

Sara

Reading in Lockdown

My friend, Janet Hulstrand, a wonderful writer, sent out a blog today that championed buying books and supporting authors. I am reblogging her blog as no one could say it better. I would only add that the wonderful website: http://www.bookshop.org supports independent bookstores and even gives a percentage of its profits to the support of these wonderful bookstores trying to stay alive during the Pandemic. I wish we had it over here.

How You (Yes, You!) Can Help Writers by Janet Hulstrand

Buy books if you can afford to. If you have “too many books”… (But is there really such a thing? Most writers, and even many readers, don’t really think so…Too few bookshelves, certainly. But too many books? Ridiculous!). But anyway, if you think you have too many books, well then, buy them, read them, then give them to friends, or better yet to the library or other places that accept used books–hospitals? prisons? schools?

Buy new books if you can afford to. The reason for this is that if you buy used books, the only entity to make any money is whomever is selling the book. The publisher gets nothing: the author gets nothing. This makes it hard for authors and publishers to stay alive! So do what you can. If you really need to buy used books (and believe me, I understand if you do) you can still write reviews, and that will help authors and publishers.

Review books on Amazon or GoodReads. I think it is absolutely wonderful that we no longer have to rely only on professional book reviewers to tell us about books. Having said that, I think it’s only right that if we’re going to be influencing people’s decisions about whether or not to buy (or read) a book we should be fair about it. Here is a post I wrote about how to be fair when writing a review. (Most people don’t know HOW MUCH these reviews help writers: they help A LOT! And they are so easy to do. I explain how easy it is also, in that same post.)

Buy from indie bookstores, in person or online. My own personal favorite indies are the Red Wheelbarrow Bookstore in Paris, and BonjourBooksDC and Politics and Prose in the Washington DC area. But there are wonderful indie bookstores pretty much everywhere, and they need our support! If you’re not near a store, you can buy books online from many indies: and even if your local indie doesn’t sell online, you can support indie bookstores by purchasing books online from IndieBound or Bookshop.org.And now just two please-don’ts:

Please don’t ask your writer friends if you can have free copies of their books (!) They need their friends and family members to BUY their books, and then tell all their friends about the book, and write reviews of their books, and give their friends gifts of the book, and…like that. (You can trust me on this. They really do!! Writing books is not such an easy way to make a living: indeed, this is a huge understatement.) 

Please don’t go to indie bookstores to browse and then buy the books online from you-know-who. How do you think the indie booksellers are going to pay the rent on that lovely space they are providing for you, where you can hang out and spend time with other booklovers, and go to cool book events, if you don’t buy books from them? Hmm? I mean, really. Think it through! This post spells out some of the many reasons why it’s good to support indie bookstores. Well, anyway, I hope as you consider your holiday shopping this year, you will consider doing some of the above. It’s been a hard year, especially for small businesses, including indie bookstores. So I trust you will do what you can to help them out. They deserve it! 

Janet Hulstrand is a writer, editor, writing coach, and teacher of writing and of literature who divides her time between the U.S. and France. She is the author of Demystifying the French: How to Love Them, and Make Them Love You, and is currently working on her next book, a literary memoir entitled “A Long Way from Iowa.”

A bientôt,

Sara

While you are being patient, read this…..

One of many wonderful things about living in Paris is the wonderful people I get to meet; singers and musicians from the 60s; authors: famous and to be famous; playwrites and actors. I wrote about one of my favorite people, Elliott Murphy, when I saw a documentary about him The Second Act of Elliott Murphy in 2017. Filmed by Spanish director Jorge Arenillas, the documentary talks of Elliott’s transition from the US to Paris. Elliott is not only a prolific musician–he has 38 albums, a number of books, live albums–he is a kind and generous person. He recently produced a new album, a creative stretch for him. But let him tell you about it:

Photo Credit: Michel Jolyot

Hi Elliott, I was planning to repost the blog I just received announcing the release of The Middle Kingdom, your latest album.  But I thought it might be fun to ask you some questions instead.

I’ve got plenty of time on my hands to answer any and all questions. Covid-19 has provided me with the longest vacation in almost 50 years!

This album is a bit different than your many earlier albums.  Why have you chosen poetry for this musical project?

The Middle Kingdom is probably close to my 40th album, and is my first entirely “spoken word” album although I have had a few songs that were more spoken than sung. One of the prominent in that category is “On Elvis Presley’s Birthday” which I still regularly perform in concert and is a fan favorite. Also, I had recently completed recording an “audiobook” of my memoir JUST A STORY FROM AMERICA [soon available on Audible.com etc] which required a week of narration recording so I had grown familiar with the process of recording a spoken voice as opposed to a singing voice. And then when the confinement kicked in I was looking for a way to continue working musically with Olivier Durand who has been my brilliant guitarist and musical partner for over 25 years and I had published two books of poetry “The Middle Kingdom” and “Forty Poems in Forty Days” so in a moment of inspiration provided by my muse I thought, why not record a selection of poems and then let Olivier find musical backing in his studio in Le Havre which he did brilliantly. The final step was for my son and producer, Gaspard Murphy, to mix it at his beautiful Paris studio. And to be honest, I’ve been amazed at the incredibly positive response the album has generated.  

How do the wonderful Corona Couch Concerts fit in?

I’m actually considering re-starting the “Corona Couch Concerts – The Return!” tonight at 8pm Paris time but I need to find something new to throw into the mix. The experience of presenting 56 Corona Couch Concerts on Facebook and Instagram during the first lock-down where I not only sang 3 or 4 songs each night but also acted as a kind of “talk show host” made me open to doing a spoken word album. Maybe I’ll find a way to fit all of this into The Return … (Elliott found a way and you can hear The Return on Instagram and FaceBook @elliottmurphy tonight and every night at 8pm CET) 

I’ve noticed that during this pandemic, many friends and others have turned to poets like David Whyte and Mary Oliver for soothing answers to existential questions.

I love to hear of poets I am not so familiar with. I will check out David and Mary. One of my favorites is Richard Tillinghast. By the way, there is a great album of Jack Kerouac reading while Steve Allen plays piano which was definitely a precursor to The Middle Kingdom.

Now you’ve joined the frey! 

I think you mean the Fray … but you may be referring to Glen Frey the late member of the Eagles who was a very cool guy indeed!

But most of us will always think rock n roll when we think of Elliott Murphy.

And well they should! 

Can you respond to that?

I have been floating down the rock ‘n roll river since deep into last century. It’s the reason I live in Paris although France is not really a rock ‘n roll country – more jazz in my opinion.

Have you been able to perform since the worst of the lockdown was lifted?

We did two shows in October – one in Brittany and another in the Paris suburbs – and although it was a bit surreal to walk out on stage and behold a sea of blue masks it was wonderful to create magic with the public. Now my shows in November and December have been cancelled, or hopefully moved to the Spring. I’ve been on the road my whole adult life and usually play between 60 – 100 shows a year so to go so long without a show is quite a shock to my system but not all negative. I always complained to my wife that I needed more time off and now I’ve got it. So I’ve been working on a new novel which I’m co-writing with Peter Redwhite who has translated two of my books into Spanish.  

You wrote a wonderful vignette about Bobby Vee and Bob Dylan. Can you repeat it here. 

Here you go: 

Poetry in Motion was a 1961 hit song for both Johnny Tillitson and Bobby Vee; the two of them early rock ‘n roll pioneers who put a tasteful touch of country music into the musical mix in the same vein as Elvis Presley or Jerry Lee Lewis. Johnny Tillitson was originally from Florida and featured the legendary Nashville piano player Floyd Kramer on his version of the song while Bobby was a genuine teen idol from North Dakota who, while still early in his career, hired a Minnesota musician who went by the name Elston Gunn to briefly tour with him and his band. Elston was actually Robert Zimmerman who became Bob Dylan and who mentions Vee in his biography Chronicles

For more about Elliott, go to: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elliott_Murphy which has a complete list of everything he has conceived in almost fifty years of being a artist.

Also: https://www.allmusic.com/artist/elliott-murphy-mn0000174838/biography and https://elliottmurphy.com

So be patient. Amuse yourself with learning new things. Time passes and we will know who won eventually.

Stay safe, stay well, be smart and wear a mask, socially distance yourself. Your health is your responsibility.

A Bientôt,

Sara

Confinement Redux

A friend back in Oakland, Ca wrote to me this morning asking me if I was ok. He included a photo from the Associated Press that was titled: “Parisians flee, sidewalks empty, as France enters lockdown.” The photo showed a solitary figure walking an empty street and everything was grey. My friend said “Frightening to see this–hope you’re holding out ok.”

Photo my friend sent. It turns out this street is in Bayonne not Paris.

It has been an adventure of sorts. Wednesday evening, 8pm CET, President Macron announced that France was going back into lockdown. Although he claims that it will be slightly different than the last time, I haven’t seen what the difference is. I was still in Normandie and knew I had to get home. The lockdown started at midnight on Friday. I was able to get a train reservation for Saturday morning and began a whirlwind, frenetic packing generated by my sense of urgency. But as each hour went by, the urgency subsided. I was told that the shelves were sparse and so I packed a full bag of my groceries that I hadn’t yet used. By the time I left on Saturday morning, I had my one fairly large suitcase, my cat inside her carrier which is soft and can be worn over the shoulder, my ‘market’ bag in which I carry things I might need during the day, the full bag of groceries and another bag that held all the overflow.

I turned my car in at the train station and loaded myself up with all my ‘stuff’. I got about five feet and I knew it was all too much and too heavy. I started to do something I hate in myself and hadn’t done in a long time. I sighed very, very loudly, tried to look as miserable and helpless as I felt, tilted to the left with the weight of the grocery bag, sighed a little louder, all in hopes that someone would come rushing to my rescue. I must have looked a bit lunatic if not homeless, and I’m sure anyone who passed me gave me a wide berth. I made very slow progress. I realized I would have to go up and over the bridge to get to the quai where the train to Paris was. I was close to tears. Someone did say there was an elevator but didn’t offer to help. I was halfway across the bridge still doing my Sarah Bernhardt act when an employee of SNCF asked where I was headed, grabbed two of my bags, and, asking which car I was in, deposited me in Voiture 5. The train left within 30 seconds of my being inside.

Of course, I pulled the same stunt walking to the taxi queue in Paris. This time, a young woman stopped and helped me. I was home in my apartment three hours after leaving my friends’ home in Normandie. Ultimately I was glad for all the groceries as I had no energy to shop for food on Saturday.

Sunday morning, Day 3 of Confinement Deux, I went for my usual morning walk at 10:30am. On my walk, I pass a parcours with exercise machines in the Jardin du Ranelagh. My habit is to stop for about fifteen minutes, and every other day work out my arms and, on alternate days, my legs. The parcours was packed with people. I’m not sure if the area would be considered a space for gathering but there were well over thirty people. Three-quarters were not wearing masks. I got on one machine, felt scared, got off and went on my way to finish my walk. This morning, it was the same thing on a much smaller level, probably twelve people total, all the men not wearing masks.

Current Covid-19 numbers in France, according to the Health Minister: 1 new positive every 2 seconds; 1 hospitalisation every 30 seconds; 1 death every 4 minutes

When I left Paris on October 14th, everyone was wearing a mask. Was this a rebellion? I noticed a number of people not wearing masks just walking or wearing the mask under their nose. Not only did my neighbourhood NOT look like the photo my friend sent, it seemed teeming with life. Av. Mozart, my shopping street, had more people than usual. Only stores that sold necessities were open so my little clothing store was closed but the florists were open. They were not open the first time around. I was able to purchase my weekly bunch of flowers and that made me happy.

Around Europe, the numbers are devastating.

Macron said that the confinement would last one month but everything would be reviewed in fifteen days. If the cases of Covid-19 had stopped rising and looked to be diminishing, there was the possibility of some of the restrictions being relaxed. That is not likely to happen. Countries around France are following suit. The UK isn’t calling it a lockdown but much the same rules are in place. Germany is in lockdown. Spain and Italy had cities in lockdown for weeks already. Macron has said that this second wave is and will continue to be much more devastating.

Wearing masks in Paris on Friday, October 30.

Last Spring, the days were getting longer. It was a novel experience and people all over the world went out on their balconies to sing and clap for the healthcare workers. Now the days are getting shorter, the wind howls at night and no one is celebrating anything. And, for US citizens, tomorrow is a day that almost everyone has been awaiting for four years, many of us have been working at getting out the vote, making sure everyone over here knows they must register anew every year, and that it is an honour to be able to vote. So Please Vote. Now we, and the rest of the world, are holding our collective breath both hoping and fearing the results.

So, to my friend in Oakland, I will respond, “Yes, I’m holding up. My Paris doesn’t look like that photo and I’m not sure if that is good or bad. Both politically and health wise, I think we are in for a long, cold winter. Je t’embrasse.”

A bientôt,

Sara