Looking at the US from across the pond

I have started this blog a dozen times. And a dozen times, I have my hands hovering over the keyboard of my new computer, wondering where to start. In my worst nightmares, I couldn’t have dreamed up what we are witnessing. I am selective about my news stories, I tend not to watch American TV channels for my news as they have a tendency to keep saying the same thing over and over. The shock of what I hear becomes numbness as I see the same faces, read the same quotes, and listen to the same interviews.

There is the growing number of cases of Covid-19 and an incompetent President who values money over human lives. There is the Black Lives Matter movement that has grown out of George Floyd’s murder. And since Trump has sent in his troops, the movement only grows stronger. And, in my home town of Oakland, California, there are now protests of Trump’s troops coming to Portland. There is the economy: which is a puzzle. The stock market has regained all its losses. Yet, more people are unemployed, small businesses are failing and there is a President who is resisting providing funds to people so they won’t starve or lose their homes.

Friday, the big story was Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s moving speech on the floor of the House of Congress. She made the speech not because of Representative Yoho’s abusive language thrown at her on the steps of the capital but because of a lame apology that in no way demonstrated remorse.

http://www.newyorker.com/video/watch/alexandria-ocasio-cortez-responds-on-the-house-floor-to-a-verbal-assault-by-representative-ted-yoho

Later in the day, on Amanpour (CNN), we were shown a clip of, then-prime minister, Julia Gillard of Australia; delivering a similar speech in 2012 about men finding it normal to use abusive and violent language about women to women. She ended with the wonderful line that said that if the “man” wanted a lesson in mysogyny, he didn’t need a book, he just needed a mirror.

From over here in France, the United States is looking like a country that is uneducated, poor in character and in decency, unable to play well with others. I wanted to say a third world country but that is wrong. It’s a banana republic. The US is one of the richest countries in the world in terms of money and material wealth. But it is one of the poorest countries when it comes to human decency, respect for others, consideration, and, in my opinion, priorities of what is important.

Et à Paris Quoi de Neuf

Here in Paris, it is July soon to be August. Parisians leave Paris. In droves. I’m told there are July people: those who leave for the month of July –and August people: those who leave for August. And they will argue their logic. They are Parisian after all. Walking in my arrondissement, it seems most people are here. In the month of August, it has always become very quiet. Half the stores close. I don’t know whether they will this year as so many had to close during the lockdown and the smaller businesses are struggling for survival.

Setting up in the parking area of the street

Restaurants and cafes were some that were forced to close. When they did open, at first, it was only for take-away. Then it was to be served outside, and finally, inside with strict instructions: all tables a minimum of one metre apart. So, creative ingenuity ensued. The cafes started taking over the sidewalks, then the parking along the side of the street. One restaurant near the American Library in Paris, even set up tables across the street. Paris has always been a sidewalk culture, a cafe society. But this is lively and wonderful.

Av. Rapp on the way to the American Library
rue General Camou–Resto has set up across the street and all serving needs on a table nearby

Then there is Mayor Anne Hidalgo who won re-election a couple of weeks ago by quite a margin over her nearest opponent. If one lives inside the perepherique, Mayor Hidalgo is a hero. She champions climate change. She has closed streets to cars and the metro is now open 24 hours a day on many lines (at least it was before the lockdown). She has opened bike lanes. While Paris was in lockdown and very few cars were in Paris, Mayor Hidalgo got to work. There are now more bike lanes than ever. Bicycles are so popular for transportation that Bike shops have a huge back order. Now that the lockdown is over, she has promised that nothing will change. Need I say that in the banlieu, she is not so popular. They want to be able to drive from one end of Paris to the other without difficulty or obstacles.

a new bike lane on Pont de l’Alma

I am off for another week of rest and relaxation! I can’t imagine that anything could compare to my two weeks in Brittany but there is no harm in trying. This time, I’m visiting friends in lower Normandy. It is 45 minutes from Caen where the amazing museum dedicated to the Allies and WWII is housed. Also 45 minutes from some of the most beautiful beaches in Normandy: Cabourg, Huelgate, Deauville and Trouville.

So from Paris, a bientôt, until August

Sara

Atelier des Lumières

I arrived at Atelier des Lumières an hour early on Sunday. My friend, Barbara, and I had originally planned this outing to celebrate her birthday March 24th. Then life intervened. The Atelier kindly reimbursed me and, just short of, four months later, here we were: 38 rue St. Maur in the 11th. It was a glorious sunny day. People often say that Paris is grey. Certainly not these past five months.

I rode the #9 metro with my mask on. From my stop in the 16th to St. Ambroise in the 11th is approximately 40 minutes. Everyone wears masks on public transportation. We are encouraged by the 130 euro fine to be paid if we are caught unmasked. The wearing of masks seems to sober people up. There isn’t much talking, frivolity and no buskers in any of the cars. We get on, hope to find a seat which are marked so that, ideally, one would not sit next to another person, then get off.

Since I was early, I walked for awhile in the 11th. The streets are just as wide as in the 16th but the two arrondissements couldn’t look more different. In the 11th, there are no trees shading the sidewalks. Graffiti, much of it fun and artistic, grace many of the walls of buildings and store fronts. Whereas the 16th feels upscale, the 11th feels very working class. In both arrondissements, however, to support social distancing, resaurants, bistros, and cafes have taken over the parking on the streets. Some have thrown down green carpeting to simulate grass. Many have brought in small trees and plants and put them next to the tables to give the air of outside comfort. It works. It is a welcome addition to all the streets in this writer’s opinion.

Walking in the 11th arrondissement

We met at noon as planned and got ready to enter the Atelier. As with every other space in Paris, wearing a mask is obligatory to enter. Then we pass the sanitising liquid that everyone dollops on their hands before passing any of the staff. Our bags are checked, they make sure we actually have tickets, and finally our tickets are scanned and we are in. There are free lockers where we can deposit everything that might be cumbersome. Then we pass through two doors into the remarkable space. As we entered, the show was half-way through. Since it runs all day long, we knew we would see the beginning later.

The projections are accompanied by music, carefully picked from classical, modern, rock and roll, blues, whatever fits the creators’ idea of intent. Nobody speaks. At the end, everyone claps. In times other than a pandemic, the floor would be barely visible. Throngs of people, especially tourists, enter all day long and stay for hours. The lack of tourists is certainly fortunate for us as viewers but not so good for the museum, vendors and cafes that are outside on the street.

Video of Chagall projections with music

I’m sure a better writer than I could describe the awe with which one watches these astounding projections.  The paint work is so large and real that you can see the layers of oil, one on top of the other.  When projecting one of Chagall’s works, the plethora of colour that surrounded us filled me with a big inner grin, gave me reason to appreciate the minds and hearts that create these kinds of expos and helped me forget what is going on in the word. Thank goodness for videos that can give you a gllimpse of what we spent almost two hours watching!

After a boxed lunch in the park, we went to find a cup of coffee. Barbara had done me a huge favor the day before and I promised her a coffee. We sat down at a bright pink table across from the Atelier: L’Atelier de Lili. Lili turned out to be our waitress. She heard our accents and asked us where we were from. Both Barbara and I being social talkers, we had quite a conversation with Lili who is adorable, funny and entertaining. She took our photo for her collection and sent it to us.

Sara and Barbara having a birthday coffee across from Atelier des Lumières.

I told Lili that we were so happy because we were finally celebrating Barbara’s birthday–four months late. Five minutes later, out came a macaroon with a little candle in it. Lili sang Happy Birthday with all her heart.

No words needed.

I know that the serendipitous nature of the whole day felt very celebratory to Barbara. As I rode home on the metro, I was thinking how like a normal day in Paris this felt. I actually had not spent this much time out being social in Paris, only in Brittany. I felt happy, in love with Paris and all it offers. I had to literally tap my head to remind myself that there is nothing normal about any part of the world today. In the words of Charles Blow of the NYTimes, “I think I echo many Americans, and people of the world in general, when I say that I’m having a hard time fully grappling with the gravity of this moment. It is still hard to absorb that a virus has reshaped world behavior, halted or altered travel, strained the economy and completely reshaped the nature of public spaces and human interaction. It is also hard to absorb that this may not be a quickly passing phase, an inconvenience for a season, but something that the world is forced to live with for years, even assuming that a vaccine is soon found.” July 12 Op Ed.

A bientôt,

Sara

La Bretagne

After almost three months of lockdown in Paris, being in Brittany was a breath of fresh air-literally. I stayed with friends in Louannec on the Côte de Grânit Rose. That area is a large peninsula jutting out of the north side of Brittany just under the UK. The ink was barely dry on Macron’s decree that we could travel further than 100 kms, that I bought my ticket, packed my suitcase, put on my mask, and headed for Gare Montparnasse. The TGV car that I sat in was half-empty. If one wasn’t a couple, we sat, either as the only passenger in the double seats, or in the single seats along the other windows. J’adore le voyage par train en France. I have come to love train travel so much that it only seemed natural to take the train from Chicago to Ann Arbor to see my sister last summer!

This was a vacation like none other that I’ve ever had. The first two nights I slept so long that I realized I was far more tired than I had thought. My hosts didn’t change their lives for me. It wasn’t their vacation. They just wanted to give me a place to breath, to see the sea and walk without breathing in car fumes. So, for the next thirteen days, after I awoke, I made a breakfast and read the news on my computer, went for long walks along the sea (five and six miles), had lunch, took a nap in which I usually fell asleep, read, took another walk, wrote some e-mails, had dinner at 9pm then went back to sleep. On the weekends, we went to a tiny hamlet that isn’t even on the map where my hosts have bought a small house. No internet, no WiFi. So my day didn’t change much except I walked beside wheat fields instead of the sea.

View from my bedroom window: looking out on the Bay. The port of Perros is to the left.
The port of Perros Guirec

Brittany wasn’t hit with much Covid 19. There was one incident, before I arrived, where someone was admitted to hospital with an unrelated condition. It turned out that person had the virus, and within a week, fifteen people had it. My hosts believe that no one died. That was the biggest outbreak. One is required to wear a mask at outdoor marchés and inside any store. I saw no one break that rule.

Walking the Sentier des Douaniers, a summer ritual. Everywhere large and small boulders of pink granite.
Inside the small stone house in Kerprouet.
Back in Louannec: 11:15pm!

Within days of being in Louannec, it was hard to remember that there was a deadly virus in the world and that it was making a comeback in a number of countries, the US being the worst of the rising cases. I had gotten used to keeping a clean mask in my purse. If it hadn’t been for that, I wouldn’t have been able to go into a couple of stores. It was so hard to remember: purse, keys, mask which has gotten automatic in Paris.

Picking the first lettuce (known in French as salade) in Kerprouet. Two families together have planted lettuce, tomatoes, winter squash, corgettes, rasberries, potatoes, put in apple trees and plum trees. They will be eating will all summer long.

One plant that grows beautifully and prolifically in all of Brittany is the hydrangea (hortensia in French). They become hedges in front yards, climb up walls near many of the beaches, and there is a Hortensia festival every summer. Maybe not this summer. I’m told that it loves to be sprayed. So though it’s important to water it regularly and deeply, it’s also important to spray it. In Brittany, water drops fly in from waves. It can cool down at night and there will be mist. They come in pinks and reds and pale blues and deep, vivid blues and violets and white. Each one of these colors will have different species. The hortensia known in France as hydrangea is a delicate flower with star-like shoots coming from the stamen and at the end of each little finger are four petals. Looked at from above, the flowers look like lace.

My hosts tell me that Bretons are not really french! There is France and there is Brittany. It’s an ages old joke that, like most of these kind of folk jokes, have a lot of truth to them. Bretons don’t like authority and if the government says ‘black’ Bretons will do ‘white’ on principle. It is the only department in France that does no allow any paying highways (because it’s not right). On the whole, they are extremely kind and generous people. Like much of France that isn’t Paris and Lyon, the majority are hurting financially. You would never know it by looking at their homes. They don’t get extreme cold at winter so they can garden all year around and it shows. Every house and its garden is clean and manicured to perfection.

It’s July in Paris. That means that everyone is either planning their getaway for August or have already left. School ended last week. The next seven weeks are a French specialty: “Leave Paris”. It is heavenly. So I’m already plotting my next trips to Normandie and then Le Gers. First, I have to put in a drip system on my terrace. Then I will have plants to come home to.

A bientôt,

Sara