Locked Down Again (a re-blog from my friend, Janet Hulstrand)

Janet writes a wonderful blog called Writing from the Heart. This blog spoke to me and for me. I wanted to share with you. The word ‘lassitude’ has now made it into my english vocabulary.

Reminders about “les gestes barrieres” in a train station

I had to look up the word “lassitude” this week. It is a word (in French) that is being spoken a lot recently. We have the same word in English, but it is one of those words we don’t use very often, so I had to look it up even in English. It means weariness. 

Weariness is of course not quite the same thing as being tired. Being tired is something that can be cured by a nap, or perhaps a good night’s sleep. Weariness, on the other hand, suggests a fatigue born of an extended period of being tired of, or because of, something, something that wears down not only one’s level of energy, but also motivation, spirit, enthusiasm, and certainly joie de vivre. 

And that is what we have here in France right now. Lassitude as we go into Year 2 of the Covid 19 pandemic.

There has been a lot of complaining this week, especially since, given concerning increases in the number of infections, especially in certain parts of France, and even more because, given frankly almost alarming reports of the increasing pressures on the hospitals in those regions, the government–some would sayfinally, others would say ridiculously–has imposed another set of restrictions. 

This time only 16 departments of France (including Paris and the surrounding region, and also Lille, Nice, and their surrounding regions) are included. The theme of the lockdown this time is freiner sans fermer, which means “put the brakes on without closing down.” This has meant a rather complicated (and controversial) set of rules about what kinds of enterprises can stay open (bookstores, florists, hairdressers, bakeries OF COURSE) and which kind cannot (large-surface stores, museums, theaters, restaurants and cafes). 

It’s been a terribly long time for some sectors of the economy, most notably restaurants and cafes, museums, theaters, and so on. It’s heartbreaking to hear restaurateurs in particular talk about their anxiety, about how they can possibly manage not to go out of business altogether, these people who in normal times provide all of us with such a wonderful service. (The word “restaurant” after all, comes from the French word restaurer (to restore). Think about that!) Managing a restaurant, it has always seemed to me, must be one of the hardest ways to make a living. How will they get through this? 

The answers to these questions are not clear to me. In the beginning of the crisis, a year ago, one of the things that was most impressive and comforting to me about Macron’s address to the nation was the stress he placed on how the government intended to do everything it could to not only deal with the crise sanitaire (the health crisis) but also the economic consequences of having to shut so much of the economy down. Has this government kept those promises? I’m not too sure about that, but much of what I hear on French TV and radio suggests that whatever is being done is too little too late, or maybe in some cases not at all. 

Some businesses have been spared the shutdown this time–bookshops, hairdressers, florists and of course bakeries and other food shops. The despised attestations that everyone was required to carry in the previous two lockdowns every time they left their homes is not required this time for people going out during the day and staying within the 10 kilometer limits of the restriction. And there is no time limit on how long you can be outside this time, for which everyone is grateful. 

As I mentioned in my last post, I think it’s important for everyone to keep in mind for whom this year-long crisis is the most difficult, and calibrate our personal annoyance and lassitude with the situation accordingly. Of course everyone has had it with this crisis. (In French, the phrase is “on en a marre.”) But really, we do not all have an equal right to “having had it”: the health care workers who were being cheered in the streets as they made their weary way home after difficult days of saving lives a year ago are not being cheered anymore. Instead they are having to work just as hard (or harder) than they did a year ago with what must be an overwhelming sense of fatigue and pessimism about whether this extended trial will ever end. They are the ones who have the greatest right to being sick of it all. We have to just hope that they don’t throw in the towel, and be extremely grateful that most of them are not doing so. We need them! 

I also would like to say something that I am pretty sure is going to be somewhat controversial, perhaps even downright unpopular. But I think it needs to be said. And that is that the amount of intense criticism that the government here in France is subject to is, I believe, somewhat unfair.

This is not to say that I do not agree with the thousands (millions?) of people who feel that the Macron government has bungled the managing of this crisis. What seemed to be a strong start in the beginning of the crisis is not as admirable by now, a year in. There are many reasons for this, some the fault of the government, and of Macron himself; but many of them are no one’s fault, really.

The problem is that this is so far, a very difficult crisis to manage. It may even be, to some extent, more or less impossible. One doesn’t have to look very far, all around in Europe in fact, to see that it is certainly not just Emmanuel Macron who is having a hard time figuring out what to do to keep his people safe, and prevent the economy from completely crashing.

This is a new disease, and new problems keep cropping up: shortages of the vaccines that almost miraculously have been able to be developed on such a short timeline; new variants of the disease cropping up all over the place in a most dismaying way. Europe is also struggling with trying to figure out how to function as a “union” rather than just a set of separate political entities that exist geographically adjacent to each other. It’s not easy (take a look at the United States to see how just how not-easy “forming a perfect union” can be, and how long it takes…)

So, while I do believe there’s been a lot of bungling in France since the fall. And while I personally believe that that is mainly because the government did not continue to listen to doctors as carefully as they should have, and did, in the beginning of the crisis. Where we are now was fairly predictable and probably could have been avoided by earlier, more aggressive governmental action. And by listening to the doctors, many of whom said “partial measures do not work.” 

But I cannot help but think about what it must be like to be Emmanuel Macron, or Jean Castex, or Olivier Véran, the French minister of health, these days. I think we should all remember that these too are human beings, flawed like all human beings. They have probably made some big mistakes. But who among us would want to have the heavy burden of the responsibility that is on their shoulders? Who would want to have to keep guessing, or betting, or hoping rather than being able to plan in a way that was predictably fail-proof? Who would want to be any one of them trying to figure out what to do, trying to go to sleep at night, looking in the mirror and asking oneself if what they are doing is the right and best thing?

When I hear these people being criticized so strongly, I can’t help but think about their humanity, and how tired (and frightened) they must be as they struggle to keep up with this monstrous, protean virus. 

The thing I think should be remembered is this: these are people who care and care deeply. We all saw the dreadful reality of a powerful leader of a nation who really did not care about the fact that hundreds of thousands of his citizens were dying, and who made things much worse, not better. (And his comment? “I take no responsibility,” and “It is what it is…”)

France is not in the hands of such people. I think they’re doing their best, or at least they’ve been trying to. 

If we are going to blame anyone for this crisis, I suggest we look to the billionaires of the world, who apparently have been becoming even more obscenely wealthy, as the poorest of the poor bear the brunt of this crisis. It seems to me that the one thing that should be being done, and is not, is those very billionaires stepping up, and emptying their over-full pockets. Why couldn’t they do so? Why couldn’t they help the government by dumping some of their wealth in those places that need help the most? I don’t see any reason why they couldn’t. 

Do you? 

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.”

Vaccinating in French

Saturdays are a day when I write. I join an on-line community that writes together. No prompts, no class, just a leader and many writers. It is structured: we tell the group our intention for the next six hours (which can include a meal, a walk and whatever one needs to do in between timed writing spaces. Of course we don’t need to say that!), then check in twice to tell each other our progress and, then we meet for a final time six hours after starting. I love it. It has made writing a constant source of both discipline and fun for me.

Last Saturday, I wrote a blog, reached the number of words I had given as my intention, and took myself out for a three-mile walk. When I returned, there was an e-mail from my friend, Barbara, telling me she had just made an appointment to get her first vaccine. She wrote exactly what site to go on to make the appointment. The centre is outside the peripherique and my first thought is always “how am I going to get there without a car?” For once, I decided to tackle that later, went on line, went through all the instructions, and finished three minutes later with a first and a second appointment. I was ecstatic. I had just written in the blog that no one knew what was going on with vaccinations. I looked up directions and saw that it was easy. Take the #1 metro and get off two stops before Vincennes and walk five minutes. Easy Peasy. I called Barbara and left a gushy message of gratitude on her voice mail. When she called back, she told me it was the Phizer vaccine. I hadn’t even looked assuming it was AstraZeneca because we’d been told that was all France had. I was even more grateful. I would have taken whatever was available but, given the choice, I didn’t want AstraZenica. Too many problems. As it turns out, France and Germany have temporarily suspended AstraZenica until they can solve these issues.

That was Saturday around 4:30pm. My first appointment was for Monday, two days later. We’ve all heard tales of appointments being cancelled so when I proof read my blog on Sunday, I decided not to write anything about vaccinations other than to say it was no longer true that we knew nothing, that I’d gotten an appointment and more would follow.

Sunday came and went and then it was Monday morning. Barbara’s appointment was earlier than mine. I hadn’t even left my apartment when she texted me to tell me that she was in and out in about twenty minutes. I live in the 16ème, about two blocks from the Bois de Boulogne. Paris is sandwiched in between two wonderful parks. The Bois de Boulogne is the smaller of the two and is the very west of Paris just after the peripherique. The Bois de Vincennes is at the east of Paris just beyond the peripherique on that side. Saint-Mandé, where I was receiving my vaccine is located just as Bois de Vincennes starts. In other words, it is as far away from the 16th as one can get. Yet, because of the transportation system here, it is about a 50 minute straight shot with only one change of metro. And this is at a time when they say, transportation is not running at 100%. I put on my earbuds, turned on my audio of The Red Lotus by Chris Bohjalian (a fascinating thriller), and headed for the metro.

Waiting in line to get into the Vaccination Centre

I got off at Saint-Mandé. Barbara had instructed that I look for exit #4 and I’d be as close as four minutes walk. When I emerge from the depths of the metro stations into a part of Paris I don’t know, my first response is to find a way to orient myself–I hate feeling lost. I couldn’t figure out whether to walk straight or turn around and walk the opposite direction. I saw that I had three choices. They say third time is a charm! Four minutes and a budding anxiety attack later, I looked down an alley and saw a line of people. I walked to the building. Six people, my age, crowded around the front door. They made sure that I didn’t get close to the front door, that I understood there was a queue, and I was at the end of it. Really!! This “me first” attitude never goes away no matter how old we get? Then I realized the obvious. Everyone has been anxious about getting the vaccine especially people over 65 of age. Everyone is scared something will happen and their appointment will be cancelled. Barbara told me a story of a woman in line while she was waiting to get inside the building. The woman didn’t have an appointment but was hoping that, since she there, they would let her in. They wouldn’t. Barbara said she was practically in tears as she turned to go away. We all do and often say things when we are anxious and scared that we’d never say or do in calmer moments.

The waiting room once Inside the Vaccination Centre

As it turned out, the queue didn’t make much difference. The time of one’s appointment did. A man stuck his head out the door after I’d been waiting about five minutes and called my name as well as two others. I went inside. He handed me a questionnaire to fill out. I told him I’d already downloaded it and filled it out so he told me to take a seat in the waiting room. Once inside, people’s kinder sides emerged. There were a number of handicapped older people, some who could barely walk, arriving with a caretaker. People made sure both had chairs to sit on. Their names seemed to be called first to go to the next station. When my name was called I was shown a seat in front of a huge Plexiglas window. The woman behind it asked for my questionnaire. She looked at it, made a few notes, then directed me on. Behind a screen, I was shown a seat where I got my shot. This person took my questionnaire and handed me another one which she said to bring to my second appointment. Did I know when that was? I sure did. Down to the minute and seconds.

The Salle d’Attente where we were to sit for 10-15 minutes just to make sure we didn’t have an allergic reaction.

She pointed to a door and told me to go into the large room and sit. First, I had an “exit” review. I was asked a number of questions and then given my certificate of first vaccine. I am to bring that to my next appointment along with #2 questionnaire. I looked at my watch. About fifteen minutes had passed since I first arrived at the Centre. I found a chair and sat for twelve minutes. I assumed we were monitoring ourselves so I just stood up and left. As I walked out the exit door, it seemed so quiet, the air so ordinary. I thought there should be drum rolls and celebratory music. I’d been hoping and praying for this since mid-December. I had accepted that I might have to wait until May or during the summer sometime. But no, it was the third week in March and my second appointment was exactly four weeks later. We were all told that the vaccine didn’t really kick in to full effectiveness until two weeks after that: April 26th. Could I really plan some travel? Whoa, hold your horses, Sara. One thing at a time.

I went home again listening to my wonderful book. My arm was quite sore for about thirty-six hours and I felt fatigued. And that’s it. Done and dusted! Like everything else, the waiting is far worse than the event itself.

Official poster for Nomadland

While feeling fatigued, I treated myself to watching Nomadland on Hulu. I knew very little about the film. The director had won a Golden Globe, the film was Best Picture in the Drama category, and it has been nominated in the Best Film category for the Academy Awards. (This year, it’s actually possible to see most of the nominated movies before the event itself.) And best of all, as far as I was concerned, it starred Frances McDormand. I didn’t need to know more information than that. I have been huge fan of hers since the film Fargo was released. I’m not going to write a review of Nomandland. There are plenty available. I will say I was completely mesmerised. It’s rare to see an American film that is so beautiful, has so little action, and is completely dependent on the craftsmanship of a superb actor. I highly recommend finding a way to see it.

But this is fantastic!

A bientôt,

Sara

The Pandemic and Depression

Last week, I was speaking to a friend in the US. She confessed how depressed she has been this winter and that, for the first time in many years, her doctor raised the dosage of her anti-depressant medication. In her discussion with him, he told her that therapists/psychologists/psychiatrists of every type are extremely concerned about the soaring rates of depression and anxiety during this Winter of Covid-19. I had read in the Guardian that it was one year since Tom Hanks and his wife, Rita Wilson, had been diagnosed with Covid-19; that because he is who he is–a much loved and admired actor, their illness made it real for everyone, brought the reality home to the world that we were at war with a killer disease.

In the US, there was so much distraction due to the way the Trump administration wasn’t handling the crisis, and it quickly became so political that the dangers often seemed lost in the conversation. Over here in Europe, the plight of Italy set a bar for how bad things could get quickly and, at first, the rest of Europe looked efficient.

Yet, the reality was no one, politicians and lay persons alike, knew what we were were dealing with. The CDC would make its best guess but Trump was denigrating the experts so often, it was hard to follow. People like me looked back in history as to how and what coronaviruses did. I thought I knew a lot. Even though I predicted many things that came true, there is no way that history can really express what it is like living through something like this minute by minute, day by day, hoping for a light at the end of the tunnel, only to learn of more deadly variants of the virus evolving even as vaccines were made available at record speed. The impact on mental health around the world has been devastating. Millions of deaths, job losses, the lack of human touch, the lockdowns and the anger at governments has created a mental health crisis that may take years to overcome even when the virus passes.

“More than 42% of people surveyed by the US Census Bureau in December reported symptoms of anxiety and depression. That is an increase of 11% from the previous December.” –Nature.com If this is a good cross-section of the US, it means that almost half the population was suffering from mental upset and imbalance.

Limited social interactions leave people distressed. Scientists don’t really know if lockdowns and restrictions on social interaction reduce or exacerbate mental health stress. For me, living in France and trusting Macron and his administration, I felt safe with the chosen preventions. I didn’t even go outside at first, but finally was persuaded by a friend in Germany to walk when I could. Since then, early May 2020, I have walked 2-5 miles a day outside and watched four seasons come and go. I, personally, didn’t feel much anxiety or depression until early January. I spend so much of my life in front of a computer and that didn’t change. But I did get hopes up about getting vaccinated and when the realisation that France was falling behind the US and the UK in vaccinations, my energy holding me together ran out. It didn’t feel like something I could control. I could just feel myself collapse in on myself and the world went blah. That’s when I called my friends in Brittany and asked if I could come out for a visit. I hadn’t intended on staying for over five weeks but, I felt so safe. No Covid on the Côte de Granit Rose. I felt I could breathe again. I had my cat, Bijou, with me and lots of space. For at least 2.5 weeks out of the five, I was alone in the large house with a large kitchen and a view of the sea from almost every window. When the sun shone, it shone with light sparkles popping in the air. The sea would change from deep blues to turquoise. Even low tide with sailboats helplessly lying on the wet dirt looked beautiful to me. OK, getting vaccinated in France was not what it should be or what I wanted, and it was a good possibility I would have to wait another four to six months but there was no virus so it all felt ok.

Now I’m home in Paris. Time being the strange thing that it is, Brittany is already a memory, a wonderful dream. They say that the virus is rising in Paris and no one agrees on vaccines. Are they here? how to get an appointment? (Since writing this, I have made an appointment for a first jab! If it actually happens, I will tell more about it.) But all depression and anxiety is gone. Paris is still beautiful even though I only see a small part of it. There are more people on my block than I saw in all of Perros last month. Most are still wearing masks. I will move far away when I see someone without a mask. It only made me unhappy to rant inside at the person who didn’t wear their mask. And best of all, none of my plants died while I was away and my iPhone says sun next week.

Under the circumstances, life looks pretty good from my perspective. So how to help my friends who don’t have a Brittany to run away to when the blues grab them by the throat. How to remind them that “This too shall pass”. It always does. But depression is a tricky monster. It doesn’t just go away because, in your mind, you know things will get better. It’s an awful disease. My friend who confessed her depression to me also got Covid this winter. She is well and she has been vaccinated, two jabs. But I wonder now about the after effects of the virus. She had it quite seriously. She wasn’t hospitalised but she couldn’t get out of bed or eat for days.

There is still so much to learn as we enter our second year of Life with a Virus. How have others weathered this storm? If you feel comfortable doing so, please let us know in the comments section. Even though we must socially distance, it is important to know we aren’t alone in what we feel, in what we experience. So please share the good and the bad.

A bientôt,

Sara