I belong to a writing group of women. Most of the group reside in the United States. Four of us live in different parts of Europe. For the past year, people have often written intimately and eloquently about dealing with issues of Covid-19, Lockdown, their fears and their responses to the situation in each of our countries. I read my peers’ thoughts about Covid being politicised in the US with sympathy and empathy. From everything I read, we had it much better here in France.
Now the tables have completely turned. Here in Paris, we are in our third week of a six week third lockdown. Even schools have been closed. Non-essential stores are shut – although the definition of essential has broadened to include bookstores and hair salons. The US members of my writing group are sharing their hopes and fears as they move more into feeling some kind of end to this scary time in our lives. One talked about being so excited about a trip to see a daughter, others have written about eating in restaurants. People are going to baseball games. When one member shared that she was going to have a manicure later in the day, I felt like she and I were living in two different universes.
I have been fortunate in that I’ve been able to travel within France but it was not to visit or to vacation. It was to go somewhere that I felt safer from the virus. Since January, the cases here in Paris have been skyrocketing. Yesterday, hospitals were at 150.5% capacity. There were 153 new ICU cases just in Île de France. I was very fortunate to have gotten my first vaccination mid-March. I will get my second one this Monday. France is finally getting its act together and the vaccination program is charging full force ahead. As of today, over 10 million people have been vaccinated. That is 1/8th of the country. I suspect that in six months, we will all be needing a booster shot. Over a week ago, all of France joined Paris in the third lockdown. The curfew is still at 7pm-6am with hefty fines if one is out and cannot produce a valid attestation for why one isn’t at home. During the day, we can exercise, go grocery shopping, or go to the Library without an attestation.
When I read my friends’ writings, I get this sense of the world opening up for them, hope of a new way of life emerging, a sense of the worst being behind them. Whereas, I feel much more negative, that masks and social distancing, and fear of the virus and its variants will be with us for a long time to come. If I want to go out, I think very carefully about how important is it? I have friends who feel much freer to leave home and come into Paris and visit with friends so many don’t feel the way I do. But I think most of us do know we are in a very different place than the United States.
I read the New York Times and the Guardian every morning. CDC experts in both countries are warning people not to get too lackadaisical about all the safety measures that have been in place for thirteen months. The Travel section in the Times today reported that more people in the US were doing domestic travel but that cases of the virus were on the upswing also. And I noticed, that for me, it is easier to stay prudent when the weather is grey, cold, and rainy as it is today. Thursday, when the sun was out and it was warm, anyone traveling through Paris would not have believed we were in Confinement.
This is not leading to any conclusion. Everyone seems to have differing opinions of what is happening, where we are in the life of this particular pandemic. I would love to know how others are feeling about whatever is happening in their country and whether you are contrasting it to any other country.
Stay connected, stay safe and, for goodness sake, stay healthy!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!!
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.”
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.
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.
I met a lovely woman, Marlena Maduro Baraf, through my publishers SheWrites 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:
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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!
*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
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.
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.
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.
“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.”
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.
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.