France and Vaccinations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A bientôt,

Sara

Postcard from New York

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

                                                                        *

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

***


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

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

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


.

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

A bientôt,

Sara

Slouching towards Inauguration*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sonia Sotomayor

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

A bientôt,

Sara

*apologies to William Butler Yeats

The Second Coming 

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

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

Christmas in Paris

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

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

Champs Elysees

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

Bijou, the cat.

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

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

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

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

A bientôt,

Sara

Reading in Lockdown- Part 2

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

James Baldwin

BOOK POWER
by Gwendolyn Brooks

BOOKS FEED AND CURE AND
CHORTLE AND COLLIDE

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

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

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

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

Maria Popova

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

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

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

A bientôt,

Sara

Confinement Redux

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Around Europe, the numbers are devastating.

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

Wearing masks in Paris on Friday, October 30.

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

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

A bientôt,

Sara

The view from Normandie

As of Saturday, Paris will have a 9pm curfew. So will eight other cities in France. Germany and Ireland are joining the emergency measures to slow down the quickly rising number of cases of Covid-19. Hospitals are at capacity. “Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo called on Parisians to respect the measures and “remain united”. “Faced with the heavy circulation of #Covid-19 in France and in Paris, we must remain united and apply the measures announced by the President of the Republic, even if they are harsh. It is a new ordeal, and we will face it, together and in solidarity with caregivers”, she tweeted.” France24.com. Macron says the second wave is coming on fast.

Maus, the cat!

So, thinking that this might be happening, I left Paris on Tuesday and came to Normandie where my friends live. They are visiting their first born grand-child and I am kitty sitting and housesitting. It is glorious here. The trees are golden and greenish and many bushes are flaming red. The ivy that has crept up the walls of this house is burnt umber, deep maroon and yellow. It is completely quiet. The apple trees have already produced buckets of apples and I get to gather ones that still remain on trees and make apple puree tomorrow. The mornings are crisp and cold. The temperature rises as much as 20o as the sun rises and warms the air. On my morning walk, I see many of the same horses I saw this summer but they are friskier, dancing around, nosing each other and cantering in circles. What a wonderful place to escape the curfew even if just for a few weeks.

In the evenings, I have been watching Netflix. Wednesday night, I watched a documentary called The Social Dilemma. I felt smacked in the gut. I’ve been wary of Facebook for awhile but I post this blog there and I have a Facebook page for my book: Saving Sara. I have tried to learn Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, and it is definitely a younger person’s thing. And now there is Emily in Paris, also on Netflix which is a walking advertisement for Instagram. After watching the documentary last night, I understand why I’m wary of Facebook but now I know I should be scared shitless. Dozens of ex-technologians of Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Uber, Pinterest talk about how what they designed was meant to be fun for all of us but now has turned into a lawless monster that knows EVERYTHING about all of us. It is Big Brother for real. It is the promotion of so much hate and divisiveness. If I sound like I drank the kool-aid, it was not just believable, it all made perfect sense. The documentary illustrated it all with a docudrama of a family in which two children become addicted to their phones. I am in awe of the people who have taken a stand against this worst idea of Capitalism, that the almighty profit is God. There are no laws that govern what these companies can do. Watch this documentary: The Social Dilemma and be scared. https://www.humanetech.com/the-social-dilemma

Thursday night, I watched another documentary called My Octopus Teacher. This documentary is about a filmmaker who forges an unusual friendship with an octopus living in a South African kelp forest, learning as the animal shares the mysteries of her world. It is as feel good as the other is frightening. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3s0LTDhqe5A

The filming is so beautifully done and the connection between the filmmaker and the octopus is told with such love that I found myself falling in love with the octopus also. I laughed and I cried and I was mesmerised. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Last night, I watched The Trial of the Chicago 7. For some reason I thought it was also going to be a documentary but it turned out to be a film made for Netflix by Aaron Sorkin of West Wing fame. If he was trying to make a political statement, it worked for me. I was in Chicago in 1968, the summer of the Democratic Convention but barely remember these events. As this election grows closer, I find myself fearing that awful violence may follow. I remind myself that violence was happening all the time in 1968–most of it instigated by the police. This film tells the story of those days of the Convention in flashbacks. The trial took place after Nixon was elected and he was determined to make an example of the seven Vietnam protestors by sentencing them to prison. As soon as I graduated college in 1969, I left the United States. Both my parents wanted me to stay and join in the protests to end the war. My mother called me a parasite as I was just hitching around Europe not really paying any real attention to the political situation. I was much more interested in sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll.

Sacha Baron Cohen as Abbie Hoffman

When it came to showing the police beating on the crowds with their night sticks, Sorkin put in real footage. It was shocking then and it is shocking now. Fifty years ago and what has changed? The Republicans have gotten craftier and sneakier at winning elections. The Democrats have made an art out of shooting themselves in the foot.

The real Abbie Hoffman.

The acting was superb. Mark Rylance, who played Cromwell in Wolf Hall, was Kunstler, the lawyer defending the 7. Reviewers may not agree with me but his American accent was very good. Sacha Baron Cohen played Abbie Hoffman. I thought he was terrific.

Mark Rylance and Eddie Redmayne as Tom Hayden

And that’s how I’m passing the time in France as I await the election and respect the severity of Covid-19

A bientôt,

Sara

Even the Republican ‘skinny’ relief bill failed. How is such unnecessary suffering justified?

The following is a repost from The Guardian, September 14. It is still timely. And I’m a bit more than biased about the quality of the writing as the author is my sister. Enjoy.

Margaret Somers

Republicans shouldn’t be immune from being called out for their inconsistency. Let’s not forget they once said cutting taxes on the wealthy would incentivize them to work harderMitch McConnell’s sounded ‘all but liberated from any more pressure to show compassion before the election’ after the failure of the ‘skinny’ Covid-19 relief bill.Mitch McConnell’s sounded ‘all but liberated from any more pressure to show compassion before the election’ after the failure of the ‘skinny’ Covid-19 relief bill. Photograph: Michael Brochstein/Sopa Images/Rex/ShutterstockMon 14 Sep 2020 08.44 EDT

The 31 million Americans struggling with unemployment today are not a whit less desperate and fearful now that Mitch McConnell’s “skinny” Covid-19 relief bill failed to pass the US Senate. Thursday’s performative theatrics did little more than provide cover to vulnerable Republicans and add one more day to the now six weeks since Senate Republicans refused to extend the extra $600 in Covid-related weekly jobless benefits. With McConnell sounding all but liberated from any more pressure to show compassion before the election, and the media’s attention pinned to shinier Trumpian objects, it is even more imperative to refocus on the crisis at hand and to dig beneath the hollow excuses for such demonstrable indifference on the part of lawmakers. It is time to find an answer to the question: how is such unnecessary suffering justified?The danger is now clear: Trump is destroying democracy in broad daylightJonathan FreedlandRead more

According to the Republicans, the aid is “too generous” and “disincentivizes” the unemployed from seeking work. So perverse are the effects of these benefits, they argue, that it is actually workers gaming the system who are slowing the economic recovery, not the Covid-driven loss of millions of jobs.

That these charges persist despite significant evidence to the contrarytestifies to the power of the conservative creed that few things in life are more perilous than excess government compassion: “unearned” income such as unemployment benefits perversely undermines recipients’ self-discipline and willingness to work, leaving them even worse off. It is a self-evident truth of human nature, conservatives avow, that relieving the suffering of those in need induces dependence and indolence, whereas deprivation incentivizes labor.Advertisementhttps://tpc.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html

Here’s the secret sauce: since that which is “self-evident”, such as ideas about human nature, can be neither proved nor disproved, such truths are conveniently immune to debunking evidence. Thus they persist.

They should not, however, be immune from being called out for their stunning inconsistency. In 2017 these same Republicans trumpeted a radically different truth about human nature when they pronounced that cutting taxes on the wealthy would incentivize them to work harder, invest more and spur rapid economic growth.

But how is it that extra money incentivizes the rich to become paragons of moral virtue and economic rainmakers, whereas for working people it incentivizes them to become social parasites and economic saboteurs? How can there be one human nature for the 1%, and another for the rest of us?

It’s a question too rarely asked. So deeply rooted in Anglo-American political culture is this bifurcated view of human nature that it’s treated almost like natural law. In fact, it’s a product of history, originally designed to solve a problem not unlike our own, and tied to the early capitalist need for a new industrial workforce.

In the last decades of the 18th century, the English upper classes revolted against the tax burden of the centuries-old system of poor relief – so named not because it was welfare but because “the poor” were simply those who had to work for a living. As protection against cyclical structural unemployment, its recipients bore no stigma, and access to its benefits was considered a right.

When the need for jobless benefits escalated under the pressures of early industrialization, angry taxpayers found an advocate in Thomas Malthus, who turned centuries of social policy on its head by asserting that poverty was caused not by systemic unemployment but by government assistanceitself. Providing the template for today’s Steve Mnuchins and Lindsey Grahams, he explained that aid to the jobless perversely incentivized them not to seek work.

Malthus based his argument on a novel view of human nature: society consisted of two “races”: property owners and laborers. While the first embodied the high morality of Enlightenment rationality, the latter were not moral actors but motivated only by their biological instincts. When hungry, they were industrious; when full, they lazed. They did little more than think through their bodies.

As in the natural world, maintaining chronic scarcity was the necessary motor of the whole system. Since the pangs of hunger alone disciplined the poor to work, if you remove that scarcity by “artificial” means – and nothing was more artificial than government assistance – the incentive to work dissolves. But it was not enough to simply abolish public assistance, although Malthus is rightfully credited for his role in doing just that. He also railed apocalyptically against reducing scarcity through charity. Society’s very future depended on the unemployed being fully exposed to the harsh discipline of the labor market.

Malthus’s enduring contribution to social policy was thus to make hunger the virtuous suffering that underpins a productive workforce, and “too much” the virtuous luxury that unleashes the social contributions of the rich. Armed with these two views of humanity – the rich depicted as noble paragons, the poor as inherently indolent and parasitic – conservative social policy continues to declaim the unfounded “truth” that a strong economy depends on inflicting pain on workers while providing government largesse to the rich.

The most recent iteration began with Reagan’s massive tax cuts in tandem with his attacks on “welfare queens”. It continued through the derisive conservative trope of “makers and takers” to Mitt Romney’s infamous “47%” of “entitled” “tax shirkers” to former House speaker John Boehner’s 2014 claim that the jobless think “I really don’t have to work … I’d rather just sit around” to today’s tax-cutting Republicans, who announced that they will extend jobless benefits “over our dead bodies”.

To be sure, today’s policymakers would be hard pressed to name the Malthusian roots of their belief in the perils of compassion. But that makes it no less urgent to expose their policies as based on nothing more than historical fiction. For there is a darker message lurking within this view of human nature: Reducing working people to their bodily instincts robs them of their moral worth and, as we know from how our “essential” workers have been treated, makes them utterly disposable.

  • Margaret Somers is Professor of Sociology and History, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Her most recent book, co-authored with Fred Block, is The Power of Market Fundamentalism: Karl Polanyi’s Critique (Harvard, 2016)

A blur of days….that became weeks

When I first understood that Covid-19 was real, deadly, and had become a pandemic, I challenged myself to write this blog twice a week. I wanted to keep a record of the reported events in the USA and France and how each county was responding to the information. I also wanted to record my own responses to both the information and how people in general were handling such upsetting news. I got off to a good start. Then, on May 1, my computer broke down. I had to use my iPad to write my blogs and it took me twice as long, sometimes even longer. My blog went to once a week. After two months, my new computer arrived. Then it was July and summer had arrived in France. I took my restful vacations which I have previously described. If I was lucky, the blog came out every other week.

In the beginning of September, every time I sat down to write a blog, whatever idea I had become old news. It takes two or three days to write a blog–first in draft form, finding good photos, revising it and then hitting send. But events happen faster than I can think. Annie Lamott, the great essayist and author from Northern California, advises writers to carry around index cards and write one’s ideas on them. So I have many index cards that say ‘The Postal Service in the US’, ‘Covid cases rising in France’, ‘GOTV (Get Out The Vote)’, ‘Voter suppression’, ‘new rules in France re: Covid’, ‘Black Lives Matter’, ‘Trump won’t agree to leave White House if he loses’,etc, etc. It feels like things happen so fast and I have no energy to write as I lick my virtual wounds from the incessant bombardment of ‘news’.

Then I got sick. First, I just had aches at the base of my neck. Each day, they grew more painful. A friend, a doctor, suggested I might need a chiropractor, that I might be getting some problem with my spine. After five days of the aches circling my neck, I starting blowing my nose and recognised the signs of what I call my yearly “terrible cold.” I went straight to bed and slept or I curled up on my couch watching old BBC mysteries on YouTube. I woke up in the middle of that first night and thought “this could be Covid-19. It’s not the classic symptoms but they say it can mimic most anything.” So I hauled myself to the computer and e-mailed my doctor’s office telling her how sick I was. I knew that she wouldn’t want me coming in but where and how could I get tested? About three hours later, I received a response with a Google map of laboratories that were screening with the caveat that there might be long lines and possible waits of up to five days for a result. I could barely sit up for ten minutes much less get myself up and out to stand in a long line.

Thus started about 60 hours of feeling incredibly sorry for myself. I wrote some friends and said how sick I was and that it was actually quite scary not knowing if I might have the virus. With two exceptions, they wrote back: “sorry you aren’t feeling well, hope you are better in the morning.” Whaat?? I just told you I’m scared and maybe I have the virus and that’s all you have to say to me. More ammunition for Poor Me. Three days passed. I didn’t hear from my doctor and I still didn’t know anything. I would run down the classic Covid symptoms in my head. I didn’t have a fever, I hadn’t lost my sense of taste or smell, my cough didn’t go into my lungs or chest. If we weren’t in a pandemic, I would have had no doubt that I just had a bad cold. But being the extraordinary times that we live in, I didn’t want to be so arrogant as to be sure of anything.

By the fourth day of being scared, angry, sorry for myself and having no one to really talk to, my friend Barbara started hounding me with calls. “Are you alright? Has your doctor called? Please call me and tell me how you are?” I had stopped looking at e-mails and voice mails cuz it hurt too much. But there was another part of me that wanted to punish people for not caring enough, for not realising how scared I was. I woke up in the middle of the night, realising how childish I was being and texted Barbara with the latest. The latest being that I had gotten the name of another doctor from two women that I respect. I couldn’t get an appointment until the following week.

By the sixth day, I was feeling better. I wasn’t sleeping the entire day but I was staying put in my apartment. I had developed a new respect for this virus. Before I got sick, I was following all the guidelines but I didn’t know anyone who had gotten seriously ill and died. Other than seeing others in masks, the world seemed somewhat ordinary. The virus had become political and that’s how I thought of it. Getting sick, living alone, feeling such fear changed my perspective completely. I still didn’t know if I had the virus but I was definitely on the mend. But could I be around others?

Two weeks after I had first gotten the neck aches, I headed for a laboratory. I had a book with me, a magazine, my journal and was ready to spend hours waiting in line if that was what would happen. About three blocks from my home, I passed three women waiting in a socially distanced line. I looked up and the building said Mozart Laboratoire….I asked one of the women if they were doing the screening and she said yes. So I stood in line with them. Fifty-five minutes later, I walked out having had the screening and been given instructions on how to get the results the next day. It took that long because I had arrived at lunch hour and half the waiting time was for the staff to return from lunch. If I had known that there was a lab three blocks away would I have been able to drudge up the energy to get tested earlier? Probably not but …. those questions that have no answers. My doctor still hadn’t called or written to see how I was. She wasn’t going to hear from me either.

The next day I got a negative test result. The following day, I met my new doctor and, today, almost four weeks since I first started getting sick, I’m feeling human. I’ve been trying to build up energy and I’ve been thinking a lot. Between the guidelines of staying safe and well because of the pandemic, the craziness of the politics and the closeness of the election; between the fears of being sick, living alone and the fears of post-election days, it’s not possible for a body not to be under tremendous stress. Only it’s probably built up slowly and I certainly didn’t think I was any more stressed than usual. The fact that I stayed sick so long is certainly proof otherwise. These are not just strange and extraordinary times, these are vulnerable and dangerous times. Healthwise, it’s incumbent upon us to maintain as good physical health as we possibly can. Mentally and emotionally, it’s a balancing act of paying attention, taking action without getting swept up into the vortex of total insanity that is the United States these days. And the UK isn’t far behind.

If I wasn’t black and blue enough already, RBG had to go and die. It makes one wonder if there is a God and if there is, what is the plan. I heard someone say in a meditation class “Here we are in this thing called Life. How do we do it with kindness and love?” Kindness and love. Those two things seem so far away from the world that is happening. But it’s as good an approach as any that I can think of to approach each day not knowing what zinger the news will bring us. Not knowing if indeed October will bring on a second wave that will be fiercer than the first. Not knowing who will be left standing by the end of November no matter which candidate wins. Kindness and love.

A bientôt,

Sara

Giverny Revisited

A short drive of one hour (or a train ride of 50 minutes from Gare Saint-Lazare) takes one to the small village of Giverny whose main attraction is the Monet Gardens and Home. Two summers ago, I spent a week in the hills just above Giverny. I had the great good fortune to visit Monet’s gardens every morning before tourists arrived, and in the early evening after the tourists had left. As far as beauty went, it was a breathtaking week that has lingered in my mind.

In the hills looking down on Giverny and the Seine

I went with an art group even though I was hoping for writing inspiration. I was half-way through my book that was published in May. We stayed at La Réserve, a maison d’hôtes (bed and breakfast), that is hosted by Valerie and Francois Jouyet (www.giverny-lareserve.com). The group leaders stayed in a separate cottage, called a gîte, that has a spacious living room/dining room, well-equipped kitchen and, I was sure, some very nice bedrooms. I stored all this in the back of my mind and vowed that I would return someday and rent the cottage.

Monet’s water lily pond

Not wanting to get on a plane, this summer, to go anywhere, I decided to make all my summer travels close to Paris, easy to get to, and a place of both beauty and rest. In June, I went to Brittany. In July, I went to Normandie. And last week, as a birthday treat to myself, I, and two friends, rented the cottage at La Réserve and stayed for a whole week.

Map of Monet’s home, gardens, water lily pond

I have written about Giverny and the gardens before and won’t repeat myself. This year, being the strange and extraordinary year it has been, going to Monet’s gardens in August didn’t seem like a silly idea. There would probably be no Americans, no Japanese and no Chinese. That group alone makes up for 75% of the visitors on any given day in July or August pre-pandemic. We didn’t know what to expect but this whole time since February 7 has been an adventure of not knowing, so we were game for anything.

Water lily pond

After an hour’s drive from the suburbs of Paris, we arrived at La Réserve on a Wednesday. We were greeted by Valerie who was kind enough to say she remembered me. She walked us over to the cottage. I was delighted. It was better than I remembered. Large bedrooms with double beds, an en-suite bathroom in each bedroom; and a grill outside the back door. We had a private garden with a picnic table for evening dining. I remembered strong Wi-Fi but this time it wasn’t to be. No one ever figured out what was wrong but for most of the week, we were without internet. Once I accepted that, the week took on a even calmer atmosphere: disconnected from the world of Zoom but seeing people everyday in the form of my two friends, and whoever we met on our many walks traipsing up and down the hills surrounding Giverny.

View of the side of La Réserve

As with most museums in Paris and France, during the time of Covid-19, one has to make a reservation to get into Monet’s gardens. I was told that they were letting in 350 people an hour which is about 4000 less people a day than earlier summers. We were to come on time and queue up at a door that I had no idea existed. As we showed our tickets, a young woman asked us to hold out our hands for the sanitising spray of disinfectant. The path from the door opened onto the steps going down to the small tunnel that leads to the water-lily pond. Large green arrows marked the way, and there was no doubt that one followed the arrows, no exceptions. So, like a long snake winding it’s body around the entire pond, we walked slowly, single and double file, with no distance between us and the people ahead. If we stopped to look at anything and talk about it, it was easy. No jumping up and down to see over someone’s head or ducking under an armpit to get closer to a view of the beautiful water-lilies that were open and happy to be seen. It seemed like a lot of people but it really wasn’t.

Some Fall color creeping in

One round of the pond was all that was allowed, and then we were escorted across the road to the house gardens. The colors were just starting to turn an orange and a brown. The nasturtiums in the Allée des Roses had all been cut back and the allée was now a large pathway. It was blocked off as was much of those paths that meander around the house gardens. Again we followed the green arrows and ended up in another queue to enter the home. It’s been years since I had been in the house. Crowds make me very uncomfortable and every other time I’d been there, people packed the house like sardines. Not this time. This time, I got to appreciate how spacious the house is and how fortunate Monet was to have become so well-known long before his death. He had the means to create what so many of us are enjoying 120 years later. He loved and was inspired by Japanese art. Part of his upstairs art collection is a large selection of Japanese paintings and prints that hang on many of the walls. The upstairs consists of three bedrooms, two ‘bathrooms” (I’m not sure what they were called back then), two staircases, windows in every room opening onto the gardens and, also, many paintings done by his friends: Cezanne, Pissaro, Renoir, Sisley and others. The yellow and blue dining room and the blue-tiled kitchen are spectacular and one can only dream of dining there in such company.

Monet’s dining room

Down the pedestrian walkway is the Musée d’Impressionisms. It used to be a museum for American painters that came to Giverny but sometime in the last ten years, it switched over to the museum it is today. Expositions, that are often fascinating, are installed once or twice a year. Two years ago, the expo was of the Japanese influence on many of the Impressionist painters. Paintings, Japanese and French, hung side by side to demonstrate what words on the walls were explaining to us. This time, it was Impressionists along the rivers and beach heads of Normandie. Two rooms were devoted to Hiramatsu Reiji, a Japanese painter who is clearly influenced by Monet. From his work, one can tell that he loves the gardens and Monet’s prolific work. He has produced some very beautiful pieces that included painting on canvas and on screens. I don’t believe he would be considered an Impressionist so it was a bit puzzling why he was there. I wasn’t complaining. His work is breathtaking.

Painted screen – Hiramatsu Reiji

One evening, we attended a chamber concert held in the museum. We were very lucky. We had been told that we could buy tickets at the entrance on the same evening. When we arrived, the women checking off names, laughed saying the concerts had been sold out months ago. With social distancing, an auditorium that was built to sit 270 people, was now sitting 78 or so. She said we could wait if we wanted to take our chances. I was positive we would get in. There are always some people who are no-shows. Indeed, we did get in, and heard two pianos play dance music from Westside Story (Leonard Bernstein), music for strings and piano playing Porgy and Bess and Rhapsody in Blue (George Gershwin). There was also Samuel Barber and Prokofiev but if it had only been the first three pieces, I would have been extremely happy. It was a highlight of my week.

Our last night at La Reserve. Sunset over the main house.

Every evening, we walked back to our cottage at La Réserve and grilled fish, meat, veggie burgers, corgettes, bell peppers, tomatoes, and eggplant. We ate outside watching the light of August slowly eep away as the days were getting shorter. Our last evening, we witnessed a remarkable sunset. I had been reading about the many California fires and, to me, it seemed the sky was on fire. It was that dramatic. The reds, oranges, whites, yellows and purples danced and flew as if they were on stage. One minute it would get darker then, suddenly, it was lighter again. The clouds swirled. As they moved further away from the sun, the white clouds appeared as mountains with red caps or orange at their feet. We stood watching for a good fifteen minutes. It was our final art expo of the week, gratis via nature.

Sara, well and truly masked, enjoying Monet’s water lily pond
Terrace at Hotel Baudy
Saturday marché in Vernon (4 km from Giverny)

A bientôt,

Sara