Le Parc de Versailles

Last week, I took my second longer-than an hour-excursion away from home. It was the last day of the 10km boundary for us in France, meaning that unless there was an extremely important reason we could not venture further than 10 km (about 6 miles) from home. And we had to be back by 7pm which is curfew. On Monday, the restriction was lifted and we can now go anywhere within France without an attestation. On Sunday, I traveled by train and car thirty kilometers but no one was checking. In fact, I’ve not seen any police checking anyone in the six weeks since the semi-confinement started.

The terrace of Angelina’s Cafe on the broad tree-lined dirt roads within the park.

I took the RER A out to Saint Germain-en-Laye where Barbara picked me up and drove us to the Parc de Versailles. “Situated to the west of the palace, the gardens cover some 800 hectares of land, much of which is landscaped in the classic French formal garden style perfected here by André Le Nôtre. Beyond the surrounding belt of woodland, the gardens are bordered by the urban areas of Versailles to the east and Le Chesnay to the north-east, by the National Arboretum de Chèvreloup to the north, the Versailles plain (a protected wildlife preserve) to the west, and by the Satory Forest to the south.” Wikipedia

Plan of Versailles-both the Park and the Palace with the formal gardens c. 1746

Barbara told me that in the thirty-four years she has lived in or near Paris, she had no idea that this park existed. Everyone knows about the Palace of Versailles, it is one of the top five tourist destinations in Paris. The palace and the formal Versailles Gardens, also designed by Le Nôtre, have been closed since last October; (we are all crossing our fingers that museums and heritage spots will re-open May 19). The park has stayed opened and is accessed by two gates. We parked near Porte de Saint Antoine. We entered on foot, carrying our picnic lunches, to make a day just walking and exploring. Barbara had come the week before so she did the leading and I did the following. We walked a broad dirt road with trees in bloom on either side. After five hundred yards or so, we turned right onto another beautiful, wide dirt road leading towards the Grand Canal. We passed the Petite Trianon and Angelina’s (famous for it’s chocolate) café. The café was open in that one could buy goodies but there were no seating areas inside and the large terrace outside was also closed. As we neared the Grand Trianon, it was time for a bathroom break.

Inside of Angelina’s at Grand Triannon

We were now at the Grand Canal. From the air, the Grand Canal looks like a large cross made of water. “With a length of 1,500 metres and a width of 62 metres, the Grand Canal,[14] which was built between 1668 and 1671, physically and visually prolongs the east–west axis to the walls of the Grand Parc. During the Ancien Régime, the Grand Canal served as a venue for boating parties.”-Wikipedia. We were at the tip of the right arm where we found another closed café. We plotted our walk. It was possible to walk up and down each section next to the water until we returned to where we started. We guessed the round trip might be around 4-5 miles. As we passed the bottom of the cross, we were treated to a view of Versailles Palace and the formal gardens unhampered by tourists. It’s hard to gauge distances when air and water combine but it seemed that right in front of us, as we looked at the palace, was the large pool of the Apollo Fountain “which was constructed between 1668 and 1671, depicting the sun god driving his chariot to light the sky. The fountain forms a focal point in the garden and serves as a transitional element between the gardens of the Petit Parc and the Grand Canal.” Wikipedia. Black and yellow tape as well as a multitude of signs reminded us that all was closed from the now until further notice (which we hope will be May 19!).

The Apollo fountain

We walked up the other side of that arm of the cross. There were runners, families with strollers and dogs, but not a huge number. It is not clear to me whether this park is a secret to even Parisians or just to us ex-Pats who, in our efforts to steer clear of large masses of tourists, have regrettably missed this wonderful playground. It is a place for sporty people as well as families and dog walkers. In non-pandemic days, one can rent a boat and row on the Grand Canal which must be just lovely.

La Flotille–closed cafe

As we rounded the tip of the left arm of the cross, the heavens opened up and…. it hailed! Little tiny pebbles of hail that don’t hurt or bruise like the large, round, ping-pong ball sized pieces of hail do. It’s unusual to see hail in early May. But that line “it’s unusual that….” should probably be thrown out the window with everything that has, in fact, changed since climate trauma is on the rampage. We happened to be under a ceiling of leafy green trees so we put up an umbrella and waited out the hail. We watched two swans completely unbothered by debris falling from the sky. One just floated around majestically. The other would spread her wings and race forward about three yards, at an amazing clip, stop, look around, then do it again. Do swans show off for people? Something to google.

Chateau Versailles from the end of the Grand Canal

When we arrived at the head of the cross, all precipitation had stopped. We found a place to sit on wide steps that led down to an empty, large, round area that clearly was for water. We pulled out our picnic lunches. We could see the Palace in front of us in the distance. We had a lively conversation about the tricks light and water and distance can play on the eye.

For the last leg of our walk, we detoured and walked along the Ru de Gally, a stream and nature trail that starts at the Grand Trianon and ends, 1.3 km later, at the Ferme de Gally. We intersected the trail half-way towards the farm. The farm is a family attraction. Children were petting donkeys. Both regular and petite-size horses stood slowly munching their lunch, and in the distance was a large field of sheep. All along the nature trail are signs describing the type of area that we were walking in detailing the birds, fauna, and little animals that can be found there.

Sign along the ru de Gally letting us know we were at the reed bed.

Making one last pitstop at the toilets, we arrived at the car just as the skies opened up for a second time. This time the rain fell in strong, forceful drops beating on the car the entire way back to the RER A in Saint Germain.

Chateau and Parc c. 1925

“In 1979, the gardens along with the château were inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List, one of thirty-one such designations in France. -Wikipedia

Kate Winslet and Matthias Schoenaerts

In 2014, Alan Rickman made a film called The King’s Gardens or A Little Chaos starring Kate Winslet and Matthias Schoenaerts. It happened to be on TV five days after this excursion and, although mostly fiction, it was fun to see parts of the park I had just been at, and get an idea of the difficulty building these gardens, especially getting water to run twenty-four hours a day. Most of the characters are fictional. A garden much like the one portrayed in the film does exist today at Versailles known as the Salle de Bal.

The wind picking up speed in front of the Grand Trianon

A bientôt,

Sara

Spring arrives in Paris

On Thursday evening, Macron’s government announced on French TV, that there will be a slow lifting of all our restrictions. The 7pm curfew will probably not change for awhile, but the distance that we are allowed to travel will. We’ve been under a “no more than 10km” boundary unless there is a very good reason and one has to carry written proof of that.

Jardin du Ranelagh

The government also said that the lifting of restrictions will depend on where one lives and how rampant the virus is. Possibly in mid-May, we will have restaurants and bars open again but serving outside. Possibly sports events will return. We’ve been told that Roland Garros will definitely take place.

Walking in the Petite Ceinture near my home

The problem as I see it is: Spring is coming to Paris quickly. Now that we’ve changed our clocks, it doesn’t get dark until 9/9:30pm. Yet we have a 7pm curfew. For those who live in the countryside, it’s not as big a problem. They can eat outside, enjoy their outside gardens, and probably visit their neighbours. As a friend of mine said “They aren’t going to send a cop out here where there are ten houses to make sure we are all on our own property.” She is right.

Yesterday I went out walking and only had a light jacket on. It felt exhilarating. This past week, the NYTimes had an article in their Well Section about ‘languishing.’ It’s not a word I use much. The article written by Adam Grant, began “At first, I didn’t recognize the symptoms that we all had in common. Friends mentioned that they were having trouble concentrating. Colleagues reported that even with vaccines on the horizon, they weren’t excited about 2021. A family member was staying up late to watch “National Treasure again even though she knows the movie by heart. And instead of bouncing out of bed at 6 a.m., I was lying there until 7, playing Words with Friends.

It wasn’t burnout — we still had energy. It wasn’t depression — we didn’t feel hopeless. We just felt somewhat joyless and aimless. It turns out there’s a name for that: languishing.https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/19/well/mind/covid-mental-health-languishing.html

Lilac tree in bloom in Jardin du Ranelagh

I’ve been calling it the Blahs. The most exciting thing I do is walk outside for an hour. That is not to say that I don’t love the other things I do. I love to write and write every day. I love to connect with friends and am on Zoom at least once a day. But nothing has touched the feeling of waking up in the morning and hearing the birds, not having to bundle up because it’s cold, and walking outside where the world seems brighter, full of color, warmer, and friendlier. I’m not naive enough to think this is over. I’m with those who are guessing we’ll have a respite in warmer weather and, in the Fall, things will probably get worse. If not earlier. As I write, there is real terror in India as the virus skyrockets. The EU has announced that Americans can visit all countries in Europe this summer. Can they guarantee that no form of the Indian virus will arrive with the tourists? I’m hoping governments are planning on the fact that we will all need booster shots and they will be providing enough vaccines once again.

Store on Av. Mozart selling chairs for enjoying Spring weather on the terrace

With my exhilaration came recurring thoughts of visiting California where I lived before moving to Paris. I still own a home in Oakland. I miss my home. I built it after I lost my home in the 1991 Oakland FireStorm back when devastating fires didn’t happen three or four times a year. I tell anyone who asks that if I could have that home in France, I’d be in heaven. Thoughts of getting on a plane and flying eleven hours to San Francisco–I’m tired already. What does it mean? There are so many things to find out. How do I get back into France, what do I need? What will I do with Bijou? Take her with me or have her stay with a friend or have a friend stay here? I stop daydreaming at about that point. It all seems too complicated. If it weren’t for my friend Barbara, I would probably still be trying to figure out how to get vaccinated.

Bijou enjoying Spring and new buds on my terrace in the 16th

So I think I’ll spend a week or two just enjoying Springtime in Paris! Do my best to not worry about the things I can’t control. The Dalai Lama once said; “If a problem is fixable, if a situation is such that you can do something about it, then there is no need to worry. If it’s not fixable, then there is no help in worrying. There is no benefit in worrying whatsoever.” And maybe, some of you will have some suggestions for me. They say many heads think better than one (well, that’s not quite what they say but, hey, whatever works).

Spring on the Champs de Mars
The epitome of Paris

A bientôt,

Sara

Musings on month thirteen of Covid-19 and the Pandemic

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!

A bientôt,

Sara

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

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

Reminders about “les gestes barrieres” in a train station

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do you? 

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

Vaccinating in French

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

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

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

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

Waiting in line to get into the Vaccination Centre

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

The waiting room once Inside the Vaccination Centre

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

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

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

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

Official poster for Nomadland

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

But this is fantastic!

A bientôt,

Sara

The Pandemic and Depression

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A bientôt,

Sara

The further adventures of Sara and Bijou

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

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

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

Along the shore walking towards the town of Louannec

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

Wednesday morning marche at the port of Perros
Les Fromages

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

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

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

Moon rising over Perros last night

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

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

A bientôt,

Sara

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

GOTV (Get Out The Vote)

A reader asked if I would say something about voting from abroad. I will do my best. What I’ve learned, I learned from Democrats Abroad which is a huge organization. Right now, all the energy of Dems Abroad is focused on making sure that all voters have requested their ballots. We can get them snail-mail or by e-mail. Information, state by state, on voting from abroad can be found at: https://www.votefromabroad.org

As a voter who still votes in California but lives in Paris, it is mandatory for me to register every year. On my on-line registration form, I was asked how I would like to receive my ballot. I asked that mine come by e-mail. I read recently that a good 25% of absentee ballots get thrown out because the voter didn’t do something correctly. Dems Abroad Paris has set up tables with volunteers to help people walk through filling out their ballot step by step. On Sunday, phone lines are open all day long. Volunteers are answering any questions a voter might have.

Unlike voters in the US, we can vote twice. It is a backup ballot known as the Federal Write-In Absentee Ballot (FWAB). Volunteers are set up in two places in Paris to walk people through that process. At the volunteer table, I was given two pieces of paper. I filled out the first with all my pertinent information: what state I vote in, how to identify me and my signature. The second piece of paper is a ballot with only federal offices. I filled that out with my choice of President, Senator (if someone was running), House of Representatives. Once I filled that out, I put it in an envelope and wrote Ballot on the front. I folded up the first piece of paper and, along with the envelope, put it in a second envelope. I addressed that to my Registrar of Voters in Oakland, California.

Why can we vote twice? The back-up vote is opened ONLY if the the absentee ballot doesn’t reach me in time to meet the voting requirements. At the time that I sent in my FWAB, I had not received my ballot. It has since arrived. Since I asked that it come by e-mail, I had to do all my choices on-line. When I was satisfied that it was complete, the program put it onto one piece of paper which I printed. I then went to the Poste and sent it with tracking. Some states allow you send back by e-mail. California only allows fax or snail mail.

I will probably wait three weeks and then go into the website of Alameda County Registrar of Voters. I can put in my name, address, and the end part of my Social Security number and I will get a message if my ballot has arrived. With all that I have heard about the beleaguered postal system, I felt it necessary to allow five weeks for it to arrive on or before Nov. 3.

Dems Abroad Paris is very active. Since we cannot gather inside with more than ten people, all the volunteer tables are outside in front of sympathetic stores. Shakespeare and Co., in the 5th arrondissement, has had volunteers helping Americans vote every Saturday since the beginning of September.

I will finish up this blog by telling you about something that I think is wonderful. On Monday, the website and app, http://www.TenPercent.com (a wonderful tool for learning and practicing mindfulness mediation) created something called The 2020 Election Sanity Guide. Started by Dan Harris of Channel ABC, ten percent will have a podcast each Monday in October and meditations available all the time for those of us whose brains are fried by the onslaught of information, the viciousness of campaigning and the weariness that makes one feel as if this will never end. “This guide will help you stay sane and engaged during the 2020 US Elections, without burning out. There’s something for everyone in the resources below.” says the webpage. And below there are talks and mediations and podcasts and more. Check it out. There will be a daily gift to us for the last seven days before the election. Even if you have never thought about meditation, you will enjoy the talks and podcasts. Dan Harris is funny, irreverant and knowledgeable.

Stay safe, maintain distance, be smart and stay well,

A bientot

Sara

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