The Intention of Kindness

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Tom Hanks has been around as long as I can remember. I first saw him in the movie Splash (1984). He’d been in a TV sitcom for two years before but that was back in the days when I never watched TV so I wasn’t aware of him. Then he was a leading man with women like Meg Ryan. I wasn’t sure I understood, but the movies were always good, and I didn’t question casting choices. I remember when he suddenly became ‘a son of Oakland, Ca ‘because he had lived in Oakland and, for a brief time in his young life, gone to Skyline High School. Then he played a washed-up, hard drinking baseball legend coaching a girl’s team in A League of Their Own (1992). Loving baseball as I did, I fell in love with him and, from then on, if Tom Hanks was in a movie, I went to see it.

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Then I was middle-aged and Hanks was middle aged. He’d been married to Rita Wilson since 1988 (they have 2 children), and there had never once been a scandal associated with him. At some point, we both had graying hair and I realized that I had watched the rise and staying power of a true Hollywood giant. Last year, he and wife, Rita, caught Covid-19 on a visit to Australia. They went public with it, they were honest about how horrible it was, and I’m sure the rest of the world besides myself were praying for their recovery.

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(L-R): Tom Hanks, wife Rita Wilson, and Julia Roberts stand on Wilson’s newly unveiled star after she was honored on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in Hollywood,, California on March 29, 2019. (Photo by Mark RALSTON / AFP) (Photo credit should read MARK RALSTON/AFP via Getty Images)

Today, needing an escape from the chatter in my head, I went looking for a movie to watch, and up popped A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (2019), a movie I’d wanted to see but it hadn’t come to Paris as far as I know. Within ten minutes, I was once again thinking with awe about Hanks, his acting, and his amazing career. But mostly what appears to me to be his humility. Mr. Rogers wasn’t around when I was growing up and I don’t believe I have ever seen a single episode. I’ve seen enough paradies to know that there is a chunk of America that is too cynical to think he was for real. As the movie started, I was one of those people. I thought to myself, “only Tom Hanks could pull this off.” Twenty minutes later, I was a Mr. Rogers cheerleader (Fred Rogers died in 2004 at the age of 74).

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The movie A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is based on the friendship of Fred Rogers and journalist, Tom Junod . Mr. Junod wrote a wonderful essay for Esquire magazine, published in 1998. If you are interested, I encourage you to see the movie first, then read the article. It was re-published in 2017. It is a remarkable piece of writing.

People like Mr. Rogers are unique and exceedingly rare. People who want the world to be a better place. They are people who remember what it is like to be a child. Usually these people who know that it all starts with how one treats children, your own and everyone else’s, become therapists, buddhist monks, writers of children’s books, but to create and sustain a TV show that lasted from 1968-2001 and never veered off-course is an amazing feat. And that the great Tom Hanks can bring him to life for someone like me shows the talent of a truly gifted actor.

Tom Hanks and wife Rita Wilson in Australia, after surviving Coronavirus

Usually someone has to do something bad, create a scandal, be a Republican, to have one’s name in the papers and become famous or infamous. But Mr. Rogers and Tom Hanks share in common being famous for being kind. They are quiet presences in our lives. They go about doing their jobs. They don’t seem to need to create buzz and bring attention to themselves. I don’t know how they do it. At one point in the movie, the protaganist, Lloyd Vogel (based on Tom Junod) asks Mrs Rogers what it is like being married to a saint. She looks at him and says “I hate it when people call him that. He is human. He gets angry, sometimes really angry. He practices at being (the man you see). He swims. Every morning.” So, in fact, I do know how they do it, they practice. I have learned late in life that doing the right thing does take practice. It certainly doesn’t come naturally to me. I have a rock in the back yard of my home in Oakland that says ‘May I be the person my dog thinks I am.’ There was a time I thought that was unattainable. Now I think ‘May I be the person I know I’m capable of being….if I practice at it every day.’

Mr. Rogers, left, and Tom Hanks

Every once in a while, something passes in front of each one of us that reminds us that there are still people out there trying their best to make the world a little bit kinder. They aren’t praying for World Peace. They are putting into action small steps that will impact their “neighborhood”. Many of us hope that the Hundreth Monkey theory really exists and that one day…. Meanwhile, this author is forever grateful for the inspiration of Fred Rogers and Tom Hanks to remind me that one little action today, an intention of kindness, will make a difference …. to someone.

A bientôt,

Sara

PS–a small Tom Hanks movie that may have gotten lost in this year of the amazing availability of streaming shows is News of the World on Netflix. I watched it in February and was glad to see that it received a number of Oscar nominations. But I heard no buzz. So I’m buzzing now!

https://time.com/5733017/a-beautiful-day-in-the-neighborhood-true-story/

What is happening in Paris today?

As many of you know, (and if you love and miss Paris, you are probably paying attention), today, May 19th begins the second phase of the ‘déconfinement’ that began for some establishments last October. For Parisians, the most important thing happening is that terraces will open for cafés and restaurants. The minute it was announced, I noticed chairs and tables being moved outside in preparation. Some two weeks ago. One café that I pass every day on my walk built a new terrace. Everyone will need umbrellas. It has been raining on and off almost every day for two weeks. And it’s chilly. I’m actually getting used to this. People talk about Springtime in Paris but in the eight springtimes that I have lived here, there may be a burst of warm weather in February, March or April, but nothing permanent until early June. Then we’ll have three days of Spring and voilà, it will be summer with the canacules (heatwaves) just around the corner.

Preparation for May 19

Our 7pm curfew will become a 9pm curfew starting tonight. It has been tough. Unless one has an extremely urgent reason for being out on the streets after 7pm, we were to be at home. Last night, it wasn’t dark until just after 10pm. I am fortunate, I have a large lovely terrace with some wonderful plants on it. So I can be outside in nice weather. But there is something glorious about walking in Paris, along the Seine, in the evening. Especially as the lights turn on and are reflected in the water. Not that any of us have seen that scenario much in the past 15 months but we can dream! And there is the possibility that it lies in our future.

Just before 7pm during the semi-Confinement

All stores will open today. Clothing stores have been closed as have been everything considered non-essential. Hair salons are essential, nail salons are not. There will probably be a queue around the block at my nail salon. According to The Local in France, there will be strict limitations of how many people inside a store at one time so we are advised to also expect queues at popular small stores. I have received e-mails from every department store including Monoprix Hyper and Carrefour to let me know that many of my favorite things will be at a 30-40% discount. Especially linen clothing which is so popular here in the summer.

A member of staff serves a customer at a cafe in Paris on May 19, 2021, as cafes, restaurants and other businesses re-opened after closures during the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic. – Parisians have returned to their beloved cafe terraces and museums after a six-month Covid-forced hiatus, a glimmer of normal life resuming but India grappled with a record daily number of coronavirus deaths. (Photo by GEOFFROY VAN DER HASSELT / AFP)

Museums, theatres, and cinemas will also open today, and also be under strict guidelines of the number of people allowed inside. As was true last summer, everyone is advised to buy tickets in advance especially at popular museums. With France open to tourists of many countries starting June 6, Parisians are well advised to get to museums now while there is still a chance of not getting lost in a crowd even a small crowd.

More from the Local: “Outdoor sporting activities will again be allowed (also on the condition that they respect specific health rules). Sports stadiums can reopen with a limit of 800 spectators in indoor spaces and 1,000 in outdoor venues.

Gatherings of up to 10 people will be allowed in public spaces (up from six currently). There is no actual rule on gatherings in indoor private spaces such as homes, but the guidance is to keep groups limited to six adults.

Spas can also reopen for cures thermales – spa treatments prescribed by a doctor (yes, that is a thing in France and sometimes the State will even pay for it) but not for the general public.”

A member of staff serves a customer at a cafe in Paris on May 19, 2021, as cafes, rest0rants and other businesses re-opened after closures during the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic. – Parisians have returned to their beloved cafe terraces and museums after a six-month Covid-forced hiatus, a glimmer of normal life resuming but India grappled with a record daily number of coronavirus deaths. (Photo by Lucas BARIOULET / AFP)

The UK opened up from lockdown Monday. Johnson has been greatly criticised for allowing flights and travel from India. Health officials are warning people to still be very cautious. France has not allowed flights from India but starting today, travel between the UK and France is opening up. So I’m guessing the same warnings would apply to us. The Indian variant of Covid is said to be very dangerous. On the other hand, health officials are saying that those who have the Phizer vaccine and the AstraZenica vaccine have had a 99% anti-body build up after 14 days and the second vaccine. That is better than advertised.

A medical worker wearing protective equipment uses a swab to do a PCR test for Covid-19 on a woman wearing a face mask in front of the city hall of Paris on August 31, 2020. (Photo by ALAIN JOCARD / AFP)

OK, and here is the very best thing for all of you thinking of traveling over here this summer. Again, according the Local.fr “France is one of the only countries to offer free PCR tests – which can cost up to €120 in Spain, £100 in the UK and €300 in Sweden – to residents for all purposes, including travel. But now that is being extended to tourists who visit the country over the summer. The French government hopes the free testing will make the country an attractive tourist destination, and will also allow it to welcome back tourists while staying safe.  Announcing the new policy, Europe Minister Clément Beaune told radio station Europe 1: “We need and we want to continue to be the first tourist destination in Europe and the world, in safe conditions.” https://www.thelocal.fr/20210517/france-to-offer-free-pcr-tests-to-tourists-and-visitors-this-summer/

What is still to come in this multi-phased ‘déconfinement’? June 9th The curfew is pushed back further, to 11pm. Gyms reopen (with health rules and limits on the number of people allowed in at the same time). Cultural or sporting events with up to 5,000 people will be allowed, but on the condition that participants provide a health pass proving that recently tested negative for Covid-19 or have been vaccinated for the virus.

And sad news: The square in front of Cathedrale de Notre Dame has been closed due to fears of lead poisoning. The best place to glimpse the front of Notre Dame is on the bridge that is closest. However, if you want to see all of Notre Dame, where the work is happening recontructing the spire and everything that was not destroyed by the fire, it is best to walk eastward along the Quai on the left bank. You will have better and better views of the side and the back. Breathtaking views.

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

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

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.

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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? 

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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.

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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

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

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

Pays d’Auge, Normandie

I spent the last eleven days visiting friends in Normandie. They live south of the city of Lisieux which is the centre of the Auge area. Forty-five minutes north are the beach towns of Honfleur, Trouville, Deauville, Huelgate and Cabourg, known as the “Côte Fleurie”. The Auge is lush, green, well-known for its cheeses, especially Camembert cheese named after the small village of Camembert, and apple products. The famous cider is made in Brittany but the Auge also has cider and Calvados.

The hilly landscape of the Auge area of Normandie.

The area I was staying in is also known for its stud farms. From my bedroom window, as far as the eye could see, were hilly pastures with horses everywhere. The horses are usually raised for racing. Did you know that horses have higher body temperature than humans? Therefore, they attract flies that descent on them in the heat and, to me, look unbearable. Many are given bonnets for their heads so that everything but eyes, nose, and mouth is covered. I even saw a few horses that were completely blanketed to keep off the flies. They don’t get fleas but they attract other miserable bugs just like humans and other animals during the summer.

Mother and foul at a neighboring haras

My hosts and I were inventing a new form of house exchange. Before the pandemic, I loved exchanging my home in California for different places to stay in France. I always say yes to French people if at all possible. And often, we have non-reciprocal stays. Before my friends went to California last summer, they were in Paris, called me and asked if I’d like to meet up. We had coffee at La Rotonde in La Muette. We hit if off immediately, promising to see more of each other once they had returned to France. Off they went to California while I finished my book and got it published. I was looking forward to spending extended time in Normandie while they were away this summer. Then Covid-19 happened to all of us. They didn’t go away but did encourage me to come stay there even though they were also there. House Exchange Covid style.

Sunset from Lessard

Their home is an old Haras (stud farm) that still has all the stables which are rented out in the winter when it is too chilly for the horses to stay outside overnight. They converted the infirmary into a huge, enviable kitchen with a dining room and massive fireplace. Each evening, we would gather in the kitchen–whoever was there (I brought two friends with me for the first four nights), and start dinner. We’d sit down to eat anywhere between 8:15 and 10pm then clean up before I’d go to bed. The kitchen and dinner time are sacred and worthy of a top-notch production. The protein was marché bought but most of the vegetables were grown in their garden. We feasted on corgette, green beans, purple beans that turn green when cooked!, heavenly cherry and pear tomatoes, lettuces, and cucumber. We picked fresh dill, thyme, bay leaves and basil for cooking. Then cut verbena for making tea last thing in the evening. The days are still long, there are stunning sunsets around 9:30pm and it gets dark after 10pm. It isn’t difficult not to miss Paris.

Looking out the 1st floor window onto the stables.

The only blip in this perfect picture is that it hasn’t rained in a long time. When I took my morning walks, I would look out on golden hills with greens trees and think, ‘this looks just like California.‘ No official notice has been sent to limit water consumption but unless there is rain soon, it can be expected.

A manor house that I passed each day on my walk.

It gets clearer and clearer to me why so many Parisian families have “country homes”. They work in Paris, their children go to school in Paris but on the weekend, they can spend forty-eight hours in the heavenly calm of the countryside that is never far from Paris. Lisieux was an hour and forty-five minute train ride from Gare St. Lazare.

A new friend’s dog at the entrance of their home.

Back in Paris, it is hot, very hot. It has been hotter. There was the summer of 2003, when it was so hot, that 1500 people died. I have been bound and determined to put in a drip system on my terrace so that I can leave my plants for two weeks at a time in the summer without worrying about them. I only have one last thing to do but it has been an such an obstacle: screwing on the entire system to the faucet on the terrace. By minuscule mm, it isn’t large enough or the screw systems are different. I’ve been up and back to the hardware store but since I can’t take the faucet with me, I’m dependent on my iPhone camera and my french! More will be revealed.

As of today, Monday, it is mandatory to wear masks outdoors in busy areas. That would be along the Seine with the Paris Plages, and most of the places that young people can go and sit in this heat. The cases of Covid-19 are rising in France as they are all over Europe. I haven’t heard that there have been more deaths. From France24.com “French airports have begun compulsory testing on arrival for passengers from 16 countries where the coronavirus is circulating widely. The rules came into effect on August 1 as the number of new Covid-19 cases registered daily in France continues to rise.” If someone tests positive, they have to self-quaranteen for two weeks.

The Louvre museum where, before the pandemic, the lines of tourists waiting to get in would be a 30 minute wait minimum. Now everyone, except Amis de Louvre, has to make a reservation so that the museum has crowd control.

Summer 2020 in Paris will be one for the history books, likely remembered as the summer of masks and hand sanitizers. It will also be one of the quietest summers in decades, with dramatically reduced numbers of international tourists and many locals on holiday around France instead of going abroad.–France24.com

Stay kind, stay safe and cool and please stay healthy,

A bientôt,

Sara