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!
Four weeks have passed since the beginning of ‘Deconfinement’ – the lifting of restrictions in France. Last week, June 2nd began the second phase—the most exciting being that we can now travel anywhere within France. Many services are open. Restaurants can open but only their terraces. Table must be 2 meters apart and everyone, servers and clients alike, are to wear masks. In many ways, when one goes outside, it is as if the Confinement never happened. On May 11, the first day of Deconfinement, workers descended upon the only house in this area. They built scaffolding to the roof of the four story home. Translated that means, there has been LOUD noise every single day since, starting at 7:30am and going to 1pm when they break for lunch. Afternoons are quieter.
In my arrondissement, the majority of people are wearing masks. Very few people are making an effort to move the required 2 mètres when passing each other on the street. The queues at Hyperstores and Supermarkets have disappeared and delivery is fast and efficient. I went into a Galleries Lafayette in the 15th a week ago and at noon on a Wednesday, it was practically empty.
I’ve spent some time being judgmental about people not following the suggested guidelines but lately it seems like a waste of energy. The guideline for the over the 65 year group is not to change much, stay at home, stay healthy. Today, the statistics in France are 153,977 cases. 30,000 dead. And, as I was reminded yesterday, the published deaths are hospitals and clinics only. It’s not known how many more deaths happened at home. But one can assume the numbers would be much higher.
Thirteen days ago, I woke up to photos of Minneapolis on fire. I thought to myself “and so it starts”, having no idea how right I was. That morning, what struck me was the pentup energy of two months in lockdown. Fairly quickly, I got the backstory of George Floyd, his murder and it being the final straw for so many Americans of decades of Having frightened gown white men treating anyone who doesn’t look like them, as if they were vermin to stomp out or worse ‘invisible’. The anger has galvanized people in a way that I haven’t seen since the 60’s when I was in university. Here in Paris, people are willing to risk the fines of not social distancing and maybe risking their lives to join in solidarity with protesters around the world. I feel so proud of my fellow Americans. Yesterday, I read in the Times that a few Republican politicians are standing up and saying no more psychopath bully in the White House. They have committed to vote for Joe Biden. It hardly seems real. Four months ago, there was nothing of substance left of the Republican Party. Today, some brave souls are willing to go on record saying “He does not speak for me.”
My little struggles in the 16eme seem so minuscule and unimportant. But considering I’m a writer and most of my day is spent churning out three blogs a week, writing requested articles in support of my book Saving Sara: A Memoir of Food Addiction, and my volunteer work for various organizations, the fact that I have been pecking and poling away on an iPad for 5 weeks while waiting for my new computer seems huge. My new computer that I had ordered with an American keyboard arrived last Wednesday, June 3. I was so excited. As I was setting it up, I realized it had a french keyboard. I’m not sure I’m eloquent enough to describe how I felt at that moment. Horror, anger, frustration. All those words work. It took me hours to get a hold of the sales department in Europe to deal with this mistake. The upshot is that I had to re-order the computer, wait for UPS to deliver a label to me to put on the return box. However, they were not allowed to pick up the box itself. After finding two different UPS pick up points closed until who knows when, I was successful this morning at handing it in to a UPS point at an Office Depot. Now I have to wait until the end of the month for my new (again) laptop to arrive. I must have been praying for patience in my life. How else can one explain two months on an iPad.
One day at a time, we move out into this new world of ours, wearing masks, social distancing and fighting with every ounce of our beings for a better and fairer world.
The weather in Paris is glorious. I LOVE summer. It’s hot enough to be summer and, at 6:30pm, when it’s starting to cool, it’s the kind of night one dreams of all year long. A night when the air just whispers on your skin, the light is just starting to mellow into a golden hue and, inspite of no bars or restaurants open, people are out on the street—some with masks, some without. There is that magic feelIng in the air—summer, the magic of summer.
Unfortunately, it’s probably a dangerous feeling, at least in Paris. It’s so easy to forget that very little has changed in the world. In many places, the curve has flattened but people are still getting sick and people are still dying. In France, 181,826 people have gotten the virus. 28,215 people have died. Summ63,858 people have recovered. As the restrictions have lifted, Parisians have hit the streets like dogs kept in a kennel for way too long. Last Thursday, I walked up to M&S to buy some food and go next door for my peonies. It seemed clear to me that people were acting as if the virus and pandemic had completely passed us by, and not just a few restrictions lifted. 200,000 people have been stopped driving away from Paris. The new restriction is that any of us can go 100 kilometres but not further unless for work or family. And then we must carry a new “passport” for travel. 9,500 fines had been given out before the long weekend started. (Yesterday was a bank holiday in France-Ascension Day. As in America, they often work in a four day holiday). The police were out in droves yesterday. I’m not clear whether they don’t want assymptomatic Parisians carrying the virus out of Paris or whether they fear Parisians picking it up and bringing it back in.
I personally didn’t venture out until last Thursday (except my daily excursion to Carrefour City on the corner to get daily produce etc). Walking up and back to M&S, one thing jumped out at me. THE NOISE. More buses were running. Many more cars were out. People were yelling into their mobile phones trying to hear themselves over the traffic. I had forgotten how awful the noise is. I will miss the quiet. Outside my building, off my terrace, work has started up on the outside of the only house in the area. There are hammers hammering, the dropping of huge steel girders, banging and banging from 8am until 6pm with a break for lunch. I’m trying to be very circumspect and telling myself to rise above the noise, don’t let it throw me off my day.
Monday, I went to get my hair cut. I was too frightened by the prospect of crowds so I walked there and walked home-6 mile round trip. I was told to wear my mask, that the changing room would not be available so wear something light and be on time. I wouldn’t be let in before my scheduled time and maybe not after. Everyone wore gloves. I’m impressed that with these kinds of services where feel is very important, they are able to give just as lovely a haircut wearing gloves. Three inches later, I felt like the weight of the past ten weeks had been shorn off.
Tuesday, I met a friend at the American Library to go for a walk. She was the first friend I’d seen in person in 10 weeks. The Library had worked out “curbside lending”. Any member can request 20 books, make an appt with the Library and arrive at the scheduled time to pick up five of those books nicely wrapped like a Christmas present. My friend had made the appointment. I was just returning books—no appt needed, but the books would go into quaranteen. I saw two more friends who work at the Library behind the barriers and poof! the ten weeks evaporated. It was as if no time had passed. These friends also had relieved themselves of hair and beards and mustaches and looked just as I’d seen them ten weeks ago. Time is a strange and elusive thing. If I think of a specific incident on a specific day, pre-confinement, it seems eons ago—another age which, of course, it was. But seeing someone I know and care about, it feels like yesterday I just saw them (maybe seeing them on Zoom has something to do with it).
Wednesday, I took the next big social step and went to get a mani/pedi. My neighborhood nail salon is two blocks away. They were well prepared for us to keep us and them safe. See through screens had been installed on the bench for pedicures so if all three seats were taken, we couldn’t accidentally touch each other or sneeze or cough on anyone. The girls all wore gloves and, as at the hair salon, I was impressed with the job they did with gloves on. At the table for manicures, screens were up on the sides separating people and also in front between client and manicurist with a large hole to put one’s hands through. It was well thought out and very clean. I left wondering ‘is this the new normal? Similar to how TSA has been part of our lives since 9-11?’ Watching an old movie without TSA screening seems bizarre now. Ten, Twenty years from now will we be looking at photos of no gloves, no social distancing, no masks and say ‘Remember when’?
Following success with my hair and nails, I went after an appointment to get my teeth cleaned. My dentist has not opened up shop. There is no indication when he will. That must be a very tricky thing indeed to make both Doctor and patient feel completely safe. So I will wait.
I haven’t gone in any other stores. I see that many clothing stores are open. They have signs on the window saying only three people inside at a time and the wearing of masks is a must. Some of these little boutiques are just that—little! If three people tried to go inside the women’s clothing store on Av. Mozart, there would be no social distance between them. And what about trying on clothes? I’m sure they have worked something out in order to open and create a sense of safety for someone but……would I try something on if told I wasn’t the first person? I don’t think so. Even if time had passed.
I am still plucking away on my iPad. No one has been able to figure out a fix for my MacBook Air. Since Apple stores are not yet open, I ordered a refurbished laptop to tide me over. Then an American friend pointed out that if I bought a new laptop at an Apple store, it would have a french keyboard so I’d end up ordering one anyway. If I had ordered one two weeks ago, it would have been arriving this week! Which seemed so far away, too far away, two weeks ago. Today, I got a text saying they (Amazon) could not locate the refurbished one and if I wanted to “annuler” the order, I could. That one would have had a french keyboard also. So in a way, that is good news. Today, I’m doing what I should have done two weeks ago. Except…..I wanted to do research. So for someone who spends at least half her day, often more, in front of the computer, this has been a trying time. I will order my new computer today and pray that all is well in Apple land and in delivery land.
In the hopes that I’m keeping up with some consistency, I’m sending this blog to the Cloud. I’m learning more how to publish using an iPad but very grateful I don’t have to do long term.
Wherever you are, have a wonderful holiday weekend. In the US, it’s the celebration of Memorial Day. A day to honor military men and women going back as far as the Civil War. Different kinds of war than a pandemic. Ones that all passed but not without a great price. Here in France, it’s Ascension Day. For a country that is sometimes Catholic, and sometimes Socialist, this is a Catholic holiday that all are happy to celebrate and take long weekends.
The title of my blog is so apropro right now. Everyone in Paris in watching life out their windows. On Wednesday night at 8pm, everyone who has a terrace went outside and clapped. Those who didn’t, leaned out the window and clapped. We were clapping for all the doctors and healthcare workers, the pharmacists who are showing up for work every day. They have extraordinary courage. It was very moving standing on my terrace listening and clapping. Below me, some of my neighbours were making whooping up loud calls. I was sent a video of a woman singing opera on her terrace. When she finished, the cheers were breathtaking.
What is the mood here? It depends who you ask, I guess. My mood is grateful and mostly content. I am well prepared to be inside for 6 weeks. We are allowed outside with our little “passports” to go to the pharmacy and the markets. What is the “passport”? Everyone was sent a form to be printed out. If we want to leave our dwellings, we fill our the form with our name and address and the reason we are outside. There are 5 approved reasons. 1–to go to the market; 2–to go to the pharmacy; 3–if you have a medical appointment; 4–exercise with the understanding that we will stay 10 feet away from other people (however cycling is completely banned); 5–to aid an elderly person or disabled person. We are on the honor system as to what we give as our reason. We need a new paper for each time we leave our homes. If the police stop us and we don’t have our paper, we will be fined at least 130 euros. On Tuesday, the first day, the police gave out 4000 fines.
The markets are stocked. My little corner store had toilet paper on Wednesday. The pharmacy had gloves today. I’m skilled on Zoom platform and have taught my Book Group how to use it. We will stay connected and still have our monthly get-togethers. About the only thing I can’t control is what is going to happen next. I am very aware I can’t control it so I’m not worrying. It seems to me to be a waste of energy. When I went to the pharmacy, everyone older than 40 was wearing a mask. While everyone younger (this is a gross exageration of course) were walking side by side. I saw three youths smashed into the front seats of a very small car. But on the whole, my arrondissement now looks like Paris in August.
However I’m told that the traditional french Apéro is not forsaken. People especially students are sending out invites on Zoom and Skype to join each other for an Apéro (the before dinner drink with snacks) that is a custom especially on Fridays.
As of today, there are 10,000 reported cases in France. The papers say that the numbers double every day. There is not yet widespread testing so the country’d health minister thinks the number is closer to 20,000. The death toll stands at more than 300 and rising every day. In the east of the country, which is the worst affected, a military hospital has been set up after local medical services were overwhelmed with the sheer number of cases. (The Local)
With these numbers, it’s important to remember that 97% of cases recover and 50% of that number doesn’t get terribly sick. So far, I know of no one among my friends who has it or has had it.
The sun is setting on another day of lockdown. I think of my parents who lived through the depression and then WWII. That’s 25 years of not knowing what the future would hold. This is the first time in my lifetime that I’ve experienced a world crisis like this. But it’s not the first time it has happened. My parents lived through it and so will we. Almost time to go to my terrace and clap.
A lot of you in the US are writing me and asking “How is it in our beloved Paris?” Somewhat different and somewhat the same as what you are reading in the papers. Last Thursday, President Macron spent 26 minutes on national tv outlining what has happened so far and what will happen. He was very serious and didn’t try to make this pandemic sound less than it is. At that point, only four days ago, he urged all people seventy and over to stay home unless absolutely necessary. He said transportation would stay the same but hoped that work and people would work from home. As of Monday, he closed all schools and universities. He said this was up to each and every one of us. The virus knew no borders and didn’t carry a passport. That was Thursday.
I’m discovering that the French are very stubborn and obstinent people. They proclaimed that nothing was going to stop them from living their lives. So they were out and about. The metros were a bit less crowded but not by much. So on Saturday, the French administration announced that as of Saturday at midnight, all public places that weren’t necessary for our survival were to be shut down, closed, fermé. That got some people’s attention. By Sunday noon, the markets caught up with the US and all the toilet paper and such were gone. However, the municipal elections were not postponed. On websites, times were posted when best to go vote. A friend went back and forth about whether she would vote or not. Finally she decided to. She went at the last moment, waited till everyone was gone then went in to vote. Everyone was wearing masks and keeping all the voting paraphenalia as antiseptically clean as possible. I went out for about forty-five minutes just to walk, and the streets in the 16th arrondissement were full of people walking with children, with dogs and, since it was a lovely day, filling up the parks and green spaces. That was yesterday.
This morning at 8:45am, I received a notice from the administration that since the French were not doing as asked, we had forty-eight hours to decide where we wanted to spend the next forty-five days. As of tomorrow, there will be a 6pm curfew and the police will be in the streets urging people to go home. I dropped everything and headed out. I was prepared to be homebound for two weeks but not for forty-five days. I first went to the grocery store. Still no toilet paper. Then I headed for Picard which only sells frozen food, absolutely delicious frozen food. They were almost out of food and not taking any loyalty cards for discounts. I then headed for Marks and Spencer who sells my favourite yogurt. They looked like they had plenty of food though the yogurt was in short supply. When I asked, I was told they would be staying open. Picard, on the other hand, said they had no idea. On the way to M&S, I passed a florist. It wasn’t really open but the door was open. I asked if I could buy. They gave me 3 beautiful bouquets for about a third of the normal price. That will be the last of my fresh flowers I’m afraid. Finally, I went to the pharmacy. Not my normal pharmacy on Av. Mozart which had a long line snaking out the door and winding to the corner. I stopped at the one near M&S. I was the third person in line. We’ve been told pharmacies will stay open but…. I had no trouble getting what I needed.
Forty-Eight hours to decide where I want to spend the next 45 days. I knew my friends in Normandy and in Brittany would probably love to have me and my crazy cat come join them. I would love to go to Le Gers where I think my heart resides. But…..I have here, in my small apartment in Paris, everything I need to survive the next 45 days if I never go out. I have Netflix, I have enough books to read for at least a year. I have the expanded tv that has HBO series, Showtime and Canal+. I have the wonderful Zoom. Which allows me to have video conversations one on one or in large groups. I have my work which I do at home anyway. I just learned yesterday that ten of the world’s best museum’s are totally on-line and I can tour it visually. I was even given a jig-saw puzzle with 1000 pieces. That would take some time!
Yesterday, I defrosted my freezer. Something I should have done months ago And thank goodness I did. After shopping at what was left in Picard, I was able to fit for more things in the freezer. I have plenty of ‘projects’ to do. So as long as I talk to friends at least three or four times a day, I think I can do this! And that’s whats happening in Paris.
PS As I was about to hit ‘publish’, I received an e-mail saying all non-essential travel to EU is to be banned for 30 days.
Most of us come to Paris for the beauty. We’ve heard many say it is the most beautiful city in the world. For those of us who love to flâner (walk with no purpose in mind), it is heaven. The rest of France connotes lavender, sunflowers, paté, little villages high on hillsides that have been there since the Romans attacked the Gauls and the advantage lay with whoever was highest. Though it didn’t work out well for the Gauls in the end.
But there is another France. One that is easy to ignore if you are a tourist. Ex-pats that live in the western suburbs and the lower numbered arrondissements can also turn a blind eye. It’s not difficult to do. Last Thursday, I went to see the French entry for best foreign film: Les Miserables directed by Ladj li. On Friday, it won the Cesar for best Film (the cesars are the french equivalent of the Oscars). This Les Miserables, which loosely takes it’s theme from Victor Huge, takes place in a suburb to the east of Paris. The only white person was a corrupt and brutal policeman. The film showed us two days in the lives of the police who drive the streets of the Banlieu, the blacks who live in hovels, and the Muslim Brotherhood who attract many of the young people to them. The film was a thriller paced so perfectly that I thought my heart would jump out of my body. Although I knew intellectually about many of these banlieus, it was a completely different experience seeing it visually.
On Tuesday of the week before, I went to the American Library to hear a journalist I admire speak about his book: Hate: The Rising Tide of Anti-Semitism in France. The author, Marc Weitzmann, won the American Library book award last November. I was present at the ceremony and was disappointed that he only spoke for ten minutes. I was anxious to hear more. It took him over five years to write this book and in that time, the terrorist attacks on the Charlie Hebdo magazine and the Bataclan theatre took place. Weitzmann told us that there are two or three incidents of hatred on Jews a day in France. As he talked, I thought ‘I don’t like the France he is telling us about.’
When I first moved to France, people would ask (they still do) why I’m choosing to live in France over the US. It is not an easy question to answer. Often I will throw in that the US had an election and it seemed smarter for me to stay here. Inevitably someone will say ‘well, what about French politics?’ And I, truthfully, can answer that I don’t know much thought I’m learning. My grasp of the french language that involves discussing politics, isn’t strong. Living in the part of Paris that I live in, I could probably spend the rest of my life here and never know much about the banlieu of Les Misérables and be shocked at the seemingly unconnected events of 2015. By going to hear Weitzmann, I’m no longer able to do that. He strongly believes that the extremist and hate-filled muslim brotherhood and the deep rooted French conservative far-right both have their roots in the same populism that is growing in Europe. It’s not the same ‘ism’ as in the States but it is far-right, it is a growing trend that is on the rise around the globe and supported by the US.
So I’ve found myself reflecting on my choice to live here. There is no doubt that the quality of my life is much higher here in France: I don’t need to own a car, I’m close to many cultural events–so many that I’m forced to choose on many an evening. But I can no longer tell people that it’s nicer here. So far, France doesn’t have a supremacist President but it’s not unthinkable any more. Weitzmann told us, in response to a question from the floor, that Norman Mailer predicted in the 1950s that by the end of the 20th century, insanity would be the norm. And so, two decades into the 21st century, political madness and lunacy clearly are the norm. When I or my friends remark “that is unbelievable,” we are confessing to being way out of step with what is considered normal today.
I think that I am rather normal when I say I want to be comfortable. Both the movie and the talk made me very uncomfortable. So much so, that I left both just before they finished. I like my rose-colored France. I want this country to be a better place than the US is today. I can’t really compare. It’s different but she shares the same extreme hatred and native terrorism that has been brewing in the US.
There is no way to end this post. I am staying in France. I love Paris, I love France. However, just as I had to strip away my naiveté of America, I’m now having to do that with my adopted country. I can choose to be educated or choose to keep my head in the sand. I don’t think there is a turning back at this point. French municipal elections are coming up very soon. Let’s see what the French have to say.
Sara PS–there are spelling errors in the second paragraph. I know, you don’t have to tell me. But, for whatever reason, WordPress is not letting me do edits. I tried once and lost two paragraphs. So some things we just have to accept!
I came to Paris, in 2014, for one year. My intention was to better my french then to return to Oakland, go to baseball games and continue learning civics. It didn’t happen that way. Within six months, I knew I wanted to stay; one year was not enough. Not only was Paris beautiful, inspiring and exhilarating, I’d never lived in a city before. Cities, I learned, pulse with life. In Paris, no matter the time of day or night, life was happening. People were out on the street, having a drink in cafes, walking for pleasure or transportation, going to a myriad of events available every evening. For me, it was intoxicating. I loved it.
Then we had an election in the US. I found it hard to be there but not be living there. All my friends were in various stages of depression. At the time, no one thought it could get as bad as it has, that democracy is actually at stake. Some friends are inured. It’s impossible to watch from over here in France and not be shocked and outraged. The US, always somewhat imperialist, is now cruel and verging on terrorism. That is as extreme as I’m willing to state. In the back of my mind was always the question ‘What would it take to move here, to cut ties to California?’ Two things always jumped up. The first was health insurance. The second was home ownership. The wisdom says don’t sell your home in California unless you are 100% sure you never want to move back. I couldn’t afford my own home if I had to buy it.
Health Insurance: I’m 72 years old. I have Medicare and also a secondary insurance. Until recently I didn’t know if I was eligible to get French insurance. The french system may be the envy of the world. It is a single payer plan. A citizen gets a social security number and then applies for the Carte Vitale. With the carte vitale, every time one goes to the doctor, any kind of doctor, at the end of the visit, you hand your card to the doctor. Then you pay your co-pay. The doctor is paid the rest by the government. Some of my friends have a secondary insurance, which is not expensive in US terms, so as to cover any unforeseen problems. And french medicine is NOT expensive compared to the US. When I had my right hip replaced in February of 2017, I received a statement telling me how much the operation, lead-up appointments and post-op appts cost and what percentage of that Medicare paid. The grand total was $65,000. For the sake of personal information, I googled the price of hip replacement in Paris and the average cost was $8,000-$10,000. Same operation, same skill set, same medicine. It’s one thing to know that there is something very wrong with the American system, it’s another to have the numbers. I once ran out of an over-the-counter stomach aid while in Oakland. It had to be prescribed and my co-payment was higher than I paid over the counter here in Paris.
For five of the six years that I have been in Paris, not knowing what to do about health insurance has kept me from committing to moving here. Last fall, I learned that Macron had decreed that anyone who has lived here more than three months is eligible to apply for french health insurance. As with many things that require dealing with the french administration, I felt paralyzed to take action. Friends offered to help. One sent me the web address to get more info. Another actually translated into English what I needed to do and what I needed to produce, document wise, to get my social security #. Then I finally found someone who would go with me to the office. I needed my hand held. We set up a date and ….. the office had moved two years before. There was no longer an office in my arrondissement. My friend is married to a frenchman who writes beautiful french just the way administrators like. He wrote a letter to be signed by me applying for both the number and the Carte Vitale. Yesterday morning, I sent it registered mail. So now I wait.
This is not a political post. All the above raises all sorts of questions (that most of us already know the answers to) about why certain American politicians don’t want to make insurance affordable to 50% of the country. That’s not my fight this week. My fight is to grow old with insurance and the best quality of life I can have. I think the quality of my life is far better here in France. I would like to take the actions necessary to commit to living here. I may not hear anything for a year. Such is the snail’s pace of french administration (especially now when they are stepping up their efforts to help the British who live here, get residency cards, get their drivers license, etc). I have taken the action and it is very satisfying.
My next action is to get a French Driver’s License. Much, much harder than in the US.
I’ve written about the American Library in Paris in an earlier blog. Since that time, we have a new Director, Audrey Chapuis. I say “we” because I’m a volunteer there and am made to feel like an integral part of the library and how it’s run. Audrey started out as a volunteer just as I did. Now she is the Director, the first librarian ever to be Director of the library. She is out-going, charming and has become a friend.
I found an essay she wrote for the Literary Hub and asked her if I could share it with you:
The Timeless Appeal of an American (Library) in Paris
Literary pilgrims to Paris, however ardent, tend toward crises of faith. A whole genre has flowed from the deflated hopes of writers who once believed the muse to be Gallic, living in a garret, and partial to Americans abroad. Of course, American writers don’t have a monopoly on disappointment about Paris. Tourists from around the world complain about the rude shock—now dubbed “Paris Syndrome”—of their fantasies crashing into the city’s prosaic reality. It’s a lesson in the perils of idealization.
For those of us who live in the French capital, it’s more complicated, as are most long-term relationships. I regularly cycle through devotion and disillusionment, witnessing how the city’s beauty and the ugly commodification of that beauty coexist, how its idyllic myths mingle with its sometimes bloody history. I’ve also come to see how the city is like any other, with the same simmering cultural tensions and socioeconomic issues as any metropolis.
Looking back, I’m sheepish to admit just how fervent my own Parisian dreams once were. As a girl growing up in Texas, I became—quite mysteriously to the Texans around me—a Francophile. I ate up stories of the Lost Generation and swooned thinking about bohemians lounging on café banquettes, waving cigarettes, and arguing about ideas. I read everything by Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin, believing their entwined literary and romantic relationship to be the apotheosis of seduction. Teenage years in Texas seemed painfully banal in comparison. Bygone writers had Parisian bacchanals; we got keg parties in the woods. The injustice tasted more bitter than the flat Shiner Bock on tap.
When I finally traveled to Paris on my own, I sought to right the wrong, not that I expected to find any modern bacchanals. I was content to chase the ghosts of the writers I loved against a picturesque backdrop. I checked into a dank hotel as close as I could get to Shakespeare and Company and mapped out my course to all the famous cafés where writers had once gathered. On my first night, I wandered shyly into a café and ordered a glass of white wine, blushing furiously at being alone and mumbling in a language I had only practiced in an air-conditioned classroom. The harried waitress in shirtsleeves and black suspenders set down my glass with such force that it shattered, sending wine and tiny shards of glass across the tabletop and into my lap. She blithely mopped up the mess without apology. I imagined she was disgusted with me and my Americanness and my solitude. Gertrude Stein wouldn’t have giggled nervously and then left a large tip.
By the time I moved to Paris, many years later, most of my romantic notions of the city had been swept away like those shards onto the sidewalk. The move, for my husband’s job, was practical rather than whimsical. And my status as “trailing spouse” threatened to extinguish any remaining flicker of glamour. The ugly term encapsulates the privileges and limitations inherent in the status: according to the state, the partner who follows is legitimate but secondary. Another applicable but contentious word, “expat”, so evocative of Americans in Paris, loses its sheen when one examines the difference between an expatriate and an immigrant. The gap is filled with questions of agency, means, and access to resources in one’s host country.
After a few months acclimating to life in Paris as a resident, I found a job as a reference librarian at the American Library in Paris, an institution established in 1920 which serves a diverse population hailing from over 60 countries. As part of my training, my coworkers joyfully produced artifacts and anecdotes from the library’s long history. I was shown Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein’s book reviews in the library’s newsletter and heard about Stein arguing with Alice B. Toklas in the stacks. Pulling volume after volume down from the shelves in the special collection, I saw books donated to the library from Sylvia Beach, Willa Cather, Janet Flanner, and Irwin Shaw. One colleague opened a cream folder to show me a letter from Henry Miller, dated November 21st, 1938, asking if the library had The Secret Doctrine by Madame Blavatsky, The Tibetan Book of the Dead, an English translation of Seraphina, Walt Whitman’s prose works, and “any book on Zen Buddhism.” Holding the piece of stationery with its jaunty Art Deco letterhead—“Henry Miller 18 Villa Seurat Paris”—I felt a jolt of exultation for my younger, more idealistic self.
Over time, as I learned more about the American Library and its place in the history of literary Paris, I recovered some long-repudiated belief in the city’s magnetic pull and inspirational force. Conjuring scenes of my old heroes in the library’s reading rooms made me swoon all over again, decades after their work first moved me. However, the most thrilling thing was not the library’s function as a monument to the past. Rather, it was the lively thrum of its present activity. Clearly not only ghosts walked here. Writers, readers, students, and scholars converged daily upon the place.
Writers don’t need smoky cafés or any other clichés of the writerly life, but they do need a comfortable space to write. They need access to books. They need quiet. And, perhaps surprisingly, they need community, just like the rest of us who might be floundering in a new city.
I recently became the director of the American Library, and I hear stories from people all over the world—“trailing spouses”, “expats”, immigrants, and Parisians alike—about what the library means to them. Again and again, the need for sanctuary in this beautiful but sometimes alienating city emerges. I hear familiar tales of disillusionment, and then reconciliation, with Paris after people discover the library. Some speak of forging deep friendships in book groups. Others remember carrying home teetering stacks of books to read to their children who are now grown. Many tell me about the experience of writing books here, comforted by the silence of the reading room and the company of others.
These stories remind me of the potential of any library to be a refuge for its public. Romantic notions of artistic communion pale in comparison to what libraries regularly do. Yes, libraries protect history, but they also safeguard the future by providing spaces dedicated to people learning and creating. Stalwart, they serve communities unbeholden to any fleeting cultural moment.
At the American Library, the rate of book borrowing is up, across genres and in every age group. The children’s area fills up during every Story Time. Literature-loving teenagers flock to Friday night festivities. Crowds congregate for evening author talks. Lapsed readers fall in love with books again as they wander the stacks, reminded, in a very tangible way, of the breadth of human knowledge.
And that’s more exhilarating than any bohemian bacchanal.
A month has passed since I last wrote. Since then my sister, Dr. Margaret Somers, and our friend, Dr. Nancy MacLean came to Paris to visit. They gave a joint talk at the American Library in Paris–which I moderated–and the next evening answered questions on American politics and political economics at The Red Wheelbarrow bookstore.
We then made a whirlwind visit to Bretagne and la Côte de Granît Rose visiting with my friend, Roland, who kindly lent us his three-bedroom home while he slept in his boat–which he loves. He insisted we weren’t putting him out in any way. He even took them on a boat ride around L’ile de Brehat. On the way home, the engine fell off the boat–not down into the murky depths but was dragging along while the men, Roland and Nancy’s husband, worked at pulling it up. Nothing like coming to France on vacation and having a big adventure on the water!
Because of the very difficult situation in the US, I’ve been doing a lot more reading about how US government works, the forces that do not want Democracy because it gets in the way of making mega-billions (numbers I can’t even imagine), the huge efforts to end all social programs–which help our neighbor who may not be as lucky as we are in life circumstances. It has been eye-opening and appalling–if only at how much I’ve taken for granted–that others want a Democratic system that works for all us as much as I do.
My sister is an academic and has written a wonderful book along with a colleague, Fred Block, The Power of Market Fundamentalism: Karl Polanyi’s Critique. Nancy has written a best seller Democracy In Chains; the deep history of the radical right’s stealth plan for America. They were invited to the American Library in Paris July 2nd for an Author event.
It was quite an honor to moderate and ask both of them questions. The two books actually address a similar topic: the growth of the free market as something that promotes financial equality for all. Somers’ book lays the historical background and MacLean’s book goes from 1958 with the fall-out of the Brown vs the Board of Education supreme court case to the present day and the Koch brothers.
It is beyond the scope of this blog to tell in more detail the specifics of Somers’ and MacLean’s talks or to review their books. I do encourage anyone interested in learning more about political economics to read these books. It’s one thing to listen to either sides’ rantings. It’s another to get educated information and form an opinion based on facts–even though facts seem to be going extinct.
The next evening, at the Red Wheelbarrow, there was lively back and forth of questions and answers. It was a beautiful Parisian evening and when the gathering finally left the bookstore, it was still light out, the energy was high and it was hard to contemplate going home and to bed. There is something about Parisian nights and the the sky still being light at 10:30pm that makes one just want to stay out and join the bustling sidewalk culture that is at the heart of Parisian life.
The next morning, we all got on the TGV fast train to Brittany. What a pleasure it is to show friends some of the most beautiful places in France outside of Paris. All too soon, both women were on the way to Potsdam, Germany where they gave keynote speeches at an International Conference: The Condition of Democracy and the Fate of Citizenship.
Since my last post, I contracted the common cold and was laid low for two weeks. It is beyond my comprehension that we can cure so many ills but the common cold still does most of us in and it just has to run its course. It starts so slowly and shows no sign of being menacing. Blowing my nose every five minutes. In Paris, my nose starts running Nov. 1 and lasts until March 31st. It seems to be the price of walking outside so much–to get the metro, see friends in cafes, etc. So who knew that that day turned into two weeks of misery. I had to cancel almost everything. I had a scheduled flight to San Francisco and anyone who has flown with a congested head knows how miserable and painful that can be. I was determined to be well before the flight even if it meant never moving from my couch.
I planned a month long trip to Oakland to see doctor’s, do my taxes, clean and organise my home and probably do repairs. I wasn’t looking forward to the trip. Paris is my home now and going to Oakland is work not a vacation. I still find it painful to wake up there with the news in your face 24 hours a day and none of it good. Scandal after scandal. Who’s going to jail for what financial or political conspiracy? There was one piece of great news that made me jump up and down. Congress and Senate, both I believe, voted to protect millions of acres of National Park land, land that the Trump administration has been trying to get it’s hands on and destroy the protections that have been in place for years. When I ask friends ‘how do you stand it?, the news?’ They inevitably respond, ‘I no longer listen to the news.’ I understand BUT…..how many of us that want things different aren’t listening anymore or reading anymore? How do we stay informed when the media just eats up all the distractions and twittering? My way was to record The Late Show with Stephen Colbert each night and watch it the next day. He always has some political person on and makes it funny enough to be palatable. It helps that he and I are on the same side of the fence.
Then there is the matter of the weather. I picked February and March to be in Oakland in hopes that I would miss the worst of Paris winter. And what happens? Oakland has not had weather higher than 54o and rain most of the time. Not just a little rain, but gales and flooding and high winds. I’ve been dressed like a ski bunny most of the time. And Paris?—gorgeous weather — 20o/21o. I saw a photo of people sunbathing in the Place de Vosges! My timing is impeccable.
I was in Oakland one week when I learned that a very good friend of this blog, Philippe Melot, had died suddenly. He was fit, rode his bike regularly and hard, ate well, didn’t smoke, didn’t drink. I was just stunned. I still am. But it reminded me to tell everyone I know how grateful I am for their presence in my life, their friendship. You just never know. It will be a shock all over again when I get back to Paris and realise I will never see Philippe again. It just breaks my heart. He loved Americans and was so kind and generous to all of us. He was, in my opinion, a very special man and special Frenchman.
The Gilets Jaunes have not slowed down. I am dependant on my friends in Paris to keep me informed of all the activities. One would think nothing happened in the rest of the world if only watching American news. Even NPR only gives the highlights. I subscribe to The Guardian and keep up with the Brexit antics but Les Gilets Jaunes just get small print. A week ago, my friend Barbara wrote: “Violent protests again in Paris on Saturday. Went to the library to return your book and could hear explosions everywhere and smoke everywhere. My eyes were burning at Rue General Camou. Of course the library was closed. I could see gilets jaunes and CRS everywhere. Losing all hope that this is ever going to end.” Now I’ve come to understand that the gilets jaunes are attacking jews. This just keeps getting worse. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/feb/24/alain-finkielkraut-winds-of-antisemitism-in-europe-gilets-jaune
So for the time being, the rain falls in Oakland, the sun shines in Paris. Brexit may not happen until 2021, if at all. The Gilets Jaunes are being courted by the far right of Marine LePen and the Italian President and Prime Minister (both financially supported by Putin??). Meanwhile, they continue to destroy Paris and cost the French government billions of dollars. I do not think this is the way to win friends and influence people. But France is the land of protest. Life goes on except for my dear friend, Philippe, who I will miss terribly.