Friday, 3 April
“More bubble baths,” I said last December, adding to the list of my resolutions for 2020. I had just walked out of a Neal’s Yard shop in London, where I was stocking up on their heavenly Seaweed & Arnica Foaming Bath ("A restorative bath to enjoy when OVERTIRED"). It was a more serious prong to my strategy for a calmer life in the new year than you might think. It gave my son Christopher a good laugh.
Here we are 17 days into our coronavirus confinement and a calmer life, even God could not design. Out here at our house in the Perche, the days slosh together in a sea of tranquillity. The only thing on the calendar is my Skype piano lesson on Tuesday afternoon and the writing of this blog. I think no further ahead than tomorrow and whether or not we need more bananas.
We might well have been living like this for a month…or maybe only 10 days...it’s impossible to judge the passage of time, but I certainly barely noticed the lost hour when our clocks sprung forward last weekend. The idea that at this very moment I should be in London, my book party having taken place last night, the Steve McQueen exhibit at the Tate Modern to be attended this afternoon and Tom Stoppard’s Leopoldstadt on the cards for this evening, is almost scary, it seems so frantic. So stressful.
Of course I am lucky. Solitude and a slow pace suit both my nature and my profession. Here in the country, there is an unseemly amount of space for two humans and one dog.
I would have thought just about everyone else would be going crazy at being cooped up in small spaces, reduced to jumping up and down in front of exercise and yoga videos in their living rooms.
Especially since the confinement rules here in France have become even stricter. Outdoor exercise is now limited to within 1km of the house, leaving my friend Tala who lives near les Invalides to run round and round the grass plots on the avenue de Breteuil like a hamster. My friend Louise who lives at Montmartre runs up and down the stairs to the Sacré Coeur. It's a bit farther than 1km from home but: "The police can't catch up with me," she says, "I'm so fleet of foot." Fines have gone up from 135 to 200 euros. A new form requires time of departure and place of birth (I have yet to hear a convincing rationale behind the latter bureaucratic flourish).
So I have been surprised by the number of people, all ages and types (none of them, it must be noted, with children at home), who have felt a relief similar to mine. A sample:
“Part of me,” my banker son-in-law Amal wrote, “is enjoying the fact that the world has stopped. It was all getting a bit breathless and manic.”
“The pressure’s off,” barrister Christopher said. “No need to have an opinion on the latest exhibition, to be busily bringing together interesting people at a dinner party.”
My former lawyer friend Michele put it another way: “No guilt,” she said. “It’s fine to do nothing! Finally!”
Locked in with nothing to do, yet how quickly it’s nearing 7.00 and time to hurry up, get supper ready, consider what we might watch on Netflix this evening. Where on earth has the day gone? As I said in my last posting, confinement does not fundamentally change my routine. I have stuck to it but with no fillers—coffee with a friend, meetings for the renovation of this house or one of the those exhibitions about which I must then form an opinion—you’d think my kitchen would be immaculate, my cupboards impressing even Marie Kondo. You’d think my novel was on its final commas, my Schubert Impromptu ready for public performance and my bathtub full of suds. Other than one soak in Seaweed & Arnica, none of the above has been achieved.
It’s partly a school’s-out feeling of laisser-aller, the theory (if it exists) that when we have more time, we're likely to waste much of it. Or use it in ways not seen as productive, such as manically communicating with friends and family via email, WhatsApp and even the humble telephone. Or watching funny videos. Or disappearing into a vortex of articles about the virus that has us locked down.
I've been distracted by nature as well. She, regardless of our stasis, is on the move. The birds are making their nests and the deer doing their mating dance. The rapeseed is flowering (a month too early)...
...and the first tender leaves are unfolding.
The wild flowers are carpeting the ground.
The planet, too, is rejoicing. The waters in Venice are clear and pollution in France is estimated to be down by 30%.
But there's another reason my concentration and focus are not in peak form. Behind this simple living and the marvels of nature thrums Angst. There is, after all, a pandemic out there. The death toll grimly rises as the virus continues its invisible march. Economic fallout for those not retired or able to work at home is already catastrophic: 4 million French workers and 6.6 Americans applied for unemployment benefits just last week and that's obviously only the very tip of the melting iceberg.
When I do venture out to forage for food, I may not be dressed for combat...
...but that's only because all the products fortifying this man are sold out at the shops. The fear that one of those viral suckers will get in my mouth, nose or eyes and make its way to my lungs accompanies every outing. Just because my family and friends have largely been spared today doesn't mean they will be tomorrow.
Though I haven't felt it here in the Perche, there is understandable anger at people like me who are lucky enough to have a second house to escape to. According to an article in Le Monde, 17% of us Parisiens have left the city for their résidences secondaires and are being viewed with resentment by those left behind and as a disease-carrying scourge by much of the rest of the country. My friend Alan sent me an article about the residents of Noirmoutier-en-Île trying to erect a barrier on the bridge to keep the pushy urbanites out. Too little, too late. The Parisiens, like the virus, got through, thus increasing the chances for contagion and feeding local anger, especially when the invaders started swarming the beaches as if on holiday.
Pollution may be down in France but it's back up in China. For three days here in the Perche there was a ferocious wind, one in a long line of them these past months, that have knocked down or riven many trees. It so whined and howled around our house that it was difficult not to anthropomorphize the sounds into a scolding.
After unceasing rain this mild winter, the relentless sun and wind in March have left the earth like this.
And underneath the glorious yellow flowers of the rapeseed field you see above are leaves covered by the pesticide glysophate. I try to keep Tasha out but when I don't succeed...
You read lots of messages of hope about a post-covid-19 world where all of us lead a simpler, more contemplative life, less focused on money and achievement, on a healthier planet. While I would sincerely like to put faith in that optimism, the pandemic is wreaking too much havoc for me to turn believer. The future is frighteningly uncertain but I do know no more wishing for bubble baths next year, even in jest.