Friday, 10 January
Think back, look forward. That is what January is for, especially one marking the beginning of a new decade. How do my musings from a year ago, for example, appear now? What might these 2020s hold?
Unfortunately the larger world is looking frighteningly the same or worse. If last January I was close to giving up, hope continues to take a beating. I actually wonder how much those four little letters can withstand. The planet is still being abused by us insatiable humans and no one—except a young Swede—is doing anything meaningful to restrain us; America and Iran may be on the brink of war; Britain’s about to go solo; populism and authoritarianism continue their not so slow march; opinions on everything from embryos to migrants to gender, from the meaning of truth itself, are more polarised than ever. In fact it’s as if a socio-cultural iron curtain were coming down between the two sides, leaving the centre a wasteland.
Closer to home, here in France and on the streets of Paris, it almost defies belief that last January we were being held hostage by les gilets jaunes and this January by strikers of all stripes: transport workers, teachers, hospital workers, even lawyers.
Because there are some trains and some buses, along with bicycles and scooters and Ubers, conditions are not as bad as they were during similarly crippling strikes in 1995, but this bout of discontent, also against pension reform, has already gone on significantly longer, with no end in sight. Meetings are cancelled, events postponed and offices close early or don’t answer the phone. And in the streets the atmosphere sours as people tire of jostling their way during endlessly long commutes to and from work. On the news I heard a nurse, squeezed like a juice orange into one of the few available trains, say: “I don’t know what I think about the strike, except that I hope I’m still alive at the end of it.”
The inability to live normally wears on morale but also on the civic fabric. Parisiens, never the most civilly-minded of citizens, have taken the strike as licence to do pretty much anything they like, from running red lights to riding bikes at high speed through thick crowds of pedestrians.
If the outer world seems stuck, it has, paradoxically, been a year of much movement on the personal front. David and I left our Berlin life and bought a house in the Perche. Once again (both the up and down side of writing a blog is there’s a record of what you did and what you thought about it) I travelled too much. There were trips for family and friends and for my novel The Art of Regret* that was published in late October.
So what about the way forward in this new decade? The global outlook is not promising. I and many of my friends will continue to recycle, to use less plastic. We'll buy more eco-products and fewer new clothes and it will make absolutely no tangible difference to the planet, especially since most of us will continue to travel by air.
I'll still feel inconvenienced by the permanently disgruntled French but will keep riding my bicycle around them and being grateful I'm not a shop owner on a three-hour commute to a business that is flagging because who wants to shop during a strike.
It's only on the personal front that effective action feels possible. During the last decade, much of it spent going back and forth between Paris and Berlin, I have too often felt like Sisyphus pushing a boulder up the hill. I'd make some progress on a novel or a piano piece, then we'd change cities and the disruption would cause the boulder to roll right back down again. Though my blog entries remind me of several attempts to defy this pattern, I never really broke it. I have yet to finish, for example, the novel I started in 2012. My piano repertoire has stagnated like an old pond.
So I am determined 2020 will be different. I have no travel plans beyond a short trip to London for a book party and a visit with my children early April. I'm already back to work on that novel and have started learning one of my favourite Schubert Impromptus (in G flat Op 90 N°3). It's time to look inward, in order to move onward.
*Yesterday I made my first television appearance, when France 24 English interviewed me about my book.