Friday, 7 May
One recent lockdown evening, I watched the new film version of Rebecca on Netflix. Based on Daphne du Maurier's 1938 novel, it's the story of a young woman who becomes the second wife of the wealthy Max de Winter after his first, apparently beloved wife's tragic death. Rebecca may have died but her spirit lives on, creepily permeating every aspect of the new Mrs de Winter's world.
Unfortunately, the 2020 movie didn't capture for me the eerie ambiance of either the book or the first celluloid rendition by Alfred Hitchcock and starring Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine. But I was reminded how the famous first line: “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again…” magically evokes a lost past and questionable reality.
On Tuesday, with intra-France travel now permitted under the latest Covid restrictions, we returned to Paris for the first time in five weeks. Combined with our London sojourn and other extended periods spent at our house in the Perche, it seemed we’d been away for much longer.
In fact, it felt as it did when we'd return from Berlin after several months absence. Driving down streets that are intimately familiar but not recently travelled, opening the front door to an apartment where five children were raised but is now curiously hushed and empty, I always feel semi-detached from my own life. Like the unnamed narrator of Rebecca returning to Manderley in a dream.
Quickly, however, alienation gives way to a burst of euphoria. This is home after all, with its familiar smell and trove of memories. It is also, especially since the post-five children renovation three years ago, extremely comfortable.
I happily rediscover my Paris routine, most notably my morning walks in the Tuileries with Tasha, even if the rigid geometry, after months in let-it-be nature places like Berlin and the Perche, can come as a shock to the canine...
...and human systems alike...
On some level, Paris is still Paris.
But in many other ways these days, she is not herself. With closed shops and cafés and a 6pm curfew, Covid Paris just gets stranger; more of her soul seems to have drained away every time I return. At moments she practically echoes.
My son William, who himself moved to Arles last year, says lots of people his age have gone to Bordeaux or Marseille. My dog-walking friend Nathaële, affirming my perception, says: “You get used it. It means there’s less hostility and aggression.” But less energy, too.
Except, bizarrely, when it comes to construction. Not just the bike lanes the mayor continues to build obsessively, but also major renovations of buildings. Within 100 metres of us, for example, there are three huge projects. Across the street, the former Ministry of Defence is being turned into social housing and an activity centre. Around the corner, the former Socialist Party headquarters, first bought by shopping mall developers for their main office and - not surprisingly since no one is shopping anymore - sold mid-renovation to perfume makers, currently looks as if a bomb went off inside.
Even closer to home, the hôtel particulier to which our building is attached is undergoing an overhaul that makes our Perche renovation look like mere window dressing. Here's the before view of our courtyard...
And here it is today..
The entire building has been clad in scaffolding, then wrapped in white plastic. Caught in the right light, the sheath can have a certain post-modern aesthetic...
...it has ruined our view...
...while doing nothing to reduce the noise of the drills, hammers and saws that easily outdoes the daily cacophony of our works in the Perche.
Renovation projects, it seems, follow us wherever we go. But the ones surrounding us in Paris at the moment add to the already surreal atmosphere. I mean, isn't it an odd time to be doubling down on the city's future?
Spoiler alert: it doesn't end well for Manderley.