Friday, 11 December

In the sweet and funny 1993 film Groundhog Day, Bill Murray plays Phil Connor, a curmudgeonly weatherman sent to small town Punxutawny, Pennsylvania to cover the eponymous event.* A snowstorm retains him in the town and, it turns out, in time: he keeps waking up to the same morning, reliving the same events, over and over. His increasingly desperate attempts to break the cycle fail; Phil always opens his eyes in the same bed at the Cherry Street Inn to “I Got You Babe” on the clock-radio.

I am not the first to point it out, but 2020 will go down in the books as one long reality version of that movie.

Thankfully, unlike Phil, we are not fated to greet every morning with Sonny and Cher, but doesn’t your day (after day) look something like mine: breakfast and a much-savoured morning coffee, followed by some combination of work, exercise, reading, piano, until supper, Netflix and bed?

Measuring out my life in coffee spoons

Don't the conversations you have these days with friends and family over Zoom or WhatsApp increasingly revolve around those Netflix series? What's your opinion, for example, on Season 4 of The Crown and have you seen Fauda or The Queen's Gambit? Aren't streaming tips passed around the way advice once was about the best new restaurant or the latest, greatest exhibition not to be missed? Because really, besides Covid-19 and the many ways it has imperilled and diminished our lives, what else is there to talk about?

Carl, self-isolation

Two weeks ago we were told to pack up the sitting room and leave our place in the Perche. The masons were ready to break through the 450-year old wall and connect the house and former barn. There would be lots of noise and dust and little heating. Plus the cooker and fridge were blocked by sofas and chairs, the table littered with lamps, since we'd moved all the furniture but Carl-the-piano into the kitchen.

We headed back to Paris, sans attestation, as there's no category for 'fleeing uninhabitable spaces', but were fortunately not stopped. You might think returning to the City of Light from the countryside would have provided a jolt to our pastorally attuned selves, but in this topsy-turvy world, all the action is taking place around the renovation in the country.

Here in Paris, with no tourists, with museums, cinemas and restaurants closed and gatherings with friends interdits, there’s even less to break the gentle rhythm of the days than there is at the end of our lane in the Perche.

The shops have re-opened, but that has mostly provided me, anyway, with greater cause for alarm. I won't bore you with the circumstances of how I ended up at the BHV department store on a Saturday afternoon (something I wouldn't generally do even in normal times), but there I was and the place was a Covid nightmare. People were wearing masks but otherwise seemed to be seeking out extreme proximity, rather than avoiding it. I bought my non-standard batteries and ever-harder-to-find 2021 agenda refill hunched over and trying not to breathe. Today I feel very lucky to have escaped uncontaminated. Going there in the first place was ill-advised, but at least I knew I was being stupid, something my fellow shoppers seemed stubbornly oblivious to.  

I do understand that constrictions are really getting to people. All the novelty of changing gears, of slowing down and returning to some less frantic mode of existence, has long worn off. Humans miss seeing other humans, and they need something more real to look forward to than the next season of Sex Education, however charming and engaging the series may be.

In real life, the end of year holidays approach laden with restrictions. Christmas is not looking very merry nor the New Year very novel. In the here and now, the backdrop to our predictable days is chaos and uncertainty, a simmering angst.

But if we are going to behave like the BHV shoppers, only a vaccine can save us from our foolish selves.

At the end of Groundhog Day, Bill Murray finally wakes up to a new morning. Living the same day over and over again has taught this overbearing grump humility and humanity, which in turn allows him to get the girl he fell in love with during his ordeal. It’s an uplifting tale of redemption. In the beginning of our real-life Groundhog Day, we entertained thoughts that the pandemic would have equally absolving powers, would enrich our lives and edify us with a new, deeper wisdom. Sadly, that hope now seems the realm of another fiction: Pollyanna.

Where's the meaning in this new morning?

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*For those of you who don't know what Groundhog Day is: Pennsylvania Dutch superstition has it that if this hibernating critter emerges from his hole on a sunny February 2 and sees his own shadow, he will take fright and plunge back inside for another six weeks, and spring will come late.