Real life seems distant now
Marooned by the pandemic, a war reporter looks for silver linings
There have been other times in my life when I felt that my world was frozen in time: the endless siege of Sarajevo; a long, cold January in Chechnya when the capital Grozny fell; six months of solid bed rest during a high-risk pregnancy watching reruns of I Love Lucy and The Jerry Springer Show.
All of them had the same, fleeting, odd quality of timelessness: here in rural France, under lockdown during coronavirus, time also seems to have stopped. I have no idea what day it is, or when the month of April will ever end.
Every night at 8pm, I gather in the lounge of the 400-year-old unheated farmhouse where I am sheltering with my ex-husband, son and three French cousins to watch the evening news. An array of French medical experts in white coats are led out, one by one. Each looks more exhausted than the next, and I fear for their wellbeing. Shouldn’t they be resting or treating patients instead of telling us the same thing?
They contradict each other; a vaccine is being tested in Canada, in Israel. A vaccine won’t be ready for more than a year. A vaccine will be ready in October. There is no cure. There is a hope for a cure. Malaria medication works. Malaria medication is a farce.
Meanwhile, in New York, where I have lived for three years, a field hospital is being set up in Central Park. Is this possible? The same park, where one month ago I walked every morning, gloomily wondering when the February trees would blossom and turn spring-like. Spring will still happen, despite the angry virus circling the globe, but the trees will blossom around the sick and dying, around a triage tent.
Spring will still happen in Central Park. The trees will blossom around the sick and dying
Like many people, I am displaced. I left New York to drop my son off for spring break in Paris with his French father on 12 March. I remember getting on the Air France plane and excitedly making a list of things I wanted and needed to do in Paris: clear out the chambre de bonne of my apartment on Rue Notre Dame des Champs; go to Circus Bakery in the fifth arrondissement to taste their famous cinnamon buns; walk in my beloved Luxembourg Gardens; see an exhibit of Otto Freundlich. I had about three dinner parties planned with old friends. I wanted to see my doctor for a yearly check-up.
I landed ominously on Friday the thirteenth. On Saturday morning, I rang an Italian friend to go to a yoga class with me at my favourite studio, Rasa, on the Boulevard St Michel. I had called the studio in advance. They were indeed open and said it was important to stay healthy by exercising. “You can bring your own mat or disinfect the ones here,” the cheerful yogi on the other end of the phone reassured me. “Yoga will help you in stressful times like this.”
I relayed this news to my friend, and suggested we meet before the class for a coffee with our clean mats. “Are you. Out of. Your Mind?” my Italian friend shouted. “Do you know in Bergamo there is no room for the dead and they are lying the corpses in churches?”
With that terrible image in mind, I then went out to do some panic shopping at Franprix — the loo paper and pasta shelves were picked over — and I bought boxes of rice and tins of tuna. By midnight, the cafés of Paris closed down. I stared miserably at my favourite cinema, L’Arlequin on Rue de Rennes, one last time and mourned the films I would not see.
A friend called me at about 6 pm before the lights went out: “There’s a last-ditch party going on at a friend’s café in the seventh arrondissement before everything closes for two weeks,” Ash said cheerfully. “Should we go and have one last party?”
I am a risk-taker by nature: I reported war for nearly three decades. But even I had to turn this offer down. “Does it seem wise to go out in a crowd?”
“I’m scared,” I said, pouring another glass.
“I am, too,” she replied mournfully. We did not know what was ahead. It was the uncertainty that kept me awake that night.
The next day, the church bells of my favourite church, St. Sulpice, rang out but the church was bolted closed. So were the gates of the Luxembourg Gardens. The Café de La Mairie, where on happy summer nights I sat and drank Perrier Rondelle, was empty and shuttered. I crossed the Seine and saw the eeriest sight: the empty courtyard of the Louvre, the glass pyramid jutting towards an empty sky.
Soon after, I left Paris for the Alps. My ex, whom I separated from a dozen years ago, graciously took me in. I am not alone in this odd family situation. My friend who invited me to the last-ditch party is with her ex and her three children in the South of France.
Two other friends in New York are sheltering with exes. Which leads me to wonder two things that might result from this lockdown, however long we are shut-ins: will the divorce rate rise or will there be more marriages and more babies born? After all, life does go on, even during war and corona.
In the mountains, my New York hustle life has ceased. I used to rise at 6.30 am to prepare my son’s breakfast, a few times a week dropping in on a Lexington Avenue mass at 7.30, and then to a swanky gym filled with obsessive Type A personalities on East 74th Street.
I liked to be at my desk working by 9.30, and if I wasn’t I felt like a failure. That’s how over-achievers function. My day was littered with lesson plans for my students at Yale, assignments to grade, book deadlines, essays to be written, meals to cook for my son, homework to be talked through, and friends to meet. Concerts, dinner parties, school meetings, the endless Metro North to New Haven, working lunches. Grand Central Station, Penn Station, 77th Street station. The 6 Train, Uber, Lyft, Amazon, the Apple Store.
How strange and distant, and how cluttered it seems now.
Only one month ago I went to a dinner party on the Upper West Side for Leap Year. How we laughed at things I can no longer remember, but there was not one mention of corona or Wuhan. A few days later, I went to a talk in Brooklyn by an Israeli soldier who led a group opposed to the occupation called Breaking the Silence. I took the subway everywhere. I took the M1 bus and I sat in Starbucks elbow to elbow with other coffee drinkers. Was anyone carrying the horrible virus now set to kill hundreds of thousands of people? Was I a vector, a carrier?
A few days before my son and I left for France, something terrible happened in his school. The father of one of his classmates killed his mother, then turned the gun on himself. The school, which is small and extremely tight-knit, went into deep collective mourning. Now, even that terrible incident seems remote when I read of teenagers in Los Angeles who die of corona because they have no American health insurance.
I take some comfort that everyone is in the same boat as me in this strange, hazy time. The French call it flottement – floating. We are floating through this time. But we will not float forever. This pandemic will end. My worry and my anxiety is not that I will die of corona or even of boredom during lockdown — I will not, I hope. I have books and exercise and work to do — but my worry is of the world we will wake up to when this is over.
People I love might not be here any more. The global meltdown will take years to recover.
But there is something good. I have rekindled friendships. People I have not heard of or thought of in years reach out to me, and I to them. I am sharing a house with my ex for the first time in a dozen years. I am taking stock of a life that was perhaps lived at too fast a pace, at too breakneck a speed. I have time now, to go for walks in fields and see flowers push up through the earth a little more every day. The shoots on the trees are changing. Did I ever notice this before in my busy city life?
In this lockdown, I have time to reshape and reboot, as I try, like everyone on this planet, to survive, to live and to wake up to another day.
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