An on-the-ground report from France, where our managing editor's extended stay turned into an indefinite lock-down.
- by Rheta Grimsley Johnson
I am reading things I have never read and things I have read before. I plow through Hardy’s Jude the Obscure and Zola’s The Ladies’ Paradise. The French Lieutenant’s Woman kept me busy a couple of long days.
I read a book about how to buy a house in France, and three books on having bought a house in France, including Peter Mayle’s famous A Year in Provence, which was so popular it single-handedly ruined a region.
I did not buy a house in France.
At night I am learning a little French from Agatha Christie’s prissy Belgian, Hercule Poirot. I’ve watched so many episodes on the BBC that I feel like Mdm Lemon’s assistant. I may try her hairstyle before quarantine is over. I could use duck lard to make the curlicues.
Last night at 7:30, French households put a candle in the window to honor those who have died from coronavirus – over 400 in the last two days, 1,300 total last count. Church bells rang. I balanced a votive on a box of sea salt and then stood in the yard to hear a faint pealing of bells.
It is hard to concentrate these days. I force myself to write a little each morning before giving up and losing myself in a book. If the book is funny – Bridget Jones; The Edge of Reason, Man and Wife – I cackle aloud at the humorous passages and am grateful for them. I vow to remember to put more humor in whatever I write.
The French already have replaced the form we must carry with us whenever we leave the house with a new, improved form: Attestation de Deplacement Derogatorie. Declaration for Movement from Home Excuse. A hall pass, in other words. The government also has raised the fine for not having the paper on your person to over 100 euros.
Getting ready to go to the grocery store once a week is like packing for a camping trip in the Grand Canyon. I must remember gloves, mask, The Form, hand sanitizer, reusable grocery bags, my passport and money. Once inside the hypermarket I’m torn between savoring the rare outing or hurrying to get away from other people.
Fields surround this house. At some point yesterday manure mulch was spread nearby, and it hurt my nostrils to go outside. They say losing your sense of smell is a sign of having contracted coronavirus. I was relieved to discover I am safe for now.
The bright yellow rape is blooming and has turned the countryside into a patchwork quilt. High-tech windmills that are jolting at first sight on the timeless horizon now seem as familiar as the stone barns. I long to repeat our first few weeks here of riding about the narrow country roads and delighting at the treasures around every bend. Now the muddy rental car is parked in the drive, useless as the Michelin Travel Guide left dogeared on the table.
I miss our dog Buster, who is living at our North Mississippi house with our friend Anita. She sends me photographs of Buster, and I get sad and begin to wonder if he’ll remember me. He seems to have taken to heart the Stephen Stills song: If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with. He looks fat and happy.
Speaking of music, for the first time in my life I cannot listen to much of it. Makes me too sad. One Sunday night before lockdown we went to the village bistro. When we walked through the door, a woman was belting out “Georgia” as a keyboard player accompanied her. Because Georgia is my home state, it felt ordained.
Philippe Zebulon Nicolas, the pianist, looked a little like a young Bernie Sanders with wild hair and dark eyeglasses. He played “Blueberry Hill” and “Whole Lotta Shakin’” and rocked the small venue. I told him in my shaky French he was as good as Jerry Lee, and I had heard Jerry Lee in person. He jumped up and presented me with a CD.
When the virus is sad history, I plan on punching that precious CD into my front porch player and remembering the lovely night in a village bistro. There will be other lovely nights in our lives, with any luck. We will dance with abandon, laugh at one another’s jokes and gather in bars and restaurants.
But meanwhile, out of recognition of the grim reality, there’s a candle in the window and the only playlist is the ringing of ancient church bells.
Check out more stories on FQJ's Hunkering Down blog.
Rheta Grimsley Johnson is a veteran reporter and former syndicated columnist for King Features Syndicate of New York. She is the author of eight books, including "Poor Man's Provence; Finding Myself in Cajun Louisiana" and "Good Grief," the only authorized biography of "Peanuts" cartoonist Charles M. Schulz. She is the recipient of the Ernie Pyle Memorial Award and the National Headliner Award for commentary.
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