The following is written by a member of Orleans U3A: Gérard, who is also a Board Member and Délégué général of Association France-Grande-Bretagne (where our original penfriend requests came from and is an independent anglophile association not affiliated to a university)
View from a Room
My room has a view: our small flat is perched on the eighth and last floor of a block, the living-room balcony overlooks a three-acre square surrounded by buildings on all sides, while the two bedrooms control the view of a few streets of central Orléans, all the way up to the cathedral.
The lockdown felt like a term in jail for many, because they were old and ill and, living in “homes”, were cut from their relatives or simply because, still active, they were considered self-sufficient, although they lived alone, had few relatives and a limited social life. Others, living in cramped conditions, like the family of four plus a dog in the same flat as ours three floors below, went through strained relationships, as testified by the bursts one could overhear as one passed on their landing, when using the stairs instead of the lift for the sake of exercise.
For those concerned, working from home, a novelty for a majority of them, made them realise both the comfort of doing away with commuting and dress codes and the discomfort of working on a kitchen chair or a sofa, the importance of colleagues, however irksome. Having the children around, making sure they were doing the homework set by their teachers at a distance and keeping them occupied once it was finished, was a hassle most of them would easily have done without.
Contrary to many, my wife and I, both retired, did not properly “suffer” from the lockdown. For one thing, the weather was exceptionally fine most of the time, making every day of those two months a kind of permanent Sunday, with typical routines such as perambulations in the empty streets or coffees sipped al fresco (al caldo, actually) on the balcony. The quaint detail was that we had to sign ourselves a one-hour permit to go shopping for food or simply taking a walk under penalty of a € 135 fine if we had passed the time limit when checked by a police patrol. The number of people present in the shops was determined by their surface and shopkeepers made sure this was respected – in superstores, guards ensured that one shopper went out before another could get in – and, in the older generation, the queues outside stirred vague childhood memories of queuing for food with one’s mother in the late forties. What was incredible was the number of joggers, including improbable ones, barely recognized as they passed you on the pavement: the respectable third floor lady in a pink outfit and a bandana in her hair puffing her way along or the plump balding accountant from across the street who had changed his grey suit, his shirt and tie for an “I love New York” T-shirt and red shorts.
This jogging mania probably had something to do with the fact, ascertained by the media, that the French had each put on a bit over two kilos on average during the lockdown, owing to the lack of exercise at a moment when multiple recipes were being proposed in the press and on TV while people had time on their hands to try them. Recipes were only a few of the things on offer in the programmes. Paradoxically, while many societies or networks went mute, an incredible number of initiatives from institutions or private persons, technology permitting, created almost a surfeit of possible activities. Occasional churchgoers could attend daily services on their computer, music lovers could enjoy the concerts given by the musicians of various orchestras each in shirtsleeves in their own home or the weekly replays of last season’s operas. The Louvre had three times as many virtual visitors than it normally welcomes. Our gym teacher gave our group our weekly training on Zoom. We nearly could not cope with the flux of jokes on What’sApp and, of course, had never read so much in a day since our students’ days.
There was this daily ritual of collective clapping and cheering those “at the front”: the doctors, nurses, paramedics and firemen that took charge of the patients, but also the dustmen, postmen, lorry-drivers and shopkeepers that helped life go on. Every evening at 8. sharp, somebody blew a whistle and all those that felt like it came out on their balconies for five minutes of intense clapping, after which they separated to shouts of “À demain! Bonne soirée! Bon appétit!” while a few toasted each other with a glass of “apéro” from one balcony to another. At the crossroads visible from the other side of the building, young people from the vicinity, taking advantage of the absence of traffic, would improvise a dance party and danced in line for a quarter of an hour every night around 8:30. The lockdown definitely improved social relationships in our part of town, where people now greet each other where they barely acknowledged one another’s presence before.
Which leads to possibly the most gratifying in a country divided against itself on many issues: the intense need to close ranks, to renew links by e-mail, telephone, Skype, What’s App, Zoom and every possible means face to the hidden enemy. We, like most people, were in weekly (and sometimes daily) contact with friends and relatives that we call or that call us perhaps six times a year or so. A class-mate of mine did send a daily gem of a silly old music-hall song to cheer his friends up. Former students got in touch after retrieving phone numbers or e-mail addresses from heir notes of several years back, a school-mate out of sight for exactly 47 years turned up out of the blue at the end of the line… The rituals stopped brutally the day the lockdown was lifted, but the contacts will hopefully remain… for a while.
Two months in Paradise? Only if we had not lost a cousin and a former colleague in the pandemic.
Gérard Hocmard O.B.E.