Before the virus showed its stuff, we did make it to the Elvis Costello concert in Sunderland, northeast England, on March 3. Third row tickets explained the choice of venue, and the little English road trip before and after the show enabled us to stretch our legs, which we love to do.
We visited Adrian in Leeds and sat in a pub drinking Guinness with him and his hard-drinking friends. We ate dinner with wine in a pub in the New Forest outside Christchurch with my cousins Louise and Ron. And, as ever, we stopped off in Marlow, and drank a pint or two of old-fashioned bitter with David down by the river at the Two Brewers. There is a bit of a common thread here!
Marlow always feels like home to me, and the Two Brewers, one of the pubs of my youth, has barely changed in fifty years. David grew a beard about forty years ago, plays a lot more golf and does a lot more gardening than he used to. But he’s still David, one of those reassuring human fixtures that anchor a life.
Burger’s Tea Room is another fixture, still at the bottom of Marlow High Street where it always used to be when the family – mum, dad, Sue and I – lunched there every Saturday. That started in 1966. The menu is pretty similar now: their poached eggs on toast remains an excellent light lunch in the bland English style. Marlow is still home.
The concert in Sunderland was fabulous, with Elvis and his band playing his songs of the late 1970s and into the 90s, the old songs that we loved: “Watching the detectives;” “Accidents will happen;” “I don’t want to go to Chelsea;” “Oliver’s Army;” and of course my favorite, “What’s so funny about peace, love and understanding?” His band is now called “the Imposters,” but they look a lot like the “Attractions” of yore, with attractive additions.
We were all seated at the Sunderland Empire, which unfortunately did take away the mosh pit thrill of the Libertines concert in Paris a couple of months earlier – Lisa had me start that concert in the mosh pit, and it took an hour to escape, an hour of dodging slamming crazies! – but after the Sunderland show on the way out of the Empire I saw Diana Kroll, the amazing Canadian jazz singer (and Elvis’s better half). She was the only woman I saw there, apart from Lisa, who was wearing any black leather. Lisa’s middle name is “Style!”
We were so happy that we went to that concert, especially so as the pandemic moved in. It was already on the horizon; we booked a cabin that we didn’t need on the car ferry back to England to reduce the risk of infection. During the night of March 11, a week after our return to Brittany, President Trump announced that EU citizens could no longer fly to the US, and President Macron took a similar path six days later when he ordered France’s first lockdown.
The remainder of our vague plans for the balance of the year went quietly up in smoke.
First, we got engaged! More on that and the follow up later.
Then, rather than spending much of the spring in California, with a view to seeing Charlie’s and Alex’s graduations and Liam’s track meets, among other highlights, we stayed in France until August or September. The UCSB graduations were delayed indefinitely, and the high school track meets cancelled. Important milestones in those young lives disappeared, just like that. Very sad.
And, much as we tried to avoid it, Covid became a focus for the rest of the year. We were aware early on that we would be dodging bullets, and that’s how the year evolved.
We worried more about our diverse clan of children (Lisa’s three and my four) than anything else. Arlo may already have caught Covid. This was early in the year, when he had the “worst flu” of his life. It went on and on, and he was so tired for so long. Of course, in Athens he could find no test, and so he just hunkered down in his little flat and waited to feel better. As he did, after six weeks or so.
Early on during the lockdown, when it still appeared that supermarket shopping might be a significant spreader of the illness, I sent Charlie and Alex a link to a helpful Canadian video. It featured a surgeon explaining how to unpack shopping at home while respecting operating theatre sterility rules. I thought it fascinating and full of common sense. Charlie’s retort? “Thanks, dad, I mean I understood your wanting to help me with sex education (sure you did!). But shopping education?!”
For Lisa and I, the disruptions were hardly significant: we had decided to live in the Breton countryside, where there is not a lot going on at the best of times. And where we are fine with that! We go to the store two or three times a week, ride our bikes two or three times a week (when weather permits!), and spend a lot of time reading (Lisa) or writing (me). That didn’t change much. We feel very good in our own little world, just the two of us.
We broke one silly rule on a regular basis: ill-informed bureaucrats decided to limit exercise to one kilometre from home. That might make some sense in a crowded city, but was a joke in the country. Our bike rides took us up to maybe 15 kilometres from home, and we rarely met anybody on the local country lanes and canal banks. Figuring that plenty of exercise was just what our immune systems needed in a pandemic, we kept up the rides.
We did miss our travels on a larger scale, my key retirement goal, and as soon as Mr. Macron eased the “confinement,” about May 11, we started taking little trips, elaborated in an earlier blog post here: road trips with caution.
While I prefer train travel, public transport in a pandemic is riskier than driving: the air filters on trains are nothing like as good as those on planes. So we drove, with the bikes on their rack, and a new cooler and straw picnic basket to help compensate for the still closed restaurants. If you need to live out of a cooler, do it in France!
As to what we did on the road, we basically winged it. There were not a lot of people out and about, because much was closed, and it was difficult for all (including us) to predict from week to week what was not. So we had an unusual amount of personal space, which was wonderful, almost like being in a parallel (quieter and calmer) country. The absence of foreign tourists was equally striking: almost no American accents or foreign languages, wherever we went.
We too couldn’t generally cross borders, because various governments were playing whack-a-mole with the virus by closing borders in seemingly random ways. We didn’t want to be trapped far from home.
So we explored France, targeting Paris twice and an Avignon AirBnB for a few days.
From that AirBnB we visited, at times on bikes, at times in the car:
fields of lavender;
more fields, this time of sunflowers;
Sault, a medieval village which became a center of the Resistance during World War II;
St Remy de Provence, home of Nostradamus and occasional members of the Grimaldi family of Monaco; and
the awe-inspiring Pont du Gard, “what the Romans did for us.”
It doesn’t take long to feel sated here!
Most of the time we stayed at home in the Breton countryside. Until it was time to get married! Our wonderful almost unplanned wedding and singularly happy honeymoon are covered in an earlier blog post here, if you’re interested. Again, we followed the always-evolving rules, but again, we did so dodging bullets.
Oddly enough, the honeymoon almost tracked the summer vacation that we had planned before Covid arrived, a tour of National Parks in the Western States. We shortened it, of course, and the price of the motorhome rental had gone through the roof because of the pandemic. So we drove Lisa’s old Toyota instead! A warm and fuzzy start to a warm and fuzzy marriage.
The worst part of the pandemic happened way before the wedding, maybe April or May.
There was a constant sense of missing people throughout the year. My cousins Ron and Louise had ferry tickets to visit us in Brittany in April, but of course had to cancel. Lisa’s daughter Shannon, a francophile living in Connecticut, and her family were enthusiastic about visiting their mom and grandma, but couldn’t come as things worsened.
Everyone put trips and visits on hold, as we did. And who could blame any of us?
Then Oded called, out of the blue. A good friend since my first real job as a lawyer in New York City, that’s about 37 years ago, he called because he was not well. Not Covid, terminal cancer. He had maybe two months to live. We cried together over the phone, of course, and I told him how important he was to me and how much I loved him.
Then I set about trying to visit him before he died. Oded was such a decent man, so full of integrity, and amazingly successful despite these traits. He was first a corporate lawyer (becoming a name partner in one of the biggest law firms in Israel) and then, in later years, Chairman of the Board of Israel’s biggest commercial bank.
We had met a few times in the US, most recently at the Grand Canyon in 2015, and I had promised him to come visit him in Israel so that he could show me Jerusalem. Never made it before he fell ill. Didn’t make it this time either. Israel was as politicised about Covid as the US and UK, and passions like that allow for minimal flexibility.
Oded never did show me Jerusalem, and I feel like crap about it. And now he’s gone.
The problem wasn’t really the pandemic, of course, the problem was that I had not visited Oded before he suddenly fell ill. Note to self for future reference: do it now!
As for right now, it’s a cold Christmas Eve in Brittany, there’s a fire in the hearth, and Lisa and Charlotte are roasting the best beef that we could find. Charlotte already prepared the lemon meringue desert, and it is sitting on the counter. We’ve started on the good champagne. Somehow, I have two sons visiting for the Holidays!
Nick and Charlotte live less than two hours away, and visit regularly. Lockdowns kept us apart for a few months, but that was all. Charlie’s plans were completely changed by the pandemic. In June, he graduated in film at UCSB, with an award for Best Director, and expected to make the two-hour move to Los Angeles.
But the movie business was in free fall, and he moved to near London instead for a gap year. It’s the first time that he’s lived in England, and by chance he’s living only about ten miles from where I was born. So he’s over here too, for a couple of weeks!
Ultimately, this year has been in many ways a lot like any other. Spending time with friends makes the world go round; losing them hurts terribly. There are wonders to behold in exotic places, and stunning art in the Louvre and the Musee d’Orsay. There are beautiful sights in the country just around the corner from our little cottage.
That said, we’ve all been pretty lonely too at times, pretty isolated. Watching the airport scenes in “Love Actually” this year felt like a kick in the gut: public displays of affection used to be so normal!
Let’s hope that 2021 begins this century’s roaring twenties!