Open letter by French author, Virginie Despentes

Virginie Despentes is a French writer. In this open letter, read aloud over the radio, she denounces the denial of racism and explains why “being white” constitutes a privilege. I’ve translated it for you.

In France we are not racist, but I do not remember ever having seen a black government minister. Yet I am fifty years old, and I have seen governments. In France we are not racist, but the prison population of blacks and Arabs is over-represented. In France we are not racist, but for the past twenty-five years in which I have been publishing books I have answered the questions of a black journalist only once. I was photographed only once by a woman of Algerian origin. In France we are not racist, but the last time I was refused service on a café terrace, I was with an Arab. The last time I was asked to show my identity papers, I was with an Arab. The last time the person I was waiting for almost missed the train was because she was stopped by the police in the train station, she was black.

In France we are not racist, but during the lockdown those who we saw being tasered because they failed to have the mandatory document that allowed us to go out were racialized women in disadvantaged neighborhoods. White people, meanwhile, could be seen jogging and going to the market in the seventh arrondissement. In France we are not racist, but when we learned that the COVID-19 death rate in Seine Saint Denis was 60 times higher than the national average, not only did we not give a damn but we allowed ourselves to say between us “It’s because they confine themselves badly.”

I can already hear the clamor of the tweeters, affronted as they are every time someone speaks up to say something that does not correspond to the official propaganda: “What horror, but why so much violence?

As if violence is not what happened on the night of July 19, 2016. As if violence was not the imprisoned brothers of Assa Traoré. This Tuesday, I’m going for the first time in my life to a political rally of more than 80,000 people organized by a non-white collective. This crowd is not violent. For me, Assa Traoré is Antigone. But this Antigone does not allow herself to be buried alive after having dared to say no. Antigone is no longer alone. She raised an army. The crowd chants: Justice for Adama!

Adama Traoré (19 July 1992 – 19 July 2016) was a French-Malian man who died in custody after being restrained and apprehended by police on his 24th birthday. His death triggered protests against police brutality in France. Assa is his sister.

These young people know what they’re saying when they say that if you are black or Arab in France, the police scares you. They are telling the truth. They tell the truth and they demand justice.

I am white. I leave my house every day without taking my identity papers with me. For people like me, it’s our credit card that we go back for when we’ve forgotten it. The city tells me I’m at home here. A woman like me moves around this city without even noticing where the police are. And I know that if there are three of them sitting on my back until I suffocate – for the sole reason that I tried to dodge a routine check – we’ll make a huge scandal out of it. I was born white as others are born men. I cannot forget that I am a woman, but I can forget that I am white. That’s what it’s like being white. Think about it, or not think about it, depending on your mood. In France we are not racist, but I do not know a single black or Arab who has this choice.

Virginie Despentes

You can hear an audio version of this in French read by Augustin Trapenard on France Inter radio:

https://www.franceinter.fr/emissions/lettres-d-interieur/lettres-d-interieur-04-juin-2020

 

 

I have no desire whatsoever to visit the United States of America

I am horrified – aghastwe all are, at the terrible things going on in that once-great country. I used to go to the USA all the time, I have friends and relatives there; now, it’s the last place I want to visit. Your country scares the hell out of me.

“Make America great again!” said Trump. Are you kidding me?

All those senseless, egregious killings of black people … what the hell is going on?? How can those racist killer-cops do what they do with impunity? Why are they not serving jail sentences for murder? Where’s the justice?

Here are the latest casualties. Note that these three individuals were unarmed: Ahmaud was jogging. Breonna was sleeping in her bed. George was sitting in a car.

George Floyd, a 46-year-old man who died after a white Minneapolis police officer pressed his knee on Floyd’s neck for approximately nine minutes while he was handcuffed and lying chest down on the road.

Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old emergency medical technician. Shot eight times inside her own home by Louisville police officers after they entered her apartment with a drug warrant looking for someone else.

Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old man, killed by two trigger-happy residents while jogging in south Georgia. Gregory McMichael, one of the accused, was an ex-cop.

Since when is jogging, sleeping in one’s own bed or sitting in a car considered a crime?What were their crimes? That they were black? Is being black a crime in the USA?

And while we’re on the subject of crimes, let’s not forget the depraved President and his repulsive cohort-conspirator, Mitch McConnell. The following words come to mind when I think of them: evil, profiteering, morally-bankrupt, white-collar thugs. How anyone could vote for Donald J. Trump is utterly incomprehensible to me. In fact, it’s not even Trump I blame, it’s the people who voted for him and put him in the White House.

Taylor Swift tweeted this re Trump  – After stoking the fires of white supremacy and racism your entire presidency, you have the nerve to feign moral superiority before threatening violence? We will vote you out in November.

We used to love and even look up to the USA. No longer. The good times are a distant memory now.

breonna

post-Covid shopping in the Marais district

It was wonderful to walk the streets and pop into shops again (like we used to.)  We’re not 100% out of the tunnel, but the light suggests that our terrible three-month ordeal is nearing its end. Hallelujah. God, it was awful.

Yesterday, my friend and I met up at W.H. Smith bookstore on the rue de Rivoli. It was a beautiful warm and breezy early-summer day, perfect for strolling. The streets and shops were near-empty, not because of Covid, but because this is a long 4-day weekend and many Parisians have left town. Thursday was Ascension Day, a statutory holiday in this country.

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It’s obligatory to wear a mask on public transport. From W.H. Smith, we walked leisurely to the Marais, popping into shops along the way. The rue des Francs Bourgeois is one of the main shopping streets in the Marais district.

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There’s a huge EATALY, opened exactly one year ago, located at number 37 rue Sainte Croix la Bretonnerie. Pre-Covid, you could barely get into the place. Yesterday we strolled in and it was near-empty. I purchased a bag of sun-dried cherry tomatoes, Lavazza espresso capsules (biodegradable) and a jar of tomato sauce with wild fennel.

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We strolled some more and ended up at Mariage Frères, the temple of tea located at number 30 rue du Bourg-Tibourg.

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This is a must-visit place, if only for the mingled scents of exotic teas. I purchased 100 grams of perfumed jasmine tea. My friend bought Earl Grey French Blue and some other blends. In each shop, masks are obligatory as well as the squirting of antiseptic gel onto hands at the entrance. I swear, by the end of the morning I had the cleanest, most sanitized hands in all of Paris.

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This Mexican place below used to be a French bistro, called Le Coude Fou, a favorite of mine for decades. Here’s what I wrote about it a few years ago –

Another cozy, authentic place that calls itself a true Parisian bistro. Located at number 12 Rue du Bourg Tibourg, 4th arrondissement. Because it’s small, reservations are essential. Lots of wood: wooden bar, small wooden tables, tiled floor. Excellent wine list.

It’s sad when your favorite places disappear. A lick of paint, a change of name, and it’s gone. Le Coude Fou means, literally, The Crazy Elbow. I can only imagine that this refers to standing at the bar, elbow bent, with a glass of wine in your hand.

a perfect, post-Covid Sunday

The weather was perfect this weekend: sunny and 18°C (64°F). I returned to the wooded area near my apartment … it was packed! After two months of house arrest, the whole of Paris, it seemed, had headed to green spaces with their friends, family, dogs, etc. It was nice to see. Here in Europe, we’re slowly moving back to normality. However, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe has told us that we cannot travel outside of France this summer.

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So I had to cancel my trip to Portugal early-June and lost money, not much. I was hoping to go to London in August, but now I cannot. At least, as from July, I can go up to Lille, see the kids and spend time at my friend’s small house in the countryside surrounded by fields. I’m craving nature. It’s been a rough two months FOR US ALL, rougher and devastating for those who lost loved ones because of the virus, and for that I am sorry.

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Poor kids. I feel sorry for young people today. WE never went through anything like this (Coronavirus.) I believe I have baby boomer guilt. When I think back to my teen years and how insouciant I was, we all were. When I was the age of these kids above, I was riding horses, driving a car, riding my bike, hangin’ out with my gal pals (and boys), going to high school, weekend parties and listening to Elton John and Supertramp. Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and Instagram didn’t exist, and I believe we were better off for it. What’s weird about social media is that it isn’t social.

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But this – sitting in the long grass in groups on a beautiful pre-summer Sunday evening – this is social. A craving to talk, face-to-face, to assemble and gather; it was palpable.

the latest fashion trend from Paris

Here it is, folks. The latest fashion trend direct from Paris! (You saw it here first.)

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Rubber dish gloves can lift a dull outfit from the doldrums. See how the pink adds a pop of color to an otherwise cheerless ensemble.

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As for the must-have reusable face mask, it’s the most versatile accessory in your drawer. If you’re looking for something to mix and match with just about everything in your wardrobe, a face mask is something you should definitely get your hands on – but make sure those hands have been thoroughly washed!  See how it completes the rest of the outfit.

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Depending on the fabric and color, it can turn your attire into evening wear, daytime, formal or casual wear.

(Seriously, folks, I don’t know if people in other countries wear COVID-protective dish gloves out in the streets, but here in France it is très en vogue.)

Hermann Hesse’s 100 year old love letter to trees

“Trees are wiser than we are.”

For me, trees have always been the most penetrating preachers. I revere them when they live in tribes and families, in forests and groves. And even more I revere them when they stand alone. They are like lonely persons. Not like hermits who have stolen away out of some weakness, but like great, solitary men, like Beethoven and Nietzsche. In their highest boughs the world rustles, their roots rest in infinity; but they do not lose themselves there, they struggle with all the force of their lives for one thing only: to fulfill themselves according to their own laws, to build up their own form, to represent themselves. Nothing is holier, nothing is more exemplary than a beautiful, strong tree.

When a tree is cut down and reveals its naked death-wound to the sun, one can read its whole history in the luminous, inscribed disk of its trunk: in the rings of its years, its scars, all the struggle, all the suffering, all the sickness, all the happiness and prosperity stand truly written, the narrow years and the luxurious years, the attacks withstood, the storms endured. And every young farmboy knows that the hardest and noblest wood has the narrowest rings, that high on the mountains and in continuing danger the most indestructible, the strongest, the ideal trees grow.

Trees are sanctuaries. Whoever knows how to speak to them, whoever knows how to listen to them, can learn the truth. They do not preach learning and precepts, they preach, undeterred by particulars, the ancient law of life.

A tree says: A kernel is hidden in me, a spark, a thought, I am life from eternal life. The attempt and the risk that the eternal mother took with me is unique, unique the form and veins of my skin, unique the smallest play of leaves in my branches and the smallest scar on my bark. I was made to form and reveal the eternal in my smallest special detail.

When we are stricken and cannot bear our lives any longer, then a tree has something to say to us: Be still! Be still! Look at me! Life is not easy, life is not difficult. Those are childish thoughts… Home is neither here nor there. Home is within you, or home is nowhere at all.

A longing to wander tears my heart when I hear trees rustling in the wind at evening. If one listens to them silently for a long time, this longing reveals its kernel, its meaning. It is not so much a matter of escaping from one’s suffering, though it may seem to be so. It is a longing for home, for a memory of the mother, for new metaphors for life. It leads home. Every path leads homeward, every step is birth, every step is death, every grave is mother.

So the tree rustles in the evening, when we stand uneasy before our own childish thoughts: Trees have long thoughts, long-breathing and restful, just as they have longer lives than ours. They are wiser than we are, as long as we do not listen to them. But when we have learned how to listen to trees, then the brevity and the quickness and the childlike hastiness of our thoughts achieve an incomparable joy. Whoever has learned how to listen to trees no longer wants to be a tree. He wants to be nothing except what he is. That is home. That is happiness.

H.H.

 

london old tree

This is one of London’s “ten great trees.” It’s called a Brunswick Plane, and it’s over 200 years old.

 

last day of lockdown today

youpi

 

Tomorrow is officially our first day of freedom, sort of. We can go out without a certificate, that’s one good thing. But there are a dozen things we cannot do. As I look at the published “schedule of deconfinement measures in France until the summer”, I scratch my head and say “Huh?”

During the lockdown, we could go out for one hour and walk within a maximum radius of one kilometer around the home. Jogging was strictly forbidden between 10 am and 7 pm (why?) which meant that at 7 pm the streets were full of joggers bumping into one another. Now, we can venture further than a maximum radius of one kilometer, BUT only within a 100 kilometer radius.

“How many kilometers between Paris and Lille?” I asked my friend yesterday over the phone. I haven’t seen him or his kids in months. 204 kilometers, was the reply. So I cannot go to Lille. Here’s the new rule for travelling beyond a hundred kilometers:

Travel over 100 km
Movement will remain limited to compelling professional and family reasons (bereavement, assistance to a vulnerable person). A certificate will be required for trips of more than 100 km (as the crow flies) from his main home, outside his department of residence. Checks will be carried out. Failure to comply with the rules will result in a fine of 135 euros, an amount which may increase in the event of a repeat offense.

Can I take the metro tomorrow and visit a different part of Paris? I’ve been stuck in my neighborhood since mid-March.

Restricted Transportation in Ile-de-France (Paris and surrounding boroughs)

In Ile-de-France, during rush hour, transport will be reserved for people with a certificate from the employer or with a compelling reason to travel (convocation of justice, accompaniment of children). Failure to comply with these rules may result in a fine of 135 euros.

Reopening of urban transport

Subways, buses and trams were severely limited during the lockdown. They should retain reduced capacity. Only one seat out of two will be accessible and a flow limitation must be implemented if necessary. Wearing a mask will be compulsory, under penalty of a fine of 135 euros.

Reopening of parks and gardens
The reopening is possible from May 11, except in the four “red” regions: Ile-de-France, Hauts-de-France, Bourgogne-Franche-Comté and Grand-Est.

Paris is part of Ile-de-France which is still colored red, so that means that my favorite parks and gardens will remain closed.

Reopening of shops

With the exception of cafes, bars and restaurants, all shops are allowed to reopen. However, they will have to set up a limitation of the number of customers and to respect a minimum distance. The wearing of a mask will be recommended: shops may prohibit access to customers without a mask.

Hair salons will open tomorrow and they’re already fully booked in advance! I can do my own hair, but am impatient to see my pedicurist.

Reopening of large shopping centers
Shopping centers over 40,000 m2 “may reopen in agreement with the prefects”, except in the Ile-de-France region, said the Minister of Economy.

Funnily enough, there’s no mention of the re-opening of local Post Offices. For a month I’ve been walking around with letters to mail, one of them a birthday card to my godson in Lille who celebrated his 8th birthday two weeks ago.

Organization of working hours and organization
When teleworking is not possible, staggered hours are encouraged, particularly in the Ile-de-France region. Wearing a mask is mandatory when social distancing is not guaranteed. Sixty business guides are being developed to cover all sectors of activity.

Because I work at La Défense, Europe’s largest business district housing 180,000 people, only twenty percent will return tomorrow. In the office towers, the elevators will be restricted to 4 passengers only, the staff cafeterias and gyms closed; masks and gel will be distributed and, most importantly, the central air conditioning will be sanitized daily. (there has been concern about Coronavirus being transmitted through central air ducts.) The return to work will be progressive.

There’s a lot more rules and regulations that you can see here, all neatly categorized by sector and date. You know, the French are often perceived as chaotic, unruly, and undisciplined. Not so.

https://www.lemonde.fr/les-decodeurs/article/2020/04/28/coronavirus-ecole-transports-sport-musees-le-calendrier-du-deconfinement-par-secteur_6038054_4355770.html

 

 

nature is my church

Yesterday I paid a visit to my church, my temple, my synagogue, my mosque at whose altar I worship. “Nature is my church” is a lovely phrase that came from a Canadian man who left the high-density, vertical city of Vancouver to live in a log cabin on a semi-secluded island with forest and beaches, one of the southern Gulf Islands situated between mainland British Columbia and Vancouver Island. One day I will visit that entire region, but for now – and while we’re still in lockdown – I can walk ten minutes from my flat to a beautiful nature spot.

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Towering trees and whispering grasses.

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The weather was perfect yesterday: sunny, a cool breeze and 19°C (66°F). Too beautiful to stay indoors! In fact, I’ve observed a funny thing: my French colleagues daren’t go outside during this lockdown, whereas me and my non-French friends go out every single day. Why is this? Because the French view their government as a “nanny state” and, like obedient children, follow its strict rules and regulations re COVID?

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I can’t tell you how restorative it was to sit on a log – tranquil and undisturbed – while listening to the birdsong, looking up at the blue sky and the trees all around, and feeling the sun on my skin. I will return to this same place later today. There’s a term for this: forest bathing, and it’s true!

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But this could be the last moment of feeling tranquil and undisturbed. The coming months and years look very grim indeed. The aftermath of COVID-19 is that the European Union is staring at its worst economic recession ever.

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Our days of gliding serenely on the pond are over. Am I being overly-pessimistic? Only time will tell.

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Tatiana De Rosnay open letter to Covid

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tulips I purchased yesterday

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As I stood in my kitchen making coffee earlier this week, this open letter was read aloud on the radio.  I turned up the volume and stood still, listening.

Tatiana De Rosnay is a Franco-British writer, known for her best-selling book, “Sarah’s Key”. The book sold over three million copies in French and two million in English. It was then adapted into a movie with Kristin Scott Thomas playing Julia.

In this Open Letter to her neighbor, she summons up the powers of memory and imagination as protections against stress and anxiety. I have translated it into English, the original French version is further below. I hope I’ve done it justice.

I know you can’t sleep either, my dear insomniac neighbor. At around three in the morning, when I get up to fetch a glass of water in the kitchen, I notice that your light is always on across the street. It’s difficult to sleep in these disrupted times. So come, trust me. Don’t ask too many questions. I’m taking you somewhere else. You will not need your certificate, your mask, or your gloves. All you need to do is put your two hands on my shoulders. Yes, like that. You see, I’m here, on the windowsill. Here we go. It’s a little cool, I know. But at this hour, in the middle of the night, no one will see us. See how we are racing at high speed in the inky blue sky, heading south. Hang on.

I’m taking you along the path of childhood. Confinement has this strange and charming virtue: it opens the memory box. Don’t be afraid, dear neighbor. The journey is fast. Down there, is the ocean. Already! Yes, already. We are going to land there, gently, on this beach. The sun is shining. It’s low tide on the Basque Coast. It’s a summer day. Watch the surfers glide across the waves. You see the one with the black hair? In the red and blue outfit? That’s my father. He’ll spend all afternoon on his board. And that pretty woman in her thirties with the big straw hat who’s waiting on the sand, and who will wait a long time for her husband to come out of the water? That’s my mother. And the kid who’s playing Frisbee with her friend, Sylvie? That’s me.

Higher up, above the steps, is the shop of the ice-cream seller, Emilia. With her English accent, my mother orders “two balls in a cone”. Her way of pronouncing the word “cone” is confusing. Everyone laughs. I don’t understand why, neither does my mother. I do not care. I am ten years old, and the summer vacation has just started. And the rest no longer matters.

You see, these are the images that come back to me, while we are confined to the city, these are the ones that I will look for at night when I am not sleeping and when anxiety is gaining ground. Enjoy that vanilla-chocolate ice cream. Listen to the sound of the waves. Breathe in the spray. But be quick. We will have to leave. There are sentries (guards) lurking. Best be careful. The sentries of the past are treacherous, they bring back nostalgia in a way too violent.

We head back to Paris. Sorry for my hair floating in your face. Next time I’ll tie it up. I hadn’t planned to take you away like that.

Come, I’ll drop you at your window. Do you think we will be able to sleep tonight? Since the virus has crept into our lives, it has undermined our sleep. It has sapped everything, the bastard. Our morale, our health, our joie de vivre. Everything? Well, almost. It will not have our memories or our imaginary world.

§§§

Je sais que tu ne dors pas non plus, chère voisine insomniaque. Vers trois heures du matin, quand je vais chercher un verre d’eau dans la cuisine, je constate que de l’autre côté de la rue, ta lumière est toujours allumée. Difficile de dormir par ces temps bouleversés. Alors viens, fais-moi confiance. Ne te pose pas trop de questions. Je t’emmène ailleurs. Tu n’auras pas besoin de ton attestation, ton masque, ni de tes gants. Il te suffit de caler tes deux mains sur mes épaules. Oui, comme ça. Tu vois, je suis là, sur le rebord de ta fenêtre. Nous voilà partis. Il fait un peu frais, je sais. Mais à cette heure-ci, au cœur de la nuit, personne ne nous verra. Regarde comme nous filons à toute vitesse dans le ciel bleu d’encre, direction le sud. Accroche-toi.

Je t’emmène sur les traces de l’enfance. Le confinement possède cette vertu étrange et charmante : ouvrir la boîte à souvenirs. N’aie pas peur, chère voisine. Le voyage est rapide. Là en bas, l’océan. Déjà ! Oui, déjà. Nous allons nous poser là, doucement, sur cette plage. Le soleil brille. Marée basse sur la Côte des Basques. C’est un jour d’été. Regarde les surfeurs glisser sur les vagues. Tu vois celui qui a les cheveux noirs ? Une combinaison rouge et bleu ? C’est mon père. Il passera son après-midi sur sa planche. Cette jolie trentenaire avec un grand chapeau de paille qui attend sur le sable, et qui attendra longtemps que son mari sorte de l’eau, c’est ma mère. Et la gamine qui joue au Frisbee avec sa copine Sylvie, c’est moi.

Plus haut, au-dessus des marches, il y a l’échoppe de la marchande de glaces, Emilia. Avec son accent anglais, ma mère commande “deux boules dans une cône”. Sa façon de prononcer le mot “cône” prête à confusion. Tout le monde se marre. Je ne comprends pas pourquoi, ma mère non plus. Je m’en fiche. J’ai dix ans, et les vacances d’été viennent de commencer. Et le reste n’a plus d’importance.

Tu vois, ce sont ces images là qui me reviennent, alors que nous sommes confinés en ville, ce sont celles-là que je vais chercher la nuit quand je ne dors pas et que l’angoisse gagne du terrain. Savoure cette glace vanille chocolat. Écoute le bruit des rouleaux. Respire les embruns. Mais fais vite. Nous allons devoir repartir. Il y a des sentinelles qui rôdent . Il vaut mieux être prudents. Les sentinelles du passé sont perfides, elles font remonter la nostalgie d’une façon trop violente.

Cap sur Paris. Pardon pour mes cheveux qui flottent dans ta figure. La prochaine fois je les attacherai. Je n’avais pas prévu de t’embarquer.

Viens, je te dépose à ta fenêtre. Crois-tu qu’on arrivera à dormir cette nuit ? Depuis que le virus s’est insinué dans notre vie, il a sapé notre sommeil. Il a tout sapé, le salaud. Notre moral, notre santé, notre joie de vivre. Tout ? Presque. Il n’aura ni nos souvenirs, ni notre monde imaginaire.

Tatiana de Rosnay