DISCLAIMER: This is a blog about French food and wine. Or, at least, it was supposed to be. But it’s 2020. Supposed to has left the building. Even before the pandemic, I found myself in a crisis of connection fueled by despair over the state of the world. In an effort to cut through the cacophony of totalitarianism and environmental crises, I’m trying something new: a 2020 diaries series. Much like everyone today, I don’t know where we’ll go from here. But I do hope you’ll check back often to see where we end up.
On May 11th, Manu and I fled Paris. After 55 days living under one of the world’s strictest confinements, we seized the first opportunity to leave the city. Hours after the first phase of France’s deconfinement began, we were on the road, eager to escape the one block radius that had become our very own Huit clos.
Now look, I know it might seem silly to complain about Paris, even while confined. After all, it’s the city of love, light, and delicious food, where bakeries in the era of COVID will deliver fresh bread to your door and the fromagerie will send your favorite cheeses by bike.
Wine shops were deemed essential from the start, and at some point even the Michelin-starred restaurant down the street began offering meals to go. It all sounds rather romantic, really, and très chic.
But listen – spending 23.5 hours a day inside a 600-square-foot apartment filled with two people and three pets is enough to drive anyone crazy.
Or, at least, it was enough for me. And no amount of bread, cheese, or wine could make up for the total and sudden loss of nature and sun, of work and friends, of freedom.
So, it was either jump out the window or get out of town, and after some serious consideration of both options, we chose the latter.
We rented the biggest car we could and packed it to the brim with both dogs and our cat, a month’s worth of pet food, and way too many clothes – of which, you will be unsurprised to hear, I have worn almost none to date.
Of course, with the country still in partial lockdown, leaving wasn’t as simple as driving off into the sunset – or into the early afternoon sun, as it happened to be.
Travel here is still prohibited beyond 100 km (60 miles) of your chosen shelter-in-place residence, unless you have un motif impérieux, an ill-defined “exceptional motive” for which you absolutely must travel beyond the limits.
Well, ladies, gents, and my other-gendered friends, I’m going to be real honest here. When I say I was going crazy, I mean I WAS GOING ACTUALLY CRAZY.
It was all becoming very Virginia Woolf, and while I aspire to many things Queen V, I have mostly hoped not to go drowning myself in the Seine.
Being someone who suffers from lifelong depression with just a drop of “borderline personality tendencies” in the mix, being thus trapped was not going well. In fact, it was going pretty terribly.
We’re talking banging my head against the wall (literally and metaphorically), a real consideration of why even keep doing this life thing?, and a particularly worrisome appearance of what may or may not have been voices in my head.
It was all becoming very Virginia Woolf, you know, and while I aspire to many things Queen V, I have mostly hoped not to go drowning myself in the Seine.
But finding a place to rent that will accept three pets, is isolated enough to quarantine (we’re afraid of that second wave, y’all), AND is within 60 miles of Paris is . . . impossible. Trust me, we tried.
So we gathered a dossier full of justifying documents and crossed our fingers that should we be encounter a police checkpoint, our reason would be exceptional enough.
At the risk of sounding dramatic, between travel documents and checkpoints, our own personal sense of urgency and the general sense of fear, and President Macron’s talk of being en guerre, our escape felt a little too much like summer 1940.
Of course, I am being hyperbolic. Our experience was nothing compared to that horrible flight from the Nazis and if, like my grandfather or grandmother-in-law, you lived through those terrible days of war, please feel free to roll your eyes at another privileged millennial.
Perhaps we can blame one of those voices in my brain, or the fact that I am convinced the next world war is around the corner and that we have not begun to see the worst of our generation – but, hey now, this is about escape, so let’s not go there.
As it turns out, our worries were for naught. Maybe because we left so early in this new phase of corona-life, or because it was a non-holiday weekday, but we never encountered a checkpoint. Actually, with the exception of trucks, we didn’t really encounter anyone at all.
We breezed down the normally congested A-6 highway, which, along with the A-7 it eventually merges with, is fondly known as l’autoroute du soleil.
This “highway of sun” has mythic status in France, much like Route 66 in the United States. It connects Paris to Marseille, taking travelers through the bucolic hills of Burgundy and the imposing cliffs of the Rhône valley before hitting the sun-drenched fields of Provence.
The two parts of the autoroute du soleil meet in Lyon, where they take you through an industrial stretch of the city that sits along the mighty Rhône river, at points six times wider than the Seine.
We continued along the river’s eastern bank south of the city until my trusty navigator – aka my unlicensed husband – directed us off the highway and onto a smaller national road across the river, taking us to our final destination: Ardèche.
A rural département within the larger Rhône-Auvergne-Alpes région (the largest town has just over 16,000 inhabitants and the smallest, 31), Ardèche is all dramatic mountain landscapes, with pine and fir trees growing alongside hundred-years old chestnut trees, and fire-red poppies and happy-yellow scotch broom that bring springtime color.
Nestled among the forests are enchanting stone houses seemingly lifted from the pages of coffee-table books and Instagram pages dedicated to the French countryside.
It was precisely one of these houses we pulled up to in the pitch black night, having snaked our way through the Regional Park of the Mountains of Ardèche at half the speed limit, much to the annoyance of the one van that eventually appeared on our tail.
Here we were in our Mercedes station wagon, two very city folk, a couple of bulldogs, and a big fluffy cat stinky from having peed on herself half-an-hour into our journey.
I was white-knuckled from grasping the steering wheel as I tried to ignore the plunging descent to our right and deep-breath-mantra’d my way into a parking spot where one centimeter too far could well have been our end.
(In fairness, I fell off a cliff hiking in Colombia years ago, so I may be more nervous than your average driver.)
But, we’d made it.
That first night was a lot of jitters as we got used to the noises that come with a big house in the country. (Shoutout to my fellow PTSD-ers who know alllll about those lizard-brain jitters).
Our French bulldog Bagel managed to slam herself into a glass door and I had a run-in with a cicada, but we were happy to have arrived, and after a full night’s sleep we awoke to one of the most beautiful bedroom views I have ever experienced.
Manu is working from home, so he dove right into his routine, while I’ve spent my days trying to deal with pesky questions like, what am I doing with my life? and, what’s the point of life, anyway?
Being here is not a cure-all for depression, nor for my painful lack of self-worth, which spiraled when the business I’d poured my heart and soul into disappeared in a matter of days. I knew that coming here, those feelings would follow.
But oh what a joy it is here quand même.
I can breathe deeply for the first time in a long time. Maybe that shortness of breath started with the pandemic, though I sense it dates back a few more years, when we were all confronted with the brutal truth that so many of our global compatriots are, in one name or another, neo-Nazis.
Now, though, when I am overwhelmed by the seeming pointlessness of it all, I can step outside into the clean mountain air and, looking out above the trees and at the sparrows flying overhead, while butterflies flutter amongst the roses and lizards scurry up the garden’s 2000-year-old stone walls, I am reminded that there really is light in all the darkness.
In just under two weeks, I have even started to feel that perhaps I, too, have a small light that makes my life worthwhile.
I’ve thought a lot about whether to publish this piece. I have struggled with what exactly I wanted to say, and why. It is scary to come out into the world and say, I am sad. I am in pain. I am scared.
Especially when you’ve built your whole life on that strong-as-nails bad bitch persona and made a career out of keeping people entertained.
But, to quote TV’s most important character, Valerie Cherish, “That hurts my feelings, okay, and you need to know that. ‘Cuz I’m not going to keep it inside and get cancer.” That being sufferings of life and you being the world.
It is scary to come out into the world and say, I am sad. I am in pain. I am scared.
Okay, admittedly, that quote might be a stretch. But in times of crises I can always rely on The Comeback for a moment of understanding, and having spent a few recent tear-filled nights re-watching the Palm Springs episode, I had to work it in somehow.
In all seriousness, though, I have found that keeping my mental health struggles bottled up is quite literally killing me. I’ve suffered a handful of debilitating physical ailments as a result of repressed trauma and, psychologically, it has been downright exhausting existing in the world as a persona rather than a person.
Most people in my life know vaguely that I struggle with depression, but very few know the depths of it. It is the downside of being high-functioning.
She’s great at her job! She married the man of her dreams! She lives in Paree! But oh the lives we live beyond what everyone sees.
One of the consequences of hiding such a big part of myself is that friends I have made over the last few years have found me to be distant and unavailable, or fake, even.
And it’s true, I have been all those things. The moment I sense a friendship has gone deeper than what a persona can fulfill, I pull away. I have been so convinced of my fundamental unlikability, that I’ve chosen to lose friends rather than give them the chance to really know me.
And I don’t want to do that myself, or to my friends, anymore.
I don’t know what it will be like to engage more honestly with the world. I am afraid that I will lose business, because people will assume (wrongly) that my struggles negatively affect my work.
I am afraid that I will scare people off with my unending intensity, or that I will find I have no worth to the world if I’m anything but fun-fact-dropping, big-smile, circus Veronica.
But what I do know is that if I don’t take this risk, I’ll be giving up my only chance at happiness, and I may very well be giving up my chance at life itself.
So here we are. Twenty-twenty came and things got real, real fast. But maybe, in a very small way, that’s not such a bad thing.
© Veronica Cassidy, 2020.