Dreaming and walking in the time of the coronavirus

In this month of June when Parisians are starting to get comfortable again with the idea of sitting in a café (on my count, we are on the fourth weekend of the city’s “return to life” even if with restraint?) and enjoying the beautiful weather (“savor more than coffee”, as the New York Times put it), what is Madeleine to do when she can’t travel?  (As of 15 June, Paris has moved from “orange” to “green” on the French government’s “reopening” readiness indicator.)  When it’s still very difficult to get flights, when “Jomo” (“joy of missing out”) is wearing slightly thin, when quarantine requirements are still in place everywhere? Far niente is not dolce vita when it is obligatory, n’est-ce pas?

I am mind-travelling to Paris where the Tuileries, amongst many public gardens, has been re-opened to the public since 28th May.  Having a picnic on the grass of the Tuileries would definitely have qualified as a moment of joy!  You cannot possibly do without the ritual of a “deconfinement picnic” on the grass of the Tuileries gardens, especially in this gorgeous springtime weather, n’est-ce pas?  (By the way, the Louvre is slated to re-open on 6th July, as of time of writing; the Musée de la vie Romantique, in the 9e, on the other hand, has re-opened, with visitors able to catch the final weeks of its “Coeurs” [“Hearts”] exhibition), and so has the Musée Quai Branly, and even the Panthéon and Arc de Triomphe, while Versailles was one of the first to re-open.  But the Parisian police seem to be having difficulties with young people gathering along the Canal St-Martin (always great for a long walk, in my books)

But of course, I cannot go to the Tuileries without thinking about the Luco too.  I don’t know why, but somehow I feel like I am missing half of Paris, specifically, those having fun and enjoying their time inside the jardin du Luxembourg south of the river.  Crazy, we know.  (And of course this June would have seen the Roland Garros tennis tournament in Paris in full swing but for the Coronavirus.  You can still cycle in the Bois de Boulogne and take in the Roland Garros stadium on the way or at least take a measure of it.  Of course, the year’s second Grand Slam has been rescheduled to September, to take place after the US Open.  Until Wimbledon announced the cancellation of its 2020 session, I had a fascinating time pondering on the question: would a “French Open-Wimbledon double” count this year then?  Not that so many tennis players have won on the grass of Wimbledon straight after winning on the red clay (terre battue) of the French Open, it is still a valid and beautiful question to ask!  Note to the reader: this has only been achieved by 4 players in men’s singles and 6 players in women singles, and is considered the “ultimate challenge”.

But maybe a quote about desire and longing, from French philosopher Simone Weill, is apropos:

Let us love this distance, which is thoroughly woven with friendship, since those who do not love each other are not separated”.

Distance, oh we love you.  But we love getting together a little bit more. 

For mind-travel, I am unrestricted.

This weekend Madeleine is time-travelling to this wonderful London rooftop garden – a secret find! – she twirled around in last June on the Open Garden Squares Weekend.  Cannon Bridge Gardens is a most unexpected open-air oasis and this Saturday would have been this year’s Open Gardens Squares weekend and Londoners would have been discovering places like this for the first time.  Her next target is the British Royal College of Physicians’ Medicinal Garden which she didn’t manage to get to last year.  But of course if you are not a Londoner and are not in London in early June (and the event has been postponed to a yet-to-be-announced date), you can go to many other places for your picnic or a day-dream on the grass!  In fact, almost all of London’s parks including the 8 Royal Parks have stayed open during the pandemic.  These are four of our favourite London parks:

  • Hampstead Heath in the north – a lot of ink has been spilled about this large green space and the “lungs of London”, but we cannot get over its Pergola, a most handsome hidden gem, overgrown with vines and flowers and beautifully lost in its own romantic-ruin world.
  • Battersea Park – this is just a perfect park, not too large not too small, with views of the Thames, gorgeous greenery, and an attractive boating lake. There is also a peace pagoda where on 9 August every year, a floating lantern ceremony takes place on the Thames at dusk in front of it, to commemorate the anniversary of the Nagasaki atomic bomb.  Drop by the grand Victorian building that is the Pump House Gallery to see if there’s any exhibition.
  • Victoria Park in east London – amazingly, this is London’s oldest public park, often known as “people’s park” (“Vicky Park” is its other name), regularly voted Londoners’ favourite, and blooming with wildlife and beauty all year round. There are many cafes and pubs nearby and there is also the Hertford Union Canal (it is a 2-km stretch that borders the southern perimeter of the park going east but slanting slightly northwards and ends at the Olympic Park) for those looking for a calming stroll by the water.  There is history here too as the famous “Victoria Fountain” is where Sylvia Pankhurst drew thousands for the Suffragette rallies in the early 1900s!
  • Chelsea Physic Gardens. Well, for less travelling, Chelsea Physic Gardens is only a 20 minutes’ walk away from South Kensington underground station (just keep walking south towards the Thames).  One of England’s oldest botanic gardens and dating back to 1673, set up to study the medicinal qualities of plants, a plaque at the entrance on the brick wall says it first opened 1686.  You find a compact, well-manicured walled garden perfect for an easy walk (Battersea Park is much better for picnics on the grass, for example), with benches scattered all around and a cafe.  Look for the Atlantic Islands glass house, the bed in the medicinal garden with plants that produce cooking oils, or the oncology bed with Madagascar periwinkle that yields chemicals for the treatment of childhood leukaemia and taxus that produces docetaxel and paclitaxel, or stroll over to the section with apothecary jars and learn that hyssop, an evergreen garden herb of the mint family, is used to help with inflammation, while poppy heads are boiled and made into a syrup to help with rest and sleep!

And if you are “deconfining” in London and it’s too late to see the snowdrops and cherry blossoms of 2020, there is still time to see the roses that are coming up, and good places in London to find them are Regents Park (Queen Mary’s Rose Garden), Hyde Park (if you didn’t know there’s a rose garden here, there’s official info on it!), Kew Gardens (including a rather gorgeous rose pergola) and Holland Park (in the beautiful area around the Orangery).  For a slightly longer trip from London and requiring some serious planning, there’s Lambeth Palace which opens its gardens once a month between May and September, with roses climbing romantically and charmingly up the old stone walls.

But most of all, I am lazing around on one corner of my home and time-travelling to some 70 years ago and imagining what Camus may be thinking of when he wrote The Plague.  But then, instead of the individual being powerless, what the coronavirus has taught us is that the power of the community is strong!  The original French title is of course La Peste, which refers even more directly to the idea of “pestilence”, both moral and metaphorical.  The critic John Cruikshank insists that La Peste is also a reflection on “man’s metaphysical dereliction in the world”, in which case the applications are endless, and up to us.  “Book of our time”, declared The New Statesman, noting that its sales in the Japanese market in the last few weeks were greater than the last 30 years!  Imagine a book that was written more than 70 years ago triggering panic buying!  In fact, it was written between 1941 and 1947, a time that saw Camus in a sanatorium to try to recover from another serious bout of tuberculosis, and continued through Europe’s suffering both before and after its “liberation” from WWII in 1945 (we all on isolation just missed the 75th anniversary of VE-Day which was on 8 May).

There is also this other book which keeps coming into consciousness here at Madeleine’s, and it is Gabriel García Márquez’s 1985 novel, Love in the time of cholera, which reminds us to consider what and whether passion serves us well.  In this year of great challenges, it is reassuring to be reminded that curiosity is “one of the many masks of love”.  Márquez’s beautiful writing makes this a perfect candidate for “escapism” despite its title (if one had to have a disease, a beautiful and productive one is desired)!

In this year where working from home is mandated on many of us (the more lucky ones), perhaps we need that escapism to help us feel the full freedom to dream!  On the plus side, perhaps like many of us, I am doing even more walking than before, which can’t be a bad thing as I am reminded of these unforgettable and very share-able thoughts from Norwegian explorer Erling Kagge, the first man to walk to both poles and climb Everest:

To move slowly from one place to another has become a privilege.

And more:

The thing is, the world remains unexplored because the world is changing all the time but also because there’s always a new way to see everything.”

And even more:

It’s funny: people coming from a walk, they always look happy.”