A “war” implies an enemy, a conflict, a battlefield. Renegotiating collective life, foregoing individual freedom. Redrawing the boundaries of the self. Borders and walls. What is allowed and what is forbidden. To chart a new map for action and adopt another posture for the human condition. The counting of the dead has become part of the fabric of our daily lives.
March 2020, Nice France:
“We don’t have to fear bombs and starvation. We are not cold in our homes and nobody can come to arrest us under a false pretext. We can’t call this a war.” My father’s voice on the phone sounds annoyed. He resents the image used by Emmanuel Macron a few days earlier. Six times the President had said: “We are at war!” Macron was delineating his plan to fight Covid: a national lockdown. I try to object that there are common points between the war and the pandemic. I am scared when I go out. I feel that the life I knew until a few days ago has vanished. Perhaps forever.
But stubbornly he continues: “My life in Paris during the Occupation… you have no idea!” I remain silent, patient, expectant. He adds: “Remember that my father had died on my birthday just as the war had started. My uncle had also died. I was the only man in the house, and I was nine! I had to stand in line for hours every day just to get a loaf of bread.”
I admit that indeed there is no shortage of food in the shops yet even if people are hoarding some items.
I hear a sigh on the phone. A pause. And then the voice resumes: “The streets were dangerous, German soldiers were everywhere. We did not know what would happen to us. And when the bombing started, we had to hide in the cellar not knowing whether we would make it out alive. We were so hungry. We started growing food in the garden. And we were so cold. We had to burn every scrap of available paper in the house just to keep warm, let alone cook our food. We had no electricity.”
Suddenly I feel ashamed. Why would I even try comparing his context to the current one? War offered him no truce even before he was born. His own father died as a result of gassing in the trenches; his uncle died in one of the early battles, along with cousins and family friends. But I realize that the presidential speech has stirred in him a desire to tell his story again.
I decide to keep detailed notes and a diary (a war diary?), recording the collective and individual upheavals as encountered through different news sources, online exchanges, items that people shared, videos and podcasts on and off mainstream channels.
Time feels like quicksand. Long term casualties might outnumber the Covid dead. Life in our current times increasingly feels like a war experience. A new relationship to History is woven into our individual predicaments.
April 2020, Nice, France:
The lockdown was supposed to last for two weeks. Then three. Now it has been extended for another month. After hearing the news, I call my parents. I am in tears. I cannot endure the thought of having to undergo the lack of exercise and fresh air, the loneliness, the deprivation of social life for another four weeks. My father says: “Be strong! At least we are at peace!” Humbled into refocusing on the essential, I impulsively ask my father to send me his war notes. I have become interested in his story anew with an unexpected sense of urgency. Some imperative to engage with it. As the lockdown is sprawling, some common roadmap has emerged between his story and mine. A common trajectory away from normalcy, a curse or a metanoia. The advent of the uncanny.
He happily agrees and emails a series of documents the next day. They constitute a sort of memoir organized around salient events unfolding over the war years (1939-1945).
The declaration of war. The exodus. The shifting play of international alliances. The bombings. The deprivation. The fear and the uncertainty. Cold and hunger. Listening to the radio in secret, General de Gaulle’s voice bringing hope from London.
I am quickly engrossed by the narrative, amazed at the number of details he was able to conjure up from the past. I occasionally stop to reread a sentence or a full paragraph. I feel moved by the child I can hear and see the tale that shaped a story of adversity and resilience. A childhood burdened by the preoccupations and concerns of adults. I start remembering my own childhood haunted by my father’s bouts of anger and his severity. His hoarding newspapers. His frugality. His sense of sacrifice. A deep compassion rises in my heart. I feel that I am coming to terms with something important that I am allowing myself to articulate and name. My own emotional battlefield finds some truce in the knowledge that my father had not intended to repeat a pattern that had structured his life around fear and loss.
I let a few days go by and resume my reading of his memoir. I reach an event he had told me about when I was young. But I feel like I am discovering it for the first time:
The neighborhood had been bombed. Buildings torn apart. I had been away at school; I did not know whether our family home had been bombed or not. I did not know whether I would find my mother alive.
I walk up through the main square lined with destroyed buildings and take our street, full of an anguish I cannot describe. Slowly, very slowly, I reach our house. It is standing. I ring the doorbell. After what feels like an eternity my mother opens the door. We hug in silence. We don’t cry. My anxiety is gone.
Tears come to my eyes as I visualize the narrated scene, the words elusive and discreet, masking the inner drama or revealing it in the oblique light of their referential world. I feel some unexpected relief in the midst of so much adversity.
May 2020, Nice France:
My birthday is coming up. A confinement birthday, as the phrase goes. A friend leaves me a bag with some gifts at a particular place halfway between her place and my place, within our “allowed” distance range. A place that can be reached within the sixty minutes of allotted time for our daily walk. I see her leave the bag; she waves to me from a distance. I fetch the bag and hold it over my heart as if it were a long-sought treasure. Back at home, I unpack the different gifts very slowly. It feels like a sacred ritual. A scarf. Chocolates. Flowers.
To celebrate, I open a packet of Starbucks coffee I had found in my kitchen cabinet a few days earlier. Christmas blend. I had been saving it. The wonderful flavor stages happier times. While sipping my cup of coffee, I go back to my father’s notes. I look for the passage where he describes his most memorable Christmas during the war.
Christmas Eve 1943. Boarding school. After midnight mass, we share simple celebratory fare of bread and jelly, an apple, some hot wine! Luxury! We go to bed. During the night, the siren rings. We have to go to the underground shelter. We are stunned to discover a group of very young German soldiers in the shelter also looking for protection. We stare at each other. We can hear the bombs over our heads. We are so scared. Then the German soldiers start singing Still Nacht. We recognize the song and sing along in French. A moment of unexpected bonding despite the fact that we were war enemies.
I process the scene and what it must have meant for the young adolescents. I can’t help thinking that in our war with the virus, there will be no such momentary suspension of hostilities. I have a nickname for our pervasive but faceless enemy — an attempt to dismiss fear by bringing in the antidote of comedy, perhaps. Sphingix. A mystifying sphinx with x as an unknown entity (the virus remains an unknown enemy as we can’t see its face). But our comedy borders on the grotesque. Terror under the comic mask.
May 11, 2020, Nice France:
The end of the lockdown. I read my father’s description of Liberation for inspiration.
The ringing of the big bell of Notre Dame called Emmanuel. The arrival of the Americans! A joy and relief beyond what could be expressed.
No armistice for us. And no liberator. History has left the pages of history books to invade our uncertain reality, turning our lives into stories in search of narrative closure. A new relationship to words is ushered, singling out a gallery of connoted choices: mask, confinement, infection, online, virtual, day, month. Pandemic. I imagine that I am taking a grand tour where words have turned into museum artifacts. We press a button and they tell their story. We recognize their shape, but their voice has changed.
My conversation with my father turned into a book that we wrote together. It now sits on my library shelf, a constant reminder that our time might have its “lost generation” after all. The image of “war” no longer seems far-fetched. But from our current vantage point, the first World War might seem like a more appropriate comparison. We seem engulfed in a trench war. With the usual profiteers in the “back” and others on the front sent mercilessly to fight a battle we might not win ever. But the emotion we both felt when the book came out on for his 90th birthday in December 2020 provided a separate peace, in the beautiful image used by Hemingway in his novel A Farewells to Arms.
Forgiveness for what had been and was now being mended. Our relationship.
Early February, 2022, Nice, France:
As we are approaching the two-year anniversary of our war, I go to the movies and try to pick up my life where I had left it. Walking back from the movie theater on the Promenade. Preoccupied with this modern parable. Fresh air from the sea as a welcome antidote to the stifling atmosphere of the movie theatre and the mood of the film. I reach my apartment building. The entry hall. I think I hear a tune. I pause. Maybe my imagination is playing tricks on me. I get closer to the stairway, standing by the elevator. No mistaking it now, it is the tune from the Amelie Poulain movie my husband and I liked so much. Someone is playing it on the piano. It is clear but hesitant. I close my eyes, resting my hand on the elevator door. A minute to let time stand still before it will bring me back to happy times. I know it will, in its mercy and compassion. A moment of grace.