I am waving a hello from the Olive Farm where we are in our fourth week of lockdown.
In spite of the horrific virus that has led us all to be isolated from one another, there are positives to be found during these days of “confinement”. Michel and I count ourselves very lucky to abe here together with our three dogs. I am writing this on Good Friday, April 10th, which also falls on our 32nd anniversary. We won’t celebrate with a glass of champagne this year because we feel that would be inappropriate given the suffering that is taking place all across the globe. A chilled glass of wine raised to one another’s health and long life and many more years together, I pray, seems to be the perfect acknowledgement.
We drove from our offices just outside Paris on Monday 16th March, leaving at 3 p.m. and arriving here at our farm at two in the morning. There was a clear bright sky to greet us. The Lockdown – ‘confinement’ is the French word – went into effect at midday on that Tuesday. We arrived in time to do a spot of shopping and get ourselves prepared for what lay ahead.
I haven’t been off the property since.
We are hugely fortunate here. We have ten acres of land overlooking the Bay of Cannes. We farm three hundred olive trees, some gnarled old creatures that date back several centuries and others we have planted ourselves over the thirty-four years we have called this home.
Home is bliss at the best of times. The view of the sea, the vegetation, the scents of nature. Now, it is a weird kind of spooky bliss. Between us and the coastline of the Côte d’Azur lies a motorway which normally hums in the distance. These days, it is mostly silent.
Along the horizon we can usually spot planes taking off and coming into land at Nice airport – although we are fortunately not on any flight path. Now they are grounded. The airport is closed. Most of France’s current air traffic has been re-routed in and out of Roissy-Charles de Gaulle airport.
So, we have closed ourselves in, as instructed, keeping our distance from most of the risks of what the world is experiencing right now, living our lives alone on this hill. By order, our gardener is not allowed to leave his home to lend us a hand with the work. It is sad because it is the season for planting trees. In fact, the season is almost over. During the winter months, we cleared two new terraces in preparation for twelve new fruit trees. I doubt the nurseries will re-open before the opportunity to plant this year has passed us by. The seasons are not hanging back for us!
Instead, we are occupying ourselves with the planting of an oak forest – yes, it is a very long-term project. We have three varieties of oak growing here: the European oak, the Cork oak and the Holm oak. I spend happy hours grubbing about the land looking for half-buried acorns or acorns that have already begun to sprout and are hiding deep beneath last autumn’s fallen leaves. These I deliver to Michel who is potting each one of them in our greenhouse. And they seem to be taking. Dozens of pots of these miniscule trees. I love the long-range thinking that comes of planting for the future. It helps give me perpective on this time.
Have you read Jean Giono’s magnificent novel, The Man Who Planted Trees? If not, I highly recommend it. Perfect for these scary days.
I sweep terraces – we have several. I water plants, flower beds and the fruit trees. Because we don’t have an automatic system, the irrigation chores take a couple of hours out of most days. I hoover the house, do the bedding, load and unload the dishwasher; load and unload the washing machine. Menial but necessary tasks.
Michel does most of the cooking, goes to the supermarché once a week wearing one of my scarves over his face so he looks like a bandit. In the afternoons, he toils the land, shifting and sawing trees that keeled over in the heavy winter winds. Such furious tempests are new to us on the French Riviera. Winters were always famously mild here. However now, with the more serious effects of climate change, wild winter storms occasionally hit, causing flooding and pockets of decimation in our pine forest on the upper part of our hill.
The weather at present is glorious. So working out of doors with blossoms all about us, the scents of orange, cherry and jasmine, is very uplifting. I find the physical work hard on my ageing bones but I am grateful to have it to do. I see it as an investment in the future of this plot. An act of healing too. We have been organic here for years now. Our olive oil is sublime and I can offer it to others feeling confident that no pesticides are in it.
The bees and butterflies and birds visit in crowds now, since we stopped spraying the land with chemicals. The colours, the warmth, the sense that everything around us is growing, is promising food for later in the year, lifts my spirits.
I am reading and writing, of course. The writing involves working on the editorial notes – just in – for my recently-completed novel. As well as drafting ideas and scenes, characters for the novel to be written later this year. I am enjoying both worlds and both take me away for a few hours a day from the world-wide devastation this virus is reeking.
When we returned here in March, we put the television on in the evenings for the Arte daily round-up of news, but we have stopped doing that. I find it too distressing. I glance at news websites and Michel reads the digital version of Le Monde, which he shares with me.
Earlier this year – from January to the beginning of March I was one of two adjudicators for the Listowel Writers Week Novel of the Year. I had almost forty Irish novels to read. I, along with my excellent fellow adjudicator and writer, Ian McGuire, chose our shortlist and winner, submitted them and just a couple of days later, the festival was cancelled. It was very disappointing.
Now I am reading a real medley of books of my own choosing.
The Sea Gate by Jane Johnson to be published in June. An intriguing and gracefully written novel set in Cornwall.
Isabel Allende’s A Long Petal of the Sea. I love her use of language, poetic, magical. She never disappoints me.
Dean Kootz’s fun sci-fi, The Eyes of Darkness.
I have been dipping into Elizabeth David’s writings, An Omelette and a Glass of Wine, and I have re-read The Plague, Albert Camus.
I think many of us have chosen to revisit The Plague for obvious reasons. What is different for me on reading it again is that during my first encounter with it, I didn’t live in France, I had never visited Algeria where the story is set so I was not familiar with the French colonial history of the country, its imperialistic world and bureaucracy.
When I was in Algeria, I visited the ancient Roman settlement of Tipaza situated along the Algerian Mediterranean coast. I also took the time to walk the winding coastal trail on a blustery morning to visit the memorial erected there in memory of Albert Camus.
All these personal memories as well as the rather terrifying situation we find ourselves in now give the novel a whole new depth for me.
Now I am embarking on Correspondance 1944 – 1959. This is 1300 pages of letters between Albert Camus and the Spanish-born actress Maria Casarès. I am reading it, dipping in and out of it, in French. So these thirteen hundred pages will be one of my Lockdown Marathons. Like the oak forest, it is a long-term challenge. The hard physical work, the daily literary endeavours, help me to look towards a time, not too distant, I pray, when we will be through this nightmare.
What I am trying to take from all this is the preciousness of life – its fleetingness, its beauty and its power.
Thank you for reading this.
Be safe. Take good care of yourself.
My website is listed below. All my books are available for ordering.
You can contact me through the email address listed on my website. Many readers who are facing this isolation alone have written to me, expressing their concerns, fears, offering feedback on books they have read. Please feel free to be in touch.
Most importantly, be kind to yourself.
Happy Easter. It is a time to celebrate rebirth, regeneration.
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Here is Samson smelling the flowers and looking for acorns with me!