“Dispatch from a Pandemic: Pau, France” by Kami L. Rice

When I took the trash out today, my deep-insides called out resistance to the act of turning my back on the dumpster, crossing the narrow street, and reentering my building. I already worked from home. Before this. Before the pandemic interrupted the world. So returning indoors to my work-from-home is nothing new. But of course, the lack of freedom to leave again whenever I want is.

kami dumpster
All photos by the author in Pau

This evening I walked in greenery that mercifully doesn’t qualify as a park, for parks are closed. I bathed in nature—birdsong, frog choirs, wildflower-weeds taking over increasingly untended gardens, cool-warm air promising summer. And despite the mandatory “hall pass” I carried in my pocket explaining why I was outside my apartment and what time I left, I felt pretend-free, as though I’m instead on a retreat in a vacation community with others who are enjoying calm, quiet days of repose.

I lived another moment of almost-freedom on Easter Monday. After determining that shooting some hoops—alone—is allowed, I exited my building excited for a change from my normal walking-jogging exercise routine. On my way to the court, I paused beneath Place Aragon’s trees to photograph the morning mountains.

kami frog choir

 

A small, bent man with a cane approached, so I said “Bonjour.” Mostly, if people reply at all, it’s just a polite bonjour in return. But when we’d nearly passed each other, this man piped up. It was the mountains that provided our conversational pass. The man uttered a beautiful phrase that I wish I could repeat verbatim in all its melodic French glory. But our conversation continued before I could make note of his exact words. “As long as I come see the mountains, I’m okay,” was the idea their poetry expressed.

kami sailor mtns

One of the town’s tourism slogans is the alliterative “Pau Porte des Pyrénées” – Pau, door to the Pyrenees. One of Pau’s crown jewels is the Boulevard des Pyrénées that offers a stunning view of these currently snow-spotted peaks that form the border between southwestern France and northeastern Spain. I’m fortunate that, like the gardens-that-aren’t-parks, this view is within the one-kilometer-from-home radius I’m allowed for exercise during these confinement times. But the Pyrenees themselves can be seen from all over town. Sometimes in the most unexpected spots, you turn south and find your breath catching over the beauty of the mountains that suddenly look near enough to touch. Because they’re so often completely curtained by clouds, their disappearing act helps render them fresh and new each time you glimpse them again, like a beloved friend who’s surprised you by showing up at your door unannounced.

 

 

My newest conversation partner went on to speak of other mountains he’s visited and loved, specifically noting Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania and Mount Fuji in Japan. Though he’s from this corner of France, he’s traveled because he was a “navigateur.” On first glance, this word feels like a familiar one. A navigator. Yet even in English, a navigator could have a variety of applications.

 

But then he  began talking about ships, even nuclear submarines. At first, because I’d recently read about sailors sick with COVID-19 on France’s aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle and a lack of reporting about how submarine sailors were faring, I thought that’s what this monsieur was referring to. But as the conversation progressed, it seemed he had once been a sailor underneath the sea. However, by the time I had the correct lens for the conversation, the details I love grasping were sadly too far behind us for me to grab hold of them again and interpret them correctly.

kami greenery below bld des pyrenees

Eventually we each continued on our way in opposite directions, me toward the near-yet-far mountains and the basketball court below the scenic overlook, and him away from them toward home, his hour of freedom exhausted for the day.

 

Just as I reached the edge of the little tree-lined plaza we’d been speaking in, I heard a hello and turned my head to see Albert, an older man I’d met back in March when we were confinement kindergartners on day three of what has become at least a two-month lockdown.

As talkative as before, Albert said he goes out for a baguette each morning and (like me) takes the long way home. This time he walked with a limp I hadn’t noticed on our first meeting on a nearby sidewalk. That time I learned that his family is descended from the prince-warlord who ruled this part of France in the 1300s and that he’s a former professional rugby player. This time I learned that before the pandemic he played golf three or four times a week, but now he’s having video aperitifs with his friends instead.

kami nature walk

Maintaining the ever-important meter of distance as he walked toward home and I walked toward the stairs that would take me down below the Boulevard to the court awaiting me, we chatted like old friends, fellow extroverts living alone, for whom a conversation like this is a jolt of caffeine to get through the day’s isolation.

-\kami basketball court

–April 16, 2020

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Kami-Rice (2)As a freelance journalist, Kami Rice  has reported for outlets that include the Washington Post, The Telegraph, The Tennessean, Nashville Arts Magazine, Nashville Scene, and NewsMavens. Her essays have appeared at The High Calling, The Well, and The Washington Institute’s Missio. She also works as a freelance editor for publications, publishing houses, and nonprofit organizations, but now primarily focuses her work on Anthrow Circus as its editor-in-chief. A native of Tennessee currently based in France, Kami travels widely (when there are no confinement orders!) learning about the lives of real people the world over. Follow along on these adventures via Instagram.