Category Archives: lockdown blog

Lockdown day 9 – the Var is like a box of chocolates

So, Japan is postponing the Olympic games to 2021. My father was right. And I can imagine many Japanese would approve of this because they would say that the year 2021 would be more auspicious. You see, the Japanese prefer odd numbers which is why you rarely see tea sets sold with an even number of cups. In Japan, they would be presented in a box with 3, 5, or 7 matching cups, not any even number. I was born on an even date of an even number month on an even year, to the horror of my relatives in Tokyo. I was cursed according to the most old fashioned of them. Funny how I don’t see my life having turned out that way. I feel so fortunate to be where I am today.

Speaking of the Olympics, one of my favourite movies of all time is Forrest Gump. I wonder how Tom Hanks is doing? I hope he recovers from the virus soon. He’s such a talented actor. Who doesn’t like him? “Life is like a box of chocolates…” mmmm, chocolate. I rummage through the kitchen cabinets, there must be some, somewhere. Oh my god, we are out of chocolate. How could we be out of chocolate? We have a ton of toilet paper and wine, chocolate is in with that group of life-necessities! I start thinking of ways of sneaking out of the house and go to the Spar just to get some. I’d have to lie to the policeman and say I was going to buy flour or something. Just kidding, they don’t ask for specifics, even after the latest even more strict clampdowns of not taking walks more than a kilometre away (previously we were allowed to walk up to 2 kilometres from home) and of calling for curfews in the larger towns like Brignoles (from 9pm to 6am every night).

Cotignac is like that one favourite chocolate in the centre of the box. For me this would be See’s Scotch Mallow. It’s chewy toffee topped with fluffy marshmallow and covered in good quality dark chocolate. It’s not too sweet, not crunchy or nutty, just perfect. Here we have a really beautiful limescale cliff that hangs over the old houses that were built back in the 1500s. On top of the cliffs are even older Medieval forts from where you can admire the view that stretches out to other villages and the rolling hills of Provence. There are several waterfalls to easily walk up to and the main shopping road, called the Cours Gambetta, is home to many restaurants including my favourite place to drink, bar La Tuf. At this time it’s normally bustling with locals and tourists but for now we are taking a big break, like the rest of the world. Now, the other surrounding villages are not bad either, don’t get me wrong. But for me, they are are more like the chocolates with almonds, walnuts or praline stuck in them that take them just one step away from being perfect. Okay, I’m being biased of course. The Var is very much like a box of chocolates; in any direction you go from its centre Cotignac, you’ll find a village, not unlike those other chocolates, that’s worth picking and tasting.

Just to the North you’ll find Sillans-La-Cascade. At first glance the dominant turret from the castle (which is its town hall) is grand and impressive but this cute little village is famous mostly for it’s huge double waterfalls, hence its name. You’ll see cars parked here all year ’round because it’s such a picturesque place to come and take a walk. It’s just over a kilometre’s stroll through the olive groves in front of the main church and down into the valley from where you’ll see and hear the waterfalls. In the Summer you can walk further down (at your own risk as the signs will warn you) to discover the many pools of azur waters flowing into each other, it’s spectacular and a great place to cool down. But it can get crowded here during the day so if you do get there, try early in the morning.

To the South there is Carces where the Saturday markets are always very crowded but the village itself is worth taking a walk around because there are some really charming alley ways, Medieval tunnels, and sweeping views to check out from the outdoor theatre. If you get here, I highly recommend lunch or dinner at Les Chineurs, for mussels (Moules-frites) and home made fries that are out of this world!

Go East and you’ll get to the delightful castle town of Entrecasteaux and if you go just a bit further, there is quaint Saint Antonin, which is a wonderful place for a picnic in the Spring. There is a nice park there too with a zip line to hang from and a big tyre to swing on. Perfect for kids.

To the West is our neighbour village of Montfort-sur-Argens with a beautiful castle you can walk up to. One of my favourite restaurants is here, the pretty “La Petite Marmite.” You can get lunch specials with starter and/or dessert for 15 euros during the week.

In any direction, if you keep going you’ll discover even more flavours of beautiful old villages here in the Var. I’ll even go as far as saying that all of France is like this. The country has everything anyone would want to live with: snow covered mountains with ski resorts, white sand covered turquoise beaches of the Mediterranean, stunning old castles and cathedrals, steep canyons (think the Gorge du Verdon), the list is long! Of all the places I have lived in the world – and I don’t take it for granted, ever – this one takes the cake, or rather, la boite aux chocolats 🙂

For more photos, please do a search on the site, for eg “Sillans-la-Cascade”, “Verdon canyon”, “Carces”, etc.

Lockdown day 7 – update from the South of France

Fines for leaving your house, for no good reason and without a permission slip, have risen. 135 euros for the first warning, then if you get caught again you’ll be asked for 1,500 euros. If you get caught 4 times in less than one month the fine goes up to a whopping 3,700 euros plus 6 month’s of jail time. I’m sure even the wealthiest among us would not want to risk jail at this time. I wonder if the cops get commissions for fining like they do with giving out parking tickets?

Watching the news, showing incredible scenes of a deserted Promenade des Anglais in Nice and the turquoise beaches sans sun woshippers, I had a thought: I wonder what the prostitutes are doing? Since there are no cars on the road I suppose they wouldn’t be working either. Would their wage losses be covered by the government too? Afterall, their profession is legal here (as long as they work for themselves (ie without a pimp) and declare their earnings).

My father called me from Japan this morning. He wanted to know how it’s going in France. We communicate in Japanese. “Looks like you guys are in a very bad position there” he says, not-surprisingly. “How do you get to work?”

“I work from home, Dad, don’t worry, we are fine, we are all at home, the kids are off school and we are keeping busy, how are you?”

“Well everyone is out shopping, it’s as normal, except Disneyland is closed!”

What a surprise.

“You know how we Japanese are: we wash our hands all the time and wear masks in normal times when sick and we don’t kiss each other, like the Italians do all the time. But they will cancel the Olympics, you’ll see. Is your village okay? Are there any cases there?”

“No, there are no Coronavirus cases in Cotignac but there are 3 cases in Brignoles at the moment, that’s about 20 kilometres away.”

“That’s far enough,” he says, reassured.

I’ve always been amazed by the Japanese’ superiority complex in spite of all the natural disasters they have suffered. The last big earthquake with massive Tsunami that killed over 10,000 people comes to mind. That was around this time of year, 9 years ago. They showed the world, even during those horrific times, that they could be stoic, free of emotion, and wait silently and patiently in queues at the supermarkets. I suppose this global catastrophe will be treated no differently. Will they show the rest of the world they are better at controlling the spread of diseases? Time will tell.

Anyway, back to France. Strict curfews have been set in place in the larger towns. From 10pm to 5am in Nice, 8pm to 5am in Bandol, but I haven’t seen anything announced for our village of Cotignac…yet. The last time they had curfews here must have been during the war. Maybe that is why so many village houses had tunnels that connected them in their basements? I can imagine the fear they felt as the Nazis were approaching and all the gossip that must have circulated about who supported The Resitance and who might have been less keen. The biggest human loss suffered in one day was the Bataille du Bessillon, on the mount Bessillon, about an hour’s walk from the centre of Cotignac, on the 27th of July 1944. The Germans massacred 18 brave fighters. They are paid hommage to, every Summer, by the village Council and locals here who wish never to forget.

It’s cold and overcast here today. It matches my melancholy mood. I think I overdid it on the treadmill yesterday because I felt nauseous afterwards and even skipped dinner and evening wine because of this. But they say it’s a good thing to fast every so often? I’ll take it easy today. Hope you are well, wherever you are 🙂

The memorial that honours the soldiers and locals who lost their lives in WWII, Cotignac cemetary.

Lockdown day 6 – back on the treadmill (Memories part 2)

What day is it? Oh, who cares. I’ve had it. This morning I took my “lard-ass” down to the basement, damp cloth in hand, and started wiping down two-milimetres of dust off the old treadmill. I plugged it in – it worked! With my bluetooth speaker I started playing a high-energy playlist on Spotify that I put together some months ago. It’s called “Funky Friday Night” and it’s a great dance worthy mix of tunes. I was blasting the music so I’m sure my neighbours now hate me. Wake up everybody!! DJ Susana at your serrrrrrvice!!!!

I forgot how great it feels to sweat it out while singing out loud. I felt like Brigitte Jones at the end of the movie, like Carrie Bradshaw at a NY city nightclub, like the dancing queen in the Abba song. And that brought back memories of my party days in Hong Kong from 2000 to 2002. That was a crazy time in my life. Every young-ish person worked hard and played hard and I was no exception.

I lived on the 19th floor of an apartment building on Glenealy street just a few steps from bar-central Lan Kwai Fong. I used to take the subway to Causeway bay then after work take a taxi to my gym, work out, go home, grab some dinner, then every weekend head out to meet friends at the bars. After bar hopping, where we’d meet some expat strangers who seemed nice enough, we’d move on to clubs like Drop in Soho where they served the best watermelon Martinis and always played the best music; Jamiroquai was popular at the time. Or if we felt like braving the seedy after hours’ bars we’d go to Wanchai where drinks were cheaper but you had to brave the sticky smelly floors. On ladys’ night (during the week) we could even score free Long Island ice-teas at many bars there so it was always oodles of fun. But excess has its limits and for me it was coming down with acute tonsilitis and ending up in Central Hospital for a week on intravenous antibiotics. I always seem to learn lessons the hard way.

Which brings me to think how lucky I am to have these happy, studious, genuinely do-good young girls as my children. When I was their age I got into so much trouble. Everything that was “prohibited” I was attracted to like a magnet. I smoked clove cigarettes at the age of 15, I was drinking and dancing in clubs with a fake ID by the time I was 16, spending every last dime I made from babysitting. I can’t imagine my girls doing this. Maybe telling them about how dangerous my behaviour was back then has had a positive effect. I occasionally offer them a sip of my wine so they don’t think it’s something off-limits and therefore something to do on the cachĂ©. They can try anything, I just ask that they are open about it. My mother was the opposite. She told me I would have to wait until I was 21 (in California that is still the age limit for alcohol consumption) which obviously did not work.

Sixty minutes, 5.6 kilometres, 360 calories and 6,500 steps on my fitbit, yesss!! I am sports queen, fitness godess, the champion of quick-walking on the treadmill. I feel like I just climbed to the peak of a tall mountain, like I can now conquer the world! Astounding what a release of endorphins can do for the mind. I feel happy again, waaaheyy!

“Mom, what’s for luuuunch?” Ahh, shucks, my kids are whinging again. Back to the kitchen. And I just realised – it’s Sunday.

Hong Kong party days

Lockdown day 5 – memories from my past Part 1

I chose not to look at my phone this morning. When I came downstairs to make my coffee I chose not to turn on the television, I don’t want to hear more bad news from around the world, I’ll catch up with it later. It’s another gorgeous sunny day but unlike previous days it’s not windy. The tall pine trees aren’t moving. And if you just looked into the distance it would seem like any other day. The birds are chirping and some frogs have begun croaking. Except they are in our swimming pool which has yet to be cleaned out for the season. It’s too early of course but the days are getting warmer. You could pretend that life was normal and everything was dandy.

But the stress is still there. It’s a constant undercurrent manifesting in aches here and there. Sometimes in the head, other times in the back or neck. When under stress it certainly helps to talk about it. But no one here wants to listen to me. My kids keep telling me, “Mom, you’re going on an on about the coronavirus, okay, we get it, it’s dangerous. Can you stop now?” People like my hubby deal with stress by going out and being physical. In his case it’s extreme; he spent 8 hours chopping and stacking wood yesterday and today he’s out using the chain saw and clearing the brush. I’m nothing like that. I put pen to paper…or rather fingers to keyboard.

While sipping my coffee and staring out at the view of tall pine trees so many memories came flooding back to me when I asked myself, how did we get here? My girls are now 12 and almost 16. I’ve been with my Frenchman who is originally from Normandy, for 17 years. We’ve lived in Cotignac for 10 and a half years. I’ve lived in France for more years than anywhere else now and I am now pretty sure I’ll spend the rest of my life here. But my first year was rough – I didn’t speak the language and lived pretty much alone. It was Winter of 2002. I arrived at Nice aeroport with all my luggage and two cats that I brought over from Hong Kong. My English husband at the time had purchased a vacation villa in ThĂ©oule sur Mer so I chose to live there after being laid off from a publishing job in Hong Kong – a direct result of the economic collapse due to the terrorist attack, the collapse of the Twin Towers, in the United States. It was a beautiful villa with a breathtaking view of the Cannes Bay but arriving on the Riviera in the dead of Winter was a bit of a damper. Needless to say my marriage to the Englishman did not last, but life in France became the new beginning.

I did not do well in French class at Berkeley high school. I loved my teacher though: Madame Claudine. She was a plump lady with thick round glasses and hefty laugh. She would brag about her Summer trips to Paris and would bring back these big colourful books full of photographs of stylish cafĂ©s that I remember flipping through. I used to fantasise about being there. My mother once met Mme Claudine during a teacher-parent session and told me that she said “Susana is not very good at French but she’s great on stage!” You see, I was much more interested in Drama class and theatre than any other subject.

But the practice of stage performance gave me the life skills I needed to survive; a good load of self esteem and presentation skills that would get me the jobs and the confidence needed to adapt to changes, whether they were environmental, cultural, or learning a new language – in this case all of the above, which came in very handy for starting a new life in France, on my own.

When I was young my mother used to call me into the living room whenever she saw something exciting on television. One funny memory comes flooding back to me the most. “Sooooozieeee! Look! It’s the Cannes film festival on TV, isn’t it WONDERFUL?” She pronounced the “s” in Cannes, like it was the plural version of can. But then I didnt know how it was pronounced before I used to visit the area. It’s pronounced “canne” with a soft “a” and a little emphasis on the “n”. I enrolled in three weeks of intense French lessons at the College Internationale de Cannes then forced myself to communicate in the language but taking the easy route of finding a French lover. Voila, works a charm!

Looking back it’s amazing to think I now call this place my home. I still pinch myself from time to time. I owe Mme Claudine a lot. If I could see her again I would thank her for all her positive energy and enthusiasm for France that influenced me so many years ago. I wonder what she might think of what became of me? Would she even remember me? But I will never know; she passed away from cancer just a few years after my time with her.

…to be continued 🙂

Lockdown day 4 – Ch-ch Changes

Every morning I wake up thinking maybe this is all one big nightmare and we are back to being normal again, but alas, no. I grab my phone from bed and check the news: NY Times, the BBC, CNN…they are all talking about the same C-word. Today France’s coronavirus death tally is at 372 and at almost 11,000 cases we are just under the USA (with 14,366). It’s not a bad dream and it has made us all change the way we behave every day as we can no longer do what we want.

In the words of one of my musical heros, David Bowie, “turn and face the strange ch-ch changes.” That song was ringing in my head when I went out for a walk this morning. Again, I filled out a clean new permission slip, dated and signed it. I took a bottle of water and my phone and off into the warm sunny outdoors I went, alone, because that is what is allowed for the time being. Before I left I heard the French government representative on BFM news that people need to stop wearing masks and leave that to the medical staff. That is the exact opposite of what Asia is doing. Whatever, okay, I’ll do as they say. But they also insisted no cycling, no going on long runs (more than 2 km away from your home), and no frequenting parks, beaches, or public gardens. I can understand why.

My walk was going into the village and back. It’s a circuit that crosses a couple of rivers, passes at least 3 waterfalls, goes up and down hills with sweeping views of the Provençal landscapes – tall cypress trees in the distance, olive groves and pine forests, vineyards… and at the moment the quince trees are blossoming! It’s idyllic, utopic, it’s just pure bliss to be living here at this time of year. But normally now the main road in the village called the Cours would be full of al fresco diners chatting away while enjoying lunch. Kids would be in school. The villagers I pass on my walk, whom I mostly know having lived here so long, would happily say “bonjour!” and kiss me on both cheeks. But not today. An elderly lady I know, who is a local, gave me an awkward hello and made a huge bend to avoid passing me too closely. Ah, yes, right, the ONE METRE rule, I thought. But she was walking with her husband and one is supposed to walk alone (this rule does not make any sense to me but nevermind). I kept walking. The river water was crystal clear. The waterfalls were heavy and pretty. And even the crows in the sky seemed to be sticking to the ONE METRE rule.

As I was walking back up the rue d’Ecole I saw a couple of state police (gendarmes) in their patrol car parked at the entrance of the road that leads to the Medievel forts. Oh good, I thought, I can finally show them how well prepared I am with my perfectly filled out permission slip! But they didn’t stop me. They didn’t even say hello. I smiled at them. Nothing. Again, I felt so cheated!! I also felt like telling them off because they were sitting too close together, bad gendarmes, bad! One of them should be sitting in the back…or something! They are going to get each other contaminated, grr!!!

While walking I wondered: when was the last time I had to go through a big change in life? When was your last time? For me it must have been when we moved from the village house into this house with a big garden. But wait, let’s go back to more dramatic changes, like that time when I was living in Berkeley in the late 80s and I “survived” the Loma Prieta earthquake; the Bay Bridge collapsed making us get on a ferry to get over to San Francisco. My boyfriend at the time lived there and I would go and see him on the weekends. It was so pretty to do this at night because the lights of the tall skyscrapers would glisten and sparkle – it was magical! But as soon as the bridge was fixed (a month later) it was back to business as usual and people quickly adapted back to their old habits of driving. Then there was the Oakland firestorm of 1991 that burned down 3,000 houses, many of them owned by my friends and/or university professors. That felt like a big change with so much loss that people around me seemed to be experiencing. People had to adjust to the sorrow. Or how about that time the Northridge earthquake woke me up out of bed in Los Angeles in 1994 and I remember crying because I knew it instantly killed or injured thousands of people. “That was nothing,” I can hear my Japanese grandparents saying. When they were young the Kanto (Tokyo) earthquake of 1923 caused so many fires over 100,000 people died including many of their own relatives. My grandfather had to jump into the Sumida river to keep from getting burned. “You are so lucky,” they used to say. “You don’t have memories of wars.” They must have suffered so much. But if the Japanese could survive and overcome all those earthquakes and two atomic bombs then I’m sure we can get over this virus. Trouble is, it’s all over the world and not just one place. It will probably tank the entire global economy and make many more people poor or poorer. But with all our cultural differences we all share the same traits of being human and therefore of being adaptable. How will we adapt to this, I wonder, if it doesn’t go away anytime soon?

Where the Asians seem better at listening to their governments when asked to change their behaviour, in the West we seem less than keen. Asians do as they are told, generally speaking. Just look at the Chinese and the Japanese. The Koreans had it hard with this virus but they have clamped down hard with all their testing and it’s working. Here in Europe we are one big mess perhaps due to our unwillingness to do as we are told by the authorities. “Stay home!” they ordered, but then we saw all those people on the beach in Nice, having picnics and enjoying the sun like, comme d’habitude, tra la la. Westerners do not like being told what to do. But heck, if it’s going to save many lives I’ll do everything they tell me to do! I’ll bring out the Asian in me!

In the meantime my kids are continuing with their studies on-line, hubby has been productive in the garden and with the wood cutting, and there is more to clean and cook at home but that doesn’t bother me much. It’s the price I pay for spending SOOOO much more time together with them and that is priceless, I remind myself. Over and over.

Reporting from Cotignac, France, on day 4, this is Susana Iwase clocking out. Okay, now, is it rosé-o-clock yet?