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Crash Bandicoot, my Proustian Madeleine
Memories and bad weather
I hope you’ve had a good week.
Last weekend I dog-sat for my friends Annie and Scott who have a loveable whirlwind of a hound named Jasper. He’s a labrador-spaniel cross. He has sweet, floppy ears, the kindest of eyes and an obsession with tennis balls, or indeed anything ball-shaped. One day we were out on a walk in Montmartre and he darted under a parked lorry, emerging proudly with a Christmas bauble. A fine harbinger for the festive season, I say. Anyway, all this to say, when I was staying at Jasper’s house, I took the opportunity to play an old version of Crash Bandicoot they had installed on their PS4.
My older brother was a big gamer when we were growing up and so the repetitive music and bright colours of a video game were basically the backdrop to most of my childhood. First we had a second-hand Sega Mega Drive, then a Playstation and eventually a PS2 and Xbox. He would always buy a new game, spend a lot of time playing it and then (in my perception at least), only let me join in when he was so good at it that there was no way I could ever win.
Anyway, we used to have this same version of Crash Bandicoot on Playstation. As I was playing at Jasper’s house, I quickly remembered exactly what to do. I knew which bonuses to look out for, which foes to avoid and what music to expect with each different level. I reckon plenty of children of the Nineties, like me and my brother, must have these dormant muscle-memories waiting to be unlocked. I texted my brother a picture of the screen when I was playing. “I remember that level, careful of the TNT crates”, he wrote, before I (Crash Bandicoot) jumped right onto one and exploded.
We’ve moved from a strange lingering summer to a good old winter in one week here in Paris. The start of the week was t-shirt weather and this weekend has been cold and rainy.
I have written in this letter before that I enjoy the rain because it feels like home (though I have to pretend that I don’t in order to fit in with the Parisians). So I am glad of the rain and cold. And more importantly, I am glad of the rain and the cold because it should be cold in Paris in November. It shouldn’t have been 20 degrees and sunny on Monday.
As Cop27 kicks off, a new UN report tells us that the last eight years have been the hottest on record, and the UN secretary general has said that “our planet is on course to reach tipping points that will make climate chaos irreversible”. This is almost impossible to comprehend, and also impossible to ignore.
I quote Zadie Smith a lot in these letters, but she has so many good things to say, so here’s one more for good measure! It’s about how:
we hold in our minds the fast, frightening and (would-have-been) preventable changes happening in the world around us
and yet get on with our lives also
In an artful essay by Smith called Elegy for a Country’s Seasons, she writes:
“The weather has changed, is changing, and with it so many seemingly small things—quite apart from train tracks and houses, livelihoods and actual lives—are being lost. It was easy to assume, for example, that we would always be able to easily find a hedgehog in some corner of a London garden, pick it up in cupped hands, and unfurl it for our children—or go on a picnic and watch fat bumblebees crawling over the mouth of an open jam jar. Every country has its own version of this local sadness.”
In France, they talk about “dérèglement climatique”, which I think is a really good word for it. The French language really knows how to express itself through nouns and ‘dérèglement’ succinctly gets across that sense of disorder, dysfunction, undoing, unravelling.
There were record-breaking heat waves this summer in France, with temperatures sliding to above 40°C, even in Paris. Very few people have air-conditioning here and not many have gardens to cool down in. It was deeply uncomfortable for most, and very dangerous for the most vulnerable.
During the canicules, tens of thousands of people had to evacuate their homes after forest fires ripped across the Gironde region in southwestern France. Many of France’s forests are not natural but were rather planted as hunting grounds and in fact are on naturally dry, dusty land, increasing the risk of forest fires in elevated heat.
One such ‘faux forest’ is Fontainebleau, whose trees were largely planted under the reign of Francois I in the 1500s. I took a tour of the forest earlier this year with Les Amis de la Forêt de Fontainebleau, a local conservation and education association. I learned that the forest has an elaborate alert system of drones, which detects multiple fires per year and alerts firefighters to stem their spread.
In March this year, I visited the Alps for the first time as part of a press trip. We met a lot of Savoyard locals who spoke about how quickly the glaciers on the mountains are melting. They explained how they used to be able to ski lower down the mountain, but that now new ski stations and schools must be built higher up to future-proof them against further melting.
This week on Parisian newsstands, the current affairs magazine L’Obs (which used to be called Le Nouvel Observateur) is running with a cover about the climate crisis with the headline: “Climat - Il n’est pas trop tard”, or ‘Climat - it’s not too late’. The headline is overlaid on a striking portrait of climatologist Valerie Masson-Delmotte.
In a column, a senior editor named Grégoire Leménager cites Albert Camus and his assertion that:
FR: “l’habitude du désespoir est pire que le désespoir lui-même”.
EN: “Becoming used to despair is worse than the despair itself”.
In an interview in the same issue, Valerie Masson-Delmotte seems to suggest that it is more realistic to aim to limit warming to 2 degrees, rather than 1.5 pledged in 2015 as part of the Paris Agreement, bur that significant damage control is still achievable.
An odd vignette: I was living in Paris in 2015 at the time of the Climate Conference where the Paris Accord was adopted. To set the scene: it was not long after the Bataclan attacks, it was a cold winter and the mood in the city was quite fraught. Francois Hollande was president and David Cameron was prime minister. The UK had not yet Brexited, and Boris Johnson was mayor of London.
The BHV, one of Paris’s big department stores in the centre of town, had a Christmas display with the theme ‘so British’–all tea and postboxes and Union Jacks. I was standing outside the store’s doors, checking something on my phone, before heading out into the cold night. Suddenly a group of massive security men dressed in black boshed me out the way shouting urgently, “Excusez moi mademoiselle!”.
As they passed and entered the department store, I saw that the charge they were protecting was none other than Boris himself, wearing an askew knitted hat and striding bumblingly into the BHV amid his flock of guards. It was a singularly strange sight, made more absurd still by the reaction of the French people nearby. They craned their necks to try and see who this big mysterious celebrity was: “c’est qui?!”, “c’est une star?!”. When I said it was Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, they looked decidedly disappointed. It’s odd to think that only a few months later Johnson would be surrounded by Union Jacks again, leading the charge of ‘the people’ to leave the EU.
At the time I had absolutely no belief that the UK would vote to leave. It was also the tail-end of the Obama years and Trump’s election seemed equally unthinkable. Since then, it feels like unthinkable things just keeps happening, but Camus is right– we can’t get used to despair. So here’s some things that are changing in France in the light of climactic ‘dereglement’:
Back in August, President Macron announced “la fin de l’abondance”, in part signalling the need for huge behaviour change to combat the damage already done by humans to the world (and in part signalling the end of his jetskiing holiday)
In Paris, mayor Anne Hidalgo has been super-speeding-up plans to make the city car-free, adding miles and miles of new cycle lanes and essentially making it harder and harder to drive in the city by adding restrictive speed limits and car-free zones. (Not all Parisians are happy about this)
The organisers of the Paris 2024 Olympic Games have pledged for it to be carbon-neutral
The body responsible for awarding stars for hotels, Atout France, has more than doubled the criteria relating to sustainable development and has made some sustainability measures mandatory for all hotels (e.g. waste reduction training)
New and faster TGV trains (TVG M) will be introduced to the French train network in the next few years
Thirty-second book club
My wonderful friend and fellow writer Hattie Crisell wrote recently in her newsletter about the wisdoms of the well-loved American author George Saunders. After reading, I then listened to her interview with him on her podcast In Writing, and then finally decided to pick up a copy I had of his novel Lincoln in the Bardo. You may know that I took weeks and weeks to get through Zola’s Au Bonheur des Dames. In contrast, I have almost finished this zany, playful novel in a few days. It helps that it's in English, but it’s also quite scant, using an interesting combination of different voices recounting both historical and fantastical tales. It’s stimulating and enjoyable and I am liking it. It’s also the sort of book that would never get published if it was pitched by someone who wasn’t already well known but that’s ok!
Thank you for reading!
If you have been following the travails of my apartment-hunt, I have news! I think I have found one. Oh what luck! I’ll write a bit more about it when the contract is (hopefully) signed.
Have a good week and I’ll write next Sunday!