Un monde si rude
How many lives can I live this year?
Bonne année ! I hope you’re doing well and that you’ve had a good few festive weeks.
Like many, I have mixed feelings about the imposed jollity around Christmas (or imposed jollity of any sort, for that matter), but I really enjoyed the season this year. It was the first time I was able to travel back to the UK for Christmas since before the pandemic, and it felt a bit like the closing of a parenthesis.
I have written before in our letters about La Rentrée. Here’s what I wrote:
For the French, La Rentrée is the necessary second-part of the vacances ritual.
If I were to try and translate it, the closest I could get is probably “back-to-school”, but this is not really sufficient. It’s an all-ages, all-purpose back for school, because it also goes for adults returning to work, people who do not work at all, or retirees.
I much prefer La Rentrée as a reset point than New Year. You’re well rested (from les vacances) and you’ve got plenty of user-data from the eight months of the year already lived to inform your sensible and cosy autumn resolutions.
And this is true. Paris is at its most gloomy and least hopeful in January and it doesn’t necessarily feel like the right time to castigate ourselves or impose restrictive measures on ourselves.
I arrived back in Paris yesterday morning and spent the new year with friends who live nearby. Like most cool gals, I got ready for the night out while listening to France Info, the French radio news station. The station broadcast the president’s annual new year’s speech. It was a slightly odd counterpoint, as I pinned rollers in my hair, to hear Macron describe:
FR: “un monde si rude, dans des temps si durs”
EN: “A world so harsh (rude) in times so tough”
It is true that the world is quite rude, but this doesn’t mean we can’t also look forward to the year ahead, and try to find pockets of light in the dark winter months to come.
Here are a few things I’m looking forward to in the near future:
Finishing watching The Traitors. I started watching this elaborate game show, hosted by Claudia Winkleman, over the festive period after three different people recommended it. It’s excellent entertainment.
Bus rides! Winter, I find, is a great season to lean in to my love of the Parisian bus network. Getting a bus across the city in the daytime, when I’m not in a rush, is one of my great joys. Some of my favourite routes include the 80 and the 95, which traverse the city north to south, crossing the Seine on the way.
Doing une expo The new year brings a fresh slate of art exhibitions. It’s a lovely occupation on a Paris winter’s evening to contemplate bright, evocative colours, warm inside, while it’s dark and cold outside
Renewing my reading spreadsheet. In 2022, I kept a spreadsheet log of all the books I read and my impressions of them. I am going to copy the Google Sheet and make a new version for 2023.
Schvitzing. I got a real kick out of being able to carry my excessively heavy suitcase back up the stairs to my apartment yesterday without much trouble. This is thanks to my schvitzing sessions in the gym, so I say — here’s to more sweat this year!
Pen Friend. I’m looking forward to sending these letters every week.
Rollers. I’ve written before in these letters about my quest to acquire practical skills. The latest is how to use large velcro rollers — thanks to YouTube, it’s going quite well so far.
What are you looking forward to in the near future? Please let me know in the comments, or in an email.
Thirty-second book club
I had a very read-y holiday period. My brother gave me The Year of Magical Thinking by American writer and journalist Joan Didion for Christmas and I read it during the days between Christmas and new year. It’s about death, the death of the writer’s husband, which took place in the 2003 during the days between Christmas and New Year.
It’s never not terrifying to be confronted with death up-close, and Didion goes up- close, examining the thin but giant line between personhood and nothingness. Still, it’s ultimately a life-affirming book that made me want to cling to dear people and happy days a bit tighter.
Being home over Christmas, I was surrounded by familiar places and people with whom I share cultural references and memories. This experience, of just slotting in, always makes me question myself, specifically my choice to eschew familiarity in favour of living somewhere else, somewhere foreign. This is related to the Didion book in the sense that the thought I always come back to is: I want to be able to fill this life I have with as many lives as possible.
I am not sure if I will be able to articulate this perfectly. Basically, the only antidote I know to the ultimate feebleness of these little lives is to try and cheat and to pack in more lives inside our own. Some things that give me this sensation of abundance, of getting more life-bang for my life-bucks are:
Literature!: Reading for me has always felt like a little trapdoor, dropping us into other lives, realities, possibilities. The more I read, especially fiction, the more I have the impression of overlaying other lives over my own to create a bulkier hunk of life
Cities: I grew up on the outskirts of London and now live in central-ish Paris. I am a city person, and I think that one of the reasons that I’m a city person is that they are full of so many lives and possibilities. If I were to move away from the city, I would feel like I was missing out on the chance to fill my life with lots of multiple criss-crossing lives, rather than one more line-like life( although really a simpler, more line-like life with a more set routine is probably more natural?).
Art: At its best, seeing art you like is like getting to step into the soul of someone else for a second, another way to cheat your one-life allowance!
Antiques and second-hand things: I buy most of the clothes I wear second-hand, but I also just enjoy just rooting through second-hand things. This is for many reasons, but one is that I find old things from other eras sort of reassuring. They’re like a little bridge back to previous decades, providing some continuity. Like a baton passed from someone else who you will never meet. And then there’s some kind of reassurance/hope in the idea of using/wearing these old things right here and now and imbuing them with new life.
Living somewhere else: And back to my choice to transplant my life: this choice has allowed me to overlay a different life path (that of my life in Paris), over the first one (my early life in the UK), and almost get two life trajectories for the price of one. Did you ever pick up two ballpoint pens and write/draw with them at the same time? It’s something akin to that sensation. Going home at Christmas reminded me that I live in both these rich worlds, and I felt very lucky about that.
Travel and meeting people from other places Travelling to new places gives a sensation of abundance and possibility that makes our own individual lives both beautiful and absurd. Meeting people from other places adds to this richness. Last night at New Year’s party I met people from southern Chile who told me about Brownie, the young president’s dog who has his own TikTok account and is more loved than the president. They live near Brownie and they often meet him when they’re walking their dog, Luna. How delightful!
Thank you for reading this first Pen Friend letter of 2023. Please do share it if you like it.
I’ll write again next week. Until then, Happy New Year!
Happy new year! That was a warming read, thank you. I moved a long, long way away from my UK upbringing many years ago and always struggle with a sense of guilt at this time of year about being away from family.
La Rentrée is a great term to now know. I'm about to have my own at the start of next week and I can't help feel like a comet about to hurtle through Earth's atmosphere, worrying about just how much of my own debris is going to be vaporised and what will be left of me (there's a lot of new stuff/responsibilities going on at work that I just don't feel prepared for). But, at the same time, I've started to get that sense of "needing" to be back at work, which means that my break has been a sufficient reset for my mind.
A book spreadsheet is a great idea. I've just been using Goodreads each year to track my consumption of literature, but this seems like a more personal way to do it.
Happy New Year Dear Hannah!
Lovely to see Pen friend for the first time in 2023. I agree, taking any bus ride especially with my daughter Kate ...in glorious Paris is a joy.I am always thrilled to actually be transported right between The Louvre and the beautiful gardens beyond that stone arch.
Ahhhhhh Paris! X