Suggested Song: Virus, Björk
Suggested Drink: Strawberry gin and tonic. Strawberries, gin, tonic water, bitters, lime.

It’s mid-May and those touchstones of our pre-Covid quotidian are reemerging from this long winter of lethargy and isolation. Cafés are hosing down their terrace tables, the boys of summer are taking the field, pétanque parties are back on the Provence calendar (bring your rosé passport), and one feels encouraged to consider summer travel plans, maybe. We’re not yet back to the bis(ous) in France, but air kisses are pollinating the breeze.

Everyone is ready for the world to turn again, but part of me is suffering a post-pandemic partum blues. New rituals and routines were grudgingly adopted, and now, to my surprise, I’m resisting their repeal. How about you?

Most of us entered wartime kicking and complaining. The masks and curfews and comatose streets where a tiresome affront. Then something unexpected unfurled: my adaption slowly evolved from noisy surrender to covert embrace.

Four things in particular have grown on me: hygiene hysteria, hermitude, travel restrictions, and a damn good cocktail. Let’s take a closer look.

Hygiene Hysteria

I’ve gained a new appreciation of protection against bugs, adopting a certain compulsive prophylaxis. Start with the mask.

I hated the mask at first. The fogged-up sunglasses; the hindered breathing; the constant “damn it, forgot my mask again.” Then a realization: that cloth cover was the best antiaging solution in my arsenal! The sags and the creases and the two-tone lifetime tan, all beautifully concealed, at least for that brief walk about town or trip to the grocery. I lose 10 years when masked up and love it.

I also appreciate that layer of discretion when slipping through the back alleys of Aix avoiding the predictable paths of this person or that. We all have those days, right? One gains an appreciation of the burka. There are days when I wouldn’t mind having a big black sack hanging in the closet. The Covid mask/sunglasses/wide-brimmed hat combo: perfect for a Howard Hughes steal through town.

Antiseptic hands are another new thing. I was raised on a farm in rural Pennsylvania and my childhood hands were perennially dirty; my bare Huck Finn feet even worse. Chasing salamanders along muddy creeks is blissfully messy. I’ve never given much thought to the germ history of stuff I was touching. Jostling with strangers on the Paris metro or forwarding hotdogs on down the row at the ballpark? Never a problem. I was firmly in the camp of it’s all good, I’m boosting my immunity. Now I travel with a small gel bottle, head to the sink after outings, and am setting perimeter strategies for the café life after Covid. I didn’t see that coming but accept that it’s just good practice, pandemic or no pandemic. Old dog, new tricks.

Hermitude

Covid put a serious dent into our social lives. The indoor seatings were taped off, then the terrace tables pulled up. We resumed in our homes until gatherings over 6 were banned. Okay, surrender.

Place des Cardeurs, Aix-en-Provence. Courtesy of Velasco, La Boitte Sauvage

And then, … I didn’t really miss it. The raucous dinner parties and late-into-the-evening drink ups, the restaurant tabs, the home turned upside down and head inside out while washing dishes at 3 am.  I was happy to give all of that a break.

This reversal had mostly to do with the temporary nature of confinement. I knew that we’d be sitting along a leafy boulevard lined with sycamores in Aix sipping rosé or flocking to this home or that beach soon enough again. So, I decided to embrace the hermitude and to quote Katy Perry, I liked it.

There’s a Lebowski appeal to stained sweatpants and frayed sweaters, dusty homes, hair gone to seed, sole control of the playlist (Siri, play the Bay City Rollers again), pedestrian wine in 5 liter boxes, locked in by dusk, books in bed by 9, lights out by 10.  There was time for curiously odd things like tarot readings and kimchi canning; activities and a comportment that I wouldn’t entertain should others be visiting regularly. Serene solitary confinement.

The travel ban is winding down and curfew rolling back in France. The apéro season is upon us. Confinement is ending, and I’m mostly ready. But the hermit has had run of this place for over a year now and not going back in the bottle graciously.

Travel Restrictions

The air travel experience has become insufferable. We all put up with it but who enjoys it? Some people apparently. Airlines were offering trips to nowhere during lockdowns; the flights were popular.

When it comes to finding points unknown (or known) I love being there, just not going there. A road trip is the exception. Lockdowns and quarantines provided a convenient excuse for avoiding that entire cattle call experience: boarding pass and ID here, now this slow queue, shoes off and everything in that bucket (“c’mon people let’s keep it moving!”), another line and more ID, the duty free mall and overpriced food, then a long sit at the crowded terminal, another cattle chute at the gate, boarding pass and ID again, buckle up and elbows in for the next few hours, try not to pee, … then it starts again at arrival.

No excuses were needed for avoiding travel these past many months. I missed people a lot, particularly my kids in faraway San Francisco, but not the process of getting there. I’m stepping back in the wading pool tepidly with a train trip to Paris in June and then we’ll see. I’m bribing the kids to visit me in Aix. As to that deep dive into a wide body across the the big blue sea? It’ll happen, don’t rush me.

And now to a damn good cocktail

Curfews and lockdowns force a reconsideration of one’s attitude on personal temperance. Some of us find all of that alone time a caution to curtail the evening tipple(s). Others find it an excuse to widen the guard rails.

I considered the abstemious option and locking the wine cave at first but was advised against it by a sage friend. A third option was to explore new directions, reasoning that the intake was neither more nor less, just different.

Hence, cocktails entered the equation. The art of preparing a good cocktail is no different than the secret to kitchen confidence: quality ingredients prepared with good tools and a lot of love for those whose company you most enjoy. Staying in season is key to both. The cold winter greys inspire Russian vodka creations comrade; the fresh spring greens calls for British gin old bean.

So, Moscow Mules have yielded stubbornly (it’s the mule) to strawberry gin and tonics (recipe here) as the weather warms and local berries fill the market stalls in Provence. Strawberries are in particular abundance and cheap at the moment, their perfume an irresistible siren seduction that demands purchase. My limes come from Maïtaï, who mans (womans?) a produce table at the Place de Richelme on Tuesdays. Anything she touches is as blessed as her sunny smile. The final key for me is the cocktail shaker from C&D Tools: an heirloom American-made bar tool offered as a gift from Kris, the company’s founder. How I became friends with this American diplomat stationed in Kinshasa, DRC is another strange tail for a future essay.

This is the time to consider your own permanent adoptions after a season of compulsory adaptation. Good luck with reentry. It’ll be fine, get out there!

Suggested Song: You Only Live Once, The Strokes
Suggested Drink: Forever Young Cocktail, gin, cranberry juice, club soda

It’s been sobering start to 2016 for the bulletproof believers amongst us. You know, we flag bearers of the centennial club, confident that at 100 we’ll still be kicking on most cylinders and fully engaged, and then softly, painlessly fail to wake up one sunny morning.

David_Bowie-06It’s a comforting fable for Big Idea procrastinators like me. Why do today what we have 40 more years to achieve? Zen, relax. And then we hear that certain ageless celebrities of our youth – David Bowie, Glenn Frey, Dale Griffin, and Alan Rickman, just this month alone – are dying from the frightening unmentionables like cancer, Alzheimer’s, and colitis before the age of 70. It’s a deflating jab to our comfort bubble.

The centennial club thrives on 2 fundamental deceits: when and how we’ll die. In reality we shouldn’t expect to tick past 83, which remains the average lifespan for the much of the western world. And we won’t likely expire peacefully in our sleep. We’ll probably succumb to the kinds of disorders and diseases that snatched the headline names mentioned above. It won’t be pretty and it will rob us of a few final years of fun and frolic. We won’t be supernovas, expanding in unbound potential until a final blinding flash leaves us scattered to the ashes. Damn.

So let’s get real. Let’s assume that our productive years wind down at 80, after which we’ll drool over endless rounds of bridge, shuffleboard, and acceptable wine on decks of the Carnival Cruise Lines. How many months are left then to do something grand, to pursue a legacy ambition that leaves us feeling accomplished and complete, that our unique purpose for being on this beautiful planet at this amazing time has been served? At 50 we can expect 360 more months and at 60 just 240 months. Sounds like a lot, sounds like so little.

Anxiety over our lack of effective runway can also be debilitating. Why try to take on something ambitious if there is insufficient time to implement it? Bowie and Frey were wasting time in rock bands in their teens, a time when we were planning responsible careers. They had decades to experiment, fail, perfect, and establish their genius. What hope is there to start at midlife, regardless of our ambitions, music or otherwise?

dont just standThe fact is we’re never better positioned to pursue quixotic adventures than at midlife. You probably have more disposable income at 50 then 20, are less impulsive and smarter about the world, have established a helpful network of support (even if 1-2 degrees removed), are no longer distracted by childrearing (although child-funding never ends!), and are driven less by considerations that are purely financial (that corrupt your vision), more by self realization (which distills your vision).

For a lot of reasons we can’t expect to launch a stellar career at 50 like Bowie’s, but we can still find success, recognition and respect, and establish a more authentic self, whether it’s as a musician, writer, artist, restaurateur, winemaker, nonprofit director, extreme athlete, teacher, yoga instructor, life coach, or whatever represents that grand ambition of deep personal meaning to you.

The point is this: there is no better time than now to get to it. The real prize is the journey and self-discovery as much as the final creation of our endeavors. In a few years someone will be writing your obit; perhaps the same person who summarized the lives of those above. Give her something to smile about.

Bill Magill
Aix-en-Provence