What were you doing in late July 2020, during that first pandemic summer? I was rowing. Here, a teaser from my forthcoming book: An American in Pandemic Paris. A Coming-of-Retirement-Age Memoir:
“For the past month, I’ve been rowing several times a week. Rowing is by far my favorite physical activity. During summers in Sweden, I developed callouses on my hands that lasted until well after New Year’s. I rowed every non-rainy day, usually for two or more hours following a day spent writing before my window, with its view of bucolic pastures inhabited by grazing horses and cows.
In Paris, the best substitute I’ve found is in the Bois de Boulogne (Bois de Vincennes would be another, more distant, option), the expansive park developed in the 1850s by Baron Haussmann, the man Napoléon III charged with transforming Paris into a bourgeois paradise. With its racetrack, bridlepaths, golf course, tennis courts, and numerous pedestrian paths, it serves as the main outdoor recreational venue for the privileged residents of the Sixteenth Arrondissement.
The rowboats are wooden and narrow, unusual in this fiberglass age, giving one the impression they are the same boats Renoir and his pals once rowed. While heavy, they move quickly and are pleasurable to row because the oars are not fixed to the oarlocks, the usual, infantilizing protocol. One of the joys of rowing is a sense of freedom. For some incomprehensible reason, an unknown pessimist deemed rowers incapable of holding on to the oars, risking becoming one-oared, or worse, oarless, a frustrating assumption. Situations often arise that necessitate the shortening of an oar. Fixing them creates an irritating handicap: imagine a steering wheel restricted to a narrow range of motion. As a result, I’m as happy as I can possibly be rowing in an urban environment with bonus views of the Eiffel Tower.
The rowing lake is almost one-mile-long, with two wooded islands at the center that provide the illusion of countryside. Once I pass the obstacle course of boats with young families, romantic couples, or groups of girls spinning in circles with no idea of how boat-rowing works, I’m home free. I find soothing the repetitive sound of oars turning in the oarlocks and of droplets falling onto the water from the oars during the pushing motion.
My cortisol level plummets, and I am back in Tolg, or Casco Bay, where my father taught me to row as a child. With the devil-may-care child-rearing attitude of the 1960s, my parents allowed me to row alone for hours without a life jacket and often far from sight, as I explored the Royale River around the shore corner from our cabin, perched on an escarpment overlooking Cousin’s Island. The fact that there was a four-hundred-yard tide and not getting back on time meant being stranded on the quicksand-like clam flats for hours never signaled danger for any of us. At eleven years of age, my parents just assumed I could manage without oversight.
On the larger island in the Bois de Boulogne lies a charming wooden chalet imported from Switzerland in the nineteenth century that serves as a restaurant. I always imagine the Impressionist era when I pass by, probably because of its abundant images of waterside leisure. I envision Manet, Monet, and Caillebotte in their silk top hats accompanied by Berthe Morisot and Eva Gonzales in their stylish muslin dresses taking the ferry on a sunny summer afternoon in the 1870s for luncheon or a drink on one of its terraces. Beyond, at the far end of the lake, a small waterfall cascades, and near it lies a patch of thorny blackberry bushes.
On my first row, I arrived unprepared for berry picking. Not surprising; who could imagine berry picking in Paris? My hands were nearly shredded by thorny branches as I determinedly loosened ripe berries from their white cores, collecting them in the plastic bag I happened to have along. After that, I came outfitted with leather gloves and a plastic container. Pedestrians on the footpath above loo on curiously as I stand in the boat stretching to reach and then to pull toward me distant prickly branches with my gloved hand while I selected the ripest berries with the other. I am pretty sure that I am the Bois’s only berry picker because the not-as-ripe berries I leave for my subsequent foray are always there when I return.
Children tug at their adults, point toward me, and ask them to explain what I’m doing. Adults sometimes inquire.
“Why are you picking those berries?” they wonder. “To eat,” I respond.
“What kind of berries are they?” “How do you know they are edible?” is another popular question.
When ‘because they are blackberries’, does not suffice as an answer, I wonder if the questioner requires the confirmation of comestibility conferred by shopping in a USDA-approved grocery store and what they would do if required to forage in the wild. I never dreamt it possible to combine my two favorite summer activities within Paris city limits. This truly is my city.”