The following interview is part of my series, Filipinos Coping with Covid.
Reine Marie Bonnie Melvin (Bonnie) was born in Manila and has lived in Paris France for many years. She is the award-winning author of A Normal Life and Other Stories and the novel The Betrayed. ~ Cecilia Brainard
Cecilia Brainard Interviews Reine Marie Bonnie Melvin
Interview conducted via email on May 25, 2020
Copyright 2020 By Cecilia Brainard
Cecilia Brainard: Are you still in lockdown? Are you alone or with others? Do you see other people, and do you practice social distancing if so?
Bonnie Melvin: France went into lockdown on March 16, and began to ease out of it on May 11. For the first two months, there were very strict restrictions on movement. People were asked to work from home whenever possible, and we could go out only with a certificate stating the reason for our movement – grocery shopping, urgent medical visits, work (for essential workers), an hour of exercise (but only within a kilometer from home). Parisians still lined up to buy their baguettes and cigarettes, of course.
Since May 11, we no longer need a certificate to leave home, and many shops have opened again (though cafes, restaurants, cinemas etc. remain closed). Schools are partially open, but many parents are keeping their children at home. Public transport is reserved for workers (with certificates) during rush hour. The country’s borders are still closed, and we can’t travel beyond 100 kilometers from home (so I can’t escape to my little cottage in Normandy – there are worse problems, I know). People are encouraged to continue working from home whenever possible. France is divided into “green” and “red” zones – in the red zones, including Paris, the virus is still actively circulating, and the rules are much stricter.
Just before lockdown on March 16, my younger daughter Oona returned home from university in London and stayed with me. She has been the loveliest lockdown companion, gentle and thoughtful and interesting – and busy, as she has a lot of university work to do. I spend hours every day working on a new book, reading, exercising and procrastinating; she spend hours reading, studying and, I think, thinking. She is on the cusp of discovering adult life, and everything is open for her (as open as the world can be for the class of 2020). She reads, I sense, to explore inner and outer lives, whereas too often I read now more for consolation than exploration. Oddly, and despite this, we tend to love the same books.
We have lunch every day in our tiny balcony overlooking the gardens of Montmartre. I love cooking for her because she appreciates everything. We have long conversations over meals, and I’m discovering the wonderful young woman she has become, after she has been away three years. (She came back for holidays during that time, but was very busy with friends when she did.) Being with her unexpectedly like this has been the greatest pleasure and blessing of lockdown.
My older daughter Kassia, her partner and baby managed to leave for Normandy before lockdown on March 16. They all got quite sick with the virus soon after, so it was a worrying time for about two weeks, but they are all well now and recently returned to the Paris area. Since May 11, I’ve been seeing them all again, almost every day, and it’s been such a close and happy time – another great blessing of lockdown.
Apart from those two weeks of worry, lockdown was blissful. I think many artists live in a kind of lockdown anyway – or dream of living in one – and I relished having so much time, without social obligations, without tasks outside the home, with little outside work. Time seemed to stretch as it did in the summers of my childhood, in my grandfather’s house by the Pasig, when there seemed to be 24 hours between waking up and lunchtime, then another whole day between lunchtime (and siesta) and evening. Paris was so quiet for two months – hardly any cars, no gatherings in the street, the tiny streets around Montmartre empty of tourists and filled with birdsong and the exuberance of spring. It was like living in another century.
At times like this, the unessential falls away. True friendships strengthen and resurface, and it was a gift to be in closer touch with friends from different periods in my life – Manila friends, my old elementary and high school classmates, university friends, writer friends, often in different parts of the world – via messages and video calls. Since lockdown began, I’ve had a regular Sunday video chat with two Assumption classmates, one in Manila and one in New York, and it’s been moving to learn how similar our experiences have been, despite the surface differences. Also, there is something irreplaceable about friendships like these that have lasted decades – we’ve known each other since we were children. Friends from Manila – wherever they are in the world now – understand things that don’t even need to be said, and which my Paris friends never will, no matter how I try to explain. There is something about a crisis that pulls the pieces of a life together and makes me realize what and who really matter. Lockdown in some ways helped me take measure of my life – the writing I want to do, the friends I’ve known for decades, my family of the heart, the kindness and connections. I feel very grateful for these different relationships, scattered and yet solid. I would feel unmoored without them.
Since May 11, Paris streets are busy and noisy again. The bars and cafes are still closed, but many offer take-out. The weather is beautiful, and my neighborhood is full of young (and not so young) people drinking from plastic cups and hanging out on the sidewalks or on the stairs of Montmartre, no social distancing measures discernible. It worries me. I continue to practice social distancing when I go out, and continue to isolate myself as much as possible – not just because I’m afraid of the virus, but because I’m so much happier in a quiet life, with people I love nearby. I see my family, my boyfriend and a handful of very close friends, and life feels very full.
I took the subway once or twice, but many people there don’t respect social distancing and talk loudly into their phones, without masks, so I try to stay in my neighborhood as much as possible. I know I am privileged, with a home and food and loved ones nearby, but I worry about what the world will be like when we emerge from this – the social, political and economic impacts of the virus and lockdowns around the world. I don’t know what world awaits my daughters and grand-daughter.
CB: Are you working? If yes, are you working from your home or do you have to go to your place of work?
BM: I work as a freelance editor, usually from home, and a lot of work was cancelled during the lockdown. But assignments are trickling back again, and I cross my fingers that they will continue.
CB: Were you affected financially by the pandemic? Did you lose your job? Did you get assistance?
BM: Yes, my revenues took a big hit in March, April and May, but there has been government aid for employees and businesses, including independent workers whose revenues dropped by more than 50%, compared with the same period last year, and that helped me and many others get through the period. Many friends on permanent contracts are either working at home or on temporary “technical unemployment,” funded by the government. The government is shoring up various sectors (including the cultural sector) with aid and benefits for now, but that won’t last very long, and the economic fallout could be disastrous. In addition to the likely economic difficulties ahead, I worry that this will fuel the far-right movement, populism and xenophobia.
CB: Do you go out? To take walks? To see relatives or friends? For exercise?
BM: Even during the strict lockdown, from mid-March to mid-May, I went out for a daily walk, usually for an hour, up in the quiet streets of Montmartre. I loved watching the flowers and trees come to life in the springtime. About once a week, I walked with close women friends (our daughters were in kindergarten together) from the neighborhood, keeping a strict distance between us – that was easy to do because we could walk in the middle of the street (there were almost no cars on the road). I walk less now because there are so many people outside, but I try to exercise several times a week, usually at home.
CB: Do you wear a face mask? Do you practice social distancing?
BM: Yes, I wear a mask and gloves each time I go out, and I carry sanitizing gel with me, as well. I practice social distancing as much as I can, but my children, close friends, boyfriend and boyfriend’s children all see their own friends, so there are more and more risks of exposure, even with all the hand-washing and masks and physical distance we can muster. It begins to feel like Russian roulette.
CB: Please describe in a few sentences your daily routine.
BM: I make coffee when I wake up, then go back to bed with my mug and a book. Then I answer email, do busy-work (editing or administrative work), perhaps do some exercise, then prepare lunch, eat on the balcony with my daughter. In the afternoon, I continue the busy-work and also work on my new book, then often go for a walk. I try to meditate even a little every day. Sometimes my boyfriend will pick me up on his motorcycle at the end of the afternoon, and we’ll have wine and dinner in his beautiful garden, just outside Paris, amid the roses and honeysuckle and wisteria. He has a wonderful house, with a garden studio for writing, but I hesitated about moving there because I thought I would miss the buzz of Paris. Lockdown made me realize I’m so much happier without the buzz, and a very quiet life seems extremely appealing now. (He is very appealing, too.)
CB: Do you go buy your own groceries? What precautions do you take?
BM: Yes, I buy my own groceries – I wear a mask and gloves, and use contactless payment with my credit card. But it is still stressful – many customers don’t follow the one-meter distancing recommendation and don’t wear masks, and at times everyone seems to be passing within inches of everyone else. I disinfect everything when I get home, wash the fruits and vegetables… I spend more time disinfecting than shopping, I think.
CB: Do you order food to go? What precautions do you take?
BM: Lockdown was a time for home cooking, and I loved it. Now a few restaurants in the area are offering take-out, and we’ve had a few take-out meals on the balcony, with chilled wine – it feels like a feast. I wonder now why I spent so much time in restaurants. I’m not eager to go back to eating out so often, once restaurants open again. All that expense on food, for a momentary pleasure in the mouth, might be better spent on other things – I think there will be a lot of support needed in many areas once we are out of this, and I’m likely to feel increasingly uneasy about self-indulgence – and about sitting in a crowded, enclosed space.
CB: Do you shop online or do you go out to stores that are open?
BM: I go to stores as much as possible, but I order online as well when I can’t find what I need. I keep dreaming of a minimalist lifestyle and try not to accumulate “stuff “(though I do accumulate it, despite myself, and am always trying to get rid of things that I have and don’t use – it seems like a never-ending battle). I thought I’d do major cleaning-out-of-closets during lockdown, but I didn’t, mainly because wading through stuff dismayed me.
CB: Do you worry about the future? Do you have nightmares or bad dreams? Do you feel some anxiety? Or do you sleep well and feel normal as usual?
BM: I worry about my children’s future – in terms of jobs, in terms of what’s happening to the planet. Since lockdown ended, I sometimes feel anxious about the future – it comes in waves. Sleep is problematic. I was much happier during lockdown and am having a bit of end-of-lockdown blues.
CB: What do you miss doing, with this pandemic? For eg eating out, or going to church, orseeing relatives?
BM: I don’t miss very much as I’ve stayed close to those dearest to me, wherever they are in the world, and I’ve also had lots of time alone, which I love. And again, I know I’m among the lucky ones because I have everything I need and feel very surrounded by loving family and friends. What I miss most, I suppose, is being in the countryside – watching spring unfold in my garden in Normandy, the red and pink climbing roses on the cottage walls, the long sunny days, the wild ducks that come to nest in the pond for a few weeks every spring, the drive through country roads to the long, empty beaches bordered by dunes. A friend has been staying in my house since lockdown began, and she sends me photos of the trees and roses, so I watch the changes from afar, on the tiny screen of my cell phone. Animals have become less fearful as humans stay indoors, and deer venture out of the forest and into the garden there.
I’ll miss traveling to Manila, too, as I had hoped to do in October for the velada with my Assumption classmates. I hate flying, so I won’t miss that, but I will miss traveling to see friends abroad – I had hoped to travel to the San Francisco area, too, later this year, to visit dear friends.
CB: Do you have tips about surviving this pandemic?
BM: No tips, really – just a reminder that life is fragile, that my expectations – and what I take for granted – are fragile, and the realization that books, loving relationships and a spiritual life (or at least the yearning for one) have sustained me throughout all this and made me happy. Now we’ll see what comes next.
Coronavirus: The Beginning, by Cecilia Brainard
How Filipinos Are Coping With Covid-19, Part One (Cecilia Brainard, Positively Filipino)
How Filipinos Are Coping With Covid, Part Two (C. Brainard, PF)
Lia Feraren, Germany
Teresa Concepcion, Canada
Ofelia Gelvezon Tequi, France
Reine Marie Bonnie Melvin, France
New Zealand: Jay Montilla & Monika Tawngdee
Linda Ty-Casper, Massachusetts, USA
Barbara Ann Jacala, San Diego, CA, USA
Brian Ascalon Roley, Ohio, USA
tags: #coronavirus #covid19 #covid #Filipinos #copingwithcovid #Paris #France #Europe #FilipinoFrench #FrenchFilipino #FilipinoAmerican