Pandemic lockdown #7: minor news on a number of fronts

I’m happy to report that God’s little beady-eyed creature that made itself at home on Alice’s bed the other night went to meet his Maker yesterday. He had the grace to die out in the open, praise be, and not in some inaccessible place. RIP, Ratty.

Today is Ivy’s 6th birthday! She is loving lockdown, because she gets to go for walks with Alice, with me, with Poppy, with Jane’s dog Mila, and she is sleeping like a rock at night.

Thank goodness someone in this household is sleeping. Alice is wired on steroids and ringing up everyone she knows all around the world in the middle of the night, whereas I myself am reading the newspapers, subscribing to every video service on the planet, and generally staying up all night. We also went onto European Summer Time last night, so springing forward was even worse than usual.

We are facing many more weeks of lockdown, so suddenly creative pursuits are bursting forth here at rue de la Gendarmerie (Police Station Street, which is rather amusing). Alice has broken out her super-duper-fancy-schmancy new Bernina sewing machine, and I don’t know what she and Jane are plotting at the table, but it sounds mighty complicated from my perch on the chaise.

I have been doing so many boring things, like ironing pillowcases. Even watched a YouTube video on how to fold a fitted sheet, which did not change my life by one iota.

I’ve also been cooking up a storm, not to mention eating the results. Today I wanted to clean some stuff out of the freezer, so I used up a big bag of frozen broccoli to make this broccoli walnut blue cheese pesto. We will have it over pasta this week, or possibly on a pizza crust, as I have dough in the fridge that needs to be used up.

We ran out of bread today and I didn’t want to spend the time required to make a yeast bread. I remembered various kinds of Southern quick breads, so I whipped up a loaf of buttermilk bread. Used this recipe, but with only 1 tablespoon of sugar. Hot out of the oven, with some wonderful French salted butter, it was mighty fine indeed.

From the blog Spicy Southern Kitchen (

The weather is meant to turn cold and grey this week, but we will be walking no matter what, as it’s a lifeline to sanity. Here was the view today.

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Pandemic lockdown #6: In which we have a visitation

I awoke early this morning (question for later discussion: will I ever sleep again? is anybody sleeping?) to find all the lights blazing in the living room and Alice looking a bit bleary and reclined upon the sofa.

What on earth is going on? I asked.

She then recounted her evening in a quavery yet still poetic little voice:

That feeling of clean sheets, a shower at the end of a sweaty day, the authenticity of a physical moment. The bed, the shower, the book. Calm.

Shredded in one instant by the beady little eyes of one of God’s creatures that had just joined me in bed.

I am not prone to fuss. Or shouting. Or screaming. Even after cancer, a rat in bed does not warrant any unseemly stamping or carrying on.

I said, “bugger off”! and decamped to the living room, away from those quick clawed feet on the floor, the paper rustling, the undeniable fact that I was not alone.

And thus the day began.

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Pandemic lockdown #5

I ran across this quote the other day, which seems peculiarly suited to the current moment:

“One must live every day as if it were one’s last, and as if one would live forever, both at the same time.”

–Alexander the Great

This, according to Hermione, Countess of Ranfurly. I cannot verify it independently, alas. But if he didn’t say it, surely someone should have?

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Pandemic lockdown #4: Morning Coronabaking edition

I see that a lot of people are making bread these days, as am I (even though our boulangeries in France are open, but of course, bread being an utterly essential item here, and lack of same leading to riots and revolution).

The best recipe, the easiest (takes time, but that is unattended time), the one that never fails is here. 

There’s even a video of how to make it, courtesy of the New York Times.

Go forth and conquer!

Image from Leite’s Culinaria.

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Pandemic lockdown #3: Della speaks

Yesterday I told my version of my maternal grandmother’s experience during the 1918 flu pandemic.

She had little formal education, but she was curious about everything and devoured the news every day. She was also a magnificent storyteller. I loved her so much and I used to spend a lot of time with her.

She took in ironing for pin money. She set up the ironing board in the kitchen, and while she stood there, smoothing and steaming her way through a huge pile of shirts, sheets, tablecloths, and handkerchiefs, I sat at the little oilcloth-covered table, drinking instant coffee, and writing down what she told me.

One day she talked a lot about her early life before and just after her mother died. When she finished talking, I realized she had spoken a poem.

Here is Della, in her own words.



Kneeled-down Places


My daddy always

bought us new shoes in the fall

when he’d sold the cotton.


We had a big field,

a hundred and some acres,

cotton and wheat and corn

and I don’t know what all.

The garden:

sweet potatoes and

Irish potatoes and

all summer vegetables.

And plenty of pumpkins.

We’d pick huckleberries,

the big gooseberries

we used to call them.




Huckleberries grow in the woods

and on the mountain.

All the children used to take buckets

and go up on the knob.

The boys took the axe along,

cut the stumps

and pine.

My mother,

I would say,

had sixty half-a-gallon jars

of huckleberries

when she died.




Mama made pies

most every morning

for us to take to school,

either blackberry

or pumpkin

or sweet potato.

She’d put them in a great old basket with a handle,

with some biscuits and ham

or sausage in the winter,

when it was cold.


Towards the spring

she never would send sausage.




But I didn’t finish about my shoes.

They would buy us new clothes,

Sunday clothes.

And we’d take what we’d been wearing on Sunday

for every day.

Then they’d buy us new shoes,

they were new Elkins,


The high-tops, you see,

was laced up twiced

or maybe three times

what these shoes were.

The first time I ever had a high-top

was after Mama died

and I moved to Shelby.

They was more expensive

and looked Sunday

and was real soft.

These Elkins was pretty rough shoes.




Every little feller

went to the fields,

the children as they come on.

The oldest ones would look after the others.

I believe the twins

was the first

that I looked after.

I’d sit on one side of their cradle

and hold their eyes shut

to get them to sleep!

They were going to take a nap after dinner

and I wanted them to

because I usually had to wash dishes

or keep the fire going—

well, in the summertime I didn’t have no fire,

but I’d sweep

or churn

or something like that for Mama,

because she went to the fields.

And I’d look at the Sears Roebuck catalog!

They mailed that out.

We didn’t have no other books around the house,

nothing but schoolbooks

was the only thing I ever knew of.

And the Bible.


My Mama read the Bible every night

to all of us.

When we went to Grandpa Boyles’

we had Bible and a half-hour prayer.

Now Grandpa Boyles shouted

every time we’d go to revival meeting.

In the sermon somewhere—

it’d be up a pretty good ways—

all at once he’d jump up

and give a keen holler

and go up and down the aisles

clapping his hands.

Little Dave Boyles!

Everybody cried.

He wore a place on the porch

where his knees was—

he kneeled every time.

We all had to kneel, too.

At home, we didn’t kneel down places,

we had bowed heads.




Our Daddy had got a big poplar tree

down at our spring

to make the cradle,

carved out the sides and the end

and made the bottom so it would rock.

And I’d sit on that thing and sing!

probably no telling what song then.


Later, our neighbors bought it

at the sale of our place.

They didn’t have no children of their own,

but she said,

I can always put my washing in there.


They bought it simply because

they knew my Mama,

they saw my Daddy make it.




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Pandemic lockdown #2: Do it for Della

I have worked at the World Health Organization for 12 years, a fair amount of that time spent helping out in outbreaks, starting with the H1N1 flu pandemic. I also worked with the team dealing with the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS)–which is also a coronavirus–going on mission several times to Saudi Arabia and to South Korea, and the West Africa Ebola outbreak in 2014, when I accompanied senior officials to see the aftermath in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. 

I see how hard my colleagues in the emergencies programme work, day and night, with very limited staff, in everything from cholera to Ebola and influenza to whatever pops up. My admiration for them knows no bounds, which is why uninformed criticism of the WHO gets my dander up. 

In December, when I was in North Carolina, staying with my family as my 21-year-old niece recovered from a heart transplant, I heard our WHO reports of an unknown virus, originating in China. I thought, this could get interesting–and alarming.

Having sat through endless meetings and briefings and pored over dozens and dozens of technical documents, I have been taking this outbreak seriously from the very beginning.

But I have been completely astonished, and dismayed, by the negative responses among the public to public health advice–the resistance, the nonchalance, the utter refusal to listen to facts, reason, and scientific evidence.

I realize we are living in a post-truth world, where everyone’s opinion is just as valid as anyone else’s, and that somehow I should not be surprised by all of his.

But I had another reason for being saddened and shocked. For me, this pandemic is personal.

It began on Christmas Eve 1918. 

My maternal grandmother, then 10 years old, had come down with the flu earlier in the week. Her recently widowed mother had put her into her own bed. The little girl was so ill that her mother remarked, “My little Josephine won’t get up in the morning.” 

She did not get up the next morning, nor for several more. 

In the meantime, her mother also caught the flu. 

After a few days, Josephine was better. She woke up, alone in her mother’s bed.

She raised herself up on one elbow and leaned way over to look down the hall into the parlor. There she saw her mother, lying too still. Ladies from the church were getting her dressed.

Josephine, whom everyone else called by her first name, Della, got out of her mother’s bed and went in search of her grandfather, to find out what was going on. 

She found him in a rocking chair in front of the fireplace. He was bent over, holding his head in his hands. The hearth was wet with his tears.

The young woman in the parlor, Della’s mother, was his daughter, and she was being laid out for her burial.

She was the second of his children and the third person in his family to die that week. On Christmas Day, he would make his third trip to the cemetery in as many days. 

They were killed by the 1918 flu, which ravaged the world and caused the deaths of somewhere between 20 and 40 million people–more than all those who died in the incredible carnage of the First World War. 

The flu orphaned my grandmother and her 7 brothers and sisters. 

“We didn’t have no Christmas that year,” she always said to me, as she related this tale to me over and over, throughout the many years of her long life. 

Much worse was to come. The children were dispersed separately into foster care. My grandmother was sent to stay with some hateful people, who, I am sorry to say, were relatives of her parents. 

They treated her horribly, like a servant, or worse. She was made to milk cows at 4 o’clock in the morning and then forced to drink spoiled milk, as fresh milk was reserved for the “real” family. 

She told me how hard it was to pull the cows’ teats. It was freezing cold, and her little fingers were raw and red and she cried while she did it. 

She also picked cotton, like everybody else, stuffing the cotton bolls into a huge sack she wore around her neck and dragged behind her. 

Callie Campbell, 11 years old, picks 75 to 125 pounds of cotton a day, and totes 50 pounds of it when sack gets full. “No, I don’t like it very much.” Lewis W. Hine. Location: Potawotamie County, Oklahoma. PART OF: Photographs from the records of the National Child Labor Committee (U.S.) REPOSITORY: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA

The African-American girls, she said, could always pick more. She wanted to be able to “pick a bale a day,” just like they did.

A bale is 350 pounds.

One day, once only, as far as I know, she managed to pick a bale of cotton. She was triumphant. 

I asked her, what did you do then? 

She said to me, “I was so tired, I just laid down at the end of the row. I couldn’t get up.” 

As hard as all of that was, it was nothing compared to when the matriarch of the house locked her in her room and took the key, while she set the house afire and left. 


My grandmother jumped out the bedroom window. 


And lived to tell the tale. 

Old Lady S, her relative and foster mother, was obviously mentally ill. 

Many years later, my grandmother took her fiance, my grandfather, to meet her. 

My grandfather was the kindest and most gentle person I have ever known. At his funeral, my father, who had known him for more than 50 years, said of him, “I never heard him say an unkind word.” 

So when Pop met Old Lady S, who was ancient and blind by then, he took her hand and merely said, “I’ve heard so much about you.” 

Della endured the horrors of her foster home for about 4 years. When she turned 14, she managed to meet up with her older sister, Bert, aged 16. They agreed to try to escape their situations. 

They ran away and lied about their ages and were accepted into nursing school, at the State Hospital Training School in Morganton, North Carolina, sometimes known as the Western North Carolina Insane Asylum. After they graduated, they got jobs there. 

On her first day of employment as a qualified nurse, my grandmother went to check on one of her patients. She found him hanging from a bedsheet he had tied to the back of the door. 

Her life was always hard, but it got better from then on, especially when she stayed in a boarding house, in Charlotte, North Carolina, run by her aunt. I will tell this happier tale later.

But for now, I have written this to start a little campaign in honor of my grandmother. 

Knowing what we know now, do you think Della would have said, oh, this outbreak is some kind of political nonsense, and there is no need to do anything we are advised to do, so let us go about our daily lives and ignore the authorities, because, after all, it’s our right to do so? 

The pandemic changed my grandmother’s life forever. She was indelibly marked by that historic event. She warned me; she had lessons to impart; she made sure I understood, as much as I could, the terrible cost a virus had exacted, not only from her and her family, but for life as it then was. Nothing was ever the same after that.

My friends, I assure you that my grandmother, Della Josephine Noggle Davis, would have done anything on earth to save her mother and the rest of her family from the horrors of the 1918 flu, and from all that followed.

Me, with my maternal grandparents, Bill and Della Davis.

Follow the science. Listen to public health authorities. Won’t you do it for Della? 



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Pandemic lockdown #1

I have actually been in lockdown since March 3, I think. Because I have extremely severe asthma, I got worried and decided to start working from home. Only a few days later, almost everyone at WHO started working remotely.

Oddly, I have written almost nothing about this strange new world we find ourselves in. I decided today that I must settle down and get some creative work going, in addition to my work-work.

We are still able to go out for walks near our houses, as long as we have the official form from the French government that explains why we are out: “walking dog” would seem to be fairly self-evident, according to Poppy and Ivy.

My friend Alice is staying with me, as she has been undergoing cancer treatments and all the friends who were scheduled to come and stay with her have had to cancel. I am so grateful that she is here, as I think I would have gone bonkers already if I had to be alone. Our friend Bex from Paris is working at WHO and has switched over from living with me to living at Alice’s and taking care of her cats.

Our saving grace so far is that we have been able to go out for walks and the weather has been so beautiful it hardly seems real. This week it is meant to get a bit colder.

First we walked through the center of Ferney, which was nearly completely deserted.

Today was grey and cold, but we had a wonderful walk until we learned that we were in a park that was officially closed! We found a sign that said, STAY AT HOME! THIS PARK IS CLOSED! AND THERE IS A 135 EURO FINE FOR BEING IN IT! Sez I, the town really should put a sign up at both entrances to the park 😉

Poppy and Ivy enjoyed themselves hugely, even though it was all forbidden.

I took Poppy out of her puppy carriage and she went for a RUN!

Coming up: lockdown recipes, amusements, projects. Bon courage to all!


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St Ives

The Tate. The Barbara Hepworth studio and garden.

Glorious and inspirational.

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Who knew there were rhododendron TREES?

Today, Lanhydrock gardens and the Lost Gardens of Heligan. Just stunning.


It is SO COLD in Cornwall that I had to buy a coat today. Am finally warm. Hooray!

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Around and about in Cornwall

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