Yesterday I ventured to the supermarket. I didn’t want to go right at the open, figuring I’d be in line behind elderly early birds, and why not let them just go ahead. While on Wednesday it was warm enough to open all the windows to the brilliant sunshine, yesterday brought driving rain that turned to sleet and then to big, fat snowflakes. Surely the prospect of standing in line in such weather–our first snow, five days into spring–would drive away the weak of heart.
There was a line anyway. Two masked guards kept us corralled behind barriers, barking to stay two meters apart. I got glared at by a few waiting shoppers, probably because I didn’t have a mask. I did have a scarf (I’m in France after all), and I pulled it up over my nose and mouth. That steamed up my glasses completely, as if I weren’t already blind enough, and the scarf didn’t stay up anyway. I didn’t take a purse; just a card in my zipped pocket. Less to disinfect later.
The guards barked some shopping protocol, but what with the masks, the shoppers talking and the guards’ strong accents, I didn’t catch much. Something about so many people per aisle, and only two people waiting per checkout. Nobody obeyed anyway. The cheese and yogurt aisles (there are two cheese aisles and one yogurt-only aisle) were the most crowded. Fresh produce also bustled. You have to weigh your produce on one of the scales in the produce section, and enter on the touch screen (ICK) what it is, then it spits out a price tag that you stick on the bag. Anybody waiting their turn for the scale at the required distance got cut in front of by people who didn’t want to wait. Maybe clueless? Maybe not.I profusely thanked the cashier for her service. Nobody was behind me in line. I spent about 40 minutes in the store, and it only took me that long because I don’t usually go to that supermarket but the Carnivore does, and I needed to get some of his preferred stuff: pâté, rillettes. I forgot to buy junk food or comfort food and am regretting it sorely. The experience was supremely stressful. Is this what it was like during the war? Waiting in line? Wondering whether you would get home to your loved ones? I would get home, but would I be bringing in the enemy? This enemy is microscopic yet bigger than anything we’ve ever faced. In his address to the nation a week ago, President Macron said France was at war with the virus. A war where the danger isn’t hidden snipers but hidden germs. A war with a rising body count but no bullets. A kind of neutron bomb that is destroying the population without destroying buildings. Things still look normal, but in a closed-for-the-holiday kind of way. A temporary pause that is turning out to be less and less temporary.Today I soaked all the reusable shopping bags in bleach and hung them out to dry in the sun.
Last night I watched TV with our kid, who hasn’t been out at all since schools closed. I went out three times: for groceries, to do laundry, to donate blood. Our kid has gone running but nothing else. I worry about the effects. Is my internal terror showing, spreading? As we watched “The Good Place,” about two episodes in I stopped being shocked at the lack of social distancing. I forgot all about the virus. Life felt normal. We discussed the kid’s English homework, in which a verb exercise included a participle used in the text as an adjective. My kid skipped it (oversight, I suspect, rather than outright mistake), and was devastated not to get a perfect score. We went over the grammar of the situation, and my kid argued via email to the teacher and got the point restored. I was so proud. Speaking up isn’t easy for some people. I left my kid’s room to go to bed and suddenly got slammed with reality again. The world without a cure was still out there. We were still cowering in our house. The illusion of normalcy shattered. We can speak up but the virus won’t listen.
The restrictions keep evolving. We could go out for exercise, but, as I heard on the Earful Tower podcast, in Paris people were dressing as joggers to just go out. (I do sympathize. We have a big yard, whereas many Parisian apartments are smaller than just the bedroom of La Suite Barbès–the bedroom alone is 35 square meters, or 350 square feet.) To tamp it down, we are now confined to one kilometer from our homes and to exercise of 20 minutes. I might be defiant and take my walks; I can duck into a vineyard and off the road if I hear a car coming, or even take quite a long walk on narrow paths. Even without the lockdown I never encounter anyone on these back roads. The point is to avoid contact with other people; so much better on back road, regardless of the distance, than to stay in my kilometer perimeter in the village, with everybody else doing the same.The day before I took laundry to our empty AirBnBs, since I have neither repaired nor replaced our stupid Samsung washer. Seven loads. Two machines. It took all day–machines here heat the water, so cycles take up to three hours for really hot water. Technically I should have gone to the local laundromat. I went there a couple of times when our machine first broke down. It is a tiny but bustling place, always with people waiting their turn, in tight quarters. No sink for hand-washing, or for cleaning the counter or the chairs. I would have to take my own bleach-soaked rags for wiping off the selection buttons on the machines. Would I also need to wipe out the inside of the machines? I would not want to put my basket on the counter nor on the floor. All of it grossed me out. Instead I put the laundry into duffel bags and drove to the apartments in the safe space of my own car, hauled it upstairs without seeing anybody, and sat in the gorgeous space, windows open, while the machines turned. Nobody but me has been in there. A safe space. But technically not allowed. Rules that make sense for cities (take your laundry to the nearest laundromat) don’t make sense here. I managed to not see any gendarmes.
Laundry clean, groceries stocked, I plan to hunker down with my loved ones for as long as possible before sticking my head out of our cozy foxhole again.For perspective, Katherine Anne Porter wrote about the 1918 pandemic in “Pale Horse, Pale Rider,” among the few literary works about the influenza, merged with the anxieties about the other war, World War I, that was also raging.
Since Tuesday, when France closed almost everything, I have awoken to birdsong rather than rush-hour traffic. It’s quiet all day and even more so at night, except for the various animals that live in the woods along the nearby river–owls hooting and who knows what else. When the sun is shining and the birds are singing and the noise and air pollution suddenly absent, it feels like utopia. We putter around the house and yard, deep-cleaning everything. The piano moved and its backside vacuumed, something I tend to do only when the tuner is about to come. Weeds pulled. More weeds pulled. A Sisyphean task.
The dystopia isn’t far. Calls to friends, especially the ones who live alone. Everybody hunkered down. So many worries. The sun is shining brightly but there is a dark cloud menacing all of humanity.
This shutdown feels like everybody is treading water. A terrifying metaphor to me. I can’t swim. I hate water. Our pool is just shoulder-deep but I avoid it unless we’re in a canicule (heat wave). I can paddle its width but not its length. I can’t tread water.
We went to the supermarket on Monday afternoon. It was strange. There were parking spaces but inside it was bustling. Everybody very intense. Canned goods, pasta, frozen vegetables mostly gone–just the fancy brands left. No baker’s yeast. Plenty of flour and sugar and butter. Disinfecting wipes all gone. Toilet paper aisle diminished but not empty. Promotions on fresh stuff like yogurt–they want to move it before it’s a loss? And huge lines to check out. We waited for close to an hour. Everybody a cart’s length apart. Nobody pushed. Nobody tried to cut the line (unusual). Everybody was patient, polite and quiet. Only a few shopping carts really piled high; most people seemed to get only what they need. Why do people buy bottled water? We are in a developed country with decent drinking water! My kid spotted somebody with two shopping carts. The exception. We gave some coins to the homeless man at the mall entrance for karma. How, where will he survive? Will he survive?
A quick run yesterday to the village grocery. Groceries remain open. The government doesn’t want people to freak out about food. I wanted to have food for two or three weeks in case I got sick; what would my family do? But we hadn’t gotten chocolate (most important for mental health), so I picked some up locally. Tape on the floor to keep people the required distance from the couple who operate the store. They seemed stressed. Unhappy. They don’t want to be heroes. They are young, and I hope they won’t get sick. Their mothers also tend the shop to give them a break; I suspect that will be stopped.
At first, like many, I thought the fears were overblown. Just stay home if you’re sick. Sick or not, wash your hands a lot. Lay off la bise. It’ll be fine. But I saw with my own eyes and heard from others tales of incredible selfishness and carelessness. People do not stay home if sick and they do not wash their hands.
One person counseled taking Tylenol before flying to evade fever detection–as if that individual’s desire to make a flight were more important than the health of the other hundred or four hundred people on the flight and the thousands working at the airport or passing through.
A doctor friend, in mask and gloves like all the medical office workers, had a patient who was coughing like mad. The doctor offered the patient a mask, and the patient refused! WTF! “I won’t be able to breathe with that. I just have bronchitis,” the patient protested. As if the doctor, or all the unmasked patients in the waiting room, didn’t mind getting bronchitis! Especially now! And this was not a doctor who treats things like bronchitis but a different kind of specialist.
A person in delicate health had a visitor who had the flu (the regular, snotty-nosed kind). The visitor coughed constantly (phlegmy, not dry) without covering her mouth and never once washed her hands after blowing her nose. Luckily the person and all other household members had been vaccinated against the flu. I’d been lax about flu vaccinations in recent years but no more. We did get shots in November. It wasn’t covered, so I shelled out €10 apiece. Well worth it. I can’t wait to get the one for the coronavirus, as soon as it is developed.
Vaccines work. I saw it firsthand when I lived in Africa. There was a mission run by Italian priests and Polish nuns that educated and trained kids who had been paralyzed by polio. The kids were amazing. They would play soccer, hauling themselves around the field like lightning despite being on crutches. They learned trades like shoe repair. I went back 15 years later with a colleague. We stayed at the fancy hotel I never could afford before, a base for mountain-climbing, which we were there to do. I asked the concierge about the mission. She said it was still there, but now just had kids with birth defects. “There’s no more polio,” she said (in a tone like “what kind of dinosaur is this chick?”). I broke down crying. The idea of no more polio was just so emotional. Vaccines work. We went to the mission and gave the nuns fistfuls of euros.
A tangent: I also remember urging my friend to hurry up because it was getting late, and it would take a good 30-45 minutes to walk back to the village, then we’d have to walk along the fence of a wildlife refuge to the hotel. There were lions in the refuge. It would be dark in half an hour. But sunset on the equator is sudden, like a light switch, and at that instant the sun was blazing. My friend didn’t believe me, said I was overreacting. I said, LIONS. We hustled, but when a pickup came along, I waved it down frantically. The cab was full of people already, but the driver said we could ride in the back, with a bunch of sheep. My friend was not happy (me either; I keep my distance from animals). I made her get in. Even with the ride, it was so dark by the time we got to the final track to the hotel that we could barely see our hands in front of our faces. Clearly we met no lions. That doesn’t mean I overreacted.
In 2009, I had to do research on pandemics. It was in a business context, about handling disruptions. It was just after SARS, at the time of the H1N1 flu, which hit children and pregnant women worst. There were vaccines, which helped rein it in, but as a result of that success many people said there was a needless panic. Here is what one expert, a globally recognized epidemiologist, told me:“In last 30-40 years there is a gathering and grave concern that the same antecedent causes that created climate change and historic droughts and famines are all caused by same conditions and a new group of viruses, especially pandemic viruses, have begun to emerge. Too many people are behaving unconsciously in the world. As we cut down green swaths of forest that separate animal and human habitats, we live in each others’ microclimate. So diseases that once could find that quiet reservoir now jump from animals to humans with increased rapidity.”He also said: “There is an increasing risk of unknown or barely known diseases emerging, and we lack people who are trained, we lack surveillance reporting systems that are simple, cheap, easy and replicable.”That was in 2009. The experts knew this could–would–happen, but like Cassandra, they were ignored. Even a week ago, people here were pooh-poohing the situation. I spoke to someone in the U.S. just a few days ago who told me it’s a hoax, fake news propagated by libs, panic fueled by the media, nothing to worry about. The fact that so many Italians are dying is pretty much proof that this isn’t a liberal hoax. The speed with which things are changing gives me whiplash.
Before all this, I realized I needed to apply for French citizenship. I’ve been saying it for about four years, but I didn’t actually do it. It was like living happily in a couple without being married and suddenly seeing the benefit of tying the knot. So I ordered all the birth certificates and such and took the French test. I knew I would pass; my worry was making stupid errors as someone who touch-types on a QWERTY keyboard having to use an AZERTY keyboard where the keys are in the “wrong” place. One needed 43% correct to pass. My average was 562 out of 699, or 80%. I got 95% on written comprehension and 92% on oral comprehension–better than I expected–and 64% (!!! possibly the lowest grade of my life, physical education aside) on written expression and 70% on oral expression–both humbling. The written test was an essay for or against mobile phones. I needed to use French expressions but couldn’t think of any that were relevant. Anyway, I passed. I wonder about another test taker, a young man, about 20, who grew up in a village in Morocco and who moved to Carcassonne when he was in 6th grade. I asked which schools he’d attended and he looked at the floor and said he never went to school here, that he had to work to support his family. Clearly his French was fine, but would he manage to write a well-organized essay, not having finished school? He showed up two hours early for his test (we had staggered times). I hope he passed with flying colors. If I had a business, I would want to hire him. Two hours early!Anyway, I got my results on Wednesday and spent all day Friday tying up the last bits of my dossier. I just needed to request an attestation from the income tax department. The notary was mailing an attestation saying we own our house. And today, very bad news: all the post offices are closed and mail is suspended. That means I can’t get my attestations, which must be originals, no scans or printouts. I also can’t buy the certified mail envelopes I need to enclose with the dossier, not even online–no delivery. Nor can I send anything. I have until the end of April, otherwise my documents will be more than three months old and I’ll have to re-order them all (and the UPS delivery cost a small fortune). I’ll also have to re-take the French test, but you have to wait six months between tests. Maybe they’ll make exceptions, and allow for more time. I was so proud of my dossier, too, in an expanding folder with labeled tabs, each with checklists of the documents for that section, in the order specified by the government.
I can start the dossier over again if need be. There are other, bigger worries that are out of my hands, that will arrive inexorably, virus or not. It is not the time or place to dwell on those.
The uncertainty about the future feels like the days after Sept. 11, when it seemed like the world was ending. In fact, the world as we knew it did end. Things didn’t get better; other tragedies followed. But ensuing airport security aside, many people weren’t affected by Sept. 11. This coronavirus is going to affect every single human.
Be smart. Stay home. China stopped the virus through draconian, authoritarian, dystopian measures; if people in democracies continue to fail to stay home voluntarily, draconian measures might follow. Don’t let us get there. Do something positive with this time. A hobby. Le Bon Coin (the Good Corner), the French equivalent of Craigslist, has a campaign right now (because buying stuff on it is impossible at the moment–social distancing!): le bon geste (the Good Gesture), where you can put up offers or requests for things like help with homework via Skype, picking up groceries for someone, dog walking, etc. At the very least, make a list of the people you know who live alone or who are elderly and call them regularly. Send them photos, if they have a phone or computer.
We have to stay out of the way of the health-care system until a treatment and/or vaccine is found. Going out is just selfish.Your coronavirus stories welcome in the comments.