It became a thing before we’d really even had time to notice it.
Over the last few years here in France, I’d become a little selective in what news I was choosing to follow/listen to/worry about. The thing is, it is not one country that we are a part of, but 2. Not one continent, but 2. And with that comes double the amount of things the news outlets want us to worry about.
This has been such a crazy few years both in European and American news- between the political discord back home, Brexit, Gilet Jaunes (yellow vest) movement, extreme heatwaves, and climate change, striking all over France, and the difficult time emotionally with the loss of my Dad and aunt within 6 weeks, I’ve had to work hard to create boundaries and make choices about what news I”m going to allow to take up space in my head and my heart. I realize this is a luxury that comes with living abroad and stepping out of our life as we’ve known it for a period of time.
Having said all of this, when the initial rumblings of coronavirus started to circulate, as usual, I chose to ignore them. After all, there have been many viruses over the years that have come out of China, why would I have any reason to believe that this one would be any different? I think back now to conversations I had with different people (friends and family here and back home) over the last several weeks in which I was insistent on expressing my lack of concern, my frustration with the media for latching on to yet another newsworthy issue with the potential to create loads of exaggerated but unwarranted fear and hysteria across the globe. Shame on them, I thought. In a world already filled with so much stress and anxiety, it seemed so wrong that they would push this issue so much, exaggerate the situation in China only to give us more reason to worry and find it difficult to turn off the news, or rather, to ignore all the alerts, posts and news stories and put our phones DOWN.
As recently as last week at my French lesson, I told Francoise, my French teacher that I couldn’t understand why, in these late winter/early spring months, a runny nose or cough suddenly meant possible Coronavirus. We were in prime influenza season after all here in France, a virus that seemed much more real and likely to catch. In my years as a PA working in internal medicine, I’d seen so many people get so sick with the flu, even young, healthy people that this virus seemed much less threatening to me. ” I am not at all concerned”, I declared to her and Sylvia, another woman from Poland with whom I take French lessons on Tuesdays. As we sat at Francoise’s kitchen table, I could hear her husband upstairs on a business call. “He’s working from home,” she told us. They had just returned from a ski trip in the Haute-Savoie region of France, one of 3 departments that had been identified as having multiple cases of Coronavirus. As a result, Michelin had sent out emails requesting that all individuals who had been traveled to this area perform a 14-day self-quarantine prior to returning to the workplace.
Luckily, Meribel, where we’d been skiing that same week prior was in Savoie, right next to Haute-Savoie, and so it didn’t concern us really. And besides, I would think the ski slopes might be the safest place to be…. outside in nature and away from indoor crowds, etc. it seemed silly to me that a week outdoors on the slopes could put someone at risk for exposure.
My sister, in LA was becoming increasingly concerned and, as someone with asthma and a few different recent related illnesses, she had sent a few articles to my other sister, an ER physician and I, asking us our thoughts. Were we concerned?
A NY times article from 2/21 reported that there were now 34 coronavirus cases in the US and more expected. “Is this an exaageration of the threat? It’s all the news is talking about” she typed. My response was “Yes, but I try to think about how 2,000 deaths out of 75,000 illnesses is actually a very low percentage. Think of how many people live in China! And besides, it seems to be mostly elderly and immunocompromised”.
I can pinpoint exactly the day that my lack of concern turned to absolute fear. March 11, the day after my French class, I woke up to a few articles from my sisters, one that the NBA had suspended the season and the second which hit me hard was entitled ” Young and unafraid of the pandemic? Good for you. Now stop killing people’ on apple news. It was an article written by a doctor in a major hospital here in western Europe and the opening sentence was that watching the rest of the world in the early days of the virus propagation was like watching a familiar horror movie where the protagonists split off and decide to take a tour of a dark basement. He goes on to talk about how everyone in Italy was so complacent in the beginning, continuing to go to school/work, travel, attributing any symptoms of coronavirus to just a nasty case of the flu.
“We pointed fingers at China…. we told ourselves and each other “t his isn’t so bad…we’ll be fine even if we catch it”….2 months later, “we are drowning… and we aren’t even at our peak”… he talked about how doctors in Italy were having so swamped and overwhelmed with critically ill people, even those previously healthy and were repeatedly faced with decisions about which 40-something-year olds would be intubated and which would have to go without, a choice no doctor should ever have to make.
It’s not that I consider myself young. But I did, until that day, consider myself unafraid.
I literally went into panic mode that day, prepping our household, running to the store for sanitizing products, paper towels, TP all detergents and knocking out as many errands as I could on my long to-do list. Get OTC meds from pharmacy. Move car into parking garage. Schedule and get haircuts (unfortunately, this never happened).
We had a dinner party planned for Saturday night which we’d had planned 3 months ago, so I had lots of things to still pick up to prepare for that, too!
Thing were changing fast. Chuck was told, along with all other Michelin employees to bring their computers and power cords home every night from here on out in the event that the offices would need to close suddenly.
A sudden announcement came Thursday night that the schools would close effective the following Monday. The next day was Friday and we needed to bring large bags to school at pickup to help our children bring all their books/supplies home for use over the next few weeks. There was no specific endpoint mentioned but it was assumed a few weeks. Chuck had heard it mentioned at work that day that it would likely be the first week of May before the kids would return since they already have school break the last 2 weeks of April. Walking home with Wells that afternoon (and his 2 bags worth of books, notebooks and pencil cases), it felt like what the last day of school before summer feels like.
Saturday was a beautiful day but we were home, cooking and cleaning, getting things ready for our friends to come over for “Iron Chef” night. Every few months, we take turns hosting a cooking group of 4 couples where we vote on one ingredient and each are assigned a course in which they must creatively incorporate that ingredient as well as pair it with wine/beer.
This time the ingredient was “beer” and it was such a fun night getting to try each incredible course that was created. These friends don’t mess around in the kitchen!
Halfway through the night, a few of us received alerts that effective midnight, all the bars, restaurants and cafés throughout France would be closing indefinitely. As we approached midnight, the partying outside at the bars ramped up and it was like everyone knew it would be the last time we’d all be together for a while. We were so thankful to have been able to share such a fun night with friends and wonderful food and beer!
Sunday, we got out and hiked Puy de Goule, a nearby volcano with beautiful views of Clermont and beyond. It was a beautiful day and it felt so good to sit in the sunshine. CoCo loved it too!
There were lots and lots of people out hiking, the parking lots were full and cars were backed up all the way down the roads climbing up to the volcanos. Everyone was still together in groups, families, friends. I did notice that people seemed a little more reserved than usual in passing, but it felt good to keep our distance.
As we hiked, I was trying to come up with lots of outdoor activities the boys and I could do, now that they’d be out of school for a while. Should we go skiing for a few days? I loved the idea of a hike every few days, even though I knew that would be a tough sell to the boys. Maybe if I called it something different? They hate the word “hike”.
It was on the way home from our hike that Chuck’s boss called him and told him that starting the next morning, the Michelin headquarters would be closed and all employees would be need to work from home. Luckily, they’d been asked each night the week prior to bring computer and power cords home just in case the office had to close suddenly with short notice.
I was still planning to attend our Monday morning bible study and celebrate a friend’s birthday for lunch, but everyone started to get worried and at the last minute we decided that this wasn’t a good idea to meet in a group, for either one.
Monday morning, we woke up and were excited to start this new adventure of home school. Even I feel dumb to admit, nervous? The idea of homeschool has always really intimidated me! But here we were.
Wells had set out his clothes the night before and insisted on wearing a tie for his first day of school.
We set him up at this card table. Knowing that we would all need a quiet place to work, it was necessary to set up a space for each with books and supplies nearby that would be useful to have all day every day. Just like at school!
Charlie and Owen each have desks in their rooms to work. Ipads were charged up and ready to hop online to access their coursework but the server at their school became overloaded and the system shut down prior to accessing their assignments.
Luckily a few people had sent around an ideal “home school” schedule for kids, so we used this, extrapolating a bit, to create and come up with different activities for the kids.
This is what we came up with.
Charlie and Owen were able to keep themselves busy with activities from summer workbooks, art, reading, and chores.
The first day was a busy one! But knowing we can stop and take a siesta any time we want is amazing.
Besides getting “school ready”, we needed to have food. From everything we’d read, 14 days worth! The boys and I went to the grocery store for a big trip to stock up on produce, meat and canned goods. It was in this big grocery store looking around at people in masks, scarves wrapped around their faces and gloves that it really started to seem real. All of the sudden, everyone seemed distant and making less eye-contact, keeping their heads down and keeping their distance. Overnight, any line forming in a store had a warning asking people to maintain a minimum 1 meter distance apart.
Charlie walked into the kitchen early in the afternoon that first day of homeschool and announced that his friend had said we were about to be confined to our homes. “That has GOT to be a rumor ” I told him. I had read about things like this in places like Italy and China, where people weren’t allowed to leave their homes for days on end. “There’s no way! There aren’t even many cases of coronavirus here in Clermont” I remember myself saying.
Chuck confirmed later that afternoon that President Macron was speaking again at 8:00 that night. We all knew what was coming.
“Nous sommes en guerre!” he repeated several times throughout his speech. We are at war! The enemy we are fighting is invisible, elusive and aggressive. Despite the closure of schools, daycares, restaurants, bars and all other stores in an effort to limit social contact, citizens were failing to grasp the gravity of this pandemic he told us. Despite warnings about the gravity of this epidemic coming from scientists and health care workers on the front lines, people were meeting with friends at homes, in parks, spending time outdoors together. Some restaurants and bars had not closed as instructed. This would no longer be an option. Never before has France had to implement these measures in a time of peace but there was no choice now. He pleaded with us to listen to the healthcare professionals asking us to make the sacrifices necessary to help stop this virus from spreading on, to markedly limit those with which we are in daily contact and reduce our movement outside the home.
No more outside family gatherings, meeting friends in the park, no more hikes. All businesses must immediately mobilize “teletravail” if possible, the French word for working from home.
From this point forward and for the next 15 days, there would be new bans, new restrictions. All citizens will be forced to restrict movement outside their homes to a very minimum- aside from limited and essential grocery trips, doctors’ appointments, those traveling to work (in limited situations where working from home was not an option) or to tend to a vulnerable or aging family member. Very limited brief individual exercise would be permitted surrounding our living quarters as well as brief outings to walk our dog. We would need to fill out and carry with us an attestation form stating our purpose for leaving the home and signed, along with our carrying our ID. Failure to do so would result in sanctions, 38 euros initially.
He acknowledged the impact these decisions would have on our lives for the foreseeable future- emotional, physical, economically. Elderly, destitute and those living alone would be cared for and services continued. He promised that no business regardless of size would be condemned to failure. Taxes and social charges would be deferred, unemployment packages will be expanded, a solidarity fund created for entrepreneurs, artisans, and businesses that will be funded by the state. Pharmacies, hospitals, and physicians would be brought masks and supplied with the necessary materials needed. Childcare would be provided for nurses and other healthcare workers, taxis and hotels made available for their use at no charge to them. An old military hospital in Alsace would be opened and the military would aid in transporting patients from in the hardest-hit areas to this facility to ease the strain on hospitals throughout.
EU borders would be closed for 30 days, no travel into with the exception of citizens wishing to return home.
He asked us to remain calm, to avoid panic, to trust that we are being accurate information by the Government as it comes.
“We will win, but this period will take much from us. Many convictions and beliefs will be pushed aside, questioned. Many things that we thought impossible will happen. We will not be surprised, will act strongly, but remember this- the day after, when we will have won, it will not be to the normalcy of the days before. We will be morally stronger”.
Tuesday morning, Chuck and I woke up early and went for our last run together for what we expected would be a while.
One thing that struck us funny as we jogged along was how every bakery we passed was still open. “All things non-essential to daily life in France will be closed”. Bread IS essential to French life! It was the higher taxes and lack of access to bread that was, after all, a major factor to incite a revolt 250 years ago, the French Revolution!
and this… a little farmer’s market that sets up every Tuesday/Thursday/Saturday. It seemed odd to me to think about a public market where people come and stand in lines together, picking their own produce out of baskets, vendors exchanging produce and money with the same hands…
But, these markets are essential to French life. French refrigerators are quite small and many only allow space for a few fruits, vegetables, milk, meat, butter, cheese & yogurt. The absolute basics. Part of French life is frequenting the market a few times a week to get your local and fresh food. There is not a lot of stocking cabinets with processed foods. Obviously, this is less possible or practical for families with multiple people to visit these markets when we still need to buy lots of other household items in higher quantity. It is in that case that the grocery store is a more practical option. But, there are so many (especially older folks) that literally rely on these markets to get their food.
The boys and I took CoCo out for an energy burn before heading indoors for the rest of the afternoon.
Luckily, we have had the most amazing weather this week. While it is a disappointment to not be able to enjoy it, throwing open the windows and sitting in the sunshine has been so great for the soul. It has made us love sunny days even more than we always have. And we’re making sure to still get our vitamin D daily!
Like the millions of others across the world confined to home, being inside has challenged us to get creative and think outside the box, climb out of our comfort zone.
I”m not sure how we made it this far parenting 3 boys without ever having given them a haircut ourselves. But it was time and our neighbors downstairs had a set of clippers/scissors so Chuck got down to business.
A new word in our house this week is Zoom. Like every other person on the planet, several weeks ago, we would have had no idea how much we would rely on this new face-time equivalent to connect with family, friends, “attend” church services, allow the boys to attend “class”, and have happy hours with friends!
We’ve been able to do lots of fun things this week that we haven’t ever slowed down to do.
Though I’ve never been an “art project” type of mom, when we have free time and an urge to do something creative, we head to the kitchen.
The boys have learned to make important things like guacamole, buttermilk biscuits, chicken noodle soup, and pizza. They now know what it means to really dust and do laundry.
Wells has started hunting for recipes, copying them, and then creating them in the kitchen, all by himself. It is good for me to give up the control and let the boys just create and make a mess, stealing bites of dough, using the same spoon to double dip etc.
Owen used his allowance to buy some drawing pencils/pens and has found some online drawing classes.
Wednesday is typically a short day for the boys at school, they dismiss at 11:00 (Wells) and 12:00 (Charlie and Owen), so they didn’t have much work assigned that day. Owen and Wells decided to write. a play based on The Series of Unfortunate Events and spent all day working on it, performing it for us that night.
We were amazed at how hard they worked at it all day long, I’m talking HOURS. Together. No fighting!
Thursday was going to be Carnaval at Wells’ school to celebrate the first day of spring. Every year the kids dress up into costumes, come out onto the playground, and eat crêpes and candy. His assignment Thursday was to do both and share their favorite first sign of spring.
At the moment, we (Chuck or I, but not both) are still permitted to leave so that to take the kids out to get some exercise, so we’ve tried every day to take at least one boy out to scooter or walk the loop around the city, about 30 minutes.
We got the bike tires filled up and had a great bike ride Wednesday afternoon, but yesterday, it was announced on the news that bike riding is now prohibited. So walking and scooting it is!
From where we live, we have a bird’s eye view of the city square and can still see people out and about, walking to the store, running or walking with their children. The police are out in vans and on bikes, stopping people to ask them for their papers and it appears they are fining those who don’t.
Though I still don’t understand why they are riding around on bikes (!) in groups of 4, 5 and 6 to stop 1 or 2 people here and there.
More and more, we have become hesitant to go outside at all. It has been stressed so suddenly and emphatically to stay indoors to be safe, that, even if we have our papers and are practicing within the new laws, seeing the police outside everywhere, stopping people, asking for their papers, it is easy to feel like we are breaking the law!
Being inside for long periods of time together requires more effort to stay busy and entertained. Enter CoCo. I think we would all agree that she has been one of our very sweetest blessings during these crazy days!
Having this little cutie around to entertain us, play with us, nap with us has been an absolute joy.
We can’t help but smile when we look at her. And best of all, since most people in France have dogs, stepping outside for a few minutes to take her for a quick walk means we get a little more time outside!
Even if our normally busy city square is completely empty and desolate now.
Every morning, the boys and I still do our “walk” to school with CoCo but it is so strange now to look down what is always a VERY busy street full of cars rushing, honking, scurrying parents ushering their little people out of their cars, backpacks on, and towards the big red school gate.
Now, the street is empty and the sign on the gate says school closed until further notice.
The parks are closed now, too but CoCo loves to watch the ducks/swans from outside the gate. A few weeks ago, she excitedly ran up to them, got a little too close… they hissed at her and lunged towards her. Today she felt much more courageous to gaze at them from outside the gate.
She is in heaven too. As with most French bulldogs, they LOVE to be with their people and having all 5 of us here all day every day with her has been so sweet.
11 days into our home-confinement, most days are the same. With the exception of the weekends, (that have become even lazier than they already were), we try to stick to a loose but consistent schedule and have stressed the importance of autonomy for the older boys which has really worked well. We try to do something new and interesting each day.
One of their favorites is to have a drawing contest where Chuck picks the theme and we have 20 minutes to draw. He then judges each and picks a winner.
We try to keep life as “normal” as possible for the boys in this season.
On sunny days, windows are open so we can smell pollen (poor Chuck pays the consequences with intermittent sneezing coming from the dining room) and not just see, but feel the warm sunshine. Spring is my favorite season and I refuse to miss it!
It’s been nice to be able to lean over O/W’s bedroom balcony and chat with our American neighbors down below. They have a nice big terrace for their little boys to ride their scooters, draw with chalk, etc.
Speaking of balconies, across France, they have started a movement where every night at 8:00pm, people open their windows and applaud the healthcare workers who are so bravely working throughout France and the world to keep us safe.
It has been so strange for me, as a healthcare worker to be on the sidelines in a foreign country where I am not employed to watch all the stories about the real heroes in this crisis. My sister is a ER doctor in South Carolina. My brother in law, a surgeon. My best friends are PAs that still leave their families and go to work each day, facing the risk of exposure that comes along with doing so. It is so hard not to worry. As the stories of Italy and now New York City and Florida pour onto our news feeds, things change about how this virus is more likely transmitted and advice about what we need to be doing to keep ourselves and our families safe. Even down to how to handle packages and our groceries that we bring into the house. We have stopped taking the elevator in our building, touching door handles, buttons and railings. We are working hard to keep our hands clean and not touch our faces, but it is easy to become paranoid. Passerbys give each other a wide margin in passing on the street.
Yesterday, it was announced that our confinement will be extended until at least April 15, 18 days from now! But, it is OK. We are OK. We acknowledge and validate the boys’ frustrations at times- troubles with the server at school and downloading their work assignments leading to work piling up, the fact that they miss seeing their friends at school (Wells:) and the complete uncertainty about what all of this means for our move home to the US this summer…. we allow each other the space to complain, we listen and offer support, but then we quickly redirect ourselves. After all, we have so much to be thankful for. This is an unexpected and temporary period in our lives where we are given a chance to care for each other and ourselves in a unique way that we can’t when life runs at its normal busy pace.
I hope that we can continue to stay safe. As we hear more and more projections about how the cases of Covid here in France are going to skyrocket starting this week, we try to be smart about things like keeping grocery store trips to a minimum.
Today is Sunday, it’s day 12. It’s freezing cold out and snowing(!). Luckily, to quote Oliver Hudson, who I was listening to on his podcast with his sister Kate Hudson, “My family has been built for quarantine. They are good at it… they’re all cozy… all they want to do is be cozy…they love lolling around the house…
Haha I couldn’t agree more. This is our #silverlining.