Covid-19 became real for Lisa and me on the morning of March 12, as we arrived at Roissy, Paris’s main airport, to check in for our Air France flight to San Francisco. Walking into the terminal, something was out of whack; there were quite a few people leaving, but few of them had the simultaneously tired and excited look of tourists arriving for a vacation. Most looked surprisingly glum.
We found out why at the check-in. Trump had announced that very night, March 11 in the US, that visitors from the EU would no longer be welcome. It was not even clear early on the 12th whether or not US citizens were included in that prohibition! While Air France could take us to San Francisco, they said, they could not bring us back because they would be cancelling all flights until further notice. Well fine: that was very clear messaging. About turn, and quick march!!
The terminal was going increasingly crazy as more people arrived. Some, like the two college girls we met at the bar, had come to try to get on the last flights to the US. Broke, they had slept at the airport and been in a teary panic lest they be obliged to stay thousands of miles from home with no money. Fortunately, they had been able to find a reasonably priced flight, but told us about others in the ticket office line who were shelling out thousands of dollars just to get on a plane that day.
We took the train home to Brittany right away, and all of a sudden I started feeling a little creeped out. We were sitting with quite a few people (our carriage was maybe 80% full), in a confined space where the air was nothing like as well cleaned as in a passenger aircraft, for two and a half hours. It was the first time that I remember feeling really uncomfortable on one of France’s extraordinary TGVs. It was the first time that we started feeling the pandemic.
That was it. We decided to self-quarantine when we arrived back at the cottage. Five days later, “confinement” was imposed by the government, and we were officially quarantined by the State, as was everybody else.
The extent to which everyone did what they were told during the ensuing months of being locked down was really extraordinary. The speed with which northern Italy and eastern France were being infected, visible night after night on the TV news, must have had something to do with it. As must the consistency and clarity of the centralized government’s rule making: 135 Euros the first time you were caught out doing anything not deemed necessary, and much more for repeat offenses.
My one real gripe was the rule limiting exercise to within one kilometer of one’s home. Not practical on a bike, and I have to confess that there were moments when one turned into 20 or thereabouts! But we always rode on country lanes, or on the banks of the local canal until a lock keeper warned us that gendarmes on bikes had been giving out tickets the day before. And we almost never seeing another human being in the flesh. Even cars were a rarity. That rule was the same everywhere in France, and only really made sense in the big cities.
One of the aspects of the French government’s approach to our “confinement” that worked very well was the step-by-step progress towards lifting it. We were told that May 11, almost two months in, would be the first step in “deconfinement,” or undoing “confinement.” That was already a long time to be locked up for people like us who like to keep moving, but manageable when it was announced in April. Just a little more patience!
Then when May 11 came around, the one kilometer limit on trips away from home went out the window, to be replaced by a 100 kilometer limit. Which sounds great, right? Kind of. We got to revisit our local tourist attractions, like Saint Malo and Mont St Michel, both well within the 100-kilometer limit, but it wasn’t far enough to visit Nick and Charlotte, who live about 150 kilometers away. Still, a little freedom goes a long way.
Progressive “deconfinement” worked as a strategy for the same reason that the original one kilometer limit worked: a simple rule, applied consistently across the country. We all knew where we stood, or rather where we could not stand!
And it worked for one other reason: it satisfied peoples’ desire to be more free when circumstances permitted. Thus far (mid July), this progressive approach to unlocking us has avoided the powerful see-saw of opening up and locking down that is plaguing the western and southern US.
I’m not a patient person, but fortunately this pandemic found me in the countryside away from major urban centers and in a place where my urges to move around were sated for a while by trips to local grocery stores and regular bike rides. I read with sadness the stories of those in the US caught in a political as much as a medical battle, not knowing where the crossfire was coming from or even if it was crossfire. We knew: stay put, as much as we could.
It was early June, almost three months after we were quarantined, that we were finally allowed to travel more than 100 kilometers from home. The partial release on May 11 had not caused any significant spike in cases, and the time was decreed right in June to let people take their summer vacations, if not always in the usual places. President Macron is a former banker, and tuned into economic realities as well as epidemiological ones.
It didn’t take us long to decide on Paris as a first step!
Much as I appreciate French trains, the time did not yet feel right for public transport, and we elected to drive there and back, for the first time since I retired. Five hours each way, but we did not share our air! I had decided by this time, after disinfecting groceries for weeks, that the real risk was in the air.
(Of course, that’s a decision that my need to be revised, in light of the reported absence of cases linked to Black Lives Matter demonstrations and counter-demonstrations. Not sure whether to believe that, even though I normally feel safer outside, because so many people getting so worked up so close together sounds like a petri dish for infection, even outside.)
Before those groundswells of feeling, the EUFA Champions League football match between Valencia and Atalanta in early March had been held responsible for many clusters in two countries, with one Italian mayor calling it a “bomb,” and the choir practice in Washington State in mid-March where 52 fell ill had been deemed a “superspreader” by the authorities. With people squished together and chanting or singing, both pointed convincingly in the direction of the air that we breath as a primary culprit in the pandemic’s spread.
We watched out constantly for the air that we breathed. In our little hotel in Paris, which was quiet, cheap and perfectly located about one kilometer from the Louvre (still closed), we avoided the tiny elevator and the indoor dining room (sparsely populated, even at breakfast) and used the stairs. We didn’t take a bus or a metro once during this visit, and happily walked everywhere.
Galeries Lafayette Hausmann had reopened perhaps a week before, and was reassuringly quiet. Lisa had each department almost to herself and, needless to say, had a blast! Les Halles, the large, recently refurbished mall right in the middle of Paris, was only part open, and it too was reassuringly quiet.
The success of this short excursion, two nights in Paris and two days driving there and back, led us to plan a longer road trip, more of a vacation.
Brittany has many assets, but its weather leaves something to be desired. Especially this spring, when we had weeks of rain, not all the time, not every day, but enough days to deter our already pandemic-depleted excursions. Lisa, who had literally never seen as much rain in her life as she has in the last six months, was craving the south.
I decided on Avignon as a good base. 150 miles closer to us than Nice, on the classic Cote d’Azur, it is on the Rhone and interesting nearby places to visit abound. It is also close enough to the Mediterranean to say hello in person if we felt like it. And we could explore on the way down and back, spending a night half way in each direction, because 600 miles still felt like a bit much for a one-day drive. Five nights down there, one on the way down and one on the way back felt like a promising little vacation.
Just like Paris, we found things on this trip quiet and often no more than half open. Just what the doctor ordered!
The first night was almost a mess. I had made no reservation, preferring to see how far we got on the drive. Then, the larger town which I was planning on stopping in didn’t have the right kind of ambience. We kept going, and almost ran out of towns before nightfall.
When we finally found a place with the right medieval ambience, the first hotels that we looked at were very closed and featured apologetic messages on their front doors. When the next also had no lights on, we asked in the cafe “à côté” if they knew of a hotel which was open. The waitress replied gaily, “well, we have one, let me make a call for you!” Sure enough, the call was to her mother, who owned the hotel with no lights on! She checked us in at a distance. Beautiful suite, and we dined in the cafe next door, on the banks of a mountain stream. The first night was saved!
The second, in Avignon, was easier. It’s a very attractive city for tourists, and so I had booked a VRBO apartment for our initial stay there. The charming hostess made arrangements for us to park our bikes in her own cellar, meaning that they did not need to be brought upstairs or clutter up our own hallway. We used the elevator just once during the stay, to bring the bags and food and cooler up upon arrival. Still worrying about our air!
There was a free parking lot a five-minute bike ride from the apartment, and so we had a perfect set-up for combining explorations of the area and bike riding. We’d bike from the VRBO to our car, put the bikes on the bike rack (Thule racks are not cheap, but they are so easy to use!), drive to wherever we were going, and then bike to explore if we felt like it.
And that’s what we did: one day visiting the lavender blooming in the mountains, another the Pont du Gard, one of the incredible things that the Romans did for us (thank you Monty Python!), a third Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, where Vincent painted “Starry, Starry Night,” and a fourth a long beach on the Mediterranean. Plus a day in Avignon, highlighted by the Palais des Papes, where the Popes held court for almost 100 years.
Le Pont du Gard was my favorite day. The viaduct was built in five years to bring water to the ancient city of Nimes, population about 20,000. The SNCF recently (40 years ago?) built one of its “lignes à grand vitesse” (high speed train lines) down the Rhone valley from Lyon around Avignon and on to Marseille, population around 1.6 million. The rail line features numerous elegant viaducts in the area of this ancient monument. Sure, they’re better built, and carry more weight, but how much progress was that in almost 2,000 years? We can thank the Romans for setting the bar so high.
Throughout our excursions, throughout the road trip, we experienced no crowds, no scenes of collective excitement. Which you can look at both ways. Of course, from a pandemic point of view, that was very good, with very few increased risks of infection. But people need their social worlds, and even though we felt great about changing our scenery and traveling again, our social world was still sorely deficient.
It was during the trip that I began to realize that the hoped for easing of the pandemic and related restrictions was not going to happen this summer. It did happen to some degree, or we wouldn’t have been on even a cautious road trip. But our plan to return to California and visit our respective families went out the window when the EU decided to shut the doors on Americans.
And the increasing case count in the US, which helped justify the EU’s move, simply added to our problem for the foreseeable future.
There are whispers of increasing case counts here in France too. Nothing very extreme yet, but if the crowds that we saw in Saint-Malo on our Sunday bike ride this week are any indication, there will be more. One can’t social distance in a crowd. And the ever present Atlantic wind may well have blown away much of the risk there, but we can’t be sure.
It all remains very worrying, four months on, with no real end in sight. I’m so glad that we took our cautious little road trips.