The new normal

Life ambles along in our little corner of rural France, and although I don’t usually pay much attention to what is happening in the outside world I had been aware of the outbreak of a new virus, Coronavirus COVID-19, in Wuhan and heard accounts of more reported cases in Europe. But I don’t think anyone was prepared for how quickly things would develop.

On Thursday evening (12th March) Colin and I stood stock still in the middle of cooking dinner, as we listened to President Macron announce on TV that he was closing all schools and universities until further notice. Over the next couple of days it was clear that this wasn’t going to be enough and the French government acted quickly, introducing ever tighter measures over the next few days; first with the banning of any gathering of over 100 people, then the compulsory closure of all non-essential public places including bars, restaurants, cinemas and theatres. ‘There goes our weekend away in Caen and the concert we had tickets for’, we thought, rather selfishly. When President Macron announced on Monday 16th that he had ordered a national lock-down from midday the following day we knew things were bad.

For Colin and myself the impact wasn’t perhaps as drastic. We both work from home via the internet and were lucky that our income didn’t just disappear overnight as it did for so many people around us.

Socially our friends here found it immediately very difficult. Family and friends are such an important part of life in France. Sunday in particular is the day that everyone gets together, enjoys a meal with all the rellies, strolls around the village – and suddenly they couldn’t.

Our lovely neighbours next door had just celebrated the birth of their very long-awaited first baby and the proud grandparents, aunts and uncles, friends were not able to visit and coo over the new arrival. Those moments are lost for ever.

We had already discussed and agreed the previous week that our village choir’s upcoming concert and Monday night rehearsals would be put on hold until further notice. We’re not exactly a ‘junior’ choir, and although those meetings are a lovely social, fun happening each week and much looked forward to, it wasn’t worth risking the safety of our friends. But for many of the older residents of the village, life suddenly became a lot more solitary.

As an ‘immigrant’, used to panic buying and media hype in the UK, I was very struck by the calm, sensible way people in general reacted. It may have been a bit different in the cities but in this area of France there was none of the hysteria or panic that characterised the very tardy lock-down in the UK. People stayed at home and have quickly got used to making sure they have their Attestation de déplacement dérogatoire (pass) signed, dated (and more recently, time-stamped) to show the gendarmes when they nip out for one of the few permitted reasons. There are hefty fines for anyone caught out without their pass and a valid reason and even prison sentences for repeat offenders.

Not a single sign of life at 11am

The supermarkets are well-stocked, and round here at least, there are very few shoppers, with people doing one shop a week and often shopping for vulnerable friends and neighbours too. The social distancing rules are being respected to such an extent that if they turn into an aisle that already contains a customer, they nod their acknowledgement and turn around.

When we first started coming to France, as a Brit, I had to concentrate really hard not to forget the mandatory kisses and handshakes when we met friends. It wasn’t something that came naturally and I realised that our friends understood this and deliberately held back, waiting for the first move from us so that there were no embarrassing moments or bumped noses! In the first few days of the lock-down though, I noticed if I had to go to the boulangerie or pharmacie in the village, how difficult people were finding it not to greet acquaintances and friends in the normal, physical way. I have even noticed several people, rather than risk the embarrassment of having to side-step a friendly approach, avoiding eye contact and moving away as someone they know approaches. I’m glad to see that this is changing as everyone gets used to giving a wave and a Bonjour! called from a distance.

I’ve been touched by the number of texts, emails and calls I’ve had to check that we’re Ok and after the initial shock, people are finding other ways to keep in touch and socialise. The group of volunteers that we belong to, who work to stage a full-blown opera every summer at a local chateau, now hold the regular Friday evening Apéro-Opéra social gatherings online via Facebook Live.

Even our doctor rang this week, when we couldn’t attend the surgery for Colin’s six-monthly check-up and arranged for a téléconsultation via the online medical platform ‘Docavenue’. We might be in the middle of a global pandemic but our French family doctor wasn’t going to lose touch with any of his patients.

Noone has any idea how long all this is going to last but I know one thing… I am really glad to be here in France during all this madness.

And I can’t wait for the time when I can again get caught out by the friends who always do four-kiss bises greeting rather than two!

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