Day 9: For whom the bell tolls

Wednesday, 25th March

As I write, I hear the bells toll in one of Lyon’s major landmarks, the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière. Bells are ringing in churches across France tonight, in a sign of “fraternity and shared hope” amid the crisis.

In its statement, the French Bishop’s Conference says: “Our desire is that our national community will emerge greater from this ordeal. For many years now, humanity has been aware that it must radically change its way of living.”

I am not a believer but I cannot help wondering whether we will, collectively, emerge greater, and cleverer, from this. It is certainly a brutal reminder that no man is an island. As I speak to friends around the world, they all say this confinement is giving them an unexpected and welcome opportunity to talk with loved ones. To slow down.

For Whom the Bell Tolls
by John Donne
No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thine own
Or of thine friend’s were.
Each man’s death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.

That’s for the lucky ones. Then there are all the people on the frontline, working day and night to save lives in so many different ways. And there are all those who don’t have the luxury to slow down, or for whom slowing down means not having enough money to put food on the table and pay the bills.

Governments say they are doing all they can to come up with solutions to help people weather the storm. We will have to see what impact this will have, not only on economies, but on people’s – and children’s – mental health.

I have decided that today I will not take advantage of the late hours to write this blog, once the kids are in bed and I can focus on what I am writing, because I need to get some sleep if I am to take care of my family properly in the day. So good night, and good luck.

Day 8: Love your four walls

Tuesday, 24th March

Today, I read an article by a French philosopher who explains that we cannot be at war because there is no enemy. What we are faced with, she says, is a phenomenon enshrined in the rule of the living, which manifests itself both through the process of creation and of destruction. Only the French could manage to philosophise over the coronavirus crisis in such a manner. An anglo-saxon would be tempted to find this annoying, possibly pedantic, but part of me is French and I find it soothing to hear a voice that rises above the chatter of media hysteria, fuelled by numbers and sensationalist headlines.

I need a soothing voice because today France’s “scientific council” (conseil scientifique) has said it is essential to extend the confinement period. France is officially in a state of emergency for two months. A once-in-a-lifetime (I hope!) opportunity for me to delve into the depths of my patience, imagination and resilience.

The good news for families like mine in France tonight is that a couple of exemptions have been added to the “attestation de déplacement dérogatoire” including “walks with people living in the same home”, limited to an hour a day, within one kilometre of your home. Next to the date, users must now indicate the time they left their home, too. Children must carry their own form, or parents face a fine. This is pretty draconian. But so are the figures: 240 hospital deaths linked to the coronavirus in the last 24 hours, and that’s not counting those who have died at home or in old people’s homes.

I am in touch with my friends across Europe and in the US. They all started self-isolating before their respective governments advised them to do so. A couple of friends in London expressed relief at the news their schools were closing, saying it wasn’t coherent to keep sending kids to school, keep pubs and shops open, but advocate social distancing. A close Scottish friend, normally based in southern France, has chosen to go home to her farm in Scotland to be with her healthy but elderly mother in these difficult times. When I spoke to her tonight she said the new measures cannot yet be felt in the Scottish countryside.

I also keep up-to-date with what is going on around the world through multiple and varied sources (I am grateful to some of my favourite newspapers and magazines, like the NYT, that are offering free access through this period). I have a preference for podcasts that usually cut the chase and allow me to keep informed while cooking/running/doing something else (thank you BBC!). I am more than ever in need of this at the moment, to escape the confinement of my flat’s cosy, but limited, space.

I get a call from one of the studios I work with regarding a voice-over job scheduled for this week. Indefinitely delayed, like all the other jobs I had lined up in the coming weeks: no more moderations, and no traveling of course. I decide this is no time to panic, I will do that collectively with all those who are out of work, after the crisis is over. I decide to concentrate on here and now because that is what I can do. Otherhalf will be going back to work next week, en principe.

After homework and lunch, I yield to one of my kids’ recurrent requests and agree to “Just Dance” with them. If you had told me a couple of weeks ago that I would be doing this, I would have laughed you off. I am an outdoors kind of person. I swim in Lyon’s outdoor swimming pool in the middle of winter. But Child One and Child Two need this. We clear the living room floor, connect my laptop to the loudspeakers, and we are off. Otherhalf looks at us in disbelief and goes to another room. There are a few arguments over who is stepping on whose toes, but my exercise-hungry kids are happy.

Day 7: The UK locks down

Monday, 23rd March

Wow: Boris Trump (not a typo) has gone from “herd immunity” to confinement in just 10 days. I speak to a friend in the UK, who is home alone with her two young children. Her husband is abroad and cannot return, her au pair has returned to France, her parents are out of bounds (her father is having chemotherapy), and work has run out (she, too, is a freelancer). She is one of the strongest people I know, and she sounds worried. I try to give her some tips about homeschooling (because I have a whole week’s experience!) and decide to get this blog up and running asap.

The kids and I get to work: keeping the routine is the only way we can manage this, I believe. Otherhalf, who is still in quarantine for another week, helps with the homeschooling and does DIY work around the flat. I can tell he is getting serious cabin fever. We have managed not to have a single row since confinement began: intimacy doesn’t always breed contempt. Our days still revolve much around food. Luckily, he loves cooking and we love eating.

Despite advice from mother-in-law not to go out, I take my daughter out for a bit of exercise. We run into a neighbour and his son at the nearby playground which is normally filled with children and parents. We belong to an urban gardening group, whose HQ is in a disused basket-ball court round the corner from our flat. We can’t help popping our heads in and picking some coriander. But the confinement rules exclude using shared gardens, so we don’t hang around.

Flowers growing in our shared garden

In the evening, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe gives an interview on national tv to announce they will be tightening the confinement measures. Tomorrow, he is expected to announce an extension of the initial 2-week confinement period. It could last as long as 6 weeks, or more. The death toll among French doctors treating Covid patients has risen to five. Dozens of people are dying in old people’s homes across France, sometimes alone because the staff is overstretched and families are no longer allowed to visit for fear of the virus spreading. The violence of what is happening is staggering.

Day 6: First Sunday in confinement

Sunday, 22nd March

Normally, on a sunny day like today, the kids and I would put on our walking boots and go for a big walk with our friends in the countryside. And we will again soon, of course. This isn’t a life sentence and we haven’t done anything wrong.

I call my brother in Norway. Though the governments in northern Europe are not enforcing strict confinement, most people are self-isolating. Seems like the sensible thing to do, and Scandinavians are sensible people. He is working from home and his wife, who works with special needs children, is still going in to school every other day. Their teenage kids are homeschooling remotely and very autonomously on their respective computers. Life could be worse.

It’s a different picture for a close friend in Italy. She has been holed up with her elderly father who suffers from respiratory disease in his home in northern Milan since February. She describes the situation as dystopian and nightmarish. They are no longer leaving their home at all. She is terrified he might catch the virus. I don’t know what to tell her but I listen and promise to call on a regular basis.

I settle down to sew with my son – we are determined to finish our zipper bag. And we do. Small victories that lighten up a “corona-dimanche”.

Day 5: The silence is eery

Saturday, 21st March

The silence outside is eerier than ever. You hear the odd small child’s voice, a car or an ambulance siren in the distance. The sun is shining brighter than ever. Our windows are open all day long. I peer down with envy into my neighbours’ garden.

There’s been a call to donate blood as stocks are low due to the crisis, so I call the blood centre to find out what time I should go. They say they are overbooked and can I come next week. I feel good that people are doing this.

Food stores are not delivering before Monday: Otherhalf decides to go to the local supermarket, on his first trip outside in four days, to stock up on essentials. He returns and tells me, “C’est une vision de fin du monde.” People are being allowed in one by one, cashiers shrouded in plastic, store practically empty. He won’t be going back anytime soon.

Grandma homeschools my eldest via WhatsApp. It is a fantastic opportunity for both child and grandma, who is lonely holed up in her Paris flat, to chat and spend time together.

This frees up time for me to spend a couple of hours on the phone with my best friend in Toulouse who is helping me set up a website to post this diary. Confinement is offering me an unexpected opportunity to brush up on my basic IT skills.

In the afternoon, my eight-year old and I decide to sew a “simple rectangular bag with zipper” with our new sewing machine. I have never used it. Thank god for the kind ladies who post tutorials on YouTube. Three hours later, we have successfully sewn one side (with zipper). My son is being supportive, I am having a bad confinement day (my nights are still peopled with post-apocalyptic demons, leaving me tired and restless in the day).

I remind myself how lucky I am compared to so many other people in this crisis. I am off to bed to dream of giant green zipper bags chasing me down an empty street, under the gaze of an indifferent sun.

Day 4: “Stay at home”

Friday, 20th March

My 10-year old daughter is finding confinement increasingly difficult. She is grumpy in the morning as she has trouble falling asleep at night. She is a child with large amounts of energy and is finding it hard not to have the opportunity to burn it.

Homework today for her and her 8-year old brother consists in writing up an essay for their teachers about this first week of confinement. She manages to talk about her feelings of frustration, says it’s the first time in her life she is missing school! Her brother finds it harder to say how he feels. On the surface, he seems to be taking confinement much better, says he doesn’t want to go out. We don’t watch TV so the only news they hear is on the radio or what their father and I discuss: we tell them the truth but try to keep them away from the media hysteria. I think he may be fearful, though. What is this doing to the mind of a child? What kind of world are they growing up to live in? When we grew up in the 1990’s, we had the fear of AIDS but it wasn’t anything like this.

Letter to teacher on first week of confinement

We enjoy a delicious home-made chili con carne for lunch – much of our day revolves around the next meal. The kids get to choose much of the menu.

In the afternoon, I go food shopping and take my daughter with me. She stays in the (empty) comic book section while I go and food shop. The cashiers are surrounded by transparent sheets of plastic, wearing masks and gloves (which some health specialists say are worse as they spread contamination faster). Again, I get this feeling of being in some kind of dystopian movie. Everything is so familiar yet completely different.

Cashier at local Monoprix store in Lyon Croix Rousse, 20 March

I bump into an acquaintance (keeping a 1.5 metre distance) who is also a freelance journalist. We agree that things are not looking good for us and that we will have to rethink our career paths. She makes corporate films, but firms – those that survive this crisis – won’t be spending that kind of frivolous money when it’s all over, she says, with a brave smile on her face. We swap tips on how to keep the kids happy in these dark times.

When we get back, a friend and neighbour who works as a private nurse calls on the phone. She says they are gearing up for very difficult times ahead. Their professional life has been turned upside down. The sanitary conditions they need to respect for their own and their patients’ safety are draconian and exhausting. They do not visit a potential Covid-19 patient on the same day as someone on chemotherapy, whose immune system is down. They don’t know who has Covid because patients they visit in their homes are not tested. She tells me it upsets her to see people out on the streets, not taking the confinement seriously. “They just don’t get it.

“It’s easy to say this with hindsight,” she tells me, “but how did we not see this coming when we saw what was going on in China?! Why are we not testing people more? When you compare Korea to Italy, or Venetia to Lombardy, it’s obvious: they were able to isolate people who tested positive, even those who didn’t have symptoms and didn’t know they were carriers.”

“The other problem is exhaustion: this is going to last a long time.”

What I can do to help?

“Respect the barrier gestures. And stay home.”

Day 3: “The calm before the storm”

Thursday, March 19th

The weirdest thing is when you open your window in the morning, all you hear are the birds and the sound of ambulance sirens in the distance. Normally, it’s the sound of traffic.

We live near one of the biggest hospitals in Lyon. Two of our neighbours and good friends are nurses. I spoke to one of them this evening. She works in the maternity unit, specialised in pathological pregnancies. She says all the measures are being taken to be prepared when it hits: they are sending people home and not taking on any non-emergency cases to free up beds. She says the atmosphere is eery – like the calm before the storm. The number of known cases is doubling every 72 hours in France.

They know the peak is coming, like in Italy and already some parts of France, where they are having to “prioritise” – and they are getting prepared. She also says it makes her very upset to see people are not respecting the confinement order. “We are putting our own lives on the line by going to work every day, and all they have to do is stay home. I would stay home, too, if I could.” But it is not an option of course, and she is keeping all her strength for the weeks to come. She knows it is going to be very hard. She says they are running low on masks and hydro-alcoholic gel. “It is like our precious,” she says with a smile in her voice, referring to The Lord of the Rings. “We use it very sparingly, we are afraid of running out. They say we should change our masks every four hours. But we don’t have enough, so we wear the same mask throughout the entire shift.”

For the past three days, every evening at 8pm, people have been gathering at their open windows, clapping and cheering, to thank the medical staff, who are on the frontline of what Mr Macron has called a war. What started out as a timid manifestation on Tuesday has grown into a loud and clear message of support thanks to social media. My friend says she is very moved by it.

I went out running today, and am now wondering whether I should keep doing it, even though it is allowed. There are a growing number of voices calling for people to self-isolate completely, to eliminate all chances of contamination and show solidarity as a community. The Dane in me gets that, the French in me gets cabin fever. When I was out running, I saw a couple of men who have created a makeshift shelter for themselves along one of the city’s main shopping streets – which was totally deserted. They have no home to be confined in, no public toilet to use and wash in, and no soup kitchen to go to for warm meals. An elderly Algerian lady whom they knew before the crisis still comes and brings them food.

Confinement for the homeless on the streets of central Lyon

A close friend called this evening to say that both her husband and youngest child are suffering from high fever and diarrhea. We went out together for what was to be our last walk in the countryside on Sunday. We adults kept the recommended distance, but it’s much harder for kids. She can’t ask her mother to come and help with homeschooling the two older children as any contact with seniors is obviously out of the question.

I just spoke to my own 75-year old father, who is keeping his spirits up, holed up in his house in southern France, some 400 kilometres from here. Just two weeks ago, we were visiting him, blissfully unaware of what was to come. He is gardening a lot, speaking on the phone to his siblings in Denmark, and has invented a competition for his four grandchildren to enter via email, which will last for the duration of the confinement – it’s a good thing he is resourceful and full of imagination!

Day 2: Don’t go out without your form

Wednesday, 18th of March.

Kids declare they have no intention of doing any school work today as it is Wednesday. In normal times, Wednesday is no-school day for most French kids. So, the argument goes, if we are to respect a “normal” rhythm, why should we do any school work today? Good try.

We settle down to work. They are grumpy. I don’t tell them, but they are right: it is challenging to say the least to keep a “normal” rhythm in these strange times. While we try to respect a semblance or normality for the kids’ sake, my nights are filled with anguished, anarchic scenarios that make no sense. What we are living doesn’t seem to make much. As I try to make my son learn his math tables, he plays up and I loose my temper. I yell at him. I am not a teacher, I’m doing my best! We must make this work together, I tell them. We have talked about it: it’s not about us, it’s about protecting others and stopping the virus.

As always, our kids are the ambassadors of common sense.

“It’s all a bit strange but we can do it,” says my 10-year old as I put her to bed at the end of the day. Earlier on, she had remarked, “Where are the homeless people?,” as we walked down our normally bustling main street on our way to do some food shopping (number two on the exemption form – you risk a 135 euro fine if you are not carrying it).

The shops are all closed, except for food stores, bakers, chemists’ and newsagents – which are also tobacco shops. The streets are empty and the homeless have vanished. It makes me feel very uneasy. The few stores that are open are letting people in one by one. On the floor, they have stuck duct tape for customers to respect the social distancing guidelines. It’s like being in an Enki Bilal comic book. For those who may not be familiar with his work, we are not talking funny comic books. At all.

“Sacha” by Enki Bilal

Before going out, we had checked on our 90-year old neighbour to see if she needed anything. She has been through World War Two, grew up in Algeria, left before the war of independence. She is not phased by all this. I tell my daughter to keep a good distance from her. Our kids are not just ambassadors of common sense, but most probably of Covid, according to experts.

Besides a few food items and a skipping rope for my kids to burn energy in the courtyard, I picked up a book at the store: a biography of French political legend Simone Veil, an Auschwitz survivor famous for championing the legalisation of abortion in France when she was health minister in 1975. I don’t think it’s a coincidence. These last days have unearthed memories of true stories of horrific confinement, notably Anne Frank’s book which I read as a teenager. From the comfort of my central-heated home, stocked with food, books, endless forms of entertainment and surrounded by those I love, I read about the life of Madame Veil.

“Simone Veil – L’Aube à Birkenau” by David Teboul

Day 1: Life is like a box of chocolates

Tuesday, 17th of March

Overwhelming feeling that I’m going to wake up and realise it’s all a dystopian dream. Last night, president Macron announced the start of the confinement period. That followed last week’s announcement that schools were to close from this week.

Kids taking it in their stride, as kids do. Finding the fun in it – my eight-year old keeps saying he’s on “corona-vacances”. I don’t quite see it that way.

We all get up at usual time, have breakfast while listening to “coronanews” on France Inter. France’s equivalent of the BBC, a public service radio station, has made massive adjustments to its normal schedule: most journalists are working from home, and there are call-ins morning, lunch and evening for worried listeners to get some answers to their many questions in these uncertain times.

Then we get dressed (would they go to school in pyjamas?) and sit down to work. As per plan, established by kids and myself, mornings are devoted to homeschooling – they even have a 10-minute récré (French for school break) during which they go downstairs into the sad little courtyard of our building with a volleyball (we don’t have a garden).

Midday: homework done & I go out for my first run in these strange times: number five on the list of exemptions for leaving your home during the confinement period is “short trips, near your home, linked to individual physical activity”. Last week, while everyone else was stocking up on toilet roll, I had the good idea of buying myself a fancy new pair of running shoes – seemed like the obvious thing to do. Parc near my house where I normally run is closed, so I decide to run along the banks of the Rhône river. As the sun shines ridiculously bright in the clear blue sky on this first day of confinement, the few people outdoors include runners, a few families and clusters of youths, braving the government ban before it is strictly enforced.

After lunch – made by quarantined Otherhalf who is home for 14 days after one of his colleagues displayed Covid19 symptoms – kids and I make an iPhone movie. They choose the confinement-friendly theme: two burglars break into our flat and steal all my jewellery. After drafting a storyboard, we shoot the 13 scenes, which tech-savvy Otherhalf edits into a 3-minute short. Part two, which involves a pair of Dupond & Dupont-style detectives, is scheduled to be shot in the coming days and will be out in a theatre near you as soon as cinemas re-open.

In the evening, we watch “Forest Gump” as part of my effort to introduce my screen-starved kids to film classics over the coming weeks. Life is definitely like a box of chocolates: you never know what you’re gonna get. I would never have imagined this.