This is the second in a series of posts describing our experience of moving to France just as the COVID-19 pandemic blossomed. Part 1 is here.
Part 2: Lock-down
Life in Beaulieu-sur-mer
My wife and I moved into a little one-bedroom holiday rental in Beaulieu-sur-mer on February 13, 2020. The house was a snug two-room cottage, surrounded by terraced gardens, on a hill overlooking the village of Beaulieu, the Baie de Formi and the Port. We had stayed in this little house for three weeks in the Fall of 2018, so we immediately felt at home. Maggie makes herself at home wherever she happens to be, of course. The multi-level gardens were perfect for her to explore and run a bit.
One of the things we like about Beaulieu is that it is fairly compact (map). One can easily walk to a cafe, a boulangerie, the town square, the port, or the village shops. There is an outdoor market in the Place du Général de Gaulle every day except Sunday. From Monday through Friday it is just one or two produce vendors. On Saturdays, though, it is a large, colorful market that fills up the square and spills over into the surrounding streets. There are vendors selling meats, cheeses, olives, herbs and spices, dried fruits and other treats, as well as clothing and accessories. There are also food trucks selling asian fast food and freshly made socca, the Niçoise chickpea crepe. Dogs are welcome at the market, so it is also an opportunity for Maggie to make friends and learn appropriate market manners, and for us to meet other humans through our dogs.
We had almost exactly one month to enjoy normal village life. Unbeknownst to us, because we weren’t paying attention, COVID-19 had already reached France. In late January, France had reported it’s first known case: a Chinese tourist, who later died of the disease. The Christian Open Door Church in Mulhouse hosted its annual assembly in mid-February and half of the 2500 attendees became infected. They in turn helped spread the disease across France and its Overseas Territories. Later retrospective research found that the first case of COVID in France had actually occurred in late December, 2019! We heard rumors that things were bad in Italy, particularly in Milan, but that was Italy. France would be different, of course. Except that it wasn’t.
The French government takes action…eventually
It seemed like French officials were reluctant to take the kind of action that the Italian government had taken to slow the spread of the COVID virus. There was a slow rollout of policy edicts from the President, the Prime Minister, and health officials. First, there was a ban on indoor gatherings of more than 5,000 people, enacted on March 5. Then, on March 10 the government reduced the limit to 1,000. When government officials finally decided to act decisively, it took them five days and four separate announcements to shut down the country.
On March 12, President Macron announced that all schools and universities would close indefinitely from Monday, March 16. The next day then Prime Minister Édouard Philippe banned all gatherings of more than 100 people, except on public transit. On the 14th it was ordered that all non-essential public places, including restaurants, cafés, movie theaters, and night clubs were to close beginning at midnight, until further notice.
Finally, on March 16th, President Macron issued a stay-at-home lockdown order to begin at noon on the 17th, to continue for 15 days. No one could go to work unless the job was “essential”. We could only go out for brief excursions for “essential” activities. These included shopping for groceries, seeing a physician, getting some exercise (limited to one hour a day), or walking the dog within 1 km from home. As required, we carried an “attestation” whenever we left home, declaring the date, time, and reason for being out. The short duration of this initial order proved to be wildly optimistic. The lockdown orders were extended twice, with a gradual relaxation finally beginning on May 11.
Initially, health officials said that it was not necessary for everyone to wear masks. The health department announced that it would distribute masks to medical personnel and to people who had contracted the virus. The reason for this was not made entirely clear. In fact, there was a shortage of masks because the strategic stockpile had been allowed to be depleted. In response, on March 3, President Macron ordered the confiscation of all masks produced or stored in France and their distribution limited to medical personnel and COVID patients. The government commandeered masks as they were produced, even some earmarked for other EU countries.
We were fortunate to receive masks from our landlord, who suffers from asthma and had a personal stockpile. He generously gave us a couple of masks each, with instructions to wear them whenever we were indoors in public, like at the grocery or the boulangerie. Of course, the idea behind wearing a mask (wrong, it turned out) was to protect oneself from infection, and we wore ours religiously. We noticed quite a few others wearing masks at the grocery, the pharmacy and in the boulangerie. One day in the grocery, I encountered a couple, in their mid-thirties I’d guess, who were taking no chances. They were dressed in full hazmat gear, including respirators, pushing two grocery carts overflowing with goods! They had prepared themselves for the worst, by god, and were stocking up to make sure they could stay prepared!
I think health officials in France, the EU, and the US did a poor job of communicating the rationale for wearing masks. While wearing a medical mask does provide some protection from incoming virus particles, the biggest benefit is to other people who are nearby. The masks greatly reduce the amount of outgoing virus-containing aerosols (spit, moisture in the breath). So the reason to wear a mask is to protect others, to help protect the community as a whole. For me, this obviates the far-too-often heard statement to the effect that wearing or not wearing a mask is a personal choice. When someone says, “I’m not afraid of COVID-19, so why should I trouble myself to wear a mask?”, I think that they reveal either that they are uninformed (perhaps willfully so) or that they have little concern for their fellows.
That said, once masks were widely distributed beginning in May, nearly everyone in our part of France complied, apparently quite willingly, with the various mask mandates. The shops, buses and trains all displayed “Port du masque obligatoire” signs. Shop personnel assumed that anyone who entered without a mask had simply forgotten and gently reminded them to put one on or leave. This being France and not the US, there was, I suppose, little concern on the part of the shop personnel that someone who objected to wearing a mask might pull an Uzi out from under their coat and open fire. And again, this being France, chic and designerly masks soon appeared in the fashion boutiques.
Life under lockdown: “Papers, please.”
It is no exaggeration to say that Maggie, our golden retriever, kept us from going insane during “le confinement”. The rules allowed for walking the dog within one km of home, and we did this four times a day for the most part. This allowed us to get plenty of exercise and to explore all of Beaulieu. We felt very safe from the pandemic because there was almost nobody else on the streets.
The local gendarmerie added some out-of-town reinforcements stationed in the little hotel at the bottom of our hill. So we encountered them at least daily, and they stopped us often to inspect our attestations. It dawned on me after a while that the same group of three officers, two men and one woman, stopped us almost every time they saw us. The reason, it became clear, was so that they could admire and get some love from Maggie. They only glanced at our papers.
Salute to medical personnel
One evening we were cleaning up from dinner when we heard a loud commotion coming from the village below us. We went out on our balcony to see what was happening. We heard church bells ringing, and we could see and hear people on their balconies and terraces cheering and applauding and banging on kitchen pots and pans. Someone up the hill to our right intermittently gave a Tarzan yell. Someone else blasted “La Marseillaise” from a boom box or stereo. This became an every evening event: the 8 PM 1-minute salute to the medical professionals who worked tirelessly under huge strain to treat those who had fallen to the COVID virus. We grabbed our pots and pans and joined in, almost every evening.
The market, pandemic-style
The daily outdoor market in Beaulieu continued to operate with appropriate social-distancing procedures. At first, customers were not even allowed to touch the produce. We simply pointed to the items we wanted and stated the quantity desired. The market personnel picked the items and placed them in a shopping basket for us, usually giving us the option to say “Oui or Non” to the individual items they chose for us. Later, when research showed that there was little or no risk of transmitting the virus on the surface of foodstuffs, we went back to picking out our own produce.
The market was still a social occasion, but somewhat subdued. Missing was “la bise”, the French greeting kiss, and people carried on conversations while standing a meter or so away from the others in their group. Dogs, of course, were exempt from all social distancing regulations and mingled freely. We all envied them.
Everywhere in the world, of course, life’s routines were interrupted by the pandemic and the associated lockdowns and sanitary rules instituted by governments and businesses. There was less to do because so many activities were prohibited or cancelled, and yet the things we could do and needed to do, like grocery shopping or going to the vet or the doctor, took longer than before. Sometimes we had to wait in a socially-distanced line because the store could only allow a fixed number of patrons inside at a time. As over-70’s we could jump to the front of the line, and we occasionally did so, sheepishly. More often we took our place in line with everyone else. After all, who wants to admit that they are “elderly”?
Although the vet and the doctor were available by video consultation, when an in-person visit was required it was one person at a time in the waiting room or the consultation room, so we found ourselves waiting outdoors for our turn to enter. We are mostly in good health, as is Maggie, so none of this was so bad. I can only imagine what it was like for those whose health was compromised.
Meals in isolation
We have always prepared most of our meals at home, but now we ate every meal at home. I do most of the cooking, at least at dinner time, and I have always enjoyed creating meals that were tasty, nutritious, and attractive on the plate, even in my single days. As the pandemic wore on, I’m afraid I did this less and less. Sometimes I cranked out this:
But more and more often, I found myself repeating the same dishes every week. I never let myself slip quite this low, though:
The first lockdown ends
In mid-May, the government decided that the spread of the virus had been slowed sufficiently to allow some easing of social, travel, and medical restrictions. By the third week in June, France was mostly back to normal, albeit with social distancing and mask requirements still in force. We joined our neighbors and friends in diving right back in to cafe life, the beaches, shopping, and traveling. There were warnings, of course, of the possibility of a “second wave”, so we didn’t join the party crowd in Nice (not our age demographic anyway). We hoped that life could begin to return to normal. Not so, of course.