Across the Bridge - March 2020
- Story and photos by Rheta Grimsley Johnson
VERTEUIL-SUR-CHARENTE, France – When you think of Europeans locked down due to the heartless coronavirus, you mostly think of big cities. Crowded train stations and airports filled with tourists desperate to leave. Italians singing with robust voices from the balconies of their high-rise apartments. The plucky French picnicking in Paris parks despite orders to isolate and stay inside.
There are citizens quarantined in the countryside, too. Some are miles from grocery stores and gas stations. Not to mention hospitals. I know because I am one.
I am self-isolating in a small village in Southwest France, the department of Charente. Some might call it “la France profonde,” or “deep France.” The real deal, bona fide and rustic.
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Yet our village has everything: a great restaurant, a post office, a boulangerie, charcuterie, a bistro with live music on weekends. Did I mention the castle, and that a river, the Charente, runs through it?
When I rented a cottage called "Sunrise" for three months here, it was meant as an experiment to see if I would love this country as much in the winter, warts and all, as I do the rest of the year. I’ve visited many times and always believed I could live here year-round. But my only winter experiences were the run-up-to Christmas in Paris.
I chose this location on the recommendation of a friend who once lived in a large town in the Charente. He loved it.
I now love it, too. Despite some disagreeable winter weather, for six weeks my husband and I – and one New Orleans visitor, here for 10 days – put a million miles on the rental Yaris and saw everything from ancient abbeys to Oradour-sur-Glane, the ghost town left just as it was after the Nazis butchered 600 people in a few hours, many of them women and children.
We drove to the Atlantic seashore twice, ate amazing French meals that look as good as they taste and walked around in bliss, looking forward to more meals, more visitors, more day trips, more time. Our passports were good till the end of April. We intended to suck them dry.
Then the virus hit, except it didn’t exactly “hit.” It oozed into our lives like that old horror movie, “The Blob.” At first it seemed as far away as China. Then it was next door, in Italy. And, then, it was here. And France was closed for business.
For the last couple of days our cozy village suddenly has been eerily empty, and for the first time seems a long way from help should I, or my husband, need it.
Tonight, for the first time, there is a curfew at 6 pm, and 100,000 police and soldiers are set to enforce it. You may leave your house for emergencies, but only if you fill out the paperwork and carry it with you. There are fines if you do not.
Hotels and other “nonessential” businesses are being requisitioned for hospital space, for suddenly the real hospitals are at capacity. When did that happen? In the blink of an eye, that’s when.
I decided to do what I normally do in stressful times: I laid in a supply of food and spirits. The grocery store six miles away in Ruffec was doing a brisk business yesterday. Word was out that President Macron might announce more stringent measures, which he did last night.
It was somewhat of a comfort to see that boulangeries, where the French buy their daily baguettes, are considered “essential.” Thank God. And pharmacies are open. We went to one for some ibuprofen, and I got a swift tongue-lashing for stepping in front of a barrier of blue plastic boxes that were protecting the “hostess,” as the French call cashiers, from her customers. Even tongue-lashings sound pretty in French.
But closed are all schools and universities, restaurants and bars plus most businesses except grocery stores and newsstands that sell tobacco and stamps. From what I saw today, going to shop for groceries might soon be a waste of time anyhow. Oddly enough, one aisle still full was the one with toilet paper, much of it in the signature Parisian pink. Maybe it’s because a lot of French folks have bidets.
If you have to hunker, I am in a good place. I am in a rural setting in a department not yet ravaged by virus cases. I have nearly a month and a half left on my passport. The rent is paid through April. I have tickets to fly home then, if the airline is still in business.
My French is elementary, and when I ask a question in the native language I dread getting an answer. I can understand only when people speak slowly, which they rarely do.
Last night President Macron said repeatedly, “We are at war.” I understood.
This country knows about war, fought on its soil, and about the inconveniences of fighting it. A lot of Americans, myself included, are about to find out for the first time what it means to be inconvenienced. We are about to learn how to queue up and shut up and act for the greater good.