After two months in French lockdown, the author finds herself experiencing culture shock on her return to the States.
- Story by Rheta Grimsley Johnson
After negotiating four airports we picked up a rental car in Huntsville, Ala. After lockdown in the French countryside for two months, it was strange to see traffic. Only trucks are rolling in the Charente in Southwest France where we spent two months in voluntary lockdown.
For once, I wasn’t burdened with a lot of souvenirs, with scarves and tablecloths and mementos from grand sights. Unless it came from the grocery store we were allowed to visit weekly, I couldn’t buy it. Instead I brought home with me two notebook pages where each morning I tracked the French coronavirus deaths. For over a month I would write the grim number – beginning with 860 deaths and ending the day before we left with 23,293. Toward the end, the lockdown seemed to be working; deaths had dropped below 300 a day and a gradual reopening across France was announced for May 11.
I will keep those two pieces of scrap paper. They are the most important souvenirs I have ever scored. “Souvenir” is the French verb for “to remember.” And I want to. The last week or so the number of deaths was dramatically dropping. It felt like a personal victory, one we helped secure by obeying the dictum to “restez chez vous” – stay at home.
I do not understand the rather blasé attitude of so many in this country and my home state, Mississippi. Everyone I talk to by email or phone claims to be sequestering - except for a multitude of exceptional activities. Car detailing, dinner with a few friends, hair appointments, trips to the lake.
The state health department phoned the first morning of our arrival to say we needed to quarantine for 14 days. I replied a tad sarcastically that we certainly intended to, but that it didn’t look like anyone else was bothering. The caller agreed.
Protests against virus restrictions were going on in ten states over the weekend. I guess staying at home is considered by some to be un-American.
Life in French lockdown did not hurt. I was, of course, privileged to be in the countryside in a place where there were few coronavirus cases. I am sure it would have been a lot more difficult if I had been in a small apartment in the city, or if I could not work from home.
Someone calculated that 40 percent of the cafes and bars in Paris may never reopen. So it’s not as if the French are not in an economic predicament. They are.
But the nation famous for revolution, with people who will demonstrate at the drop of a hat or yellow vest, were pulling together to fight the virus. They got it.
I am still recovering from jet lag. I don’t watch the news anymore. It feels good to sleep in my own bed, on my extra firm mattress, but then I wake up and know that the worst may still be coming.