I’m currently sitting in an armchair perched in an alcove on the third floor of a house located in Arles, in the South of France, 30 kilometers from the Mediterranean sea. Since the pandemic started in China and hit our Italian neighbor, I’ve been searching for a clear image to describe what exactly is happening to us.
The one that seems to capture it is a slow-motion horror movie. You’ve heard of it from afar without paying attention; then you look closer to try to understand what is happening and you realize that you’re not watching it, you are actually in the movie. You even play a part, the same one as almost everyone. You play the dumb, overconfident man or woman who didn’t listen to the warnings: “Don’t go near this house, it’s dangerous!!” Well, we’re more than three billion extras in this movie now. It’s the biggest and scariest production ever made. And of course, Tom Hanks plays the starring role.
From Monday to Thursday, I work in Paris, so I saw the first signs there: a few people wearing masks in the streets, a woman coughing on the train, someone wearing gloves to pick up a coffee, hand-sanitizer as we entered our office at L’Obs, (France’s first weekly magazine, where I work), some events canceled then every event canceled…
On my last day in Paris, March 12, I had a fancy lunch with people from the wine industry. People refrained from kissing each other on the cheeks (the bise) in greeting, even if most of us didn’t want to believe that France had already been hit.
Thursday night when I returned home to Arles, before the epidemic was labeled as a pandemic, the disease seemed unreal. Beautiful light, warm people, southern humor… Everything and everyone seemed to say, “It can’t hurt us; we’re in a special part of the world…”
Arles is a very special place. It’s a town of 54,000 souls, a mix authentic southern French, exiled Parisian hipsters (including our family), and many diverse cultures with a huge gypsy population and strong North African influence. Plus, Arles is the center of La Camargue, a sort of beautiful bayou region populated by white horses instead of alligators. The virus has gradually hit Arles and the South of France, slower than elsewhere, probably because everything here takes more time.
Like our Italian friends warned us, social distancing was not taken seriously at first, especially in Paris where people are, as everyone knows, immune to the rest of the world’s influence. But, while buying groceries last week, I noticed even the wino purchasing his beer at 8:30 am respecting the one-meter distance between customer rule. It was a glimpse of hope. All of our habits have changed. As our outdoor farmer’s market (the largest in France) is closed, butchers, gardeners, and cheesemakers tried the first “drive-in” market. You order online and pick up the products the day after without leaving your car. Pretty obvious in U.S., but truly revolutionary in a place where the market is the true heart and soul of the city, where you shop, chat, greet, eat, and drink for two hours every week.
All over France, people are confined and can only leave their homes with a written certificate stating the reason. If you don’t have it, you pay a fine of 135€ (or more). And if you’re caught several times without it, you can be sent to jail.
Some professions are deemed “essential” and thus those employees have the right to go to work. Other professionals, like me, a journalist and editor, work from home, and many are unemployed.
Two Frances quickly emerged: the blue collars who risk their lives for others, and the white collars who complain about their Zoom meetings. In a week, we discovered that our health system, seen as one of the best in the world, cannot sustain dozens, let alone hundreds, let alone thousands of sick people. Right now, I’d say that Fort Alamo is still holding, but this is just the beginning of what we call la vague (the wave) of the pandemic climax.
As someone who has traveled to America dozens of times and usually spends two months there each year, I’ve been following the spread of the virus in the U.S. with great concern.
I see it being taken even less seriously than by us romantic, oblivious Latin people. The images of Spring Break, a custom that we still don’t understand, in Florida were mind-boggling. As the virus seems, at least here in France, to act like as a sort of truth serum, I hope the US will realize that, and start to act accordingly. Knowing the flaws of the American healthcare system worries French people like me, “comfortable” in my socialistic system of free healthcare, now that the “wave” has hit New York and beyond.
Right, now I really feel like a French man who didn’t listen to his Italian friend who didn’t pay attention to his Chinese buddy, and now we’re all in the same boat. But as you know, we are oblivious Latin people, so we all could be wrong.
Note from HiP: Text originally written on day 12 of confinement. Text published on April 3 day 19.
- Cook your way through the lockdown with the best French recipe websites
- Read about the HiP Paris team’s experiences during lockdown
- Brush up on your French while binging on Netflix
Text and photos by Arnaud Sagnard for HiP Paris. Looking to travel? Check out Haven In for a fabulous vacation rental in Paris, France or Italy. Looking to rent long-term or buy in France or Italy? Ask us! We can connect you to our trusted providers for amazing service and rates.