Parisian Living

Lockdown in the South of France: A Parisian Journalist in Arles

by Arnaud Sagnard

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.

A sunny square in Arles, France

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.

Arnaud and his armchair

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. 

A pharmacie and door to a building on a street in Arles, France.
A shuttered pharmacy in Arles, Arnaud Sagnard

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.

Beautiful terra cotta rooftops and buildings at sunset in Arles, Arnaud Sagnard

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.

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Written By

Arnaud Sagnard

Arnaud Sagnard was born the same year as Leonardo DiCaprio with whom he bears no resemblance. After studying literature, this Parisian who was raised in the suburbs, chose to be a journalist after trying almost every possible position in the world of media—from photo editor to reporter and investigative journalist to columnist. He’s one of the co-founders of the french edition of « GQ » where he spent seven years. Currently he’s an editor in chief of « L’Obs », France’s first weekly magazine. According to his family, he spends too much time writing books that are not always published. However, so far, two have been: one non-fiction about hipsters « Are you on the list ? Essay on the hip tyranny » and a novel « Bronson » about a man obsessed by the actor Charles Bronson, nominated for four literary prizes. He comforts himself driving a 1982 Lancia Beta 2000 HPE and traveling around California with his family. A die-hard Lakers fan, he truly believes that « Kobe was the glue that held the world together ». View Arnaud Sagnard's Website

18 comments on “Lockdown in the South of France: A Parisian Journalist in Arles

Cathy, thank you. Still confined and safe.

Arnaud:
Really enjoyed your article on Lockdown in Arles.
We are hitting the Apex here this week so everyone is staying in and praying that people survive. I hope you folks stay safe.
Cathy
Boston

Please stay safe Cathy! My parents are in Mass. now, scary times. -Erica PS Will make sure Arnaud sees your comments.

Parisbreakfast You’re welcome ! The mayor of Arles wanted to reopen the market but the local government refused.

Thank you Carol, I may comeback as a guest if I have new things to share

Good choice, Kate, Bethlehem is always a good place to start.

Thank you Anne ! I walked through a deserted La Roquette today. Weird times everywhere in the world, stay safe !

Bonjour! Nous sommes deux Australiens, ex-Parisiens, qui partagent chaque année entre Canberra (Australie) et Arles (La Roquette). Ici, à Canberra, l’automne commence. Il fait très beau , après une été épouvantable pleine de feu, de fumée, des inondations, de grêle et des canicules. Et le coronavirus bloque presque tout le monde à la maison. La vie est vraiment differente – partout. Arles nous manque! Tenez bon et merci beaucoup!

Aww. We hope you will make it back to Arles soon… meaning we can all travel and be free again. Courage! -Erica

Well, not much has made me laugh lately but that line about Tom Hanks as the star was sheer comedic brilliance. This is some of the best writing on this plague that I have read (and I read a lot) . I don’t think it is just because I like Arles so much and enjoy the time I have spent there and in Nîmes as well. It’s because you strike the perfect balance of seriousness, levity and perspicacious observation in your writing (I’m thinking of the line about even the wino keeping the recommended distance). Normally, I would not have time to write this much but now, well, I have a bit more. And it’s a luxury to have the time to share my thoughts. So Merci beaucoup, from my dining room table in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.

Hi there and thanks for writing! Luckily for me (Erica) Arnaud is an old friend, also a well established journalist and editor with a very finely tuned sense of humor (as you can see, and if you read down to his bio it continues). We were very pleased to have him guest on the site!

Thank you for sharing your experience with us. I’m in the US in the South. We have a wonderful governor who wants us to stay safe and well. We’re coming up with creative ways though to stay in touch and see each other, such as meeting in our driveways with lots of distance between us. My friends and I always hug and kiss each other when we meet, so we’re missing that contact. We’re doing everything we can to be safe and help others; Listening to music and dancing in my house helps me cope, contributing to food banks, and calling people who have no one to check on them and calling friends daily, all help.

I wish you and your family a safe time in quarantine and look forward to seeing more of your writings!

🧤😷❤️

I’d love to be in a farmers’ market here or in one in France! Maybe in the fall. I’m holding that dream!

Thank you for a pleasant return to Arles. What a fabulous marché..its hard to imagine it closed – so lively. The cerises and sacristans piled high. Unforgetable.
May you and your family stay well.

You too! Thanks for checking in. Aww to have cerises right now!

Our hearts go out to you, we monitor daily with our family in Cannes where we also lived for 5 years. We are in Ft Lauderdale, Florida and witnessed first hand the disgraceful actions of the Spring Breakers. We blame the State and our Mayor for just being greedy. Just yesterday the shut down went into effect, too little, too late. Please stay safe and stay in.

You too for staying safe. And yes, too little, too late for the state and Mayor but, luckily, we can all do our part!Be well. 🙂

I live in USA and seeing spring break also was mind boggling. I had no idea so many people had No common sense or thought they were omnipotent. I live in Virginia and have stocked up and have been self isolating for weeks. I’m retired so am in a much more fortunate position than others.

Stay safe. And yes, spring break was certainly unbelievable! So glad you are stocked up. Sending warm wishes! -Erica

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