Frankly, when I hopped on the first of many trains from Denmark to Montpellier in late February, this wasn’t quite how I’d imagined my half-year in Southern France turning out.
Lots of wine and sunny days, sipping coffee at sidewalk cafés with friends, learning French at the language school I’d signed up for, and maybe even finding myself a summer romance sounded more like it.
I remember how my dad had jokingly told me to be careful not to catch “the virus” on the train. I’d laughed at the absurdity of it and rolled my eyes at him. Sure, Italy had just started getting bad, China was chaotic and the numbers of infected were steadily growing in Spain. But this was France. Of course, it wouldn’t get bad there; there were barely any cases. It seemed like a problem so far removed from my personal life – something that affected other people and others’ lives.
I got exactly two weeks of normal life in France before Macron ordered a full-on lockdown. Two weeks of going to school, exploring the charming alleyways, trying out different cafes, meeting people, drinking too much, going out, and even going on a date. Those two weeks probably held more excitement and more social events than two months would for most people.
At 12 pm on the 17th of March, Macron shut down the country indefinitely. From then on out, it became illegal to leave the house without a document stating your address, personal information, time, and reason for leaving. There were five valid reasons deemed “necessary”. Thankfully, exercise was still allowed within the “1-rule” – one person could go one kilometre away from the house for one hour, once a day. From one day to another, freedom meant something completely different.
The first time I ventured to the supermarket, I spent two hours queuing outside. The line was so long, I couldn’t even see the building from where I stood. I started getting used to passing by the police every time I went for a run and made sure to fill out my document before leaving the house. I crossed the street to avoid others without a second thought and it became a habit to change my clothes in the garage before leaving and entering the house (living with a working paediatric made us extra careful).
The days, weeks, and months spent cooped up in the house without any social interactions besides Ben and Eric (friends of my mother) weren’t exactly fun. Just like everyone else, I felt frustrated by the situation, disappointed in what my time in France had turned into, and stressed out about my uncertain future.
From one day to another, freedom meant something completely different.
Emotionally, the situation weighed heavily on me for a while – something my friends in Denmark didn’t understand was how psychologically different the “illegal” aspect of the French lockdown was. While my friends would choose to only see a few people because it was the smart thing to do, they were free to drive anywhere, go for long walks and visit a couple of people. Having to carry a document and checking the watch and meters every time I set foot outside was a different kind of mental imprisonment.
And after three weeks, I was desperate to feel a physical connection with someone, to interact with someone my age or even just be able to go for a long walk alone without worrying about the time.
But, strangely, life went on regardless – two months and one week in complete lockdown wasn’t the end of the world after all. I found a routine to separate the days from each other. Every morning, my French lessons would continue online. Every evening, we would clap and shout from the terrasse to thank the nurses and doctors.
I dived into learning as much as possible and without the distraction of friends and social events, I improved quickly.
I relieved built-up energy and frustrations through my short runs and found a tranquil spot by the river to calm down. And with my new little French family, I learned to celebrate and cherish the tiny moments in life. Ben and Eric became like a second pair of parents to me, as we supported each other on the bad days and laughed together on the good ones. When we got the news that their first granddaughter had been born, we drank champagne and ate cake in celebration, trying to forget the fact that they wouldn’t be able to see her for a long time. We did the same when my mum turned 64. When the sun was out, we drank coffee and ate ice cream together in the garden. When it rained, I sat myself on the terrace to knit. I started having weekly “wine meetings” with my friends over Facetime; life in isolation soon became a new kind of normal.
When we decided to have a picnic in the garden one Sunday, it felt as if we were actually going on an outing. When we spent the next Sunday having a ravioli competition, the day passed by quickly, to say the least.
Lockdown in France was a little too much wine, sleepless nights, and a sci-fi-like world outside. But it was also easy laughter with a new family, hours spent on Facetime, and learning to appreciate the tiny joys of everyday life.
And finally, we are starting the slow deconfinement process. I won’t get to go back to school or go to social events, and only one of my friends has remained in France. But I can now move freely within 100 km of my home and see up to 10 people – just the fact that I can walk into the city center without a document seems almost like unbelievable freedom!
The one-hour drive to my aunt’s place felt just as adventurous as any flight across the world I’d been on before, and finally getting to see her and my cousin took on a whole new depth.
It’s taken a pandemic for me to realize how much of life I take for granted. Human contact, spontaneity in affection with others, long bike rides, and personal freedom seem like small miracles now. I’ve never truly appreciated it because I’ve never had to question whether I would have to go without it.
This is a stressful and unsure time, yes, but it’s also a time to reevaluate and reflect. And most of all, it’s a time of hope – because personally, I’ve never before seen so much humanity and kindness in the world.
I’ve never truly appreciated it because I’ve never had to question whether I would have to go without it.
Charlotte Blixen: France, 2020
About the Author
Born in Denmark, Charlotte grew up into a family of spirited travellers in the mud and trees of the Danish countryside. With a passion for exploring and a need for always pushing her own limits, Charlotte booked a one-way ticket to New Delhi the first opportunity she got and set out on what would be the start of a life-changing journey.