On the Early Days of Confinement

Friday, 20 March

Today it is hard to imagine that two weeks ago, when I last sat down to write this blog, my husband David had just flown to the US for a 10-day family visit. That he was planning to come back and immediately get on another plane to Georgia for 10 more days of board meetings and a conference on air pollution in Tbilisi. That I was still inviting people to an April 2nd book party in London.

Things started unravelling very fast, even while time simultaneously took on that slow motion quality of a dream. What seemed normal on day one looked implausible day two, impossible day three. The CEO of the health care company in Georgia on whose board David sits got the virus from someone who had just returned from Italy; the board meetings would be held via teleconferencing. Then the pollution symposium was cancelled. The fact that David had gone to the US at all started seeming near folly and whether or not he would get home before the world shut down became a huge source of angst. Last Thursday I woke up still thinking about the invitation list for the London book party. By late afternoon I was wondering...come Friday it was ridiculously obvious: time to call the whole thing off. It was just about then that the corrective text function on my iPhone started recognising ‘coronavirus’.

COVID-19 has burrowed its way into our lives with stunning speed and as explosively as the sea mine (with many more lethal nodules) it resembles. As much as I’d like to be writing about something else today, it’s all I can think about. It's all anyone is talking about.  

David did get home and we decided to leave for the Perche where, after three long plane rides, he could self-isolate. This word, which I don't believe existed a month ago, has yet to work its way into my predictive text but it won't be long. On Monday morning before we left, with the Tuileries closed, I walked the dog on the still half-flooded banks of the Seine...

Jogger and map of the world

I went to help my friend Lara M get set up so she too could have her piano lessons via Skype in the uncertain future. On the route between us there are two pharmacies but I didn't get past the front door in search of the hand gel we are very short on.  

Monday evening, now in the Perche, we streamed President Macron's speech. There has been lots of criticism about the way the government has handled the arrival of the coronavirus but compared to a couple of other countries that shall remain unnamed (finger pointing in a time of crisis should be restricted to a minimum like everything else), is France really that bad? Especially when you consider how battered the country has been these last 18 months. First the gilets jaunes, then the crippling transit strikes and now a pandemic.

The speech offered a clear message: "We are at war." It proffered help for the millions of companies and their employees where all activity, and therefore the cash flow and ability to pay employees, has ceased. The new restrictive measures to be undertaken were clear: stay home, except for food shopping, a job that cannot be done at home, medical assistance or exercise for yourself or your dog. Every time you do go out, fill out this form or get fined 135 euros…

The next morning I and every other tax payer received a text message reminding us of restrictions and providing a government site where practical information could be obtained.

Four days into confinement, I feel sheepishly fortunate down here at the end of the lane where we are short on germs, long on space. No need to fill out a form when Tasha and I take our daily constitutional - we don’t encounter another soul. In a way my days haven't much changed. I write, play the piano, exercise, read. When we need food, I drive into the town of Bellême, same as always, except I'm holding my form in my gloved hand and keeping my distance from the other few souls on the same mission. The shops have helped by sticking tape lines 1.5 metres apart on the floor. Back home I wash my hands, get out the bleach.

I do spend much more time than usual communicating. The need to connect with family and friends is strong and I have been very touched by the number of people who have called or written to see how we are.  

In every crisis some benefit. At the top of the list, perhaps even ahead of gel, mask and glove makers, are the loo paper companies. Nations may have their different approaches to disease control but apparently one borderless human reaction is to buy a lifetime supply of the stuff. I have heard stories of people almost coming to fisticuffs over the last package on the shelf. This is not a pathology from which I suffer so I hope one day a study will be conducted on the phenomenon to enlighten me as to its primal causes, its patient zero.

Pets probably run a close second on the list of beneficiaries. They can’t get sick. They’re allowed to go out and their owners are home day and night. My friend Louise D sent me this photo:  

"Miss London is thrilled I am home all day.Here she is on my knees wrapped up in a cashmere (of course!) jumper."

Tasha, needless to say, is only too delighted for this open-ended stretch of time in the country.

How does my kingdom smell this morning?

Humorists are having a heyday as the above new payment scheme indicates. A good meme - another word that has belatedly entered my vocabulary - can make your day.


"3rd day of confinement: my wife is telling me to take a walk...she'll pay the fine."

Of course these are early days. There's a gallows backdrop to every joke and it will undoubtedly get harder to laugh the longer our confinement lasts. Even now it is easy at moments to be gripped by fear that the invisible enemy will make its way into your own lungs, or to be seized by panic at the economic pandemonium that is spreading even faster than the virus.

Perhaps the best we can do during this scary time is to keep communicating, maintain our mutual systems of support. Follow nature, another beneficiary of our sudden stillness, at least from a virtually safe distance.