Marta Zaraska is a Canadian-Polish science journalist. Her new book, Growing Young: How Friendship, Optimism, and Kindness Can Help You Live to 100, will be published in June.
As I push open the doors to my house, Fifi the dog squirms excitedly on her leash, her fur still smelling of the fields where we’ve just been walking. My husband is already waiting for us, jacket on, permission to exit the house stuffed into a pocket of his jeans. He takes the leash from me, scratches Fifi on her back. “All right, puppy, let’s take you for a walk,” he says. And off they go, back to the fields, the dog confused about why she is being walked two times in a row, on the very same path. Up to one kilometre from the house and no further.
It’s Day 8 of the lockdown for the five of us – me, my husband, our seven-year-old daughter, Fifi the dog and a family friend who is temporarily living with us. We are lucky we have a dog, which we adopted a mere two weeks before the pandemic drowned our country. Here in France, we are only allowed out of the house to go to work (if it can’t be suspended or done from home), to go grocery shopping (within one kilometre of the house), to a doctor (urgent visits only), to jog (again, one kilometre) or to walk our dogs. No dog, no walk. In Spain, where the rules are similar, some people got so desperate they took to walking plush dogs. The French are not there yet.
We are also lucky we live in the countryside, so we can all walk Fifi each day without endangering anyone. But rules are rules. There may be no soldiers on the streets of our tiny, medieval village, as there are in nearby towns, but the neighbours are watching. If you jog with your partner (only individual exercise allowed), or if you are seen in the grocery store each day or driving your car, social ostracism will follow. You don’t want to be marked as a rule breaker in a tiny community.
At first, the virus crept upon us slowly. Yes, we saw what was happening in China, then in Italy, but somehow we didn’t understand that this virus spares no country – that it’s coming our way, too. Then, things accelerated. Changes were thrown at us so fast we had no idea what was happening any more. First, all the schools shut down. Then the restaurants, stores, cinemas – everything. And just five days after school closings were announced, we were in full lockdown. On March 17, the church bells in the village struck noon, and we were no longer allowed out of our house. It was anti-climactic, to be honest. The birds kept chirping, the sun kept shining. Just the sky was weirdly perfect, with no airplanes at all.
We spent that first day of lockdown on our phones, FaceTiming, Zooming, Skyping our friends and family, all of us half in shock. Trying to figure out what was allowed. Going to the vet? Yes. Taking your child with you to a store? No. Dentist? Emergencies only.
To leave the house, we now need to fill out a special permission form each time, then sign it on “our honour.” If you are caught without one or breaking any of the rules, you will be fined up to €375 ($580). For a repeat offence, it’s €3,700 and six months in prison. Forests are closed, as are parks, riverbanks, playgrounds, open-air food markets. The postal service only delivers letters three days a week.
Suddenly, food has become an issue. As we are dependent on the one store in our village, and so are all our neighbours, some products are notoriously hard to find. Milk, butter, yogurt, tomatoes, baker’s yeast. Popcorn. We’ve figured out how to cook with what we have.
The virus is closing in on us. People we know are testing positive – neighbours, colleagues from work, friends. Many others have been diagnosed unofficially by doctors via videoconferencing – these days, if you can still breathe well enough, they won’t test you. And so my friends and I are becoming quite the hypochondriacs. Do I have it already? Is my cough an allergy or COVID-19? Who sneezed?
At first, my seven-year-old thought it was all a great adventure. The changes. The novelty of it all. No getting up early for school. She and her girlfriends figured out how to play with their Playmobil sets over Skype, and now they can go on for hours. Slowly, though, the claustrophobia is sneaking up on her. She has started asking why we always walk the dog so close to the house. Why we can’t drive to the forest – or anywhere. And she is worried about her great-grandparents in Poland, now separated from us by several closed borders, impassable.
The closed borders bother me, too. The day Poland shut itself off from the rest of Europe, I felt as if someone had trapped me in a tiny room with no doors. Yes, we live in another country, but we’ve always felt that our family back in Poland – our parents and siblings – were close by. There were planes every hour, tickets ridiculously cheap. If I needed her, my mom could come over in a matter of hours. No longer. Now the neighbouring town, a mere four kilometres away, is a world apart. I’m not sure when I’ll be allowed to go there again.
One reason I worry so much about the closed borders is that my husband and I are in our 40s. Healthy and with no underlying conditions, yes, but we are still not immune to a severe infection. If we both ended up in intensive care, who would take care of our daughter? After all, she would almost certainly be infected, too. And so we’ve signed a contract with our friends to take care of each other’s children if such misfortune were to befall us. When they told their six-year-old about the deal, he was excited: “So, when are you going to be sick enough so I can go stay at her house?” Children can make you feel really loved sometimes.
We try to stay positive. We watch stand-up comedy each evening. We take silly quarantine day-by-day selfies. In the evenings, at 8 p.m., we go out into the garden to clap and cheer with our neighbours, with the rest of France, for the brave doctors and nurses who are fighting this war for us.
We are doing okay. In a way, I feel less anxious now than I did before the lockdown. I feel that we, as a country, are finally doing something. Or maybe I feel this way because, on the day I write this, it’s just Day 8, and dozens more are ahead of us (no one knows how many). Maybe if you ask me next week, I will feel very different, more scared.
But for now, I see some good in all of this. Maybe the pandemic and the enforced lockdowns will make us rethink our lives and re-evaluate our priorities. Maybe losing the ease of contact with our family and friends will make us appreciate them more later on. Maybe we will learn to value our community. Maybe we will stop spending our lives with our noses in our smartphones and start living connected, kind lives. And, in a twist, since our health is so dependent on our social connections and the quality of our relationships, all this could in the long run boost our physical well-being, too. Make our immune systems stronger.
We will see.
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