And so we enter the event I am calling ‘The Second Fucking Time I’ve Had To Flee A Country On The Year Abroad.’ (TSFTIHTFACOTYA for short?). It’s all happened pretty quickly. On Friday I sent an e-mail to the company I was supposed to work for in Beaune, in which I (oh, innocence) wondered whether I would stay in France or try to book a flight home. If only the Goddess of Hindsight had the gift of time travel.
After several stressed out calls from Jake, and some considerably calmer ones from my Dad (I only take advice from the men in my life – in the midst of the breakdown of society, it’s important to support the Old Ways.) I just carried on with wilful blindness to the developing situation. It was only when Faith told me that she’d booked last minute to go to home that I started feeling a little uneasy, and made an EasyJet purchase, hands shaking.
Almost all of the flights had already sold out, of course, and we were lucky to get onto one for Tuesday evening. This brought momentary relief, which was only to be supplanted by more fear as Macron announced further restrictions in France.
For anyone unfamiliar with the way the French President has decided to go about things, let me inform you now. We wait all day for some news, some guidance, anything – then at 20h on the dot he solemnly sits in public broadcast and delivers increasingly strict measures, with the all the drama of a Shakespearean tragedy, and all the human empathy of an incoming cyborg. We then scramble to make sense of the consequences of his decisions: when he says ‘tous les voyages, tous les déplacements sont annulés’, does that mean for foreign nationals? Does that mean flights?
Faith and I were returning from the supermarket (long queues to enter; only allowed in a few at a time; perhaps half the stock already gone) when we bumped into an intendant at the ENS. As we opened the door to re-enter the accommodation block, he made contact with a stern ‘Vous faîtes quoi ici?’ We stuttered that we were international students, that we were just buying some food, and going back to pack. You won’t be able to leave, he told us, with a Gallic shrug that seemed to rise from the depths of the indifferent earth. You’ll be locked into the accommodation. We’ll even close the gardens. Impossible, impossible, impossible. No flights, no transport, nothing from tomorrow onwards. We said that we thought the flights were continuing, and ended the conversation as quickly as possible, both feeling a little sick.
But inside, as we started chopping vegetables, another dramatic message came: another Cambridge MML student (in Paris) telling Faith that the borders were closing in 12 hours, and that tonight was the final chance to get out. She had bought a Eurostar ticket for a few hours’ time, having previously planned to stay in France. We panicked, then realised there was literally nothing we could do: we didn’t have a car, we couldn’t take a train to Paris, Lille or Brussels for the Eurostar that late, our flight was still planned. So we ate dinner, planning to watch Macron’s speech later.
We had just finished dinner (a confusing attempt to finish up panic-bought food) when he announced that France was to go into full lockdown. I had expected further restriction on movement, but he seemed to imply a total suspension on all flights in and out of the country – I felt so anxious I could barely understand his fairly simple French. I ran in and out of the kitchen, as we five girls called our parents, and tried to understand what he had said. After a few messages, one of my french flatmates (already at home with her family), sent me a message on our group chat, telling me that this shouldn’t affect my planned travel to the UK.
Still, I felt anxious, and barely slept the next night: I kept on imagining the flight was cancelled, that I would be stuck in my room for two weeks. I knew this wouldn’t be terrible, just boring; but the urge to be with my family beat stronger and stronger.
We wondered if we should go to the airport that evening, but decided against it, and booked a private transfer for the next morning. All went smoothly, and as France goes into confinement totale we have made a little camp of suitcases here, with all the other tourists for company. There are a few soliders wandering around with guns, which is a bit disconcerting.
It would be very difficult to get back into the city, with all movement forbidden, and in any case Faith and I have already handed in the keys to our rooms. So the flight has to come, and we just have to wait for it. But we’ve already been waiting – in this strange, sickening suspension – for days, and I just want to leave. Twitter broadcasts of global apocalypse don’t exactly help, so I’m trying to avoid social media.
Anyway. Hoping we’ll get on the flight at the end of this rubbish day, and if anyone wants to talk (whether you’re also waiting to leave a country, or are at home, or trying to get there), I’ll be here for several hours. And Faith just asked out loud if she could catch corona virus from her own hair, so we’ll definitely need someone else to talk to.
Not even thinking yet about just how sad it is to have left France early – but I’ll be back. It’s just au revoir for now.