After two months in French lockdown, FQJ's managing editor finds herself experiencing culture shock on her return to the states.
- by Rheta Grimsley Johnson
I missed my dog and I missed grits. And maybe I should add that I missed a few human friends. Otherwise, I could have happily remained in France. The French had discipline, purpose. Almost everyone was united in a belief in science and an unselfish desire to save lives.
But now we are home. The Center for Disease Control folks met our plane in Atlanta, took our temperature and sent us out into an airport where duty free shops and bars were open and you could sit wherever the hell you pleased. Some people wore masks, more did not.
That was not the scene in Paris, where we began our journey, or Amsterdam, where we had a brief layover. Those airports were coronavirus-wary, to say the least. Every other seat in those lounges was taped to necessitate a distance between waiting passengers. Almost everyone wore masks. In both Paris and Amsterdam, only one shop in each airport was open, the ubiquitous one that sells bottled water and coffee and snacks.
After negotiating four airports we picked up a rental car in Huntsville, Ala. After lockdown in the French countryside for two months, it was strange to see traffic. Only trucks are rolling in the Charente in Southwest France where we spent two months in voluntary lockdown.
For once, I wasn’t burdened with a lot of souvenirs, with scarves and tablecloths and mementoes from grand sights. Unless it came from the grocery store we were allowed to visit weekly, I couldn’t buy it. Instead I brought home with me two notebook pages where each morning I tracked the French coronavirus deaths. For over a month I would write the grim number – beginning with 860 deaths and ending the day before we left with 23,293. Toward the end, the lockdown seemed to be working; deaths had dropped below 300 a day and a gradual reopening across France was announced for May 11.
I will keep those two pieces of scrap paper. They are the most important souvenirs I have ever scored. “Souvenir” is the French verb for “to remember.” And I want to. The last week or so the number of deaths was dramatically dropping. It felt like a personal victory, one we helped secure by obeying the dictum to “Restez Chez Vous” – stay at home.
I do not understand the rather blasé attitude of so many in this country and my home state, Mississippi. Everyone I talk to by email or phone claims to be sequestering - except for a multitude of exceptional activities. Car detailing, dinner with a few friends, hair appointments, trips to the lake.
The state health department phoned the first morning of our arrival to say we needed to quarantine for 14 days. I replied a tad sarcastically that we certainly intended to, but that it didn’t look like anyone else was bothering. The caller agreed.
Protests against virus restrictions were going on in 10 states over the weekend. I guess staying at home is considered by some to be un-American.
I am still recovering from jet lag. I don’t watch the news anymore. It feels good to sleep in my own bed, on my extra firm mattress, but then I wake up and know that the worst may still be coming.
Read earlier Hunkering Down pieces by Rheta or return to Hunkering Down home.
Rheta Grimsley Johnson is a veteran reporter and former syndicated columnist for King Features Syndicate of New York. She is the author of eight books, including "Poor Man's Provence; Finding Myself in Cajun Louisiana" and "Good Grief," the only authorized biography of "Peanuts" cartoonist Charles M. Schulz. She is the recipient of the Ernie Pyle Memorial Award and the National Headliner Award for commentary. Email Rheta here.
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