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Finding Freedom in France’s Strict COVID-19 Confinement

France’s coronavirus lockdown has temporarily absolved me of much of my obligation. And I feel all the better for it.

It’s just past lunch on Easter Saturday and, for what feels like the first time since we moved into our new apartment last February, my husband and I are lounging alone on the terrace. I’ve just poured myself a glass of chilled white wine. The sun is hot on my skin and I feel beads of sweat forming under my t-shirt. There’s not a cloud in the sky; in other words, it’s the type of weekend that I would usually be racing down to the beach to enjoy.

“Why have we not done this before,” he asks looking up from his book as he stretches his long legs out towards me. Lying on a low-slung patchwork cushion that transports me back to the Middle Eastern adventures of my mid-20’s, laptop in my lap, I’ve got a precious hour and a half to focus on writing. It’s my favourite part of the quarantine life day. “Why haven’t we?” I think.

Then a noise from inside reminds me exactly why.

As parents to two young girls, we don’t have a huge amount of time to ourselves, no matter the circumstance — aged four and two, they still rely on us for most things. My daughters have been home since March 16th, the date schools and crèches in France closed to fight the spread of COVID-19. A day later, the country itself was basically locked down, as all non-essential services were told to shut their doors from midday.

Virtually overnight, our 60 metre-squared, two-bedroom apartment in the coastal village of Villefranche-sur-Mer, just around the bay from Nice on the French Riviera, has become part-classroom, part-office, part-playroom. We are some of the lucky ones: my teacher husband and I are able to maintain our jobs from home. And, although my eldest has already started school as per French requirements, she’s young enough that there’s little pressure to spend hours homeschooling — we do practice writing and counting, but her concentration soon gives way and we’re back to puzzles, books, cooking and our daily dose of Frozen yoga.

And so, here we are, on this second weekend in April and our fourth since French President Emmanuel Macron ordered the country to stay at home. The big sister is watching cartoons on Netflix, her treat when her little sister is taking her afternoon nap. “Usually, I’d have football and you’d have taken the girls to the park,” my husband continues as if answering his own question. “We normally don’t have time to just sit like this.” Our weekend routine now seems like something from another life.

I know this comes from a position of privilege — we are neither sick nor are we frontline workers so we can turn off from the “war” (as Macron has called it) whenever we want or need to — but by being ordered to stay at home, I feel like I’ve been temporarily absolved of much of my obligation. With that, comes a real sense of calm. Life is still busy, but the pace has definitely slowed down.

As a chronic overcommitter and disastrous timekeeper, I’m no longer running from one appointment to another while frantically texting apologies for my tardiness to the next link in the chain. Having the kids at home has forced me to be realistic about what I can and cannot achieve professionally right now and I’m not trying to squeeze coffee with friends, grocery shopping, errand-running and the girls’ music lessons all into my one day off a week.

There’s a certain liberty in finding your hands tied: the few reasons I can go outside once a day include food shopping and exercise, the only two I have used. Break that and run the risk of a hefty fine (that starts at €135). I need to fill out a government document and carry a form of ID every time I leave home. Apart from my writing deadlines, there’s no other pressure. In this new reality, I don’t need to do two things at once. The dishwasher can wait while I read my youngest another story. Actually, most of the housework can.

I’ve quickly learnt to take one day at a time, but what’s the alternative? Although Macron announced last night an extension of confinement measures until May 11th, there’s still a lot of uncertainty. How will deconfinement work? Will school and crèche really reopen before September? Can still go on the camping trip we planned in late May? These are questions we can’t answer yet. I don’t know what tomorrow will bring, let alone next month.

What is happening in the world is out of my control, but what we do inside these four walls isn’t. And, if I let it, this is (hopefully) a once-in-a-lifetime chance to slow down, enjoy the moment, and reconnect with those who are most important: for me, that’s my husband and two children.

If you’d asked me at the start of this how I’d feel about what looks set to be close to two months of lockdown, I would have answered that it may go either way. Far from being the trial I worried it might be, there’s a certain freedom in being made to stay at home. The question is how I can maintain many of these lessons as we transition to life after COVID-19.

Photo by Leighton Smith on Unsplash