This morning, we woke to a dozen emails, WhatsApps and texts from friends and family back home checking we’d seen the news.
We’ve been on holiday in France for a week, and originally planned to come home on Monday. But yesterday morning, as speculation over a possible quarantine announcement went into overdrive, we decided to move our Eurotunnel booking forward to tonight (Friday evening). It was a not-cheap gamble - it cost £99 just to change - but we have no regrets at abandoning our holiday early. Plus, at least it has paid off.
We’ve had a wonderful week, and while that decision meant cancelling two much-anticipated nights at a beautiful hotel in Paris, and doing the drive to the coast in a single day, it wouldn’t be worth trading for two weeks stuck indoors while trying to combine work and the demands of our very active, outdoorsy child who now will be able to attend his summer camp as planned.
It was a gamble, too, even coming here. But we’d booked our villa in Ile de Ré, together with a family in our bubble, in January and would have lost the money if we’d decided against it. We came on the Eurotunnel - an entirely socially-distanced way to travel - and booked refundable tickets in case we had to cancel. We’re now two hours into a 500-mile drive home that we’d hoped to split in two, but even so, we feel incredibly lucky to have nipped in and out under the wire.
What has been striking, though, are the subtle differences between how people are living in France and the UK, and perhaps they’re connected to the rise in infections here.
While the rules around masks are labyrinthine at home, the French must wear them in all enclosed public spaces, and they wear them far more outside too, which quickly feels very normal. Any remaining cognitive dissonance I’ve felt at the oddly apocalyptic sight of people in masks evaporated this week.
But perhaps because masks convey a sense that you’re both protecting yourself and protecting others (even though that is only partially true if you wear them properly, don’t ever touch them, and wash or dispose of them regularly - how many of us are doing all of that?), social distancing seems to have been totally abandoned.
There is none of that awkward dance of trying to give others space to which we’ve all become accustomed. Far from it. A service station where we stopped on the drive down was alarmingly crowded, with no management of how many people were allowed in at any time. I’ve not once had to queue before going into a supermarket here, nor have I seen any signs outside small shops insisting on a maximum number of people at any time.
It is at restaurants and cafes, though, that are the most disconcerting. Once you’re seated, you can remove your mask, and I’d read that you’re supposed to put it back on when you get up from your seat to go to the toilets, for instance. But unlike back home, you don’t have to give your contact details.
And at our final dinner in the town square last night, people wove mask-free between tightly-spaced tables as if it was the most normal thing in the world. I admit: we fell into the same habits, too. And I can’t testify to what it’s like in any other parts of France other than the ones we were in, where infections aren’t dramatically surging.
When a man at a cafe sneezed into his hands at the table beside me a couple of days ago, he just rubbed them together and took another slurp of beer, while his wife glared at me when I failed to disguise my surprise.
Three weeks ago, the French health minister Olivier Véran, appealed for caution. “The virus isn’t on holiday,” he said. “We haven’t won the war yet.” Unfortunately for France’s tourism industry - and the hundreds of thousands of Brits like us who are currently trying to get home - his warning wasn’t heeded.