• Mary MacCarthy

As France lifts lock down, not all parents ready to send kids to school

Solange is a Taiwanese woman who has lived in France for the past twenty years. She works as an interpreter/translator and actress. She’s married to a French man, and they have an 11 year-old son, Enzo. They live in a suburb immediately to the west of Paris.

Sunset view of Paris to the east, from Solange's balcony

I spoke to Solange just as France started to gradually lift its eight-week lock down this week, with some shops re-opening, and some students returning to school. Covid-19 has already taken over 28-thousand lives in France - a death toll similar to that of Spain, and just a bit lower than the number of deaths in Italy and the U.K.

Many French parents have expressed uncertainty about the safety of opening schools now; Solange has opted to keep Enzo home for the remainder of the semester.

HOW ARE YOU GETTING BY? France went under lock down on March 17th, but I haven’t left home since March 15. I’ve been worried about the virus since January. Since I’m Taiwanese, I’d been following the news closely back home, and I knew it posed a risk in that region. So by the time the virus got to Europe, I’d already been worried about it for a long time. I remember March 15th very well - my son had a cold and I had a sore throat. Normally I wouldn’t have gone out. But it was the day of the mayoral election, and I really want a new mayor, so I was determined to vote. I put on a mask and went to cast my ballot, and I have not been out since then - except one time for work.

I’m a freelance interpreter for police stations and courthouses. A lot of that work has been cancelled during the lock down, and some can be done over the phone. The police have requested that I come in for an in-person job just one time recently, and I agreed to do so. That day, it was strange to be out. Normally there would have been tons of people in the streets, but of course there were just a few people here and there - since the lock down rules are very strict in France, you have to be able to prove that you have a valid reason to be out of your home. The police station itself was closed to the public. I had to ring a bell for them to come let me in. Inside the station, it was tricky to respect the social distancing rules. I tried to stay at least a meter away from the police officers and the woman for whom I was interpreting, but it wasn’t really possible. I wore a mask but most of the police officers were not wearing them.

The case I was called in for was very interesting. A Taiwanese woman had been brought to the station after having a run-in with police. It turned out that she had been living at Charles de Gaulle airport! She told me that she had been traveling through Europe and was in Switzerland when some European countries had started to close their borders, in mid-March. She was due to fly out of Italy, on a flight to Australia, but her airline changed her flight so it was leaving from Paris instead. When she got to Paris, Australia was no longer allowing incoming flights. So she found herself stuck here in France. When I met her it was mid-April, and by then she had been living at the airport for close to a month. She told me that the French government had set up a sort of a camp at the airport for people like her who were stranded, putting out military stretchers for them to sleep on - not beds or cots, but medical stretchers! And there was an organization offering meals to everyone in the same situation she was in.

She said that she caught Covid there at the airport, but that it wasn’t a bad case of it, and that she recovered quickly. Surprisingly, she didn’t seem panicked; she seemed to be taking it all in stride. I don’t know what happened to her after I served as her interpreter at the police station. I assume that arrangements were made for her to get back to Taiwan.

When I was at the station, I chatted with the police officers about their work during the lock-down. They said they are only dealing with urgent cases. And that they’ve been placed on reduced hours and also have to do some “on call” shifts in which they are ready to come to work if any emergencies arise. As for crimes during the lock-down, the biggest issue - the police officers said - is burglaries of empty apartments. It seems that, when the lock down was about to start, a lot of Parisians left the city and went to their country homes. They said that the other big issue right now is domestic violence. They get a lot of calls for that. This might sound paranoid, but on my way home from the police station, I realized that I had taken a lot of risks of catching the virus - for just a few hours of work! I had gone into the station where, even if it was less busy than usual, there were still quite a few officers, as well as suspects in custody.

I’m fortunate to have a lot of work that I can do from home - written translations. That said, it’s tough to work when the whole family is at home. My husband is a theater actor, so of course he is not working these days. And my son is home, too. Usually it’s easier to try to get my work done late at night. I know I’m lucky to have work, but to be honest I’m quite stressed out and annoyed by it. I’m really not motivated to get it done. I ask myself, why am I working so much, if there’s a possibility that we don’t have a future? It’s an absurd feeling. When all this started, I was worried mostly about my loved ones in Taiwan. Now that the virus is in France, I feel that, well, we just don’t know if we are safe or not. There’s so much we don’t know. And yet - despite the uncertainty - I have to deal with work pressure. It’s tearing me apart. I have the impression that I’m living in a world that’s not real. We’re not sure about anything. I feel like I’m living in two parallel worlds. On the one hand, we have our work routines, things we just have to keep doing, normal life. That includes the routines with our children - their school work, and trying to keep up with their extracurricular activities. On the other hand, we have no idea what the future will look like, or if we will have a future! It’s like you need two personalities to stay sane. Two personalities, that are each working from their own script. It’s like two very different movies are being filmed at the same time. Here’s another anecdote about the absurdity of what we are living through. Our town - our suburb of Paris - placed an order for cloth masks so they could provide them to residents. They had planned to deliver a mask to every household the weekend before the lock down ended. But the truck that was due to deliver 50-thousand masks to us - out of a total of half a million masks it had on board - was robbed at the Spanish border. And all the masks were stolen! When I heard this story on the news, it felt almost comical - like yet another strange episode during the very strange time of lock down.

Daytime view from Solange's balcony - teenagers in a neighboring building gather to play soccer on the roof

My husband is the type who likes to go out to do our grocery shopping and get fresh food - and fresh air - every day. So the lock down is hard for him, in that way. As for Enzo, it doesn’t seem to bother him too much to have to stay home. Normally he’s very busy with after-school activities, so this has given him time to rest. We’re no longer rushing from one activity to another on a tight schedule. What’s missing for Enzo is physical activity. Some days he goes out with his dad, to the park close to our apartment. It’s a very big park, and technically it’s closed but people have been going in there anyway. People take walks and exercise, and they quickly scatter when they see police coming. France started opening up again over the weekend - that includes some schools, but it depends on the age of the kids and lots of other factors. In our case, the parents were given the choice - so we have decided to keep Enzo home for now. Enzo has also been able to continue his accordion and clarinet lessons from home, although often it’s tough to get online - there’s not enough bandwidth since everyone wants to get online at the same times during the day. Sometimes with his music teacher we just have to send videos back and forth on WhatsApp, rather than doing an actual virtual lesson. He also takes Chinese language lessons online, and does an online chess club. So he has quite a lot to keep him busy.

Financially, well, income is always a worry. All my work is freelance work, which is not steady - and the pay generally comes quite a long time after the work is actually done. So I do have work now, but no revenue; I have no idea when I’ll be paid. As for my husband, he is what the French call a theater intermittant - which basically means that as long as he works a certain number of hours per year, then he is guaranteed a monthly income subsidized by the government. But in recent years that program has faced a lot of budget cuts. And like with everything, we don’t know what the future holds - since all upcoming plays have been cancelled, how will theater workers get their required hours in?

Here in France, I haven’t heard about a spike in anti-Asian racism due to the virus. I hope that won’t happen. The fact is that racism is always present. I’m not worried about it, but that’s probably because I have lived in France for so long - I feel like I would be well able to defend myself against anything. I think I would feel much differently if I was a younger foreign student who had just arrived here, for example. I asked Enzo if he had heard any anti-Asian comments, when he was still in school. He said no, but that at the place where he takes Chinese lessons, the older kids talk about having had to deal with anti-Chinese comments in their own schools.

For me, there is one unexpected silver lining right now, which is that the pandemic may finally be helping people realize some of the truth about how the Chinese government operates. What I find disturbing - above all - is the manipulation and propaganda, both inside China and in terms of the image the Chinese government shows the world.

There’s a Chinese citizen who wrote a diary about living through the lock down in Wuhan, a diary that was published in Taiwan. Of course, it recounts an entirely different perspective than what we hear from Chinese media. The Chinese government doesn't want the world to know the ugly reality of what happens in their country. In Taiwan, due to our history, we have learned to be skeptical of what Chinese leaders present as truth. And I have a feeling that now, more than in the past, France is opening its eyes to this as well The Chinese embassy in France has sent out some very aggressive tweets, in which they were very critical of France’s response the pandemic. The French Foreign Minister called the Chinese Ambassador in for a formal meeting, but it seems that there were no real consequences for China. Which I find strange.

I am not a fan of Donald Trump on many things, but I do really admire the fact that he stands up to China, and that he’s not afraid of conflict with the Chinese government.

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