I’m not a believer in omens but let’s just say that in retrospect an unsettling coincidence happened on our third day in Collioure, the town in southwest France where we planned to spend the winter. We attended a lecture on the plague—I kid you not—which had impacted the area so many centuries ago. Walking home afterwards I missed a curb, fell, and blackened my eye. We told ourselves that we’d have to be more careful for the rest of our stay. How very true that turned out to be.
Meanwhile for us in Collioure, over 500 miles from the French epicenter, life went on as usual: bi-weekly trips to the outdoor marché, frequent visits to our small supermarket, daily walks through the town and its vineyards, and short bus rides to neighboring cities—sightseeing and enjoying lunch in quaint cafés. During an excursion to Banyuls on March 11th, coincidentally the same date that the World Health Organization (WHO) announced the global pandemic, we began to feel unsafe without either hand sanitizer or face masks. Two days later I approached the seamstress next door to request an adequate number of masks for daily use and on our future travel home when we wouldn’t have access to laundry facilities.
Thus, we began our eight-and-a-half weeks of isolation. Like many worldwide, our daily activities never varied much. We stayed inside, went out on occasional trips to get groceries, took a daily walk, and watched the televised news at night. Even though the reports were sometimes upsetting, the French corollary to Dr. Fauci, Dr. Damien Mascret, was the informative and often reassuring voice we needed to hear on the nightly national broadcast. As difficult as the experience was, it was also heartening to feel close to our neighbors, some of us clapping on our balconies at night to thank medical workers, knowing that we were united in trying to survive the health crisis together.
Beginning March 26th I started following the number of hospitalizations, patients in ICU, and deaths at the Perpignan hospital. The first statistics were alarming, rising from 110 to 129 hospitalizations over a five-day period. The mayor of that city, who promptly enforced a curfew to keep people from staying out and partying in the streets, undoubtedly saved lives. By Thursday, April 2nd the figures started changing for the better. In the following weeks the number of hospitalized patients declined steadily, from 113 to 85, 47, 26, 16, and 10. Only 5 were still hospitalized by mid-May.
So on Tuesday, May 19th we were ready to make our move. Toulouse, being more than double the government-imposed limit of 100 kilometers from our residence, required another of the famous French documents, a déclaration stating the express reason for the trip. Foreigners were allowed to return to their native country, though carrying a copy of that paper was still mandatory…and this one was scrutinized at both French airports. My handwritten paper didn’t seem “official” enough for the local police in Toulouse but in the end, they let me through. After a relatively empty flight to Charles de Gaulle, we spent the night at the one open airport hotel, heading for New York’s JFK and Logan in Boston the next day. The entire process was long and at times exasperating and worrisome, but the airlines took strict and reassuring precautions. The crews on all our flights wore masks, for example, as did the few passengers on board (or they were reminded to do so). Now that we’re safely back home in Maine, quarantined but healthy (knock on wood), we have a new appreciation for Dorothy’s famous saying in The Wizard of Oz, “There’s no place like home.” We made it back and we are so happy we did.
This article first appeared in Maine Seniors Magazine, July 2020, and is reprinted by permission.
Jayne R. Boisvert, Ph.D. is the author of the guidebook Pilgrimage to Paris