COVID-19 and Not Moving to France

Les Halles d’Avignon (entrance, with planted green wall), Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur, France

In the summer of 2019, I started to think about an adventure.

I had moved to Seattle, Washington, just a few months earlier, from California, which had been my home for most of my life. My younger brother Mark, as much a son as a brother, had died a few years before, and I retired from my job soon after that. Most of my remaining family lives in Washington state, so the move made sense.

I sold my California house and rented a small apartment in Seattle, and my plan was to explore neighborhoods before settling into a new home. I was in transition. Even my cat was gone. I had put her down the previous winter, when she was nineteen years old, unwell, and suffering. A final act of kindness. So, for the first time in decades, I had no obligations at all.

That’s when I thought of the adventure. I could move overseas for a while, a long while, more than a two-week, American vacation. Oh yes. It felt like great fun from the start.

Thus began months of planning for my late-in-life sabbatical. I’d done a fair amount of traveling and was especially drawn to the Mediterranean, to Greece, Southern France, and Italy, so that region became my focus. Narrowing my options down a bit further, I thought about language. Greek was out of reach to learn for a sabbatical, and my meager Italian would not be enough. But I had studied French on and off since I was twelve years old. So France it would be.

I decided I would go for a year, a modest expanse of time that would allow me to soak up all the seasons and holidays and settle in to the community a bit, but not so long that I would disconnect from my developing life in Seattle.

But where to go in France? Avignon, I thought, a perfect place — a decent-sized, working city in the south of France with plenty of history and allure. I had been there a few times and always felt at ease there. It offered everything I was looking for — easy transportation, including the fast train to Paris; a mild, Mediterranean climate; access to wonderful food and wine, especially at Les Halles, the town’s astounding food market; and what felt like a welcoming community of people. Also, there’s the Festival Avignon in July every year, one of the oldest and largest theater festivals in Europe. I had always wanted to experience that. So Avignon it would be.

I started taking French lessons again and dug into research about visa requirements for living in France for a year. I settled on March 2020 for when I would go, and I created detailed lists of what I needed to do before leaving. Some initial tasks were arranging for global health insurance and finding an apartment for my stay in Avignon. I needed both for my visa application. Health insurance was easy to get, although not cheap. And through Airbnb I met Georges, an artist, actor, and owner of a furnished rental apartment just outside the medieval walls of Avignon. We arranged to meet there a few weeks later.

The apartment was perfect, much better than I expected, with two bedrooms, a well-equipped kitchen, small garden, air conditioning, and modest rent. Georges had prepared a lease agreement for us (not through Airbnb, which would not support a one-year term), which I signed on the spot. It seemed that everything was coming together unbelievably well.

In early December I went to San Francisco to apply for my visa, which I had to do in person. (There’s no French Consulate in Seattle.) I was told it might take several weeks before my application was processed, but I received my visa just two weeks later, neatly pasted into my passport. I was over the moon with excitement, and I bought my plane ticket right away. There were no contingencies anymore.

Now I felt free to tell everyone about my plans — friends, family, Lyft drivers, the concierge in my apartment building, bank tellers, hairdressers, waiters, exercise instructors, people I serve coffee with at the Unitarian church, and others.

This over-sharing was not a good idea. I’d forgotten about the swooning that France elicits from some people.

“You’re going to be in Paris, right? There’s this boulangerie you simple must go to there. Promise me you’ll go.”

“You have to go this restaurant in [charming village]. It’s quite a drive from [Paris/Bordeaux/Avignon] but it’s like nothing else!”

“You should really move to [charming village]. I know a couple who moved there, and it’s fabulous. Much more interesting than Avignon.”

“Have you been to Lyon? I had the best food of my life in Lyon. Seriously. ”

I had asked for this, of course. Good grief, I was beyond swooning. I was moving there. But I had developed an aversion to this kind of gushiness about travel, to France or anywhere else. I was no longer interested in travel as a form of acquisition — how many places you can see, meals you can eat, and charming villages you can visit. People seemed offended when I said I didn’t know what I was going to do every day in Avignon, or what charming villages I would visit, if any. As a response I sometimes offered the Italian phrase, il dolce far niente, the sweetness of doing nothing. I pulled back a bit from all the sharing.

A friend told me he thought I was brave to do this, to move to France for a year. I didn’t feel brave. I felt a bit overwhelmed by everything I needed to do, and sometimes unsure of my plans. I’ve always had a freight-train of self-talk in my head, and it was very active now. Why are we doing this again? What problem are we solving? Because it will be an adventure. That’s why. A fabulous thing to do, really.

In February 2020 I reached the last mile of preparations. The lists became more detailed. It all felt doable but barely. I compared moving and storage companies and mail forwarding services, filed my tax returns, met my sister at the bank to add her to my accounts, and more. I kept up with my lists, and I firmed up plans for actually getting to Avignon.

I would move out of my apartment on Friday, March 13, stay with my sister and her husband in Anacortes, Washington — about an hour north of Seattle — for about a week, and then go to a hotel near the Seattle airport on Sunday, March 22. The next day I would fly from Seattle to Paris and take a connecting flight to Marseille on March 24. A driver would meet me there and deliver me, finally, to Avignon.

II

In late February the novel coronavirus comes onto my radar. Of all the things I thought might affect my plans for Avignon, a pandemic was not among them.

February 25: I contact an old friend, an epidemiologist. Should I plan to go? Yes, he writes. He thinks my plan to live in Avignon for a year is marvelous.

February 26: I sell my car to CarMax. Cortez burning his ships. I am not turning back. I’m going through with this.

February 29: The Seattle Times publishes an article, “Reconnecting with Avignon — a Medieval Town with a Youthful Attitude,” by Rick Steves. Delightful.

March 1: I email my sister about the five boxes I plan to bring to her house — perishables from the kitchen, tax records, other important papers, and keepsakes, such as the program from our brother’s memorial service and a bound copy of my master’s thesis, Social Order in Herman Melville’s Early Novels.

March 2: More cases of the virus are confirmed in Seattle. I learn I am in the most vulnerable population because I am more than 60 years old and have asthma. I email the epidemiologist again. He knows my age and all about my asthma. Should I go? His reply:

I agree with your observation that Avignon is no riskier than Seattle. The question I might ask is whether one could deal with shortages of food and supplies for a time where one is going. Again, probably no different in France than here. Traveling if someone sits next to you and coughs, there’s not much you can do about it unless you are wearing an N95 mask. Let me know what you decide to do.

I had not thought about shortages. I have an N95 mask in an unopened package from when I lived in California because of the fires. I order backup medications for asthma. And I decide to have a Plan B — I ask the leasing agent in my building about available apartments, just in case I can’t go to France. “You’re going to go. I’m just sure of it,” he says. “But you will always have a home here.”

March 3: I get a message from Georges in Avignon. He’s having some work done on the windows in the apartment. It may go on after I arrive in late March. Will that be alright? How thoughtful he is. Yes, still going.

March 4: Nine deaths from COVID-19, the new name for the disease, in Kirkland, Washington, just a few miles away. The annual Firefighter Stair Climb in Seattle is cancelled. It had been scheduled for March 9. My nephew, a firefighter and paramedic in Walla Walla, Washington, was going to make the climb for the ninth time.

March 5: Pike Place Market in Seattle is almost empty, as is the Louvre. Schools are closing. Yet Avignon still seems as safe as Seattle. I send information to a friend about a trip we’ve planned, in April, from Avignon to the Dordogne and northwestern Spain, to San Sebastian and the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao.

March 6: One week before moving out of my apartment. I have a sore throat and am terrified. There’s time to change my plans, more than two weeks before March 23. My sore throat disappears later in the day.

March 7: I rent a car to use during my final weeks before going to Avignon, a red Jetta. I drive north for the weekend to Anacortes. My nephew the paramedic is there from Walla Walla. I give him my N95 mask. He has very little PPE, a term everyone knows by now.

Entry in my journal: The world seems to have changed forever because of the virus. It is surreal in every way.

Monday, March 9: Journal entry: Market is down 1800 points this morning. I usually don’t notice, but this is more than noticeable. Worry, worry. What if my flight is cancelled? (I can rebook.) What if I get sick? (Chances very low if I’m careful.) I can stay here (where?) and wait a month to go. What if all travel is cancelled for a month or more — I fly two weeks from today. Today — do some packing, exercising. I need to remember the joy of this. There is joy in this plan.

Tuesday, March 10: My sister and her husband come to Seattle to help me pack. AirFrance cancels my flight to Paris and reschedules me on Delta Airlines.

Wednesday, March 11: The National Basketball Association cancels its season. President Trump announces a partial ban on travel from Europe to the U.S. Dr. Anthony Fauci, now a familiar presence, says this is going to get a lot worse.

Thursday, March 12: The movers come to pack my belongings. After they leave, and I am surrounded by sealed boxes, I watch the movie Argo, which makes me think about the safety of home. I send a message to a friend in Avignon. How are things there now?

Her response: So far, Avignon is pretty clean although there have been 2 or 3 cases here. The people went to the hospital and are fine. I’m not sure if they really needed to go to the hospital, or that it was just thought wise to go in prevention. Now they’re saying to stay home ….

From the epidemiologist: If it were me I would go. France has a good health care system. Just make sure to vote in November.

Entry in my journal: I’m now seriously considering not going. I change my mind about every 30 minutes.

Friday, March 13: The movers return, pack everything into their truck, and drive away. My belongings will be stored for the year.

In the late afternoon I leave the apartment with the two suitcases I plan to take to France. I drive to my sister’s house in Anacortes. We watch the news and work on a puzzle. The choice of going/not going hangs in the air. I do not write in my journal.

Saturday, March 14, early in the morning: I open a new message from my friend in Avignon:

Well, everything has changed! All is to close here except essential businesses like food, banking. … But of course this means that any cultural event will be cancelled, no bars and restaurants and cafes will be open. So I guess there’s not that much point in coming. And travel may become severely restricted, you might find it impossible to come anyway. So I’m guessing that it will be a while before you can come to France. My mind is still reeling from the idea of a locked up France. It feels like the end times. I can’t see how we can get over this economically either, so I think life as we know it will change, perhaps forever. Here’s hoping that we all stay well and that these drastic measures do solve the contagion problem. Until we meet again.

I decide to stop trying. I am not going. Game over. I feel numb more than anything else.

We have breakfast and move to the living room to share a poem before getting on with the day. That’s the tradition here. Then I move on to Plan B.

I write a message to the leasing agent at my apartment building in Seattle: France is shutting down, and I am not going to Avignon. Don’t rent that one-bedroom until I can look at it. Monday?

I write to Georges in Avignon: With the news about France shutting down because of the pandemic, I have decided to cancel my plans for coming to Avignon. I am very sorry and disappointed. Please consider how best to settle our accounts. I will try to come to Avignon in a year.

I post a message on Facebook: Hi friends, I’m not going to Avignon. France is locking down, and the World Health Organization announced that Europe is the new epicenter of the pandemic. In the big picture a delay in my little plan to live in Avignon for a year is a minor upset. I’ll try again next year.

These are lies but not entirely.

III

The first lie was that this was a “minor upset.” I used that phrase in emails, social media posts, conversations, and self-talk, a kind of affirmation, so that I would not move away from this adult-in-the-room perspective. One had to be respectful. People were dying, and I didn’t get to go to France. Hard to square that in any other way than as a minor upset. My inner child did not agree.

The second lie was that I would “try again next year.” I had no idea whether I would try again, in a year or ever again.

Sunday, March 15: I take over the dining room, set up my laptop with a mouse and keyboard, plug in my mobile phone, and get to work.

I follow up with Georges and others in Avignon. I contact friends I had planned to travel with from there, to the Dordogne, Spain, Sicily, and Calabria. I add hotels and car rentals to the list of arrangements I need to cancel. I try to call AirFrance to cancel my flight but can’t get through.

Monday, March 16: I drive to Seattle to see an apartment in the building I had moved out of only three days before. The apartment will be fine, more than fine actually, although it will cost three times what my rent would have been in Avignon.

I call the moving company, and the manager is stunned but tactful. Of course I had told her all about my plans to move to France for a year. Of course they could move my belongings to a new apartment on the following Monday.

Over the next week I drive two carloads of boxes to my new apartment — boxes full of perishables, cleaning supplies, wine, paper towels, and other items I had given to my sister. Other boxes contain files and keepsakes. I continue to feel numb all the time.

I get through to AirFrance by phone to cancel my flight. I get a voucher for a future flight that’s good for a year. I doubt I will use it.

There are many people to notify. I’d worked in public relations for much of my career, so I have my main messages lined up — minor upset, try again next year, grateful for my situation. Half-truths, affirmations.

I move into the new apartment on March 23, the day I should have been flying to France. Unpacking, alone, brings up emotions that are hard to control. Not so numb anymore. I keep music or movies on in the background, and I call friends and family often. I am mining new capabilities of endurance as well as shame. I require a selfish inattention to the news about the pandemic, about more deaths, more losses. I just can’t take that right now.

I only cry once, when a bank teller says she’s not sure she can take back the euros I had purchased from the bank a few weeks earlier. She knows all about my plans for Avignon. I had told her, of course. With me standing there, embarrassed and teary-eyed, she makes a call and her manager comes over, at a distance, to talk with me. He approves my deposit of euros. He sees I am upset, trembling, a private client, a kind of VIP, because I had parked a lot of cash at his bank from the sale of my California home, thinking that was a prudent thing to do, because I might want to buy another property soon. Prudent, careful, thinking through possible outcomes, that was me. A pandemic had never crossed my mind.

In the evenings, exhausted from unpacking, I drink wine and martinis, eat chocolate chips from the freezer by the spoonful, and watch episodes of Law & Order and feel-good movies — Mama Mia, Moonlighting, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (and the Second Best), Shall We Dance, The Music Man. I can’t watch or read anything about France.

I learn that a cousin and her husband in Minnesota have the virus. They have been very sick but are recovering.

IV

My emotions are all over the place. Sometimes I feel as if I had been jilted by a boyfriend named France, left at the altar. Every time I come upon something that reminds me of my plans for Avignon— luggage tags, vocabulary flashcards, my passport — I feel a stabbing pain of abandonment. Sometimes this seems hilarious. Other times not so much.

I return my passport to my filing cabinet. I put my suitcases and travel paraphernalia in my storage locker. I place all the books I had put together about France —a Fodor’s guide, two volumes on the history of France, a French dictionary, Peter Mayle’s books on Provence, and others — on a low bookshelf in my living room.

Saturday, March 21: A surprise message from Georges in Avignon: “Here times are strange. We are between solidarity and selfishness, carelessness and worry. In any case, we are certain, today, that a ‘healthy’ care system is important. … The most terrifying thing is not really COVID-19. It is the lack of means to treat people. Take care of yourself without falling into paranoia. And, I say to you, come next year.”

What can I tell him? I say, yes, I hope I can come next year. J’espère. We had become surprisingly close, and I did not want to hurt his feelings.

I continue to feel bitter and angry, and my adult-in-the-room voice tells me I have no right to feel this way. Not being able to go to France for a year is nothing compared to the global suffering and losses of the pandemic. Okay, of course. But please indulge me for just a bit more.

I was looking forward to a year of living in Southern France. It was a fabulous plan. Brave? I never felt it was brave. If anything went wrong I could just come home. Pre-virus thinking. It was an indulgent plan. A lucky girl plan. I was giddy with the idea of savoring a year in the most savor-worthy part of the world. I had no need to think longer term than My Year in Avignon. I even had a name for the memoir I could write from the experience, Living For One Year. Agents were interested.

Now the pandemic. All my plans about savoring (I can’t stop using that word) a year in Southern France are smashed to pieces. Just gone.

It’s been more than six weeks since March 23, when I did not go to France. The unpacking is done. Most everything is cancelled, here and there, including the Festival Avignon, and we are all staying home. Someone in the news points out that the term “quarantine” derives from the French, meaning the forty days of isolation prescribed for protection from the plague in the 1300s. If only forty days would be enough.

I divide my anxieties about the pandemic into three categories: health/death, the economic fallout, and the possible loss of social order. Categories help. It’s like arranging items in my kitchen cabinets. On the first shelf are fears of illness, ventilators, and death, for me or my loved ones. On the next shelf are fears about all that is shutting down, maybe for good — theaters, restaurants, coffee shops, swimming pools, bookstores, baseball games — so much of what I enjoy in my life. The darkest shelf holds my fears about the loss of social order, fears of people with guns, mobs, and cancelled elections.

“God does not want us to be happy. He wants us to grow up.” That quote is attributed to C.S. Lewis in the biopic Shadowlands. I can’t find any record that he said it in real life, and I have looked. But they are good words to live by, I think, no matter your view of God.

I once heard photographer Ruth Bernhard say that she required her students to take photos for her classes only on the block where they lived. She said that to create good photographs, artistic photographs, you need not travel to exotic places.

Seattle remains locked down for the most part. I live next to the Olympic Sculpture Park, with works by Alexander Calder, Richard Serra, Louise Nevelson, and others. It’s a lovely place to walk, and the dogwoods are in bloom now. I have a set of washable face masks from Etsy. I contribute to funds supporting closed businesses in Seattle. I open my windows at 8 o’clock every evening and contribute to the noise we make to thank care givers, delivery people, and others. I plan to get another cat and a bicycle. I am perfecting my French omelette and Negroni cocktail.

My cousin and her husband have fully recovered, and I am grateful for that.

Thanks for letting me go on about this. It really helps.

Tonight I’m going to watch Waiting for Godot on YouTube. Becket was right.

I can’t go on, I’ll go on.

I can’t find my copy of that play. It’s here somewhere.

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Writer, reader, cook. Born in Minnesota, living in Seattle. Writing a memoir about family, faith (and loss of), mental illness, drug addiction.