Il y a un an

Many years ago when I worked freelance for Euronews, I used to love translating and voicing the pieces called ‘Il y a un an’. ‘One year ago today’ offered a brief look back at the news from the same day the year before. I’m not sure why I liked them so much. Perhaps because it was the recent past and I remembered living those moments when the events in the news had happened. Somehow this made it easier to translate. Perspective is everything.

And as I’ve posted in the past, I like to look back.

This time last year we were about to put our house up for sale. The task before us felt daunting. To sell a house in a market that was uncertain due to a breaking news story about what was still being called the ‘Chinese virus’. To find a new place to live, in a different country, then arrange the international move of our household. We were already working in Switzerland, but still, our home was in France. Switzerland is not part of the EU and there is a border with formalities on customs and taxes, healthcare and licence plates.

If hindsight is 20/20, then in retrospect I am grateful that we could not see what lay ahead. That the year ahead would be one of fear and lockdowns, social distance and isolation. That a vaccine would be found but in the meantime, lives and livelihoods would be lost. That we would personally get COVID-19 and be fine (thankfully) but that a year on as a society we would still be struggling to deal with the virus.

A year ago today, there were no masks. I remember being an early adopter of the idea, cutting up an old t-shirt and wearing my make-shift mask to go shopping. The French were suspicious, and resistant. There were rumours of government conspiracies. I felt like a pariah. But it didn’t matter as a few months later, PPE became de rigueur. We were stuck indoors except for essential shopping and a 1-km radius for exercise, one hour a day. If we left the house we had to carry a signed and dated piece of paper with us.

Yet somehow we stuck to the plan. Sold our house, arranged our move. Found a place to live across the border, a little outside of where we’d initially looked but way beyond our expectations in many ways. We made our move, got through all the administrative formalities. Took care of a million other details. And here we are.

Looking back, I’m amazed by what we accomplished. I’m also pretty sure that if we’d decided to wait for greater certainty, we would not have made the move at all. And while I feel some nostalgia for where we were last year at this time, I am glad we did not wait. For us, it was the right move at the right time.

I guess sometimes it’s better not to look too much before you leap.

Where were you a year ago?

Wie geht’s?

How are you?

How are you?

Comment ça va? I mean really, how are you doing?

Thinking about this most common form of German greeting makes me realize something. No one asks me that anymore. Or hardly anyone. It seems that between people staying home, working remotely and not seeing one another, and our move to a new place where we’ve hardly been able to meet people, there is little opportunity to ask each other how we are. That strikes me as sad.

That’s aside from every email that begins with a wish in which the sender hopes this message finds me well, in good health, etc. It seems now that we are either dying from coronavirus or we are all fine. But there are so many nuances of how we can be. Perhaps a little sad. Tired. All Netflixed out. Needing something to look forward to. Or alternatively: feeling like a happy dance. A tipple. Joyfully pursuing an activity that makes our hearts sing.

So how am I? Not too bad (a very Canadian response) all things considered. Healthy, gainfully occupied with my freelance life. Yet longing to get out, to go places, see people, connect. And this Covid-thing is starting to feel like living in a perpetual groundhog day alternate reality where you live the same day, every day. The future has officially been cancelled.

And yet. A few signs may indicate that a shift could be happening.

I saw a couple of reports on the news that were not pandemic-related. In France, they are beginning to talk about climate change again. I’d just been wondering, not so long ago: whatever happened to the planetary emergency? And voilà! Here it is again, back from beyond. Not to be glib, I do realize it’s important. Just not as important when everyone is worrying about imminent death from a mutating virus.

I’m also itching to plan a holiday. I’m talking about a real vacation where you go somewhere completely different, preferably involving nice weather and the sea. Where you kick back and think about all the things you’ve done to deserve it. And I’m not alone. This blogger perfectly sums up the dilemma for me. And I sense it will not be long before I bite the bullet and book something.

So that’s how I am. How are you? Really. Tell me.

Positive!

It has taken awhile but it’s back: my long winter’s nap has given way to a rush of January positivity.

It was easy to feel sorry for myself as the year drew to a close and we found ourselves celebrating Christmas alone in our new home in a still-foreign place, and still feeling the lingering effects of the virus. Nothing tasted like much, the family Zooms were fun but pumped what little energy I had, our Christmas presents for family sat unwrapped under the tree like a reproach: Nope, this ain’t any kind of Noël like you know it. You are a stranger in a strange land who can’t understand a word of what people are saying behind their masks. Who knows how long it will be before people can enjoy getting together again?

I don’t do well with pity parties. After two weeks without leaving home, we decided it was time for a change of scene. So, cleared of our contagion, we packed the gifts into the car and headed to Geneva on Boxing Day. Booked a hotel that could provide a room but alas no breakfast (current lockdown rules) and visited our son and his girlfriend who, like us, had come through Covid and were out of the infectious period. The next day we went to Lyon and had a socially distanced visit with my father-in-law. Gifts were exchanged, champagne corks were popped. I began to feel a lot better.

And it got better. Returning home to Brunnen after being away for two days really felt like coming home. For the first time since we’d moved, with our house sale well and truly behind us, our new place feels like home. Another week went by and we cocooned a bit more, inviting friends for dinner just after new year’s. Gradually my energy — and sense of taste — has returned to almost normal. Getting back to work this week has felt good. And for the first time in months, I am motivated to move ahead on my personal writing projects. I even picked up my German books again.

That’s not to say I haven’t had some bumps. One day this week was one of those hugely frustrating days in which everything seemed to conspire against me. My technology didn’t work. I got lost while driving to the shopping centre, entered the store on the wrong side (Coronavirus-oblige, there are shopping traffic flows) and couldn’t find a darn thing I wanted. Tried to ask for help and got muddled between three languages, not able to utter any kind of clear request even in English, reverting to my automatic responses in French and then attempting to insert a German word here and there to help the poor person who had no clue what I was on about…Gah!

Another frustration has been that, as I was unable to get a positive PCR test, I’d been hoping for a positive SARS-CoV-2 antibody test to prove that I’d had the miserable virus. The first test, one week in, came back negative and the doctor was entirely dubious about the value of doing another: “You’ve certainly had a brush with the disease but probably not enough to generate a proper immune response. You can try again but I suspect it will come back negative, or not strong enough to justify immunity.” But I wasn’t going to give up without a fight, so we did another test anyway. And bingo! Yesterday I learned that it had come back positive. I cannot tell you how much of a relief it is to have proof that my immune system did its job. Which obviously will not spare me from masks, distancing and eventually, a vaccine shot or two. But in the meantime, having at least some immunity for now is another reason to be positive. Don’t we all need as much positivity as we can get these days?

Plus, it snowed this week. The white stuff always makes my heart sing.

Feel free to share at least one thing you feel good about going in to 2021.

Wishing you all a very happy — and above all, healthy — new year!

12 days of Covid-19

On the first day of Christmas my true love gave to me…a case of Covid-19.

I suppose it was inevitable. Although he generally wears a mask, my husband is terrible about touching his face. And the rules about social distancing in Switzerland have been fairly relaxed throughout the pandemic. Masks in public places, yes. But restaurants have remained open along with gyms and all the shops. He would come in from shopping and when asked if he’d washed his hands would say, “No, but I’m going to.” Then proceed to touch everything in the apartment before eventually washing his hands, protesting against my ‘maniac’ tendencies. (‘Maniaque’ in French, meaning a clean freak or stickler…)

Suffice it to say that while I hadn’t exactly been expecting to get Covid, I sensed it was less a matter of if than of when. Sure enough, two weeks ago my husband announced he had a ‘slight’ sore throat. Then promptly decided it was nothing and he was fine. Then went to bed and woke up feeling not right. Still, it wasn’t Covid-19, he said. He was barely sick. Two days of feeling poorly later, he went for a test and — bingo! — coronavirus for Christmas.

I got it three days after him. No sore throat, barely a tickle at the back of my throat in fact. For me it started in the eyes, which suddenly felt sore and tired. Went to bed and had the first night of what would be the worst and most persistent symptom throughout my twelve-day ordeal: a sort of delirious anxiety, in which crazy half-thoughts chased each other through my dreams and, while I slept, I did not truly rest. I felt feverish although my temperature stayed normal. The next day I had a slight cough, nothing to speak of, a sense of tightness in my chest, a bit of a headache and crashing fatigue.

By the third day I realized that my sense of smell had nearly gone. I could still smell something really strong, like vinegar, but food had no taste other than salty or sweet. I also experienced a kind of brain fog, like I couldn’t quite think straight.

On day four the palpitations started. This symptom, which makes me feel like my heart is about to pound right out of my chest, was worrying enough to make me call the hotline for medical advice. The doctor advised me to go for a check-up as soon as possible but as I had no chest pain or shortness of breath, it wasn’t urgent. It seems that palpitations are common when the body is fighting an infection.

Days five and six saw some improvement to my overall state, although my stomach became upset and I lost my appetite. Still, the brain fog cleared and I began to feel less exhausted.

Day seven brought a fever, which made the heart palpitations worse. Basically my heart would start to race as the fever began, I would take paracetamol and it would drop; I’d feel better for a while then the whole cycle would start again. This went on for three days. I also had muscle aches and pains and persistent gastrointestinal distress.

Of course by then my husband was over it.

The Covid-tracking app did its job and I got a call from the people at Swiss Covid, informing me that I had been exposed to a certain Stefan who had tested positive. I assured them that I was familiar with the culprit — my husband. And that I also had symptoms.

You will need to isolate, the nice fellow on the phone advised. And get a test to be sure.

But why? I asked. It was entirely obvious I had it. Ah, but they needed proof in order to document me as Covid-positive on the app. And then I would be spared the need to self-isolate again for another three months if I were exposed to the virus again. So off we went to the test centre. Where I failed the Covid test. That is, I was unable to stand the 6-inch swab up my nose. The guy got it one-third the way in and I wimped out. It was excruciatingly uncomfortable Can’t you do it differently? I asked. I’d read that alternatives were available. Shorter nasal swabs that were just as effective. He shook his head sadly. It was all or nothing. Swiss rigour leaves no room for wusses.

I finally saw a doctor for a check-up a few days ago and they took blood for an antibody test instead. Hopefully that will be proof enough. And the meantime they did a bunch of tests and the good news is that my heart and other vital organs seem to be fine.

Twelve days in to my Covid-19 pre-Christmas challenge, my energy has been slow to come back but I’m starting to feel a bit more like myself. My morning clementine smells heavenly: taste and smell are joyfully returning. I’m out of quarantine but for now I’m limiting my excursions to short walks with the dogs.

I decided to share the details of what it felt like to have a ‘mild’ case with virtually no respiratory symptoms so that others might know what to expect. I am 63, in otherwise good health and with no comorbidities. I was less sick than I have been in the past with the flu but it took far longer to get over it. Each day I felt better, and worse. The virus was like a time-release; there can be no doubt that it packs quite a wham.

Ours will be a very simple Christmas indeed. I am simply grateful that we made it through Covid-19. And so very happy, as I’m sure many of you are, to bid ‘au revoir’ to 2020.

I wish you a merry Christmas and a happy, healthy end to this crazy old year. See you in 2021!

Coup de grâce

My new Swiss resident’s permit states my nationality as ‘FRA’, short for ‘Französische’. It seems odd to be identified by my French-ness as it still feels new. Yet French I am, at least by adoption, and of my two nationalities it is the more relevant in the EU. Being Canadian is my trump card (and yes, I’m taking back that word), one that I play when travelling overseas. Sometimes also in the UK. Yet travel, for now, feels entirely irrelevant.

Like any newcomer to a country I seek out that which is familiar. That means sticking to my old French TV habits most evenings as I get dinner ready. Watching the news on Swiss TV in German, especially with subtitles, is far better for my language learning but hey, we’re all entitled to kick back. So the early evening talk shows on France 5 and the national news on France 2 keep me informed, if not always entertained, about what is happening in my new-former home country.

And it’s not good. In fact, it’s downright depressing. Somehow, having stepped away from the place, I now see all things French in an even darker light than before. Something’s rotten in the state of Denmark, to quote the Bard. Not to suggest corruption but rather to point out that the structure is crumbling.

Let’s start with the insanity of closing all ‘non-essential’ shops and services to prevent the spread of Covid19. Define ‘non-essential’. Beyond food and water, to me what is essential right now might mean chocolate, beer, books. To others it could be clothing, live music, exercise, museums, Netflix. If we are talking about anything beyond basic survival, how can a government define what is essential? And more importantly, how can these businesses survive the interminable shutdowns?

Right now all French shops aside from food stores are closed while online retaillers are booming. People are not allowed to go further than one kilometre from home for exercise while, for those who live outside of the cities, the forests and fields beckon. Children go to school while parents mostly work from home. What kind of crazy is that?

I learned on the French news this week that Le Printemps, the grand old lady of the French department store, is preparing to shutter several stores around the country. Management blames it on the ‘coup de grâce’ of the pandemic. Meaning that they were already in trouble, but that confinement has struck the final death blow to these stores.

The government decision to close shops during the prime-time roll up to the year-end holidays seems insane. Not to downplay the dangers of the virus, but with proper distancing measures store closures could be avoided. Masks, hand sanitizing, limited numbers allowed in shops. It’s not rocket science. Here in Switzerland it appears to work. Not risk-free, certainly, but a more balanced approach to saving lives and livelihoods.

Another French talk show last night was all about the profound transformation our society is undergoing with this pandemic. The work-from-home option is probably here to stay, which means that the value of commercial real estate will likely drop. Businesses of all sizes will be affected by this change, not to mention the many that will go bankrupt, leading to more unemployment. The knock-on effects of this crazy year are going to be felt for a very long time.

The photo featured at the top of this post is a bit of a cheat. I took it at the Musée d’Orsay when we were in Paris a few years ago. I don’t know anything about the work shown here but it doesn’t seem to depict a ‘coup de grâce’, which is a final blow delivered out of kindness to end suffering. Instead it appears to be about fighting back and defending against an enemy. Perhaps we should all take inspiration from it.

Qu’en penses-tu?