Distanciation sociale

Something always gets lost in translation when the French adopt an English expression. This is true for ‘social distancing’: ‘la distanciation sociale’.

First, the words: as the illustrious Académie Française points out, the term is evocative not so much of physical distance as that between social classes. Hence, the preferred use of ‘distanciation physique’ (physical distancing), among the ‘gestes barrières’ (hygiene measures) to protect each other from coronavirus.

Second, the distance: here too something is lost. About a metre, actually. Everywhere else in the world it is suggested that people stay 6 feet or 2 metres (approximately) apart; here in France the recommendation is ‘at least’ one metre. Although, to be fair, the WHO only recommends one metre (not that the WHO has been much of a reference throughout this pandemic!)

The problem is that even one metre’s distance is pretty well impossible to maintain in France. Everything from sidewalks to shops is smaller in France.  The average density of people in most public places is also higher. And the French, well, like to touch each other. When greeting someone you know or are meeting for the first time, a handshake or double-cheeked kiss is virtually obligatory. For years I’ve had to fight my innate standoffishness and learn to be more physical with people. Now, I’m happily unlearning it.

Savoyard social distance: 3 wheels of raclette cheese

Even at the best of times, pre-COVID-19, I find the close proximity of my fellow countrymen disturbing. Often when shopping I’ll stand back from a swarm of shoppers and wait until the crowd has cleared before making my selection.

Just the other day I identified myself as a non-native — if not a pariah — by over-reacting to someone who did not respect social distancing rules. All of the very small shops have signs on the doors saying no more than 1-2 customers should enter at one time. When I went to the bakery early one morning, I didn’t bother wearing a mask. I was going to be in and out, the woman serving would be behind a plexiglas barrier. Like the few other customers at that early hour, I waited in front of the door. But when I was inside about to order my bread, two other people came in behind me. One even came right up next to me and asked the clerk if she could pick up her order. I turned on heel and went outside, mumbling about social distancing. Then I waited for the shop to be empty again and went back in, shooting daggers at anyone who dared to join me.

Socially distanced Italians

If only people would wear masks. Some do, myself included, at least most of the time. But while we don’t have the extremes of our American cousins demonstrating against the wearing of masks, many people here just quietly ignore the guidelines. Or wait until they’re forced to wear a mask in order to enter public spaces or use transportation.

Which creates a whole new set of problems. Sadly, ignorance knows no borders.

Philippe, a bus driver was viciously beaten in Bayonne, southwest France, on Sunday by four thugs when he insisted they wear masks or get off the bus. He is in a coma and all over the country, vigils are being held and transit workers are walking out. I am horrified that people would do this and pray that he pulls through.

What’s your experience with social distancing?