I sit typing this from my laptop at my kitchen table. My workday ended just a few hours ago and took place at a desk in the office next to my kitchen. There were no face-to-face meetings, no kitchen conversations while waiting for the coffee machine to finish brewing my French vanilla coffee, no drive by conversations on the way to the cafeteria. Today, I worked remotely.
In ordinary times, this wouldn’t sound unusual. But these aren’t ordinary times. Most of the greater Philadelphia area, the United States, and the world is working remotely because of COVID-19, a pandemic that has left most of us afraid to leave our homes. When we do, we’re navigating a new world of social distancing, armed with hand sanitizer.
The outside world is eerily silent, as if it’s a snow day, and everything is closed, as if it’s a holiday. But today is neither of those things.
Today is the end of the second week of a statewide government mandated shutdown of all schools, gyms, community centers, and non-essential businesses. That means that everything but gas stations, pharmacies, hospitals, and grocery stores is closed.
The word shutdown gives me anxiety. It represents the disruption of normal routine. All of a sudden, the accessible services that I’m fortunate to have, such as my hair salon, my favorite happy hour spot, and even my yoga studio, are no longer available. That convenience that I relied on to be available, often without even realizing it, is no longer there. It often feels overwhelming, albeit stifling, and when I think of how long this could last, I feel a bit panicky.
I remember the last time that I had this feeling. The feeling that follows the realization that convenience, and routine, is not guaranteed.
It was almost exactly ten years ago, April 2010. I was living in Paris, teaching English as part of the Teaching Assistant Program in France. I lived with two fellow American teaching assistants, in an early 20th century home that had been converted into apartments in the south of the city, in the 13th arrondissement.
My roommates and I were hearing a flurry of rumors that flights across Europe were being cancelled. At first listen, we dismissed the reports as just that: rumors. We continued to teach our classes, and our schools prepared for a 2-week spring break.
I had plan for two high school friends from the United States to visit.
My friends arrived on a Friday morning. That night, we went to the soccer game at Stade de France, a large indoor stadium on the western outskirts of the city. We drank 1664 and Kronenberg beer and watched as Paris St. Germain played Marseilles on a bright green turf, surrounded by thousands of fans. Across the field from our section, we saw a black canvas sign stretched across a row of shouting fans. “Yann Toujours Present,” it read in white lettering, meaning “Yann is always here.” The fans were passionate, and enthusiastic, and there were thousands of them. The game before the one we attended, a fan named Yann had been trampled to death during a celebration by the winning team. Seeing that sign, I realized why there was an usual number of guards outside the stadium that night.
We took the Métro home, and my friends recounted their shock at seeing so many armed guards wielding ak47 rifles, a sight we’d never see in the United States. “I think that even that number is unusual,” I had said.
The next morning, my friends and I took the Métro to the Louvre-Rivoli stop, where I had planned to take them to Café Angelina for brunch and their famous hot chocolate.
I remember thinking that the Métro was unusually crowded, even for a mid-morning hour on a Saturday. And I remember noticing an usual amount of people with suitcases.
We ate a lunch of sandwiches and hot chocolate, after an extraordinary short wait time. This restaurant, for all the times I’d taken visitors there, never had under a 45-minute wait. Today, we were seated in 5 minutes. In a touristy section of Paris, near one of Paris’ most sought-after attractions, the Louvre Museum, on a weekend, this would have never happened.
When we arrived home, the news had broken. Or at least, I paid enough attention to it to realize that this was not just a few flight delays. A volcano in Iceland had erupted, and in doing so, had left an ash cloud over all of Western Europe. Airplanes couldn’t fly without flying through the cloud, as it was directly in the path of all major flight routes in to and out of Europe. Since it contained volcanic ash, there was no way to fly through it safely. All flights in to and out of Europe had been rescheduled, and some were cancelled. There was not a single flight leaving Paris that day, or for the next few days.
In a matter of minutes, that feeling of anxiety sunk in. We watched as the news channels showed the scene at Charles de Gaulle airport, where the lines of people with luggage waiting to talk to airline employees snaked out of the terminal doors and crawled down the sidewalks.
My friends’ flight home was Friday. One of my friends, Kyle, decided to call the airport to confirm that their flight was on schedule. He waited, the hold music steadfastly playing as the wait time increased.
A news reporter was interviewing a woman who was saying that her daughter’s wedding was next week in the United States, and that she was worried she wouldn’t get there in time.
Just a few days later, on Wednesday, my friends received the news that their flight back to the United States was rescheduled. Thinking they could catch an earlier flight, they packed up their things and navigated the crowds at the Métro to get to the airport. They both had to return to their jobs on Monday, and they were worried about paid time off and obligations to their managers and to their teams.
They returned to my apartment, having been told by airline employees that their flight, and all flights, had been cancelled. They were told that it would be rescheduled as soon as possible, and to try back again tomorrow. The airline had no further information.
Airlines, and airports, were navigating an unprecedented situation: the inability to fly. They didn’t know how, or when, it’d be safe to fly again.
The world panicked.
Bus companies and trains began experiencing a huge strain on resources, with every train and bus packed to capacity, and every regular trip sold out. They were adding more trips, using more gas and putting more miles on their buses, and the train tracks were risking overcrowding. Gas stations were navigating an unplanned use of resources, as people filled their tanks and prepared to drive for hours. Travel agents were working around the clock. Across Western Europe, roadways were jammed with vehicles, as people tried to get to their families. Because they couldn’t fly, and there was no indicator of when it’d be safe to fly again, people with distant family worried that they’d never see each other again.
I was worried that my return to the United States, which was scheduled for a month later, would be impacted. How long would this last? No one, not even the Federal Aviation Administration, knew the answer to that question.
This was unprecedented.
Days went by. Every day, my friends waited on the phone with the airline, only to be told to try back again tomorrow. Their flight remained cancelled.
All across Paris, spring break trips were cancelled.
I haven’t thought much about this disaster in years, but at the time, it felt as if the world as I knew it was ending. It felt as if the world was cruel, and unreliable. Life felt very unfair.
But it did end.
Eventually, my friends secured a flight out of Paris for the following Saturday.
The following month, my flight home to the United States left on time. It took an extra two hours, 9 hours and 45 minutes instead of the usual 7 hours and 45 minutes, because it still wasn’t safe to fly over the UK, and we had to fly over Spain.
I share this not to diminish the current mandated shutdown due to COVID-19, but to show that we can overcome this. We do not know how long we will have to live in this unusual routine. But, at some point, it will end.
I also share this memory because when I think of the time that an ash cloud grounded all flights to and from Europe for weeks, I don’t think of the panic. I don’t think of the anxiety that I had. In fact, I don’t think negatively of that time at all, because I think of my one of my favorite memories of that year I lived in Paris.
I remember a picnic in the park near my apartment. My high school friends and I bought two baguettes, camembert cheese, dried sausage, and a bottle of sparkling raspberry wine from the grocery store. We packed our groceries among beach towels, grabbed our sunglasses, and took the short walk to Parc Montsouris.
It was a beautiful day. The sun shone bright on the grass, and little yellow flowers had started to cover the grass, a sign that spring was officially here. The sign, “La Pelouse se Repose,” which literally translates to “the lawn is resting” and is placed across the grass of most of the parks in Paris during the colder months, had been removed.
This wasn’t on my planned itinerary for their visit. I’m almost certain that it would have never happened had their flight not been cancelled, and then rescheduled for a week later than planned. Because we had the extra time together, we started doing things at a slower pace, as we didn’t feel the pressure for them to check every major tourist attraction off the list. We began to simply enjoy Paris, and our time there together.
As a result of the disruption of the normal routine, many of us have unplanned time with our families and roommates, as well as ourselves, right now. What’s something that you’ve done during this shutdown that you would have never planned? Comment below!
Stay safe and well.