Quarantined in France: Missing Home While Discovering a New One

By : Piper Anderson

At 8 o’clock every night in Lyon, France, clapping begins like a pattering rain, growing into applause that resonates throughout the quarter where I live. People are at their windows, clapping to show appreciation for all the healthcare workers in the time of coronavirus. My host mom opens the windows and gives the kids pots and pans and they bang on them with wooden spoons, putting on a show, joining the chorus of beeping horns and clapping hands. It’s a nice constant, this “moment de bonheur,” as she refers to it. A moment of community and solidarity in an uncertain time.

As I join them, I look out at the buildings around me and recognize dozens of faces I had never seen before the pandemic, and which even now I’ve only seen 8 floors up from the ground and across the street. I catch glimpses inside their apartments, lit from within in the soft violet of dusk. I see moms with babies bouncing on hips, and grandparents standing side by side, and others who are completely alone. And it makes me think that this applause might also be for everyone. It’s a reminder that, night after night, we’re still standing, and that’s no small thing.

Of all the moments I imagined before coming to France, I never did imagine one quite like this.

I arrived in Lyon last August with a one-year visa, a stuffed suitcase, and absolutely no idea that come spring I’d be quarantined because of a global pandemic. I’m an au pair, which means I live with a French host family and act as a big sister to my two host kids, a 5-year-old boy and an 8-year-old girl. It’s been an amazing experience, but needless to say COVID-19 happened, and by mid-March France locked-down so quickly it made my head spin. One day I was going through my routine as usual (studying French, getting coffee with friends, taking care of the kids), and just a few days later all non-essential business closed, frontiers slammed across Europe, and it became necessary to carry ID and “excuse forms” when leaving the house.

The first week of quarantine was surreal. And not just because in liberty-loving France I got my papers checked by police while playing tennis in a parking lot with the kids. There was also the scary recommendation by the US government urging all Americans living abroad to come home, the drastic change in my schedule, and the departure of a lot of the au pairs I know here, including one of my best friends.

Although I’m working a bit more than usual, I’m lucky that my host family has been respectful of my hours. But that’s not to say that confinement is smooth as French butter. In fact, the very first day of quarantine I was woken up at dawn by the sound of one of the kids vomiting in the hallway bathroom. And it hasn’t necessarily gotten easier. Six weeks in and the house becomes messy within minutes of cleaning, the parents are overwhelmed by work, the kids have endless amounts of energy and meager supplies of patience, the meals are repetitive, and fuses are short.

Some days I feel incredibly drained, or disappointed about little things like nixed travel plans, or just plain sad. Because while I am living with four other people, sometimes it’s clear that I’m not a part of their family, and I feel lonely. In those moments I sense the several time zones between me and my biological family rather acutely.

But I also see the silver lining in this situation. Before the quarantine, I was disappointed upon realizing that I wouldn’t have much time left to spend with my host family on account of busy schedules. But ironically, confinement set in shortly afterward and I’m now spending more time with them than I ever thought.

So I’m trying not to take my adopted family for granted. Because lately when I say goodnight to the host kids I realize that I only have a limited number of goodnight bisous left. The other night the kids “camped” in a tent inside the girl’s room, and when they called me in for a kiss they tackled me, clinging like monkeys onto my torso and tickling me and we were all laughing and shrieking and even though I was dying of heat with their weight crushing me, I loved that they didn’t want to let go.

Afterwards in my room alone I couldn’t stop crying. Because the four of them have become my family and I don’t know how I’ll be able to say goodbye this summer. It is going to break my heart.

So if confinement in a little apartment with my French family means extra love, then I’ll take it. If confinement means having the time to make them pancakes on Sunday morning, because we have nothing else to rush off and do, then I’ll take it topped with strawberries and whipped cream. If it means having time to watch all the Spiderman movies with my host mom, to hold ill-advised science-experiment-slash-magic-potion sessions, to linger at the table after dinner, to have impromptu dance parties at 9:30 p.m., then I’ll embrace it.

And I know that many people don’t have the luxury of this mindset; people who have lost loved ones, who don’t know how to make rent, who are sick themselves. But for those that do have the luxury of being generally okay: take that privilege and be open to unexpected moments of growth and happiness that might arise from this challenging situation. Take stock of what you are grateful for. Reflect on what makes a home a home for you. Because home is an important thing for the heart, especially in times of adversity. And here in France, for the first time in my life, I’ve felt the strange sensation of missing home while also being at home— it’s just a new home, one that I made with a little luck and love a few thousand miles away.

Piper Anderson is a writer and au pair living in Lyon, France. She recently graduated from the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill with a degree in English literature and minors in public relations and creative writing. For more, visit pipermintblog.com.

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