This past weekend, we took the Friday off to try and see a different set of four walls and to walk a different set of streets. We are currently in our third iteration of the Covid-19 lockdown in France and working from home with the supermarket 400 metres up the street and masks now mandatory everywhere we venture outside. Our world had become unbearably small.
Dijon is a world heritage listed medieval town that has been around since the stone age. It has since hosted the Romans, the Dukes of Burgundy for centuries (11th to the 15thC) , survived an invasion by the Swiss in 1513, remained physically unscathed by the Franco-Prussian war of 1870 and was overtaken by Nazi Germany in 1940.
It is the capital of the Burgundy region, the most revered place for wine making in France. There is a route you can drive called ‘Les Routes des Grands Crus’ where eight of the world’s top ten wines are produced. Dijon itself is UNESCO heritage listed not just because of its extraordinarily well-preserved medieval buildings, but because it forms part of the unique climatic conditions for Burgundy wines.
We have been to Burgundy before and sampled a LOT of its wine in nearby Beaune. Not the eight mentioned above, of course, but ones much much cheaper and less of a tragedy for slightly sozzled cyclists such as ourselves to put into our backpacks, wobble into the bushes, land on our backs and smash the recent purchases.
We had tried to visit Dijon a few times previously, but accommodation seemed to be rarer than deodorant in a crowded Genevan bus. A better idea would be to go the week before Easter before families start their spring break. A break, this year which will not include the desirable locations where the super strict lockdowns are in force. Northern France (Normandy, Brittany, Champagne), Paris and its surrounds, Provence and most of the southern Riviera such as Nice and Marseilles are forbidden to visit unless for documented and essential reasons.
Our home in Ferney is within the Ain department adjoining Switzerland and while we are not in total lockdown we are under ‘en vigilance renforcee’ (enhanced vigilance). ****
We are subject to the national curfew of 7pm (recently raised from 6pm due to daylight saving) to 6am and must wear masks everywhere now. That includes when outside alone, even when walking the dog with no-one in sight. In no part of France are bars, cafes or restaurants allowed to serve seated customers inside or outside.
(**** We are, as is all of France, in total lockdown since writing this piece. No travel outside of your department and none more than 10km from your home address for anything other than essential reasons. Schools closed for four weeks.)
The anniversary of the Covid-19 catastrophe has been marked everywhere but we wanted to see a different set of four walls. Our research showed that Dijon is considered a safer department than ours but under the same strict rules. On a positive note, Dijon remains extremely proud of their culinary culture and we were informed that restaurateurs and cafes were able to take orders ‘at the door’ of their establishments as long as we cleared the hell away and didn’t hang around outside in groups of more than six people. Their famous indoor Saturday market was still open, albeit with a strict mask mandate and a man stood at the door counting people entering inside the building to keep crowding to a minimum.
Alright then, we thought, we will wander the lovely streets, buy food from the market, and use the kitchenette in our room. Our dog Felix was with us too, of course. It would be a surprise change of scenery for our endlessly-curious Spanish rescue and if walking around sniffing new pee spots was all that was on offer, we were certain that he’d love it.
This is where the risk of sounding like a whining, first world white woman who deserves a slap across the face and a ‘get over it’ ala Cher in ‘Moonstruck’ begins. And I would not blame you.
Sometimes, The Big D (get used to this, I use it to try and take the power away from the power of ‘depression’) and reality do, in fact, go hand in hand. This is particularly relevant during the endless Covid-19 anxieties, mandates and living in a country that has suffered nearly 100,000 deaths and 4.5 million cases with overrun hospitals, clinics and testing centres. The Big D finds it even funnier that the vaccination process is proceeding with confusion, disagreements about shipping some to other EU and non-EU countries and carrying out the jabs of their own citizens at a glacial pace.
The Big D had been loitering, a too little closely, next to me for a few days, despite years of knowing how to fend him off or prepare for his next attack. I felt apprehensive as we drove to Dijon despite Felix sleeping peacefully in the back. This was an improvement on his last car trip as he vomited up his breakfast during our ill-fated Sunday drive to the Jura that was too crowded with French people desperate to walk on snow that the roads were jammed for kilometres with cars parked on the edge of the narrow roads and people huddled too close together for any semblance of social distancing. Hopefully, we were better prepared this time, although after checking what booking.com described as ‘kitchen facilities,’ I also worried that a hotplate, microwave and bar fridge might dampen the enthusiasm of my husband, a rather talented home chef.
We had just managed to find the recommended parking outside of the old town which was quite a distance from our apartment. We dragged a distracted Felix and our luggage across cobbles into the old town to get our key from the main hotel and climb the dizzyingly narrow steps to our separate apartment just as the curfew hit.
The room was amazing, part of a 15thC converted glass making factory right in the heart of the old town. La Choutte (the owl) street was around the corner, and the brochures told us to rub it with your left arm for luck, which we did. Gargoyles, palaces, stunning facades everywhere you looked. UNESCO know their stuff.
We accepted that Uber Eats was the only option for the first night and had bought along our own bottle of wine and food for Felix; all seemed good.
Felix did not agree. We had discovered during a trip to Grenoble (in between lockdown one and two) that he became distressed when we were not at home. Were we getting rid of him? What happened to the routine he so enjoyed and relied on? Where were the parks and fields? In Grenoble he did not pee for three days and could barely be controlled in his harness. He wanted to lead us, but didn’t know where, creating a constant traffic and tripping hazard.
In Dijon there were far less people, so we felt better about how he would conduct himself on a social level. There were much emptier public squares but little greenery to speak of. This place was so spotless you could eat — if you found somewhere open — your authentic French dejeuner straight off the cobblestones. There was a tiny park at the end of our street, but it was tightly fenced off because they were fixing the water soakage problem of the fountain. My husband luckily noticed that some of the park’s greenery around the back had grown beyond the fencing and, after twenty-four hours of extreme discomfort, Felix eventually gave up and did what he needed to do there.
But nowhere else. Outside, as we accepted the empty squares where dozens of outdoor cafes and restaurants had shut their doors and saw the stacked-up chairs against the windows inside, Felix was truly rattled. This was not Ferney. There was not a blade of grass anywhere. He would lunge in agitation at every innocuous passer-by and sure as hell was not going to stop pulling on his lead to let us stop and idly peer into a closed shop or museum entrance. As such, the planned peaceful walks in a new location with Felix were not a success.
The market was open, and was magnificent cultural and visual feast for hungry eyes. We took turns going in to look around as the other stood outside near an empty shop-front, trying to get Felix to stop barking, sit and stay calm. Dean bought some freshly roasted pork that came with beans and roasted potatoes, and a bunch of bright green asparagus for good measure. On a stall outside, I couldn’t resist the new season raspberries and cherries. The non-Burgundian wine came from Carrefour ‘city’ supermarket. Dean dashed in to grab some while Felix waited outside and gained unwanted attention. Felix is a handsome young dog and people were interested in him, but he was most definitely NOT in the mood for pats, questions, lingering or waiting. Several times he looked at the sliding doors to Carrefour and howled. Dean’s temporary absence was his last straw.
Back at the apartment we breathed a sigh of relief. I took Felix to the back of the closed-off park where he reluctantly emptied himself before straining against his leash to be taken back to the apartment.
The meal — cooked via microwave and the one saucepan provided — was delicious. The block of chocolate that was included in Dean’s purchase of supermarket wine was also. We draped the couch and bed with Felix’s blankets and he curled up between us as we drank and watched TV.
The next two days were the same as the first. Felix only toileting at the back of the closed off park at the end of the street and hanging on in agony for the rest of the day. No wine tasting for us as those shops were closed. No restaurants serving from their doors as we’d assumed.
For my husband, a break from home is the food. Trying the famous local dishes; reading the ‘plats de jour’ menus of every restaurant he walks by, sitting at a table in a little town square with a church at one end, ancient, gnarled trees providing shade and historical buildings and restaurants providing the energy to watch life go by as he enjoyed his meal and wine. He knew that these past enjoyments were not going to be available, but still thought that some local restaurants might be part of Uber Eats. Not the authentic or good ones, unfortunately.
Pastries and coffees could be purchased from the door in specifically spaced queues at boulangeries, but because no gatherings of more than six people were allowed, all seating options had been specifically removed from the town. Self-consciously standing around drinking a coffee because no alcohol could be sold or then consumed in the streets during this third lockdown with nowhere to sit or take in the sights and having one arm yanked as Felix continuously wanted to run to anywhere but here was not the relaxing getaway we had hoped for.
The Big D loved all of this. He loved that the winding narrow stairs leading down from our apartment gave me a fit of vertigo every time I took Felix out for his night-time pee that took so long as he agonised on how or where or even if he should do it. The Big D was gleeful that the gourmet shops selling Dijon specialties such as cassis, gingerbread and local mustards were closed as they were not ‘essential’ businesses. He hooted at the shuttered wine speciality shops who still had signs advertising ‘wine tastings’ but that sunshine and time had loosened the sticky tape of those posters and they were rolling up in age and obscurity.
Never one to remain laser focused on just one victim, the Big D loved that my husband had a bout of hay fever that made it difficult to breathe and had a good chuckle at his suspicion that the ‘pet friendly’ apartment had recently hosted a clowder of cats. Night three of Uber delivery inside a room with a window that offered a cold breeze but no view and a kitchen that considered one saucepan and a plastic spoon the key utensils for cooking a meal as he coughed and wheezed continuously kept The Big D amused.. Because we booked online, the hotel receptionist told us they could not refund us if we left early. I cried.
We had just wanted a break. We love it here in Ferney Voltaire, but my husband works from home and, apart from using his computer to look at Facebook and the footy instead of work, there is no difference between weekdays and weekends. I know the walking tracks here like the back of my hand and now that we must wear masks outside ALL THE TIME, I feel guilty taking Felix out on the less-used paths without a mask and quickly shove one on if I see someone coming.
But when everything is closed and the most fun you have is going back to your room, putting on the news and comforting Felix as he wedged himself between us on the sofa, we might as well have been home.
Covid is not going away any time soon here in France. We just heard that Italy is forcing quarantine on all EU countries who want to enter; a new rule that adds to the restrictions or quarantines already in place for non-EU countries. We celebrated our daughter’s 21st birthday over Facetime last year and can’t visit her at university in Edinburgh without an essential reason and even then, we must undergo a ten-day quarantine at our expense.
Both of my parents recently turned eighty and seeing their disjointed but happy faces in Victor Harbor over Facetime hurt like hell. Two funerals were ‘attended’ by video link up.
We drove back to Ferney yesterday, stopping only to let Felix leave a piece of himself on the service station grassy area and to get some petrol. Unlocking the door and walking back into our small apartment, I cried again. It had a balcony. A good supermarket and, most importantly, amazing walking tracks through forests and farmland for Felix.
The Big D had me and he knew it. I felt like a loser for suggesting the trip and sorry that my husband was suffering such painful allergic reactions to the hotel room and struggling to rustle up a holiday ‘gourmet’ dinner from whatever the mini market around the corner had to offer. Wi-Fi had been one bar strength at best which limited entertainment options and all three of us had been miserable.
Dear Aussie mates and family on Facebook and all other forms of news and social media. You’ve done yourselves proud. You’re right to stop any of us expats from returning, or anyone else for that matter. You have kept cases and deaths down to levels that are cited by the BBC, CNN and France 24 news constantly. We accept that we will not be celebrating in person with either mum or dad on their 81st birthdays and our daughter’s 22nd birthday, in May, will be celebrated online also. The disorganized, complex and infuriatingly slow pace of testing, tracing and the availability of any brand of vaccines here in France and Europe as a whole has been shocking. The Big D has had one hell of a fun year.
This morning Felix and I did one of our regular walks through the countryside that’s about 500 metres from our door. He found several sticks, did at least a dozen pees, got harassed by bumble bees, sniffed the bottoms of several of his fellow chums and, for my part, I remained alert enough to steer him away from the fresh horse manure that he enjoys as a bonus snack when he can find it.
So even if you Aussies get the vaccine, before or after us Frenchies, please keep acting as if you haven’t. You are still spreaders. Don’t get any crazy ideas about traveling to Europe. Instead, keep the Europe of your dreams in your mind’s eye for now to sustain you and your bank balance because the reality is what the Big D is bent double cackling about right now.
Stay in Oz, keep anyone else trying to come in away from Oz and be grateful you live in houses with gardens, cities and towns with generous public gardens or units with green courtyards.
The Big D will go away — I have learned through years of practice and acceptance that he always does — but knowing that we are all trying our best and that here, grateful that our little apartment is the best and nicest place to be, reduces his power to nothing stronger than the stray fly that found its way up to our second-floor. We tried to change our scenery and found that we could not. We cannot change this right now.
The Europe of your imagination does not exist anymore. It will do, but not yet.