Sunday 22 March 2020

COVID-19 in Corrèze (19): the cowslip trip, and my flight out of lockdown on 19.03

I have just been to France. I got home again a week later, but I very nearly didn't. This is the story of that ill-fated trip.

NB I have other more fragrant topics in mind to write about, but nothing is as top of head to me as the Coronavirus pandemic, having experienced it in a country - and in an area with a postcode beginning with 19, no less - that is much further down the road in terms of numbers of cases, and where government containment measures ratcheted up at a dizzying speed in the short time I was there.

Yes, I see now that it was madness to go...Ex-Mr Bonkers rang me every day for four or five days before I went, begging me not to, telling me it was all going to go to hell in a handcart very fast all over Europe, and that I would be stuck in France with no means of getting back. As a concession to him, on the morning of my departure I rang my travel insurer (who were still contactable back then...!), and asked if I could invoke my insurance policy if I cancelled my trip voluntarily, because I was worried about what might develop while I was over in France. They said unfortunately not; the policy only applies when things start to go wrong. So rather than lose my sunk costs on flight / hire car / airport parking, I set off on Thursday 12th for East Midlands Airport.

Then before handing over my hold luggage at the check in desk, I quizzed the Ryanair ground staff about the likelihood of my return flight still sticking to the wall by the time I was due to come home in ten days. They said nothing was set in stone, but that they as a company wanted to continue to fly for as long as possible, unless government intervention on either the French or British side stopped them - or their crew got sick. Commercial reasons were less likely to apply to them ie too few passengers showing up for flights to make them viable, as they had already taken people's money whether they travelled or not (Ryanair not being an airline to issue refunds on unused tickets).

So I sensed a will to fly back on the part of Ryanair, and that was as much as I could glean without committing to the air...which I duly did.

It was similar weather to Britain when I arrived - lashing rain and cold - and I spent a good forty minutes trying to open my front door, which had swollen in the long winter months, the wettest on record. Having finally wrenched it open, I then had problems shutting it(!), and ended up barricading the door with furniture as a temporary measure to deter burglars, not that they are thick on the ground in the village. I also messaged my go-to handyman, asking him if he could take a look at it at some point during my stay: star that he is, he arrived in 20 minutes(!), at 10pm, and promptly hammered it shut with his (very strong) fist, before promising to return on Saturday and do a proper repair. (We didn't shake hands.) Meanwhile, I could still come and go via the very old stable door to the side, which was also tricky to use as the key wouldn't come out of the lock, but I finally mastered the knack.

Friday and Saturday were almost normal, dare I say it? The library in the village was shut until further notice, along with my favourite charity shop, but I was able to pop into the local brocante, and the Post Office and boulanger were also open. In the nearby town, everything seemed pretty busy, so I got some more keys cut, bought a walking map, did a big supermarket shop, stocked up on logs and a vac-u-vin. Bars and restaurants were doing a lively trade, but I noticed that people there were doing the social distancing thing with varying degrees of compliance, unlike in the village. I saw two men and a woman greet each other with the traditional French hand shaking and kissing on the cheeks, and overheard one of them say: "I don't give a f***", as he did so. This kind of defiant behaviour turned out to be the death knell of life in France as they knew it just a couple of days later...

By now the weather was absolutely beautiful, with temperatures ranging from 16 - 22C, in strange contrast to the air of cosmic bleakness that hung heavy over the village and France more widely. The cases were creeping up in certain hotspots, and the health services struggling. On Sunday I weeded the perimeter of my house and went for a long walk using my new map.

At some point over the weekend - I can't quite recall when! - ALL shops and hotels, restaurants and bars were closed, leaving only supermarkets, pharmacies, petrol stations and banks operating as normal. Small independent food shops, like the boulanger, were initially shut down, but later allowed to open again, meaning I was allowed to sample their apple doughnut during my stay after all - a small win.

On Monday in the day I went in search of kindling, as an open fire was the best way to stay warm in the chilly evenings. I had to visit three big supermarkets quite some way away before I struck lucky, and was shocked at how close people were to one another in the checkout queues, though I tried to step out of line and back in again when it was my turn. There was a lot of panic buying and the "Less than 10 items" till at which I was queuing had been hijacked by those with trolleys piled high.

Then on Monday night, President Macron addressed the nation for the second time that week and expressed his annoyance at his fellow citizens' flagrant disregard of social distancing. From noon on Tuesday, everyone was grounded or "confined" for the next two weeks, and could only leave their homes for one of a handful of reasons, and then only with a self-completed form stating the reason in question, called an "attestation de déplacement dérogatoire".

On Tuesday, half an hour after the new law came into force, I sallied forth to the newly reopened boulanger on a mission to score my much anticipated doughnut. It was a very short distance from my house, and I didn't bother filling in an attestation for a round trip of five minutes. (But I did take care to do so for every foray from that point on.) In the baker's there was a big sign saying "Card payments only". Imagine, paying by card for a bun...I offered to pop back to my house to retrieve my bank card, but they said if I could pay that way next time that would be fine. So I lobbed a two euro coin from a safe distance onto the counter and we chatted for a while about where on earth this was all going to end up.

On Tuesday afternoon, I went for another long walk, but this time I took an attestation with me, though forgot any ID, which you are meant to have on you as well. Going for a walk was a legitimate reason to leave the house, but I may have pushed the km envelope - now set at 1-2km I believe, though previously a bit fluid, depending on how good a walker you are(!). I didn't meet a policeman, though an extra 100,000 had been deployed for the specific purpose of checking up on people's movements.

On the walk I picked some cowslips and put them in a jug when I got back.

On Wednesday I went for another walk, and picked some more cowslips, which I added to the jug. I did the additional flower picking on autopilot though, for while I was out in the countryside I received a message from a neighbour who is on the local council, reminding me that I was also grounded, that the borders were closed, and that I had to stay in the village for the full 15 days, or however long a period of confinement it turned out to be.

This news sent me into a complete tailspin, for I was not at all geared for a long stay in my house, and I sensed that the confinement period would turn out to be a lot longer than 15 days in the end. My shower had just broken, I had developed a large hole in my tooth (crusty bread being the likely culprit), and had a cat back home whom I could not expect friends to indefinitely feed. Plus, at 85, my Elderly Friend (as she is known on Facebook) is in the vulnerable category, and I needed to get back to do my bit to support her. At a time of national crisis like this, the only place you want to be is home. Your main home, in your own country. This is no time to be 'on holiday'.

So I spent several hours that night researching the rights of British citizens to jump 'confinement' and go home. I messaged a dear perfume friend, whose French husband rang me up late at night to assure me that "going back home" was a valid reason for travel, as long as I wrote it on the attestation form, as I had been doing for my walks.

Then very early the following morning I received a travel advisory email from the FCO, telling me to leg it basically, if I wanted to get back to the UK - for while the borders were still open, the transport options were closing down fast. I needed no telling, believe me, notwithstanding the town hall's wish to keep me there. Ryanair had already indicated that they were suspending flights from the following week, so if I didn't make a break for freedom sharpish, I knew I might be trapped in France for weeks or months to come. At 10am I discovered that the first of the three return flights to the UK I had bought! ;) (to cover all bases), had been miraculously reinstated, though it had been cancelled shortly after I booked it. So I promptly checked in online and set about packing up for an immediate departure.

Thus it was that at noon on Thursday 19th I did a 'daylight flit' to the airport. I also took along with me two kinds of rubbish. Ordinarily I would give these to my neighbours, but no one wants things you have touched anymore, so I took the bags with me. The household waste I put into the large dumper bin of a closed restaurant, while I tipped my green waste (the weeds from round my house, plus the cowslips ;( ) into a thicket in a forest, where I figured they would compost down nicely.

Departure lounge as I have never seen it before!

I drove on to the airport...the roads were eerily empty - quieter than Christmas Day - and in the large town of Limoges all but one of a dozen traffic lights turned green as soon as they saw me approach, which was also spooky. "Oooh look, a car, let's turn colour!" I made it to the airport with four hours to spare before take off, but I was just so glad to be there. In the concourse there were two roving (and masked) reporters from national TV channel France 3, who, having overheard me speak French to the check in staff, asked if they could film and ask me a few questions. They basically wanted to know why I was going back to Britain: was it because I was afraid of staying on in France? I explained that I had caring responsibilities for an elderly relative and that I wasn't afraid of the virus in France as such. I just needed to be back home, surrounded by my network of friends so that we could provide mutual support to one another. I also mentioned my responsabilities to Truffle. I didn't mention the broken shower, but now that confinement was in force - also for my handyman - that was not going to get fixed any time soon...

On time, a few hours later, the flight took off. There was no problem doing social distancing on board, as there were only 15 of us on the plane! I could have hugged the Northern Irish captain and all the crew for getting us out in the nick of the time, but obviously hugging is not the done thing now. The plane landed just before 6pm, and I was home - and incredulous to be so - by 7pm.

A 60 hour throwing up migraine promptly ensued, from which I emerged this morning...

Now I am back, I am behaving like a French person and carrying on my confinement: I am only going out for essential reasons, wearing gloves, washing my hands all the time, and not letting anyone into my house. I am even wary of mail. This illness is truly horrific if you get it badly - which is happening to people of all ages for reasons no one can fathom - so the more we all knuckle down and self-isolate, the more the NHS will be able to cope with the many casualties yet to come.

PS In case anyone is wondering I did wear perfume most, but not all of the time, because when I am truly stressed, not even perfume has the capacity to calm. But I do recall Estee Lauder Bronze Goddess on the way out from the tester in the Duty Free, Chanel Bois des Iles, Aqua di Parma Magnolia Nobile, Flower by Kenzo Oriental, L'Erbolario Meharees, and Hermes Vanille Galante.

Right now, however, I would happily sell some of my collection in return for toilet paper, having missed the panic buying peak in the UK while I was away!

Thursday 5 March 2020

Hyacinth harbingers, and the final phase of the utility / shower room makeover

Well, I don't know about you, but I would say 2020 has been a bit of a rum year so far. The uncertainty about Brexit has been supplanted by uncertainty about the Coronavirus, and having sprained my pelvis over Christmas, I have now managed to sprain my foot as well, though luckily not to the point of non-functionality. And I swear I am not fishing for people's sympathy, for it seems almost people who bag Munros or make it their mission to visit every castle in Wales, I appear to be systematically working my way through my anatomy, spraining one body part at a time...! My friend Jim (of perfume focus group down the pub fame) quipped on hearing the news: "A true enthusiast would be doing it in alphabetical order." Waggish Katie Puckrik also weighed in, inquiring whether I had sprained my "ironing wrist" yet. To which I replied:

"Hahaha, thankfully not yet, but if I follow Jim's recommended alphabetical spraining MO above, I shouldn't get to 'wrist' anytime soon. Unless qualified by 'ironing', which would bring the incident forward somewhat?"

And as with the virus, I shall be asking myself: "Is your journey really necessary?", and turning down offers to 'go for a walk' as opposed to walking from A to B for a particular purpose. A spot of self-isolation would not be too great a blow, given the tottering tsundokus on my coffee table, not to mention my current obsession with knitting dishcloths. As you can see, I have been stockpiling books, not toilet rolls or tins of chick peas. Though that has a lot more to do with my tendency towards bibliomania than any formal kind of disaster planning.

Now the start of the year is often rather a gloomy time anyway, with January 6th seeing a peak for divorcing couples, and 18th January being designated Blue Monday, the most depressing day of the year. This date was arrived at using supposedly scientific methods:

"The formula uses many factors, including: weather conditions, debt level (the difference between debt accumulated and our ability to pay), time since Christmas, time since failing our new year’s resolutions, low motivational levels and feeling of a need to take action."

It has, however, been discredited by a neuroscientist from Cardiff University, who dismissed the work as "farcical" with "nonsensical measurements". My sister-in-law also begs to differ, as she turned 70 on 18th January and remained perfectly chipper all day.

Against this background of dramatic world events and bodily gyp, I must say I have found solace in two things: the therapeutic effect of flowers in my own house (notably hyacinths, of which I have been buying serial pots from Lidl for the princely sum of £1.99), and also flowers in that of my friend M, with whom I have a reciprocal cat feeding arrangement.

The pink ones were followed by the blue ones at the top of the post! And here is a pretty display at M's house, made all the more fetching in my eyes by the adjacent bottle of wine:

It doesn't count as an uplifting floral, but I enjoyed getting a whiff of beeswax from this tall pillar candle as I went upstairs each day to sort the cat's litter tray.

Also offsetting the downbeat feel to the time of year, there has been the relief of finally completing the renovation of my utility-cum-shower room behind the kitchen. Some readers may recall the utter mayhem that prevailed last winter during attempts to level the floor and lay floor covering (in vain!) over the new substrate. I wrote anguished posts on the 'one step forwards, two steps back progress' of the works here, here and here.

In the last of these, I reveal the near completed bathroom side of the room, but the utility side was not tackled for another nine months, and it was only three months after that that the final bits of decorating and touching up were completed. Not by me, I might add, though I did run to B & Q a lot for materials, and was gainfully employed making tea much of the rest of the time.

Just to recap, here are some of the 'before' shots...

A very big Belfast sink indeed!

Bye-bye loo...

The shower tray leaked under the floor, so when this flaw was finally discovered after three months of daily use(!), the fixture was belatedly condemned and used for storing Hoovers and mops.

There was a cobwebby vent in the window, and a bizarre metal rod piercing the area immediately above it.

The electrics had to be rerouted from upstairs, as there were two few power points for the number of appliances, and visible plugs also had to be hidden to comply with bathroom regs.

And I was never a fan of the Stoke City livery, so the red had to go...

Then the too short worktop, which I had taken to calling 'Shorty' in a bid to reconcile myself to its 'near miss' nature, has been bulked out with a piece of wood and painted. (The plumber who assembled the unit didn't realise there was an end panel on the side of the cabinet before cutting the worktop to size.)

Shorty before...if you look carefully, you can see that the white worktop finishes a frustrating fraction before the end of the unit.

Shorty is now 'a bit Longery'...

And here is the end result, with shelves stained to match the floor, a mirror and pictures, and other bits and bobs.

I cut some japonica from the garden, adding a cheery spray of snowy blooms to the window sill. Those are Floris's jasmine-scented soaps, and if I need a bit of a lift, I lean in and sniff them instead, as japonica doesn't really smell of anything, though its blossom looks pretty(!).

And the utility side, with a new worktop and small freezer, replacing a tall freestanding one that was bigger than I needed and dominated the room almost as much as the condemned shower opposite.

A view of the cupboards on top, plus new boiler! The previous one was 18 years old and on borrowed time, which I didn't feel I dared risk with paying guests.

Here is the shower again to complete the virtual tour, though that was finished a year ago.

There is so much more to do in and on the house (cracks galore, window repairs, new kitchen one day as the current one is 25+ years old, as well as sorting out the jungle that is the garden - it has been allowed to run riot in recent years due to my woeful lack of knowledge of all things horticultural).

But for now, doing the laundry has become a pleasure - almost - ditto the ironing, until the day I do eventually sprain that wrist... ;) And Lidl still has stocks of hyacinths for when the blue ones completely keel over.

Are you finding comfort in spring flowers or completed home projects...?

And do you also find that hyacinths are constitutionally floppy?