“Like a homing pigeon parted too long from its origin, I fly back North-East.”Image courtesy of Flora Bowen

First the towns stopped, and then the country. Italy lies just over the border from my host university, the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Lyon, France. It was strange to watch the villages slowing down one by one, just an hour or so over the Alps.

At first, it seemed easy. An Italian friend, a fellow Erasmus student, went to Bologna for a week for her IELTS exam, and sent updates full of youthful sprezzatura; ‘It’s fine, it’s just that some of the old people don’t go out.’ Then the borders closed. She came back pretty quickly, and this was when it started to feel that what we read in the news was now happening to us.

“There is a certain psychological distance between the headlines and our life in Lyon...”

Italy fell deeper into this shutdown, but in France life continued: espressos à la terrasse, history of art class, mixing with French and Erasmus students here and in Lyon’s marbled, eighteenth-century centre. It seemed that what was happening just beyond our adopted country’s borders had slowed with the light of spring. I took three trains back to the north of England, lazily checking the news as I listened to the different languages in the carriage: a French family at my table, a Spanish-English couple, some Dutch tourists just behind me.

When I returned to France, still nothing much had changed. Some good news: my friends had just moved to Paris from their placements in Austria and Berlin. We made vague plans to meet for dinner at the end of the month, along with another college friend working in the capital. Then, at the end of a grammar class, our teacher paused and peered at us from behind neat spectacles. ‘L’école sera fermé à partir de lundi’. University will be closed from Monday. We glanced at each other, and decided to forget it: ‘Trust the French to be dramatic’.

Uncertainty builds in spite of this British arrogance. Messages zip across Europe and overseas in our MML group chats: ‘Who’s staying in Spain?’ ‘Is anyone else stuck in Italy?’ ‘Will EasyJet still be flying?’ Personal conversations communicate more private anxieties. ‘I’m worried I’m not good enough at French yet to leave’, ‘I can’t afford to lose the Erasmus grant’, ‘If I go home, I might infect my parents’. Yet this activity does not liven the quietness of life in lockdown.

“ I go back home on Tuesday, away from this new, longed-for life in France, sharply ended.”

The stillness of the past couple of days stands in odd contrast to the growing tension I feel in my chest and stomach. It was on a walk down an empty street today that I had my first ever panic attack: a sudden loss of breath, an unexpected sickness that swelled in my gut. I was so surprised that I had to Google it: starting to type, my search results suggested symptoms of coronavirus, which I must have looked up days before, in some other confused blur of time.

The sun is still shining, and we walk to the shops before the country enters a period of full confinement. There is a certain psychological distance between the headlines and our life in Lyon: it is hard to grasp that our city will shut down, that our routes home will be blocked.

In Bolivia, at the start of my year abroad, I wrote in Varsity that leaving Cambridge had allowed me to look beyond ‘the fantasy construction of this golden creation’, to ‘the realisation that it does not, cannot exist’. Living in Bolivia ended with gunshots near my house and the burning of neighbourhoods, in its own moment of crisis. Now, the fantasy of France slips away.


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Like a homing pigeon parted too long from its origin, I fly back North-East. I go back home on Tuesday, away from this new, longed-for life in France, sharply ended. Back to familiarity - or what is left of it, anyway. It feels instinctive, this journey back: no more the idle people-watching of the previous trip, but an adrenaline-rush flight back to my own land. For a few days, I had entertained wistfulness over my lost opportunities here: this museum not visited, that person not met. As soon as the threat of border closures began, however, the desire to be with family replaced these passing regrets.

This was what happened to me, at least: other MML students have chosen to stay in their new homes, even as others buy plane and train tickets home. Some have even been quarantined, stuck in the flats and university accommodation that once offered such freedom from the slog of the Cambridge term.

Spending a lot of time indoors – as we all may have to, in the weeks that stretch before us – means consuming a lot of content online. I have watched the same two videos twice in the past few days: the first, the Italian planes that soar in colours of the tricolore to the tenor of Pavarotti. The second, the faces of the Wuhan doctors leaving their temporary hospitals after weeks of intensive work, as they peel off face masks, beam towards the camera, and with renewed certainty towards the future.

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