Dispatch from French isolation
Even during confinement, Atlantan living abroad finds solace with arrival of spring.
Lizzie McIntosh
As she waits out the pandemic in a village in the French countryside, Lizzie McIntosh says the arrival of spring is offering reassurance.
By Lizzie McIntosh
DIVONNE-LES-BAINS, FRANCE — When I first stepped foot in this French town — long before the spreading illness interrupted life — I knew no one. Just my French family and Elaine from California next door. After finishing work at night, I was unsure of what to do with myself, so I walked. I walked for hours on the winding back roads by my house, getting to know every bend and detail. The house with emerald green shutters and crawling vines, the old farmer who introduced me to his cows, the unending sprawling fields of green. It became a solace for me.

Before I learned the country’s language I learned its streets, the rhythms of its people, the patterns of sunlight on its houses, the way the peaks of the mountains turn pink when teetering between summer and fall.

My favorite time to walk is in the late evening as the sun goes down. When I arrived it was August, which meant around 8 p.m. As the sun started to lower, the lights on the street became brighter, and the windows made a pattern, a living mosaic of the street’s people patched together. The windows sat open to let in the sunset breeze, which curiously wanders through the open spaces, then breathes out the sounds of the hour. A chorus of dinner being prepared and the woman with the curly hair whistling and the swell of the family on the corner’s conversation. What is inside is outside and the two become one long breath.

With time, I made friends, interesting friends from all over the world. Spain, Canada, Scotland, Germany, Denmark, England, Croatia. With these friends my nights became busier, winter came and with it an earlier setting of the sun.

Nights passed with playing cards, beers at the local pub, long conversations at other’s apartments. I still walked, normally during the day, when the weather was nice or to meet friends in town, but besides the occasional Sunday evening, it was no longer a time-filler. As more time passes, I become increasingly thankful that, for now, this is home.

There’s a bar in our little village with red velvet walls, leather chairs and large windows framing a busy corner of the main street. This bar has become our meeting spot — to catch up, watch the first snow of the season, plan our next trip or drink a Côtes du Rhône, which Sam the owner pours when we walk in.

He delivers us the glass alongside a new “apero” treat, many times toasted bread with thickly layered charcuterie or a dish of salted peanuts.

I was sitting with friends at our favorite table by the window as we noticed for the first time masked people walking the streets, the abrupt stopping of kisses in greeting, the television in the corner sharing numbers rising, rising, rising. We were sitting again at the table when news came of schools closing and an order to work from home and again two days later as we watched three policemen approaching the door.

We greeted them as they told Sam he would be closing for the foreseeable future. As the realization washed over Sam’s face, we watched the police walk out of his bar and into every restaurant and bar and cafe on the street, bearing the same news. I watched solemnly as the town’s terraces were put up, stacks of chairs sitting unfamiliarly on top of tables, casting strange trianglelike shadows through the windows.

In confinement, 24 hours feels easily like 48, as if the hands on our clocks move at half-speed. With a form and ID, those in France are allowed to exercise outside one hour per day. This hourlong time outside has become a sacred part of my day. Some days, it feels like I am reverting to the routine of my first month here, the same lonely feeling creeping into my throat at times.

I have a French family that has truly become like family, the parents who have become close friends, a 6- and 8-year-old who have become more to me than I can put into words, with midday during quarantine spent at our table outside over long, leisurely lunches. There is a heaping gap where my friends normally are, but the pattern of my quarantine days has become strangely normal. The pulse of my days has shifted, walks and runs making now-lonely evenings pass somewhat quicker, the cadence of my steps making the minutes tick by faster again.

And now, dandelions and daffodils are dotting the field by our house and it is the first of spring, the beginning weeks when the season feels like a surprise, as spring does every year. Winter winds down and we doubt if spring will ever come, but it does faithfully, year after year. The world is thick with uncertainty right now, angst, panic, the unknown looming, but there are things that remain the same — for me, a tucked-away village whose rhythms bring comfort and consistency, the wildflowers that always find their way to our field, the mountains that stand watch over our town.

In a new sense, I am reminded of the importance of what is inside becoming what is outside yet again, feeling connected to my neighbors as I hear nightly the same melodies of kitchens and swaying laundry on terraces. I inhale the deep breath breathed out from the sunset breeze and am thankful, the beat of my steps reminding me this season will pass too. Because come what may, spring comes every year.

Lizzie McIntosh grew up in Atlanta’s suburbs, and graduated from the University of Mississippi in 2018 with a degree in journalism. She says her natural curiosity and draw to adventure led her to live in a small town in France, where she’s been living for almost two years while studying the language and working as an au pair for a French family.