OPINION: As a 17 year exchange student, leaving my family and friends for a year to live in the Pays de la Loire region of France was a scary but exciting idea.
There were a lot of worries before leaving New Zealand; language, friends, culture shock. But a global pandemic was not on my radar.
After its arrival in France in mid-January, it only took a month for the coronavirus to become the subject of discussion, the number of infections increasing rapidly throughout Europe. When daily cases climbed into the tens of thousands, rumors of schools and universities closing increased.
Indeed, on Thursday, March 12, President Emmanuel Macron announced during a live broadcast nationwide that schools would be closed for at least six weeks to reduce the spread of the virus.
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Two days later, French Prime Minister Édouard Philippe declared that public transport and all businesses deemed non-essential would be closed by midnight, putting the country in a situation of total foreclosure.
After two months of extremely difficult confinement, I returned to a completely different school life on June 16.
Getting to school is always trying for exchange students, but it was completely different. All the students were forced to wear masks when entering the schoolyard, and the teachers greeted us with a spray of hand sanitizer.
Inside the lessons, neither the pupils nor the teachers wore masks, but we kept our distance of two meters, which was facilitated because the classes were separated into small groups of 15 pupils.
I found this social distancing in class rather ironic because before and after our two sets of two-hour lessons, we students were hanging out together, with little concern for social distancing after three months apart.
While life seems normal for the start of the summer holidays with the reopening of shops and public transport; it’s a completely different world from when I arrived.
It was evident during my visit to Paris at the end of June. As my mother said, Covid changed the city and “it’s not Paris that everyone knows and loves”. A city generally crowded with tourists was strangely calm. While public transportation worked, many chose to cycle because it reduced the risk of infection.
These dramatic changes are not visible in all of France – towns, villages and countryside.
For example, masks are required in almost all stores, museums, amusement parks and restaurants, with hand sanitizer at the front doors. While some stores limit the number of customers at a time in order to maintain the distance, many stores do not have a number limit.
The other day when I visited the supermarket with my host family, it was absolutely crowded – the most my host family has ever seen. It was simply impossible to keep the distance of two meters. However, the majority of people wore masks.
While France is still strongly affected by lust, the number of daily cases tends to be in the hundreds; significantly lower than during quarantine. I think this is due to the French people and the way everyone seems to respect the rules. Most people seem to understand that masks, hand sanitizer, social distancing and limited numbers are all meant for the safety not only of ourselves, but of others.
While saying this, it tends to be a different story in a more relaxed setting. Indeed, when we meet family and friends, we do not respect social distance. However, we avoid touching each other, especially La Bise – the traditional French greeting in which we kiss on the cheeks.
As a New Zealander, being unable to make this simple gesture does not put me in phase because it is not the culture in which I grew up. However, my host family and friends have told me that not being able to give to La Bise feels rude when I have guests, because this traditional French greeting plays a big role in their culture.
As an exchange student 20,000 km from my family, the situation was overwhelming, especially at the start of the lockout.
A quarter of my organization’s New Zealand exchange students who planned to spend the whole year living in Europe (for example, Germany, Spain, Belgium, Denmark) made the decision to return to New Zealand. Zealand.
This put a lot of pressure not only on me and my family in New Zealand, but also on my host family and the exchange organization, as they are responsible for my safety.
When the number of Covid cases in France was at its peak, my host mother worked as a midwife in a hospital that cared for Covid patients.
I had to decide if I should change my host family for fear of an infection from my high-risk foster mother, or stay in the countryside, far from the busiest and most affected cities. In the end, the decision was that I would stay with my host family.
At the end of my stay with this foster family, my foster mother (midwife) fell ill with Covid’s symptoms. Despite the results of the negative tests, my host family continued to keep our distance and to wash their hands often because 40% of the negative tests are in fact positive, so we did not put all our confidence in the results.
While France has progressed considerably since the lockout, it is guaranteed that the return to school in September will not return to normal, because the classes will be much smaller in order to respect social distancing.
As I will be able to travel to France this holiday, it will be interesting to see how the different regions approach the disease and the attitudes of different people, especially since the borders of France open to more countries.
While the first six months of my one-year exchange have nothing to do with what I could have imagined, with many events and trips (like a bus tour in Europe) canceled; I can easily say that my exchange was unforgettable, to say the least.