Every morning for two weeks now, I wake up and have to pause to recall where I am, why, and if this is–as a wise child after the dentist once inquired–real life . I’m not in my own bed, I’m at my in-law’s house in the French countryside. I’m here because we got out of the city before Macron made confinement mandatory–we wanted to spend our quarantine with a big yard, not in our tiny Paris apartment. I don’t know how long I’m here for. But I’m not annoyed at this, because it could be worse. So I go get some coffee.
It’s a very disorienting situation, especially so because our collective reality shifted so fast, major changes upheaving everything day by day. On Wednesday, March 11, I was planning to fly to LA that weekend. On Thursday, March 12, I woke up to find Trump had banned travel from Europe, but I could still get into the US as I’m American. By Friday, March 13, I’d resigned myself to staying in France because it seemed too dangerous to travel through two international airports, and California would be under quarantine soon anyway. Saturday we shopped for more provisions. Sunday we heard a rumor that confinement would soon be mandatory. Monday we drove seven hours to Bazus, a tiny villiage in the Southwest of France where we can go on long walks and not see another (potentially infected) soul.
My home state of California followed a similar pattern, just four or five days after, so my family and peers there are feeling a similar type of disorientation, made worse by sudden and total isolation.
While I’m worried and stressed–especially with Trump seemingly mis-leading the US over a cliff into ruin–I must say that I think I might be less disoriented and lonely than many people I talk to. My friends are experiencing anxiety just by virtue of being stuck at home and not having many human interactions. This type of anxiety has been the last six months of my life having picked up and moved to France without an apartment or job waiting (well, my husband had a job, I planned to and do consult on marketing). Us lonely and floating expats are vulnerable to stress that comes from a worldwide epidemic, but less so to the uncomfortable cure of social isolation. Expats are already dealing with multiple layers of isolation, cocentric, nested bell jars that have helped us to perfect our loneliness, a skill that wasn’t important until about two weeks ago.
When we decided to move, I knew the hardest thing to face would be the isolation. I was ready to get rid of the rest of my life: sick of my corporate jobs, my desk, my commute, having money but too much depression to enjoy it, getting chubby in my middle from all the sitting, waiting five days every week to live for two. But the friends and time I spent with them were what I knew I would miss most, and would be the most difficult to recreate. And I was right.
The expat life is a double-walled isolation as you are in a city where you know no one, and potentially don’t know the language either. I know a little French, but not enough to connect fully with people I encounter everyday. I made one good friend while here, and we’ve bonded mostly around the fact that we are English speakers, and that the French are not very generous with non-French speakers.
I added one more wall of isolation because I’m an overachiever: I freelance and I work from home. I initially had a really nice coworking space, but the French transportation strike made it impossible to get to, and I also got tired of spending the money on a nice chair and view. So my days are already spent working from home, and then if I go out, I don’t know anyone and I couldn’t talk to them if I did.
Then there’s the time difference. We had a big goodbye party when we left LA and at one point I counted that at least 70 people passed through our house that night. I assume at least a few of those people like me. But they are nine hours behind Central European Time. When I think to call them after lunch, it’s still the middle of the night for them. When it’s evening for me, they’re still at work. I could try harder to call them, but I’m worried I’m bothering them. So the people I do know and love actually exist, but are in a reality that is nine hours behind mine, making me even more removed from them.
Every once in a while, this level of isolation really gets me down and I have a little cry and wonder why we did this. But then I remember how much I hated my last job and how good baguettes and free healthcare are and I chill out again. And that’s been my life for six months.
But now. But now! Things are exactly the same except I’m in a big house in the countryside with five other people, instead of a 450 sq ft apartment alone for most of the day. And everyone I know is also stuck working from home, too. And they’re all climbing the walls like caged animals and I’m like “this is my life, welcome.” Except for the whole pandemic thing. That’s a whole other matter…
I don’t really have any tips for getting over the isolation blues, even after taking a 6-month masterclass on solitude before this pandemic. I took an actual class on happiness as part of my MBA, and the main takeaway was that human contact just plain makes us happy, there’s no way around it. So except for video calls, we’re all kind of screwed. But only temporarily screwed! This isolation won’t last forever… unless you were already an introvert, or an expat who doesn’t know the language and works from home.