• Countries Visited: 18
  • Travel Wishlist: South Korea, Alaska, The Baltics, Cuba
  • Locked down in: Aix-en-Provence, France

I remember thinking ‘someone would physically have to come and drag me to the airport to make me get on a flight home’.

Does coronavirus have the ability to change more than just our current lifestyle, but an entire culture? This is a question that I have been reflecting on during my time in France and after observing how the French have had to adapt to coronavirus and its consequences. With my own two eyes I have seen coronavirus single-handedly shift the way the French typically interact with one another. Think about it, what’s more French then sitting at a café with a wine and a cigarette? And to greet people, ‘se faire le bise’, kiss each other on the cheek. What about the daily fresh food markets, the social and buzzing place in town to buy fresh food for the week? All three of these cultural aspects have been altered in some way due to corona. It’s changing the way people live and has restricted more than just our movements, but the way we interact with one other in a community.

Loving life in France, February 2020

Ever since I was a little girl, I knew I wanted travelling to be a part of my life. It was in my blood, my parents exposed me to incredible trips and cultures from a young age, and this passion continued to grow with me. What I knew even more was that I wanted to study overseas. Before I really even knew what this entailed, I recognized this desire as a goal of mine. I knew at some stage in my life I wanted to make it a reality.

This idea was set in stone when I was 16 and attended a month summer school at Cambridge University. I lived on campus and thrived in the learning environment and loved being in charge of my academics. I just knew that this was something I wanted to do again.

At Cambridge University studying photojournalism and criminology, 2014

So, university rolled around, and it was time to pick my degree. There was absolutely no question that I was going to choose one that involved an exchange. A double degree of Journalism and International Studies is what I settled on. The compulsory in-country study was to be for the duration of fourth year, so I learnt French for two years and chose France as the country of choice.

I knew this word ‘coronavirus’ had started to circulate in December of 2019. I didn’t pay much attention to it as I was travelling around Vietnam with my boyfriend and making the most of my time I had left in Australia with my friends and family before the big move. And besides, it was in China, so far away from me that I didn’t think it would pose to be any kind of problem.

Oh, how wrong I was.

January 2020 came, and I took my leap of faith to France. I got settled in my very small but functional student accommodation and the new French fantasy I was about to live for a year.

My family seeing me off at Sydney Airport

Nevertheless, the buzz word ‘coronavirus’ kept making its way into a lot of conversations I was having, and I couldn’t understand why this was becoming such a hot topic amongst the students. I didn’t want to create negative energy towards the things we were trying to achieve here, I honestly just thought people were being cynical. ‘Why can’t you just focus on the amazing things happening here?’

Here’s where I think I went wrong. I was so excited and hopeful about this year that I tried to have an optimistic outlook on most things. This positive attitude I was instilling in everything couldn’t comprehend that there was a possibility of this buzz word severely affecting me and my experience here.

So when it did, I was completely thrown off-guard.

It hit France pretty hard and pretty quick. I was in Bordeaux at the time (a city in the west of France) when the President made an announcement that we were going into a nationwide ‘confinement’, lockdown. I had to get back to Aix-en-Provence before this happened, so the next day I booked the cheapest airline ticket I could find and hurried back. No one knew for how long or what this really meant. Then it happened. All my classes were called off, and France practically stripped itself of almost all its international students in the span on 2 weeks. A few friends and I were left in our 9m2 rooms in Aix… very confused. I was now a ‘stranded Aussie’.

My friends and I at a wine tour in Bordeaux, unaware that the next day we would be rushing back to our residing cities in France.

My fellow aussie uni friends who also came for the in-country study in Aix-en-Provence decided to stay. The number one reason was because if we went home, this would affect our double degree and there was NO WAY I was going to throw away my hard work for something I wasn’t in control of. I must say I was very stubborn about this decision. I remember thinking ‘someone would physically have to come and drag me to the airport to make me get on a flight home’. I signed up for a year and I was so determined to do the best I could to fulfil what I set out to do. I think I have, and it’s still in progress but there were certainly some bumps in the road.

My friends and I participating in protests, the French way

The heavy lockdown started 17th March. Everything was closed except for supermarkets. If you left your house you had to carry your ‘attestation’ which was a piece of paper which outlined the purpose of your movements, when you left your house and your address (as you weren’t allowed to go more than 1km in distance if it wasn’t for a good reason). I still had a few weeks of university to complete so I thought this would be a good way to keep myself busy. And for the most part, it did. It wasn’t until about 3 weeks in that the confinement really started to affect me.

Picture this, you’re locked in a 9m2 room with four walls, a small bathroom and a bed. The sunlight is minimal. The halls and most of the rooms on my floor are empty. The environment that I was trapped in didn’t allow much opportunity to branch out or ‘try a new hobby’ as many people suggested. As a result, I started to fall into this unmotivated, constantly tired, bored mindset that was becoming harder to shake. I kept circulating ‘what if’ scenarios in my head. I knew I had made the right decision for myself to stay but I couldn’t help but let my mind wonder when I had so much time and so little things to do.

I think what unsettled me the most was the fact I had no one here to help me if something went wrong. Walking into the supermarket the day before lockdown and have almost EVERY SINGLE SHELF EMPTY was one of the biggest wake up calls of my life. I needed to take control of my situation, but my goodness was it overwhelming.

Usually I am pretty good when it comes to coping with dramatic changes in my life, and my parents have always helped me when I need mental support. But this was something that was so new and scary to me that sometimes it was hard to keep that positive mindset that I came to France with. It was also hard with the direct comparison I was seeing with some parts of Australia. As I was still completely locked down and alone in France, some things started to open again in NSW, and people could move more freely. Social media definitely played a questionable part in this for me and I reminded myself that comparing my situation to others was not going to help one bit.

Lockdown was a time where I had many realisations. I understood how essential human connection is to my life. I learnt how important it is to surround yourself with good hearted people. My friends and I here were all in the same boat, struggling with the same uneasiness. But that fact that we got to work through it together made more of a difference than I could explain. Every day on the tiny grass patch outside our building we would work out together, have chats to clear our head, cook dinner in the communal kitchen and let each other know we were here if anyone needed help. They celebrated my 22nd birthday with me in confinement and made me feel so loved and appreciated. Without these friends, it would have been much harder to break away from my negative mindset which would occasionally grace me with its presence.

For my 22nd birthday during lockdown, my friends and I shared some drinks and food in the communal kitchen of our student accommodation

France’s heavy lockdown went for about two months, so you can imagine I was busting to get out when it was over. However, the first day of ‘deconfinement’ felt strange. The town was still dead and there was an overwhelming number of shops which had completely shut down. It reminded me that everyone, literally all over the world, was doing their best to live through this, not just me.

One of the main squares in Aix-en-Provence, the first day of deconfinement

As disheartening as the lockdown was, what followed was three months of travel for me. The Schengen countries by summer had all their borders open, so I was able to travel around to some incredible places including Italy, Greece, Portugal, The Netherlands and Germany; safely and wearing a mask on my face like it was part of my being. Our temperatures were being checked left right and centre, I’ve never filled out so many forms in my life and I can’t count how many times I was asked corona related questions. My ‘Euro Trip, Corona Style’ definitely lifted my spirits and reaffirmed why staying here was a good choice.

Of course, no one enjoyed lockdown, it was a life rattling change for us all, but something that I really disliked about this whole experience was the attitudes people had towards my decisions. Some people were focusing on the ‘oh poor Courtney she’s probably having the worst time in France’, ‘what a bad year to go on your in-country study’, ‘do you regret it’, ‘why don’t you just come home’, ‘this must have ruined your whole year’. This drove me CRAZY! I don’t really care what people think, but I hate how this pandemic put such a negative light on something that I worked so hard for and something that was still enjoyable in many ways.

I can honestly say that staying in France was one of the best decisions I have ever made. This year has turned out to be one that I will remember for the rest of my life. Despite the pandemic I have been able to experience a new culture, learn a new language, make new friends, be in charge of my own life, complete university courses in a new environment and travel around Europe. I have still managed to take all the amazing opportunities that have presented themselves to me and I couldn’t be more grateful.

Myself and my French friend Lily (my tour guide!)

Now in October I am 3 weeks into the second semester of university. Bars and restaurants have shut for now in an attempt to stop crowding. I know this time of restrictions around won’t be nearly as bad as the last, and I am more equipped and in touch with my emotions on how to deal with ‘corona related’ issues.

I know there are potential issues that stand in front of me and my return home to Sydney in January, but I can honestly say this year I have learnt more about myself than I could have ever imagined.  I have so much respect for the people on the front line who first hand helped in treating and prevent the virus. I sincerely hope that now, towards the end of this rollercoaster ride of a year, that everyone is feeling in higher spirits and they have the support necessary to keep them feeling positive about themselves and these strange situations.