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  • Writer's pictureTim Morch

Coping with Covid - A Canadian in Europe

Updated: Nov 24, 2020

Reflecting on the past 9 months and the prospect of what lies ahead resembles a parallel reality. If somebody had shown me a video of life under lockdown when I was 18, I would have thought it a scene from a sci-fi movie. Having lived under lock down in France for two months and entering a new round this fall, sci-fi has become reality.

Back in the good old days – January, 2020 – I left Portugal and three months riding waves, mountain biking and sea kayaking, to drive to Nice, France, and take my six year old daughter on her first ski trip. The Alpes-Maritimes are just behind Nice, where Calypso lives with her Mom, and the perfect place for her to learn to ski. After a fantastic week, she was certified Oursonne (Bear) and we popped in my van - destination Genoa, Italy, to visit friends.

Mountain biking in Alentejo, Portugal

Lake Alqueva, Portugal

It was in Genoa, when the first incidents of a strange flu identified as Covid-19 hit the north. We watched the exponential rise in cases, and I decided to shorten our visit, return to Nice and get Calypso safely home.

As Italian hospitals became overwhelmed and the death toll spiked, people there were taking note. Strangely, people in Nice seemed unconcerned about the situation next door. Public behaviour was cavalier; plenty of bisous (the two-cheeked kiss), people gathered in close groups and no masks or distancing.

From a few local cases to national lockdowns in a couple of weeks, some things changed rapidly. Others, not so much. Despite advice to distance, wear a mask and wash hands, Nicois were not buying any of it.

Initially, the French government reduced hours for bars and restaurants, which simply moved people to the streets. The ineffective measure lead to announcement of a national lockdown to start March 21st.

As the death count climbed, the fear became palpable.

I bought a van in 2018 to visit Calypso often and escape when the weather turns foul. Most people think living in a van is “cool”. The freedom they infer from Instagram #vanlife posts popularized by weekend warriors and vacation vagabonds driving rentals has but a degree of accuracy.

The reality is that unless you park legally, there is a risk of being evicted by authorities or even a fine. Living in a van anywhere near the Cote d’Azur is doubly challenging. The local government does not like campervans. Public parking areas have height limitations of 1.8m, making it impossible for my 2.8m Ford Transit. I cannot even get into the Nice airport to pick someone up!

Looking for the Pot of Gold at the end of the Rainbow

When the French government announced a lockdown – ‘confinement’ – I faced a new series of challenges. Playing the game of cat and mouse with the authorities and neighbourhood vigilantes for a short period is fine, but lockdown had more serious implications. I needed a safe place to park.

Good fortune arrived when a new friend, Dann, offered a place to park on his property on Mont Chauve, above Nice. I settled in for the long haul, van full of food presciently loaded before leaving Italy, and safely parked on one of the many terraces of this centuries old farm.

Sunset, Mont Chauve, Alpes-Maritimes

For the next two months, I left the property a grand total of three times. Each time, I had to fill in the requisite “Attestation” which permitted only 5 reasons to go out: family, food, hospital, exercise (1 hour only) and work (if you had an official paper from work). Having foreign plates meant I was unable to drive my van, so I joined Dann on those occasions.

Having travelled solo for almost three decades, I am no stranger to hanging alone, passing time reading, writing, and improving my ‘camp’.

Calypso’s Mom and I decided the best approach was to remain in our bubbles for the time being, but when ‘deconfinement’ was introduced, I drove down the mountain for an emotional visit.

The psychological stress I witnessed following the lock down and an uncertain future convinced me to stay the summer and share as much time as possible with Calypso. In ‘Camp Kiira’ we had our own parking spot, now on top of Dann’s land, with views of the mountains to the north and east and an amazing sunrise that beamed through the back doors of the van. Calypso was free to run about, experience nature and be creative without the new worries distancing.

View from "Camp Kiira"

We planted a garden.

Our Covid Garden

As summer wore on, we started visiting Calypso’s grandparents and swimming in the pool. And suddenly, summer was over, and she was back in school. Life appeared to being returning to its old ways. For the month of September and into October, I drove down the mountain, walked her to school and enjoyed Wednesdays (no school) in the park.

But lurking in the background of late August was a steady uptick in the number of Covid cases. Spain, which had been brutally hit by the pandemic was seeing a rise. Travel corridors were opening and closing faster then travellers could react. In France, the numbers started to creep and following “la rentree” (return to school and work) climbed even faster.

By late September, it should have been apparent to national leaders that a serious problem was brewing, but efforts to keep the economy alive precluded strong decisions. Messaging was a complete failure, as evidenced by a series of flip-flops from Boris Johnson, lockdown protests in Madrid, closing/opening/closing of travel corridors, the failure of people to comply with the simple act of wearing a mask, and an unwillingness to accept the science all created the perfect storm.

With October numbers spiralling out of control in Spain, France, Belgium, the Netherland,s and even an astonishing rise in Germany, the writing was on the wall as far as I was concerned. My plan was to spend the 2-week “vacances Toussaint” with Calypso and head to Portugal.

Praia Malhao, Alentejo, Portugal

The best laid plans….

A curfew in France’s hardest hit cities was extended to the entire nation. But the funny thing is, the virus doesn’t only come out at night and data showed universities and offices recorded the highest incidents of positives. The poor decision to continue pretending everything was okay was about to kick Europe in the ass.

It was Tuesday October 27, French media announced President Macron would address the nation the following evening. In my gut, I knew another lockdown was imminent. Wednesday morning, I hit the supermarket and filled my van with food and fuel, waiting Macron’s speech. The question was what day would he choose to lock down given that the entire country was in the final days of a major vacation.

And when Thursday midnight was announced – which meant 9pm, as we were under curfew – a 15 hour window remained open for me to choose another lockdown or move on.

Thursday morning, I picked up Calypso at her grandparents. We drove to her Mom’s to get her scooter and go to the park. The building superintendent asked where we were going. I told him, and seeing a puzzled look on his face, asked why? He motioned me away from Calypso and whispered there was a knife attack in the center of Nice and at least one person was dead. We played in the nearby park for a few hours and had lunch from one of Calypso’s fave take-aways.

And then, the moment of truth. Another decision.

I kissed Calypso goodbye and drove to Genoa where friends offered an empty flat for me to isolate and weather the storm. A complete renovation, which paused a year ago, had left a mess. While they apologized for the disarray, I rejoiced in having a place to stay and a project to keep me from losing my mind.

I am now in the process of cleaning construction debris, vacuuming, mopping, and setting up the flat. Gas is not connected, so hot showers are just like in the van - boil some water, mix in a bucket and bathe. And my stove has migrated indoor for the time being.

Everything is here to complete the flat - all the kitchen appliances, etc. - and as soon as I get through 50 layers of dust I will embark on that project.

I am an optimist: the glass is always half full. I was blessed to meet Dann and park on his land, blessed to have friends in Genoa with a flat and, blessed with good health. I am blessed that my daughter and her Mom are healthy and safe in Nice.

When we come out the other side of this monumental moment in time, when distancing is no longer obligatory, I will embark on a project to hug everyone I see. Meanwhile, I use the three most important words every time I speak with my friends and family: “I love you.”

Never forget to share these words with those who are important in your life because even though the glass is half full, it can also shatter.

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