We've been confined to quarters in France for a week now and so far it's been… bearable.
Our strict Coronavirus lockdown here came into effect last Tuesday, March 17, at noon. Since then, if you want to leave the house, you need to print out an attestation form and fill it in, justifying your reasons. As anyone who has lived here will know, there's no problem the French can't make worse with paperwork.
The situation we are in is a big step-up from physical distancing, the policy in force in Ireland. Here in Castres, like elsewhere in France, everyone has been told "#restezchezvous" - the hashtag is ubiquitous. All non-essential businesses are shut by order - only supermarkets, pharmacies and essential services remain open. People have been told to work from home if possible. The lockdown was initially put in place for 15 days, but we all know it will be extended.
There are five categories on the form to justify being out and about - work, buying essential items (eg food), a medical appointment/trip to the pharmacy, looking after elderly relatives/childcare, and exercise/walking pets close to home. If you are stopped by police and don't have this form, or if your story doesn't add up, you face a fine of €135.
My first thought was that it's not much of a deterrent, people can put what they want on the forms. And in the early days, many did flout it. But the government has gradually clamped down since, specifying that exercise must be done within 1km of home and for no longer than an hour. All non-urgent medical visits are out. They've banned cycling (for exercise), hunting and fishing is not allowed, parks and hiking trails have been shut and the entire Mediterranean coastline is out of bounds because too many people were still going to the beach.
And police have been enforcing it - by Sunday night, they'd carried out almost 1.74 million stop-and-checks, and fined 91,824 people for flouting the confinement. A second breach within 15 days will see a €1,500 fine; anyone who breaks the rules four times faces a €3,700 fine and up to six months in prison.
Police obviously have the discretion of whether they believe your justification or not, or whether to let you off with a warning, much like any traffic stop. But it gives them the power to censure obvious offenders - if they see a bunch of teenagers playing football in the park, or find a group drinking behind closed doors in a bar, they have the power to fine them all and send them home.
The French solution to drinking on lockdown is the 'apéro-skype' - people are going on Skype or Facetime and sharing their traditional pre-dinner tipple with friends and family.
For my family, lockdown has looked like this: my wife has printed out her attestation and left the house four times - her elderly parents live nearby, and my father-in-law has a serious illness that makes him particularly vulnerable. She has dropped food and prescriptions over to them and chatted them from the safety of the car. While she's been out, she's picked up any items we need. She hasn't seen a police officer on any of her trips.
My 12-year-old daughter, Kim, and I haven't left the house at all. I've worked from home for years, so that has continued as normal, and I realise how lucky I am. I don't face the added stress of remote working for the first time, which many of my colleagues are going through. And we are lucky to still be working at all. Many people are not.
After a week stuck at home, you might imagine we'd be killing each other by now, but in fact the opposite has happened. A sort of harmony has descended upon the household. Any petty bickering has largely evaporated as everyone makes a conscious effort to be patient and flexible and understanding. We are looking after each other more. Again, I appreciate that's not the case in every household.
It's tougher too for people who live in apartments and flats. We have a small back garden but it's been key to how we've spent our time. On the first day of lockdown I busied myself by mowing the lawn, cutting back the overgrown bushes and generally clipping like a madman. Luckily the weather has been bright and sunny so far, so we've been able to spend plenty of time outside.
Every day I've pulled the exercise bike out the back and cycled for an hour in the sunshine. There have been countless games of football. We've made a chart to track our physical efforts. When this all ends, we'll be able to say how many kilometres we cycled as a family. Unfortunately, it will probably be in the thousands.
Then there's the school work. My daughter is getting quite a lot of work online, and my wife is playing teacher - this admittedly has been stressful for them both. We've relaxed about things like Snapchat and Fortnite - that's how my daughter has been staying in touch with her friends, so suddenly things I normally tell her to cut down are positives. We've found too that it's important to switch off the news and avoid the anxiety of Covid overload. Netflix has been great for light relief. We've re-watched the Back to the Future series on my nights off, a perfect bit of escapism.
Obviously not everything is perfect. Far from it. This is a hugely stressful time for everyone - people are anxious about themselves, their families, their jobs, and especially their elderly loved ones. It hits everyone differently. It's harder on people who are alone, people trying to deal with small children. There is a daily mental challenge that some will deal with better than others. Everyone will have good days and bad days. And we are likely still in the early stages.
There are long queues for the pharmacy. The shops are short of some items. On Saturday afternoon, my wife picked up a weekly shop we'd ordered online. When we were unpacking the bags at home, we were hit with a strange fishy smell, and found a lot of the items were soggy. Some of the bags had an inch of water at the bottom. We deduced the supermarket had so many online orders they had to prepare trollies earlier than normal, and some genius used ice from the fish counter display to keep fresh things cool. Normally we'd kick up a stink (pun intended), but under the current circumstances a few fishy courgettes seemed like a first world problem. No one wants to complain too much.
But life on total lockdown can be bearable - it's what you make it. If we need to wait it out until it's safe, that's what we'll do.