An illicit trip to France was just the tonic I needed

    3 September 2020

    To understand the rules, you must know how to follow them in practice. Or so said Wittgenstein. But what the philosopher would make of the Covid “travel corridors” is anyone’s guess. A week before our annual jolly in the South of France rolled round, we watched in despair as the Foreign Office banned all but essential travel to France.

    With three small children, jobs to return to, and zero remboursement on the cards, we deliberated madly. Surely, we couldn’t go. We were far from lockdown diehards but we had at least adhered to our original confinement rules, probably because they were easy to follow.

    But should we risk it this time? Wasn’t our holiday essential travel? Did Grant Shapps really want to put the kibosh on our harmless, largely isolated, week of otium? Despair soon turned to defiance; we would go anyway and quarantine on our return, whatever that meant. Wittgenstein had a point; playing by the rules is all very well until you don’t understand them.

    As every Brit languishing in the South of France knows, social distancing existed long before Covid came along. The French want nothing to do with the hordes of English cluttering up their cafés and demanding saucisson in barely intelligible gestures.

    No need to wear a mask, the French will gladly go out of their way to avoid you when you try to order a coffee or shuffle off when you show the slightest interest in engaging in anything beyond transactional conversation. Anglo-French relations could not, in fact, be more suited to the current predicament. But would the pandemic make them even more glacial?

    The French, for all their laissez-faire attitude, take le Covid very seriously. They’ve stayed firm in their determination to slay the virus. Would they secretly applaud our resistance to government guidelines or regard us as a threat?

    On the face of it, not much seemed to have changed, bar the ease with which we arrived at our destination. Say goodbye to long queues at Heathrow and hours spent wrangling with car hire operatives on the other side. Having sat on a largely empty flight, we sailed off in our Renault without excessive insult, muzzled in our masks.

    Upon arrival at our Air BnB villa, we were greeted with the usual froideur, shown the swimming pool and told to watch out for the mosquitos. So far, so normal. It was only when we strayed from our isolation station that things started to look a little odd. Sitting in the local café with our Oranginas lined up we were greeted less with Allo Allo style animosity than abject curiosity, as if our presence qualified us as stark staring mad. “You came from Eeengland?” stammered one waiter; forget the Nazis, this was a totally different type of occupation, one where the foe was more an object of fascination than fear.

    On market day – typically an excuse for the English to get half-crushed buying soap and lavender bags for their lavatories – we found ourselves walking through almost empty streets with nothing like the usual fight for a lunch table, or even a Provencal tablecloth for that matter.

    For the Brits, the French Summer Holiday is governed by a set of well-worn rules, a sort of annual humiliation that we sign up to because France is France and the magic persists. And yet, in this most unusual of summers, the rules seem to have changed. To visit France despite the rising number of Covid cases left us diplomatically stranded, scrutinizing the eyes behind the masks for the usual cues. The framework upon which we experience France has evaporated like germs under hand sanitizer.

    As we left, we found out that the owners of our villa had been the only ones in the village to contract Covid. Should they have declared this? Non. We were only a few filthy rosbifs after all. Not everyone, it seems, has forgotten the rules.