Strasbourg | COVID and Literal Burglary

Terribly! That’s how my first week in France has gone. Terribly!

Today marks day number eight in my new home city. The first three days or so before everything went awry passed very pleasantly; the weather has been nothing but lovely, and each warm evening was spent dining and chatting at the small table set up beneath the walnut tree at the end of Jeanne’s parents’ garden. I knew the French like to take their mealtimes slower than we piggy Britons – who wolf down our grub without a thought so we can move on to the boozing portion of the affair all the quicker – but I wasn’t prepared for the vast chunk of time one must book out of one’s evening for eating in France.

Meals here always seem to be presented in a large central dish, which you then serve yourself from, rather than portions being divvied up in the kitchen and slid onto the table with the amounts pre-determined. In France, therefore, mealtimes are less ‘here, eat this exact amount of food I have arranged for you then fuck off’ and more ‘hey, let’s hang out and ladle individual potatoes onto our plates while we chat about our days’.

I like eating this way – leisurely, indulgent – although after the one hour mark I do find myself fidgeting. What’s interesting is that even when the food is gone and conversation has petered out, all the French people I’ve shared meals with won’t simply clap their hands, push back their chairs and say ‘well, that was lovely’. Instead they’ll just sit, quite silent, for twenty seconds or more, until somebody starts a new conversation. As an Englishman I wouldn’t dream of allowing such a silence; in fact I’d do just about anything to avoid it. “I shat myself on a hostel roof once!” I will blurt, desperately, sacrificing myself upon the alter of dignity for the sake of ninety more seconds of conversation.

The first Bad Thing occurred on Thursday last week. It was thirty-something degrees outside, and I’d spent the morning sat in bed reading with the window cracked fully open. The bedroom is on the ground floor, but due to the design of the house the bottom of the window is still a good six or seven feet off the ground. Jeanne’s parents’ house sits on a large, gated plot of land a good way back from the street, so I don’t feel overlooked at all. Occasionally a fly would come whizzing into the room and I’d groan and bat it outside once more with a book, but on the whole it was a pleasant and tranquil afternoon.

At lunch I went into the living room, where Jeanne was sitting on her laptop, working remotely at her job in Bristol. We ate bread and cheese together on the sunny terrace outside, and after lunch I slumped in a chair in the living room to spend an hour or so looking at potential apartments to rent. It was at this point that I heard a flutter of footsteps close by. Jeanne had headphones on so didn’t look up, but I was able to glance outside quick enough to see three teenagers in caps and trackies come jogging to a halt just on the other side of the glass. “Er, Jeanne?” I murmured, watching as the trio yelled to one another harshly before sprinting across the garden and hopping a wire fence, riving it out of shape in the process.

I grabbed Jeanne and we ran outside, just in time to see the teenagers disappearing over subsequent garden fences. One of them had got his trousers caught on a vine, and was hopping around trying to free himself as his loyal companions vanished over the horizon.

“EY!” bellowed Jeanne in the most you-wot-mate voice I’ve ever heard her conjure, “ÇA VA PAS?”

We heard a man calling from around the front of the property, and headed round to find one of Jeanne’s parents’ neighbours standing at the front gate looking concerned. After a rapid-fire exchange in French, during which I kicked stones and observed the clouds overhead,  Jeanne informed me that the neighbour had been passing our house and had seen the three boys in the garden, trying and failing to give one of the them a leg-up into the open bedroom window. The neighbour had yelled at them and they’d scattered, scrambling round the house in search of an exit. That’s when I’d seen them.

“I’m going after them,” said Jeanne, slipping on a pair of purple Crocs and rolling up her sleeves.

“What?” Why?”

“I want to make them understand they can’t do it to this house.”

“So you’re going to chase them?” I asked.

“Yes.”

“And what will you do when you catch them?”

“I will talk to them and tell them off.”

“And the three teenagers who decided it was a good idea to burgle the front window of your house, ten metres from the pavement, in broad daylight, will stand and listen to your lecture?”

“Yes.”

“And what if they hit you.”

“They can try.”

They can- Jeanne you’re five foot three and you weigh nothing! I could take you as carry-on baggage with EasyJet!”

We argued like this for several minutes until we were both red in the face and fuming, then exhaled, hugged, and apologised. When we told Jeanne’s parents about it as they returned from work in the evening, they only sighed and chuckled. “Kids. There’s nothing worth stealing in the house anyway,” they shrugged.

On Friday Jeanne and I went to a flat viewing. My French is improving – I am now at the level where I can hold an extremely tedious and uninteresting conversation – but we agreed it would be best if, for the viewing, I was mute. Better to stay silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt, and all that. We wore masks to the viewing, which was for an apartment near the train station. I understood nothing of what Jeanne and the landlady discussed, and instead occupied myself with pacing through the various little rooms of the property inspecting plug sockets and light fittings with what I hoped was an convincing air of masculine competency.

The place was tiny but had a certain charm. Meandering back through Petite France together after – still clad in our surgical masks; you have to wear them even outside now – Jeanne explained that she forgot to ask certain key questions, but she thought that it seemed alright. It wasn’t too overlooked, there was plenty of light, the living room was a decent size and there was a balcony where we could recline on an evening and reminisce about the days when we used to smoke. In the end we decided against it. After being thoroughly harrowed by a 5-month lockdown spent largely in one room, I think it’s fair to hold out for somewhere with a little more room to breathe.

That evening we met up with nine or ten of Jeanne’s friends, sitting in the Square Louise Weiss, with a beautiful view of Quai de la Bruche, along which we could watch diners on the cobbles beneath river-reflected streetlamps and coloured awnings. The grassy square was full of groups sitting in circles and drinking beneath a starry sky. Every few minutes somebody new would roll up and join us, heralding their own arrival with the ding of a bicycle bell, which would be followed by a chorus of cheering and ‘ça va?’

It was intimidating meeting Jeanne’s friends. I used to have a recurring dream when I was a kid that I was invited to attend Hogwarts. I’d row across the lake and sweep into the Great Hall alongside all the other first years, and then I’d sit at the table beside Harry and Ron and Hermione. Harry would say something like ‘We have to defeat Lord Voldemort’, to which Ron would reply ‘Don’t let Professor Snape hear you or he’ll send us into the Forbidden Forest!’, and Hermione, her hair a great wild bush, would say ‘You silly boys, our wizarding exams are more important!’ Finally I’d lean over, seeking to make friends, and say something like ‘haha, yeah man, this school is fucking bonkers, right?’

Then I’d be aggressively crucio’d by all the chavs in fifth year.

It was the same feeling with her friends: they’ve already got their characters sorted out. I don’t know who is who, but within the group you can bet there’ll be a funny one, a smart one, a trouble-maker, a romantic one, a bitchy one, a dreamy one, a sporty one, and whatever else. Everybody seems to have their ‘thing’, and they all mesh together perfectly. Many of Jeanne’s mates have been friends since their ages were in single digits. Where will I come into play, this odd English boy who talks like he’s been anaesthetised? It remains to be seen.

That evening, Jeanne found out she was made redundant from her job in Bristol via an email from her HR department. It wasn’t entirely unexpected what with the Worldwide Bad Vibes, but it was still a nasty shock. Around the same time, a creeping sore throat prevented me from being particularly vocal in my attempts to console her. We went to bed tipsy and sad and confused.

I awoke on Saturday morning with a splitting headache and a fever of 39C (that’s 102F, mum). My throat was on fire, and my voice was all deep and sexy like Benedict Cumberbatch’s. My muscles ached, I was coughing, and it hurt even to move my eyes while reading my phone. Jeanne’s mum booked me into the family doctor along with Jeanne, who was concerned about a similar soreness in her throat. The doctor was friendly and performed several simple check-ups, and booked us both in for a Coronavirus test.

The rest of the weekend was filled with sniffles: the morose sniffles of a redundant girl, and the vile, phlegmy sniffles of a disease-crippled boy. However, we’re nothing if not determined. This morning we woke up bright and early in the separate bedrooms we are currently occupying as a precaution, drank a coffee together on the terrace, and cycled through the city’s leafy suburbs to a makeshift clinic set up in an old garage, where we were summarily penetrated by lengthy white Covid swabs. We cycled back together at a leisurely pace, discussing the odd experience of having a thin rod jammed into your head. Jeanne’s in the living room right now searching for new jobs. I’m in the bedroom as I write this, and once I’ve hit send on this bad boy I’m going to join her.

It’s been a hectic first week, and despite some fat-ass speedbumps, there’s all to play for. The sun’s shining.

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