Snapshots of pandemic life, part 4

May 20, 2021

Nicole Matusinec ’94

Nicole teaches at the American Business School of Paris and elsewhere and lives in Châtenay-Malabry, France.

Below, Nicole reflects on pandemic life in France.

Spring is here! Blue skies, flowers budding, birds chirping—and another (semi) lockdown in Ile-de-France, where we live in Châtenay-Malabry, a Parisian suburb 10 kilometers south of the City of Lights.

Three words come to mind when reflecting upon what lessons COVID has taught me: awareness, resilience, and patience.

Nicole Matusinec at the Parc de Sceaux, France

How it started

The first full-scale “shelter in place” lockdown was enforced from March to May 2020. I had to embrace patience as a working single mother in creating the right balanced rhythm in our daily routine of . . .

. . . helping my seven-year-old boy with 3.5 hours of schoolwork per day;

. . . physical exercise (thank goodness we have a yard and long driveway where he can freely run, ride his bike, and play soccer!);

. . . and of course shifting my own entrepreneurial habits into a new routine of working from home.

The first lockdown in France was a complete shutdown of businesses classified as nonessential, leaving only supermarkets, banks, and pharmacies open, for the most part.

If we left our homes, we had to have a government-issued permission slip stating where we were going and how long we were out—and we were only allowed one hour per day for a grocery shop, doctor’s appointment, or other critical outing.

We could go out for walks within a one-kilometer radius from home, and it was quite frightening to see no cars on the road, hear no noise, and yet at the same time, we saw more neighbors outside on their daily walk around the block.  A sense of solidarity that we were not alone during this health crisis.

We all silently regret the cancellation of large-scale outdoor events such as . . .

. . . watching fireworks at the Eiffel Tower on New Year’s Eve;

. . . celebrating the national Bastille Day holiday on July 14;

. . . concerts, weddings, and family celebrations.

We are all waiting impatiently to return to museums and partake in cultural events. Yes indeed, cinemas, gyms, and museums have been closed as well since fall.

Nicole Matusinec and her son weather the pandemic together in France.

Politics, productivity, and resiliency

Let me give more context into what makes this unprecedented crisis so unique for us here in France.

After months of contradictory statements by the French government (as recently as December 2020 it made a promise to reopen all bars and restaurants on January 20, 2021, which was not honored, followed by a statement in mid-February that they would reopen in mid-May, which will not happen either), the general morale has grown to one of “confinement fatigue”: depression and frustration as the pandemic is still raging and new variants are being discovered.

As of writing this, only 1 percent of the French population has received their vaccine, which is disappointing. Tensions are high as to the lack of organization, the lack of supply, and the concerns over the AstraZeneca vaccine’s efficacy.

All of this has led to a slow vaccine rollout—even the health minister is not predicting a date for exactly when the French population will reach the threshold of herd immunity, or 60 percent of the population.

For the next four weeks, through April 2021, we are allowed to move about within a 10-kilometer radius of our home yet avoid going from one region to the next.

Working remotely is still highly encouraged, and in France, workers have proven to be 22 percent more productive while working from home (in the local parlance, loafers here are lovingly called charentaises)!

More productive? Personally I’m exhausted! It’s a lot more work than I ever could have imagined:

. . . balancing our daily needs,

. . . making even more meals,

. . . overseeing homework,

. . . tackling housework,

. . . and quite frankly, staying sane. (!)

Indeed, as a solopreneur, my time is already split between my mom role and a variety of professional assignments:

  • teaching intercultural studies and sustainable business for the American Business School of Paris and two other higher-education establishments
  • my role as acting board member of the Wells International Foundation (WIF). In March 2021, WIF hosted an evening of intergenerational mentoring with the American University of Paris.
  • and more.

The decision of the French government to transform all in-person trainings into virtual classes has created a new challenge in my schedule: that of hosting multiple courses online during the week via visioconference software such as Zoom or Microsoft Teams.

Since schools require that teachers give weekly assignments, this virtual environment has slowly grown to become the space where all conversations with students happen. Though shared through a digital medium, the exchanges have not lost authenticity and depth. Ideas and insights were carried by students over to the modern student hangout places: WhatsApp group conversation.

I had not anticipated that the shift to remote teaching would bring me closer to the students in my classrooms. I’m humbled to discover that in the middle of chaos lay an opportunity for me to grow, personally and as an instructor.

In 2020, teaching has taken a new meaning for me: to reach each and every student and be there to help them cope and develop resiliency during these trying times and beyond.

Resiliency is a key factor here, whether it is helping students have alternative plans or think differently about their (uncertain) future.

Embracing patience

Here is how I personally practice patience every day.

To start, fortunately my son and I live near the Parc de Sceaux and can visit the gardens to recharge in nature when staying home proves to be stressful!

Then, in our community in Châtenay, primary and secondary schools have been open full-time for the children since September 2020, and I am grateful for all the support of our community to keep our children safe.

The mayor has publicly declared that masking up is required for children age six and older, so in our town we are confident that viral spread has been curbed, though not eliminated.

Life goes on despite the unusual circumstances in our town (and country) with mandatory mask wearing. The biggest change, I would say, is more respect for others and paying attention to our habits.

There is now increased appreciation for things we had always taken for granted: discussions with neighbors, a focus on friends and family, as well as helping each other, checking in on one another, and reminding each other of the blessings we have for those who are healthy and have a roof over their heads.

What we are looking forward to the most is travel and being around family and friends and hopefully giving les bises, the traditional French cheek-kisses greeting.

Now more than ever, it is a propos to quote my mother’s acronym that she has used in every letter, card, and email over the last 27 years:

SHAS!

(Stay healthy and safe!)

Carla (Meyer) ’87 and Mark Hillman ’86

Carla and Mark teach at an international school in SĂŁo Paulo, Brazil.

How has the pandemic impacted your work?

In March, 2020, schools were closed. At that time, many airlines had also limited/discontinued flights, so we made the decision (along with many colleagues) to leave Brazil and return to our home in Minnesota. We had a two-week break to prepare, and then we launched our online school. We stayed in the States until September of this year, when we returned to Brazil because the government was getting ready to announce schools opening. Since October, we have been working both online and in person—our school runs at 30 percent capacity and every division has its own schedule, so it’s pretty crazy at times! We have excellent safety measures in place, and all students, staff, and faculty are being tested every week before being allowed on campus.

Mark and Carla Hillman celebrate Carnival with their daughter.

What has school looked like for your own kids over the past year?

We have older kids, but it’s been hard. Our daughter left Brazil and didn’t have IB exams, prom, or a graduation. Being an international student, she also lost the opportunity to say proper goodbyes and transition back to the US the way we had expected. She finished her senior year online and started college in August. She’s been fortunate to be on campus at her college and has had some face-to-face contact, but it’s been lonely and hard, especially with us so far away. Our middle son is in his final year of college, and everything’s been online. He’s been able to mix work and school, but this year he finally just came back to live at home because he felt lonely and isolated. They definitely have finished/are launching themselves under unfortunate circumstances, but they have managed to accomplish their goals and stay positive. One positive thing is that we spent the summer and fall with all of our children together (including our oldest adult son and his fiancĂ©e) all under one roof for one reason or another. For an international family, we felt very blessed to have that time together!

How has your neighborhood or city changed?

There were lockdowns while we were back in the States. Currently [late March] we are on a three-week severe lockdown because most hospitals are so overloaded. Brazil has approached the pandemic in some ways similar to the States with a less cohesive national plan or message. Most businesses require masks, and walking around you’ll see most people walking or exercising with masks on. That being said, Brazilians are very social, and many restaurants and bars have not instituted social distancing. On weekends/evenings you can see bars and restaurants filled with people and no masks. The police have raided private parties and clubs where hundreds of people were present.

Carla and Mark Hillman shared this photo of a mural by Eduardo Kobra in their home city of SĂŁo Paulo, Brazil.

What customs or celebrations have been practiced differently because of COVID?

The biggest has been the lack of attendance at soccer games and the cancellation of Carnival. Soccer is a religion here, and Paulistas LOVE their teams. Carnival has a two-week buildup of blocos (neighborhood street parties that can bring thousands of people together for dancing and celebrating) before the actual week with the parades. There was a definite empty feeling over Carnival week!

At its strictest, what measures did Brazil institute?

The strictest were last spring, when everything non-essential shut down, schools shut down, airlines reduced or stopped, and travel restrictions between countries were imposed. Some of these are still in place, but may not be instituted by Brazil, but rather by airlines or neighboring countries. Our current three-week situation is the same as it was last spring.

There have been limitations on school attendance in terms of numbers, and this past fall there were limitations on what we could do while on campus—for example, we couldn’t teach new content. Schools had to be able to have certain safety protocols in place to open, which meant that private schools could open, but public schools couldn’t. The reasoning was that private schools have an inherent advantage and if we continued to move forward with new content, public school students would fall even further behind. All schools are closed again now for three weeks, and those that can do distance learning continue with that model.

Masks are required, there are gel stations at every entrance, and you will see cleaning protocols in place in stores, but it’s not consistent. This current lock down is the second since we’ve been back in September and the most severe.

Are you satisfied with the measures that have been put in place? 

Like many people around the world, we are tired and frustrated. It’s hard to be patient. The Brazilian government has had similarities to the US in terms of mixed messaging and a distrust of science. Some areas of the country have been devastated by deaths, with mass graves being used and field hospitals established as new variants appear. The vaccination rollout has been delayed, but now seems to be gaining some ground and making progress, which is good news. Too many people, however, continue to disregard safety protocols and many of the poorest can’t really abide by them in terms of social distancing. At our school, we feel tremendously blessed by the heroic efforts that our school has put forth to meet the needs of teachers that are here from countries around the world, their work to keep us and our students safe COVID-wise, and how they have supported us to deliver the type of education we’re known for.

What do you look forward to about post-pandemic life?

Ahhhhhh. TRAVEL. One of the best parts of living internationally is the travel that we get to do, and we’ve missed that so much. Brazil is an enormous and incredibly beautiful country and there’s so much to see and do—and so many neighboring countries to explore as well! The other thing we’re dying to do is be back with our students full time face-to-face. To be able to hug my students or watch them shine on the field or on stage would be a dream come true.

Hannah Lund ’12

Hannah is a copy editor, fact checker, and translator in Shanghai, China, for media outlet Sixth Tone.

How has the pandemic impacted your work?

I’m very fortunate in that my work not only can be done remotely, but if anything becomes more necessary in times of crisis. I work as a copy editor/fact checker/translator for a China-based media outlet (Sixth Tone), so when the outbreak peaked in China, if anything we were busier! I will say on a personal level that the intensity was at times very difficult, especially when some of the things I was fact checking and translating were quite heartbreaking, but it was also gratifying to feel like the work we were doing was helpful in some way. Since the outbreak eased in China, things have also calmed at work, and it’s more or less back to what it was before.

Hannah Lund at the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain in Yunnan Province, China, on a weeklong hike in October 2020

How has your neighborhood or city changed?

There are still mask mandates on subways, and at times, people still check your health codes, but we’re basically back to normal. I’ve attended all sorts of live events and been able to go on hiking trips and outings with friends in a way that I know to be unfeasible in many places.

What customs or celebrations have been practiced differently because of COVID?

Lunar New Year ended up being impacted pretty directly both in 2020 and 2021 because of coronavirus clusters, and it mainly affected people’s abilities to travel back to their hometowns to visit family. I do think the Tomb-Sweeping Festival in 2020 was much more intense, since the government also had a national day of mourning around that time to acknowledge the trauma from the outbreak. Though I’m not Chinese, I will say I also took part and found it quite moving.

At its strictest, what measures did China institute? 

China was very strict, particularly the city of Shanghai. Mask wearing was immediately put in place, such that you would be turned away at certain venues or public transportation if you forgot to wear one. There are “health codes” marked green (good), yellow (iffy), and red (at-risk) for getting around. For about a month or so, most restaurants were closed, only doing takeout, and even then delivery companies had adopted “contactless” delivery and regularly took temperatures for the drivers/cooks and attached this information to deliveries (not that I really knew what to do with this information). Contact tracing is very strong here, to the point that when there was a small cluster in Shanghai just a couple months ago, they were able to isolate the exact street block to do mass testing, and the rest of the city went on as usual. Truly astounding!

Are you satisfied with the measures that have been put in place?

People are very satisfied with the measures that have been put in place. I’m also pretty satisfied with how things are and constantly feel lucky at all I am able to do unfettered and without social distancing. I travel around the country, I go to clubs, I go to orchestra concerts, I dine out, I’m able to run a writing group and plan writing retreats. That being said, I am alarmed by the country’s efforts to capitalize on this hard-won feeling of well-being and safety by obscuring the botched early days of the crisis, and also enraged at how efforts in other countries to stay cognizant of such missteps has led to an uptick in racism and hate crimes directed at people who have nothing to do with it. At the end of the day, I’m happy to be alive where I am in the world, and I still love China (and America!) even when it’s hard. Some days, with all that’s going on in the world, remembering that is enough!

Hannah Lund at the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain in Yunnan Province, China, on a weeklong hike in October 2020

What do you look forward to about post-pandemic life?

What I look forward to more than anything else is international travel opening up again. Currently, China’s policies are such that even expats with valid visas/residence permits cannot effectively enter the country. You can leave, but you can’t come back. As such, I haven’t seen my family for about a year and a half. I’ve missed weddings, holidays, and more, and have yet to meet my goddaughter. So while there are exciting celebrations for the all-clear, the first thing on my agenda is going home and seeing family again!