Without your family: interview with a French expat

As the world grapples with the coronavirus pandemic and its enormous fallout, expats experience an added layer of difficulty, living away from their home country, friends and family. Even if someone is living here in the Netherlands with their partner, there are undoubtedly friends and family who are living far away.

For me it’s been very hard, not only because my family is very far away in the United States, but also because my parents are right in the middle of the high-risk age bracket. Combine this with the US’s dropping of the ball in so many regards in the response to the crisis and it’s even more worrisome. The country has the opportunity to learn from so many other countries that have tried combinations of measures, and varying degrees of containment, such as mitigation, lockdown, testing, response and care, but still the US is trying to pave its own way in this epidemic. And with the rising numbers of victims on that side of the Atlantic, its approach does not seem to be working any better than that of any other state – even worse, given the enormous size of the country.

I speak with my family on an almost-daily basis, and through our conversations I’m beginning to get a broad picture of how this “go at it alone” attitude is trickling down to Americans. It took a long time for my parents to take this seriously, with my almost scolding them for going out for lunch, getting the car tuned up and “just one more trip to the grocery store”. It’s been stressful and worrisome on my end. And for them too, since their only daughter is so far away.

Still, through all of this, I – like most of us – have found pockets of inspiration, hope and joy in this crisis. We see it in all who are working on the “front lines”, those who are working behind the scenes and even in everyday life, with the people we meet and associate with.

I had the opportunity to speak with one expat whose family is living in France. While France may not seem too far away, it might as well be on the other side of the world with the current restrictions of travel and limited modes of transportation on the continent. Jean-Marc* shares is feelings and how he and his family are coping and finding joy in the time of COVID-19.

The Holland Times: It seems like such a general question, but how are you living and working away from your family during this crisis?

Jean-Marc: Even without a pandemic, it’s very difficult being away from my family! I have two large dogs and only my wife to take care of them. Now with the pandemic it’s been almost impossible to go home. I used to go home every weekend, but now with corona I haven’t be able to go home.

THT: Are you working from home? Could you work from home in France?

JM: No, I cannot work from home. I am on a contract and am able to work at the office because I work alone, so there is almost no danger there. My job also cannot be done at a different location.

THT: You obviously are in touch with your family daily. How are the conversations?

JM: They are actually quite good. The crisis is bringing out good qualities in all of us. Not to say my wife and family did not have good qualities before! [laughs] You know, it’s just now we really appreciate our conversations and what we have to say. My wife and I try to laugh and make funny jokes to keep us smiling. My father is a bit more difficult because of his age, but we are finding the joy in our phone calls; I cannot see him but I feel that he is also smiling.

THT: Yes, we all have to do what we can to get us through this crisis together. I like what you said: to find joy. What are other ways you are finding joy through all of this?

JM: It would be very easy to be sad and depressed, to think that world is in a very bad situation and will only get worse. Yes, this is the reality and we are seeing it each day. But we have to be strong and be strong together. This is something that brings me joy. My family is being strong. I am being strong. We are being strong. Even if we are not together. And it goes beyond that. We are being strong for the nurses and doctors, for the ambulance drivers, and they are being strong for us. And this will grow more and more, so this brings me joy.

THT: Do you share this joy of seeing the world be strong for each other with your family when you talk with them?

JM: Oh yes, we talk about this very often. Especially for the nurses and doctors and for the scientists and researchers who are working night and day for all of us. At first we talked about this when we were all wondering about the onset of this pandemic, but now we talk about it like, ‘Wow! These people are devoting everything they have to all of us!’ It gives us strength for each other and really makes us very emotional, in a good way. Yes, we have cried and been sad over this terrible thing, but we also have very good and happy emotions.

THT: It sounds like you and your family have hope that the world is coming together!

JM: It is! It is! We are all together in this. This is our problem, of all of us, and together we will find a way out of this. And we will learn from this too.

THT: Yes, it’s amazing to see the world come together the way we have seen it.

JM: Yes, it makes it easier to be in the situation I am in. But still it is very hard. Very hard. My father is older and sometimes I can hear he is worried. It’s in his voice. Sometimes the good things that we see aren’t enough to keep this reality from us.

THT: Have you tried to go home since the virus really started to take hold here?

JM: Before it became very dangerous, I went home. When I came back to the Netherlands, everything started to become serious, but I didn’t think much about not being able to go home, because this is Europe and we have no borders. So I didn’t go home the next weekend, but then the virus and the travel restrictions started. My wife and I decided to wait one more weekend and see how things would move along. And then it became quite serious and dangerous and now each day is more and more risky. The risk of going back home and come back here again, it’s a big risk. So I am here.

THT: Yes, traveling now is a big risk.

JM: So we now talk on the phone and do our best to keep a level head and mentality about everything. We know this will be over some day, so we do what we can to stay healthy for ourselves and for all the people around us. I occupy my time with Netflix and reading, and of course talking with my family. But I didn’t go out so much before the virus, so for me this is okay. I just miss my wife, my friends, my dogs and I’m sorry, but I do miss the wonderful French bakeries …

THT: Yes! Food is important! [laughing]

JM: You laugh, but I assure you that French bakeries make the best baguettes in the world! So for now I must eat what the Dutch think is a baguette, when really it is a long roll like you buy in the super market!

THT: Well, I hope that you are able to enjoy a wonderful French-baked baguette very soon in the company of your friends and family, and of course your dogs.

JM: Oh the dogs, they love baguette!

THT: Who doesn’t?! [laughs] Thank you for your time! And thank you for your great perspective on this crisis.

Final thoughts …

Jean-Marc is right. We have to find our joy in all of this. There will be very difficult and challenging times ahead for all of us, and each of us has our own unique situation that will only add to our own individual attitudes. Now more than ever it’s important for us to find out joy and share it with others. Together we can make it through this and will hopefully come out on the other side a more unified world.

*Name has been changed at the request of interviewee


Edition 10 April, by Marla Thomson