“We are at war.”
When French president Emmanuel Macron addressed these words to the French people yesterday (March 16)—that’s when it hit me. That things were about to get worse. Borders would close. I might not see my parents, who live in Paris, for weeks, or even months.
This is “a public health war, certainly,” Macron said, and there are no armies or weapons. The enemy in this case isn’t another state; it’s “invisible, elusive, and it progresses.” It’s a rapidly-spreading disease, Covid-19, that has infected almost 200,000 people and killed close to 7,000 people globally. In response, the European Union, the new epicenter of the pandemic, has closed its borders to foreigners and banned all non-essential travel.
Admittedly, I have no experience with war. But I tend to think that, when a country declares war, the last thing one would want to do is go there. And yet that’s exactly what I did: As soon as Macron’s speech was over, I rushed to book a ticket on the 10:24 am Eurostar train from London to Paris—the last one before France’s border closed to foreigners at noon.
It turns out I wasn’t alone. St Pancras station felt both full and empty this morning, because almost everyone there was getting on the same train. The newspapers lining the wall weren’t exactly lightening the mood. “Britain in Lockdown” (The Times of London). “The public health situation is deteriorating rapidly” (Le Monde). For the Financial Times, it was a scary photo of a man in an orange hazmat suit taking someone’s temperature.
The train was full, and as someone who often does this exact journey between London and Paris, I immediately noticed a difference: People were chatting. French people aren’t known for being talkative, and yet passengers were leaning across aisles, exchanging information on where they were coming from and where they were trying to go.
The mood on the train was both anxious and cheerful. When I got to my seat, Joanne Tessier and Yves Reid, a couple from Quebec, were wiping down the table with antibacterial wipes. Reid looked up and said “don’t worry, we don’t have any symptoms.” Overkill, I asked myself? But then I joined in.
Tessier and Reid had been traveling since March 16 in Spain and England. They were supposed to fly back to Canada next Saturday, but found out this morning that borders were closing. They packed in a rush to get on the last train to Paris and fly home from there. They were speaking to Patricia, an older French woman who left her husband behind in the UK because she felt more comfortable dealing with the medical system in France. “It feels a bit apocalyptic,” says Patricia, whose flight to the Southern French city of Marseille was canceled. She hoped to get a flight from Paris instead.
“Nothing appears to have changed,” she said. “And yet, everything is different today.”
The mood on this train was similar to the mood across Europe right now: Confusion, and a bit of fear too. “This reminds me of the year I went to Hungary,” said Brigitte, a French national who was visiting her daughter in England, but cut her visit short when she heard Macron’s speech. She was referring to the late 1980s, when she was among the first groups of western European tourists allowed into Hungary without visas after the fall of the Iron Curtain. “So, I’m always either first or last.”