The coronavirus is the closest thing to a worldwide shared experience since World War II. Very few areas of the world aren’t being affected in some way by the virus and by COVID-19, the respiratory illness it causes. The Rockford Register Star is reaching out to Rock River Valley natives throughout the world to discover how their lives have changed.
Anna Farbotko is a 2000 Hononegah High School graduate who moved to France after earning a bachelor’s degree in French and studio art from Beloit College in 2004. She worked as a professor of English at various French schools beginning in 2004, and now she is an English coach for professionals in the Grenoble, France, area who want to learn the language for international business or who just want to maintain their current fluency level. She provided her answers on April 12.
How did you end up in France and in that profession? I wanted to travel after obtaining my bachelor’s degree, so I came to France for a year to teach English to teenagers. During that year, a woman from the town I was assigned offered me a permanent position in graduate school in industrial logistics. The school then sponsored me to stay and work in France. The best part of my job was working with their continuing education program, so I made the switch to work independently with adults in 2008 and got a master’s degree in adult education and training from a French university in 2011.
When did you first hear about the coronavirus? I think it was in December. I don’t really remember because in the beginning we didn’t think it was a threat. I’m positive that we were talking about it regularly in late January, though. There were some unfortunate instances of discrimination against Asians in Paris at that time since the virus originated in China, and I remember reading that in the news.
When did it begin affecting your life? In February, one of my trainees canceled two training sessions to go on a business trip to Singapore. Then he called me back and said we could maintain those sessions in the end because the trip had been canceled due to the coronavirus. Then the companies where I work started implementing measures for external consultants like me, saying that anyone who had recently traveled to China or other high-risk places would need to self-quarantine for 15 days and promise to not come to the company.
By March, business meetings of more than two people were forbidden in one company where I give face-to-face training sessions, and workers would regularly come into the meeting room while I was there to either clean the floor or wipe door handles and light switches with alcohol solution.
March 12 was the last day I worked on-site in a company. On March 15, all of my courses became telephone calls, videoconferences or were postponed until further notice. On March 17, at noon, all of France was quarantined.
What is life like for you now? Since it’s fairly easy for me to work from home, and I was already doing so two days a week, my life has not changed much. My partner is an independent mechanical engineer, so he also is used to working from home. We used to live in the center of a city and decided to leave last July and move to the mountains. We are in a fairly remote location with a sunny backyard, no neighbors and a view of the mountains, so it is an ideal location to be quarantined.
The big difference has been going to the grocery store. We only go once every two weeks and sometimes have to wait in line to enter because only a certain number of people are allowed in at a time.
We also each have to bring a signed, government-issued paper with us every time we leave our house. We have to include our name, date and place of birth, address and the time we leave our house, and we have to check a box that corresponds to our reason for leaving. The only valid reasons are: going to work if it’s impossible to work from home, and you need a signed letter from your employer stating so; going to the supermarket, pharmacy or post office; going to a medical appointment; helping a sick family member of bringing kids to the other parent’s house when parents are separated, going to a court or legal appointment and exercise.
Exercise only includes walking or jogging — no biking — and must be completed within one kilometer from home and for one hour maximum. That is actually longer than the government had authorized at the beginning of confinement, which was 500 meters from home for 15 minutes. I think they realized imposing such severe limitations on people’s exposure to fresh air would impact mental health so they increased the distance and duration.
Since March 12, I have left our house twice, once to go to the grocery store and once to go for a job. My partner and I ran one kilometer up the mountain, one kilometer back, and then one kilometer down in the opposite direction and one kilometer back! Even though we are in a fairly remote location, we want to respect the rules in solidarity with those who don’t have the luxury of living outside of the city.
How long is your government saying this is likely to last? They are being vague regarding an end date because I think they really don’t know. I think most people prefer their honesty instead of hearing promises that will ultimately be broken. Our quarantine is established in two-week increments and extended by another two weeks each time.
The prime minister, Edouard Philippe, has stated that the quarantine will likely end sooner in some regions than others, and that it will happen progressively, with different sector of activity restarting before others.
What do you miss on a daily basis that you never thought you’d miss? Hiking! We are avid hikers and each week would go for at least one five-hour hike. I miss seeing the mountain tops and taking photos.
That’s more of a weekly activity than daily, though. I also miss riding my bike, especially now that the weather is nicer. But, overall, it has been fairly easy to adapt.
Are there any positives? I’m actually still busy with work, both teaching and translating, and I’m taking two graduate-level classes online so I don’t have a lot of free time. But a lot of French friends from the city where we used to live have been asking us to Skype with them. It’s been nice seeing their faces and saying hello to their kids.
I’m also passionate about art, so I’ve started a new drawing to work on between work and classes. And I’ve sprouted a ton of seeds so I’ll be planting a big vegetable garden soon. I’ve seen tons of wild animals frolicking around outside, which has been a joy. They usually hide all day.
Have you lost anyone close to COVID-19? Fortunately no! I found out today that I have a friend who has contracted it and has been really sick, but not sick enough to be hospitalized. Last week, none of contacts, in or out of work, knew anyone with COVID-19, and today three people told me about people they know who are sick. So it is spreading fast.
I think it’s important to remember that there are two sides to this quarantine. While a lot of people are highlighting the benefits for the environment and for families who don’t spend enough time together, it is a completely different story for those who are living in worry and fear or who have lost a loved one.
I’m lucky to be on the good side of this quarantine and remain sensitive to those who are not. I do worry about my parents in Roscoe. If they become severely ill, it would be unimaginably hard for me to be trapped here and not able to go back and help. I hope they don’t mind me constantly telling them to stay home.
How do you think life might change when this is over? People are slowing down, cooking more, reducing unnecessary consumption and taking more time to connect with faraway friends and family. Hopefully, those will become long-term habits.
I also hope companies will be more accepting of employees who wish to work from home and create a better balance between family life and their jobs. That would reduce the number of cars on the road at rush hour and provide cleaner air, especially in the polluted valley surrounding Grenoble. The difference already is remarkable.
We have seen positive effects on our planet, especially in the air and sea, which hopefully will push world leaders to make more sustainable economic and environmental decisions for the future.
Alex Gary is a freelance correspondent