Day One, Monday, March 16
We took the decision on Sunday. On Monday morning my middle son helped me load the car with essentials. Knives and forks, a couple of plates, a flashlight in case of motorway breakdown and the need to change a tyre, my favourite chair and a camping table still in its box, an inflatable bed, my desktop computer and a printer, both bought in France several years since, and toilet paper we had bought three months ago at my wife’s insistence.
He wanted to come with me, to help with the drive. I know that he wouldn’t do well if France went into lockdown. Sadly, I left him behind. I took my wife to work. Dropped her in the usual place. We said goodbye. I had to turn away to hide a tear. How everything has changed in a matter of days.
By four in the afternoon I was in Dover, waiting, with not many others for the ferry to Calais. As the boat approached the French coast, President Macron made a televised address. By the time I drove off the ferry it was clear that I’d made the right choice, to leave England as soon as I could. The French had taken action to fight the virus that has upturned all our lives, while Britain, as usual, opted to take its own misinformed path with talk about ‘herd immunity,’ and other drivel dreamed up by a disgrace of a Prime Minister who’d found experts to back up his Thatcherite vision of individual freedom and no society.
I drove south until midnight, stopped at two service areas, only a handful of gendarmes chatting with underworked staff. No-one bothered me. Coffee from a machine.
Day Two, Tuesday, March 17
Four hours’ sleep in the car. Frequent stops. At the Montelimar service area south of Lyon the sun was out, lots of people, walking the dog, playing foot, using the loos. They all looked so slim. Just like any other day on a major autoroute in France, except some people opened the doors to the public toilets with their sleeves and elbows. A hint of apprehension in the air, of time running out, and a convoy of army trucks leaving and heading south.
It was five in the afternoon when I reached Monaco, 24 hours after boarding the ferry. My biggest fear was unfounded. I had a choice between two parking spots, not very far from the apartment in Beausoleil that I had visited only once before. Fed the meter. By the time I’d unloaded the car there was no energy left to inflate the mattress. I slept well on the floor of our new apartment.
Day Three, Wednesday, March 18
The police in France have started to issue fines to those unfortunates who happen to be caught out of doors without the paperwork. Good job I’d brought the printer. Armed with my ‘attestation,’ I crossed the invisible line into Monaco to buy essentials. One small piece of good news is that the Monaco Town Hall has suspended parking charges, so the car should be safe and unmolested until someone takes offence at a foreign car taking up a parking space for more than a couple of days.
Prince Albert delivers a statesman-like address to Monegasques, residents, and friends of the Principality. I am touched to be included. He appeals to everyone’s sense of civic duty, for the need to stay apart, but also to work together in solidarity to beat the epidemic. I am very impressed. The contrast with PM Johnson is acute.
Day Four, Thursday, March 19
Across Europe the news is dire. A whole generation has been wiped out in Lombardy. Nurses and doctors among the casualties. No masks. No gloves. I take the last things from the car. I have no problems. Meanwhile, in the UK it’s business as normal. Restaurants and pubs are open. There’s no understanding whatsoever of the tsunami that’s about to hit.
Day Five, Friday, March 20
On one of the rare occasions that I admit to being over 70 I take advantage of the fact that Super Marche U is giving priority to seniors during the first hour of opening. I buy essentials, milk, bread and wine, and something to eat. Later in the day, Monaco is shocked to learn that Prince Albert has tested positive for coronavirus. Starting to recover from my 30-hour drive.
Day Six, Saturday, March 21
One quick trip to Costa for half a baguette. I’m wearing gloves as well as a mask. No-one can recognise me, always an advantage in my case. Speak to my family in UK, share a private joke with my wife. We laugh hysterically and she presses the wrong button and then texts me to say sorry and goodbye.
Day Seven, Sunday, March 22
Isolation is starting to hit me. Stay on the mattress as long as I can. By the time I get off it, with difficulty, I find it’s already 6:15. Back to Costa where I splash out on a Tarte aux Fruits – four euros – something I would not have dreamt of buying last time I was here. I seek consolation in small things, and in good food and wine. Back up the hill, staggering across into French territory, along Square Andre Kraemer, named after the 17 year-old boy executed by the Germans in August, 1944.
I tap my top pocket to check I’ve got my piece of paper. Back in the flat, I play Handel’s organ concertos on the desktop as loudly as I dare.
Only bad news. Six more cases of coronavirus in Monaco. I spend what seems like half the afternoon trying to stare out a collared dove sitting on a telegraph pole. The dove, not me. The bird wins, although she does blink a few times.
…to be continued for longer than we would like
Jeff Daniel’s contributions are published in the interests of editorial diversity, and any views expressed are not necessarily those of the publishers.