Evacuated from France: Publicly, Privately Grieving

france landmark lights night

Malaena Caldwell

“Malaena! I thought that was you! How was France?!” They always ask with a tone of optimistic curiosity but with eyebrows furrowed full of pity. 

I look at them with paralyzing fear while trying heavily not to roll my eyes and click my tongue. I moan quietly, “Who’s asking now?” and try to puzzle piece together the eyes I probably looked at casually so many times before when they were my only reliable source of identity. I try to hide the twinkle of infatuation in my eyes and am always thankful for the accessory of the century, hiding my wince of grimace as I pause, reflecting on how I am going to reply.

“Marvelous.” “Amazing.” “Some of the best moments of my life.” “I’ve never felt more at home within myself despite being an ocean away from where I grew up.”

But I never answer with any of these. These replies belong to a different time, a different world that no longer exists. 

“Short.” I always retort back. 

With the illusion of transparency social media creates, people think they have the right to pry.

I have seen most of my closest friends since my sudden evacuation from France on March 16th –  an anniversary I wish I could forget. But not my acquaintances, my Facebook friends, and Instagram followers, with whom I did not make special plans before I left in December 2019. These people only know my life from small talk at a mutual friend’s party, through the lens and updates on social media. Or they coincidentally bump into me between the aisles of the supermarket, something that has become my second worst fear every time I leave the house. Everyone always asks. It hurts to remember what happened, and I try to repress what could have been.

With the illusion of transparency social media creates, people think they have the right to pry. Before I left, I had a public Instagram countdown leading up to my departure. Why would I stop sharing now? I used to give the extended version of the story, the accessible, public Facebook posts that lured my ‘friends’ into indulging themselves whenever they had the chance. 

But people are only ever interested in looking at the pictures and skimming. It’s easier to exploit and digest than to take the time out to understand the reality. When I began to unravel critical details about how my whole life was disrupted and upheaved in a matter of 18 long, excruciating, nonstop hours, I was interrupted and reminded how everyone’s life endured similar side effects – which is not true at all. People have died. Families have been torn apart and experienced more financial hardships than ever before. Unemployment is at an all-time high. Increasingly more people are being evicted and going hungry. Everyone’s experiences are valid, but no two stories are the same. But if it isn’t directly applicable, leaving a ‘like’ is the same thing as personally reaching out. That’s the beauty of social media: the choice to engage when it’s convenient and self-validating. People wanted the TL;DR, or summary, of my evacuation. In a time where social media was critical to break down social barriers, no one wanted to face the one I was putting up: We did not experience the same start of the pandemic. So, I limited my story to 280-character tweets.

The Stages of Grief:

1. Denial

When I first heard about COVID-19, it was in a passing conversation between my mom and me over facetime. At the time, it was nothing but the flu. 

“I think it is going to become more serious than you realize. I don’t think it’s just going to be the flu. I think it’s going to come hard and fast, and when it comes, I think we need to have a back-up plan in place to get you out.” My mom warned. 

“I don’t think it will come to that, Mom.” I retort back sarcastically. 

I had her on speaker while sifting through Twitter. By that time, I should have known it was already too late – the infestation started with reluctance to admit. 

Acknowledging my mom was right to have a concern was like when I was little, and I ran away so she couldn’t check my head for the lice we already knew were there. Only this time, I would have given anything to have a nose-burning, magic shampoo to wash this bug away.

The week before the world shut down, I had gone on a Spring Break trip to Madrid, Spain. Spain was my last “normal” week. Even though I started every morning tracking the rising cases, my classmates and I ended every night aimlessly, leaving fully packed, maskless clubs wistfully promising, “Life will settle down, once mercury gets out of retrograde.” I have not eaten at a sit-down restaurant since.

2. Anger

My anger paralleled the spike in cases and the CDC preventative measures: relentless and abrupt. As I was notified from friends and family back home how schools and workplaces were shutting down, I was infuriated to watch most of my peers carelessly hop on a plane to officially start their “early summer vacation.” Meanwhile, I consoled my mom, promising her a flight would become available to make sure I got home in one piece. My mom had begged me to come home earlier, but I refused because my university did not initially guarantee my credits to transfer if I “withdrew from the program.” 

            Having less than 12 hours to figure out a plan to leave, I evacuated, leaving a suitcase behind because I knew I couldn’t handle two. This felt like a personal attack. A sentence for a crime I did not commit. I try to live my life honestly. I worked 80-hour workweeks in the summer. I applied to 9 scholarships and received six – granting me enough money to pay for my abroad experience out of pocket. I remained committed to the cheer team at home, continuously participated in my sorority, and maintained a 4.0 GPA. I finished another scholarship application on the plane from Charles de Gaulle to New York. Still, I came home distressed only to watch people party.

Meanwhile, I had continually watched my dreams disintegrate right before my eyes, all while fearing for my life. I hoped that I had not brought the virus home that could not only possibly drown my asthmatic lungs but also those of my 80-year-old grandma. The experience had me questioning: where was the justice?

3. Bargaining

Maybe, if I had been smarter and applied to study abroad the semester before, this would have never happened. 

Maybe, if I would have started college with a better understanding of what my future looked like, I could have avoided or predicted this. 

Maybe, if I would have stopped and realized that life was going too well for me and be more practical instead of letting my blind dreams lead the way, I would have seen this coming. 

Maybe, if I would have lied when my friend asked, “Are you excited?!” during the ride home on my last night in town, I would not have declared my self-fulfilling prophecy by confessing, “Yes, but I am worried about everything changing while I am gone.” Maybe, if I had been more shameful and kept my mouth shut. Maybe if they understood how wrong they were when reassuring me, “Don’t worry about everything changing while you’re gone. Life will go back to normal as soon as you get back for summer, only this time you’ll have more stories to tell” they would have bitten their tongue. 

Maybe if these were not my famous last words, things would be different.

Maybe if I did not blame myself, things would be different.  

4. Depression

While I was finishing up my study abroad from the “comfort” of my kitchen table, I had an assignment in my “Cultures and Society” class. The irony was that neighbors did not surround me for miles as I quarantined in my tiny cottage in Northern Michigan. I had to print out a map of the RER, the metro in Paris, and outline which routes to take to arrive at specific historical and tourist sites. I printed the pages and ironed them down on the table to make sure not a single creased corner interrupted my navigation. I did not even get past my hypothetical confusion of which stop to get off at to find the Palace of Versailles before tears started welling up in my eyes, and I blurted out:

“I’ll never find out this information firsthand for myself.”

My mom tried to comfort me and make empty promises that we would return after the world returns to normalcy. A guarantee that I would see all these sites one day.

But how can everyone be so sure? People spend their entire life thinking the world begins and ends in white picket fence neighborhoods’ confines. How do I know I won’t grow up and forget the Petit Prince and die before I could ever return?

No one shared a similar experience, yet everyone had an opinion.

I did not talk to anyone when I got home. I felt like a celebrity whose nasty divorce was publicized, and I lost the visitation rights. I walked out of the courtroom, and everyone was there, ready to surround and berate me with questions. No one shared a similar experience, yet everyone had an opinion. Everyone knew what I was going through. Like a celebrity power couple, I had naively plastered it all over social media for months. Now, I had to go through the humiliation of rebranding while everyone was waiting to discover more details about my public breakup when I was still processing what had happened.

5. Acceptance

I am not sure if I am entirely at this stage yet. As I look at snapchats from a year ago today, the future and present only mock what the past’s ignorance did not yet know. My trip to France already feels like a distant dream as I reflect on my time with the wisdom and knowledge of the current reality. It feels like a lifetime ago because the life I knew before and during France no longer exists. I returned home to entirely different circumstances than when I left, and I am still trying to piece together a new normal. 

My most cherished memories are the ones I spent exploring France alone. Spending three hours at the local art museum appreciating every minute detail of the French Renaissance, gazing so near that I could count the brush strokes. I wandered around Paris in between trains stumbling onto hidden treasures. I would read at a local café where I could practice my French with the locals. Tranquility washed over me during those romantic moments alone, where I finally learned to trust myself.

Although there is a “short” summary of what happened, it’s a never-ending one:

I was evacuated from France.

I was evacuated from France within 18 hours.

I was evacuated from France within 18 hours without proper PPE.

I was evacuated from France within 18 hours without proper PPE, and I had to leave a second suitcase there.

I was evacuated from France within 18 hours without proper PPE, and I had to leave a second suitcase there while relying on strangers’ kindness to help me leave safely.

Every moment felt like an infinite lapse in time while the surrounding, constant chaos forced time to escape from me. 

Not everyone will choose to engage with my story. Some will decide to remain voyeuristic, while others will simply unfollow, and few will be committed to helping me cope “IRL” (in real life).

But when I got home, what this lonely pain did was inspire me to write. I had never considered myself a writer until then, and I probably never would have without it. Writing brought me the connection and intimacy I once thought social media provided without the shame of public vulnerability. I was able to share as much as I wanted without resistance. Social media can help relationships eliminate geographical barriers, but only after overcoming the obstacle of the screen. My stories here are not the only stories that took place. I choose the best ones out of a lifetime of writing material to maximize audience engagement, hoping they were interesting enough to read to the end. Maybe that is the serendipitous end, where I finally learn my journey was anything but short. 

TL;DR: I was evacuated from France, and I am still coming to terms with it.  

Malaena Caldwell is double majoring in French Language and Literature and Creative Writing with a specialty in literary nonfiction. She attends Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan and is planning to graduate in April 2022. She was supposed to be in France for six months when the pandemic hit, forcing her to evacuate before she was even there for 90 days. Malaena has been studying French since she was thirteen. Before continuing with higher education, she hopes to go back to France and finish the experience she has always dreamed about. In the end, Malaena hopes to travel around the world writing before settling down and becoming a French professor in Canada – a perfect blend of American and French Cultures. She would love to connect via LinkedIn to share and hear other experiences regarding the pandemic. 

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