I thought escaping to France would preserve my children’s innocence. It wasn’t that easy.
I have been stopped by the gendarmes twice already since le confinement. They don’t like our British license plates.
“Why are you here?” they ask.
We came here in innocent times, I want to say. A month ago.
“We live here,” I say. I don’t say “accidentally.”
“Maybe you go home now?” one gendarme said with a disapproving pinch of his thin lips.
“Home to what,” I say into the windshield, looking up at the sky after he waves me away. I scowl at him in the rear-view mirror.
The nearby ski resort of Les Contamines was one of the first points of arrival for coronavirus in France. Now the outbreak is too widespread to risk the journey home to London.
* * *
Back in early March, my husband and I hadn’t been overly concerned with the virus. We reminded ourselves of the avian and swine flus—they hadn’t been so bad. “Lockdown” seemed like a distant possibility. The British press was cavalier; the prime minister was positively blithe. We thought our children’s school in London would be closed for a bit and would reopen after Easter break. Six weeks, max.
We welcomed the chance to take my children out of school. There was swearing, so much swearing, in my nine-year-old’s class that I was explaining terrible words and vile concepts on a daily basis.
“What is ‘cunt’?” he asked. I had little time to formulate an answer.
“I think you mean ‘can’t.’”
Then the next day: “What does ‘cock’ mean?”
“Cockerel? As in rooster?”
I had diverted him, but I knew these were only temporary saves. He would have heard the undertones of the words, and they didn’t match my translations. I was almost happy to have a reason to start social distancing.
My good friend Lucy was in Haute-Savoie, France on a year abroad with her children, and she sent short dispatches to me from the velvet mountains near Lake Annecy. I thought, “We will move there for a couple of months, my children will be at ease, and I will write my book.”
Our escape, I see now, was an attempt to slow another rate of transmission: my children couldn’t learn too many awful things in a language they didn’t know. It seemed crucial at the time to slow down their maturation, flatten the steep curve of learning obscenities. Instead, they would learn a new language, beginning fresh with the innocuity of colors and days of the week.
I didn’t understand what was coming; reports had described it as a bad case of flu. I tried to add up the facts, looking nervously to Italy, listening to assurances that the dire situation there was due to an aging population. No one had declared a global pandemic yet.
* * *
The little gîte where we moved is far up a mountain road behind Lucy’s village. She and I can’t meet anymore. Instead, we pretend spontaneous encounters in the Carrefour supermarché once a week, shopping at a two-meter distance. We have managed it twice so far.
“What are you going to make?” she wants to know.
“I need to buy something my children will eat,” I answer, pulling a loaf of pain de mie from the shelf. Pain de mie is a preserved loaf of sliced, spongy bread, something like Wonder Bread. The word mie means “crumb,” as in the texture of a bread loaf’s soft interior. It is the bread inside of a baguette. Pain de mie: the fact that the word is homophonic to “pandemic” is not lost on me. This weird word-association game feels like something to share with my children, but I stop myself. I buy pain de mie because I haven’t been able to find baguettes or fresh croissants for the last ten days.
I am translating the pandemic for my children into terms that suit their nascent psyches. This isn’t uncommon for me: I am a translator, both professionally and personally.
I like to filter and titrate. I dwell in between places and languages before I carry meaning across them.
“We are at war,” I tell my husband and children, translating Macron’s live lockdown speech on the evening of March 17th. “Be quiet.” I add to my smaller, bouncier child. “This is important.”
“We must all do our part,” Macron says. My children are wide-eyed. “We all have to be clever, like survival guys,” I say, pretending to translate. Macron has a sonorous gravitas to his voice. But his eyes shift with the teleprompts, and his pupils shrink from the bright lights. The boys look at the TV and then at me, and I see that this is too frightening for them. “The French president is saying that dandelions are good to eat. So is clover. Lots of vitamins.”
The children nod. We had seen the first dandelions of spring when we went for a walk earlier that day across the broad alpine meadows. At this point, I translate only the subtext: I hope we survive.
So, we observe one meter’s distance on our daily walks. We sterilize objects that have changed hands. In the market, I shrink from others not only because I worry other people have the virus but because I might have it, asymptomatically harming those around me without knowing. The virus is unstable and unpredictable in its expression, making some mortally ill and turning others into symptomless and unwitting carriers of death. We must avoid all contact now.
* * *
The children struggle to separate which of our strange, new practices are French and which are of the pandemic.
I tell my children to say “Bonjour, Madame” to the herboriste down the hill from us.
“The French always greet each other. You can’t walk past a person and ignore them here.”
“Bonjook Modom,” the older one whispers to himself, practicing his new words. They don’t understand why I keep telling them contradictory things: You can kick a ball to each other, but you can’t play soccer. Mud is clean, but the mailbox isn’t. Now come inside and wash your hands while you sing Joyeux Anniversaire twice.
“You told us they kiss cheeks to say hello,” my younger child says, as though I’d tricked him once again.
While we are all frozen in the lockdown, I am mindful of what the children cannot fathom. I vigilantly distill the larger context into small, sterilized meanings. When I first told them about the novel coronavirus, they asked me if it could crawl across surfaces.
“No,” I said. “It is a protein that wears a greasy coat. That is why we make bubbles with the soap; the virus hates soap bubbles.” In early March, their school taught them rhymes about washing their hands, so I continue a narrative they understand. “The virus doesn’t like children,” I tell them. “It’s not interested in you pretty much at all, in fact.”
They smile, and I am grateful for this small, not-quite-true medical mercy.
“French ladies don’t like children either,” my elder boy says. This is his conclusion from an afternoon playing ball on a flat patch of field near us when two elderly ladies passed by with little, white dogs. The dogs rushed up to my smaller son, and as he delightedly cupped his hands around the smaller dog’s cheeks, the lady flew at him.
“Keep away!” she screamed, stopping a meter off. “You go there!” she told him, pointing to the corner of the field. The children were quiet, confused because the dog had been so friendly, but they did as they were told until the ladies left.
We eat our pain de mie sandwiches on the mountainside, rocky peaks trimmed with snow collars behind us. Below, the valley forms a crease striped by trees: we see the gray of naked wood between the dark jags of evergreen. “Normally, in France you can pet dogs,” I say to my boys. “Those old ladies are just afraid of germs.”
“I don’t see coronavirus on my hands, and I didn’t put any on the dog,” the little one says.
“It’s invisible,” the big one says.
* * *
Invisible or not, a picture will build up; in the end, this may be the defining experience of their childhood, whatever I do to try to translate away the worst details. I watch them eat their sandwiches on the rocky outcrop, the mie crumbling at the edges of their small, tender mouths. My priority is helping them survive this pandemic-stricken moment. I try to protect them from the worst of it, but some truths will not escape them. When we are awoken each morning on our mountain by the village rooster, it is a relief that one translation is still easy to offer. The French word for “rooster,” I tell them, is “le coq.”
Natasha Randall is a literary translator of the works of Dostoyevsky, Zamyatin, Gogol, and others. Her first novel, LOVE ORANGE, comes out in the UK in late 2020. She is currently writing a book about Constance Garnett. Follow her on Twitter @natasharandall.
Graphic by Bianca Ibarlucea.