Close, yet apart: Diary of a family under lockdown

Paris (AFP) –


AFP has followed one extended family through the ups and downs of France's eight-week coronavirus lockdown.

As families across the world faced unprecedented upheaval, this family shared its shock, fears, questions, difficulties and discoveries.

From their different locations across France, the family spoke to an AFP journalist between March 17 and May 10.

Week 1 - 'We are at war'

"Keeping your spirits up? Got food in?" It takes up hours, all the checking in with each other, but sets the rhythm of the days.

The family rallies around "ma", great-grandmother Jacqueline Sebban, 83, a psychoanalyst who has survived cancer three times and lives in Paris' trendy Marais district.

"I've never called her so often," says son Jan Dokhan.

Jacqueline tries to pace herself. Housework, some piano, a little reading, though it's "hard to concentrate" in these conditions, and too much Netflix.

And she works with her patients by phone. "They're doing badly, they need to talk. In spite of it all, people don't give up," she says.

But then she gets a temperature and is sick. The family is worried. The doctor, masked and gloved, cannot say if it's coronavirus. But luckily the fever goes.

Granddaughter and mum-of-three Clementine Dokhan, 34, lives in a village near the southwestern city of Bayonne. With a garden and pool, she knows they're lucky.

"It's hard to take in," she says, of the new situation.

But what feels like a holiday at first soon turns into a nightmare as she attempts to homeschool Gabriel, 7, Hanna, 5, and Yael, 3.

"You have to become the teacher and it's not funny," she says.

She sets each of them learning goals but it doesn't go to plan and there's drama and shouting.

"We never strike the right balance, either we're battling or we let go," she says.

The timetable soon becomes less ambitious especially as she is in her second year of studying to become a nurse.

For her father, the crisis couldn't have come at a worse time. Aged 59, Jan recently set up a storage box rental firm near the southwestern town of Hossegor where he lives.

He's had to make his team partially unemployed and has applied for measures to help companies.

But by week's end, he feels more reassured.

"The bank said 'yes' to putting back the payment dates."

Week 2 - Acceptance

Cocooning at home in the Nantes suburbs, granddaughter Clara Delobel, 38, and husband Nicolas, 42, insist on a news blackout.

They need calm as they await the birth of their third child.

Computer programmer Nicolas has set up a home office in a small bedroom using a plank on trestles.

He's busy with long-term projects and feels lucky because he, unlike some, has kept his job. "We're seeing goodbye messages pop up. After all these years of working with you..."

With the radio on all the time and queues in the shops, it reminds Jacqueline of her youth during the Algerian War.

"Solitude forces us to think about life... and about death which suddenly appears without one being prepared for it, like in war," she says.

Week 3 - Adapting

The phone calls ease up. Instead, they're swapping ideas for things to do via WhatsApp. Anyone want to watch "The Misanthrope" online?

The week's big event will be getting everyone on a Zoom video call.

Trying to set up the link prompts jokes but fails in the end, with fits of giggles at their lack of technical know-how.

In Jacqueline's building, neighbours take her under their wing, with offers of help and bread, cake, even chocolate mousse, left on her doorstep.

"You're our doyenne," the concierge has told her.

Grandson and baker Joachim Dokhan, 31, has joined his girlfriend of six weeks, in a yurt in a small commune in the Ardeche countryside.

It's "not easy to suddenly find yourself together right at the start of a relationship", he says, of the imposed confinement.

Week 4 - The long haul

Ditching jeans and T-shirts for something smarter, the family sits down for a video dinner.

Some have lost weight, others have gained it, hair is longer, greyer, the children are excited and everyone ends up talking over each other.

For once, the chitchat steers clear of the virus.

Everyone seems fine but nobody wants to worry the others. "It was nice but after a while it made me sad, it was superficial," Jacqueline says.

Student nurse Clementine is relieved her exams have been postponed but still feels a bit hassled.

Her husband normally works in Paris during the week and they aren't used to being together so much. "He started playing video games and it made me crazy," she says.

Nicolas is feeling the strain of working at home.

"The days are never-ending, people still call even when you've clocked off," he says. "It's hard to switch off."

Businessman Jan is in limbo. "Knowing you're a prisoner of a situation where you can't control anything or develop, puts you under pressure," he says.

Week 5 - Routine

Finally, a date! On May 11, restrictions will begin to ease. Jacqueline says the lack of contact and inaction has created "a kind of general drowsiness".

The "slow life" suits Clara and Nicolas, who were already trying to scale back before lockdown.

There's been no need to fill up the car's fuel tank, or pay childcare. They use veggies growing in the garden and bake their own bread.

"It's not that bad, an economy that is slowed down a bit, a less polluted environment, a less frenetic life," Nicolas says.

With an end in sight, mum-of-three Clementine tells herself it hasn't been so bad.

If the children do an hour's study, it's OK, she says.

She likes having time to do things she didn't do before, like gardening.

Week 6 - Tentative plans

People relax a bit, restrictions begin being flouted. Some go to friends' places for dinner. Children play together outside again where Clara lives.

Jacqueline plans to resume patient consultations in person from May 11, she says.

Business is picking up a bit for Jan, with a 30-percent rise in requests for quotes. But having invested two million euros ($2.2 million) over 20 years, he has to be careful.

"We're subject to such external factors, such uncertainties...," he says.

Even though it's worked out pretty well between Joachim and his girlfriend, he "needs some air" after two or three days, he says.

Week 7 - Life post-lockdown?

Clara and Nicolas won't send their girls back to school immediately. "It's political, driven by the need to restart economic activity," Nicolas says.

"Happily", says Clementine, at the prospect of hers returning, although enthusiasm wanes when she hears the conditions. "It's going to stress them," she worries.

Although there are no COVID-19 patients on the oncology ward where she is now an intern, they can't have visitors and "that can be worse than death", Clementine says.

With recession looming, Jan fears a social explosion.

"For the first time, leaders chose to put health before the economy," he says.

"But if we let the economy collapse, the cure risks being worse than the disease, what will happen when people can no longer eat?"

Week 8 - 25,000+ deaths

Jacqueline has discovered she had "more strength than I would have thought".

Clementine is fretting about the holiday they had booked to Brazil as there's no indication they can be reimbursed.

Jan is gearing up to ensure his customers can return and stay safe. "We're muddling through and moving forward," he says.

Not much changes for Nicolas and Clara, but the idea of people mixing again is almost more stressful. "We'll be even more vigilant," they say.

And Joachim is pleased because he has finished writing a storybook. But right now, he's just looking forward to a stroll.