In Post-Lockdown France, Filipino Scientist Hopes for A ‘Better Normal’

On March 16, I left work at around 5 PM on what I thought, at most, would be a week-long break, but turned out to be a two-month complete lockdown of the entire country.

Grenoble, France: Passerelle St-Laurent, an iconic footbridge of the city built in 1837 and modernized in 1909

At the start of the lockdown, we weren’t allowed to leave our homes except to buy necessities like food and medicine, to which we are limited to acquire within a 1-kilometer distance from our stated home address.

The COVID-19 outbreak in France resulted to more than 160,000 cases with over 29,000 death tolls as of June 2020. However, France began to “flatten the curve” around 7 weeks into the outbreak and by May 11th, the lockdown restrictions were gradually lifted to what President Macron described as “the beginning of a new stage”.

I currently live in Grenoble, an amazing city at the heart of the French Alps located in the southeast of France. This alpine city is also known as a science and culture hub as students all over the world come here to study.

The view of snow-capped mountains definitely helped in keeping the positivity during the confinement. Free public transportation, partial coverage of utility bills, some taxes waived, temporary unemployment status for wage earners (covering about 90% of their salaries) were only some of the unparalleled measures taken by the government amidst the COVID-19 crisis.

Of course, there is still continuous scrutiny coming from the citizens which I personally admire as it features the French’s vigilance in maintaining high standards from their government.

Even though the lockdown has been almost entirely lifted in most of France, the pandemic remains present. Hence, there are still barrier measures and restrictions that are strictly implemented.

To mention a few: travel to France from outside the European zone remains restricted, bars and restaurants are open but with adapted measures, not more than 10 people may gather in any public space, social distancing of at least 1 meter should be respected, and obligatory wearing of masks in public transportation are instigated.

WFH Scientist

I consider myself extremely lucky for working in one of the top universities in France, University of Grenoble Alps. I was advised to télétravail (work-from-home) since the start of the lockdown.

As a research scientist, if I’m not in the lab doing experiments, most of my work revolves around writing papers for publication. Hence, the transition for me to work-from-home went quite smoothly.

On some days, it was more difficult to focus on writing especially with our clingy and energetic puppy named Winston, who loved the fact that we no longer leave the house to work and that he can have as much cuddles and attention as he wanted.

Working in the lab at University of Grenoble Alps (left) and working from home (right).

Winston is a rescue Border Collie-Australian Shepherd mix that captured our hearts and came exactly the right time, a few weeks before the lockdown. He was the perfect lockdown companion and surely brought a daily dose of love and laughter into our lives.

Personally, the confinement wasn’t that easy for me. It gave me a sense of distress being stuck in isolation that almost built into a cabin fever.

As a Filipino living abroad, my first worry was the situation of my family back in the Philippines. It was nerve-wracking that I am, by law, not allowed to travel back to Philippines to see my family, not to mention the risk of getting infected by the virus and worse, spreading it around.

It didn’t help that media is showing some level of tension brought about by reactions to the COVID-19 outbreak that exacerbated the existing discrimination, prejudice, and intolerance towards Asians.

Baking as Perfect Distraction

Luckily, before the lockdown, I have found a fun hobby that is both science and art with an edible output—Sourdough bread making. I instantly loved the process and finding the optimum conditions to improve flavour, shape, and texture of bread whilst using a natural starter composed of a culture of wild yeasts and gut-friendly bacteria.

Each bake is a chance to optimize your recipe to achieve that crispy crust and soft crumb. It was the perfect distraction while in confinement. There was just something about mixing and kneading dough that is calming, almost as if you’re meditating.

A few of the sourdough bread I made using different scouring designs.

As soon as the French government eased down the lockdown restrictions, the first thing we did was to go for a walk in the mountains.  We’re now allowed to go up to 100 kilometers from our home permitting us access to most foot-accessible trails nearby our home.

We have been hiking or camping almost every weekend since. Nothing really compares with being in nature, where you can enjoy the cool and freshness of the air and be gifted by a beautiful array of colours of the surrounding flora and fauna in the French alps. It’s really one of the best sources of serenity which is very much needed in this time of a global pandemic.

An alpine lake, “Lac Fourchu”, at Taillefer plateau in Livet-et-Gavet, about 50 kilometers from Grenoble city.
The view of the Chartreuse mountain range from Plateau de l’ancienne ferme des Visons.
A cloudy view of Grenoble city from Mont Rachais in the Chartreuse mountain range.
Ruins at Le Ferme Froussard in between Sassenage and Seyssinet-Pariset in the west side of Grenoble city.
Wild camping beside Le Néron with the view of La Pinéa.

It is difficult to say when our lives will be back to “normal”—whatever “normal” meant. Perhaps, it is pointless to hope to return to the pre-COVID-19 world that we knew. Maybe, it is time to embrace the “new normal”.

For now, I am positive that our world is progressing, probably ever so gradually, into a society that is more aware of social inequalities and economic greed, and is better educated of the immense need for environmental preservation and recuperation. While I dream of that, I’ll be doing my science, baking sourdough bread, or hiking in the alps and wishing for the best!

About the Author:

Filipino Lucille Borlaza is currently living in the French Alpine City of Grenoble. She is an environmental scientist in University of Grenoble Alps.

When she is not in the lab busy doing research and experiments, she is wiriting papers for publication.

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