What Being An Ex-Pat In Paris Is Like During A Pandemic

by Jessica Ourisman
jessicagreyourisman on Instagram

It's raining in Paris, with the occasional thunder clap sounding in the distance. On the one hand, it's pretty exciting for me to be listening to rain and thunder in the city of light. But on the other hand, I've been sleeping in the living room of an expensive Parisian flat that feels more like a prison cell. Due to the global pandemic of COVID-19, I've been confined to this space for the last two months. And as an ex-pat in Paris during the COVID-19 pandemic, I'd love nothing more to be back on U.S. soil.

I moved to Paris, France in August 2019 to study Fashion Studies at the graduate level at Parsons Paris. As a freelance editor, I have the freedom to work from home — from abroad — for the outlets that I contribute to. Being based in one of the world's foremost beauty and fashion destinations worked out in favor of my career. For nine months, I absolutely basked in the glory of living my lifelong Parisian dream.

My "plan" was to spend two years in Paris. When all was said and done, I expected to simply return to the U.S. — back to New York City, where I used to live — with my newly acquired industry knowledge. Obviously, plans can change. While it is not the ideal time to be moving back to the United States, the State Department encourages it. Paris entered lockdown on March 16; if you went outside without a signed attestation, you could get fined hundreds of Euros. As of May 11, we were finally allowed outdoors again with strict social distancing measures in place for businesses. Due to a trick of timing, I'll be leaving two months of Parisian confinement and entering two months of lockdown in Los Angeles. But after living through a COVID-related scare, it's worth it.

My boyfriend and I both had a form of what our doctor suspects to be COVID-19, but we can't officially confirm it with antibody tests until we get home. Since Paris entered déconfinement — the gradual reopening of businesses after spring's stalled start — the city's empty streets have again come alive, but many of us remain understandably wary.

First, I should probably mention that Paris, like Milan and like New York, was hit hard. After the initial closure of the borders, there was a frenzy for ex-pats to return home; traveling conditions were so crowded that some got sick en route. Infectious disease ambulances and at-home physicians are seen regularly, and the sounds of violent coughing coming from within buildings could be heard while walking on foot through our neighborhood. This is why we were on strict orders to stay home for two months; here, it was a breeding ground for the virus.

To help deal with the overwhelmed medical system and to avoid contaminating the ER, Paris has a special emergency COVID hotline to call. When my boyfriend, Tom, started to experience some of the more serious symptoms of the virus, the doctors made the decision to send an emergency paramedic to our home that night. We were scared, but relieved that help was on the way. But help never showed.

From the bottom of my heart, I understand. The world, and especially the medical community, is overburdened with efforts to deal with the deadly aftermath of this pop-up pandemic. No one could tell us what to expect, because, well, this is a novel disease and the research doesn't exist yet. But the experience of being abandoned by emergency services that night instilled in me a visceral insecurity unlike any other I had felt.

I was probably more scared than I have ever been in my life, but I am also a Virgo — we're nothing if not functional in a crisis. At some crazy hour of the night, I reached out to my boyfriend's mother, asking, "Should I just get us the F out of here?!" (I don't normally swear, but these were exceptional circumstances.) With her encouragement, I made the decision to get us back to the States as quickly as was safely possible, so that we could at least navigate a system we understood and that spoke our native language. I made the morbid decision to book our flights for three weeks out. Based on what I had read about the disease, it seemed that after two weeks' time, we would know if he was on his way to recovery. It was a conscious gamble I made by signing a lease and buying plane tickets, because if he did not recover and required hospitalization, we would obviously not be able to return home.

Before caring for Tom, my own symptoms began in late March. It started with a sore throat and mild headaches, but developed into body aches, a fever, and chills one night in early April. Determined to "sleep it off," I slept on and off for 20 hours and took Aleve, which I had brought with me from the U.S., religiously upon waking. This helped with the constant back pain, and the inflamed, eerie, shingles-like vesicular rash that spread from my back to the side of my torso.

The rashes developed after a bout of intense itching all over my body one evening; it was so bad that I literally wanted to scratch my body against a tree trunk the way you see bears do in movies. My skin felt tender to the touch and I developed a petichial rash the next day. Then came the swollen, extremely painful lump on my spasming back, which heralded the emergence of the chicken pox-like, vesicular eruptions. This was before the news broke that these rashes are symptoms of COVID-19, as confirmed to me by multiple doctors since. I started sleeping on the couch in order to social distance the best we could because I had to make runs to the pharmacy and grocery store, where lines would form and it was difficult to keep people six feet apart.

In the midst of orchestrating our move — a multi-step process of finding and securing an apartment, wiring deposit fees, securing flights, packing, orchestrating international shipments — I connected with experts back home. Three dermatologists and my incredible doctor ended up being our most useful resources while Tom recovered at home.

Our doctor here, while well-intentioned, was left as woefully in the dark as the rest of us when it came to the uncertainty of obtaining tests. Statistics indicate that the vast majority of COVID patients do not become critical and many are able to recover from home; fortunately, Tom ended up being one of those patients. By the week of our flights, he was already completely recovered. We scheduled an appointment with my doctor to discuss safety while traveling (hint: layer your masks and look into a hypochlorous acid face mist from a brand like Briotech or Tower28), she suggested a cocktail of vitamins and supplements to help manage my symptoms, and is sending us for antibody tests from LabCorp two weeks after we return home and self-quarantine.

After two months of lockdown, I have a special appreciation for the luxury of being outside. This is very much an attitude for a crisis that I learned from the French, too. While our friends back home were desperate to find toilet paper, we never encountered such a shortage. However, the man at our local poissonerie once informed me that they sold out of caviar. Why? Because if Parisians were convinced that it was the "end of the world," they were, by all means, eating well.

On a more serious note, experiencing this pandemic from within a hard-hit city has impacted me; scarred me, both literally and figuratively, as my back now bears a permanent mark from the painful rash I developed. When I see protestors back home, or news reports of jam-packed beaches, I cannot fathom that they would do the same if they had experienced what we had. Part of me thinks that on some level, they don't understand that the "shelter-in-place" order is meant to be temporary. The sooner we can contain the spread, the sooner our lives can return to some semblance of normalcy.

Finding yourself in a foreign country under lockdown, with government-imposed restrictions on time spent outdoors, can only happen in a place with a centralized federal government. Back home, this type of authority is largely devolved to the states. Seeing the streets of Paris — eerily beautiful in their newfound emptiness — was haunting, but it did enable me to keep my distance from others while going about necessary tasks like walking my dogs, or — once — to liberate a mouse which I had captured in my apartment.

There were also some moments of surreal beauty, when I felt privileged to be able to see one of the world's most historic cities — my favorite city — in such an intimate way. But there were ever-present reminders of the grim reality that had become globally inescapable. Dreamlike moments on an empty Parisian street in the springtime might be interrupted by an infectious disease ambulance, with blue flashing lights, rushing silently — with no siren — down an empty street, or the sound of a violent, hacking cough coming from inside a building. On nights before I had to go grocery shopping, I developed severe anxiety. Such is life in the epicenter of a pandemic.

These times are tense, as many of us are confronted with our own mortality. Nobody likes being cooped up inside. But as an American beauty editor coming home from Paris in the era of COVID, I am choosing to live a socially distant lifestyle in case the second wave hits, if and when it does. The statistics make it easy to gloss over the fact that each and every number represents a cherished loved leaving a devastated family in their wake. Remember that we have medical staff risking — and losing — their lives due to inaccessible PPE. It's not fun being told what to do by the government, but out of respect for my fellow citizens, I'm putting my ego aside, taking extra precautions, and, yes, staying the F inside for a bit.

If you think you’re showing symptoms of coronavirus, which include fever, shortness of breath, and cough, call your doctor before going to get tested. If you’re anxious about the virus’s spread in your community, visit the CDC for up-to-date information and resources, or seek out mental health support.