Living in France as an Australian Artist during Covid-19
4th December 2020. Paris, France
We are now in week five of a second lockdown in France. The first was for two months from March to May. I’m sitting here alone in my 15 square-metre studio in Paris, a warm brew of tea by my side, my miniature real pine Christmas tree (or should I say the tip of a branch) in a pot next to me on my desk, some fairy lights hugging my bookshelf. Anything to make me feel a sense of home and warmth away from family while isolated for the festive season.
COVID cases and deaths have climbed through the roof here again, back to the numbers when the virus first overshared itself earlier this year. Hospitals are bursting at the seams, and testing still takes too long in order for the results to be helpful in prevention. The government is working on it, but I’ve seen line ups for testing go the length of whole streets! Confinement conditions have just last week been ‘lightened’, meaning people are now allowed to leave the house for reasons other than pure necessity or urgency, up to 3 hours and within a much larger radius than the 1km before. We are still required to fill out a formal declaration if we venture out, and carry ID with us at all times (I’ve been checked by police three times this year).
We were all ‘set free’ during the summertime following two months of confinement. And although I do not personally understand the government’s decision to do this so quickly when the virus wasn’t yet completely under control, it reminds me a little of the movie ‘Jumanji’, when all of the animals went out on a wild stampede. Now the French (bless their Latin, freedom lifestyle socks!), are not quite used to the concept of prevention and doing things strictly, even if it means some short-term discipline and discomfort in order to simply ‘get it done!’ properly the first time.
Many people decided to go on summer vacation, including venturing to other countries. I probably would have done the same given the chance, but I didn’t have the luxury this year (among many), as I’m an actress and independent worker, and the financial crisis had already shown its teeth and had bitten… hard! So, just when the beautiful ‘Indian Summer’ breezed in by October with cooler weather, and Parisians who’d holidayed were walking around with a little more spring in their step, sun kissed skin, and a vitamin D boost (meaning an occasional smile - hooray!), COVID snuck out from the covers again, stronger than ever. I think deep inside we all sensed this would happen, but denial and fear took over.
Masks in public are still obligatory (or you’ll face a 150€ fine), and gyms, cinemas, theatres, museums, pools etc. have been shut down for most of the year. Oh, how I’ve been missing my weekly escape to see ‘Gym’ and dance classes! So, crammed-space home work-outs became the new craze! I remember during the first confinement, I’d look out of my studio window to the building across from me, and see Parisians through the many squares flipping their arms in all directions, leg kicks, push ups, air punches, running on the spot frantically.
More than I’ve ever known Parisians to exercise before (the sounds of love making through the building walls not included)! They were really going for it! Some sightings of couples synchronised in work-outs, some having a little boogie to online dance aerobics classes. Vive la Paris!! Restaurants and bars opened again for the summer with restrictions in place, but during lockdown, only necessary services and stores are open (and we can still order take-out if we wish - c’est super!).
I feel that I’ve experienced almost a double hit of challenge this year, having decided to change my career and become an actress here in France just a couple of years ago. I’m still in the constructing and developing phase of my new career. Approximately 20-30% of the acting work I’ve done until now has actually been remunerated (which is a well-known part of the parcel when transitioning to an artistic career). But it really is like setting up a new business! So of course, I’ve had multiple part time and base jobs to set up and juggle into the mix too. Then… bonjour 2020!
To put the cherry on the challenge cake, at the end of an already difficult 2019, the new year was happily in sight. Then there was a major transport strike in November last year which lasted through to January. It was absolute chaos! And one thing I learned very quickly about France; there is no limit to the duration of strikes here. They go on for as long as those conducting them wish! For months, everyone had to resort to walking or cycling one to two hours to get to work or activities, and like me, ended up with shin splints and work stress overload. The extra travel time was exhausting, and we could all feel the dark ambience like a negative, heavy cloud floating upon us.
Some buses and the occasional train were still functioning; hence I tried my luck at those. A few times I waited two hours for the only train that could get me home, and it got cancelled only five minutes before the time it was due to depart. It took me around three to four hours to get home on those days! As for the bus, I found myself like a sardine in a tin can on wheels, in what was sometimes over a two-hour trip to get to a location that I could have walked to in 45 minutes! Crushed and sweating, surrounded by tired, cranky people aggressively arguing, yelling at one another and constant tension building - I decided that a long walk and an aching body was the best deal in town at the time! C’est la vie!
Following the kerfuffle of strikes ending early this year, I was blessed to have performed in a play in February.With a brilliant team of international actresses, and a director from London, we gave Paris a beautiful and touching show in English of the famous ‘Vagina Monologues’ by Eve Ensler. Little did we know that France, England, and much of Europe would find ourselves in strict lockdown only two weeks later!
It’s an interesting experience as an artist to be confined because at first, there’s the initial adapting process, and then you start to notice that other creative avenues and talents you’ve always had within you come out to play again. It’s then that you truly appreciate the peace and reduced distraction from the world in order to flow into a deep, focussed, flowing, creative block of time, and actually DO your work as an artist, interruption free. In my case, I also dance, sing, and write. I started some choreography again in (not even) two square-metres of floor space. No ‘grand jetté’ happening at my place in 2020! Just improvised movement and interpretation. I’ve dusted off my guitar again and enjoyed some self-taught playing and singing. And I’ve felt a spring of expressive energy in writing, including some drafting for a future book I wish to write and some acting content. I’ve surprisingly kept myself really busy, and I make sure to give myself goals each day, no matter how big or small. To progress and keep the engine running.
In terms of professional acting work, being an English speaker in Paris already has its challenges without a pandemic in action, such as finding professional, paid projects! However, it is possible, you just have to to find your personal niche in the business the best you can. This year, I’ve managed to squeeze in some odds and ends (mainly throughout the summer during the small gap of freedom we had when things were starting up again in the arts industry). I worked as a double, in a commercial, some voice-over, an extra, did an acting workshop, and directed a play for the first time! I also teach theatre online.
The highlight of my year was being able to attend the International Fantasy Film Festival in Menton in the south of France. I played a role in a short film last year which was selected and received nominations in many categories (including me in the category of Best Actress! Bravo!). We didn’t win any awards, but we did win a beautiful experience; meeting new people, watching 24 short films in two days, and some time away from the city. I’m blessed with some luck this year because we found ourselves in the second lockdown just 2 weeks after this event too!
I consider myself to be an upbeat, positive-natured, ambitious, kind, and self-aware person, but I’m human. If I have a low day, or I’m tired, or angry, or frustrated, I make my salutations to it and let it pass by. It’s important to acknowledge our feelings. I also stay in contact with family online as much as I can - I miss them and Australia dearly! It’s incredible how much we take the simple things for granted – being able to visit loved ones, and living a day-to-day life as it once was. But honestly, I’m not complaining too much, because I still have all I need to live. Things could always be better but things could always be worse!
There’s no way I would have been able to cope the same with this situation if I hadn’t of worked on self-development for years, and been on so many life adventures. Especially being alone without human interaction for months, on the other side of the world from my family during a pandemic, in a foreign country, in a second language, in the midst of a major career transition! But truly, anything is possible when you remember your overall ‘why’ ! I followed my heart and intuition to come here, and for now I feel at home and able to thrive artistically (well, when Paris is its usual self).
I’m a big believer in the silver lining, and that nothing happens without a reason. That every experience is meant to be, because that’s how it happened, and we learn and take things from it – good or bad. So even as an artist, I believe that everyone, no matter what they do in life, has to learn to live as a human being first and foremost. You can’t wake up and just ‘do’ art all day and live in a dream world, or do only the things you feel like doing 100% of the time. Sometimes you have to survive, do things that are uncomfortable, hustle, deal with life events that are thrown at you, or big changes that will consume you completely for a while. To constantly reshuffle priorities and be in tune with your values. You have to experience an array of emotions and journeys in order to gain inspiration and perspective on life itself, in order to do your best work. Life is never on one straight line. And 2020 hasn’t even been a line! It’s been an abstract drawing from a three-year-old with juice spilt all over it (and some specks of glitter)!
For now, I’ve chosen as an actress to continue to plant seeds and remain patient, flexible, and full of gratitude. I’ve asked myself; what are the things I can do? What can I learn from this? What do I need to change and what are the opportunities? What does my vision look like now? What can I be proud of already? I also learned quickly that the business aspect of an artistic career can be worked on constantly when we aren’t on-stage or in front of a camera, and believe me, there’s a lot of it! And importantly, I learned that it’s ok to step back sometimes, to take a good break, to recuperate, to take time away, to simply do nothing sometimes and enjoy the stillness. That’s ok too.
Mostly, as an artist living through this pandemic alone, sitting here in Paris (with rain now starting to gently tap on my window and a cold wintery wind draft creeping through the crack of my ancient wooden studio door), I’ve learned even more about who I am as a person, and that the artistic path is personal - a long and constant journey. A choice bred from utter passion, joy, and sacrifice. Because sometimes life will put the brakes on us. We must be on our own path, not looking to the sides at where everyone else is at. To the actors who feel like they are on a plateau, stagnant, down about not working – I feel you! It sucks. Get up and show up for yourself. Delegate work to yourself each day - an email, your CV, watch a great film, workout, read, cook, paint, sing, get through the day of your other job/s with good energy and a smile, meditate, create something etc. If we are doing the work, then we are artists, no matter what the speedometer reads, how your bank statement looks, or how many social media ‘likes’ you have.