Pas de Panique

There was a 14.3 percent chance that March 13, 2020, would fall on the one day of the week that would make it unlucky. When the Bible told us the misfortunes of March 13, a Friday, the writers surely didn’t mean to freak out a 21-year-old college student headed back to a country that was ready to close its borders on her. But it did. I was so sure that something would go wrong on this trip back from Paris to Boston. I was a Japanese citizen on a F-1 student visa returning to the US on the last day non-citizens would be allowed into the country. I only found out that I needed to head back to the US on March 11, a short 40 hours before my flight, when the US President announced that borders would close to those who were not citizens or permanent residents on March 13 at midnight. I was scheduled to take the cheapest flight combination possible, with two transits planned in London and Casablanca. 

The morning after we got the announcement, I begged my host mother to take me to the cellar where she insisted that I store my larger luggage at the start of the semester. For my 74-year-old host mother, bringing up the luggage from the basement opened up a change of plans, an uncertainty beyond the Tufts in Paris program schedule. She hadn’t yet gotten behind the idea that the pandemic was here in Paris. She had too much faith in the Christian radio programs and the French public health system. When I finally walked out of the wood and stone basement of the Haussmannian apartment with my plastic red suitcase, it was already mid-afternoon. In the guest room, I packed, all while bidding goodbye to the city that seemed to beat the same rhythm as normal. 

What stung the most was watching my American peers lean on their parents to sort their affairs. I watched them leave on $3000 non-stop flights just six hours after we found out about the US border closure to foreigners, even when they had much more time to spare. They were not going to be the ones banned from returning stateside. I scrambled to decide between the safety of home in Japan or the possibility of a summer internship in the US. I booked the trip to Boston using all the rewards I could scrape together, frantically contacting Tufts offices and booking flights that disappeared by the minute under sudden demand. The phrase that our abroad program coordinator liked to repeat was my mantra in the last 40 hours—pas de panique. Everything will be okay.

As I packed my new hummingbird-adorned water bottle, too-chic light blue suede heels, and hastily-bought L’Occitane souvenirs, I blankly tossed back in my suitcases all the ‘trashfits’ I thought I’d get to leave behind. For this trip, I had brought as much of the clothing I was planning to phase out so that, once the season turned warmer, I could donate and discard the long-sleeves and sweaters to travel lighter. 

On March 7, the Saturday before we got sent home, most of my long-sleeves were still in my closet when we went on what would end up being our last program trip. We gathered at 8:00 a.m. at the Guerre Montparnasse for our program trip to the mustard capital, Dijon. There was already much talk of the coronavirus among the Haussmannian apartment-lined streets of Paris and shortages of hand sanitizer bottles at the pharmacies marked with neon green crosses. In Dijon, instead of hunting for mustard that I hated anyway, I spent 40 minutes searching for face masks—most pharmacies had hand-written pieces of paper taped on their windows that read “pas de masque.” Pas de panique. Back in my room in Paris, per my mother’s instruction, I had already secretly stocked up on toilet paper (it was €1 at Franprix) and a large, €12 bottle of hand sanitizer.

Paris did not revolutionize my French, did not find me sun-kissed in Greece in May like I had planned out in the 8th tab of my spreadsheet, did not find me visiting my Swiss high school friend in Edinburgh. It also didn’t find me under the beautiful stained glass at Sagrada Familia in Barcelona on April 11, just a short month after our March 13 expulsion. Just a year later, the two months I spent in Paris feels like a dream that I woke up from too soon, with only my first gray hair to show for it.

But Paris landed me in London and Western Europe for the first time. Paris gave me a host family and a beautiful apartment in the 9ième arrondissement, just a 10-minute trot from Opera Garnier. It fed me endless €1 baguettes with just the right crunch and chew and €3 student meals that beat any $18 dining hall meal in the US in quality and satisfactory drowsiness that I would flick away with the 60¢ espresso from the café downstairs. In Paris, I took four courses for the first time in my life, a light course load for me, as I normally set myself on a six- or seven-course packed schedule. My only worry was to find a summer internship. My mornings were filled with air still light and soft, waiting to be grounded by the touch of cigarettes followed with slow bus rides as the sky slowly warmed. My afternoons passed in the KB Café in Montmartre, dreaming about the lives of the little children on the six-horsed merry-go-round. The cobble stones under my sea blue kitten heels felt friendly as I walked back from choir practice in the evening. 

A year later, I remember Paris with a glow smudged with a little bit of smoke from the various protests. In the 14ième arrondissement, I would briskly walk by cars on fire, a sharp contrast from the quiet tour we had just finished in the film museum down the street. Pas de panique. I remember our first weeks without a functioning metro. This dysfunction shouldn’t have caught us American students off guard, with our experiences with the MBTA sometimes on fire, but it did give us dilemmas of showing up to class an hour later with beads of sweat marking our unexpected long walks across the city. Pas de panique. I’m glad that the local program staff were lenient enough that I had the time to look around on those hasty walks. I’m glad that our program befriended the crepe-maker, Henri, with a stand on Rue Montparnasse that had the best churros. They were 24 for €12, perfect for sharing in the hallways of the strictly no-food-upstairs cultural center where we took classes.

The second week of March is not my favorite. On March 11, 2011, dishware-rattling and door frame-crushing earthquakes and tsunamis hit Northeast Japan, where my family and I lived. The morning of March 13, 2020, on my metro ride to the airport, I gripped my student pass tight. I was so sure that something would go wrong. But nothing did. I hardly remember rolling my white carry-on suitcase through Immigration. I sat down at Boston Logan on a too-cold plastic seat that could fit me and one of my duffels easily in one spot. I switched on my phone and saw the numbers on my lock screen reflect Eastern Standard Time. Pas de panique. 

The Tufts in Paris program owes me about €20 in reimbursements, and Paris owes me a couple more months. I owe two frenzied yet vibrant months of my life to the City of Lights and a simple phrase I rarely heeded.