All quiet on the western front

My husband and I have gone through several iterations of lockdowns (confinement in French) over the past year plus.

During this surreal time of COVID-related restrictions on so much of the way we once lived, we have had to find creative ways to we keep ourselves busy and entertained. During the first lockdown, we were living in Belgium. My husband maintained equanimity by working on his dissertation all day, every day during the week and on weekends. He took the train to the university, hardly meeting anyone on his way there, in the office, or on his way home.

I ordered a pair of Bose headphones to try to drown out the sounds coming from a house two doors down, which workers spent several months taking apart and then several more months putting back together. I ordered an entire library of books, completely shattering my near-perfect track record of not acquiring books during our sojourn in Europe. We had been trying to limit the heavy items we brought into our collection since anything we wanted to keep we would then have to find a way to haul back to the states. I performed a series of Life in Lockdown concerts, for which I played music for 30 minutes every day for 30 days, choosing songs of my own and by other artists to fit my mood.

By our second lockdown in Europe, we were living in France. I organized my days around long walks with our dog and frequent visits to several bakeries to sample the local fare. It was fairly painful to be living in France and have all of the restaurants closed, but we were endlessly grateful the bakeries remained open. I ordered a second library of books, so my collection has grown to unwieldy heights.

When the university closed its doors and my husband began working from home, he often joined me on forays around the farm fields. We participated in a game of countryside confinement clue. This involved musing over the possible vegetables that could be found in various fields.

Many vegetables only show leaves above the ground, so there was much conjecture until the time came for the harvest. Then we could see the frothy piles of crumbled white cabbage and turnips, potatoes, and carrots scattered about in the wake of the tractors.

We watched two machines driving side by side to harvest potatoes and took videos of round tubers climbing up what appeared to be little vegetable moving walkways like the ones you find in large airports (if you can remember ever being in an airport).

We speculated as to the vegetables that might be going into the ground next. We also began to go second-hand shopping in the ditches that ran alongside the farm fields. One day, we found what we thought might be an old pipe but could also be a World War I relic. We brought it home, and it sat on our terrace for months until a more recent visit to The British Grenadier Bookshop in Ypres revealed that it could actually be the remnant of a WWI bomb.

Our visit to the bookshop was indeed illuminating (no pun intended). We were given a detailed description of the origins of many of the identifying characters on the fuse we bought, and we had a really nice time chatting (in English!) with the Canadian fellow who owned the shop.

My husband brought it in, cleaned it up, and did some research online. He discovered that there was an actual department in France with the purpose of removing explosives from the countryside. This removal is referred to as the “Iron Harvest,” and it is an ongoing project to find and dispose of both unexploded ordnance (UXO or UO), unexploded bombs (UXBs) and explosive remnants of war (ERW). Each year, some 900 tons of live ordnance are removed.

Even as restrictions have eased, my husband works from home most days. Being a freelance, karma career worker, I have continued to wear the same few t-shirts and sweatpants that I wrote for most of 2020 into 2021. I still walk around the farm fields several times a day. And since shopping is not what it used to be, I have also taken to looking for historic relics in the ditches.

In the past week alone, we found two more possible pipes that turned out to be more exploded remnants of bombs. I took a photo of the one I found, and when my husband dug it out of the mud in a culvert near our house, we discovered it was all in one piece. The first and second both were open on top, but this one looked like an ancient bottle. The fact that it was full meant one of two possibilities: 1) the mechanism to set it off had gone off but not worked properly; or 2) this was a bomb that was “live” and could still go off at any moment.

So there we were, me standing on the side of the road with the dog and my husband holding a potentially live explosive in his hand. What were we supposed to do this historic object? Did we set it back down for some other person to potentially pick up and blow themselves to bits? Did we bring it home? Did we stand there and call the police to come straight away? Given that it’s France and nothing happens fast here, we opted to bring it home.

My husband took a couple of photos and put it in a bucket of water. He then attempted to contact the local gendarmerie via online chat. They gave him a number to call, which of course did not work. He finally asked our landlord if he could call. Our landlord called and told us the bomb squad people would be there the next afternoon. So far, there has been no sign of them.

We think this might be because they also are operating under the same set of rules as the local internet company. We have been attempting to get high speed internet ever since we moved in mid-September 2020. The first company our landlord was using, called Free, claimed it was not possible to install fiber cable in order to provide us with high speed internet. We found this strange (understatement), and we did some searching around online to see what other companies might be able to offer people living in our area. We found a company called Orange and discovered on their site a government guarantee for all people living in France to have access to high speed internet. If the company was not able to provide fiber, then they would provide a small Airbox that connected with cell towers free of charge until the time they could install fiber. We opted to try this. First our landlord explained that there was no fiber box. The workers for Orange came out and announced there was no fiber box.

Yes, we responded. We already told you that.

Oh, they replied. We just didn’t believe you.

Ummmmm, ok….

Since then, Orange has assured us every few weeks that this time they will be able to install the fiber cable setup and turn on our high speed internet. We are into our six month of living here, and as yet there is no sign of a box or cable. They gave us an Airbox with 300GB for two months. At 100GM used, it promptly stopped working. Our landlord requested that Orange recharge it by phone, and they informed him he would have to go to the store in a community 25 minutes by car from our house. He drove there, and the staff person informed him they would have to recharge it by phone.

Ummmmm, ok…

He was assured the recharge would kick in that night or the next morning. No recharge kicked in. After several weeks, he called again and was told they would recharge it and it should start working within 48 hours. Suffice it to say that 48 hours have come and gone and we are still using internet so slow it is all I can do to not scream all day and all night long.

Back to the bomb squad. I told my husband that I thought the same would happen with the bomb squad and that not only would we still not have high speed internet when we moved out this coming June but that I was pretty sure the unexploded bomb would still be swimming in its rusty water bath at that time as well.

So ok. France is very good at making amazing bread and pastries but does not seem able to figure out high speed internet. It’s a head scratcher, to be sure, especially considering we do not live in a particularly rural area. We are a five minute walk to a large grocery store and less than five minutes to a highway. To be fair, I have no idea how it works to provide high speed internet access, but I think in this day and age it is nowhere close to the proverbial rocket science it once was.

Also, it is fairly unnerving that we are able to find so many WWI paraphernalia so close to our little farmhouse. At the shop in Ypres, we had bought a chunk of a grenade and a shiny brass fuse. Since then, my husband proclaimed that it would be very “cool” to find a shiny fuse near our house. I have turned on my intention to the high setting, and just yesterday he handed me the dog’s leash and walked down into the ditch after something he saw in the little creek flowing there. Straddling the water with one foot planted on either side in the soggy grass, he reached into the water and pulled out a WWI fuse.

It went into a dog poop bag and we continued walking, my husband assuring me along the way that he was almost 100% certain it would not explode.

With a 6pm nationwide curfew and shopping centers largely shut down, we continue to keep ourselves busy with shopping forays around farm fields of northern France. It is eerie to be living on the battle fields of World War I, and I hope that it remains “all quiet on the western front.”

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