Chapter 2 - Baby steps back to life

Travel Oct 30, 2020

I'm returning from an incredible unplanned 3-month journey working from Europe in the midst of a global pandemic, and decided to process the whole thing how I know best - by writing and sharing. Here's chapter 1.

I leave in 3 days. I had to decide fast because France was rolling out a COVID test requirement to come from the U.S, which would have been impossible to fulfill at that point.

I book the last ticket to which the new restriction doesn't apply.

I can already breathe better even though I'm still in New York.

It felt. so. right. That's what I needed to do. I'll understand later on in this journey that this was the first step tuning back into my intuition. But I digress.

Now what?

Rules of the game

I was allowed to go back to France because I'm a citizen, knowing I could return to U.S. thanks to a travel ban national exception on re-entry for F-1 visas. Pure luck, if you ask me, that I decided to remain on this visa for as long as possible.

So, things were in order but they could get out of wack at any time. I agree with myself on 5 rules of engagement for this trip to manage risk and keep my expectations in check.

  1. I must be okay with things not going my way. I'm throwing myself in a situation where things look good but in which I have little control, and I was proven wrong in 2020 when I said "There's no way this would happen"... so anything could happen.
  2. I usually hate watching the news, but I'll have to follow what's going on in the U.S, Europe and Morocco to keep a pulse on the situation in each country.
  3. My return is 6 weeks from now, but I may need to come back earlier travel restrictions appear - or push it forward, if nothing changes and my heart desires so.
  4. I'm going to work on New York's timezone. I don't want to disrupt my team, and I want there to be no difference for them whether I'm working from Manhattan, Rennes, Paris or wherever else.
  5. I keep reminding myself of the unlikely worst case scenario, as a way to stay honest with myself and de-dramatize it all together. If, for any reason, I can't come back, I'm okay with it. Apartment is just stuff. I love my job but it's just a job and I'll find another one.

The trip

A few people asked me how was it to fly during this time. The airport was a ghost town. I was lucky that Delta was operating my flight, since they committed to keep empty seats between people (they still do). The flight was nearly empty, masks were mandatory, so I never felt uncomfortable or unsafe. It was fine.

More than fine, it was actually delightful.

It was the first step towards getting back in touch with my old reality.

I'm an avid traveler, and a red-eye to Paris, watching the moon shine and the sun rise above the clouds, being around other travelers who were just as happy as I was, made it feel like a treat from the past.

Landing in another dimension

When I land in Charles de Gaulle, it feels like I'm stepping into another universe. The arrival gate's coffee shops are open (AND INDOORS 😱😳🥳), kids are running around and families are queuing to check in, or rushing out.  

It feels like... the old normal? Is this the new normal? My brain has a hard time adjusting but it feels happy.

First thing I ate, obviously.

At this point, I'm feeling ecstatic, although exhausted, and there's nothing that could alter that. I have a few hours to wait for my train, so I start talking to a young woman my age - she tells me about her own travel setbacks. Oh boy, did I miss these conversations with strangers.


I hop on a high-speed train that takes me straight to Rennes, Bretagne, where my brother lives, to spend 3 weeks with him.  

I haven't seen him since... two years ago, when he came to visit in Berkeley, CA. He also lives on his own, and I was dreaming that we could get together and support each other in this nut-job year. It feels so great, and he's an absolute delight to be with.

At this point, there's no talk about us seeing our parents, since Morocco is still in strict lockdown, but we're at least closer and on the same timezone.

I can even tell that my parents feel warm and fuzzy from the mere fact of my brother and I being together.  

Working from Rennes

Being in Rennes confirms the feeling of my life resuming. Getting out of survival mode. The masks mandates aren't greatly managed in France, and they are added slowly in bigger cities, but it doesn't matter - I'm already used to wearing mine, so I just start exploring while staying away from people.

Rennes, Bretagne.

On one day, I walk around the city and get to find my favorite spots. On another, I wake up at 5.00am to take a train to Saint-Malo, where I spend the better part of the day walking in the old city and tanning on a gorgeous beach before coming back and starting work at 3.00pm.

Saint-Malo.

My brother works long hours, so I see him only for dinner. That's fine, because the rest of my free time goes into planning our upcoming week away in Switzerland. Again, always staying cautiously optimistic, watching the news, watching the numbers, assessing if it's safe to travel.  

Finally, I reconnect with France. I keep comparing everything to the U.S. - prices, lifestyle, people's behavior, food options. I love noticing how things are not so focused on consumerism, and convenience is compromised to prioritize people's lives outside of work. Not everything is perfect, but 4 years living in America/Australia give me a different outlook on France.

Pandemic or nah, restaurants close for summer vacation. 2 weeks at least.

I take my first solo road-trip ever on that first weekend. It's hard to make decisions, because anxiety has crippled that muscle in the U.S. But I do a lot of research, and slowly but surely I book what I need - simply, a car and a hotel room. I remind myself of how much I've been longing this, and how lucky I have to have the choice to explore, which helps me take these baby steps.

Tentative route for the weekend 🚗

I LOVE TO DRIVE. And I love having my own car - yet another thing that reinforces my feeling of freedom. I had thought of doing this in the U.S. but I felt nervous about driving on my own over there.

This weekend galvanizes me. It reenforces the belief I can do anything. It lets me enjoy my own company again, without feeling like I'm in a little mouse trap.

I chose where I go, I change routes a few times, I stop on the side of the road, I go to the beach, I hike on my own and stay late at the tip of the French West coast to stargaze. The coastline actually reminds me of the Great Ocean road in Australia.

Outlook from Camaret-sur-Mer, Bretagne.

On Sunday, I drive up to a little island called Ile de Batz, which delights me with its simplicity (no cars allowed) and beaches that left me wondering if I was really in Bretagne. The ferry to the island costs 9 euros (return), far from $45 fares that would be typical back in 'merica.

Secluded beach on Ile de Batz.

I fall in love with this region and make a note to spread the word about it, and to come back with my family in the future.

So what about actual work?

With all these beaches, day trips and leisure, you might be wondering by now if this was all the vacation portion of my journey.

It wasn't.

For the first two weeks, I test out this whole working-on-NY-hours thing. It means I'm working from 3pm to 11pm, local time.

I was cautiously optimistic that it would be great - I would have almost a whole day to do whatever I wanted before work, but would I be able to go to bed right after being done? Would it be sustainable?

The short answer: yes.

With all these activities, my internal energy shot through the roofs. If I'm being honest, I was more productive in that first week than I had been in the whole month of July in NYC.

7.30am beach walk in Saint-Malo, on a Tuesday. Recharging batteries.

I was also genuinely loving work again. My theory? Being confined in NYC turned work into my main source of fulfillment which - however much I love my job - didn't work for me. So, resuming life allowed me to step back and draw energy from nature, travel, and everything that the pandemic took away from me.

At this point, my wonderful teammates kept offering we adapt our hours to accommodate a more "normal" pace for me, but I reassured them that I was not only fine, I was adoring this.

The 3-11pm pace created this odd yet incredible life where I had two days in one.

I was on to something.

And I had just spent two weeks regaining the confidence I needed in life to make the most of it for the rest of the summer.

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Laila Zouaki

Adopted by New York, I made a few life stops in California, Australia, France and Morocco. I'm curious about product, scuba diving, yoga, psychology, art, writing, and food.