After over a year of barely moving from my home computer, which seemed to be permanently displaying a Zoom screen throughout the pandemic, the arrival of the vaccine promised that some version of foreign travel and visits to French archives might once again become possible. As a medievalist, many of my sources are unpublished and archival work has always been a crucial part of my research, and as the past two years threw many projects into sharper relief and with new questions raised by recent events, it was frustrating not to be able to return to the primary documents. I know that I am not alone in feeling the impact of the travel ban on my work. Of course, nothing in our world is now back to normal, but I thought I would share my experiences of what it is like to cross international borders in this second year of the pandemic and the respective rules and their observance and enforcement on two different sides of the Atlantic.
My flight to France was on Icelandair, which had its typical, hour-long layover in Reykjavik, which added another government’s COVID regulations to the itinerary. This part was actually the smoothest part of the trip. Icelanders had some early resisters to masking regulations, but most of the population readily embraced the vaccines when they arrived, and currently 81% of the population is fully vaccinated (https://covid.cdc.gov/covid-data-tracker/#global-vaccinations). Iceland was among the first EUC countries to accept the US CDC cards as proof of vaccination, and set up a system that converted our dubious-looking cards into a bar code that could be quickly processed by their border agents. Submitting a picture of your CDC card generated the bar code within 48 hours and allowed quick verification for boarding the flight and during the nominal crossing of the Icelandic border at Keflavík Airport. Earlier in the summer, the Icelanders warned US travelers that they would also be subjected to an immediate PCR test upon landing; this appeared to be a sham to discourage American travelers who may have contemplated using fake CDC cards. No one I know who actually went to Iceland this summer was subjected to a PCR test. This fall, however, Iceland added a PCR test requirement prior to boarding the flight – a policy announced about a week before I was scheduled to leave.
It may seem that options for getting a PCR test in C-U are plentiful, but once I turned to the CUPHD website, the problems of our local response became apparent. Many sites administered tests only on alternate days and the current wait time for many of them is “at least 48 hours,” which, given that the negative test for boarding a flight must be no more than 72-hours old, posed some obvious problems. There are still options in the area, one of which is our own McKinley Hall. While this option was relatively easy, the test proved to be self-administered (despite costing the typical $45); I was very glad to have the option, but I leave open the question of whether I am qualified to produce reliable results by sticking a q-tip up my own nose in the men’s room in the basement of McKinley Hall. But the results were quick and got me the document that I needed to board my flight. My partner went to one of the area clinics and the wait time for results produced considerable pre-flight anxiety as she waited well over 24 hours.
French regulations for travel went less smoothly. Among much fanfare, Macron announced that vaccinated Americans would be allowed to travel to France beginning in the middle of this past summer. A system was set up to convert our CDC cards into QR codes that the French instituted as part of their pass sanitaire system. I submitted my paperwork just over a month before I was set to travel. Two weeks later, I read that France had launched a new website to submit one’s application, documents, and receive the QR code. I wrote to the French consulate in Chicago inquiring which of the two systems I was supposed to use and whether my original application was still valid. One strains not to make essentializing generalizations in this survey of national reactions to the pandemic, but let us just say that the consulate’s reaction did not challenge my experiences with French bureaucracy: they said, 1) that “the deliverance of the pass sanitaires is outside of the purview of the French consulates in the US,” 2) that the online portal was for EU citizens, not American ones (which was wrong), 3) that where I originally submitted my application was the correct place to apply for American citizens (which by that point was clearly wrong), and 4) that “nevertheless, we hope your request will be finalized and that you receive your pass at a timely manner taking into the account the flux of requests received every day by the competent service in France” (which may have been true, but seemed to suggest that I just resign myself to the fact that existential angst is the natural human condition and human agency is a neo-liberal, Anglo-Saxon illusion). After waiting several more days, I began to have serious doubts that my original application was going to be reviewed. My partner applied after I did, but she hit the window perfectly, just as the new online portal was being launched and before it got buried by an avalanche of applications, so her application yielded a QR code in about ten days. I re-applied through the new online portal. It must be said that the bi-lingual website was impressive. You could upload all your documents, it provided both email and phone contact information with your purported reviewing officer, and another click generated an impressive spread of data visualizations about your application’s progress, the flow of all applications, wait times, negative and positive outcomes, etc. I quickly used the email function to inform the reviewing officer that by this point I had already been waiting for two weeks and that my original application was submitted according to their earlier instructions, confirmed as the correct ones by the consulate. But it became clear that despite the impressive apparatus, no one was actually reading any of the emails and the phone number was permanently disconnected. This left waiting as the only option, which turned into a depressing picture of the data visualizations simply adding one day of wait time at the end of each business day – something between Kafka and Beckett, but as I said, with really clean website design.
French pass sanitaire (GEOFFROY VAN DER HASSELT AFP/Archives)
I was born in what remained of the Soviet Union, so dealing with impossible bureaucratic systems is strangely familiar. A French fonctionnaire was hardly going to destroy my research plans. But the issue was more than one of bureaucratic niceties – I had to visit some quite small archives in southern France; in some cases this would mean sharing a tiny reading room with retirees doing genealogical research (which continues to be a strange obsession, despite the pandemic) or sharing a small office of the municipal archivist, with barely enough space for much social distancing. Moreover, train travel was going to be required to get to all of these archives.
I wrote to the archivists and explained my predicament. The reaction was universally supportive – we would find a solution and they would find time to receive me – but the rules varied quite a bit. Masks were going to be required in all of the archives, but some required the pass sanitaire and some very explicitly did not; the ones that did require it, said that they would unofficially accept my CDC card, if my pass sanitaire was not processed in time. Train travel was going to be a more serious issue, because the pass sanitaire was definitely required, and although enforcement on local trains was likely to be lax, the TGV from Paris was almost certain to require something that the SNCF could scan. But with two-thirds of our travel problems solved, I was confident that I could solve the rest once I got to Paris.
What remained was getting out of the US. Many of you will already know some of the more problematic aspects of this process. We boarded the Peoria Charter. A shortage of drivers meant fewer daily routes – we would have no clear way of getting back from Chicago upon our return and the remaining buses were running very full – a bit worrying during a pandemic. On board, masks are theoretically required, but there is no enforcement of the policy. Most UIUC students were complying, some conscientiously, some nominally and haphazardly. Some of the passengers didn’t wear masks throughout the trip. Similarly, O’Hare theoretically demands masking, but there are many uncovered noses and masked chins. There is little doubt that the vaccine is your main protection against COVID spread in American public places. The international flight thus comes as something of a relief – as the above outlines, you have some assurance that everyone on the plane has been vaccinated and has tested negative within the past 72 hours. Where else in the US are you going to have that level of security? Masks on the flight are required, but everyone unmasks at exactly the same time to eat, so, you know…
French vaccination rates are not as low as those of Americans, but at 67% they still fall well short of the Icelanders. During the past year, French enforcement of lockdowns had often been rather brutal and ham-fisted, with police stopping people in the street and demanding to see papers permitting people to be out. By the time we arrived, the world had changed considerably. The RER train from the airport was packed, so again, your faith was in the efficacy of the vaccine, rather than any pretense of social distancing or mask wearing. Almost all riders were wearing masks, but many were clearly more concerned about spot checks that can still produce a fine, rather than worrying about the health of their fellow riders. Many noses and mouths moved freely above masks, which would be quickly moved up when someone in a uniform was visible amid the crowd. But most riders did observe the mask wearing mandate conscientiously, and all did to some degree, in considerable contrast to vast swaths of the US and even Illinois.
In Paris itself, the pass sanitaire becomes more of a necessary. Although for some institutions masking is sufficient – food stores, public libraries – it is required for all cafes, restaurants, and museums. I heard that in most of these cases you can use your CDC card directly, but I never tried that. Upon arrival, my official application was no closer to being processed, as each day one more day of wait time continued to be added to the data visualizations, so clearly I would need to do something else. I will not describe my solution in detail. Suffice it to say that during a relatively short period in the pass sanitaire system, pharmacies were authorized to issue QR codes, as some of them continued to administer PCR tests. A bit of sleuthing yielded an out of the way pharmacy that claimed that it could convert a CDC card into a QR code… for 20 euros. I did not ask too many questions. I will say that most pharmacies told me that they were no longer authorized to do this and that by the time we left France, that particular pharmacy was also no longer converting CDC cards into the pass sanitaire, but right when I arrived, 20 euros produced a QR code with my name on it and that worked flawlessly throughout the French system. No problems. Ten days into the trip, my original application was finally approved. Clearly, the fact that I already had an assigned QR code (and it is linked to your passport number, so it’s not quite as flimsy as our CDC cards) didn’t trigger any pause or reflection with regard to my original application. So, as far as I can tell, I now have two QR codes in the system, although I haven’t tested whether both of them work.
Working while masked in a French library.
Despite all the additional complications, foreign travel is now once again possible. Frankly, most aspects of it feel safer (and probably are safer) than many activities around C-U. For all of its flaws, the pass sanitaire system gives one considerable assurance that the people sitting next to one have been vaccinated. Paris is particularly well suited for outside dining, providing heating lamps well before the pandemic, and clearly even for many of vaccinated, outside sitting remained the preferred option. That said, it is Paris, and the outside sitting in all cafes and bistros in our neighborhood was packed to the gills by the time the sun set. You might be nominally in the fresh air and your neighbors probably had to produce a QR code to sit down, but no real social distancing was taking place. As temperatures began to drop, particularly in the mountain towns in the south, inside dining became much more of a necessity. I must say that most restaurants made serious efforts to ensure the diners’ safety – verifying everyone’s QR code on entry, requiring masks on the way to your table, and providing additional distancing among the tables. Requiring the waiting staff to wear masks amid unmasked diners seemed to be a little on the theatrical side, but perhaps there was a real medical logic behind this policy. Where government policies are not being enforced, most of the people I dealt with had been vaccinated and believed that this was sufficient to make masking unnecessary. None of our AirBnB hosts wore masks and certainly did not require us to do so, even when meeting us for the first time. Whenever we arrived masked they seemed puzzled that we thought it was necessary. Similarly, archive and municipal staff might be masked in the official and public spaces, but were almost always unmasked when talking with the colleagues they see every day. On the other hand, public spaces, even outside food markets, had almost universal observance of masking rules, even if quite a few Gallic noses protruded above those masks.
Range of masking techniques at Saturday food market in Rodez
The pandemic has also produced many unusual configurations at the most popular tourist destinations, as the crowds of visitors are greatly diminished. Parts of Paris where one would be hard pressed to hear French in earlier years are at least partially repopulated by native Parisians. Museums (requiring timed entry) can be visited without having to elbow your way through crowds, allowing you to view the most popular works for the first time in many years. Tourist trap restaurants and town quarters can seem strangely empty, while places favored by the locals are bustling and lively. That said, resistance to vaccination in France has been higher than it is in Iceland (although nowhere near the abysmal rates in many US states). Even in the small towns I visited, there were continuing anti-masking and anti-vaxx demonstrations: https://www.ladepeche.fr/2021/10/03/manifestation-moins-de-300-anti-pass-sanitaire-dans-les-rues-9828499.php . Apparently, the demonstrations were much more active earlier in the year, with crowds in tiny Rodez topping 1,000 in August and September, but by the beginning of October they had diminished considerably and were entirely non-confrontational during my visit. The participants circled the town and dispersed with no fiery speeches and manifestations that I saw. The food market of Rodez that was held the previous day had most sellers and visitors observing the masking requirement.
The research itself was the most normal part of the trip. It required a little more communication ahead of my visits, but many of these arrangements were also necessary before the pandemic. Most of the rules and schedules had reverted to their normal format and all of the archivists and staff were back at work. Except for the added challenge of working in a mask and whenever possible observing some additional spacing in the seating arrangements, these institutions were more or less back to normal, and the main challenges were related to the sources, very limited time, and adjusting questions and research strategies – all of which would have been true without the pandemic. In Paris, I could spot a number of American graduate students back at work and French students were certainly putting in regular hours. In local, municipal archives, I was always the only researcher; this has often been true in the beforetimes, but now seemed to be more formally linked to pandemic policies. In departmental archives, I was surrounded by the regular clienele of genealogists and local scholars with an occasional visit by a school group and their teacher. Their work and interactions seemed relatively unaffected by the pandemic. No foreign or even French professional historians were visible, although this too was not unusual in the beforetimes. From my conversations with the archivists, I gathered that some in-person academic talks had resumed in Toulouse, but I had no time to attend them in person.
Cover of fifteenth-century register from Albi.
This leaves the return to the US. Ironically, the only nation that puts no stock in CDC cards as proof of anything is the US, which requires a negative PCR test for re-entry. I had to get my test in the small town of Pamiers, and was able to schedule it relatively quickly and got my results with blinding speed and on an official-looking pdf (although again, it’s not exactly cheap). Across Europe, there is considerable annoyance among health workers that a significant part of their workload is testing Americans seeking re-entry, on top of their more logical clientele of local students not yet eligible for vaccines and frontline workers. Similarly, it falls to airline staff, rather than US government officials, to verify the results of the PCR test. It does not make one feel particularly good about this distribution of the burdens imposed by the pandemic.
In November, America is finally supposed to reciprocate, as vaccinated Europeans will once again be allowed to visit the US. Given the respective vaccination rates, the lateness of this policy seems bizarre – your C-U neighbor is far more likely to be unvaccinated and rates are even lower in most domestic destinations where Americans (this one included) have been spending their vacations during the past two summers. But despite these notable and sometimes stark contrasts in behavior and policies, parts of our world are beginning to re-connect, and those of us who depend on foreign travel for our research can begin to get back to work.