[Les Carnets de Camargo] Return

by LaToya Watkins
March 2020

In the beginning, the only things that unnerved me were the dogs. They came in all sizes. Some were leashed and some were not. Admittedly, most of them were rather tame. At first, I found their presence (as I do in my neighborhood back home when I jog and they chase me) mildly irritating. It’s a stretch to blame my ancestry for this nagging irritation; however, it’s true that dogs were used as tools of intimidation to control black Americans, beginning with the inception of slavery.

When we arrived in Cassis on February 25th, the world, as we knew it, was falling apart. I don’t think we were entirely aware of that. We, the recipients of such a magnificent opportunity, were immediately made to feel at home by the Camargo Foundation “Dream Team,” and, in the days following our arrival, we set out on several delightful excursions and got to know a bit about each other and the region. Cassis is a bustling, charming place. I fell in love with it right away. I enjoyed walking the hilly paths to the calanques and to the town center for baguettes.  And the view from my assigned apartment was spectacular!

Alas, I found that in Cassis many people had dogs. The first few times I went to the town center, several giant breeds ran around unleashed. When those first few came galloping in my direction, I remembered my grandmother’s hard voice saying, Don’t run, girl. They chase you if you run. So I stood frozen until they passed. The dogs of Cassis didn’t pay me much attention, though. All of them seemed quite obedient when addressed by their masters, and after the first week, I relaxed when walking about the town. Still, I always made sure to watch my step, as I found the sidewalks and streets were littered with piles of dog waste.

While I watched my step and the dogs around me, the world changed. A few of the residents had traveled from countries affected by COVID-19, and after a few days of news reports and other alerts, it was decided that we would postpone all group activities and quarantine for fifteen days.

Before our first project discussion (March 10th), a conversation was scheduled to discuss the spread of the virus. None of us seemed worried about our safety, but by the time I presented my project to the group (March 11th) there was an air of uncertainty regarding the days to come, as the reported numbers of infection were rising all around the world and leaders were beginning to restrict travel and daily life to contain it.

On March 12th, Donald Trump banned the travel of foreign nationals coming from most European countries from entering America, and several of my fellow residents were forced to make the decision whether to stay or return home. After consulting with my family, I decided to stay. But the ban magnified the situation for us all when one of our brilliant companions returned home to Istanbul while she still could. The partner of another fellow, who happened to be a foreign national living in the U.S., had to switch his flight and immediately return to the U.S.

On the morning of March 15th, my family told me that toilet paper was disappearing from the states. On March 16th, the president of France ordered the country to stay home for at least 15 days in an effort to fight the spread of the virus. Again, those of us who were not from France were faced with another decision. Would we shelter in place or get out while we could? Beginning March 17th, we needed forms to go out for food supplies, exercise, and medical visits. This also affected the staff’s ability to be on the campus with us. On March 18th, I began to receive emails about how to avoid web-based predators, as many U.S. businesses and educational institutions were preparing to transition online. On March 19th, the U.S. State Department issued an advisory urging Americans not to travel overseas and to return to the U.S. if they could. And by March 20th, the town of Cassis was quiet and all of the residents at the foundation were painfully familiar with social distancing and uncertainty.

Around midday on March 20th, I took a walk to the market (which has since been added to a list of restrictions in Cassis). When I looked down, I was confronted by a small pile of dog waste that I’d barely missed stepping into. Strangely, I was comforted by it. With the world—the people in it—changing so rapidly around us, it gave me hope to see that dogs were still doing what dogs do.

I reasoned that if dogs are still dogs, then we are still us, and we will come back to ourselves, despite these crumbling systems around us, and we will take care of each other and of this world gifted to us. And I thought about that as I rummaged through my backpack for the plastic bag I knew was there. And I was thinking of it when I used the bag to pick up the animal feces. And when I found the nearest waste receptacle and deposited the bag there, I was still thinking of humanity and our great return.

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