The mountains barely appear in the fog. It is winter in Chamonix, a mixture of snowflakes, rain, clouds and mist. The Mercure hotel is taking shape at the entrance to the city, next to the train station and I get out of the car to start the next stage of my life. At the end of January 2019, I applied to the wildlife filmmaking course at the University of Bristol in England. The answer will not be revealed until around April, May. If it is positive, next September, I will settle down on the British side to finally embark on the path I want to follow. From February to September, that leaves me seven months free to do something. The course being expensive (very expensive), I decid to look for a job in a field I know well: catering. So I apply here and there, and in Chamonix where I worked last season. My 2018-2019 winter season at the Alpina Eclectic hotel in Chamonix had not been an easy one, but I had greatly enjoyed living in the Chamonix valley at the foot of Mont-Blanc. The location is very beautiful and I would not say no to the idea of returning there to continue exploring the region. Or find work in the Camargue and continue studying the Greater Flamingos.
Several exchanges and interviews later and the Mercure hotel in Chamonix offers me the position of Maitre d’Hotel (restaurant manager). It is better than my previous position (assistant manager) and a little better paid but the hotel is part of the same group as the Alpina, the group Best Mont-Blanc and I hesitate a little at the idea of being in the same situation as last year. But the prospect of returning to the Alps fills me with joy and so I am back in early February in Chamonix. The Mercure hotel is a hotel with a somewhat aging design and separated into two buildings but which I immediately like. Nothing to do with the Alpina, a large renovated building in the center of the city. The Mercure is smaller, simpler, less impressive and more welcoming. And above all, much better laid out. Bar and restaurant are located in the same place, the restaurant is separated into two rooms with a buffet in the center, the kitchen is relatively functional, the wine cellar is located in the dining room and many cupboards have been installed everywhere. And proportionally the size of the Mercure restaurant is half that of the Alpina. It may seem like details, but in practice it makes all the difference. The Mercure restaurant, La Cordée, does not have the magnificent view of the Mont-Blanc chain that the Vista at the Alpina has, but that is okay. Because in the end working at the Mercure very quickly turns out to be way more pleasant.
The team is also much more friendly with a large majority of Italians, some French and a Thai. They have been there for at least a year and many have been coming back regularly for years. Enough to say that they know how it works. At the reception the team is French and on the upper floors, housekeepers and valets are shared between South America, Romania and Italy. As for accommodation, I move into the annex, Chalet Brévent, the building opposite to the main building, where there are several individual rooms for the staff. Including mine, on the first floor, small room of 17m2 with bathroom and a nice view of the mountains. It is not very big but once well organised, it turns out to be very pleasant. The vast majority of the team is housed in the hotel, distributed between the two buildings. The customers are sometimes a bit noisy but in general, the atmosphere in my building is quiet.
The first week of work is really relaxed. I take my marks and sympathize with the team. I work in break, with a service from 9am to 1pm followed by the evening service from 6.30 to 10pm. The menu is simple and easy to serve. The computer system is the same as that of the Alpina, which allows me to quickly master it. Only the wine service fails me and requires practice. I share my free time between working on my website, preparing for IELTS (English qualification required to be accepted in Bristol) and cycling. The next four weeks until the beginning of March see the school holidays arrive and the pace accelerates abruptly. Groups, families, individuals, seminars parade all day long and the hours get longer. With the change of pace and the accumulated fatigue of the team, the vast majority of which have been there since last summer, tensions and small problems appear. A certain similarity with the Alpina is looming on the horizon. Although the Mercure is more pleasant to work in, it faces the same problems as the Alpina. The kitchen is too old and not equipped enough, the equipment is used, bad habits are revealed and resentment causes some difficult situations. I do my best to keep smiling and motivate and try to not be swallowed by the bad atmosphere. Despite some difficult times, the situation has nothing to do with the Alpina and the days pass quickly. Outside, in the rest of the world, looms the threat a the coronavirus, annew virus, appeared in China in December 2019. First confined to China, the virus seems to be spreading rapidly to the rest of the world. Travel abroad is becoming rarer and hotel reservations decrease a lot in the space of a few days.
The Mercure hotel where I work followed by empty streets in the center of Chamonix. The birds sing cheerfully. Far from the usual hubbub, it is a quiet atmosphere that emanates from the city center.
Beginning of March, the health crisis surrounding the virus becomes more and more pressing. China has placed several of its regions in quarantine and the number of people affected and deceased is increasing sharply in Europe. Italy is by far the most affected and the virus is starting to manifest itself in France. The situation that seemed so far away from us suddenly turns into reality. Media disseminate fear by taking a live count of the number of deaths and in the space of ten days, the hotel empties almost completely. Worried about the situation, groups, seminars and individuals prefer to cancel their trip. The concern is also growing among the team. Without clients, how are we gonna continue to work?
The coronavirus or COVID-19 is a new virus belonging to the family of coronaviruses which cause diseases ranging from the common cold to much more serious pathologies. COVID-19 appeared in China in December 2019 in Hubei province. According to current information, it has been transmitted to humans through contact with a wild animal, possibly a Pangolin or a bat, sold at the Wuhan market. COVID-19 causes, in the vast majority of cases, symptoms similar to those of the flu (fever, headache, fatigue, stiffness in the nose, loss of smell and taste) but can cause complications in some people. (breathing difficulties, kidney failure) which can lead to death. It affects all categories of the population, but the most serious cases are generally observed in the elderly or people with cardiovascular or respiratory pathologies. For the largest part of the population, the virus is not very dangerous. But the worry it generates comes from the fact that it is very contagious and causes many asymptomatic cases. This means that it can infect a person without causing symptoms and that this person can unknowingly infect many people around him. Even more worrying is the number of beds in intensive care and respiratory devices, limited in France due to budgetary restrictions. In case of too high influx of patients, not all will be able to be treated.
On March 10, faced with an explosion of cases in Lombardy, Italy impose containment measures to the whole country. Work stoppage, social distancing and restriction of movement. The news was greeted with difficulty by the Italians on the team. They are now unable to go home. In France, media and government insist that everything is fine and that the country is ready to face the situation. At the hotel, the director begins to raise the possibility of breaches of contracts due to force majeure, which further adds to the worry hovering in the atmosphere. Everyone wonders what is gonna happen next and we live one day at a time. March 15, faced with the rapid spread of the disease in the country, the president of the republic overwhelmed by the situation triggers containment measures in France effective from midnight. I am in service, serving the ten clients still present in the hotel when I learn the decision. The news falls like a cleaver and I have a little trouble realizing what’s going on. COVID-19, a virus that causes far fewer deaths than tobacco, car accidents or suicide, but capable of spreading fear quickly, has put France on a halt. All restaurants, bars, non-essential shops, schools, etc. are closed. The economy is at a standstill and here I am without work. The watchword is to stay at home and avoid contact.
The hours that follow are a mixture of confused situations. Media speak about restriction non-stop, people take advantage of the last few hours of freedom to gather en masse in bars of Chamonix (perfectly illogical behavior in the face of demand for social distancing), remaining tourists quickly leave the country and absurd statements by ministers and officials multiply on television. I am a little stunned by the situation and by the madness that seems to quickly take over society. The next day at the hotel the director brings us together to inform us that she is awaiting the decision of the superiors concerning the closure or not of the hotel but that it is very likely that breach of contract for all CDDs is gonna happen. I am pissed off, not understanding her statements, when the government has just announced the implementation of a funding plan for all employees affected by the work stoppage. Fortunately an hour later, the director announces the closure of the hotel, the establishment of the whole team under funding plan and the possibility of staying in our respective rooms for the whole duration of the quarantine. It would appear that the managers of the Best Mont-Blanc group were smart enough to understand, unlike the director, that they would find themselves without staff at the reopening time if the employees were suddenly fired without consideration.
From my bedroom window, I look at the landscape. The mountains in the background, the city buildings and the bare trees in the hotel garden. It is calm and I listen to the birds singing in the silence. I hear them much better than usually by the way. My parents and my brother are peaceful in the south of France, them too strucked a little by the sudden change of situation and the wind of panic that seems to spread quickly. In Chamonix, the weather is nice, the city is quiet and I am mentally preparing to face the next weeks of quarantine.