I live in France, but am not now in France, my Boston-Paris flight having been postponed for a promising professional event which, like the flight, is now indefinitely on ice. But as across the world everyone’s physical and social range shrinks, constricted by fear and necessity––narrowing here in the waffling patchwork of US measures every few days––our mental roaming is less and less tethered to the usual, immanent coordinates. More time, more space. Not much distraction in the here and now. And so I walk around in my two-room duplex apartment near the Bastille, slippered, water the geraniums and rosemary in their dry window boxes, go down a flight into the courtyard to tug bills and flyers from my mailbox, surprise-encounter a neighbor returned, perhaps, from a pharmacy run. We lament that none of us in the building have a dog! Otherwise we could share it around, and while observing all due precautions, snatch a bit more air and exercise. And that dog would soon be oh, so fit!
In fact, every sortie (how apropos at the moment, the military overtone of this French word loaned to English) must be accompanied by a signed statement of purpose. There was some confusion last week but now it’s pretty well worked out: how to download and print this form permitting four types of excuses (including dog-walking) for brief sorties, or else you hand copy it or get someone to help you. Because people do help. (More on that later.) President Macron gave a sober speech a week ago, talked of war and pulling together, announced strict lockdown measures, since tightened further. Sorties now limited to one hour per day. He has called on the gendarmerie to spot-control said papers and impose fines of around 150 euros in cases of delinquency. In large part the honor system, and apparently pretty much working in France, for the majority. That said, one reads only today that Italians are complying less with government measures, crying Basta! to isolation and deprivation.
France, a country largely born out of Italian civilization, is desperate not to become anything resembling Italy now. That may be hard. The two countries have the steepest, and parallel, curves of new cases in Europe. Neither curve is flattening. As I write, of all the numbers flung around, (total cases/new cases/ hospitalizations/ spread etc.) given the vagaries and low incidence of testing, only deaths can be relied on. On Sunday the tally was Italy: 5476 total, 652 new. France: 674, 112.
Italy has closed domestic travel. In France a few trains are still running. But if you want to board that train you will be controlled, and you had better have your paper filled out with a good and provable reason. Until last week trains and roads propelled the well-heeled (‘bobos’) from the infected metropoles out to their vacation homes, much as is happening in the US. In both countries rural health resources are already strapped, and so the rural resentment of this new breed of refugee simmers equally: I hear rumors of cars with NY plates being bashed in a US seaside town that shall remain nameless.
Just now came a call from a Paris friend, C., whom I’d not heard from in a year. In his usual good spirits, he explained his home cure for this and other viruses, which involves blowing a hair-dryer up one’s nose. (He will email the details.) Yes, everyone is strictly confined to home. If you leave, it must be alone, and of course with the excuse paper, and only for a short time. He excoriates lack of government coordination, and especially the looming lack of protection equipment and tests. Hospitals used to receiving two urgent cases per night are now seeing ten, and the load has yet to peak––that event is predicted for the first week in April. I point out that compared to the US, France has tested almost twice the percentage of population. (Germany three times more.) C. is surprised. He suggests quinine could be the answer, following news of sudden cures in Marseilles. I mention my plan about the dog. Bad idea, he says: “The virus drops to the ground you know, dogs step on it, bring it home, you’ll spend your life trying to disinfect…” I revise my plan. “And how about you?” I ask. “The family?” He, his wife and daughters have a roomy apartment with a balcony; the girls’ teachers are holding classes via Internet: all is fairly well. We’ll talk again soon.
Most people in Paris and other towns live in very much smaller spaces. Twenty square meters for a single or couple is not uncommon. A writer-friend, former military man with three small kids was planning to move his family to new digs. Now they’re in limbo, living among boxes. Five people, one partly disabled, in two rooms on the edge of town. He can’t get meds for a recent injury. But he’s revising his novel, and not complaining. The situation being way better than a jump with a faulty ‘chute.
How not to go stir-crazy after days or weeks of ‘confinement dur?’ French museums are posting their entire collections on the Internet, opera and symphonies ditto, meditation and yoga and exercise classes proliferate, and yet. Besides, not everyone has Internet. And what about the homeless? Two thousand unoccupied apartments have been requisitioned by the government, which is also freeing up 50 million euros for hotel rooms. US initiatives are piecemeal, local, uncoordinated, and hardly funded. Time for C. to love the government he’s with. Which reminds me that the public hospital association has posted a form where people can list their skills as volunteers in case of need. Speaking of helping.
To date in France there have been about 1.7 million police controls of people outside on the street, and 92,000 citations. Young people will still thumb their noses and try to party. Three strikes theoretically mean jail-time, but that seems an unlikely punishment when every country’s nightmare is a Covid outbreak in the prisons. (Italy already had its prison riots, in which six people died.)
Us-versus-them resentments in France focus less on regional differences than––traditionally and proudly––on class. Last week two prominent novelists found themselves coincidentally together in scalding social media water after publication of their respective ‘confinement journals.’ Apparently literature fans in cramped apartments who are either losing their work or business, or have to continue in high risk jobs, couldn’t relate to the upper-crust poesy of ‘While my husband telecommutes, two deer are nibbling spring shoots in the garden. In the sky without airplanes a bird… (etc.)’ No surprise that I found their books overwrought and out of touch to begin with.
The writer I miss most right now is Rainer Maria Rilke. I sense he would have something to say, an unveiling of a reality we can’t otherwise perceive.
Wer jetzt kein Haus hat, baut sich keines mehr.
Wer jetzt allein ist, wird es lange bleiben,
wird wachen, lesen, lange Briefe schreiben
und wird in den Alleen hin und her
unruhig wandern, wenn die Blätter treiben.
Who now has no house, won’t build one later.
Who now is alone, will remain a long time so,
will keep watch, read, write long letters,
and restlessly wander in the avenues, to and fro
when the leaves scatter.
Under the circumstances I can move around Paris with impunity, unlike my friends and neighbors. Like it or not I have the closed and barricaded Seine pedestrian bank all to myself. I stroll by the water, reciting Herbsttag (last stanza above) which every German schoolchild has to learn. Absorbing a chill wind, sunshine, and the novelty of audible birdsong instead of traffic noise. I wave to a friend leaning from her window, whose engaging smile, I know, conceals a growing panic. Sandra is single, childless, her income is from a flat she rehabbed and decorated herself, in normal times rented to tourists. Her great fear is not of falling sick, but the melt-down of savings stashed for her bedridden mother’s retirement home costs, and her own future.
The theater area around Chatelet is where Seine-side restaurants have always spilled over the sidewalks day and night. Sarah Bernhardt partied here! Now the cafés are locked, dark caverns, their chairs piled up inside the windows like a crowd of ghosts staring wistfully out at the living world––to see seagulls, mostly, swooping over the river.
A few blocks further on (not that Paris has ‘blocks’) I scan the upper storeys for the window of another friend. J. is in her late seventies, a sparrow-thin volunteer for myriad causes with child-like energy who lives with portraits of her distant children and long dead husband, books, letters, sheet music etc. all covering a piano the furniture in one rent-controlled room and kitchen. No room to swing a cat. Her window is shuttered. Is her radio on, has she heard today’s bulletin from the national health council, that the official confinement needs to last for at least six weeks? The curve is not leveling. Since I began writing these notes, deaths have increased to 860. Again, correction: over 1000. Paris being, of course, the epicenter. These numbers we hang on will continue to change like quicksilver.
Notre Dame’s construction began in 1160, and took one hundred years. Now the maimed, blackened silhouette of what remains after the fire looms on my left. I used to go to Mass there, though not often––feels odd to be one in a huddle of celebrants sealed off by glass from gawking visitors. No doubt President Macron has already abandoned his bold deadline for rebuilding the cathedral. He did go ahead with scheduled first round municipal elections last week, though, in face of virulent criticism from the opposition, and with public support of over 60%. But the second, deciding round has been pushed into the uncertain future.
Light a candle.
Bon Dieu, don’t let Democracy become a victim. Not here, not anywhere.