Sans Terrasse: Paris in the Time of Coronavirus

We returned to Paris from a one-week vacation on Sunday, March 15, not entirely knowing that to expect. Schools in France, as well as bars, cafés, restaurants, shops, and other “non-essential” businesses, were closed. G. and I had both been warned that we would be working from home for at least two weeks, but that we could return to our offices if necessary.

The Sunday we returned was warm and sunny; it felt like the first day of Spring. Along the Canal Saint-Martin, at the end of our street, young people were drinking and talking in small groups, enjoying themselves and the weather — and going against the government’s recommendations to stay at home and self-isolate.

On Monday I popped over to my office early to grab my work laptop and bring it home to start my first day of work-from-home, which is already known by its acronym WFH. Then the “confinement” proper began. Chatting with my colleagues over Microsoft Teams, we exchanged rumours: that the “quarantine” would last for 45 days, that the government was going to bring in the army to enforce the stay-at-home rules. By the end of the day we were told that we would no longer be able to go to the office at all since there had been someone in the building who has infected.

While I dealt with work emergencies–communicating, strangely, on the very situation we were in–G. went out to fill up our stock of provisions, waiting for over 30 minutes to get into the store. Most people around the world have witnessed this by now: empty store shelves: no rice, no pasta, no canned vegetables, no toilet paper…

That evening, Emmanuel Macron gave a somewhat patronizing address to the nation. He mentioned several times that we were at war, although he made no mention of the army. He informed us that the European Union would be closing its borders for 30 days. He reiterated the need to stay at home, to go out only for essential activities. We learned that the next day, on Tuesday March 17, at noon, we would need to print or copy out a paper to go outside of homes for a valid reason: buy necessities, go to a medical appointment, go to work (if it is essential), to take care of a person in need, or to practice a brief physical activity or take care of a pet.

On Tuesday morning, unbeknownst to us, the city emptied out as those who could drove off or took the last trains out to their country houses or to stay with family or friends in the provinces. I went out to shop in the early afternoon, duly copying out my little “attestation” and even bringing my passport with me in case. The streets were nearly deserted, but foods shops were open. The butcher had a table set up right at this door. One of the bakeries I like, Mamiche, was selling their goods out of the window, with a little sign that said “We are still smiling under our masks.” Some of the caviste’s shelves were empty. “It was very busy this morning,” she said. “But as as soon as noon struck everyone went home.” I wasn’t sure if I was allowed to touch the bottles or not; we agreed that it was better if I didn’t. At the Marché Saint-Martin, the stalls were full of produce. I bought everything I needed at the greengrocer’s, as well salmon from the fishmonger’s, which was also well stocked. It could’ve been like any other day, except with fewer customers. The fishmonger was filling out his own “attestation” to go home, later.

We stay at home and go out as little as possible. We try to maintain a normal work schedule, take time away from our computers during lunch, close up and not check our work emails during the evening. A small comfort buoys us at the end of the work day: people open their windows at 8 p.m. and applaud the healthcare workers. You get the sense that people are also clapping for themselves, encouraging each other. At first I admit I found the idea a little cheesy, but now we make a point of joining in. It’s cheerful, and it’s nice to smile at the neighbours across the way.

These are times for empathy, to try and imagine what it’s like to be a healthcare worker, a grocery store clerk, a homeless person. Today I had to go out several times to the laundromat and to buy some food at the market; I was stopped by three different homeless people wanting money, or asking to use my phone…  The apartment just across the street from us is inhabited by a couple our age with a newborn that can’t be older than a week or so. What is it like to be new parents at a time like this, with friends and family unable to visit?

What is Paris without its terrasses, its cafés, its bistros, its museums? Well, Paris is also made of the beautiful intimacy of its neighbourhoods: the chit-chat of your caviste, the smile of the boulangère under a mask.

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