On a bright and sleepy Sunday morning in September of 2002, after a ride on the RoissyBus from Charles DeGaulle airport, I stood in the expansive square in front of the Opera building. I would spend a few days in Paris mostly on my own. With the streets bathed in that Sunday morning solitude that is so Parisian, I decided to walk to my hotel in the 9th arrondissement, at the foot of rue des Martyrs.
The wheels of my suitcase rolled their snare drum roll off the sidewalk behind me. A few early bird couples hovered over coffee at sidewalk tables. The air was fresh and moist and full of life, in spite of the onset of Fall. The peace and quiet, the lumbering city easing itself toward the start of a day off, felt like something to soak up and never let go.
This past Sunday, March 22, almost 19 years later, Isabelle and I went for our morning walk, each equipped with our freshly dated, handwritten paper that explains we are just out for a walk, close to the apartment. When we emerged from our passage (alleyway) and looked to our left down rue St. Dominique, we saw a man walking down the middle of the street. Simple, and surreal. Rue St. Dominique is so often bumper to bumper with cars, delivery trucks and buses, though perhaps not on a Sunday morning. The loneliness of the man in the street hit home for us in still another way what it is to live under confinement. We don’t go to avenue de Breteuil anymore. It was getting too busy, and the extra people were drawing police. So we headed down rue Jean Nicot toward the river and our new favorite place to walk. Most stores have been closed since St. Patrick’s Day, but on Sundays a lot of the boulangeries (bakeries) are closed too, adding to the quiet. There was too much of it — this unaccustomed silence. A wave of fear went through me, of sadness. A longing for the good old times, just six days ago.
On Saturday they closed the Champ de Mars, the park at the foot of the Eiffel Tower, sealing it off symbolically with tape that says Police Nationale. The popular berges, former auto roads that have been converted to a riverside pedestrian park, were also closed. In years past, that was part of our default walking route.
But perched above the Seine and les berges, there is a smaller linear park at the foot of rue Jean Nicot. Wide gravel paths surround a long rectangle of grass. Now, restricted by the rules of confinement, we go there and walk back and forth. Isabelle checked on her smartphone. Each round trip is 1,000 steps. Walking east, the river below and to our left, we have a view of Pont Alexandre III, with its golden sculptures representing science and art gleaming in the sun, and further afield, the massive glass-roofed Grand Palais, the French flag above it under full sail. Then, walking west, I notice the empty tour boats docked below the expansive Bateaux-Mouches sign. There are no tour boats running now, no decks covered with tourists, thick as flies.
We try to walk back and forth eight times, for 8,000 steps, but we usually go stir-crazy before that. We’re finding monotony in beauty.
Monday night, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe gave a long briefing on TV. He’s slight but fit looking, with receding black hair and a full, well-trimmed salt-and-pepper beard that has a curious white patch below the left corner of his mouth, as if he had spilled milk just before going on camera. We have seen politicians who speak in entire paragraphs. Philippe speaks in chapters, with little hesitation between paragraphs, and without notes. He never gave the impression he was trying to avoid the journalist’s questions, handing down new details about our rights to leave the apartment under confinement. We’re allowed to venture just one kilometer away, for one hour, once a day, as exercise. But shopping, as far as we can tell, can be an extra outing. With blue skies day after day, we’ve been “sneaking” out for a second walk in the afternoons, often staying to the small streets. Sometimes police patrol on horseback, in pairs, the sound of the horseshoes echoing along the empty streets. If we hear them coming, we just turn down a street away from the clip-clop. What would it be like to be questioned by an officer hovering above my handwritten dispensation? I have no interest in finding out.
The confinement will last at least until the middle of April. It will be a lesson in keeping a lid on cabin fever and keeping in mind those who are suffering from the virus.
When I left the States on March 8, I expected to be back on April 3. Some of my prescriptions need to be refilled. Before I asked my doctor to email me the prescriptions, I wanted to make sure the pharmacy has the same drugs available. So I wrote the medicine names on a sheet of paper, and we went to a pharmacy I have used in the past. It’s out of, I guess, the early 20th century. All wood facade and all wood on the inside, too. The pharmacist, who works alone and has done so for at least a decade, appears well-fed and is genuinely welcoming. He holds court behind an expansive counter. I gave him the paper, and he just started pulling the boxes from his inventory. With the medicines on the counter, he cashed us out, a mischievous smile on his face.
“On the black market, this is going to be expensive.”
I realized this was a joke, since neither the French health system nor my American insurance were involved in the purchase. He meant without insurance companies involved, I was paying full price. But it wasn’t expensive, and I had written my own prescription.
Every night at 8 o’clock, Parisians open their windows and hoot and holler and applaud in appreciation of their caregivers. It only lasts about a minute. From our balcony, we can see our confined compatriots, across the way, silhouetted against the light in their apartments.
President Macron gave a lengthy speech on TV last night, going through a long list of “Thank you’s” to those in nearly every sector of the economy. He said each citizen has a job, even if it is merely to just stay home. We are all in this together. The French call it solidarité.