No. 5 ~ Paris ~ April 23, 2020

Confinement stretches out. Parisians adjust.

Today is the 38th day of confinement. Yesterday was the 50th Earth Day. No better moment to humbly paraphrase Richard Powers, from his book, The Overstory.

Already we’ve learned, in a few short decades, what it took molecules a billion years to do. Now we need only learn what life wants from humans. It's a big question, to be sure. Too big for people alone. But people aren’t alone, and they never have been. 

On French TV news, they air a segment called “My Confined Life,” to remind us how many days we’ve been in confinement and air an interview by video chat with someone apparently chosen at random. But the person is always smiling, adjusting remarkably well to confinement, and getting lots done. 

When we leave the confinement of our apartment to go for a walk, though, we see that the TV producers are passing over possible subjects who are not having such a good time. We heard a middle-aged guy, phone to his ear, calmly explain that he had “destroyed everything that is yours.” On another day, we heard a woman tell her phone, “Maybe you can make dinner tonight!” 

So it was no surprise that the French were anxious to hear what Emmanuel Macron had to say when he addressed the nation about the coronavirus for the third time on April 13, the Monday after Easter. He announced that confinement will be prolonged until May 11. Now we have the known quantity of a firm date, and the unknown quality of life after confinement. Some of the details have been decided. Our grandson, for example, will resume classes at his middle school the last week of May. The classrooms will be only half full, so he will go to school every other week and continue with homeschooling the rest of the time. 

Some mothers have pushed back, saying May is too soon, so the return to school will be optional.

There is serious talk that restaurants will open in mid-June. To lose the summer business would be devastating. A solution to social distancing in restaurants is still in the works.

Meanwhile, we see how Parisians are adjusting to their confined life. Social distancing is easily achieved when the conversation is carried on with one of the parties in an open window, one or two stories above friends on the sidewalk. Once we walked around a corner on a narrow street and right at my shoulder, in an open street-level window, a young woman was reading in the sunshine, a perfect fit for her windowsill. She didn’t flinch, unmoved by the passersby. 

Some Parisians think: I’m not going out, I’m not seeing anyone, why get dressed? So there is a man in a long, snow-white bathrobe standing in an open window at 3 pm, leaning on his iron railing, checking out the street life. Another guy, carrying shopping bags, is on his way to the store in pajamas and slippers, half-heartedly dressed for the outing in an open overcoat. 

And I realize I’ve been unfair, thinking the French are short of entrepreneurial skills. This past weekend, we walked by a café where people waited in line. This stopped me in my tracks, because the inside of the establishment was still buttoned up, as all restaurants have been since St. Patrick’s Day. The people weren’t waiting to get in the restaurant; they were waiting to buy plants and cut flowers. The florist shops are also closed, by decree. So how can the café be selling flowers? The restaurant had set up a crêpe-making station next to the flowers. The crêpes are food to go. Once you sell food to go, you’re open to sell anything else, I guess. I wondered if they were making multiple times more money on the flowers than with the crêpes. 

A young couple, likely students at the nearby American University of Paris, stood waiting for their crêpes. The young woman making the crêpes looked up and asked through her mask, in unmistakable American English, “So, how are you guys doin’?” The café owner knows his clientele. 

On avenue de Saxe, where the Thursday and Saturday open market is shut down, trade nevertheless continues. White, unmarked box trucks show up on the same mornings as before, and people line up, one by one walking away with a plastic bag filled with their order. We expect these are long-established relationships between client and merchant. The rendez-vous idea was most likely conceived just before lockdown. We’ve seen police walk by, unconcerned with the transactions. 

When confinement started, I thought the wine shops had to stay closed. Wine, and even liquor, can be had in the grocery stores. Now I see some of the wine shops are open, but customers have to shop at a distance. Though the bottles are sometimes taped off, out of reach, I saw a store today where the shopkeeper had plugged the open door with a table display. She stood behind the table, talking to a woman who was still on the sidewalk. I imagine the customer was saying something like, “I’m looking for a nice Côtes du Rhone,” while she gazed at the bottles from a distance, over the shopkeeper’s shoulder. 

This is a variation on a new practice merchants are calling Toucher et Achetez. You Touch It, You Buy It. That’s right, you don’t even have to break it. Signs are appearing in the middle of vegetable displays in the produce markets. If you pick up an apple to check if it’s rotten, you have to keep it. I’m hoping this is not going to turn into a convenient way to get rid of old produce. I tossed out a bad apple at breakfast time yesterday. 

But, in this case, one rotten apple does not a barrel make. We’re still enjoying the usual array of produce, and the continuing summer-like weather, not forgetting to walk underneath the pink chestnut blossoms near the Champ de Mars.  

If not all of us are adjusting, all of us are waiting. The curve showing the number of cases in France has made its climb, and now there is the tiniest hint it may be tiring. Perhaps the fruits of confinement will ripen, and after all, drop within reach.