No. 6 ~ Paris ~ May 9, 2020

Confinement comes to an end. "Deconfinement" comes with questions.

Still under confinement, the restaurant was closed. We stepped up onto the covered deck, cupped our faces in our hands, and peered through the window. Inside, it was beyond quiet — that same deep, almost tangible quiet I’ve felt in the streets. Directly opposite, a short, dark-wood service bar stood ready with a small army of wine glasses, upside down and gleaming in the dimness. To the left, light filtered through whisky bottles on a shelf by the window that faces the street. Like an undamaged Pompei, everything was just as the staff had left it on the last day of business six weeks ago. 

The scene froze me in place, just as it was frozen in time. Through the window glass, those six weeks had been condensed or expanded to any measure of time the imagination could muster. The owner must be wishing he could rush in and flip on the lights. Someone else, hundreds of years hence, might peer in and think, “So this is what they used to do!”

We discovered the restaurant because surveillance has tapered off and we’ve been stretching the one kilometer radius that is supposed to limit our walks. We have also been stretching our imaginations wondering what we will be able to do after confinement ends on Monday, May 11. On April 28 Prime Minister Edouard Philippe gave an hour-long presentation about deconfinement. It became clear that starting the 11th we will no longer be limited when we go out for a walk — no more worrying about having our passport and paperwork every time we leave the apartment. Philippe had worked hard on his speech, reportedly writing it himself. Still, there were many questions. 

On Thursday the 7th, Philippe and his team of department ministers held a press conference of nearly two hours to help clear things up for the anxious French. The plan for a gradual reopening is complicated. The highlights, especially from an American standpoint, are that the scarcity of masks has been in large part resolved, testing capacity has been greatly increased, most schools — especially for younger students — will reopen, trained “brigades” of contact tracers will be set loose, and most shops will reopen. Restaurants will remain closed for at least three more weeks. Sadly, the parks will remain closed as well.

There was a particular detail about a new regulation that had us holding our breath as we watched the press conference. The one kilometer regulation will go away, but now, selfishly, we’re worried about another radius, the newly announced limit of 100km. We have a small place in Brittany, one of the many parts of France that are nearly virus free, and we’d love to escape Paris and spend the summer there. It’s 500km away.

We hope to take the train next week. We’re waiting to see how the new attestation is worded. That’s a release form we can download and fill out ourselves, and then present at the station, where there is sure to be a checkpoint. If it works, it will give us an exemption to pass beyond the 100km limit.

I say it’s selfish for us to leave for Brittany because the government wants the germs of Paris to stay in Paris. Public health has nothing to do with personal desires. If we get there, I promise to stay isolated, I really do.  

On May 11, when confinement ends, we expect Paris to bounce back to its previous, noisy self. The city is already waking up, as workers get back on construction projects and more and more cars hit the streets. We’re back to more seasonal weather now, but in April we had a stretch of historically beautiful weather that will become part of confinement memory. All these changes have me thinking of those mild nights last month when we could leave the window open. Waking in the wee hours, wanting to distract myself from worrying about microbes, I would listen to the place where sound used to be.

Gone were the late-night revelers, often American students, boisterous over their open cans of beer. Gone the racket of a suitcase, its wheels bouncing off our passageway’s paving stones as an early-morning traveler headed to the airport. Entirely out of context, there was instead the sound of a rippling brook. A city worker had left a water valve turned on. The valves are part of the infrastructure that helps keep the streets clean. It was my own rivulet, echoing up to our fifth floor window, sending me, half dreamy, far away from France’s hottest infection point, to a small cabin in the woods. 

If I happened to wake around 5:30, there was the chorus of a songbird. And if I listened hard, there even seemed to be a response… coming from where? It’s common in Paris for private gardens, complete with full-grown trees, to be hidden behind the street facades. 

Even during the day, from open windows of neighboring apartments, there are sounds we would never notice before. We’ve heard plates being stacked, and Bruce Springsteen’s wafting out of an open window. 

Everyone wants Paris to return to at least some semblance of its previous self, but returning to that old decibel level will be a shock. We’ll miss the City of Quiet. 

In France, May 1 is usually celebrated as a major holiday. It’s the French Labor Day, but they simply call it the First of May. This year, especially with the holiday falling on a Friday, the French would ordinarily be on the move, with plans for a long weekend near the ocean or in the countryside. But we’re all still locked down tight. 

The long-suffering flower shops, though, started to open for the weekend on Thursday. That’s because of the cherished tradition called La Vente du Muguet, when the shops have Lilies of the Valley flowers for sale. In more normal times, the cheery white and green bundles would also be seen in buckets and boxes, hawked by street sellers who know the forests where the grow wild. This year, the forests are off limits, and the Lilies of the Valley in the shops, most likely grown in greenhouses, were tucked away inside the stores, nearly out of sight. Such is the state of what the French call the “sanitation crisis.”

Still, the tradition of giving the flowers, dating to the Renaissance, is a celebration of Spring and a symbol of happiness. At breakfast on Friday, the First of May, Isabelle opened her phone to find a dazzling close-up photo of a Lily of the Valley. A friend in Brittany, a three-year cancer patient, had just received the results from a recent blood test: negative. Happiness shared.
Caption: The sun sets on confinement. JK photo.