No.18 ~ Somerville ~ November 18, 2020

Talking lockdowns, lattés, and reentry.

A time for reflection. Nearly every day we walk alongside this pond, unfortunately labeled only as Little River, next to the Alewife T station in Cambridge. JK photo.

“While Covid burns.” That’s how the French HuffPost described the backdrop, as President Emmanuell Macron announced October 28 on TV that France would be going into a second nationwide lockdown.  

Since the French had just tried a curfew for two weeks, the image of Covid-19 burning through the country was apt. The French say couvre-feu, literally “cover the fire.” The phrase dates to the Middle Ages, when a horn would sound or a bell would ring in the night, signalling perhaps for military reasons that everyone should go home and put out the fire. But France, like much of the rest of Europe, has not succeeded in smothering the virus. The curfew didn’t help, and now, with the “fire” out of control, confinement is back at least until the beginning of December. 

The government has made a few tweaks this time, compared to the lockdown we experienced when we were in Paris during the spring. Macron wants to keep the economy moving, so factories remain open, and as children continue to attend school parents can continue to work. 

Like last spring, the dreaded attestation has returned: that’s the permission slip, which can be handwritten, describing the reason the holder has ventured outside her domicile. Once again, exercise outdoors is restricted to a one kilometer radius from home. This time, though, it appears the French are being left to police themselves. We have reports from family and friends that a hands-off approach has replaced enforcement. 

The imposition of a lockdown is not unheard of in the U.S. We continue to hear grim news about El Paso, Texas, currently in lockdown, its hospitals overwhelmed with Covid patients. But Macron’s handling of the crisis in his country — he essentially admitted that mistakes were made, and was obliged to force his citizens into a second, demoralizing confinement — is in stark contrast to the management of the crisis at the national level in the U.S., where the Trump administration, not known for admitting to mistakes, has consistently avoided providing national guidelines and direction for the pandemic. 

Macron must be happy with his decision. After two weeks of lockdown, all the primary indicators show the pandemic easing dramatically in France. Whether the downward curves can be sustained outside of lockdown remains to be seen.

I’ve been intrigued by the differences we’ve noticed since our return to Somerville from Paris on the 14th. In Paris, I wrote about how mask wearing looks improvisational — some were wearing it below the nose, others below the chin. 

Before lockdown was reinstated, the café scene in Paris in early October was little changed from pre-pandemic days. I often saw people chatting over morning coffee, jammed together at closely nestled tables. That’s not happening here. 

In nearby Davis Square, the cavernous café known as Diesel, a go-to gathering place that was always full, is now a fortress. Sliding doors that used to open the entire storefront to the street on sunny days have been replaced with a wall and take-out windows. Just to bring back the memory of how things used to be, I ordered a latté there recently. 

I had to place my order on a small screen — there would be no sputtering an order through my mask to a masked barista on the other side of the screen. While I was waiting for my coffee, I peeked through the order window to see inside. Tables were gone, pastry cases were empty, and the industrial space that used to be so chic was dark and empty. Did they not have the lights turned on?, I wondered. Maybe they’re trying to save electricity. 

When my coffee was ready, the server called my name, placed the cup outside the pick-up window, and stood back while I moved in to retrieve it. 

In Somerville’s “squares,” or small business districts, street lanes and parking spaces have been transformed to accommodate outside tables. Unlike in Paris, many restaurants have installed temporary partitions between seating areas. I claimed a spot for myself in front of the café, in a corner against a partition, far removed by space and time from that lost café buzz. 

A few moments later, one of the servers came out and stood at a distance while she recorded my name and phone number in a tracking book.

On a recent trip to Andover, Mass., 30 minutes north of here, it felt exotic to walk into a Café Nero and watch as the barista prepared our coffees. There is variation in protocol from town to town, but Massachusetts is still scoring high compared to other states for observance of protocol. 

Those of you who are yearning, nevertheless, to sit at a café table in Paris may be wondering about our trip coming back. Overall, it was fine, and we actually felt safe. The two issues that fogged up our glasses, so to speak, had to do with testing and protocol in the airports. 

An email from Air France in advance of our departure directed me — eventually — to the Massachusetts Travel Form. The form indicated that we should be tested before leaving Paris, and it seemed the responsible thing to do. The form says you should be swabbed within 72 hours of arrival in Boston, but gives you the option of arriving while still awaiting results. We got tested, and received our negative results before leaving, but it wasn’t easy. 

On Sunday (October 11), we got up early and took the Métro out to Neuilly, a leafy suburb that happens to have a lab with Sunday hours. The lab opens at 8:00. We arrived at 8:15 to find at least 200 people already waiting in line, so we turned around and got back on the Métro. The next morning we got in line behind about 10 people at 6:45 in front of our neighborhood lab, which opens at 7:30. At that time of year, it’s dark until almost 8:00, and that was when we were able to enter the building, just as the chill was starting to get to our bones. At the payment window, we discovered that we couldn’t pay because we don’t have a carte vitale, the French credit card for universal insurance. So they just let us go through without paying. (Cash, for obvious germy reasons, was not a possibility.) I appreciated that gesture. At first I thought we might be refused. 

Alas, all that was for naught, unless you count our peace of mind. At Charles de Gaulle Airport, our temperature was checked with a gun as we entered the terminal. That was the only nod to the pandemic during our entire trip, other than masked faces. Arriving in Boston, we were asked twice how much cash we were carrying, but there was no mention of the Travel Form, no talk of testing, not a hint that we were traveling during a pandemic. Of course, all of this could change as the virus runs wild and more people want to travel for the holidays. 

We do take off our hats to Air France. We’ve heard several stories — not necessarily about AF — of flights being cancelled day after day, apparently to add passengers to the flight. We felt special to be among only 20 passengers on our flight. Maybe the motivation, rather than profit, was goodness of heart. While our flight was direct. Out of curiosity Isabelle has been checking, and finds no direct flights listed from Boston to CDG. 

Finally, a note about my delay in posting:

The short answer is that my writing mojo was knocked aside by back pain that started soon after our return to the U.S. I didn’t want to bother you with that, but a delay of three weeks calls for some transparency. I’ve improved far beyond where I was last month, so not to worry. But a funny thing happened on the way to recovery: there was an election here (my readers in France will be happy to hear that, Yes!, we did vote, as we were always encouraged to do). Then there was the failure to concede, the out-of-control pandemic… so much news that I wasn’t sure how to pick up the thread. So I’ve decided to post this article, drafted in large part while standing —  before sitting comfortably returned as an option — even though it’s somewhat outdated. I’m sure I can do better than three weeks before the next post, so I’ll put this one up in the air, set aside some time for reflection, and get started on the next one. Thanks for your patience.
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