April 12, 2020. In France, it’s the fourth week of confinement, and we aren’t done yet. They’re doling it out in two-week doses to avoid demoralizing the population. Emmanuel Macron is due to speak on television tomorrow night, and he’s likely to extend our sentence till the end of the month. Beyond that, no one knows. Restrictions might in fact be tightened. In Strasbourg, you have to go for walks on your own now. In Paris, jogging is forbidden between the hours of 10:00 and 19:00. Living across from the Parc Montsouris, which is closed, I’ve had plenty of tense encounters during my daily walks with the Lycra set puffing and spitting their way round the neighbouring streets. Walking is authorized for an hour a day. When you leave your house you need to take an “attestation” downloaded from the Interior Ministry site indicating the date, the time you left home, and the reason you’re out (shopping, work, exercise, urgent family reasons). If you don’t have it, you’re liable for a fine of €135 for a first offence, €200 for the second, and up to €1500 and six months in prison for recurrent offenders. The police, apparently, are raking it in. When you encounter another pedestrian on your rambles, you look at their feet not at their face, gauging which way they’re going to move, and which of you is going to engage in the new self-preserving manoeuvre, the Corona Swerve.
Lately there has been talk about deconfinement. Deconfinement, say the television pundits, is not going to be a rerun of the Liberation, with the occupiers gone and everyone dancing in the streets. Deconfinement will be a gradual and long-drawn-out process, and the older among us are going to need to be patient. The doctors and the economists and the epidemiologists believe that we’re going to be deconfined in stages, according to age and region. Younger people, who are less vulnerable – and who are needed to get the economy moving – will be let out first. The over-65s and the hardest hit regions will be let out last. Living in Paris, aged 73, I qualify for increased detention on both counts. By the sound of it I could be looking at confinement until July or August!
So far I’ve kept myself entertained with long phone calls to friends I’d lost sight of, e-mail ditto, and of course Netflix. My current favourite is Suits, and I’ve just started Breaking Bad (ten years after the rest of the planet, yes, I know). I saw an eye-opening series about the Brooklyn Jewish community called Unorthodox. Someone has recommended La Casa de Papel. I make a point of watching television news and discussion for a couple of hours every evening to keep myself good and scared and resigned to immobility.
I take a walk every day and go shopping about once a week. Some of my more paranoid friends assure me that the supermarket is a den of germs, and no doubt they’re right, but I like to get out and make sure there’s still life on earth. I live in an impasse, and most of the neighbours are gone. If I don’t go out, I don’t see a living soul all day – though I can hear them. The weather is warm, the windows are open, and every evening the kids come out in a nearby courtyard and play some kind of chanting game. It cheers me up. In the supermarket, the staff wear masks, there are lines one metre apart in the queue for the tills, and there’s a plastic screen in front of each cash register. I can find what I need, toilet paper included. If I remember to bring gloves I put them on, and I vaguely attempt to keep my scarf over my face. When I get out to the pavement, I whip out the hand sanitizer that I bought in 2013 for a trip to Sri Lanka and eradicate, hopefully, whatever I might have picked up. When I get the stuff home, I wipe it down with disinfectant.
Obviously I am privileged to be living alone in spacious lodgings with lots of electronic distractions. I don’t have to worry about other family members bringing in the virus from outside (which might apparently be a factor in Spain and Italy, where unmarried adult children tend to live at home), I don’t have to fight for access to the household computer, and I don’t have to manage tension with my housemates. It seems that domestic violence has increased by one-third. Some Parisians fled to the country at the beginning of the lockdown: 17% of the city’s population have been determined via their cellphones to have moved elsewhere. A lot of them are students or young people living in cramped apartments who fled to larger parental homes in the provinces. People with second houses moved out too. Both my daughters took fright at the idea of spending the confinement in city apartments with young children and no gardens, and are currently living in our holiday home near St. Jean de Luz. One drove down from Paris with husband and baby the day before the lockdown went into effect. The other got on a Eurostar from London on the day of the lockdown with her two boys, and spent the night with me in Paris. I barricaded myself in my bedroom and we communicated by FaceTime so the anxious six-year-old could check I wasn’t dead. They got on a train for Bordeaux the following morning, and rented a car for the final stretch down to the Pays Basque. She was stopped twice for questioning at péages on the autoroute, but they let her through when she said she was going to join her sister for the confinement. When she’ll get back to London is an open question.
Not being able to make projects is the worst part of this. You can’t see further than tomorrow lunchtime. You certainly can’t plan travel. I was supposed to go to two weddings this year, one in Plymouth, one in Thessaloniki, and they’ve both been postponed till 2021. Fingers crossed there’s no second wave. The only thing I haven’t yet cancelled is a trip to Switzerland at the end of August. I imagine it’s going to go by the board, but right now it’s my light at the end of the tunnel, so I’m letting it be. So far the weather has been good, which helps a lot. Spring is actually the ideal time for pandemic lockdown. If it was winter with short cold days you’d get depressed. If it was summer with long hot days you’d melt. Nevertheless, every week the confinement lasts is going to make it harder to get back to what we still think of as “normal.” It looks increasingly likely that the Corona Swerve will be wider, longer, and more permanent than we think. Happy Easter!