Everyone is telling me I am not taking it seriously enough. Everyone is leaving Paris. Everyone is thinking about leaving Paris. Everyone is saying that France will be able to handle it better than Italy. Everyone is taking preventative measures; everyone is still going out to bars. Everyone is worried that they have it, everyone is convinced that they could never get it, that the Métro car that they are in, that their favorite café du quartier is somehow excluded from the pandemic. Everyone is tired, everyone is antsy, everyone is bored. Everyone is scared. Everyone is buying face masks; no one can find a face mask because everyone is buying them up. No one can tell if it is safer to stay in Europe or to try and get a ticket home on one of the dwindling handful of flights leaving Charles De Gaulle for Laguardia, Mexico City, Shanghai. No one is going to work, everyone is working from home or not working at all. I am not working at all. Since my part-time teaching job makes me a government employee, I am theoretically guaranteed full pay while the schools are shut down according to the Président de la République’s decree last week. But then again, I am also “theoretically guaranteed” a housing allocation of which I will never see a centime thanks to the byzantine complexity of the French bureaucracy.
I slam the door to my building shut hard, to avoid a third scolding this week from the gardienne who pleaded that I, “make sure to close the door completely, so as not to let in anyone who would try to take advantage of us.” Who would take advantage of our building’s entryway? What was there to take advantage of?
In keeping with the time-honored French “cultural exception,” whereby national cornerstones like cinéma or gastronomy are given preferential treatment, the boulangerie remains open, considered an essential business during the crisis as people need bread. Although there are only a dozen customers, the line wraps around the corner, as they must stand two meters apart, entering the bakery one by one to decrease the risk of contamination. Some things remain unchanged: the smell of flour, yeast, and butter waft across the square, the homeless woman in the tattered shawl sits by the door, begging for change as customers exit with baguettes in hand. They seem more generous to her than usual.
In keeping with the time-honored French “cultural exception,” whereby national cornerstones like cinéma or gastronomy are given preferential treatment, the boulangerie remains open, considered an essential business during the crisis as people need bread.
There is still a nip in the air, and I shiver in my shorts and t-shirt, but I will warm up after the first kilometer. The normal mess of buses, bikes, scooters, and cars have vanished, and I can run in the middle of the street. Barbès-Rochechouart, where young men normally hawk packs of cigarettes, muttering “Marlborough, Marlborough,” is now blocked off by a line of police cars. A man in riot gear with an assault rifle slung over his neck announces, “Papers, please, papers.” As part of the national confinement order, the government has determined that the public can only leave their homes with an Attestation de déplacement or “Certificate of Movement.” Since few Parisians have access to printers, writing out the certificate by hand is permitted, resulting in an exchange of crumpled documents between citizens and authority figures last seen in Paris during the Occupation. This document is a declaration of one of three exceptions to the confinement order. The first and second are to be expected: shopping for necessities like groceries and pharmaceuticals, and matters of family necessity, such as dropping off supplies for an elderly relative. The third, however, is the loophole, the most vaguely defined: “brief outings near one’s place of residence relating to physical activity.” Neither “brief,” nor “near,” nor “physical activity” are further defined, opening up a Pandora’s Box of excuses to be out of doors. This third exception is why, the day before, a young woman in workout clothes pretended to run on the banks of the Seine for thirty seconds before stopping for a smoke next to the Musée D’Orsay. It is also why I am able to use the pretext of long-distance running to go and visit Matt, a teaching assistant confrère, crony Midwesterner, and close friend.
The police see that I am exercising, and wave me through before I have to present my certificate. I cut onto the Rue du Faubourg Poissonnière, where some wear N95 masks, others bandanas. A worried mother in a hijab walks by clutching a bag of potatoes and the hand of a dazed young boy. Looking considerably less worried, a woman with a platinum blonde mane laughs into her phone in front of a two-story-tall mural of Tintin kissing Captain Haddock. A few kilometers later, I arrive at République, where the transit workers mounted a strike a few months before in protest of the government’s attempted pension reforms. It is now deserted, save for a few bearded homeless men, children on tricycles, a loitering police van.
Only a week before at Parmentier, across the street from Matt’s apartment, crowds of commuters had flown out of the Métro exit, packing themselves shoulder-to-shoulder into the bistro terraces that spilled out into the street. The curtain was drawn on this scene with the most recent state of emergency address by the President. The cafes are closed now, but this changes very little for me and Matt. Our teaching stipends barely covered rent, and with our savings dwindling, we had been living on three or four euros a day since February, so la dolce vita had effectively been closed to us for a while. We made an exception on Friday nights at a dive bar with hazy, yellow light and a significant mouse population on the Rue Jean-Pierre Timbaud. There, a pinte de blonde, a pint of the cheapest light lager available, ran us three euros. We would nurse our stale beers for hours over a chessboard missing the black king, complain about the financial hit this extravagance would induce, and try not to step on any mice.
Making the same mistake for the fourth time that week, I hesitated before two doors on the Avenue Parmentier. Was Matt’s building 46 or 48? A policeman turned the corner and began walking towards me purposefully, and I punched in the code on the left door. Mercifully, it opened, and I climbed the tight staircase riddled with garbage and cigarette butts to the seventh floor. Before I had a chance to knock, I heard a muttered, “come in.”
As part of the national confinement order, the government has determined that the public can only leave their homes with an Attestation de déplacement or “Certificate of Movement.” Since few Parisians have access to printers, writing out the certificate by hand is permitted, resulting in an exchange of crumpled documents between citizens and authority figures last seen in Paris during the Occupation.
The maids’ quarters rented out as studios legally must measure at least nine meters squared. Matt’s room was slightly larger, but not by much. On a narrow shelf was balanced a hotplate and a few groceries, the cheapest beans, rice, and eggs that money could buy. The mattress, which doubled as a couch in that it could be thrown onto the floor, was currently on the bed frame, with Matt sprawled across it. On a tiny table was poised an even tinier roll-up chess board and a paperback People’s History of the United States. A laundry line was pulled taut through the middle, so I could only see Matt’s feet on the far side of his bed.
“How’s it going, man?” I asked as I washed my hands.
“It’s ok.” He sat up and took a few paces across the room. “Be careful: that water comes out burning hot.”
We started talking about Rachel, his girlfriend in San Francisco. “She’s doing ok,” he said without conviction, and plopped down at the table. “She just told her boss that she had to work from home. A lot of their clients have compromised immune systems, so it seemed pretty questionable to keep putting them at risk.”
“Right.” I looked at my phone as it pinged. Corey, another teaching assistant, had sent me a long message. “Oh no.”
“Tomorrow morning. He got a direct flight to LAX.”
“Was he planning on it?”
He was not. The night before, we had been messaging one another, almost joking about the fact that everyone was losing their cool so fast over all of this. We were calm, we were collected, we “chose” to be a bit more “enlightened” about the whole situation. Apparently, he had had a change of heart. My friends were evacuating one by one.
We sat and played a couple games of chess in the waning light, and I ran home, past crowds waiting outside of grocery stores, past the armed checkpoint at Barbès, back to the broken door of my apartment.
It was my last outing. By the following week, the Department of State had issued a statement telling all Americans to return immediately or to not return at all; there were ten times as many cases in the United Sates, and on a near-empty flight from Paris to Detroit, I had returned home.