The Corona Chronicles N°1

Paris, March–May 2020

The Corona Chronicles

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Like many, the first lockdown in Paris proved a real challenge – twenty-three hours a day locked up in a flat with no balcony, allowed to venture only one kilometre away from home, documents with proof of your time of departure, fines if you didn’t comply. The only way to get through it all was to write. Write it all down, daily, and in the process discover the side streets and secret stones of Paris, hidden in the bustle of normal everyday life.

Episode 1

20 March 2020


Paris in the spring. The first day of spring. Cooped up in a flat. Quarantined. Maybe for months. I live alone. Is this a good thing or a bad thing?

A stew of emotions. Envy for a writer friend who is in her country house, with her lover, and a swimming pool, and birdsong, and dogs, and spring flowers. Oh, the injustice of it all! She rings me to tell me that she wants to knife her lover, an artist. They have been together for years, but always lived apart. They’ve only been together for three days, and murder is already on the agenda.

This makes me feel better. And it shouldn’t. I should be full of love and goodwill, wishing harmony for everyone in this utterly surreal and trying time. I start criticising myself for not being a kinder person. Who is criticising whom? Which part of me is talking to the other part? My inner dialogue is driving me mad already. And it’s only been three days.


We are allowed out for an hour a day. With an “attestation de déplacement dérogatoire”. We have to tick one of five boxes — 1. To go to work, with a stamp from the employer to testify that you would be unable to work from home 2. Shopping for essentials, in your own quartier. 3. To see the doctor. 4. To look after a vulnerable family member — a child or elderly relative. 5. To take short periods of physical exercise, close to your home, or to walk your dog. You have to put the date, and the time of your leaving your domicile.

If you forget your “papier”, or go beyond a 1 km limit, there is a fine of €135.

I get ready to go out. This takes some organization. There’s the “attestation” to fill in, accompanied by some ID. There’s the shopping bag, proof that your alibi is not fake. I’ve taken to stuffing a huge unopened toilet roll pack into a large bag, just in case I decide not to queue at a supermarket after all. My alibi, at all times. The there’s two pairs of loves – latex “undergloves”, cotton “overgloves”. I take the “over” pair off after I’ve touched the lift buttons, the door handles, the mailbox. And keep the “underpair” on for buying and paying for provisions. Then there’s the “itch stick”. I use a (sealed) inter-toothbrush in my coat pocket. I seem to have developed very itchy eyes and nose, right on cue with Corona, but of course scratching with hands is out. All this organisation. I have a mind that tends to wander all over the place, at all times, like a cow grazing off random thoughts. Now I have to tame it – stick to one subject – PROTECTION. One droplet in the air, and you could catch it. Or you could become a carrier. People’s lives depend on it. Le stresse.

I take the lift down to the entrance hall. Not a soul in sight, except a man disinfecting the aluminium mailboxes. “Bonjour,” I greet him with a smile. He may be the only human I may talk with face to face today. Or the next day. “C’est très bien, ce que vous faites,” I say. “That’s very good, what you’re doing.” He growls. I notice he’s left one mailbox out, that of the building’s busybody, Mademoiselle Pommier, on the top floor. I point this out to him, politely. “I know,” he says. “I don’t like her. Je ne l’aime pas.”

Vive la solidarité !

But strangely, there is plenty of it. Neighbours offer to shop for each other. A doctor on the seventh floor, herself recovering from the virus, offers her services to anyone who has early symptoms. Many emails circulate offering to help our blind lady resident on the fifth floor, and our three over 80-year-olds.

I am about to venture out. I am strangely nervous, even though I have my papier dérogatoire. Old guilt feelings emerge, like those I had at school when someone put potassium permanganate in the swimming pool and turned it dark purple. We all had to hold our hands, palms open, to be examined for incriminating traces. My hands trembled, even though I was totally innocent.

I’m not normally scared of the police, or of people in uniform. I’ve dodged border guards in Ukraine. I’ve slipped across the frontier from Spain into France during the Spanish siege of Parliament. I’ve even strayed across the border between Eastern Turkey and Iran many years ago, when hitchhiking to Afghanistan was what one DID. So I don’t quite understand my reaction. Have I changed out of all recognition, to match this totally changed landscape? The question of not knowing who I am seems as disturbing as the deserted streets, and the unknown future of us as a species. I don’t know who I am, but I know what I DO. When confused, sad, lonely, I GO OUT. I mingle, I talk, I experience. I run away from my feelings, if only for a short while. But one can run for a very long time. Now, the running has stopped. I have always preferred being out of breath than breathing. Now I must learn to breathe, like a new-born baby, all on my own. It’s stranger than strange, this new birth, in the midst of the death of all that is known.

The streets are silent. I live in the centre of Paris, in the heart of Montparnasse. This is a hub — one of the noisiest, busiest, most raucous parts of Paris, of the world. The times I have cursed the late-night singing and shouting, the drunken revelry, the near-fights and loud flirts and the echoing parrot-screeching café-talk! The times I have wished for a blanket of peace to smother the invasion of sounds that are not MINE. Be careful what you wish for. This silence is like the aftermath of an atom bomb. I think of Rachel Carson’s classic, “Silent Spring”. Except, except… when I open the door of the building, instead of the sounds of traffic and klaxons, I can hear the birds. A pigeon cooing, a seagull crying, and one bird — I can’t see it but I send my thanks up into the air — is singing so loudly and beautifully, its music floats down from the branches and through the open windows of incarcerated inhabitants.

In front of my building, there is a small park, the Square Gaston Baty, with sixteen linden trees. How we fought to save that square (a triangle, really) when the Mayor of the 14th arrondissement wanted to turn it into a commercial centre. That square has my heart. Now it is under lock and key. All the parks are shut, as well as… just about everything, except supermarkets and chemists.

I clutch my attestation to my chest, and touch my toilet roll pack, just to make sure all is in order, and venture out into the streets of Montparnasse, talking to the ghosts of Hemingway, and Scott Fitzgerald, Picasso, Beckett, Modigliani, Soutine, Man Ray, André Breton, so many other great painters and writers. I will walk down to the crossroads between the Boulevard Raspail and the Boulevard Montparnasse, to the cafés — the Rotonde, the Dôme and the Select, and talk to the ghosts, and ask them if they could ever, ever, ever have imagined this crossroads silent, deserted, the café chairs in great piles, just their wicker backs heaped clumsily against the window, like the beige scales of some unruly reptile. And if I tried to explain it to them, the artists of long ago, why this had happened, what we had done to the world…

“Well, we just “globalized”, that’s all. We let the big companies and corporations dominate everything — our values, our communities, our sense of being. We cut down forests and pillaged pastures for gain. We polluted the oceans, choked the seas, eliminated 70% of the world’s species, eroded the earth, left whole communities with nowhere to go, caused wars that left children drowning in foreign seas, created refugee camps for thousands without running water or medical supplies… oh yes, and elected leaders who repeated, like parrots “FIRST. FIRST. FIRST.” preceded by the name of their country.

That’s what we did. That’s why the streets are silent. Everyone is inside. What would you paint now? What would you put on your canvases?

But they would find beauty. That is the nature of art.

I walk up the Boulevard Edgar Quinet. Two homeless men in their fifties approach me for money. I don’t want to open my bag, rummage in my purse, handle the coins, have hand contact. So I walk past them. I justify my action. Hygiene at all costs. But I wonder, who cares for their hygiene? How are they supposed to “sanitise”? A recorded message from the megaphone of a passing van tells us to RESTER CHEZ SOI. STAY AT HOME. What if you don’t have a home? One of the men throws a swearword in my direction, followed by “Mummy”. Mummy! He looks as old as me.

Compassion fades.

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