Paris, March–May 2020 • The Corona Chronicles Episode 4
15 April 2020
No Man is an Island
Fifth week of lockdown, and Macron has announced at least four more to go. In my part of Paris, Montparnasse, on the Left Bank, people are remarkably disciplined. They — we — seem to have adapted to this cloistered existence.
The butcher on the Rue Delambre draws his usual late-Sunday-morning queue for his crisp golden chickens roasting on a spit – but now the queue stretches half the way up the street, a two-metre distance between each shopper. Is it my imagination, or, with the relentless spring sunshine — day after day of it — are Parisian souls lightening? Now the shoppers exchange recipes across their two-metre gap. “Oui, si vous ajouter quelques olives, ça change tout.” “Un peu de fromage rapé, ça relève le gout.” Tips for salads, tips for soups.
These conversations are making me hungry, as are the menus still staring out from the windows of restaurants. I walk past my favourite Creole restaurant, La Charette, and read about its “rougail au morue”, cod in a spicy red sauce, then past the crêperies with their spinach and goats’ cheese fillings, or their caramel butter and flambéed banana galettes. Now just sad cardboard menus curling at the edges.
Will we ever be able to sit around a table again, choosing our crêpes and our cider, and telling each other jokes or sob stories? If so, when? Best not to look too far ahead. It’s like being on a high cliff path with vertigo. Don’t look down. And when they do let us out, what will we come out like? With so many Zoom meetings, I wonder if we’ll all have heads shaped like rectangular boxes, with yellow frames that light up when we speak. And, as one only has to be screen presentable from the waist up, will we all come out with stylish blouses and shirts, and from the waist down… pyjamas and flip flops?
No point in looking too far ahead. In any case, time has frozen. I forget my hunger and take my now well-worn path to the Jardin du Luxembourg. The further I head to the centre of the city, the quieter it gets — it’s normally the opposite. I can see why. As I walk around the affluent sixth arrondissement, I notice most of the buildings’ apartments have their shutters closed. No doubt the more well-heeled inhabitants have taken up residence in their second homes in the country.
The whole quartier seems suspended in time. If time is a river, the river has flowed into a lake. A very still one. Here, not much moves. In these suspended moments, past, present and future seem to merge. I have all the time in the world.
I stop to look in the window of an antiquarian bookshop in the Rue de Condé. There, in a row, are original handwritten letters on sale, with the price labels beside them. Tolstoy, to his wife Sonia, €6650, Marie Curie, €3200, Rousseau to Voltaire, €1880 and the Marquis de Sade, €8800. Could they ever, ever have thought, when they wrote those letters, that they would one day become close companions in a shop window? And why on earth does the Marquis de Sade so outprice Marie Curie? Fragments of the famous…
A mosaic of the past, all over Paris — in its people, in its stones, in its walls…
Further on, on the Boulevard St Michel, there is a building whose façade is pock-marked with shrapnel shells. A stone plaque commemorates the spot where a young man fell in the battle for the liberation of Paris, on 25th August 1944. Another plaque, above it, marks the bombardment of the city on 20th January, 1918.
Two world wars. It is hard to imagine, on this beautiful spring day, on this now-silent boulevard, the tanks, the volleys of gunfire, the fallen men. What would they think of the legacy they left? I think of the first World War, the years spent fighting over a few kilometres of muddy fields.
Throughout history, such greed for land, such little respect for the earth.
What would they think of what we had done to the planet?
A random thought crosses my mind…
Supposing the planet, Gaia, had had just about enough of the human virus that was killing her, and found a medicine that worked against the virus. The medicine was called COVID19. It stops them in their tracks. As the human virus's rampant pollutant agents decline, Gaia starts to heal and comes out in full bloom with the most magnificent spring, while most of the human virus cells are locked indoors. They then get their own healing by a transformation of consciousness of how precious Gaia is, and when they emerge, they are no longer killer cells, but healers.
So idealistic, I know… but in these — how many times have we heard the word? — unprecedented times — maybe we can have unprecedented dreams?
At the end of the Boulevard St Michel flows the Seine and, overlooking the river, still proud on her island, the cathedral of Notre Dame. With a shock, I realise it is a year to the day since the fire that nearly destroyed her. The soul of Paris. She — I call her she — who has seen plagues and wars and revolutions — is now a shell. But she is still there, thanks to the extraordinary bravery of the fire fighters who, that night, faced a colossal wall of flame, to save her façade, and her structure.
How the best and the worst of humanity is embedded in the stones of this city.
The day ticks by. Afternoon slides into evening. Zoom time. Ten of us meet up via our little boxes on the screen. It’s our writers’ group, where we pick an idea out of a shower cap and write on it for 17 and a Half minutes. This time, the subject is: The Itch Was in The Wrong Place. (Yes, any old idea will do). What a relief. We can forget about Covid19 for a while. Or can we? It seems that all roads lead back to Corona.
This is my piece:
People had got it all wrong. When they itched, they thought it was their particular itch, their own particular patch of skin playing up. Maybe something embarrassing. Maybe herpes, or crabs. Itch was laughing. Itch knew something they didn’t.
He knew he was everywhere, in everyone, at the same time.
Itch had seen — long, long ago, when the bison still roamed on the plains, when the peoples of the world still cowered in tents, to shelter them from the wind, or caves to shield them from the snow, Itch had detected some little part of them, infinitesimal and very ugly, that would always, always want… that little bit more.
Itch started small — an extra hunk of meat here, a larger share of the hunt there, but Itch — quiet, confident — knew that soon he would take over the world. An extra field here, a whole prairie there, a little island across the sea here, a whole continent there, a cotton plantation here, a whole people shipped in, in chains, to pick it, there.
Itch was laughing out loud.
He could see another tiny greedy place inside the people of the world. For machinery. Not just any machinery, but every itchy person’s hands stretched out for the most, the best, the fastest, above all, their own.
Itch rubbed his hands with glee.
The grey mill chimneys grew tall, the sky turned oily, the moon hid behind steel girders and cranes, skyscrapers blocked out the sun.
And Itch howled with laughter when he spotted a hollow, flimsy group of people whose itch was greater than all the rest – the itch for power. Oh, how he helped them to lead, to abuse, to manipulate, to lie, to exploit, to annihilate.
Itch rolled on the floor laughing.
Then Itch stopped.
He saw he had been one-eyed.
Everyone had stopped scratching. It wasn’t that they didn’t itch — that, Itch made sure of. It was they couldn’t scratch. Something had come to halt their movement.
And then Itch saw with his other eye — the one that had been blind.
He saw that some people — many — had never itched. He saw them dipping their toes in clear new water, the way they had always longed to do. He saw them picking up chicken eggs and looking at their smooth brown texture. He saw others dancing on one foot, whirling dervishes, all alone in a crazed dance, with one hand waving at the stars.
Itch saw that when the world stopped itching, a wave of something as bright and fierce as the sun warmed them with a heat so strong it radiated from their skin, and merged with something so big, so luminous, that Itch — shrunken, shrivelled, desiccated — turned into near-nothingness.
Itch had always been in the wrong place. With the dawn, he knew it.
Itch knew that he, too, like all the rest, would have to change.
A dream? Unprecedented? Possibly.
Later, the slice of a moon rises above Montparnasse. I open the window. The dark, impassive façades of the buildings opposite look like so many empty faces.
Then I hear it. As I hear it every night at this time. Faint at first. Someone out there is clapping. The applause grows. There is a banging, now. People are bashing saucepans, clashing together spoons, or lids, or colanders, and clapping and cheering and whistling. This cacophony of sound goes beyond the quartier, across the boulevards, I can hear it in waves across the city.
Then comes the peel of bells from the Eglise de Notre Dame des Champs, nearby, and, further away, the deeper chime of Notre Dame de Paris, the first time the great bell has rung in a year, celebrating survival, joining in the collective homage to the best of humankind.
I think of the quote from the poet John Donne: _“No man is an island, entire of itselfe. . . therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls.
It tolls for thee.”