The Corona Chronicles N°6

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 6

11 May 2020

Paris Unlocked

Our first day of le deconfinement — un-lockdown, sort of. Many shops open, people back to work, parks and cafés and restaurants still closed. Even before I’m out of bed I can hear the difference. Lockdown was like being in a snowdrift. City sounds were muffled. I’d taken to waking up at dawn to the sound of a lone blackbird singing its heart out, on a rooftop across the square. Now I can hear traffic, klaxons, the jangle of metal dragged across stone – the poles for the street market, being set up for the first time in two months.

I venture out early — I am uneasy about this semi-un-lockdown. It seems I am right to be. The market is pretty challenging when it comes to social distancing. A woman picks up a melon, sniffs it, puts it back on display. A man prods a tomato to test its firmness. About 50% of people wear masks, some with their noses hanging out. I decide to buy the minimum and skedaddle. Such a shame. In normal times, the market is a celebration of texture and colour - the glorious pyramids of fruit and vegetables – the green spiky scales of artichokes, the gleaming piles of strawberries or blackcurrants, the ice and shells of the oyster stall, the Turkish carpet seller, the Indian man with his long table covered in multi-coloured baubles and jewels, the African-mask seller, surrounded by his scary talismans. In normal times, I would linger, chat to the vendors… not today. Too much proximity, too little care.

What can they be thinking? That because the government has let us out, a wand has been waved and the virus has gone away? I stop at a cheese stall that has no queue and buy some of my favourite creamy Chaource, then quickly exit the market and head for the broad boulevard pavement. Not much better here. The kids have been let loose, after two months of lockdown. They are careering, yelling, screeching, leaping – they’re like mad Billy Elliotts on drugs. I dodge some lethal six-year-olds bearing down on me on their scooters. This is all getting too much, after the sanctuary of lockdown. I am walking past the cemetery. Its broad iron gates are open.

I am back in a familiar hush. There is something reassuring about the formality of the long gravel alleyways, the solidity of the stone tombs. Here, I feel safe. I wonder at the irony — to feel protected by the dead, and in danger, surrounded by the living. This virus has turned everything on its head.

A sudden memory: Box Hill, in Southern England, slithering up a muddy path in winter, as the light is fading; Quick, we have to get to the crest of the hill, through the woods, up and up, to get a view of the valley before the sun goes down. My friend is far ahead. I lose him, take a wrong turning, am lost among the dark trunks of trees. Then I come across a plaque, on the ground. It is the tombstone of one Major Peter Labillière, who died in 1800, an Englishman of French parentage, who chose this out-of-the-way spot in which to be buried — why not? — it’s the next part that startles me — vertically and UPSIDE DOWN. There’s something so appealing about this eccentric man’s choice. To see the world upside down, even after death.

“Vous ne voulez pas faire un tour avec moi?” “Would you like to take a walk with me?” The voice makes me jump. A man, thin, pale, in a frayed coat, has emerged from behind a tombstone. He hovers near me, Oh my God, is he trying to pick me up? I make an excuse, and hurry back towards the bustle of the streets, bemused. I’ve noticed an increase in la drague — the pick-up — during lockdown. I think it might be because of my mask — it hides the jowls, and other sagging bits that give away one’s age. It takes me back to a younger me — both pleasant and unpleasant at the same time. Like most things in these Covid19 days — confusing.

Along the Rue de Vaugirard and the street is a-bustle. It’s like the first day of spring — the end of hibernation. Though open doors, I see hairdressers leaning over clients — only not quite so close as before. Welcome signs in hardware stores, pet shops, even restaurants — although they’re selling their gourmet dishes as takeaways at the door with, in true Parisian style, a fine selection of wines to accompany them.

There is a certain joy in the air. An advertisement on a billboard says: “We have nothing to sell. We are just glad you are back.” And the delight of open gates and doors — of just… walking into something. One can quite forget that the virus is still travelling through the air. But this memory lapse is, it strikes me, somewhat insane.

What strange land have we entered into? I think of the TV reports – a farmer in India preparing to plough through his field of tomatoes, the best harvest in years, to destroy them – because of lockdown, there’s no one to man the supply chain. I think of the orange-faced baboon of a President inspecting a mask factory without a mask and telling everyone of the benefits of drinking bleach. I think of the British Home Secretary standing up in Parliament, smugly reiterating her immigration policy: that carers from abroad are still to be classed as “low paid and low skilled”, and not allowed into the country – even after so many in the profession have lost their lives looking after the old and frail. Really? Can these really be our leaders? What does it say about our humanity?

Seriously. . . better to look at the world upside down.

Or pray?

I walk past the Eglise de St Joseph des Carmes. A plaque outside says that here 114 monks were massacred in 1792, towards the end of the French Revolution, and their remains put in the crypt. It strikes me that, if time had not dried it, every paving stone in Paris would be soaked in blood. And then I think of all the generations who have lived through the traumas of history – the plagues, the wars, the famines — now it’s our turn, and we find it terrifying, just as they surely did. Traumatic, but not that rare. The rare generation is my own — those brought up in the West in the ‘50s and ‘60s, whose lives coincided with such an unusual window of good fortune.

Inside, the church is empty, except, in a dark alcove dedicated to St Teresa of Avila, a young woman has lit a candle and is on her knees, praying in front of the altar. Perhaps she is unaware of my presence or doesn’t care. She is praying more and more loudly, for someone she loves, who is ill, that their life be spared. Her voice keeps breaking. Surely, if there is a God, he would hear this plea? I envy those with faith. I have no idea. Maybe God is upside down, like the whole world, and wondering what kind of a world he created?  

Back on the busy boulevard, I spy a patch of green, inside some open gates. Just try and stop me. Grass I can actually walk on, for the first time in two months. And it’s wild and long, and reminds me that somewhere, out there, is the wonder called NATURE. There are a couple of wooden benches, but taped over, so you can’t sit on them. But I spy one bench with broken legs, close to the ground, but looks fairly stable. So I sit on it, wondering exactly where I am — this can’t be a park (the parks are still shut), it’s not a residential building, so where am I? A big old stone building opposite. Carved in its stone façade, the words: “L’Université des Êtres Bien Organisés” — The University for Well-Organized Beings. I am wondering who exactly they can be, when an official-looking woman comes up. Of course, she’s going to move me on.

“Vous ne pouvez pas rester ici.” Basically – “Skedaddle.” I think of Peter Labillière, upside down in the woods near Box Hill. In this crazy world where a patch of grass is forbidden, I find his eccentricity inspiring.

“Je suis un être bien organisée,” I say. “I am a well-organized being.” The woman looks at me blankly. I realise she probably hasn’t read the inscription, carved in old stone, and the building has probably been re-baptized over the years. “Regardez”. I hold up my Bic pen with its choice of four inks, to prove that I colour-code — well organized. She looks at me blankly, sighs, and walks away. People have become stranger and stranger during this Covid crisis. Just another one… she seems resigned to my madness. Ha! I can stay. This is the beginning of my new strategy…

   Back in my flat, I am happy to have my own space. Solitude now equals safety, in this topsy-turvy world.

The doorbell rings. I jump. It rings so rarely these days. A visitor?

I tiptoe to the door and peer through the spy hole. A man carrying some pamphlets.

“Vous êtes qui?” I ask, tentative.

“Témoin de Jéhovah,” he answers.

Just what I need. A Jehovah’s witness. Well, he’s not coming in, that’s for sure. I wonder how I’m going to get rid of him. Then I remember. Predictably, the man asks the same old question:
“Do you believe in the second coming?”
“No,” I say.

Through the door, I can feel him gearing himself up to proselytise. “Why not?” “Because he’s here,” I whisper. “He’s in the kitchen.”

I hear the man scuttle off down the staircase. I’m enjoying becoming this new weird woman for this new weird season. Major Peter Labillière, I salute you.

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