Dawn broke unto a new France, one transformed by two months of lockdown. The coronavirus pandemic has been a singular focus for the entire nation as it has been for much of the world. Patience has been rewarded. The restrictions are starting to lift.
A cold wind whipped trees and swirled leaves all morning. It seemed as if the world was giving Paris a reason to stay inside despite our newly refound freedom. The rain and wind prohibited the long run that I was looking forward to – that will have to wait for tomorrow – but I was still giddy as I completed my morning workout using the elastics that I bought online the week before, trying to instill a new habit. Gyms won’t be reopening for a while.
My first foray from the house was to take the trash out and already there were signs that today was not like the days before. On the ground floor I saw lights on in the nursery and a man with a mask and hairnet preparing a meal for the first few kids that had been welcomed back. Outside there was a line of shaggy-headed dudes waiting for their turn at the barbershop. And there was an unfamiliar noise: traffic. Scooters whizzed by and cars lined up at the red light. Someone honked.
As the morning passed in a gust the gray ceiling gave way to the blue dome above. I had a diagnostic appointment at our old place at noon. There was relief when I pulled out my phone and realized that I didn’t need a declaration to go out. No more requirement to put in my name, birthdate, address and motive. I could just go outside!
I brought our bike up from the parking and stepped out into a city abuzz. Old ladies pulled their caddies while delivery guys rode past on scraped up scooters. Families pushed strollers and strollers took a seat on a bench next to the bus stop. Almost all faces were masked.
There was awkwardness. People seemed to have forgotten how to drive. Some motorcyclists grilled red lights. Pedestrians jutted frequently into the streets to avoid a crowded patch of sidewalk. Brakes slammed. The meticulously respected social distancing no longer applied to the group that was all trying to enter the supermarket at the same time, shoulder to shoulder as they tried to squeeze gel onto their hands.
So many stores have opened: booksellers, clothing chains, and restaurants for take out. My neighbor came home with a huge bag of McDonald’s for his family, his seven-year-old daughter prancing happily behind him. We’ve eaten lamb pitas from Yaya and the best ramen place in Paris, Kodawari, launched its delivery service on Deliveroo over the weekend, which I immediately ordered and devoured (I’ve saved some of the extra broth to relaunch my confinement ramen that I had to discard during the move).
Our old neighborhood, always alive with people even during the moments of strictest confinement, was packed. Cars were stalled in the street with not a millimeter to drive. As I turned down Rue Faubourg de Temple it looked like I was descending into Lagos at rush hour. The produce vendor had set up a watermelon stand in the street, a line of Chinese people trailed out of Chen Market. The strangest part was how normal it all seemed.
Except for the little invisible virus that was jumping from person to person, causing devastation across the globe. Because the pandemic is not over, and the end of lockdown means that the chains of transmission are going to start linking up again. People walked down the street smoking with their masks pulled down below their chins. Two friends saluted each other with a rub on the shoulder. I waited for a few cars to advance before I could turn, trying to do my best to keep away from the two scooters trying impatiently to pass me.
The appointment only took a few minutes and I hopped on my bike again with the realization that I didn’t have to go straight home, I could ride wherever I wanted to within 100 kilometers! I dipped down behind the Hopital Saint Louis and rode up the picturesque stretch of the Canal Saint Martin. Since bars and restaurants are still closed to the public, and park gates are still chained shut too, the canal was serving a dual purpose. Every square centimeter was covered by a mass of humanity with bag after bag of take out punctuated by bottles of rosé and Hoegaarden. I would read later that the police dispersed the crowds at the end of the afternoon and formally decreed that drinking there is off limits.
The jubilation is universal. Although many are still frightened and anxious about the virus and what comes next, the pleasure of this first release is sweet. It might be short-lived. Images from the RER stations show crowds similar to what the trains were like before coronavirus: intensely occupied with no room to spare. The platforms dense with humans and no possibility of social distancing. Seeing so many people in an open street with a fresh, brisk wind is one thing. Being stuck in a Petri dish of a train for an hour is an entirely different matter.
If people start to sense that we are going to head back to lockdown, will they take advantage even more of the temporary deconfinement window that has been allotted? Or will we find the restraint necessary to slow the disease voluntarily?
Either way, some of our best friends came over for dinner. We hadn’t seen them since the day before the lockdown started. Their son jumped upstairs to play with ours. They wore masks for a while until we popped open Barge IPAs from Paname Brewing Company followed by the customary champagne. The stimulation of passing time with people we love filled our hearts. The children came down with ninja and superhero costumes and the babies crawled between our chair legs while we ate tacos and finished off our Amorino ice cream.
It was a fitting way to celebrate the end of the lockdown and the start of the next chapter. What will deconfinement bring? It will surely be a mixture of excitement and pleasures rediscovered, tampered by the anxiety of getting sick and the fear of going back into a second lockdown.
Whatever happens, there is now room to breathe.