Day 1 (day 39 of confinement) - Thursday, 23th of April
Today is France’s 39th day of “confinement”, the French term for the country’s specific version of lockdown. Schools, cafés, restaurants, non-essential shops, parks and gardens have all been closed, and strict measures have been implemented, such as carrying the obligatory “attestation de déplacement dérogatoire” whenever you leave the house, and (in Paris) not being allowed to practise sport during the hours of 10am to 7pm.
Currently we have the third highest number of deaths in Europe, and the fourth highest in the world. After a spike in deaths a week or so ago, there seems to be a general feeling that things are (dare we say it) starting to get better - can we see the light at the end of the tunnel? I have been living in Paris since September, studying for a Master’s degree, and, like Evan, have decided to remain here for the “confinement” rather than go back to the UK. I live alone in a 23m2 appartement in the 12th arrondissement, nestled between the strike hotspot that is la Place de la Nation, and the périphérique, that separates Paris intra-muros from Paris extra-muros, the city from les banlieues (the suburbs).
Day 40 - Friday, 24th of April
The 40th day of confinement. FORTY DAYS. Is there some biblical allegory to be taken from this? Could be overstretching it. Although one could claim that Jesus did a lot of social distancing when he was in that desert.
After yet another bad night’s sleep, I attempt to (re-)kickstart my jogging “routine”... With 15 minutes to go before our 10am curfew, I scramble out of bed and throw myself up the hill onto the exercise thoroughfare that is the Cours de Vincennes. After a few minutes I realise that today is just not my day (will I ever have “my day”?!) and decide to send a birthday video message to Rosa. Nothing screams 26 like a nondescript sunny Paris street and some wobbly filming. Luckily, we have the delights of “Zoom Karaoke” tonight (choice of song - Cheerleader, desire to sing - 0, bottles of wine to be consumed - 1), to properly celebrate the first of the confinement birthdays.
The day brings with it an almost overwhelming amount of socialising (at a safe distance of course). At half 11, I spend an hour or so at a local church helping with food distribution for the homeless and vulnerable. The church itself is a bizarre contraption made out of what looks like corrugated iron sheets, in a part of the 12th arrondissement that I’ve never visited before. Louis-Christophe, the officious young priest, is in charge of proceedings and within an hour we’ve set up, distributed and packed away again. I walk slowly back with one of the other volunteers, a girl of the same age who is studying drama and film. We chat about our courses, the masks we’ve been given (a first for the two of us) and the fact that neither of us are religious. Instead of heading straight back, I decide to stop off at the Casino supermarket where I buy a pile of things that I absolutely do not need. The supermarket is full, mostly people on their own wandering around muttering to themselves. A man in a plastic apron is discussing loudly how the meat industry is being affected with a colleague - “le seul secteur qui continue à bien fonctionner...” - I don’t hang around to hear the rest. I drop my shopping at the flat and pop over to the boulangerie to pick up some bread. “Ca fait mal les Birks?” “Quoi?!” “Les Birks, tes Birkenstocks, j’aime trop les tiens mais j’ai peur qu’ils font mal...” I go through the benefits of the two-strap Birkenstock versus the one-strap model with the girl in the bakery and the cheapest place to buy them (Ebay - sorry Birkenstock). We only chat for a few minutes but I head out of the shop with a big smile on my face, clutching my slightly warm baguette - things will go back to normal.
Day 41 - Saturday, 25th of April
Waking up hungover and alone is not the best way to start the weekend. Waking up hungover, alone AND confined is hands down the worst way. Luckily (and highly unethically), I have been blessed with a Tinder beau who, with his own set of wheels, is ready to traverse the 8km (and the périphérique) that separate us. We have very little in common and would have surely never met up in “normal life” but he has a solidity about him that I find very reassuring.
He stands at the window in his boxers, smoking, gazing out into the street, whilst I potter about the flat clearing things up. Our conversation flits from the state of the environment to the style of British footballers. Despite our (numerous) differences, we both have a passion for cooking - he examines the herbs I bought this week and gives suggestions for what to do with them. Before he leaves, we embrace, standing locked together, my head on his shoulder, breathing into each other’s skin. The sensation of the physical contact is like a restorative balm washing over me, bringing me back into the real world. I feel like I could stand like this forever.
In some ways it’s almost harder to deal with the emptiness of the flat, of the day, after having someone fill it. As the last of the sun catches the corner of the flats opposite, I see people out on their daily walks - a group of friends, a couple. The “touristes de la cité Debergue” as I like to think of them... “J’ai l’impression qu’il est hors du temps un peu” remarks one of them. It’s true that the street is a little microcosm, where the daily comings and goings are so all-consuming that it’s easy to forget about the world outside.
Day 42 - Sunday, 26th of April
The day starts off as a hive of productivity - an English lesson via Skype and a Latin dance class on YouTube. Mid “sexy hip roll”, I spot four masked police municipale walk purposefully past my window and quickly duck out of sight...living next to an easily broken into park and basketball court, the police are regular visitors here.
The day is hot, slow, fragments of conversation echo around; the long family lunches, the afternoon lull, the boredom of being stuck indoors. A neighbour is attempting to learn the double bass, its deep vibration bouncing off the walls. I walk slowly up and down the street, listening to the guys on the basketball court throwing a ball around, thinking about everything and nothing, hoping to get a hint of a tan.
“Papa, regarde dans le ciel!” “Le ciel! Ha ha ha”, a young boy and his father walk past my window, marvelling up at the clear blue of the sky. In our previous house, in Finsbury Park, my ground floor room also looked out onto the street and I would happily spend whole days staring out the window at the passersby. Here is no different. The light starts to fade and, in what is becoming a daily ritual, I sit on the sofa watching the flat grow steadily darker and darker, not moving to turn on the light until the sun has completely set. The calm of the night slowly creeps in.
Day 43 - Monday, 27th of April
And on the 43rd day, the rains came... OK, perhaps I’m taking the biblical references too far here, but what a mad amount of rain! I stick my head out the window to see the big bubbles forming on the cobbled street as it lashes down, breathing in the scent of the trees, the grass, the smell of this hot, almost tropical, rain.
This morning started off well - a 3km jog (well, maybe more of a walk) - that took me up the Rue des Pyrénées, along Rue des Orteaux and down again, past the Eglise Saint-Jean-Bosco. I stop and stare at the church, an enormous white building glistening in the morning sunshine. It seems out of place, towering above this backstreet in the 20th arrondissement. I continue onto Rue de Charonne, picking up speed as I head down the tree-lined avenue to the bustling roundabout of Place de la Nation. The sun is shining and you could almost believe things were back to normal, if it weren’t for the people with masks walking around and the near constant wail of ambulances in the background. As I head back home I am stopped by a friendly police patrol who ask for my attestation and ID (which I fortunately had with me) - they wish me a bonne journée as we part ways. Nearing my street, a man in jeans and a shirt passes by me at a steady jog...holding a plant pot. Is this the “jogging à la française” that the Brits are now talking about?!
Later on, I stand in the street, a helicopter flying overhead, listening to my neighbour on the floor above plucking away at what sounds like a sitar. A police siren cuts through the air and the helicopter continues to circle above us. It starts to rain again.
Day 44 - Tuesday, 28th of April
Last night I Skyped with Oana, Nick and Evan. After about three attempts, and several different mediums, we all end up together, little squares of faces looking at me through my screen. It’s a moment I always look forward to, but again, the flat feels all the more empty once the cheery sounds of their voices have died out. “Speak soon, let’s have drinks on Friday!”, “Ciao guys”, “Speak later!”... I have yet another bad night’s sleep, interrupted by strange dreams about old work colleagues, the virus and being interrogated on whether I believe in God or not (maybe I should stop volunteering at the church...).
The food distribution goes smoothly - “Bonjour Monsieur, vous allez bien?”, “Ca va, ça va” - mostly men, they come with their backpacks open and a faint look of resignation. After the food bags have all gone (chicken salad, yoghurts and a pain au chocolat today), we watch a man at the other end of the square surrounded by pigeons, holding his arm out for them to perch on. One of the other volunteers looks horrified but Louis-Christophe, the priest, tells us that Paul is a good guy, with a poet’s soul. He comes over to us, bringing his pigeon pals with him, telling us, “Vous êtes beaux...coo coo... ce que vous faites, c’est tellement beau! (coo coo)” I hope I’ll be seeing more of Pigeon Paul.
The afternoon is slow, lethargic - the change in weather has brought a tired sadness with it that I can’t seem to shake off.
Day 45 - Wednesday, 29th of April
So this evening I’ve cracked and drunk the majority of the bottle of wine in my fridge that I had judiciously (until now) been saving for a Skype with the gang on Friday. The rain continues to pelt it down outside, making me feel truly confined.
An evening wasted much like a day wasted. Admittedly, the afternoon brought a few moments of joy: watching the little girl from across the road racing up down the street with Enzo the dog - “Gagné!” - and a mother and her child kicking a football at each other, whiling away the long morning. I listen to my neighbour’s incessant chatter with his cat...he’s from Spain, a foreigner like me, confined alone during this time.
I took a dull trip to the supermarket, with an idea of making fajitas that eventually came to nothing (who wants to eat fajitas alone?!) The evening drags on, interspersed with a long chat with a friend in London (signalling the wine being opened) and yet another incomprehensible exchange with a student I’ve been helping with her English homework - “bonsoir madame Zoé” - when did I become a madame?! The rain continues to fall...at least I can occupy myself by writing this all down.
Now, in Paris
France officially ended its “confinement” period mid-May. The country is still split in two, with Paris and the East in the “red zone” and the rest of the country in the “green zone”. Individual municipalities also have a large say over what will be opening and what will not be, for example in Brittany many beaches are still closed despite their “green zone” status meaning that they could be open. Paris still has many strict regulations in place: the majority of parks remained closed until very recently, a limited number of schools have opened and a mask is obligatory when using public transport.
After over 8 weeks of being confined, I was maybe expecting a few more fireworks - at least something to mark our passage to “freedom”. Obviously this wasn’t, and couldn’t be, the case, but there is certainly a lighter, freer mood in the air. For Eid, marking the end of Ramadan, voices, music and a faint scent of cinnamon filled my quartier. The markets are back in full swing, the Bois de Vincennes is teeming with picnic-ers, it’s no longer wine for one as we are allowed to meet friends for joyful, drunken evenings. Even the terraces are starting to reopen! People come and go on the cité Debergue, neighbours shout out to each other - things do seem like they’re getting back to normal.