I’m currently sitting in my kitchen and watching a jackdaw hop around in the back garden, while bees hum around a rosemary bush that’s recently exploded with pale bluish flowers. For the better part of the year, my partner and I live in Norwich, a cheerful, centuries-old-yet-progressive city at England’s eastern edge.
Just a few weeks ago, I was freely roaming the streets of Paris. I returned home days before the capital and the rest of France entered lockdown on March 17th— and promptly began a five-week-and-counting period of sheltering in place myself.
In hindsight, it all seems like a lost world. I spent eight days in the city drinking in the commotion and constant poetry of its streets, cafes, squares, parks, shops, bridges, community gardens, bakeries.
I saw good friends (although we avoided hugs and bisous.) I ate out at swarming restaurants and stayed in two hotels. It was early March and the city was in steady, inexorable blossom.
Yet with every passing day, my vague uneasiness transformed into mounting anxiety. Despite riotous markers of spring everywhere you glanced, there were subtle but unmistakeable signs that the city was about to be pummeled by a devastating public health crisis. One of a gravity it hadn’t seen since the influenza pandemic of 1918.
Read related: A Short History of Quarantines in Europe and France
What follows is my brief, wholly subjective account of a week that, in retrospect, I probably shouldn’t have risked embarking on at all. It saddens me to say so, though. Revisiting a city I still consider home and gathering new material to write about is something that brings reliable, intense joy.
A Slightly Eerie Departure
The morning I left London for Paris, on March 5th, newsfeeds were already churning with disturbing reports from Italy. Several Northern Italian regions were facing exploding cases of a virus that would soon bring most of the world to its knees.
But there were no travel advisories warning about France, from British authorities or otherwise.
France had recorded nearly 300 cases of coronavirus at the time, but only four deaths. Authorities spoke of little to no “community” spread in Paris and I was fairly confident that the country’s sophisticated health infrastructure would succeed in containing it.
Nevertheless, arriving at the Eurostar station that early morning, I felt a first shimmering of dread. I got through the nearly-empty security checkpoints in fewer than five minutes, and found myself in a departure area that was eerily quiet.
It began filling up a bit more closer to departure time, and I noted in texts to my partner and friends that everyone seemed to be coughing. I avoided them as best I could. This would precede a week of instinctive breath-holding in crowded metro cars.
On the train itself, there were a conspicuous number of empty seats– especially for early spring, when people generally start thronging on Paris.
A Joyful Homecoming, Punctuated With Worry
Once I arrived at Gare du Nord and threw down my bags at my hotel near République, the initial trepidation lifted for a while. I spent the first couple of days roaming streets and squares, faubourgs and parks inscribed with too many memories to comfortably parse.
Memories of the city I called home for so long melded with an even stronger desire to appreciate and record how it had changed; to forge new associations.
On the first night, I met up with a close friend at a wine bar I’d been itching to try. I elected to walk there, wending my way from Place de la République up the Rue du Faubourg du Temple, then the steep, always-chaotic and inevitably interesting Rue de Belleville.
I surveyed a familiar scene: market vendors unpacking crates of fruits and vegetables from the sidewalk, and residents milling in and out of shoe shops, supermarkets, bars and restaurants. No one seemed to be taking any special precautions, or allowing any extra distance.
I momentarily found myself wondering whether to give a wide berth to people crowding the narrow, steep sidewalks, , but decided there was little risk in walking outside. I had avoided the metro, and that seemed a wise choice.
At the wine bar (which was excellent and will soon be the subject of a full review), my friend and I settled onto stools, wedged between other diners at a tight communal table. We stayed for hours, happily chatting and tasting.
But I again felt a slight sense of unease when a woman at the table next to ours starting sneezing. I had already begun to vaguely doubt the accepted wisdom that as long as you washed your hands and kept your grubby mitts away from your face, risk of catching the virus was low.
After all, the common cold was also a coronavirus, and it was transmitted easily through sneezes…
But I shook off the thought and ordered a second glass to taste. I polished off my plate of cheeses, radishes and butter. Why worry when life was this good?
Spring Bliss, Marred by Mounting Cases
I spent the next few days in a semi-greedy flurry. I tasted pastries and bread from bakeries that were on my list of ones to try at all costs. I roamed market streets and took photos of the everyday scenes I miss, being away from the city.
I met with friends in restaurants and cafes so loud that conversation proved difficult, and roamed through lamplit streets around the Invalides (a part of the capital I was largely unfamiliar with). I was alone, it was relatively late at night, and I suddenly understood the giddiness of tourists seeing the city for the first time.
I admired a resident cat sitting casually among pots of confiture (jam) at a boulangerie near the hotel where I was staying.
I snapped shots of amusing and absurdist street art. I enjoyed a decadent and beautiful brunch at a hotel (again, reviews forthcoming). I peered at a nearly full moon rising over the Arc de Triomphe, on one of many solitary post-dinner walks across the city.
I snapped images of streets freshly washed with spring rain, as locals hurriedly scrambled for umbrellas.
Through it all, the joy of the above was punctuated by a pesky and persistent thought: I’d better enjoy this while I can.
Signs were growing that this wasn’t all going to be a mere inconvenient blip. Every morning, I checked French government bulletins for COVID-19 case numbers and deaths. I was chilled to see that they were rising exponentially, often doubling day after day.
What had started as just short of 300 cases across France when I arrived were now in the thousands. Death rates were shockingly high. Rumors said they were even higher and that old-age and care home fatalities weren’t being tallied. And testing in the larger population simply wasn’t happening.
I used all this information on a daily basis to update my own advice to travelers on safety in France. This created a difficult dilemma: what to tell readers who were anxious about whether to cancel their trips?
After all, no travel advisories had changed and no one was suggesting that coming to France was more than slightly risky. No one foresaw that travelers might get stuck if they did come; that airlines would drastically reduce flights; that within a matter of days countries would start closing borders.
In a word, that scenario was unimaginable– until it wasn’t. I continued to reassure readers that cancelling trips wasn’t necessary. But I wondered whether I was wrong. The anxiety became gnawing as the days drew on.
Others around me were starting to show their unease, too. After we met for lunch, an old friend touched my forehead and said I felt warm, prompting us to both mildly panic. “Keep me posted. My dad has a pre-existing condition,” she said gravely as we parted ways.
I immediately bought a thermometer from a pharmacy and discovered that I in fact had a sub-temp. I sent her a needling and affectionate text, teasing her for alarming us both.
I had breakfast one morning in a lavish hotel dining room where I was the only guest. The server brought me eggs and coffee, then after a pause, asked anxiously what I knew about the virus.
Was he at risk? What about his sister? She had asthma, and he loved her more than anything in the world. How could he protect her? He already suffered with crippling anxiety, he told me. This was making it much worse.
I did my best to reassure him. He was very young, and this thing wasn’t spreading much in the general population. He seemed grateful, but worry still lingered on his face.
Toward the very end of my eight-day sojourn, on March 11th, the WHO officially declared a world pandemic. And the night before I left, French President Emmanuel Macron took to live television to announce that schools would close in a matter of days.
My partner called that night. For the first time, her voice betrayed genuine worry. I had been the one fretting about whether to go on the trip, but hearing the concern in her voice made it clearer than ever: it was time to get home.
It was only once I got there and collapsed in a heap that I realized how much I had been holding my breath. It was an extraordinary relief to be home.
From The Rear-View Mirror
In retrospect, and as in so many other places around the world, the French government waited too long to shut schools, restaurants, stations, bars and shops. Like many other countries did, they dragged feet on ordering citizens to stay home and on barring tourism.
As this story goes to press, France has reported over 109,000 cases of the virus; more than 17,000 people have died. The “peak” may be passing, but many more deaths are likely.
And in the weeks before lockdown, cases and deaths were rising dramatically every one or two days– a strong signal of sustained community spread.
Of course, few anticipated that the virus would prove so virulent and contagious. Governments and tourism officials alike look to international bodies like the WHO for cues on how to respond. Those bodies didn’t call for serious restrictions on travel until later in the month.
It seems like a million years ago, but in early to mid-March most public health authorities were still arguing that community spread could be controlled by frequent hand washing and avoiding touching one’s face.
That was the accepted dogma of the moment, as foolhardy as it looks from our current standpoint. That most countries were reluctant to shutter entire economies and put millions out of work when that was the reigning advice isn’t especially hard to understand.
Still, it’s surreal and slightly nauseating to recall my week in crowded bars, packed train stations, and metro cars so sardined with people that keeping any sort of distance would have been impossible. I feel lucky that I appear to have avoided falling ill and making others ill (as far as I know, at least).
It may seem exaggerated, but looking back on it all makes me think of Thomas Mann’s story Death in Venice, which portrays a city slowly beset by a plague of cholera.
Its creepy protagonist explores the Venetian streets– and becomes *problematically* obsessed with a young boy– while feeling growing unease at the sight and smell of workers furiously cleaning the streets with bleach.
Later, it’s revealed that local authorities have been hiding evidence of the plague, underplaying its dangers to keep tourists from fleeing. I of course don’t wish to suggest that Parisian officials did the same, given the reigning, global underestimation of the dangers posed by coronavirus.
Nevertheless, there’s something profoundly unsettling about remembering the packed Parisian restaurants, metro cars, markets, cinemas, covered galleries of just a few weeks ago. We’ll never know how many lives have been lost as a result of that early laissez-faire approach.
When This is All Over…
I certainly don’t wish to imply that this has in any way reduced my love of the capital or my desire to be there. I can’t wait to return.
I live in hope that it won’t be 18 months before I can hop on the Eurostar again. I look especially forward to giving friends and new contacts alike enthusiastic bises (kisses on each cheek). But perhaps more than anything, I want to see cafe terraces humming with chatter and movement again– the way they should be.