Paris, France: First Real Crisis
Lucy Sayles Gardner
My parents and grandparents have probably thought that the world was ending like I did last week several times in their lives. But for me, this is the first real crisis. I’m not talking personally about crisis in the sense of actual danger or consequence or loss, because so far I haven’t experienced any. I’m not writing this to recount the horrors of a global pandemic. Those horrors are real, but I haven’t seen them firsthand. Instead, I’m writing to trace how, young and optimistic, I realized for the first time that the things we take for granted can fall apart, quickly, on a large scale, and that they might not come back together the same way in the end.
From my perspective, this crisis came on very slowly at first. In the beginning, the virus was in Southeast Asia. Far away, and in my mind, not a real cause for concern. Then a few cases popped up in France, where I live. They were Chinese tourists who were quickly identified and hospitalized. I remember my Mom saying that the tipping point would be when we could no longer connect all the cases back to Wuhan. That very thing happened in Italy with a rapidly growing number of cases in the north of the country. Still a slow burn in my mind–yes, this epicenter was much closer to France, but it was still beyond national borders. When Europe’s first confinement measures were introduced in Italy, I was alarmed but thought that the learning curve would protect France from falling into the same situation. Then in mid March, a daily progression of events made me see that I was living through a real crisis.
Thursday, March 12, 2020
Already feeling uncomfortable and unclean in the spaces of my university, and thoroughly worn out from grad school in general, I cheered aloud and celebrated in messages to my classmates when President Emmanuel Macron announced that all schools and universities would close.
Friday, March 13, 2020
Rumors about confinement measures similar to Italy began to float around. I read about stock markets crashing and events being cancelled and felt thoroughly depressed about my own situation. What if I have to stay cooped up in my tiny apartment? What if I can’t work out at the gym? What if the economy tanks and I can’t find a job after graduation? What if my family can’t go to Greece this summer? Writing this more than a week later, when everything has been put brutally into perspective, I’m a little embarrassed.
Saturday, March 14, 2020
On Saturday evening, feeling very conflicted, Olivier and I decided to keep our plans for dinner out with another couple. The four of us didn’t greet each other with the traditional two kisses, and we all slathered on hand sanitizer before touching the silverware or tearing off a piece of bread. All we could talk about was the virus, speculating about what the government would decide next. Then mid-meal one of our phones went off, a news alert saying that all non-essential businesses, including the restaurant where we were eating, would be closed at midnight until further notice. We all agreed to savor our “last” evening out for a while, the first of many “lasts” in the days that followed. This was when my selfish concerns disappeared as I began to realize the gravity of this new announcement. Not just for the businesses and employees that would suffer. But also, oh shit. If they’re shutting things down so extensively, the risk of getting sick must be real. Walking home shortly before midnight, we saw other groups of friends having “last” glasses of wine on heated café terraces. Before bed, something about watching the Prime Minister speak on the news, with bright red headlines at the bottom of the screen, felt warlike. I slept badly.
Sunday, March 15, 2020
Like everyone else in Paris, we did the opposite of what the government was strongly suggesting and went for a walk on that warm afternoon. In the Père Lachaise cemetery near our place, it was anything but social distancing. Groups of friends and families were brushing past each other and soaking up the sun. With my morbid sense of humor, it was a very fitting moment to stroll around a huge cemetery in a city that has known its fair share of plagues. By that night, everyone had a friend’s dad or a cousin who worked in the government and who warned that France would be in quarantine like Italy by Wednesday at the latest. Olivier and I spent the evening packing suitcases with clothes, food, games, books and supplies, ready to leave for his parents’ big and vacant apartment just outside of Paris as soon as the next morning, neither of us really knowing what to prepare for. Like his parents, anyone who had a second residence outside of the city was getting ready to leave before the government could lay down any new restrictions. Again, a vague feeling of wartime. I tried to remind myself that when people left Paris en masse in June of 1940, it wasn’t to go watch Netflix in their summer homes for a few weeks.
Monday, March 16, 2020
That morning, Olivier left before 6 to finish closing his business. I took a “last” early morning walk, staying as far away from other people as possible, unable to concentrate on the songs and podcasts I put on to distract myself. I spent the rest of the day alone at home with the curtains closed. I tidied the apartment like I do whenever we go on a trip. This trip was a strange one to prepare for, only 30 minutes from home but with no set return date. I put my plants outside to give them a better chance of surviving without me there to water them. When Olivier returned from work and it was time to leave, I looked around our little living room with the feeling that I would be changed the next time I saw the space. Then we took a “last” metro ride to the other apartment, and a “last” walk down the street, seeing other people do the same. We made it inside right as the President addressed the country for the second time in less than a week. The rumors turned out to be right: starting the following day at noon, everyone was to stay at home for at least two weeks, except for groceries, medical care, and work for those who couldn’t work remotely. The police were setting up stationary and mobile checkpoints, and there would be fines for those who broke the rules. I haven’t left the apartment building since then.
I’m writing this less than a week after the quarantine went into effect in France. Doctors and scientists here are warning that the worst is yet to come and are calling for at least six weeks of confinement. The “before” phase has been over since I left my own apartment. Now I’m in the “during”, and for the time being, it’s not very different from a slightly boring but restful vacation. The “after” makes me anxious. We will all have to reckon with death tolls, loss, cancelled plans, recession. I’m afraid that the beautiful moments of humanity we are seeing–keeping in touch, lending a hand, recognizing the importance of often overlooked professions–will also disappear. However, I think about the important lesson I have already learned. It’s good to have a small taste of what real crisis feels like. It’s good to know that the world can actually end. Really, considering how we treat our planet, we should all expect it to. And since more moments of crisis are to come, it’s also good to know that we can keep our wits and adapt when things start crumbling.