Looking back on 2020
A personal perspective by Linda Mak
It’s been a tough year for everyone and my heart goes out to all the families and friends whose loved ones have been personally affected by the pandemic. This is my experience of being locked down in Paris.
2020 – The year in Paris, at home
People dream of coming to Paris, walking along its boulevards, watching people while sipping wine in bistros, absorbing the culture. This year has not been the Paris you dream of. This year, Paris was the walls of my home. The people I’ve watched are my husband and kids and a collection of box shaped faces on Zoom calls. I could be anywhere.
If you take away Paris’ museums, boutiques, restaurants, cafes, bars, romantic strolls down picturesque lanes and along the twinkling Seine, is it still Paris? It’s Paris without the tourists, where Parisians were only seen dashing between the shops deemed necessary for survival, usually standing in line outside boulangeries or tabacs (yes cigarettes are necessary for survival in Paris). There was a stillness in the city, I hadn’t experienced before, it felt so empty even though there were millions of people hiding behind closed doors too afraid to go outside.
This was a stripped down, anti-social life. Though I felt safe in Paris and in the comfort of my home, we (the four of us) were bored in the confinement of our own neighbourhoods, where time seemed to bend backwards on itself. But it was also a life where we were forced to focus on what was truly important: our health, our family and friends, and holding our society together.
A message hits home – January 27, 2020
When it all began, I thought everyone was over-reacting. I know I was not unique in thinking that. I thought the media was freaking out over nothing. It will all pass; it will get under control. The World Health Organization was slowly figuring things out and hadn’t declared a global health emergency. I wasn’t going to worry until they did.
My daughter’s school was about to host dozens of Chinese exchange students. One was going to stay with us. Parents started to worry about this as the news out of Wuhan got more dire by the day. The school cancelled the program. That same day the French government prohibited the entry of all tour groups from China. Meanwhile the Chinese were swiftly locking themselves down, province by province. This made me realize how serious things were becoming. This virus was affecting the entire world. Not just the people in Wuhan, or our Beijing exchange student, but all of us.
Sing happy birthday while washing your hands – February 2020
I became anxious about what was or was not happening in France. Our winter breaks were scheduled for mid-February. People were going to go skiing in the alps or cross borders to Italy or Germany. I had friends from California that were heading to Europe for the holidays.
Nothing was any different in Paris apart from more messages about hand-washing, sneezing into your elbow, etc. The school asked us to send in an extra box of tissues as it was a bad cold/flu season. I spoke to a friend of mine who works as a civil servant. I asked her why nothing was happening, or why we didn’t hear more about the virus, and are the number of cases recorded actually correct. She said, ‘Yes, I think there’s a lot they are not telling us and I’m sure it’s just a matter of time before they figure out what to do.’
How news spreads
Over the years, President Macron made regular speeches and people actually tuned in. This might be normal for France, but coming from America, where people tend to not pay attention, I found it surprising but also very reassuring. There was speculation for days leading up to a Macron speech. ‘What’s he going to announce? What will the new rules be?’ We’d get texts from friends, “someone knows someone at the Ministry of Health, with an inside tip”, and the rumors would start to spread.
The first lockdown
The announcement from President Macron to shut down schools finally came on March 12th. The following day, the Prime Minister announced the closure of bars, restaurants and cinemas. The next week, on March 16th, Macron announced confinement measures for two weeks. This would be extended twice. Two weeks became two months. The first lockdown didn’t end until May 11th.
The mass exodus
There were a few days between schools closing and the start of confinement when everyone that could leave the city, left. Those with a country cottage, summer home or winter chalet, went to it. Those with an aging parent, went to stay with them. People with friends that had large estates holed up with them. Classmates and colleagues suddenly turned up in Zoom calls from Japan, Spain, Argentina and Greece.
Those that were left behind wished they had yards, courtyards, or even a balcony. Paris is a beautiful city. But it’s a densely packed beautiful city. A city people live in and turn to to escape their tiny apartments. Without the people that gave life to this city it became a shell of itself. Why not flee to nature? Post-confinement I know of three separate friends that have purchased country homes.
The shrinking perimeter, with no green space allowed
To make matters worse our world kept shrinking. At first we could only travel 2km from home, then it was reduced to 1km. We had to carry an ‘Attestation’ printed on paper and filled out with one of five official allowed reasons for being outside. A friend bought a printer and a ream of paper just for this. Erasable ink came in handy. Some smartie then created a digital attestation for phones. A small but much appreciated change.
The information changed daily. Initially it was unclear if you could or should even go running. Exercising, and the public shaming of people that went out too much, was a big topic in the press. Was it ok to exercise? Should runners wear masks? Was it safe for others to be close to a runner, huffing and puffing on the sidewalk? But exercise was a sanctioned reason to leave the house, soon everyone became a runner, especially if they didn’t have a dog to walk. But since the parks were closed, runners had to take to the streets. Old men in old suits shuffle jogged past in slow motion. Tree-lined boulevards were crowded with runners in too new tracksuits, and the cops cruised these looking to bust those too far from home or without paperwork.
When I went running, pedestrians would quickly cross to the other side of the street to avoid me. I would hold my breath when I passed anyone nearby. Most people walked in the street. Running was then banned between 10-19h, so the morning sidewalks became packed. I had to run south, cross the peripherique and into the suburbs to get some space. I never saw any cops there.
With so many unknowns with the virus, we became obsessed with watching the case numbers rise each day in France. Yet because of the strict confinement measures, I felt the government, though not perfect, was doing their best to handle the situation. Compared to how badly things were being managed in America, I was grateful to be in France.
My lockdown journal
During lockdown I typed a journal on an old typewriter I found on the street, counting down the days while taking my temperature. We were all paranoid about getting sick, so every cough, sneeze or ache made us worried. It put us at ease to see our temperature charted out in a line graph within the normal range. Re-reading it now, 8 months later, it’s as mundane as you’d expect, but kind of interesting to see how far we’ve come in coping with ups and downs and understanding the virus and ourselves. I’ll spare you the more boring details, especially where I drivel on about hand soap.
Flick through some of my diary entries below….
A Post Lockdown diary entry
“I went to Invalides and met two friends on the steps by the overgrown grassy lawn. It was packed full of people lounging about. There were 15 cops just standing in the street smoking and chatting. We were wondering if they were going to do anything about the closely seated unmasked crowds or not. There were young people giving each other the bise and we were in shock, ‘What?! Kissing and Hugging?!’. We ate potato chips and drank rosé spritzes.”
We really noticed how much people had followed the rules when, after the first lockdown, we saw how crowded the streets were with people back in them. Though masks were not mandatory everywhere until the end of August, people started to wear them. People limited their travel and kept their distance. The rules and restrictions no longer felt like an affront to our personal freedom, we followed them for the good of society as a whole. It was Solidarity. I never really experienced that concept full heartedly until this year.
Deconfinement – Bike business booms
When people started to go back to work in-person, few were eager to take public transport. RATP was limiting the amount of people riding the buses and trains by putting stickers on seats to remind people not to sit too close to each other. We live close to line 13, the busiest metro line in Paris. To reduce passenger load on that line, Mayor Ann Hidalgo introduced a new ‘13’ bike lane that follows its path through the city. She built bike paths all over the city seemingly overnight.
We decided to get bikes for the kids and went to Decathlon. The bike department was packed with people getting their bikes repaired and the new bike racks were bare, except for one bright blue and orange bike. It fit my son perfectly, so we were in luck.
Summer, sort of swimmingly
As soon as school was over, we left Paris for the most isolated beach we could get to, Denneville-Plage in Normandy. It has no WIFI, patchy cell service, and is wild and undeveloped. It’s cold, rains a lot and has very few visitors. We have been going there every summer since 2015. This year, however, there were large numbers of Parisians vacationing there. Many felt it was safer to spend summer in France rather than travel abroad. The beach had never been so crowded, but luckily it’s a very wide and long beach.
After Denneville, we drove to the Morbihan department of Brittany. We stayed outside of the small sailing town of La Trinité-Sur-Mer, in an airbnb on a small beach. Compared to Normandy, the area was packed with tourists and immediately we felt uneasy. The beaches were crowded, people were squeezed onto sidewalks and into restaurants. We felt we made a mistake. Then there was news that a Covid cluster had popped up next door on the ‘presqu’Île’ of Quiberon. A young person who worked at a SuperU, spread the virus to their colleagues and friends. The night we arrived the announcement came that beaches were closed after 9pm.
In the back of our minds, we knew we weren’t free from the virus no matter how much we pretended. As rentrée approached, France’s numbers were going back up, we started to make predictions as to when the next confinement would be.
Confinement Part Deux
This started on October 30th. Round two of confinement has been so much easier to deal with than Round one. More things have remained open, particularly the parks and playgrounds, which have made a huge difference. Like France’s first lockdown, it’s a continuing roll-out of ever-changing restrictions.
Thankfully, schools remain open with in-person classes since the start of the school year. The kids loved being lockdown at home so they were disappointed that school continued as normal. Well, normal as in, eating lunch with the same four students every day, in a classroom rather than the canteen, and wearing a mask all day long. My son started at a new school, we asked him if he even knew what his friends look like. It’s tiring for them. But for parents, school has become a luxury. Never before have teachers been so appreciated for retooling and adapting to online teaching, and also putting themselves at such high risk by working in the classroom to teach our children.
*SIGH* Are we done yet?!
It’s nearly December 15th, the day when we can roam freely again. The new regulations have been announced. While we are permitted to travel, there will be curfew in place at 8pm except for Christmas Eve. Sadly, restaurants and bars will remain closed until January 20th. But despite knowing we have nowhere to be but at home, with the hope of a vaccine arriving soon and the warmth that comes with Christmas traditions, we will end this crazy year in whatever festive way we can, the Christmas tree is already looking good!
Wishing you all a joyful holiday season, and a bright horizon just ahead in 2021!