Pandemic Journal

PARIS, FRANCE—Today was the first day of the lockdown in Paris, or as the French call it, le confinement. From my window, as I write this, I can see a completely empty rue de Fleurus (where almost a century ago, Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas received so many artists and writers). There are no pedestrians. All shop windows are dark, all restaurants and cafés now closed, their tables and chairs neatly stacked inside.

From today on, and until further notice, anyone outside must carry with them an official document called Attestation de Déplacement Dérogatoire, duly filled out and signed, asserting the explicit reason for any excursion. Only five possibilities: movement between home and place of work; movement to buy things of première nécessité (such as food) in authorized establishments; movement due to medical reason; movement due to a pressing family situation, assistance to vulnerable persons, or childcare; and movement linked to limited individual physical activity, and the needs of pets.

One must not, we were warned, go outside for any other reason, nor leave the house without this document. In other words, a safe conduct, like in a war zone.

The lockdown was to start at noon, and so, with a few minutes to spare, I decided to hurry out to the boulangerie across the street, one last time.

The glass door was now kept open. There were big blue crosses on the floor—made with duct tape—leading up to the counter. I walked in and stepped on my blue cross and thought that the bakery itself was a kind of theater stage, and we clients, well-distanced from each other, were the actors hitting our marks. I slowly made my way up to the counter, in front of which they’d placed a long series of tables, to keep the gloved and masked employees at a safe distance from us.

I ordered a baguette and a pain au chocolat for my son and said to the lady that I’d miss coming there every morning for the duration of the lockdown. She scoffed loudly and said that of course they would remain open throughout, and at regular hours. More than baffled, she seemed insulted. And so I apologized and just handed her some coins.

As I was walking out, taking care not to accidentally touch anybody still standing on their blue cross, I realized that all else in Paris could fail, all else could collapse and close, all pharmacies could run out of hand-sanitizers and masks and even medicines—but there would always be a baker making bread at four in the morning, and there would still be Parisians walking around with a fresh baguette tucked under their arm, the end chewed off, a safe conduct in their pocket.

This entry was originally written for the New York Review of Books‘s “Pandemic Journal” series documenting the COVID-19 outbreak with regular updates from around the world.

Eduardo Halfon


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