In 1895, French writer Jules Renard wrote: “Add two letters to Paris and it’s paradise.” I no longer entirely agree with this after living here for almost nine years. In the last 125 years, this city has witnessed too much misery and too many crowds. But the beauty of this city makes up for all these impositions, particularly when spring has sprung. Every time. But for over a month now, we’ve been trapped indoors. We can no longer stroll along the beautiful boulevards, the glorious parks and squares, broaden our minds in what are probably the world’s best museums or simply be a voyeur and a gourmand in the city’s most romantic cafés and restaurants. How did Humphrey Bogart say farewell to Ingrid Bergmann in “Casablanca”? “We’ll always have Paris”.
But Paris has shut down. Everything that makes life worth living in this city is now forbidden. People with average incomes who are considered non-essential workers and don’t have a weekend house in the country are stuck in these overpriced “rabbit hutches” of apartments, and have no idea how much longer they’ll be able to afford their rents. And if you really luck out, you get to share these two tiny rooms with kids! Whoever wants to go out has to print out a new official form every time – the only things that are allowed are food shopping, going to work or going to the doctor’s or pharmacy. Recently, they passed temporary pandemic legislation that only allows you to go jogging before 10 am or after 7 pm for no longer than an hour and no further than a kilometre from your home. You have to log the time, and don’t you dare forget your ID! The first warning is 135 euros.
What’s even crueller is that at the same time as this confinement spring is blossoming more than ever. For the first time in nine years, I can smell the blossoms on the trees and bushes, and the air is suddenly so clean! I am seeing my city in a brand-new light. My green and spacious backyard is turning into a miniature Paris where the spirit of French resistance and lifestyle is breaking new ground. This very special form of conviviality, lightly effervescent like champagne, that only the French master this well.
Little by little, I am getting to know my neighbours whom I used to only greet briefly in the lift. During the day, you meet the sporty ones. Right from the start, many gyms in Paris began offering live courses on Instagram, and on the walls around the flower beds I see the flickering of smartphones as people are hopping, dancing and doing push-ups in front of them. In the afternoons, we hang out there while socially distancing two metres apart. We swap recipes and give tips about which supermarket or greengrocer currently has the best offers. And various people bring different drinks as aperitifs. Particularly women have one thing on their minds lately: How can they hold out another month without a trip to the hairdresser? Where can they get hold of root touch-up sprays when all the shops are closed? Can you ask a hairdresser to come to your house? We talk about everything and nothing, but just one rule seems to predominate: Always stay optimistic, don’t burden your friend or neighbour with negative thoughts! Now it’s 8 pm, my neighbour from entrance E on the 5th floor is – as always – hanging the French flag out of his window. He’s turning up his stereo, and playing good mood hits such as “We are family”, “I’m still standing” and “Celebration”.
And everyone is applauding for the people who are fighting day and night in the hospitals for those sick with the virus. With tears in their eyes and smiles on their lips. Because hopefully, some day soon, when the stay at home order is lifted, we will still have Paris.
© Silke Bender