PARIS - Like many Parisians who could, I fled the capital on Day One of the coronavirus lockdown. Green space, even a garden, sounded a whole lot better than being stuck in a small apartment for weeks and maybe more.
As people packed train stations, desperate to join family in the countryside, I headed out by bike to the Paris suburb of Neuilly Plaisance. My boyfriend and cats awaited. So did a garden sprouting spring flowers.
I crossed a deserted capital. Gone were the tourists, the aggressive motorbikes, the insouciant teens on skateboards, the families toting tots and baguettes — the cocktail of daily life here.
Homeless people wandered empty sidewalks. A few joggers coasted down carless streets — although tougher government guidelines issued since are further limiting our movements to just a few blocks.
I biked through the Bois de Vincennes where, in normal times, strollers and prostitutes peacefully coexist. Both were absent. Then I pedaled along the Marne River, teeming with birds clearly enjoying the absence of humans.
The government has issued strict coronavirus rules. No going out without an authorization that fits a few narrow criteria: to buy essentials like medication or food; to go to a doctor; to take a brief stroll or run. Violators risk a hefty, $140-plus fine.
As a journalist, I am lucky. I can go out for reporting, which is considered a “vital” activity. Even so, most days are spent at home.
Cruelly, the weather under lockdown has been spectacular. After weeks of rain, sunny day has followed sunny day.
And this being France, with a healthy history of flouting authority, people quickly learned to stretch the new restrictions. Police have already handed out thousands of fines.
Still, many French are following orders, sobered by President Emmanuel Macron’s warning of this invisible, deadly enemy. They wait in snaking lines in front of supermarkets and still-open boulangeries — the daily baguette considered as vital as water.
They stay home, trying to juggle tending to out-of-school kids with working remotely. They remain hooked to the news, with the ever-growing coronavirus cases and deaths reported.
We are lucky; we are together, still healthy, with no extra demands beyond a pair of hungry cats. We have a pile of books to read. My boyfriend, a sports doctor, has decided to use his shortened work days to learn electric guitar. Friends and family are setting up Skype and Zoom sessions to stay in touch.
“Relearn what is essential,” Macron urged the nation as he announced the lockdown March 16, advising French to use their time in confinement to tighten bonds and explore new subjects.
Maybe we will emerge a kinder, wiser nation — although this is also a nation of skeptics.
Still, at 8 p.m. precisely, French are increasingly throwing open their windows to applaud the country’s overstretched health workers.
Now there are "balcony concerts." Last night, we, too, cracked open a window. And down the silent suburban street came the sound of clapping.