I spent the three months of the first lockdown with my family in the Oxfordshire countryside, so had no experience of lockdown in Paris. I felt rather like that generation of young men born just too late to fight in the First World War who spent the 1930s feeling less than heroic. So when Lockdown Two was announced I decided to stay put and see if I could survive alone in my walk-up studio on the fifth floor on the Ile St Louis.
The veterans of the first lockdown in Paris all agree that this second version is nothing like the first. The schools are open, some people are still going to work and the streets are not sad and deserted. Most important for me, walking along the quays of the Seine has not been banned, as it was before. The biggest challenge was to get used to filling in the permission form every time I wanted to leave the house. But now I have it down to a fine art. I fill in the form online and save a screenshot to my phone. I tick the box saying I am buying essential supplies (usually bread) and always carry a shopping bag. The limit of one km from home for a maximum of an hour only applies if you tick the exercise box. Aha!
All museums, cinemas, restaurants and cafés are closed and all non-essential shops. My dance class has been suspended and my local swimming pool is closed. But I am carrying on with my gymnastique douce (gentle exercise) and sophrologie (relaxation through breathing and meditation) classes on Zoom, as well as with my university class in literary theory. The Barthes-influenced reading list for this class, called ‘Penser l’objet’, is nearly killing me, but lockdown has already had some good effects. It’s easier for me to speak up in French when I can see everyone’s face, and that is better on Zoom than in the classroom, where French students have a tendency to sit in rows. I have been forced to read extracts from Proust and have overcome a lifelong reluctance to even open A la recherche du temps perdu. And on being invited to write and read out a Proustian description of an object, set as optional homework, I rediscovered parts of my brain that I haven’t used since ‘A’ level. Unlike the literary theory, that exercise took no time at all and it was fun. Now that I and the class know that I can write creatively in French, even though I speak it with an English accent, I feel much less like a foreigner.
As for my beginners’ class in modern Greek, I have never met the other students or the teacher. We correspond by email and are sent audio clips. My homework is returned promptly every week with detailed encouraging comments. I haven’t had this level of teacher attention since leaving university and I am thriving on having a simple but challenging set task to accomplish every week, translating from French to Greek.
But by far the best immediate result of lockdown has been that I go for at least an hour’s walk along the Seine every day. Pre-confinement, I sometimes spent the entire day in my studio working but I haven’t done this once since lockdown started and think I will never return to my bad old ways. I am appreciating the play of light over the river in a way I never did before, when I would give the sky a passing glance on my way home. Now I notice how the clouds and the light change with each passing moment, especially at sunset, in a way which seems to be in harmony with the rhythm of my walking and the other strollers I pass en route.
It was on one of these walks along the river that I saw a young man skipping. He gave me a sheepish smile and I smiled back. But when I saw another young man skipping on a different walk I began to think that there might be something in it and bought myself a child’s skipping rope. It’s strenuous exercise and I have to limit it because my arthritic feet complain if I do too much. I also get out of breath in a way I never did as a child. But unlike other strenuous exercise I have tried that is supposed to be good for you I find it is such a pleasure that I am continuing to do it.
I was a little concerned that I would wilt from the lack of live human contact. Then I discovered a new oyster bar round the corner from where I live that does takeaway. I’ve taken to inviting a friend or a neighbour round every Friday to come and share a candle-lit shellfish supper in my studio, with home-made aioli for the whelks and prawns and a bottle of Muscadet. It’s cheap and it’s fun. It’s technically illegal as we are not supposed to be mixing but I feel that it is a calculated risk and people can always say no. So far no one has.
I’m also continuing my Sunday walks during lockdown with a friend who feels the same as me about the need to get out for a proper walk at least once a week. We wear masks and keep our distance and so far no one has stopped us. Both of us are appreciating details we have never noticed before. Here is a view from the Promenade Plantée, a disused overhead railway line near the Bastille. It’s a walk I have done before but never noticed this astonishing statue
And this is the sky last week where we parted at Bastille, after a walk that began in wind and rain and ended in yet another glorious sunset
The other day I rushed out to the post office at Hotel de Ville and it was only when I saw a group of gendarmes that I realised I had forgotten to fill in the permission form on my phone, for the first time. Then to my horror I saw that I had left the phone at home. One of them noticed the dismay on my face, so I thought I had better explain. Hearing my accent he switched to (quite good) English. Humbly I offered to go home and get the form, adding that it was up five flights of stairs. On hearing that, he looked even more sympathetic and let me off. I thanked him profusely, complimented him on his English and beat a hasty retreat. The fine is 135€ so I felt rather relieved.
And cheered to be spending my second experience of lockdown in Paris.