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3:AM in Lockdown 57: Gerard Feehily

Parisians Are So French
By Gerard Feehily.


In the first days of the confinement of Paris, there was paper everywhere. Torn documents, flyers, scraps of catalogues and magazines scuttled along the footpaths in the mid March winds.

And then there were crows. Oily black, with that bouncing confident lope to them. I saw them on rooftops, they were perched on bins. They hopped onto car bonnets, stood at the doors of cafés. Delighted with themselves, black triumph. 

They’re usually rare in Paris, but overnight they had invested the city, running the pigeons and sparrows off their patches. They’d become kings of the avian world, bounding all heavy winged along the footpaths with scraps of paper in their beaks.

In the hours leading to the lockdown some six hundred thousand Parisians abandoned the capital. That’s about a quarter of the population. They left for parental farmhouses, for coastal villas, to mountain refuges, to sit out the plague. 

Back in Paris it felt as if the government had collapsed, zero traffic, army patrols, homeless men at the junctions, and then all this paper rolling along in the wind, in quivering heaps. 

I felt it was as though a dictator had fled, and in his hurry had emptied the incriminating documents half shredded into the streets.

The motorways out of the city were clogged right up to that cut off hour of midday, Tuesday March 17th, a Saint Patrick’s day of particularly ill omen, and then everything went quiet. In unmarked squad cars the police rolled up and down the river and the main boulevards. No trains ran. No planes lifted off from Orly and Charles de Gaulle airports. It seemed like the crows, scuffling along the peaked lead roofs, were watching over this, plague wardens. 

Paris had fallen. 

And as for us left behind, who could no longer move beyond a radius of one kilometre around our homes, there was the hunkering down to be done, the purchase of masks, the printing out of documents authorising us to leave our homes for food, called AFFIDAVITS OF MOVEMENT BY SPECIAL DISPENSATION. In the evening, at eight, we applauded from our windows the doctors and nurses of the French health system, with those few neighbours that had stayed behind in our quarter. Then on TV, we took in the information, of the death tolls galloping in Italy and Spain. 

And it felt like it was all getting very close.  And that perhaps we were just applauding ourselves. 

Panic is like an external force. If you catch it in someone’s eye, if you hear it, then it gets you too. It comes creeping upwards, water in the cabin of a sinking ship. A man coughs in the supermarket aisle, a woman sneezes, someone is standing far too close to you in the queue, an ambulance races past. The triggers are everywhere. And the question becomes, do I run?

Panic comes in waves. It isn’t quite the same thing as fear, you can walk fear off. And if anything it was good to walk, even if there was a queasiness in the air, the sense that things could unravel faster than can be grasped. I would circle the streets of the Marais, from the district of Saint Paul near the river and north to the quarter of Temple. Or rather I’d describe rectangles. The Marais is a grid, a somewhat rickety one, of medieval era lanes and alleys, lined now with dishevelled, sometimes unsteady looking 18th century townhouses, five stories high. 

Many of the streets are no more than seven or eight paces wide, some not much more than the breadth of a van. I walked through these canyons of sandstone, day in, day out, sticking to the middle of the road, the road car free. It became almost a matter of principle for me to avoid walking into a police check. My papers were in order. I had my affidavit completed, signed and dated, but a police check is called a contrôle in French. But I didn’t want to be controlled. At the first glimpse of a uniform, I would slip into the nearest side lane, heart thumping.

This was in the days after the Vernal equinox. Surely spring was coming. Easter was imminent. And the sun did come out. No cars, no delivery vans, no lorries, just the occasional grunting, sweating jogger to disturb us in the pale silver Parisian light. Into the silence, the bells of the city’s churches rang. 

When there are no more distractions, passersby, cars, then buildings as if by magic become vivid, as fresh as their architects intended. The creaky villas of the Marais seemed extraordinarily present, like they were breathing. There was an Adam Ant song that went : Young Parisians are so French. And that’s how the buildings of Paris came out, in truisms. Calmly proportioned off-grey townhouses, black wrought iron balconies, slatted white shutters, that in summer you draw in, leaving the windows open, giving shade, the breeze blowing through the slats. So French.

And in the stillness of the afternoon there appeared these spectral figures, men from Eastern Europe, Asia, eating out of tin cans, squatting by the semi ruin of Notre Dame, that itself towered over the quiet green river. One day I met a man, lugging a dustbin along the road, who said, If Jesus is the son of God, who are you the son of? A mocking, probing question quite worthy of Jesus himself, I thought. In front of the town hall stood another in a motorcycle helmet, holding a saucepan. He was talking with the greatest dignity about electromagnetic waves. A Russian with a face like the last Tsar sat at the entrance of a tent by the post office. Would you kindly lend some money, he said. These were the souls you meet in the underworld.

One morning I was on the rue de Rivoli. No cars. On the corner of BHV, the department store, traffic lights slipped uselessly from amber to red, then green. You could hear their mechanisms click. From where I stood, looking east, a relay of forlorn lights clicked red to green, while their counterparts in the streets perpendicular to them clicked politely the other way. 

Rivoli is a long and broad avenue, it’s the Oxford Street of Paris. And like Oxford Street, it’s rather elegant, rather grand, but its commercial vocation, of mainly middle range, ready to wear clothes stores, distracts from this.

But not now. It had become itself, its 19th century gravitas restored. I walked down the middle of it, enjoying temporary ownership.

To the east stood the July Column, fifty metres tall. And perched on the top, a statue, the Spirit of Liberty, nicknamed the Angel, in shining bronze, godlike, holding in one hand the broken chains of tyranny, in the other the flame of freedom. 

The July column stands on the site of what was once the world’s most notorious jail, the Bastille, whose fall we celebrate every year, on July 14th. But it doesn’t quite commemorate the events of 1798. It was erected in memory of another revolution, the one of 1830. There have been quite a few of them, an entire relay. Like traffic lights. 1848, then the Commune of 1870. And then two world wars. Not forgetting May 1968. 

Week in week out, we watch the TV, waiting for news from the president, as to when this will end, and how. It’s been an altogether strange few years here, the terror attacks, the massacre at the Bataclan, the yellow vests rioting on the Champs Elysées, the general strikes only a few weeks ago, when firemen battled with policemen, when doctors and nurses, lawyers and judges, left their gowns heaped in the streets. Institutions paralysed, and at war. And now this. History is galloping on. And the trees on the rue de Rivoli were all of a sudden, devastatingly, in leaf, and I hadn’t really noticed that.

You can listen to Gerry reading this text that was written specifically for a Galley Beggar Press podcast. There’s also an excellent introduction by the ever brilliant Sam Jordison. Listen to it here.


First posted: Friday, May 8th, 2020.

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