The weather had been almost uncharacteristically beautiful for the past two months in Paris. Deep blue, cloudless skies and sun-splashed afternoons reminded us that spring had arrived, even if we couldn’t participate. The parts of daily life that we ex-pats romanticize the most — the full terraces at lunch and the religious evening apéros — were unavailable. Parks weren’t dotted with blankets, parents sprawled out with their wine bottles while children hugged and tumbled, their limbs intertwining and disappearing, in a nearby jungle gym. This year, I watched the season change from the inside out; observing from our living room as the trees became heavy with leaves and the sun’s shadows lingered a little longer each evening.
On Monday, May 11, the first day of deconfinement, the sky was moody and the wind blew relentlessly, like a bad omen in a Spaghetti Western — that, or just appropriately gloomy weather to match the anticlimactic mood of newfound freedom while a pandemic still had its teeth in the country. I watched the rainfall and the leaves flutter outside my window. Ça y est, I thought, a phrase I’ve heard my French sister-in-law say to soothe her toddler son when he cries. It sounds like “sah-yay,” and means “that’s it.” We’re ok, you’re ok. Ça y est.
For so long we’ve been writing or Instagram-ing about the things we’ve missed: the camaraderie of dinner parties; the warmth of a friend’s hug; just the possibility of spending a Sunday afternoon wandering aimlessly, as far away from home as whims might lead. The haircuts, the root cover-ups, the bikini waxes, and the beard trims. The return to school or the return to work. The new shoes that our daughter Mimi needs. This is the release we’ve all been waiting for.
While cognizant of the privilege of not having to work on the front lines, complying with confinement was challenging at the outset, even if you were too ashamed to call it burdensome. But somewhere along the way, we found comfort in the new norms. On the foundation of the social and work lives that were torn down by Covid-19, we rebuilt new rituals that enabled us to weather the storm.
In Paris, I stopped noticing the two-tone ambulance song, an ever-present backdrop, day and night; the moment I touched the elevator button or lifted my daughter’s stroller over the entrance to our building, hand sanitizer sprang from its holster like a cowboy reflex. Without thinking, I’d pull up the attestation on my phone, a digital permission slip to venture outdoors. The fields would be pre-filled from the previous walk, except “place of birth” always seemed to go blank. I’d type “New York,” and click “generate” to download the form.
I’d push Mimi’s stroller up a gentle hill and listen to a succession of podcasts — voices that allowed me to drift out of the present for an hour at a time. I’d swerve the stroller to catch patches of sunshine, and if I reached a narrow stretch and a passerby, I’d wait for them to pass or smile with my eyes over the edges of a face mask if they granted the passage to me.
Rue des Martyrs, a usually bustling market street near our apartment and my regular stomping ground had become still. People drifted into the few open shops like tumbleweeds in a Haussmannien desert. The police who were regularly posted there had stopped me twice and wanting to avoid another bumbling explanation, I sought unfamiliar routes.
Boulevard Magenta, an artery through the 10th arrondissement, became my favorite path during the pandemic. Usually crowded by pedestrians and loitering groups, it had been near empty for weeks. I’d walk slowly under the canopy of trees and enjoy the wide sidewalk to myself. At one point, there’s a cluster of wedding and special event shops, alternating between men’s and women’s apparel. One window full of paisley and plaid three-piece suits is followed by thin-limbed mannequins sporting taffeta and polyester gowns. I’d try to imagine which I might be able to pull off and silently agree to return one day, whenever I had a formal event again; whenever the world has formal events again.
Per government mandate, our walks were limited to 60 minutes. One hour at a time, I followed all of the side streets of the 9th arrondissement. I took every turn I’d wondered about in the past. I finally discovered how the disparate parts of our neighborhood connect, which conceptually, had been challenging, having come-of-age on the intuitive grid of Manhattan. I became so familiar with the one-kilometer circle around our apartment that it felt like an extension of our home.
In the bubble, I chose my own risks and learned how to feel safe. I resisted the urge to order takeout, in part because I couldn’t handle the guilt of thinking I might be putting a delivery guy at risk. But I didn’t always disinfect my groceries. I washed my hands so regularly that eczema spread between my fingers. But I didn’t always wear a face mask. Inside my world, I calculated my own risks and didn’t worry about how everyone else managed theirs. When confinement ended, all of that would change.
One night, about seven weeks into confinement, after Mimi had gone to sleep, my husband Guillaume and I used an old bottle of tequila to make icy margaritas. I had just done our weekly grocery shopping, so the fridge was full with possibilities — there were good snacks, like cheese and salt & vinegar potato chips. I had frozen chicken thighs for roasting and burgers for grilling on the stovetop. But all we craved, in our drunken excitement, was something different; something that wasn’t made by our own hand. That’s it, we said, we’re ordering takeout. Guilt money to ease our consciences, we tipped the delivery biker handsomely. Guillaume opened each paper bag and removed the plastic lids, while I carefully transported each piece of fish covered rice to a separate plate. As always, he ordered way too many beef with melted cheese brochettes, a specialty that is, I think, unique to Japanese restaurants in France.
A pile of packaging next to the garbage, we sat in front of our colorful spread. With a series streaming on my laptop, we ate, just the two us, as we had for dozens of nights. We doused the delicate sushi in too much soy sauce, compensating for all of the flavors we thought we were missing.
I woke up hungover, my mouth puckered dry from the sodium and the tequila. None of it was as satisfying as I had hoped. I realized I had lost sight of what a special dinner does make. We are social animals. We are hungry for food, but the company of others is what nourishes.
On the first day of déconfinement, the wind rattled throughout the day, but by late afternoon, the sun poked through the clouds. Parisians flooded the streets. People, particularly the youth, or les jeunes, draped alongside the Canal Saint-Martin in packs, passing open bottles around circles and toasting to more missed apéros than anyone cared to remember. By evening, police arrived with megaphones, ordering the crowds to break up and people to return to their homes. The next morning, the government announced a mandate against drinking along the canal or the Seine. Ça y est.
We decided that our first social gathering would be a dinner with our couple friends, Lorette and Lucas, who had had their first baby, James, during confinement. Just twelve months ago, our Mimi was born at the Hospital Franco-Brittanique in the quiet Levallois neighborhood just outside the Périphérique — the highway that delineates the outer circle of Paris. Near the hospital entrance stood a glass case with portraits of the British royal family. I glanced at their poised faces every time I went for an appointment. Meghan Markel, who was expecting her baby, too, smiled back at me, legs crossed elegantly at the ankles.
When I went into labor, Mimi resisted leaving the comfort of her womb. “The doctors had to unzip the baby out of me,” as Jill Lepore once wrote. I came out of surgery to find my shirtless husband with the baby strapped to his chest — her first peau a peau. Guillaume slept four nights at the hospital with me, sprawled on a reclining chair until one of the midwives snuck us a creaky cot. On the fifth day, we were discharged.
One year later, the world had changed. Brexit shook Europe. Harry and Meghan had absconded to a mansion in Los Angeles. The Élysée prohibited partners from staying with women after their babies were born.
My heart was heavy with how difficult it must have been for Lorette and Lucas. I had so many questions I wanted to ask them in person, but mainly: how are you?
I decided to make something timelessly delicious; a dish that would fill the apartment with the aroma that said “welcome,” but wouldn’t leave us frazzled or tied to the kitchen. An introvert by nature, the last couple of months had left me trapped inside my head more than ever. When our friends came over, I wanted to be present.
I visited my preferred old-world boucherie on Rue des Martyrs. Author Elaine Sciolino, who wrote a book on the subject, said that she could never be sad on this dynamic thoroughfare. I could be sad there, and often was, especially after just moving to Paris, being pregnant and far from anyone who really knew me (besides my husband). But anytime I strolled wide-eyed into this particular shop and the guy behind the counter, with the white coat and the graying hair, asked “What do you desire today?” with a friendly wink — the same wink he flashed to every customer — I couldn’t help cheering up, feeling connected, albeit briefly, to another human being.
Pulling down my face mask, I asked the butcher for a poulet jaune, or yellow chicken, which is corn-fed and so the skin takes on a golden hew. It’s slightly more expensive but has decadently rich skin and tender meat. Considering all of the missed takeout dinners, I figured we had earned it. Le boucher came around the counter and pulled down his mask to make a goofy face at Mimi. She’s gotten bigger, he told me. Yes, I smiled, and he went to prepare the chicken. A few doors down, at the fromagerie, Guillaume loaded his canvas bag with way too much cheese.
Using Alice Waters’ technique of 20 minutes up, 20 minutes down, 20 minutes up, I roasted the generously salted chicken on a bed of peeled new potatoes, with whole, peel-on cloves of garlic and the cavity stuffed with thyme and sage from our terrace.
A lot of firsts had happened during quarantine. They had their first baby. Mimi turned one. She learned to stand up on her wobbly sausage legs. She even took her first bébé steps.
All of these stories were more satisfying in the flesh, as we shared them over a simple dinner of chicken and potatoes. Lorette had her first sip of wine in over 9 months. I told my first bad joke in two months, and when the table “huh huh’d” uncomfortably, I cringed at the awkwardness. Gotta take the good with the bad, I reminded myself later that evening.
It was a joy to witness our friends in their nascent, flustered stage of parenthood, worrying about James’ every little wail and gushing over any hint of a smile. Meanwhile, our Mimi, who had become a toddler in the blink of an eye, used her six nubby teeth to gnaw through the salty potatoes.
At a certain point, James started crying. I washed my hands and took him in my arms. Giving the bise, the French double kiss, or hugging each other goodbye was out of the question. But at least I could offer the new parents a rest, and free their hands to finish their last bites of chicken.
Can the city finally start to heal? Will we be sent back into confinement? Who’s to say what the coming weeks will bring. But at that moment, after far too long, being together was all we needed. Ça y est, I told baby James, Ça y est.