As the curse goes, “May you live in interesting times.” We are indeed in interesting times. France started another lockdown on Oct. 30. We aren’t supposed to go out except for essentials–work, exercise, appointments, groceries. Basically it means life goes on except for fun. This was brilliantly captured in a German public service announcement (scroll to the one with subtitles–you shouldn’t miss “lazy as racoons”!). The main hiccup is that we have to fill out a form, un attestation, swearing on our honor that we’re really going to work/the doctor/the supermarket/on a run or risk a €135 fine.
Life is quieter, but not as silent as this spring. People are in the streets. Many shops have found excuses to open. Others cannot. A restaurateur stands in his doorway, hoping to entice someone to order takeout. At another restaurant, wine barrels are set out front in principle for people waiting for takeout but in reality for a bunch of middle-age guys flouting the rules as they nurse glasses of wine in a pathetic display of toxic masculinity.
A number of places have closed for good. Already the town center was suffering from businesses being lured to shopping centers on the periphery. In France, the anchors of these galeries–malls–are supermarkets, not department stores, and so they continue to draw traffic no matter what. Fashions may come and go but most people still eat three times a day (and are lucky to do it). The galeries are ugly and devoid of soul or character. But they have free parking.
The municipal workers are stringing lights and putting up the little faux-log cabins of the Christmas market. I haven’t been by lately to see whether the actual Christmas market will take place, or whether the ice rink will go in around the statue of Neptune in the central square. Even though they are outdoors, they draw crowds–especially the stands selling mulled wine and oysters. I wonder about the people who invest in these stands and who hope to make a year’s wages, albeit paltry wages, in the space of a month.
I also wonder about the future budgets for things like Christmas lights or even upkeep of the parks and their flowers. The city recently repaved a stretch of parking on what used to be the walls of the Bastide, to give more space to the platane trees and smooth where their roots had deformed the tarmac so much that it would be foolish to drive one’s car over it. I think the aid to shops and workers is good and necessary but I do worry about how we will dig ourselves out of the budgetary hole later.
In some catch-up calls recently, a theme appeared, which sounded very “Handmaid’s Tale” to me: that it’s good to get rid of bars and restaurants and shops and salons and gyms because they are places where people show off. Performers, too: worthless, non-essential. You won’t see me cry for the demise of Applebee’s or the Olive Garden, but I don’t think of most restaurants as being places for showing off. Even before the pandemic, we rarely went out, but it wasn’t by choice. The restaurant meals were to celebrate, and to do it with something special that we wouldn’t be able to pull off at home. To each his own, of course, but I don’t see anything bad about enjoying fancy food or ethnic dishes occasionally.
I also don’t agree that somebody who spent time and money training to be a hairdresser or chef or yoga instructor should now just walk away from that, not to mention any other investment in a shop or restaurant or salon, and take a job in an Amazon warehouse because their chosen careers were in service of others’ egos. (Also, Jeff Bezos is worth about $200 billion. If he paid each of his million-or-so employees $10,000 more, it would cost him $10 billion, which is a fortune but not for him. He would still be the richest guy in the world, and maybe some of his employees wouldn’t have to sleep in their cars. But then, one just never has enough zeros in one’s net worth, does one? I was talking to a business owner in the U.S. who told me she was sick of paying taxes, that she should keep what she earns. She saw no irony that she inherited the business from her father, nor that she should pay her employees a living wage–she thought working two or three jobs “builds character.” But only in other people.)
I wonder what life on the other side of the pandemic will look like. Will the vaccines work? Will immunity be long lasting or short-lived (and I know someone fighting COVID for the second time)? Will life eventually return to normal? Or will there be scars? Will those fade over time or become weak points that get inflamed over and over? Will we put away our masks, perhaps getting them out for flu season, or will baring one’s face be as shocking as baring one’s bottom?