Escape From Confinement – Frenchly
I returned to Paris in September 2019. I had lived in Paris for long periods before, in different places, and this time I finally seemed to find the right location. I rented an apartment with its small private courtyard on rue des Carmes in the Latin Quarter. It was close to the Jardin du Luxembourg, a 5-minute walk from the Seine, and a short walk from Place Maubert, where, three times a week, an open-air market offered every possible variation of olives, artisan cheeses, of organic seasonal vegetables that are still simmering. Seafood; once a month there was a bric-a-brac antique market. I got a library card for the vast reading room, an iron structure the size of a 19and railway terminus of the century, in the Holy Library–Geneviève, the impressive library of the Sorbonne on the Place du Pantheon. I walked for miles in the Luxembourg Gardens every day and spent about an hour every afternoon across the street at my favorite cafe for decades, Le Rostand, where I sat and I had dreamed and written parts of several books for many years. In short, I was close to everything; the best of Paris was on my doorstep.
Then, at noon on March 17, 2020, six months after my arrival, France entered its first national Covid lockdown—confinement. All of the above – everything you go to Paris for – is closed.
Strict rules were applied. You could only leave the house for essential errands: food, pharmacies, to see a doctor, and for one brief period of daily exercise. Travel beyond one kilometer from your place of residence was only authorized for exceptional reasons. You had to print and take with you, for each outing, a certificate: a printed document downloaded (later a pdf on your phone) indicating your name, address, age, time and reason for departure. Bands of masked gendarmes pumped up, the cops, roamed the streets to check newspapers, question the validity of excursions, and issue fines for violations.
I was particularly distressed by the closing of my beloved Jardin Luxembourg. I relied on this jewel of public greenery for the balance of my psyche. Since I sit indoors most of the day writing, I need to get outside regularly and often. My morning 3 mile circuits inside the gardens were a daily practice – a meditation. I went back several times a day to sit and think, to watch the endless procession of people, sometimes to write or read on a chair under a magnificent chestnut tree. To me, the Luke, as the natives call it, is an essential characteristic of Paris. Hemingway, of course, came here often, lived in many apartments nearby; Gertrude Stein lived and hosted her famous salon a few hundred meters away, rue de Fleurus. American Sylvia Beach has opened her iconic Shakespeare and Company bookstore just a stone’s throw from rue de l’Odéon. And countless American writers lived as I lived now on the streets around the Luxembourg Garden and also came here daily. American literary history was made in this small piece. All of this underscored my sense of belonging and identity as an American writer in Paris. To be suddenly kicked out of the garden was a cruel irony.
My little apartment was lovely and at first I tried to embrace it as much as possible while reading travel around my room, by the French aristocrat Xavier de Maistre who, in 1790, while serving in the Piedmontese army, was punished for dueling and condemned to forty-two days of house arrest. “Leaving north from my armchair, you discover my bed, which sits at the back of the room and creates a most pleasant perspective…” A fun read but I quickly realized that I was missing it micro wanderlust.
Exceptions to the one-mile rule were support or necessity runs: providing assistance or shopping for people with disabilities and in need of assistance. A friend of mine, a woman who had just lost her husband, had a morbid fear of shopping, despite an abundant layering of masks. So partly as an excuse to hang out, I happily shopped for her multiple times a week for over two months, going far for her exacting demands available only from her. herbalists and organic vendors – you learn a lot about someone when shopping for their daily consumption (Three lawyers per day? And the only an acceptable coffee is ground by a merchant in a distant district?). His list, as esoteric as it seems, emboldens me to seek further my own necessities. Under these pretexts, I walked several kilometers through Paris, a stroller— “a literary type of 19th century France, essential to any image of the streets of Paris… the man of leisure, the idler, the urban explorer, the connoisseur of the street”, says Wikipedia. Yes it’s me.
My illicit excursions (“Your papers please”) reminded me of the French experience of life under German occupation during World War II. However, the cops made Nazis ineffective and I was able to squeeze a thrill of pleasure from my shopping trips. But I needed more. I needed France.
Finally, armed with certificates to help friends in difficulty or to get a rare medicine, I started to take trains (public transport continued to operate) to beautiful old provincial towns, 10 and 20 kilometers from Paris, bordering the Seine.
Leaving the stations, I generally headed for the river and, guided by the walks well described in the Hiking Guide N°2, The Seine on foot, walked 10-15 kilometers to another station or RER station that would take me back to town. I wore my beret as a disguise (although French men have largely stopped wearing them, and that probably marked me more easily as an American tourist), walked deliberately as if concentrating on a vital errand, and hoped that I mingled invisibly among the natives shopping or taking the air within a mile of home.
These outlying towns and riverside paths—former barge towpaths, now dedicated, well-maintained walking paths along the river—were sparsely traveled. My first outing, a short exploratory RER ride, took me to Chatou and Island of the Impressionists, where 19and day-trippers of the century came from the city to row boats and have a Sunday lunch at Maison Fournaise, the boathouse cafe and site of Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s famous painting Boating Party lunch. It was still there but, like everything else, it was closed. I was completely alone and it was raining. I lifted my phone to photograph a small billboard of the painting erected where Renoir made his sketches. I had brought my own lunch, a baguette filled with companion dough and a bottle of Perrier, which I ate and drank standing under the dripping eaves of the once cheery, sunny boathouse.
A few weeks later, I returned to Chatou to continue downstream along the Path of the Painters, a path lined with smaller weatherproof billboards depicting paintings by Pissarro, Marquet and Daubigny, showing their riverscapes from the positions they had sketched or painted in the open air their famous paintings. Further on, I passed through Conflans Ste-Honorine, the confluence of the Oise and the Seine.
It was and remains a center of river navigation, the shore lined with barges. But the banks on both sides of the town are lined with a Proustian vision: the splendid, renovated weekend villas of the 19th century bourgeoisie.
Another clandestine journey took me south, where the Seine tastes less commercial, to the small village of Cesson. I walked the GR2 path through farmland until I reached the river in the charming little town of Seine-Port where on Sunday fleas, or flea market, was apparently still in full swing, albeit masked. From there the path rose through the woods above the Seine, crossed the river at the turbulent lock (lock) from Plessis-Chênet where I took the RER to return to Gare d’Austerlitz. And then I walked the kilometer allotted to me to return home.
I did a lot of these little getaways, on weekends and weekdays, whenever the mood struck me. Heading into the French countryside, especially by fast train, is a great joy at any time, and I discovered beautiful, unspoilt, and easily accessible pockets of an older, less tourist-infested France than I would have expected. perhaps never found or explored if the more obvious delights were available.
Fortunately, I was never arrested and I was asked to produce my papers on these distant outings. I was knowingly breaking the law, which the French are good at observing. The fines for such blatant disobedience would have been several hundred euros. Some of my friends were quite disapproving when I raved about my disregard for the social contract. But maybe it was my overt American DNA. We are the people who go to the territory when someone tries to civilize us. And during confinement, for me it was like survival.
Peter Nichols is the author of 6 fiction and non-fiction books, including bestsellers, The rocks and A crazy trip. He lives in Maine.