balcony, equality, fraternity

In France, we’ve been observing le confinement for over five weeks. The first few days felt pre-apocalyptic in their uncertainty, with raided stores and raging rumors. We added a few bags of potatoes and the ubiquitous dried beans to our already well-stocked pantry. Uneasy, we wondered if we needed more–crates of bottled water, a tank full of gas. 

The whiff of survivalism seems silly now. Those of us who stay home (a lot of us, as half of France’s private sector workers are now unemployed and others are working from home) have by now found a new normal. Society still functions–quietly. While we can leave our houses–on brief outings that are supposed to be limited to grocery-getting, one hour of modest exercise, and the like–the streets are often still. From my limited perspective in one neighborhood of Lyon, people seem to be settling in at home instead of testing the new restrictions.

I walk, like I always do, but now I don’t leave the house until I’ve completed an online attestation that protects me from being fined should I cross someone in law enforcement doing côntroles. The form includes my name and address, my reason for going out, and my departure time. When you check the “exercise” box, the description stipulates that you don’t venture more than 1 km from your home. It’s already normal, just something we do now. As Draconian as it sounds, I’m not sure how strictly police enforce these rules. Infractions garner a penalty that’s hefty enough to dissuade, but I’ve yet to see any enforcement in our area.

On one of my walks (for sunshine, for fresh air, to think, to stop thinking…) I discover a sprawling university campus. I go there most days–alone, with Clara, with Victor. It’s less than ten minutes away. At most times of the day it’s ghostly quiet, with a near-empty tram sliding through every half hour. Sprightly orange poppies and regal irises lend the campus the air of a celebration nobody showed up for.

I wonder about the rest of the city but have no “excuse” to see it. Lyon, for me, has shrunk to this campus, a web of grocery stores, and to my own apartment building. Back at home, our living room balcony faces dozens of balconies from the neighboring buildings, which encircle several divided courtyards and lots. Savoring a few square meters of balcony air–the only outdoor space where we don’t have to keep an eye on our distance and our watches–I’ve come to feel I know my neighbors without having spoken to them. The characters in all those anonymous boxes have grown familiar.

Along with many neighbors, we’ve upgraded our balcony experience. I started the confinement by soaking up sweet spring air from the concrete. Now, a couple of Monoprix lounge chairs later, we are about one Campari cocktail away from feeling like we’re on vacation in Italy on any given sunny afternoon. Now that the days have really warmed, we’ve seen bright parasols bloom open like new flowers. People slather on tanning oil like a sacred ritual. Men lie out in tiny Speedo shorts.

It’s easy–and unavoidable–to people-watch from up here. I come to expect seeing the long-haired little girls who run their scooters back and forth across their skinny balcony every afternoon. The young couple talking over shared cigarettes, their space decorated with cacti and draped with hammocks. There’s the little old lady in the windbreaker, huge dark glasses, and sensible shoes, who walks efficient laps around the parking lot twice daily.

There’s the girl I only ever see in the middle of a jumping jack, the girl holding an endless yoga pose under a tree, the man who is never not talking on the phone and smoking. Occasionally I catch the sound of a church-style organ. It’s probably a keyboard effect, but whatever it is, the music is soothing, lending an undeniable gravitas to my afternoon reading and cold cup of coffee.

Windows stay ajar all day long and you can tell when it’s lunchtime purely by the drifting music of clinking silverware and conversation. It’s just enough noise to create a sense of camaraderie, but not enough to catch any specifics. Usually.

The time is again marked at 8 pm, when people flock outside to cheer for the medical personnel working to manage the crisis–a ritual promoted by news networks (#OnApplaudit). Kids suffering from cabin fever are urged to express themselves at this hour by guileful parents, one assumes–they stand outside, these skinny, shirtless little boys, and jump up and down and scream their lungs raw. One neighbor blows some kind of horn–ridiculous in its volume and solemnity–like he’s announcing the start of a medieval war. 

From the balcony, you might forget all about the virus. Here, pandemic panic is invisible, but for the gloves and masks some people wear as they wheel their collapsable grocery carts, laden with spring leeks, back into the complex.

Invisible, but for the ghostly absence of la bise. I see neighbors on the ground heading toward each other for the friendly cheek-kiss greeting, pure instinct, maybe the cultural rite of the French–only to change tac and merely shout ça va? as they walk in a wide circle of caution around the other. 

Centuries of custom forgotten, unlearned in just a couple of weeks. When will people faire la bise again? After a couple of weeks, the new parameters seem mundane, unexceptional. That’s the strange part. Until le nouvel ordre, we’ll be sheltering behind the bars of our balconies with the rest of our familiar, unknown neighbors, everyone smoking, tanning, cheering, chatting, eating, writing, waiting, praying.

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