SACLAY, France – Where are my keys, wallet, face mask, backup face mask? Do I have my username? Have I filled in documents describing where I am going, when and why? Is my destination legal? Can I come back in three hours or less?
I spent most of the pandemic in New York City, but a trip to visit my family in Saclay, a small town outside of Paris, turned everything upside down. The French government has imposed many more restrictions to help reduce coronavirus infections, even regulating something as simple as getting outdoors.
The differences were obvious even before I landed in Paris, when I checked in for my Air France flight at JFK airport. Unsurprisingly, I needed a negative Covid-19 test and a statement swearing that I was not sick. But I also needed a form allowing me to travel from Paris-Charles de Gaulle airport to a hotel near my parents’ house to quarantine myself for a few days.
This paperwork is not only required for traveling from the airport. In fact, the form – a certificate, in French – is the new lifeline for venturing out of your home in France. You should fill it out on paper or on a mobile app and have it with you every time you leave the house. Forget that and you risk heavy penalties of up to six months in jail and a fine of 3,750 euros (approximately $ 4,500) for the third offense.
It’s radically different from the harshest foreclosure measures I experienced last spring in Brooklyn. Leaving my apartment in New York might have seemed risky during the worst of the pandemic, but never illegal. I could walk or cycle the parks for hours at any time of the day, meet friends in the great outdoors, or shop across town.
Here in France, having a little fun takes a lot of effort.
Until November 28, I was not allowed to leave home for more than an hour a day and could not travel more than a kilometer (less than a mile) from home without facing a fine. I could only buy essential items. Stores that sold non-essential items have been closed. Those who normally sold a variety of products could only sell items deemed necessary by the government – other products were off limits to customers. For example, I could buy a newspaper, but not a book. Building materials, but no flowers.
Fortunately, those rules have loosened somewhat, along with the spread of the virus. I can now go outside for three hours and walk 20 kilometers (almost 13 miles) from home, which feels liberating to me. True, we are still not allowed to meet people from other households in public areas.
However, even conscientiously adhering to the rules does not mean that one will avoid a meeting with the police, as happened to me one recent evening.
All I wanted to do was take a walk. The government says this is one of the acceptable reasons for leaving home. Among other things: shopping for groceries, picking up a child from school, helping a family member in need.
And it is still possible to walk at night, although a new curfew may soon be imposed.
Before venturing out, I filled out the form with today’s date and the exact time I was leaving the house. My sister and her husband joined me for the walk, both completing their own certificates. We climbed a hill to the Saclay plateau to admire the beautiful view of the neighboring fields. This was before the recent easing of restrictions so we were only allowed one hour outside.
It was a place that I had visited several times before with friends, often by bicycle, although this kind of outing is still prohibited for the moment. Conflicting feelings of longing, sadness and calm swept over me as I observed my old hometown, now quieter than ever.
There were barriers and chalked instructions on the sidewalk outside a community center, reminding people of social distancing while lining up to take a Covid test, a constant reminder – even here in a semi-rural place – from the pandemic.
And to my surprise, a police car came out of the darkness. The cruiser approached slowly, its headlights a beacon in the dark, hazy night.
We knew straight away that the agents intended to do an identity check. They rolled down a window and called us.
We took out our identifications and certificates and handed them over. The officers looked at our certificates and questioned us.
What were we doing outside during the lockdown? Where were we going? Where did we live?
They were trying to see if we had not followed the very specific rules allowing us to leave our home. We weren’t doing anything wrong, but it was baffling nonetheless. And elsewhere in the country, police checks linked to a pandemic are not always as easy as ours.
As the officers left, their greeting echoed in my ear: “Your attestation, please” – a stark reminder that a person’s physical presence in the outside world is no longer normal or acceptable, but limited and codified by strict laws, even temporary.
When I initially planned my trip home – last January – I envisioned meeting friends at La Villette, a science museum, and eating in restaurants. I was looking forward to the delights of the Unexpected Bar in Paris and a show in the elegant MK2 cinema along the Quai de Loire. I was hoping to visit cousins in Lille, a town near the Belgian border.
Maybe next year?