I awoke on the morning of Thursday, March 12th to my phone buzzing furiously on the wooden bedside table. 2:38am, Paris time. After unearthing my sweat-slicked legs from the tropical cave created by the bare European comforter (why no under-sheets?), I reached over and yanked my phone off of the charger.
32 unready messages:
How are you?? Stuck in Paris??
Hey hey! Trump is being an idiot and stopping all flights out of Europe starting Friday. Sending you good vibes ❤ ❤
You guys need to come home by Friday! Trump has closed travel from Europe after Friday. Don’t panic.
I attempted to compose a text to my father, back home in the States, with trembling fingers:
What is happening
Trump had just announced a ban on travel to the United States from Europe on national television, without taking the care to mention that the ban only applied to foreign nationals, not US citizens and their family abroad. Upon hearing the news, my dad immediately called American Airlines to attempt to change the flights home for my mother, sister, and myself from Sunday to Friday, within Trump’s travel window.
I laid on my back in the sagging AirBnB sofa bed, working myself up into an anxiety fever, suspended in a strange mental space between sleeping and sprinting. Apocalyptic visions swirled beneath my eyelids: an emergency room strewn with bodies twitching in respiratory distress; ventilators, ECMO; the carcasses of grocery stores, their ribs picked clean.
Finally, my mother and sister awoke and I informed them of the recent news. We had been scheduled to take the train to Reims, in the French countryside, that morning. All of a sudden Champagne tasting seemed frivolous, irresponsible. We were to stay put and focus our energy on getting out the country.
Amidst the frenzy, we realized we were starving, and I was sent to retrieve sustenance. I heaved open the oversized, cherry-red apartment door to reveal a dense, grey-blue March sky, cradled in the spires and stonework of the Renaissance architecture. The streets were abuzz with French students and commuters. Their faces were not obscured by the eerie sterility of surgical masks, but rather adorned with colorful scarves and stylish, round eyeglasses. Dodging tiny cars and bicycles, I made my way to Du Pain et des Idées, a boulangerie in the 10th Arrondissement. I was greeted by racks of glossy pastries, reflecting the mythological scene of the faux fresco spanning the ceiling above. And as I strolled back to the apartment, clutching a Robin egg blue paper bag bulging with croissants and chaussons aux pommes and an escargot pistache et chocolat, I was struck by how normal Paris seemed.
I had been at ease during the beginning of our trip, and in the days leading up to it. I hadn’t seen someone so much as cough in France. At this moment in time, the difference between the comfort of normality and sheer terror lay solely in information, in the news media. What would’ve happened if we had never singled out COVID19 as something novel, among the innumerable strains of other coronaviruses, influenza viruses, rhinoviruses, rotoviruses? What if we hadn’t given it an easily recognizable, but unfamiliar name? What if it had originated on our shores, rather than from a part of the world still unfamiliar, exotic? Would we have written off this pandemic as a bad cold and flu season? Or would the destruction have been farther reaching, more terrifying?
After we had spent the morning successfully rearranging our travel plans, we were determined to spend our now last day of our trip soaking up the grandeur of Paris. We indulged in a lunch of escargot and Croque-Monsieurs at a café in St. Germain dus Pres. I swooned at the buttery-soft leather goods, milky watch faces frozen in time, and jewel-toned silk scarves in the windows of luxury shops. We spent the money that had been set aside for now-cancelled hotel rooms on scenery-shifting perfumes. At one point, we strolled through the plaza of the Louvre, in front of the famous I.M. Pei glass pyramid. In my memories from my last trip to Paris, the plaza has been packed with tourists waiting in line to enter and mulling about taking selfies. On this afternoon, we were alone with the breathtakingly grand walls of the Palace Royale. The dearth of humans hung heavy in the clammy air. I half expected a Renaissance-era royal procession – tufted hats, billowing silk gowns, feathered hooves – to emerge from beneath one of the stately arches.
As we rolled our suitcases, still stuffed with clean clothes, through the Charles de Gaulle Aeroport early the next morning, something had shifted. So often the presence of other humans is a sign of safety. I would prefer to walk on a crowded street at night, or jog on a crowded trail. I rely on relationships with family, friends, and coworkers to contextualize myself in this exceedingly complex modern reality. Connecting with the other consciousnesses, suspending the possibility of solipsism, finding reason to believe that there are other beings in the world that possess an inner world as vivid as my own – this seems to be something essential to finding meaning in my day to day existence. In the time of COVID19, other humans have morphed into a threat – a viral reservoir that deposits invisible toxic particles on surfaces and requires a 6 foot berth. The mouths of others were once a portal for wisps of one’s humanity. Now the human breath is a vehicle for a prickly half-living invader trying to make its own way in the world.
It is also easy to forget that I, myself, am equally likely to be a threat (perhaps more so than others, given that I made the choice to travel internationally last week). At this point in time, I am choosing to self-quarantine out of respect for this fact. What does solitude look like in 2020? We have been moving towards a world in which digital communication has slowly replaced face-to-face interaction. For many of us, COVID19 has accelerated the actualization of this reality. This is a chance to explore how we experience human relationships and information in our technology-dense, global world.
In times like these it can be reassuring to remember that there have been people throughout history who have felt that way that we do now. For this surreal moment, I’ve curated a collection of surrealist artwork. Listen to this hope-spun mixtape (Spotify, YouTube) from Chicago skater and collagist SEENMR while you scroll.
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Hang in there…