A CLOSE friend wrote to me recently. I had responded to his friendly email with a short and humorous recital of family news, carefully including the hint that we hoped to give our daughter a birthday party and that we were happy the kids were at least in school (French children, knock on wood, have not missed a day of school this year).
I restrained myself from being too ‘political’ and saying that being forced to mask her was hard for me. Nevertheless, he caught my drift. He responded with a sort of kindly but stern, thinly-veiled reprimand on the importance of gratitude.
In other words, any complaining is ‘ungrateful’. These measures – the cancelling of my little girls’ ballet classes and sports, the muzzle my eldest puts on her face for school every morning, the absurd 6pm curfew, the closing of restaurants, theatres, cafes, bars and borders, measures designed to isolate and separate friends and families – are to ‘protect’ other people. And that’s why we should not complain, or question. Such bad taste!
‘Gratitude’ is a strange choice of word. In this context, it sounds empty and superficial at best, monstrously unjust at worst.
I wonder if we are allowed to feel outrage that those of us with ‘pyjamas jobs’ can cower over our laptops in the comfort and safety of our homes while others (who might also have families) have to ‘risk’ their expendable lives to man cash registers, deliver Amazon parcels or drive trucks.
Am I allowed to feel disgust that actors, musicians, dancers, waiters, bar, restaurant and hotel owners are watching everything they have ever worked for go down the drain?
Can I feel concern that it’s so easy for a government to impose a state of emergency and deprive us of all of our most fundamental rights, or that only one public perspective on this situation is allowed; that dissidents of the French government’s Covid policies, like Doctors Didier Raoult or Christian Perronne are hounded, sued, fired or, in the case of dissident Deputy Martine Wonner, literally laughed down and silenced in the National Assembly for suggesting more proportionate, sensible and humane alternatives of handling this virus without destroying our democracy?
There is a school of thought to which my friend belongs, that all we ordinary citizens have to do these days is express gratitude that our daily needs are met (unless you are in the culture, travel, events or hospitality industries, and then I suppose you just sit at home, hoping your benefits don’t run out and wondering what will become of your energy, talents and dreams), and gratitude in this context means acquiescence.
Paris is not locked down. We have access to the parks, hairdressers and stores, the schools and public transport are all open, as long as we scurry back inside by 6pm. Each time we leave the house, we no longer have to fill out the absurd attestations that the government invented last March and then renewed in October.
All we have to do is wear face coverings, and that’s no big deal! (It’s only an abrupt change in the history of Western human interaction, depriving us of one outlet of public dialogue and forcing us physically to manifest a phobia of other human beings.)
Since the media has announced the ‘variant anglaise’, duck beak masks (N-95) have emerged on the faces of the more zealous and I have even caught sight of some double masks à la CDC.
People entering shops or interior public spaces pause next to the cute little dispensers near the doors to squirt some transparent gel on to their hands.
They massage it in decorously and almost luxuriously, in the same manner they used to rub their hands when entering their cosy ski lodge after a long day in the Alps (when skiing was allowed), almost as if the gel were the lovely, rich Nuxe creams they sell at the French pharmacies.
The fatuous self-satisfaction, hopeless superstitiousness and gullibility of this ritual never ceases to amaze me. This way, you won’t die or kill someone else, you see. If only that guy whose life’s work was inventing penicillin had known … my goodness.
We are so virtuous. We are so kind.
By my friend’s logic, French society today must be the friendliest and the most caring in human history. Everyone is overwhelmingly compliant, and therefore selfless and careful.
So why then does it feel so unfriendly and uncomfortable? Standing in a crowded supermarket, I often feel jostled, and is it my imagination that I no longer hear the murmurs of pardon or see the apologetic smiles?
The imposition of the muzzle and the ambience of ‘ACHTUNG! Emergency!’ that it proclaims seems to relieve us of the need for these niceties. Eyes seem to glare judgmentally above the lower face coverings.
We have created a dystopic universe where masked men loom in darkening streets (at least until the government imposed the 6pm curfew) and teenage boys are hooded and masked.
I don’t recognise acquaintances who approach me in the street. It seems strange and artificial to chat with someone masked, like a pantomime of normality. I can’t imagine what this must be like for deaf people who depend on reading lips – one minority we don’t talk about much these days.
As our toddlers were having haircuts, a mother to whom I was chatting confided to me that her son resembles her. ‘I don’t know what you look like,’ I told her, chilling that conversation, since I had clearly transgressed the tacit ‘act like it’s normal’ Covid rule.
No, dear friend, what I will mostly retain of the Covid period will not be gratitude that me and my family came out just fine.
I will remember the sudden intrusiveness of the State and the transformation of our society, the unquestioning obedience of the citizenry, the stifling conformity and the utter lack of solidarity as the professional classes holed themselves up and depended on working-class people to fetch them things.
I will remember the stupidity of masking small children and sending in nurses to collect their saliva at nursery and primary schools because everyone is toxic, even three-year-olds.
I will remember our callousness as we sacrificed young, hopeful people at the start of their lives, eager to make their way in the world; our cruelty to the elderly and fragile, to whom this whole circus is supposedly dedicated, whom we abandoned to die surrounded by extraterrestrials in hazmat suits.
I will remember how we isolated single people and deprived the healthy elderly of the comfort of winding down their hard-earned days in the (albeit toxic) company of their loved ones.
I will remember the ease with which we dismissed precious human interactions. We all depend on the touch of a hand, a friendly smile in the grocery store, a night spent dancing with friends in a sweaty club and the dawn subway ride home afterwards, happy and laughing. That’s how I met you, dear friend.