Before I left Sweden a few weeks ago, the Swedish Health Minister, Jacob Forssmed, warned that a new and virulent mutation of the COVID-19 virus had emerged and advised citizens to take necessary precautions. I paid attention, since I don’t recall such warnings being voiced in 2020, although I was in France and not paying attention to news in Sweden, except as it was filtered through French news media. And last week, a half dozen students reported severe symptoms and positive test results. These events have motivated reminiscences of the pandemic past and also my masking when coming face-to-face with uncertainty. On 4 September 2020—after a delightful summer of berry-picking, boating, dining out, hanging in cafés, and attending films, parties, and plays—I became especially cognizant of changes in my hygienic environment and predicted a resurgence of COVID-19 illnesses, as recorded in my ‘coming-of-retirement-age’ memoir, An American in Pandemic Paris (audio book coming in time for Christmas):
“Children have returned ro school, and teens now flood my neighborhood at lunchtime and in the late afternoon. I predict a second pandemic wave judging from their carefree behavior. While schools might dutifully enforce mask wearing, distancing, and hand-washing, students behave differently on their own. They remove masks while eating, of course, but they do it in small, tightly packed groups on steps, in doorways, in squares, and in le Luco [Luxembourg Garden], offering each other bites of pizza, spring rolls, and crêpes. They share food and drink freely, chatter gregariously, and remain unmasked after dining. They have also discovered cigarette smoking as a legitimate excuse for mask avoidance; teen smoking has escalated steeply since springtime. I know that closing schools complicates life for parents and may not be optimal from a pedagogical viewpoint, but unless these kids begin observing regulations, the near future looks bleak for France, pandemic-wise.
Have lipstick sales plummeted, I wonder? Lips are rarely visible with the indoor-outdoor mask mandate, except, of course, while drinking and dining. I’ve stopped wearing lipstick unless I have plans to dine with someone. Smiling at people also presents a challenge. A recent article in Le Monde offered tips on how to smile with your eyes. And, masks have joined the fashion front. While most remain content with standard blue-and-whilte medical masks, others have seized the opportunity to make fashion statements. French government officials wear dignified black or navy blue masks that harmonize with their business suits, while fashion forward women like Nancy Pelosi and Queen Elizabeth II have pioneered outfit-matching masks. Others prefer making alternative statements, with masks proclaiming their admiration for the paintings of van Gogh or Monet, their nostalgia for cartoon characters, or their sense of humor, donning masks depicting various configurations of expressive lips. For me, the real downside to outdoor mask-wearing is that it inhibits my ability to smell. The streets of Paris now offer a delightful bonanza of scents: hops wafting from bars, croissants and baguettes from boulangeries, flowers from fleuristes, old books and leather from libraries, wood oven pizza, crêpes, gyro meat, and more generally, flowers and other growing things in parks and planters. This is especially true in the absence of the usual traffic density.”
Of course, one didn’t need to be a Mensa member to predict the return of greater restrictions, and by Halloween a second confinement (lockdown) was declared. For me, it prompted my decision to abandon Paris at New Year’s and decamp to Antibes, which turned out to be an ideal (sunny, warm) spot to ride out the dismal winter weeks. Instead of languishing in my small, viewless Paris apartment, I spent afternoons at the beach and explored to the charming mountain towns and beaches of the Côte d’azur by bus, car, and train.