We are about to enter our seventh week of le confinement and one senses that people are starting to get a little fidgety, partly because the days are getting longer and sunnier and partly because what happens next is still far from clear.
Hopefully this situation will change on Tuesday, when Prime Minister Édouard Philippe will present the national strategy for emerging from the lockdown. Some priorities have been identified for this process, which is due to start on May 11th. These include reopening schools, companies returning to work, getting public transport back to normal, the supply of masks and sanitiser, testing policy and support for the elderly. Finance Minister Agnès Pannier-Runacher has already announced that distribution of washable fabric masks to everyone in France will begin on May 4th. At present the place of distribution is still not clear, with town halls, pharmacies, tabacs and websites all being considered. From May 11th, face masks will be crucial for workers, in schools and on public transport.
Having neither a job nor children of school age, a more pressing concern for me right now is when I can go out and do my bit to support some of the hard-hit bars and restaurants of Poitiers. President Macron said in his last broadcast that it would be some time after May 11th before places of entertainment would be allowed to open, but ‘some time’ is presumably up for negotiation.
Here in Poitiers, one or two places are straining to be let off the leash and have now started offering takeaway and delivery services. It must be a very difficult time for them all. According to an article in Libération, only 5% of France’s cafes and restaurants are currently open (for delivery or takeaway), and turnover is only 10% of last year’s. Now two new initiatives, Bar solidaire and J’aime mon bistrot,have been launched to support them. Both are sponsored by brewery chains, and they operate in a broadly similar way. Consumers are invited to support their favourite establishments by purchasing a credit note to use when they reopen. Both schemes offer incentives. With J’aime mon bistrot,the restaurant increases the value of the amount the customer pays by 50% – if you buy a voucher for €50 you will have €75 to spend. This offer is limited to the first 20,000 credit notes. With Bar solidaire,you get the equivalent amount of your credit note as an additional beer credit (there is an overall limit of €3 million of additional credit). There is a caveat, in that in both schemes, if your chosen restaurant were to fail to reopen, you would not be reimbursed. It’s an interesting idea. As far as we can tell, none of the bistros in central Poitiers have so far registered in either scheme. I think it’s very likely that if any of the ones we frequent were to get involved, we would support them.
Meanwhile, we make our own entertainment. It’s now a novelty to have a conversation with anybody face to face, one slight problem, of course, being that there is little to talk about apart from the current situation. On Tuesday, we bumped into Maryse, one of those people who normally ricochets around town like a human pinball, chatting to everyone and getting involved in all sorts of local activities. At the moment she spends her time organising pop music quizzes and umpiring ping-pong matches for husband, Vito, and their sons, Pablo and Diego. I’ve been signed up to join in as soon as the restrictions are eased. Can you play doubles in ping-pong? Neither Vito nor I are particularly slim, so it might be a bit tight around the table.
On Wednesday, we bumped into Jay, an American who has been living in Poitiers for over twenty years. He’s a painter who is stymied at present because he needs some new paper of a particular sort and the art store in Poitiers is closed. He has a source in Paris whom he hopes may be able to send him some. Jay asked us if there were any news as to when the lockdown might end, and did so in a way that suggested that he is neither reading the newspapers nor watching TV. He lives alone, and when not painting he spends a lot of his time playing chess with some old boys in the library, something else that is currently not available to him. It struck me that they may be his main source of news, so what with missing them and not being able to paint, life must be quite frustrating for him at the moment. I suddenly got a glimpse of what real self-isolation might be like. Still, he is very cheerful. He lives right by the river and has a kayak. He asked us if we thought he would be allowed to use it for his hour’s exercise. A good question, to which we didn’t have the answer.
On a warm sunny Friday evening we joined our neighbours in a little street party, about ten of us carefully spread out drinking beer and wine and chatting. It was very pleasant. Most of my family’s parties end up with the entire company dancing unsteadily in a circle and ‘singing’ Come On Eileen or Daydream Believer. On Friday, after an hour or so, we clapped the care workers and politely bade each other bonne nuit. Next week, social distancing or not, I might open a window and put Dexys Midnight Runners on Spotify.
One of the many gifts bestowed on me by my parents was the gene that gave me a healthy head of hair. It has always grown at a prodigious rate. As a young man I used to make a steady income by letting it grow long and then selling it to Pierre’s Perukes, a firm of theatrical wigmakers in Covent Garden. It gave me quite a thrill one day when Pierre himself told me that I was currently appearing simultaneously in Richard III at the National and Cinderella at the Adelphi.
It still grows very quickly, and I was overdue for a cut before the lockdown came into force. Now, a month later, it is quite unmanageable. I have tried various ways of making it look presentable, including pigtails and a ponytail, with limited success. For now I have settled on a sort of coiled bun/top-knot affair, which I rather like, though Madame says it looks like a walnut whip. She has rather unkindly suggested getting wooden rings and using me as a human hoopla stall. Seeing as how she has rebuffed all my suggestions for lockdown entertainment (Scalextric, Subbuteo, karaoke machine), I’m not inclined to indulge her.