The Seine was visible from the window of my study. It was a delight to open the Venetian shutters every morning.
I could see the glittering jade-green stream, and the nearby street lined with budding trees. There were elderly couples walking their dogs, people working up a sweat as they jogged, and cars going back and forth along the avenue on the opposite side of the river.
Sunday, March 15.
I still had no idea that the scenery outside my window would soon become my entire world.
The day before when I went to a restaurant run by a friend of mine, the manager came out to greet me, and with a furrowed brow, whispered, “A closure order is about to be issued for restaurants throughout France – for at least one month.”
I couldn’t believe my ears. “Starting when?”
“In four hours.”
I looked at my watch. It was 8:00 PM.
The next day, in an instant, all of the shops would go dark.
I watched President Macron’s speech on the net.
He said there was no way to stop the spread of coronavirus. If we didn’t do anything, the healthcare system would collapse just as it had in Italy.
The president said we were at war. And in order to win the fight, it would be necessary to have the cooperation of every single person.
There was only one way that we would be able to save the human race. And that was to stay at home.
March 17. Starting at noon, the city of Paris was locked down.
Shops and companies all shut down, and everyone was forbidden to go outside. According to news reports, anyone who didn’t obey would be punished. There was a real sense of tension in the city.
I finished up my work at the office, and startled, I hurriedly jumped into a taxi.
There was a plastic sheet hanging from the ceiling. The driver remained silent without offering so much as a greeting.
Rumors were flying back and forth on social media. I had printed out my permit to go out, which was downloaded from the government website, and filled in the reason. Without that, I would be fined. Basically, I was supposed to work from home, but if I had to go, it would be necessary to carry this permit from my boss. Supermarkets, drug stores, and banks were still open. The government promised various kinds of compensation. Everything was happening at such astonishing speed.
The French are fond of discussing things. They talk in cafés until deep into the night, and stand around and chat on street corners. They greet each other with a handshake and a kiss on each cheek. They might hang back at first, but once the door is open, there’s no going back.
And now this – just as I had finally managed to get that door open. Everything seemed so distant – face-to-face encounters, handshakes, kisses. The door had slammed
The city of Paris was deserted. There was no one on the streets, or in the sidewalk cafes, squares or stations. Until just a few moments ago, the city was pulsing with activity. People were talking and laughing with each other, and working, and children were playing. But now for their own sake, they had to temporarily remove themselves from society.
A complete silence had descended.
Why had people disappeared so quickly? Because that was how rapidly the virus was spreading. The healthcare system might collapse at any minute. There weren’t enough hospital beds or life-saving equipment, and the virus posed a threat to the healthcare workers. It was important to save as many lives as possible.
What should be done?
The only thing to do was to try to buy a little more time. Time to increase the number of beds, and time to develop new medicine and vaccines.
The virus apparently spreads through airborne saliva droplets. People become infected when they touch their mouth, nose or eyes after coming into contact with something that an infected person has touched. Before you know it you can become infected, and the virus can spread simply by talking with someone in close quarters.
That’s why it’s important to avoid meeting and talking with anyone. That’s the best way to protect yourself and those who are important to you.
I shut myself up in my study.
I stood next to the window and peered outside.
There were only two turtledoves perched on the branch of a tree next to the river.
The birds were the only flesh-and-blood creatures outside my window.
Remembering that frequent ventilation was important, I opened the window. I could hear the murmur of the river. The only thing moving was the Seine.
There I was all shut up in my room.
What could I do?
Especially in a place like Paris that is full of art. The museums, theaters, and halls were all closed. There was nowhere to go.
But wait a minute… is this really even Paris?
I was feeling upset, and I couldn’t manage to pull myself together. I just kept walking around the room wringing my hands. After a while, they were like parched and withered tree branches in winter.
It was okay to go out once a day to take a walk or buy daily necessities.
So I walked for a while along the Seine.
There was a crane near Notre-Dame Cathedral that had stopped with its neck bent in midair. The spire was nowhere to be seen – it had disappeared a year ago in the fire.
What was going to happen to the city?
Maybe it was my duty to stay here and take care of it.
March 28. More than 37,000 people were infected with the virus in France, and there was a fatality rate of 7 percent. The healthcare system had collapsed.
My return flight had been cancelled.
I might not be able to go home.
But maybe it was better not to go back anyway. Nobody knew what was going to happen in Japan.
In the middle of the night, I woke up with a slightly strange feeling in my throat. Something as small as that paralyzed me with fear.
At dawn, I received some news.
Shimura Ken had died. The virus had claimed the life of the comic genius. I also learned that he had set off on his journey without anyone there to see him off.
What would happen if I was infected and became critically ill here?
I would further burden the healthcare system, and inconvenience everyone. I wouldn’t be able to take responsibility for myself.
I made up my mind.
I was going back. At this point, that was the only duty I had.
Back in Japan, the Olympics hadn’t been postponed yet, and no state of emergency had been declared either. It was also impossible to impose a shutdown.
The government wasn’t able to provide compensation, and they had no intention of taking responsibility for the situation.
And people who returned to the country were being given the cold shoulder.
Even so, I reserved my flight back.
I wasn’t completely confident that I was okay. But I would take responsibility for myself, and take care of myself.
By doing that, I would be helping others.
It was 8 at night.
I heard a wave of sound surge outside my window.
I opened the window to see what it was.
All of the windows along the river were open, and everyone was applauding all at once.
People were expressing their gratitude for the healthcare professionals who had laid their lives on the line and continued to work.
I joined them in sending out my heartfelt appreciation.
The applause reverberated through the calm evening sky.
It was proof of life.
My return flight was filled almost entirely with Japanese passengers.
Before we boarded and also during the flight, everyone remained silent.
After we landed, customs inspectors in protective clothing came onboard. And as we waited in line to go through customs, we accepted everything quietly.
Never speaking in the presence of others.
After I entered the arrival lobby, I realized that that is one of Japanese people’s strengths.
For two whole days, I waited for the results of the inspection in a hotel next to the airport. I tested negative.
Then a friend provided me with a room during the follow-up observation, which lasted for two weeks.
Faded cherry blossoms floated across the surface of the river.
I turned my back on that landscape, and shut myself up again – in order to survive.
The Seine wasn’t outside the window of this room.
But I can still hear that applause.
( Translation by Christopher Stephens )
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