Where Are Your Papers? A New Yorker Goes Home to Locked-Down France

SACLAY, France — Where are my keys, my wallet, my face mask, my backup face mask? Do I have my ID? Have I filled out paperwork describing where I’m going, and when, and why? Is my destination legal? Can I make it back in three hours or less?

I’ve spent most of the pandemic in New York, but a trip to visit family back home in Saclay, a small town outside Paris, has turned everything upside down. The French government has imposed far more restrictions to help curb coronavirus infections, regulating even something as simple as getting some fresh air.

The differences were evident even before I landed in Paris, when I was checking in for my Air France flight at J.F.K. Airport. Unsurprisingly, I needed a negative Covid-19 test and a statement swearing that I was not ill. But I also needed a form allowing me to travel from Paris-Charles de Gaulle Airport to a hotel near my parents’ house to quarantine for a few days.

That paperwork is not only required for traveling from the airport. In fact, the form — an attestation, in French — is the new lifeline to venturing outside of your home in France. You must fill it out on paper or on a mobile app and have it with you every time you leave home. Forget it and you face serious penalties that can reach six months imprisonment and a 3,750 euro fine (about $4,500) on the third offense.

This is dramatically different from even the toughest lockdown measures I experienced this past spring in Brooklyn. Leaving my apartment in New York might have felt risky during the worst of the pandemic, but never illegal. I could walk or bike in parks for hours at any time of day, meet with friends outdoors, or go shopping at the other end of the city.

Here, in France, just having a bit of fun requires a big effort.

Until Nov. 28, I was not allowed to leave the house for more than an hour a day and could not travel farther than a kilometer (less than a mile) from home without facing a fine. I could buy only essential items. Shops that sold nonessential goods were shut down. Those that normally sold a variety of goods could sell only items deemed necessary by the government — with other products off limits to customers. For example, I could buy a newspaper, but not a book. Construction materials, but not flowers.

Thankfully, those rules have eased somewhat, along with the spread of the virus. I can now go outdoors for three hours and travel 20 kilometers (almost 13 miles) from home, which feels liberating. Granted, we are still not allowed to meet people from other households in public spaces.

Still, even adhering conscientiously to the rules doesn’t mean one will avoid an encounter with law enforcement, as happened to me one recent evening.

All I wanted to do was take a walk. The government says that’s among the acceptable reasons to leave home. Among the others: buying groceries, picking up a child at school, helping a family member in dire need.

And it’s still OK to walk at night, at least until next week. (On Thursday, the government announced that a new curfew from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. would be imposed, beginning Dec. 15, but the attestation requirement would be revoked during the day.)

Before venturing out, I filled out the form with the day’s date and the precise time I was leaving the house. My sister and her husband joined me for the walk, both filling out their own certificates. We walked up a hill to the Plateau de Saclay to take in the lovely views of the nearby fields. This was before the recent loosening of restrictions, so we were allowed just one hour outdoors.

It was a spot I’d visited many times before with friends, often on bicycles, though that sort of outing remains off-limits for now. Conflicting feelings of nostalgia, sadness and calm washed over me as I surveyed my old hometown, now more quiet than ever.

There were barriers and chalk instructions on the sidewalk outside a community center, reminding people to social distance while waiting in line to get a Covid test, a constant reminder — even here, in a semirural place — of the pandemic.

And to my surprise, a police car appeared out of the darkness. The cruiser approached slowly, its headlights a beacon in the dark, misty night.

We knew right away that the officers intended to do an identity check. They rolled down a window and called us over.

We pulled out our identifications and our attestations and handed them over. The officers looked at our certificates and questioned us.

What were we doing outside during the lockdown? Where were we going? Where did we live?

They were trying to see if we had failed to respect the very specific rules allowing us to leave our home. We weren’t doing anything wrong, but it was unnerving nonetheless. And elsewhere in the country, pandemic-related police stops are not always as smooth as ours.

As the officers left, their greeting resounded in my ear: “Your attestation please” — a stark reminder that one’s physical presence in the outside world is no longer normal or acceptable, but limited and codified by strict laws, even if temporary.

When I originally planned my trip home — last January — I imagined meeting friends at La Villette, a science museum, and eating in restaurants. I looked forward to the delicacies at L’imprévu bar in Paris and a show at the elegant MK2 movie theater along the Quai de Loire. I hoped to visit cousins in Lille, a city close to the Belgian border.

L’année prochaine peut-être?


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