When people ask what it's like living in Paris, as a native New Yorker my answer is always the same: The average workday is just the slightest bit shorter. Like when the bartender tops off your wine glass with the last sip in the bottle—that little bit makes all the difference. The French prioritize time for socializing. In New York, plans with friends have to be made at least a week in advance (and let’s face it: we sigh with relief when they’re canceled), whereas in France, meeting for an apéro after work is as natural as picking up groceries on the way home.
It came as no surprise, then, when in the early days of the novel coronavirus, the French mildly resisted the call for social distancing. I first heard about it while visiting family in New York: photos of defiant Parisians perusing open-air markets and gathering in public parks. “It’s a point of French pride,” I’d tell people back home, in a way proud of my adopted home and its residents’ commitment to preserving their way of life. At this point, their resistance still seemed quaint.
As we now know, it was short-lived: Coronavirus cases spiked, prompting the government to double down on their efforts at containment. Addressing the nation, President Macron announced a mandatory countrywide shutdown—businesses were closed and all but essential movement was banned. “Let us rise individually and collectively to the height of the moment,” he said.
Facing the risk of being separated indefinitely from my home and my husband Guillaume, I made the difficult decision to fly back to Paris with my 11-month-old daughter, Mimi. On the plane, the woman next to me wore a surgical face mask, a shower cap, plastic gloves, and disposable hotel slippers. After take-off, she slid a terry-cloth mask over her eyes, sealing herself off entirely. I was tempted to snap a quick photo but then reconsidered.
Who was I, a lady with a baby on a plane, to judge?
I arrived in a city much different from the one I left: Once characterized by community and spirited consumption, Paris had become throttled by a collective anxiety, only evidenced by absences: the stillness outdoors; the unnatural space people granted each other on sidewalks; the woven Gatti chairs neatly stacked and hidden inside dark brasseries; the invisible enemy that many of us only heard about on the news but could now feel everywhere.
Early one morning, I took Mimi for a walk around our neighborhood, the requisite signed oath stating my purpose for leaving home tucked safely in my back pocket. The air was crisp and warm around the edges, the sun peeking through puffy clouds, teasing the arrival of spring. A day like this would normally end with clinking glasses and crowded terraces, but the streets were mostly vacant. And they would stay that way.
A few people strolled slowly with leashed dogs. The rare pedestrians crossing paths eyed each other cautiously over the edges of taut face masks. I turned onto an empty block and felt a strange thrill to have it all to myself, if just until the next corner. I passed the navy blue awning of a Monceau flower shop. Like many businesses, the shop had given away their flowers for free, unloading inventory that would otherwise be wasted.
On Rue la Fayette, a usually busy thoroughfare, I spied a young couple looking out over a wrought-iron balcony, reveling in the eerie silence of their once-bustling city. From another balcony, an infant called out, then marveled at the sound of her own echo. Beside an empty playground, a father jump-roped fervently with his two small children. I thought of the annual village celebrations in Spain, when locals lead angry bulls through narrow streets, desperate attempts to expend as much of the creatures’ energy as possible.
To go for a walk felt self-indulgent. But each day, additional borders were closing. Restrictions could get tighter. Fearing an imminent shortage, I wanted to stock up on fresh air, much like some people were stockpiling toilet paper and wine.
I reached my building’s door just as an elderly neighbor was leaving, sporting a tailored skirt and a navy, light wool coat, her silver hair neatly pinned at the nape of her neck. She rolled an empty market cart behind her.
At around 8 p.m. that evening, we heard a rumble outside. I pulled our windows open and poked my head out to listen. Shadowy silhouettes stood in windows across and down the street. In every direction, people were clapping. Later, I would learn that they were applauding to thank the country’s medical workers. Clueless as to their motivation, I nonetheless started clapping, the goosebumps tingling up my arms. Guillaume started clapping, and Mimi clubbed her chubby little palms together, too.
These European balcony moments may be fodder for memes, but they also provide a much-needed communal catharsis and an increasingly precious, unrestrained connection with our neighbors in a time that can only be described as surreal.
Here, the quarantine will continue for at least another week, at which point the government will take the nation's temperature and decide how to proceed. In the meantime, the French are rising to the height of their novel civic duty, staying home but finding new ways to reignite their spirit, like the #aperofenetre—a nightly apéro, or pre-dinner beverage, taken together at the window.
Despite an excess of time at home and a shelf full of cookbooks, I find myself lacking motivation to experiment in the kitchen, and instead clinging to recipes I’ve cooked hundreds of times before. I‘m taking comfort in preparing dishes as familiar as they are simple—like a plain French omelet.
Every time I make an omelet, I think about Gabrielle Hamilton’s Blood, Bones & Butter (the part when legendary French chef André Soltner demonstrates how he makes an omelet). After cracking the eggs, he uses his thumbs to scrape the remnants clinging to the shell, a habit leftover from post-war France. He tells Hamilton, “When I was growing up, this is how my mother got thirteen eggs out of the dozen.”
My sister Mary Alice recently enlightened me about breaking eggs against a hard surface, rather than the edge of a bowl. “Changed my life,” she told me.
As I stand in my kitchen to make myself lunch, I gently tap an egg against our concrete counter. It breaks easily into the mixing bowl. I use my thumbs to scrape inside each shell before tossing it into the trash. Then I throw in a few pinches of Guérande sea salt and whisk the eggs vigorously. I add a pat of good Normandy butter to a nonstick pan over medium-low heat. I pour in the eggs, give them a quick stir, then patiently wait for bubbles to slowly rise in the middle of the pan, the edges becoming fluffy and crumbling over on themselves.
No cheese, no meat. Just an omelet "nature” as they say in France, with a side of Dijon mustard so spicy it makes my eyes water.
Maybe I crave these things because they provide a touch more certainty during these uncertain times. My mind is too consumed with questions and news updates to devote energy to whipping up anything new. Come what may, I’ll keep making my most basic, stalwart dishes, and drifting to the window each night until the applauding dies down.
2 to 3 large eggs
A few pats of unsalted butter
Crack the eggs against a hard surface and slide into a mixing bowl; salt generously and whisk.
Add butter to a nonstick pan over medium-low heat; once warm, pour in the egg mixture and give a quick stir. Allow the eggs to settle and lower the heat a touch.
Once your omelet is set to your liking, use a spatula to carefully roll onto a plate, seam-side down.