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Geopolitics

Face Masks And A Flâneur In Paris

Bastille marketplace, Paris
Bastille marketplace, Paris
Jeff Israely

PARIS — There's a price to be paid, in euros and other things, when you choose to live in a city like Paris. But there's a reason people pay: There's only one Louvre, one Opera Garnier and exactly 114 Michelin-star restaurants. And even if you don't have tickets, or the euros, to make it through those doors, there's the Eiffel Tower to catch your eye every week or two from wherever you may be — always reminding you of the first time you saw it.


Yet culture aside, Paris is Paris because of the people. Trite as it may sound, and tourists be damned, both the flâneurs and busy working folk are fueled in some indefinable way by all the fellow humanity we pass on the street each day.


And so it was last Saturday, the first (and gloriously sunny) weekend day after the end of France's two months of a strict lockdown, that I took to the streets with my fellow Paris dwellers. The first steps out of a quarantine into the public space for pleasure, no matter where in the world you may be, are taken gingerly. It is neither liberating nor joyful, but necessary. The endless possibilities of the digital life we've been confined to come with limits that run too deep to even put into words.


Walking through the Montmartre neighborhood, with not a tourist in sight. what stood out about the people (myself included) were our masks: firmly on, firmly off, below or above the nose, hanging off of one ear. Needless to say, Paris is not Paris when the faces of its people are covered.


The scientific and civic questions around the wearing of masks are obviously what's important now. But as French sociologist David Le Breton recently wrote in Le Monde, along with our health and jobs, are other less tangible things at risk:

"Behind masks, we lose our individuality and also the pleasure and consenting practice of looking at others around us. We are entering a phase of ambiguous interaction, where codes are missing and will have to be reinvented. In our contemporary societies, the face is the place of mutual recognition. With its features laid bare, we are recognized, named, judged, and assigned a sex, age and skin color. We are loved, despised or anonymous, drowned in the indifference of the crowd. To get to know someone implies putting forth a face full of meaning and value, and reciprocating with a face that is equally meaningful."

That's a lot, I know. And here's some more from my return to the digital reality of my apartment in the 24 hours after that first trip outside:


First was this video clip of Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic holding a quarantine-compliant political rally, surrounded by screens of his supporters who had dialed in by video conference. Shiny faces fully bared, acquiescent, applauding in unison — a veritable pandemic-driven Orwellian nightmare.


But shortly after was a much more pleasant digital connection that popped up in my Twitter feed: photographs of a screen still from a scene in François Truffaut's 1959 Les Quatre Cents Coups ("The 400 Blows') that showed that a pharmacy and dry cleaner still occupy the same corner today. Just three blocks from my place, in the other direction, it's yet another great little Parisian quartier always worth strolling through. It will have to wait for my next trip out, mask and all.


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