PRAGUE — As I walked down Avenue René Coty on a sunny day in late May, everything was like a Paris postcard — except that my glasses were fogging up over my facemask. But I knew the scenery by heart by then, as I had never left a one-kilometer radius around my student residence during the two-month French national lockdown.
By the end of May, we were two weeks into the "de-confinement" and Parisians could move freely without a piece of paper certifying the purpose, date and time of their outing. But the streets were far quieter than normal as I walked down the stairs into the virtual empty metro station for the first time in three months. A guard at the entrance checked my (homemade) mask and stopped others who didn't have one. Another guard, who helped me get my large suitcase through the turnstile, wished me bon voyage. He guessed right: I was on my way to Charles de Gaulle airport ... and a flight back to my hometown of Prague.
While France, among the hardest-hit countries in Europe, eventually resorted to one of the strictest lockdowns, the Czech Republic has been relatively spared by the coronavirus pandemic. When France was still indecisive about what to do in early March, despite skyrocketing counts of COVID-19 cases and an increasing death toll, my central European homeland became one of the first ones to close all schools, gyms, bars, restaurants, non-essential shops and borders by March 15 — a full week before the first Czech patient died of coronavirus.
I wonder how will life ever go back to normal — in Wuhan, Paris or Prague.
It was also one of the first countries, along with Slovakia, to make mandatory face masks or any form of respiratory protection in public places. Although these measures have been widely criticized as un-proportionally strict, Czech outdoor life continued relatively normally. While I was counting days in the Parisian lockdown, the photos of nature and outdoor activities that my Czech friends posted on social seemed to me like a different world.
Upon my arrival in Prague, I had two choices: get a swab test or self-isolate for two weeks. I chose the former, and a negative result was my ticket to freedom. Still, as we all are now faced with such dilemmas, I wonder how will life ever go back to normal — in Wuhan, Paris or Prague.
Prague nightlife starting again — Photo: Bertrand Hauger
Like others, I am getting used to my new life. While people are still required to cover their mouth and nose in public transport and in shops, gyms, swimming pools and other sport centers are open and mask-free. Although forcefully emptied of the usual crowds of tourists, the city center of Prague now feels more welcoming to locals than ever. In bars and restaurants, customers should technically wear face masks when not consuming food or drinks, but in practice … well. Also, last week, some theaters opened and the first concerts and dance parties for up to 500 people took place over the weekend.
Simultaneously coming out of the lockdown and returning home was a bit extra surreal.
Activities that I considered surreal and insanely irresponsible two weeks earlier in the French context are slowly beginning to find their way back into people's lives. "What is normal?" is a question with constantly shifting boundaries, and borders.
The experience of simultaneously coming out of the lockdown and returning home was a bit extra surreal. To give an example, while my Paris-based colleagues are still worried about going to recently reopened restaurants and gyms, I am already contemplating my first post-pandemic sauna.