Coronavirus in France — What It’s Like in Paris after the Travel Ban

Michelle Richmond
Mar 12, 2020 · 7 min read
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A couple of days ago, I wrote about what it’s like in Paris during the Coronavirus outbreak. At the time, stores were stocked, schools were open, and life went on as normal.

Today, I awoke to the news that the U.S. had “banned all travel from Europe to the United Sates.” I will admit to experiencing about two minutes of panic. I clutched my husband’s arm and said, “Don’t go to work!”

He laughed and said, “I have to go to work.” Which is pretty much always the story.

I said, “What if we can never leave?”

He said, “You’ll feel better after coffee.” Which also is pretty much always the story.

For those of us prone to disaster thinking, a full-blown actual disaster is a mine field. You see, three weeks ago, before Coronavirus was much of an issue in France, I woke shaking from a dream in which Young Reluctant P. was trying to shove me out the door, screaming, “There’s no time! We have to go somewhere else now!” It was one of those dreams so vivid that, for a few moments after waking, I still thought it had actually happened. In the dream, my son was wearing his Raiders sweatshirt. I woke because I could actually feel the pressure of his hands on my arms.

The dream has come back to me many times over the last couple of weeks. But, as Mr. Reluctant P. reminds me, if all my vivid nighttime dreams — both the good ones and the bad ones — came true, we’d be living in Sea Cliff with an unobstructed view of the Golden Gate Bridge, I’d make blueberry pies from scratch that I’d serve to Justin Trudeau*, who would be wearing a flannel shirt, and I would have to take a surprise math exam every few months — as an adult, in a room full of high school students. But none of those things ever happened. Not Sea Cliff. Not the math exams. Certainly not Justin Trudeau and the pies.

I went online and read that a certain someone’s statement had been inaccurate, and that US citizens are still allowed to return home. I read on WhatsApp that my son’s school was planning an assembly today. I thought: that is such a bad idea. So I didn’t wake him up for school. (He soon woke up anyway, because the world may end but my upstairs neighbors will still renovate their apartment all day every day, and the power may go out but the workers will still magically power their industrial-strength drills with fairy dust.)

When I went out later, I noticed that those grocery store shelves, full two days ago, were looking a little sparser. What disappears from store shelves first during times of scarcity reveals a lot about the culture. All of the regular pasta was gone, but you could still get whole wheat pasta. All of the white toilet paper — gone — but there was a whole shelf full of miniature pink toilet paper rolls.

Should you be the rare American in Paris who prefers Harry’s American Sandwich Bread in a country where fresh-baked, inexpensive bread is available on every street corner, you’ll be happy to know that Harry’s American Sandwich Bread has not left the building. Yet. Maybe not ever. If the bakeries close, all hell will break loose. After all, one of the most common French phrases is “Long comme un jour sans pain (“as long as a day without bread”).”

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image by Michelle Richmond

Oh, to Be Back With You (California)

I worry about my friends and family back home in California, where the virus has been spreading rapidly. On the other hand, our community in Northern California, despite testing limitations, is handling mitigation so much more stridently than France. Governor Newsom has advised against even small gatherings where people cannot maintain a distance. Meanwhile, in France, with more than 500 confirmed cases in the Paris region alone, we still have public salad bars at the grocery store. I saw one today. I think salad bars are a bad idea under any circumstances, ever, but it seems particularly ill-advised during a, you know, pandemic.

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Macron keeps saying the government is taking appropriate measures to address what will be a very longterm epidemic. But he hasn’t yet encouraged people to work from home. He hasn’t urged businesses to allow employees to work remotely. Nor is he advising schools to allow students to study from home.

I understand that closing schools causes disruption by preventing parents from working, and I understand that parents in professions that can’t be done from home need a place to send their children. School is a safe and crucial place for many kids and a necessity for their families. That said, Macron could limit the spread of novel coronavirus by making it clear that work, whenever possible, can and should be done from home. That would give a large percentage of Parisian families the ability to keep their children home from school.

An Oasis

I went to the park near our apartment mid-morning to get some exercise. I’ve completely stopped going to the gym, which is smelly under the best of circumstances, crowded, and poorly ventilated. The park is a miniature oasis, a godsend, a way to get a little greenery in the concrete jungle of Paris. It was recess time for nearby schools, so the kids were in the park in their bright green vests, as they always are at recess time.

In some ways, seeing large crowds of children playing tag at the park was comforting. The children seemed happy and healthy. They were loud and rowdy, as children should be during recess. They were enjoying themselves. On the other hand, a few schools with children of different grades were all running around at the same time. The CDC has advised against grade-mixing to slow the spread.

Because school groups aren’t allowed to play on the grass in the, the children were, as usual, all crowded into the dirt pathway that runs between two gates. I know you can’t and shouldn’t stop children from playing, but surely the groups could spread out a bit. Less tag, more Simon Says and jumping jacks. I’m not a teacher, and I understand it’s difficult to wrangle children, who desperately need to get their energy out. This is just a case where schools could use more serious advice from the government.

Face-planting on Dirty Yoga Mats in the Midst of Coronavirus

My son’s school held a school-wide assembly this morning. Earlier this week, they had the kids doing yoga in a basement room. The yoga mats were dirty and had not been sanitized. The room is poorly ventilated. The kids were instructed to place their faces against the mats. It’s just…why? The nurse came to homeroom to give the kids a lesson on hand washing. When one of them said, “Shouldn’t we wash our hands for 20 seconds?” the school nurse said, “10 seconds is enough.”

Long lunches die hard.

Restaurants are still in full swing at lunch time, which seems like a bad idea. But France is slow to change. When your routine is to have lunch with all of your office-mates every day, there is little effort, without government advice and leadership, to abandon those lunches in restaurants and simply carve out a space at your desk to eat. Eating lunch together is deeply embedded in the culture. But cultures must adapt in bizarre times. And this is, indeed, a bizarre time.

As WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom said yesterday, many countries are not taking Coronavirus seriously enough or acting fast enough.

“This epidemic is a threat for every country, rich and poor. And as we’ve said before, even the high-income countries should expect surprises,” he said. “We’re concerned that in some countries, the level of political commitment and the actions that demonstrate that commitment do not match the level of the threat we all face.”

This includes the slow response of the Trump administration, which has been slow to test, provide proper guidance, and acknowledge the severity of the problem. The United States still lags far behind other countries in its ability to test patients. This became symbolically clear when Tom Hanks, who was diagnosed with coronavirus along with his wife, Rita Wilson, told his followers that getting tested in Australia is easy, fast, and free.

There’s no putting the pandemic back in the bottle. Nations will now determine, by action or inaction, the severity of the pandemic.

DIY hand sanitizer

Meanwhile, I checked in with my gardienne today and was happy to see the aloe I ordered from last week had arrived. My husband managed to find a bottle of rubbing alcohol near his workplace. My sister in Napa, whose husband is an infectious diseases expert (whose funding for years-long, highly effective research on just this sort of pandemic was entirely cut off by the Trump administration two years ago), had sent me a video about how to make hand sanitizer with aloe and rubbing alcohol.

So I am feeling excited about the prospect of becoming, at this late moment in my life, a DIYer. I will mix that aloe and alcohol. I will get my hands dirty…I mean, clean. Like all of us, everywhere, I will adapt.

Peace out. Stay safe. Much love from Paris. Still dreaming of California.

— Michelle Richmond, March 12, 2020, Paris

Michelle Richmond is the New York Times bestselling author of The Marriage Pact, Golden State, and other novels. A longtime resident of Northern California, she currently lives in Paris.

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Michelle Richmond

Written by

NYT bestselling author of the THE MARRIAGE PACT and THE YEAR OF FOG. Caffeinated in Cali. Books at Write with me at

The Reluctant Parisian

Welcome to The Reluctant Parisian, a blog about expat life in Paris with a Silicon Valley spin. I am a novelist by trade, an Alabamian by birth, and a Californian at heart. I'm also a wife and mother. How did we move from Silicon Valley to Paris? Reluctantly. #Paris #ExpatLife

Michelle Richmond

Written by

NYT bestselling author of the THE MARRIAGE PACT and THE YEAR OF FOG. Caffeinated in Cali. Books at Write with me at

The Reluctant Parisian

Welcome to The Reluctant Parisian, a blog about expat life in Paris with a Silicon Valley spin. I am a novelist by trade, an Alabamian by birth, and a Californian at heart. I'm also a wife and mother. How did we move from Silicon Valley to Paris? Reluctantly. #Paris #ExpatLife

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