Another Week in a European Lockdown

Dealing with the roller coaster of “confinement,” drinking old vintages and wondering what’s next?
Another Week in a European Lockdown
In southern France, beaches and waterfront walkways, such as the Promenade des Anglais in Nice, are shut, with police guarding them to keep people off. (Maxppp via ZUMA Press/Newscom)
Mar 31, 2020

Three Saturdays ago, my wife and son and I were gathered in the south of France for what had originally been planned as a week of family time in the village in which our son had grown up.

It was a tense time. I’d already experienced the closing down of northern Italy, where my wife and I base ourselves. Now, the prospects of our son returning to his studies in the U.K. were dimming. That night, France announced the first part of a nationwide emergency lockdown because of the virus I now simply call “it.”

Nevertheless, we celebrated our togetherness with a bottle from our son’s birth year, the 1994 Giacomo Conterno Barolo Cascina Francia. The world was feeling small, but cozy.

Then, as I was dozing off around midnight, I heard our son’s voice from down the hallway.

“I’ve got a fever and a cough,” he called out. “Stay away from me and wipe down everything.”

Those 15 words turned our world upside-down and sent a hot shot of adrenaline through me that seemed to last well into the next day.

He quarantined in his room. Happily, his symptoms abated in a couple of days—just as France announced “le confinement,” a full quarantine of the country’s population of 67 million.

More than a week later, a doctor and family friend, Jean-Phillippe, made a second well-masked-and-gloved house call. What our son had surely looked like COVID-19, he said. But, even so, it was gone.

How much did we owe for the visits? No worries, we’d settle that latter, he shrugged. He was high strung, overworked and seemed to be running on fumes. For now, I gave him an old bottle as a gift: Sesti Brunello di Montalcino 2007.

I bring up wine because, ever since the fear of the virus entered our world, I have been opening bottles I had otherwise been saving for some happy day in the future. From St.-Julien to Sicily and Montefalco to Nuits-St.-Georges.

In le confinement, I have adopted a different philosophy toward wine. Why save old bottles when you can open them with those you love, and share them with those you appreciate—today?

I feel lucky to be spending this confinement in the countryside, which every evening at exactly 8 p.m. erupts with the sounds of car horns and hollers—the daily salute to the frontline caregivers in the fight against “it.”

In France, the wooded natural parks have closed, just like the drone-patrolled beaches. You are allowed to take walks for exercise, but only for up to 1 kilometer away from home.

From my limited view in exiting the house for necessities, the French deal with crisis as individually as Italians. At the local bakery/pâtisserie, customers line up outside the door—1 meter apart—as the chirpy, aproned ladies behind the counter hand out baguettes and loaves and make change. Only now, they look as if they are dressed for working in an E.R.

Next door at the greengrocer, the barefaced guys sing and put out the season’s first strawberries as if nothing were amiss. Down the street at the health-food store, a young cashier tired of wearing a face mask uses it as a hair band.

Finding humor in things is tough. My heart aches for the suffering behind the grim daily death tolls in Italy and Spain. Some say France is not far behind.

I have daily calls with a doctor friend in Lombardy whose moods bounce between hopeful and depressed. The other day, he elaborated on a symptom of the virus—the loss of taste and smell. A colleague who had tested positive told him, “Everything tastes like dust.”

For all of us now, life is, of course, day by day. Europe may be just a bit ahead of the curve of the U.S.

I have been wondering: How will the world change when this is over? I am not talking about emergency medical preparedness, but how we will view those pleasures we cherish like restaurants and cuisine. How will we look at wine?

In the pre-vaccine near term, how will we socialize after weeks in which we have been trained to look at family, friends and other humans as potential microbial bombs? Will the French return to their ubiquitous—now banned—kiss-kiss greetings? Will Italians immediately pack their public squares and bars?

The older we are, I think, the more cautious we will be, but we will probably seek comfort in simple pleasures and traditions. How I crave an aperitivo with friends in the piazza back in Italy, a plate of spaghetti with fresh clams by the sea and the festive ambiance of wine harvest.

My greatest hope is that we finally take stock and take care of this one beautiful world into which we were born.

With most airplanes grounded and cars parked for weeks, I am savoring the much cleaner air quality—something that was in short supply in the super-industrial parts of Italy’s Lombardy region that were hardest hit by the virus. “It,” like other respiratory diseases, likes weakened lungs. Pandemics typically thrive on the environmental imbalances we have created.

Our son recently reminded me of a scene from the Woody Allen movie Annie Hall, in which a grade-school-aged Alvy Singer (Allen) is depressed, explaining the source of his anxiety to a doctor: “The universe is expanding.”

“What has the universe got to do with it?” his mother scolds. “You’re here in Brooklyn. Brooklyn is not expanding!”

Well, nowadays, Brooklyn or wherever you are may feel like the universe. And you realize we can’t afford to take any of it for granted.

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