“O make me a mask and a wall to shut from your spies
Of the sharp, enamelled eyes and the spectacled claws
Rape and rebellion in the nurseries of my face,
Gag of dumbstruck tree to block from bare enemies”
The mêtro of Paris, an underground realm where different rules apply than in the world above, and where time passes at a different pace, could nevertheless not remain disconnected from Paris above, or from the rest of the world.
The French, who had been initially astonishingly dismissive about what was happening in neighboring Italy with Covid-19, soon too suffered under the harsh impacts of the virus. They were confined in their homes, and only allowed outside with a permission slip.
On March 26th, 54 Paris mêtro stations were closed and traffic was reduced to 30% of normal circulation. It was only on May 11, when the confinement phase was lifted that the mêtro and the RER (the regional express train system) gradually resumed running.
Many Parisians say that their first return to the mêtro after the end of their confinement was an amazing experience. The atmosphere was strange, people looked upon each other with an air of mistrust, and at each stop on the lines where the train doors do not open automatically, they all wondered the same question: Who will touch the handle to open the door?
These fears, however, were unfounded, because the metro stations are disinfected twice a day, and at the end of each day the entire “Ȋle de France“ (Paris region) network is deep cleaned. In addition to this, mobile teams disinfect the contact surfaces during off-peak hours.
At the beginning of September I landed in a Paris empty of tourists, with many hotels closed and long lines of taxis on corners waiting for passengers. On the Champs Elysées one did not see the usual long lines of cars illuminating the avenue with their lights. On the terraces one could see the lonely outlines of individuals at the few occupied tables. Nor was there the usual cosmopolitan melange of voices on the streets, where Parisian slang usually intersects with American English, Arabic, Spanish, and Italian.
Down in the mêtro, however, it was another world from the quieted City of Light above, one more alive and closer to its spirit. People moved freely, and the narrow spaces of the wagons simply did not allow for social distancing. The mandatory face masks however were worn by everyone, even the ever-present “clochards” (homeless people) sleeping on the seats.
Sociologist Stéphane Tonnelat explained that the covid health crisis has perturbed the delicate balance between social order and human density on the mêtro. This balance is one of the most characterizing aspects of public transport and the rules that govern it. Wearing a mask, says Tonnelat, hides the mouth, one of the most expressive parts of the face, and impedes important non-verbal communication that governs many interactions between mêtro riders. These facial expressions play a critical role in managing the smooth functioning of the metro, especially during crowded peak riding hours, and covid has now hidden many of them.
As the covid epidemic resurged in recent months, a second wave hit France, as in other European countries. A reconfinement was mandated for France on Friday, October 30. The mêtro then again suffered a sharp drop in its number of passengers.
A ruling on November 14, 2020 prolonged the state of emergency in France until February 16, 2021. This automatically extends the obligation for the French to adhere to health rules, including wearing masks. If the mask rule is violated, the perpetrator will be fined 150 euros. Fines will increase with each repeat offense, up to a maximum of 1500 euros.
It will thus be necessary to get used to this strange vision of a masked world in the Paris mêtro.
Johnny’s last words before dying are, “oh, hazme una mascara” ( ‘o, make me a mask’ ), an indication that he is aware that he is different and wishes that he too could play the role of another, escaping reality and hiding behind a guise to feel protected, sheltered.
Johnny would certainly feel even more deeply the dissociation between his conception of time and reality if he rode the mêtro now, with everyone wearing masks, like the one he wished for in his dying moments.
Pablo Munini, Milan , November 2020
Metro Paris Coronavirus masque