At war – now and then

One of the first things that French President Emmanuel Macron said about the coronavirus – and one of the only ones that a vast majority of people remember is that “we are at war” with it.

“At war” may have seemed a bit much when he gave his speech in the early days of the epidemic. But as the days passed, my favorite city did indeed start resembling a war zone with roped off streets and closed restaurants and cafés and parks and people wearing masks.  Well, some people.   I wear my mask everywhere, although I see many who don’t. I try to keep my distance from people. I wash my hands regularly. When we were locked down, I obeyed the rules, dutifully filling out the affidavit with information on where I was going and when and why every time I left home..

I was a good little soldier. But when we were finally given permission to go out of our houses without the affidavit, the full impact of the virus’s effect fell upon me like a ton of bricks. Ironically, with the loosening up of the lockdown, I felt even more locked down.   All of a sudden, not being able to get in the car and travel more than 100 kilometers felt insufferable, rubbing shoulders with masked (or worse, unmasked) people at the grocery store irritated me, seeing clothing stores open but not wanting to try anything on, knowing I couldn’t take a long walk and stop in a café– all of it got to me.  Will things ever get back to normal? Or will there be a new normal?

I couldn’t help but think about the heroine of my newest book, an historical novel that takes place between Paris and southwest France during World War II – a real war with real human beings for enemies. I started thinking about the lack of flour and sugar and toilet paper now compared to the deprivation of food and so many other goods during World War 2.  During the coronavirus, at least, we weren’t rationed! 

I started thinking about how people’s movements were hampered then because of curfews or other obstacles the enemy imposed. I thought about all the ways both then and now that people tried to circumvent the rules.  My in-laws spent a great deal of the war out in the country and even there, in a tiny village, they were not allowed to go out after dark. Germans patrolled the little road in front of their house to make sure no one did. You could get shot if you disobeyed, but disobey they did, waiting until it was pitch black and then scrunching down and rolling under a hedge to get to the neighbor’s house to play bridge and spend a nice evening. Today’s equivalent of that would be the groups of young people I see standing on a nearby bridge puffing on joints, wearing no masks (natch) and standing as close together as they can.  

I thought about train traffic. At the beginning of the coronavirus epidemic, there were no trains. But now there are, although fewer of them, with riders seated at a proper social distance.  

Back in 1944 my heroine takes a train from Paris to her hometown in southwest France. Her friends and family warn her not to go; résistants are sabotaging railroad tracks and train trips are risky. But she defies the warnings and goes, setting in motion the tragic events that follow.  Before taking that train, she is in Paris when the war begins. She and her sister and mother take to the road, running from the enemy. When they return, the Paris  they knew has radically changed, with German soldiers lolling in cafés or marching in neat files down the Champs-Elysees. She feels that she is in a different world – and she is. 

Nothing is the same. In one scene she is sitting in the Tuileries Garden as two German officers stroll by.  “Bonjour Mam’selle”, they greeted her with a nod of their heads as they appreciatively appraised her petite French frame, her highly colored cheeks, her big brown eyes, and her fashionable attire. She quickly bowed her head over the book she’d brought with her. The conquerors returned to their conversation and strolled on.”

How do you deal with an enemy who occupies your country? She might have smiled and greeted them. Or showed her distaste. She took the middle ground to avoid their eyes. The point is, though, that she had to make a decision – for that, and for every other aspect of her life.

Although it may be a stretch, there are indeed similarities between our current war on the coronavirus and the Second World War. How do you deal with an enemy? Our enemy now is a bug we cannot see, but we are at war with it and have to deal with it just as people do in real wars with enemies they can see only too well. There are rules to observe and penalties if you don’t. There is danger, there are risks.  If you play around with the risks, you may lose your life.  We were made to stay at home and now, when we can finally go out, we still have to observe certain rules.  Some people do, some people don’t.  

President Macron was right when he said “we are at war”.   No, we can’t see the enemy but we can wage war on it.  That is why nurses and doctors and all the people who are going to work at personal risk are our heroes and heroines. They’re on a battlefield. If the current optimistic statistics on lower death rates persist, it is safe to say that for the most part, in spite of grievous defeats and way too many deaths, observing the rule of sheltering in place has resulted in winning many battles and soon, perhaps, the war.

Harriet’s book, Final Transgression, will be published in June. Further announcements to be made.

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