House Arrest

15 October, 2021
Reading Time :8 minutes
Untitled, acrylic and pencil on paper, 2016 (courtesy artist Randa Hijazi).

Claire Berlinski


I knew this lockdown business was serious when they cancelled my convocation.

I had a convocation—a summons—to renew my carte de séjour. I had been told to present myself at exactly 8:35 a.m. at the Préfecture de Police in the IVe arrondissement on March 16th, 2020.

The annual convocation at the Préfecture is a grave ritual for every foreigner in France. The list of documents you must provide is long, strange, and very precise. There are infinitely many rumors about how the process really works. No one is exactly sure.

I have been highly impressed by the French bureaucracy. Their paperwork requests are exacting and peculiar, but if you give them precisely what they request, they are polite, competent, and professional. It’s not a surreal and sadistic game, like the Turkish bureaucracy. In its own way, it works very well.

This time, though, I figured the convocation was a death sentence.

There would be hundreds of people on line to enter the Préfecture. No matter how early I got  there, I’d end up standing with the coughers and nose-pickers. They’d squeeze us in groups of about twenty into an enclosed antechamber, where we’d wait to go through the security line to have our bags x-rayed. One of the baggage screeners, I was sure, would be named “Patient X” in the literature.

We’d wait for our convocation in a crowded room. No one would be sure who would be summoned next or why, so everyone would crowd together near the officials until they’re called or shooed away, like seals at feeding time. We’d sit on their ancient plastic chairs — a virus, I figured, could live on those things for weeks.

It occurred to me that everyone else, just like me, was obliged to be there, even if they knew they were sick. Even if they were gasping for oxygen and dribbling with fever sweat. People would crawl right out of the ICU to make sure they didn’t miss their convocation.

I did it every year, so I knew the routine. You slowly pass your papers back and forth with an official who inevitably touches her nose as she studies them. She passes them back to you, telling you to re-order them. She licks her fingers to leaf through documents.

My stomach turned thinking about it. I was good as dead.

We had all been officially advised to stay at home. We were not supposed to go out unless our business was “essential to the life of the nation.” Was this appointment, I asked myself, essential to the life of the nation? What did essential mean, precisely?

I asked my friends. Without hesitation, they said, “Of course it is.” This was France. You do not miss your convocation.

They were right, I concluded. It was a paradox. A nation in which convocations are inessential might still be a nation, but it would not be the nation of France. I resigned myself to my fate and put my papers in order.

I rose early and set off for my appointment in Samarra. I wore gloves. I brought my own pen. I put a vial of rubbing alcohol in my handbag.There was a long line, as I expected. Everyone kept a meter’s distance from each other, just as the government advised. The line stretched all the way to the Quai du Pont Neuf. We all carried certified translations of our birth certificates, two copies of our most recent electricity bill, four regulation-sized photographs, and signed certificates attesting to our commitment to the non-practice of polygamy.

I waited with the rest of the supplicants. We watched each other uneasily. No one coughed.

Suddenly, the doors of the Préfecture opened, and a phalanx of policewomen barged out. They looked at us like we were imbeciles. What part of “essential to the nation” had we failed to understand? They barked, “Rentrez chez vous!”

That’s when it dawned on me — they were serious. If they were cancelling our convocations, we were truly under house arrest. They were sending us home — and they weren’t going to let us out again.

The government ordered us to stay inside our homes. It did not advise us, it ordered us. We could not step outside without a permit. This had never happened before in peacetime France.

President Macron addressed the nation. He used the words “at war” six times. The Decree of March 16, 2020, forbid all movement outside save to seek food or medical care. Dogs could relieve themselves, but there was to be no social dog-walking. One person per dog — and get it over with quickly.

The permit was another exceedingly complex French form. You had to download it every time and sign it, indicating the precise time you set foot outdoors. At first, they gave us permission to exercise outside for an hour — prison yard privileges, so to speak — but they quickly cracked down even on that. Too many people, the Interior Minister Castener explained, were using it as an excuse to socialize.

The exasperated Castener put 100,000 police and gendarmes on the streets to enforce the decree. “The orders are clear,” said Castaner. “Stay at home.”

Vehicular police were deployed in fixed and mobile positions on the main and ancillary traffic axes. “There is no glory,” Castener intoned, “in refusing to submit to health measures and, through irresponsible behavior, becoming an ally of the virus.”

The government began flying helicopters and drones to ensure everyone stayed locked up.

I’m on a neighborhood mailing list, one we usually use to announce missing cats or impending construction. One neighbor wrote to the group to warn us: Watch out. The police are being completely unreasonable. He had just gone out to get water, he reported, but he was stopped, scolded, and given a fine by the police. “I guess,” he wrote, “that water is not considered essential to life.” The subject of his e-mail was ABUSE OF POWER!

Some neighbors sympathized. Others pointed out that water comes out of our tap.

This was all very strange. I did not disapprove of the policy. Quarantine is an ancient remedy for pandemics, and it was all we had, at the time. But I had never experienced house arrest before. I wasn’t sure, but I thought I’d be okay. It wouldn’t, if I was honest, be such a change. I work at home, normally. And I’m highly introverted. I thought it over: I liked my apartment. It’s cozy. I always feel guilty for not going out more and taking advantage of all that Paris has to offer, anyway. I like my own company. I was both pleased and embarrassed to realize I didn’t much object to being imprisoned.

But surely that couldn’t be right, I thought. House arrest, after all, is a punishment. It’s been used as a punishment since antiquity. Surely it must be deeply disagreeable — because it has to be. Otherwise, the threat of it wouldn’t dissuade anyone from breaking the law. Was there something awful about it that I was about to discover? Perhaps I would go insane?

Our conditions were, in fact, even more arduous than those of typical detainees under house arrest. Mine was “the most severe form of house arrest,” according to my legal dictionary, for we weren’t allowed outside even to go to work or religious services. There were no ankle bracelets, but apart from this, I was living the life of a non-violent first offender who had committed a crime for which jail would be too harsh, but probation too lenient. (Fraud, say, or embezzlement. Drunk driving, perhaps.)

Within weeks, the entire world joined me in captivity. All normal social intercourse ceased. The State Department issued a Level Four travel advisory for the entire planet. Global tourism vanished. The world’s borders, including the internal borders of the Schengen Zone, slammed shut. The education of 1.5 billion schoolchildren was suspended. The perished were sent to their repose without funerals. To prevent its citizens from starving, the American government passed a spending package larger than the GNP of the Soviet Union at its zenith.

Not all of the news was bad. Prisoners who had been detained without trial or imprisoned on trivial charges were released.

But as the weeks passed, I realized my initial instinct was right. I was fine. In fact, I enjoyed it. This made me appreciate how real and significant the difference is between introverts and extroverts. As is the difference between being locked down by yourself and being locked down with your family. The people I knew who were locked down with their families went insane. Every one of them. They latched on to the Great Barrington Declaration and spent their days ranting on and on about Sweden.

My extroverted friends were miserable. One of them shared an online tutorial on Facebook. It was titled, “How to keep yourself occupied during lockdown.” I watched it in puzzlement: I couldn’t fathom having so little idea how to entertain myself that I had to watch a tutorial for ideas. I had just amused myself all day long with a can of spray paint and a milk carton. I had several milk cartons left, too.

I felt bad for my friends who were freaking out. Some started calling me all day long, saying they wanted “to keep my spirits up.” My spirits were fine, except when I was interrupted by the phone ringing. People claimed to be worried about me because I lived alone. I don’t think they realized what a blessing it was. I don’t fault them for worrying, though. It’s true that I didn’t leave my apartment or see another human being for months — and solitary confinement is reputed to be a torture — so I can see why they worried. And I can’t quite explain why I did so well.

It’s odd that I don’t get lonely anymore. I know I did when I was younger. I remember that. But now, demonstrably, I don’t. I can stay in my apartment, alone, for weeks and weeks, without another soul around, and barely notice it. Is this a sign I’ve developed unusual mental strength? Or is it a sign that I’ve turned into a weird hermit in middle age? I don’t know.

I really didn’t like the sound of Covid. I’d survive it, almost certainly; I’ve got none of the dread preexisting conditions. But my brother had caught it, early on. Long Covid is miserable, and he’s still suffering from it. I really didn’t want to share that experience with him. So even after the lockdown eased, I kept to myself. I took no unnecessary risks. And to my bewilderment, isolation continued to agree with me just fine. I didn’t understand this. People go mad in solitary confinement, don’t they? I wasn’t going mad—not even close. Could it be that email and Twitter really are an adequate replacement for friends and family?

I’m vaccinated now, and life in France has more or less returned to normal. I go grocery shopping. I meet my friends for coffee and dinner. But sometimes, when people call me to ask if I want to go out and do the sorts of things you really do have to do now and again, if you want to keep your friends, I secretly miss the lockdown.

Certainly, the threat of house arrest would no longer deter me from committing a crime.


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