In times when a pandemic unleashes death and poverty, the concept of what is essential to keep society functioning in a lockdown is gripping Europe. Beyond the obvious—food stores and pharmacies—some answers in the patchwork of nations and cultures that make up Europe can approach the surreal. Thus, Germany is keeping car dealerships open, while in Belgium, chocolate shops get a long rope. “It has to be. Because chocolate makes you happy,” chocolatier Marleen Van Volsem at the Praleen chocolaterie, south of Brussels, told the Associated Press. Happiness would seem no subject to split hairs about. Yet consider how differently Italy and Britain treat a service that gladdens many a heart. In the country that coined the term “bella figura”—the art of cutting a fine figure—hairdressers are deemed essential. But across England people have had to scramble to get their hair done in the past days and hours while they still could.
And then there are life’s finer pleasures. In France, the love of books is unquestioned. No country has more Nobel Prize-winners in literature, and a book review programme on TV like Apostrophes used to be watched by millions every week. But walk the streets of Paris and you will find bookshops closed. Sylvia Whitman, who runs the legendary Shakespeare & Co. bookstore on the Left Bank, seethes at the prospect of giant online platforms gobbling up business while her shop is shuttered. Her sales have dropped 80 per cent since the spring lockdown.