Paris, the City of Light, lacks sparkle after two months of Covid-19 lockdown
A foray into the centre of Paris on the day lockdown was lifted revealed an eerie atmosphere in a city once brimming with life.
On the first day after lockdown, Paris was a ghost town swept by strong winds and a sudden drop in temperature. It was bizarre to see the usually bustling area between Madeleine and Opera devoid of life.
In pre-Covid days, this was the epicentre for shopping, food, business and culture with the imposing 19th century Opera Garnier as an elegant backdrop.
This is normally a busy, noisy neighbourhood with much traffic, scooters zigzagging, impatient Parisians, overwhelmed tourists, coaches filled with Asian visitors stationed outside one of Boulevard Haussmann’s flagship department stores.
These shops remain closed. Department stores and shopping centres of more than 40,000 square metres are not allowed to open yet. Likewise for the capital's cafés and restaurants.
The deserted streets and empty shops – lights on, wares on display and shop attendants whiling the time away – convey a strange “walk on the moon” impression reinforced by the sight of people in masks.
I saw all sorts, from ordinary surgical ones to funky hand-made masks or designer ones with logos meant to be seen from afar.
Out of the flat, out of the PJs, out of shape!
The morning started with a panic attack and the realisation that I’ve put on weight. That’s the sad conclusion after more than 55 days confined in a Parisian flat. It's a harsh reality I can no longer avoid as I finally dress up in “normal” clothes – or trousers that do not come with an elastic waist band.
Despite the lounge wear and flowing dresses, I already had a sneaking suspicion that new layers had found their way around my waistline.
Yesterday’s dips and pitiful struggles with push ups have not managed to melt them yet. That orange cake, parmesan biscuits and the tablets of chocolate probably contributed to my panda-like or Rubenesque silhouette (depending on how charitable the mood is).
For the first time in weeks, I did two things I usually do in Paris: check weather forecasts and public transport apps. During the lockdown, scrutinising the sky was enough to ascertain the next hour’s weather.
Inside the ‘belly of Paris’
Taking the metro was an expedition that involved careful mapping. Sixty stations in Paris have been closed to prevent a sudden influx of travellers in the underground transport system. A trip that usually takes 20 minutes yesterday took 35.
It is strange to see, on the metro walls, posters advertising concerts that never happened, movies that will not be shown or special offers that did not take place.
Seats on the platforms and in the carriages have a sticker to indicate where not to sit, so as to enforce social distancing measures.
The metro's operators say a million such stickers have been used throughout the Paris underground. Inside the carriages, there are other stickers on the floor indicating where passengers are allowed to stand.
The silent metro travellers were observing the social distancing rules and were all wearing masks. They will be fined 135 euros if they do not. But I travelled outside of rush hour and there was more than enough space in the carriages.
I wonder what it will be like during peak hours when travellers are usually packed like sardines in a tin.
When a woman pulled her mask down in the metro, I was startled – my own reaction took me by surprise – but it was to gulp a piece of chocolate.
The current atmosphere in the capital no longer appeals to flânerie. No more aimless strolling. People on the streets of Paris appear preoccupied with getting on with the tasks that took them outdoors before hurrying back home.
We are not out of this strange Covid era yet. Not for a long while. Not as long as there is so much uncertainty about the virus. We, as humans, have never been so co-dependent as “a case somewhere is a case everywhere”.
Paris has weathered many catastrophes over the centuries, and it will certainly regain its joie de vivre – but not just yet.
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