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Escape and resignation as life slows in Paris

A military patrol in Charles de Gaulle airport passes in front of closed concessions on March 16, 2020.
A military patrol in Charles de Gaulle airport passes in front of closed concessions on March 16, 2020. © Monique El-Faizy

In the hours before French President Emmanuel Macron is expected to announce yet another new round of restrictions in an effort to curb the coronavirus and less than two days after all “non-essential” commerce was ordered shut, life in Paris on Monday was dampened but not doused.

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The weather may have been a factor, along with the day of the week. It was Monday, when many essential shops such as butchers and bakers take their regular day off, and the skies were grey. The streets were not empty, but they were far quieter than usual. There was simply nowhere to go and nothing to do.

Contrast that with Sunday, when the sun glittered and warmed and the markets were open – and crowded. Social distancing? Hardly. Social media was filled with images of people thronging markets or strolling along rivers and canals. Germ-passing high-five greetings were not unseen.

Pharmacies are among those establishments allowed to stay open and several of them seemed to have at least average clientele on Monday. A resourceful though not entirely rule-following florist was piggybacking on one in the 18th arrondissement (district), selling bouquets and bunches of tulips from the back of a truck parked in front of the establishment. Business appeared brisk.

Elsewhere, though, the pace of trade was decidedly slower. Delcius Dervilme had been behind the wheel of his taxi for two-and-a-half hours when he picked up a fare headed for the airport. He said that his business started slacking off about two weeks ago, around the time tourists started getting skittish.

A healthy-looking Haitian well shy of the age at which one becomes a high-risk patient, he said he wasn’t overly nervous about catching the virus from a client.

“It’s going to affect everyone,” he shrugged, adding that he needed to earn money. He was more concerned about his relatives who remained in Haiti, where the health care system is much weaker.

What happens to fashion on lockdown?

Morning traffic on the A1 autoroute was clogged coming into the city but sparse heading to Charles de Gaulle (CDG) airport. Dervilme’s cab sped past the Stade de France, festooned with a giant poster for the opera Carmen, scheduled to be held there in September. Perhaps that concert will take place, but elsewhere in Paris streets are adorned with advertisements for events that will not be held and movies that no one can go see. Shopfronts display the latest fads. What happens to fashion on lockdown? Do things go out of style or do we all just pick up where we left off?

Terminal 2C at CDG was not crowded, but it wasn’t empty either. A fair number of travellers wore masks – and you saw all types (perhaps that’s where the fashion impulses are being directed). Throughout the airport were people absentmindedly rubbing their hands together, trying to distribute coatings of anti-bacterial gel. Where all these accoutrements came from was unclear; it certainly wasn’t the airport pharmacy, which had taped signs on to every available surface informing hopeful purchasers that they had no gel and no masks .

At least, though, it was open. Starbucks, McDonalds, Paul …. all closed. A hungry passenger who had forgotten to eat breakfast was left with whatever was on offer at the Relay—a mélange of prepackaged sandwiches and salads, chips, cookies, sweets. There was a fresh orange juice machine with a basket of croissants, muffins and pain au raisin next to it, but a knot of construction workers stood nearby talking and coughing, rending them unappealing choices. The cashier was wearing a mask and asked customers who got too close to back off a bit.

The check-in counters operated by Air Canada and Air Algérie had the same kinds of queues you’d see on an average day, though the touch-screen machines were being under-utilised for obvious reasons. At the American Airlines counters, employees outnumbered travellers. A flight to Philadelphia had been cancelled, but flights to Miami and Dallas were still scheduled to depart.

Samuel Morin and Kassandra Brambila, both in their late-20s, were taking the latter flight, heading back to their home in McAllen, Texas, near the border with Mexico, where they both have their roots. The couple had arrived in Paris on March 11for Brambila’s life-coach certification ceremony, but it had been cancelled. They had planned to stay until the 26th but worried that if they didn’t get back to the US soon, they wouldn’t be able to.

Today was calm in the airport, they said. They had come at 4.30am on Saturday morning to change their tickets, and there was already a huge queue of people at American Airlines counters trying to catch flights home. They were able to rebook with no problem, but they hung around for a few more hours to help some friends from Mexico who didn’t speak English or French. They had been scheduled to fly back to Mexico via the US, but as they were not US residents or citizens, the measures announced by Trump meant they could no longer connect on US soil. One of them ended up paying $4,000 (€3,600) for a new ticket that would allow him to fly directly.

Morin said he was a little worried about travelling during the time of coronavirus, but Brambila was sanguine. “I’m Mexican,” she said with a laugh. “I ate dirt when I was a kid. I think I’m more worried about him.”

Not everyone in the airport was heading home. Justine Bouchard is from La Somme and was catching a flight to Tahiti. She had already paid for the trip and was unable to cancel so decided to go, but was somewhat worried she wouldn’t be able to get back.

Clean and deserted

Getting back to Paris from the airport, on the other hand, was no issue. The buses and RERs were all operating, though the front area of the RoissyBus was reinforced with construction tape and no-entry signs to prevent people from approaching the driver. As it was, there were few passengers to worry about. And back in Paris, Métro stations were uncharacteristically clean and eerily deserted. Trains were underpopulated. Periodic announcements in the stations reminded what few riders there were how to protect themselves against the virus.

All of this is likely to look entirely different tomorrow, once Macron announces anticipated new restrictions.  

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