Pointdevue returned to Paris this week after nearly two years in Covid exile without any conscious a priori expectations apart from major changes and signs of damage. What would be left after the repeated, months-long strict ‘confinement’ to living quarters? Torture enough to drive significant percentages of the population out of their minds, especially those with little kids locked inside small flats by police controls and fines. After the near-disappearance of travel and commerce. Damage exacerbated, I’d read, by ongoing battles over mandatory electronic health passes, school openings, and now, as the media cliché has it, ‘flaming’ rises in fuel and gas prices. Plus the pop-up threat of an anti-Muslim philosopher as presidential candidate. And the worst: a hair-raising recent article in the NYT about how an explosion of bicycles, scooters el al. is shrinking the life expectancy and already limited patience of the city’s pedestrians.
Paris looks and feels the same as before. Or at least, not changed in any predictable or terrible way. If anything she seems more quintessentially herself than before the pandemic. Paris the intemporal, as so many have written and painted and photographed her. The same good bones as seen in those 19th century daguerreotypes, with familiar buildings and familiar characters all dressed by the vintage clothing shop around the corner.
Paris has suddenly woken up, after a couple of years of shuttered R&R. The crowds surge in the streets, where one hears more French and fewer foreigners, all babbling away in good humor, a bit high on being able to move around outdoors, meet friends and shop. Paris is putting on fresh make-up, as many establishments took advantage of the down-time to close and redecorate. She’s an amnesiac Beauty, perhaps, thanks to the merciful human incapacity to recall pain. Not to say there hasn’t been severe suffering, or that the dead are not grieved over. But in this October 2021 sunshine kids play ball in the parks, the cafés overflow, there are lines outside the museums (Soutine! Hockney! Maier! Baselitz!). The TGV trains sell out fast. And the traffic’s back. As for that, the streams of bikes are, yes, thicker, though not nearly as enraging as the earsplitting testosterone-fueled motorcycles. (Mayor Hildago, since you love to regulate, do something about mufflers.) A positive side effect the NYT piece didn’t mention is that there are notably fewer cars on the streets. Jaywalking is easier than ever. Socialist Party Hildago has vowed to turn Paris into a no-car city in a few years. Car-owners and conservatives loathe and dread her ambitions. As someone whose ‘before’ angst level used to fluctuate with the daily pollution report, I’ll be interested to see how this battle plays out.
Beauty’s Other Face.
Even the world’s most beautiful city can’t consist only of inhabited historical monuments in gardened and preserved districts like the central arrondissements where tourists, bo-bos and bourgeois instinctively, happily huddle, like delicate herd animals sensing the limits of their territory. Take the metro out a few more stops to the edges of the old defining walls, Stalingrad in the north (19th arr., 25% under the poverty level) or St. Ouen, or Kremlin-Bicetre to the south, for the rough flip-side of the image. Bleak run-down housing blocks, treeless thoroughfares lined with Stalinesque (sic) high-rises and cut-rate chain stores. All much improved by the color and action of street stalls selling Moroccan incense, soap and bags, bras for five euros, African fabrics, falafel, shoes in big bins, you name it. White complexions are in the minority, not that anyone here gives a fig about such things. Unlike the bemused or distractable flaneurs of the centre-ville, most everyone appears busy, focused on where they want to go. Awake.
The French, Disciplined???
Shh, don’t tell them, or they might change their minds. In this town the Covid rules are being followed in an atmosphere of consensus, with no thought of irrational posturing: masks, optional outdoors, are required inside all public places large and small. Security guards at the entrances point to the hand gel. Fact is, in large part thanks to the government’s (at the time courageous) imposition of an electronic QR code, or Passe Sanitaire, 73% of Greater Paris is fully vaccinated. For others, including tourists without a QR, free rapid testing available on nearly every corner gives you in minutes a QR valid 72 hours, so you can sit at a café terrasse, enjoy a concert or expo or restaurant meal. One excellent chef observed that “Business is still on the quiet side, since so many people have learned to cook. But they’ll be back, because of how tiny their kitchens are!”
Or will the virus resurge, and shutter the city again? At least now we know how to cook.
Is France’s Recovery Only All About France?
Apparently a lot was stirring for the planet during Belle’s Big Sleep. Not to say there aren’t problems, and recently a scandal about a recycling center, but the good news again is that it IS a scandal, and light is shining on it. French enterprises are in the forefront of maturing research into carbon recapture technologies. Macron proposes re-embracing nuclear, where the country has a major experience advantage, and 83% of a Figaro poll this week agree. On an everyday level, business folk are walking the walk. Does all the plastic packaging in the US make you want to burn down the store? A giant plastic bubble for one head of lettuce, seriously, Whole Foods? Here, the popular chains and brands are moving fast to paper and cardboard. It’s even, well… pretty.