“What’s true of all the evils in the world is true of plague as well. It helps men to rise above themselves.” ―
It was a peculiar weekend right enough. Shorter than planned, and one that, like Alice, saw us enter and re-emerge from a tunnel into a world that had undergone a surreal transformation during our brief excursion. The news from around the globe of a spreading virus was building, but in most parts of the British Isles people were carrying on with their daily lives quite normally, albeit with a slight awkwardness when it came to greeting friends and relatives. We had been looking forward to our trip on Eurostar, one that I saw as a practice run for many more non-aviation journeys into Europe. On arrival at the terminal in St Pancras we were warmly greeted by an animated and cheerful attendant who told us to “go and enjoy a cup of coffee and some breakfast, and to ignore the published checking-in time, as the numbers travelling were down, and they were not going to be strict about it this morning”. This was delivered in a manner clearly intended to make us feel relaxed. It had a different effect. As we drank our coffee at a faux-French outlet, only twenty metres from the gate, we pondered as to why numbers were so far down, whether we were doing the right thing, what if we got stuck in France, were we being irresponsible, and many other thoughts that took us on a downward spiral of self-doubt. We finished our coffee and decided to get through check-in at the time instructed, just in case she wasn’t even a real attendant, but someone who enjoyed hanging around the station and making people miss their train.
Check-in and embarkation were smooth, the journey commenced, and before long we were sliding effortlessly through the Kent countryside and down into the blackness of the channel tunnel. We began to relax. The train was not busy and people were spaced generously around the carriages. We were very soon gliding into Gare du Nord. Five minutes later, we had been embraced by the late afternoon Parisian foot-traffic, and eased seamlessly into that familiar walking pattern. The one that differentiates the tourist who is not in any hurry to get anywhere in particular from the deliberate and determined stride of the local with somewhere they need to be.
Once the hustle and bustle that always surrounds major transport hubs had been left behind, it became easier to distance ourselves from passers-by. No-one appeared concerned, there were no more masks in evidence than had been spotted in London, and everyone looked like they were glad it was the weekend. We strolled miles and miles, soaking in the sights and sounds. We people-watched, we stopped to drink in the majesty of the bridges crossing the Seine, we reminded ourselves of previous trips to the city and reminisced. We paused and stared as the sun set behind the Eiffel Tower illuminating the west of the city in a magical red glow. As the light faded, the old lady started to put on her sparkles, and a different face gradually appeared. The lights of the Grand and Petite Palais bestowed a quality on the architecture and the skyline that was enchanting.
The next day began with a gentle hint of something different. Four young people, at a table in the breakfast area of our hotel, sat together but socially distant. Not just because, like most young people of their generation, their attention was exclusively focused on the content of their mobile phone screens, but by the fact that they were each wearing a mask.
We climbed our way steadily up the winding streets and steps of the Montmartre, passing the run-down, cheaper shops of the down-at-heel neighbourhood, selling linoleum, fabrics, buckets, cheap tickets to Conakry and Dakar, and face-masks. Piles of face-masks; five for one euro. No shortages here, though they didn’t look like medical quality to me, but rather the cheap variety that offer only psychological safety, not viral protection. At the top of the hill, the Sacre Coeur stood, magnificent as ever, but firmly closed, even to worshippers. There were people, but not in the numbers you would expect to see around this highlight of Paris. The street vendors even appeared resigned to something inevitable. They went through the motions of demonstrating their flying plastic birds and somersaulting monkeys, but they made hardly any attempt to actually push a sale. It was as if they knew this was a last futile act they were performing. Their hearts just weren’t in it.
Later, we wound our way back to ground level and into Pigalle. The Moulin Rouge stood deserted and sad. Desolate, seedy and slightly ridiculous, it wouldn’t be opening its doors this night. I had no idea just how many Irish bars there were in this district, and I gave up counting after about twelve. It was meant to be the Six Nations finale today. The Irish would have been in town in their droves. Trips to Paris booked for over a year and the Championship still on the line for both the home and away nations. But the boards outside pubs promoting Guinness, Magners and Irish Music stood abandoned and derelict like the tired gravestones in nearby Montmartre Cemetery.
That evening, we decided to try to rediscover a Parisian institution, Le Chartier restaurant. We had eaten there many years ago, and it was an experience we were keen to re-enact. We checked it out online, partly to make sure it was still operating, and also to locate its precise whereabouts. While I was pleased to see that it was alive and kicking, I was slightly disappointed to discover a second premises had been opened in Montparnasse on the south bank of the river. We set out to find the original, tucked away in the side streets of a vibrant neighbourhood, behind Rue La Fayette, close to the Folies Bergere. Since 1896, the Bouillon Chartier has been providing Parisians with cheap stews and broths in three different centuries. I had often wondered whether it would succumb to the modern world and be forced to close, or radically change, but I was pleased, when we found it, to see that it was thriving and looked as run-down and original as ever. It does not take bookings and the tradition is to turn up and take your chances. The queue waiting to enter stretched down the street, no-one yet adopting the two-meter distance rule that would become standard across Europe in the coming days. We decided against joining the queue. It was comforting enough to know that the old place was open and doing well, and we strolled on in search of a quieter location to have dinner.
We chanced upon a small, charming, and, as it turned out, exceptionally high-quality restaurant in a small side street nearby. Towards the end of our meal, we overheard a waiter inform people at a table by the window that a Government announcement by President Macron had come through, instructing all non-essential businesses in France to close down from midnight. On the walk home we noted that many cafes and bars had decided it was not worth remaining open even until that deadline.
There was more we wanted to see and do in the next two days, arrondissements we were looking forward to exploring, but walls felt like they were closing in. The prospect of wandering rapidly emptying avenues, with virtually no opportunity for refreshment or nourishment, made up our mind to seek an early departure the next morning. The Eurostar office at the terminal was busy, with many other people coming to the same conclusion, however, they handled the chaotic situation calmly and professionally, and we soon secured exchange tickets for a mid-morning evacuation.
The northern Parisian banlieue, the suburbs that have attracted such a notorious reputation in recent years, slid past our window, glinting benevolently in the morning sunshine. I reflected on what lay ahead for the low-paid, working-class people in these crowded tower blocks. Occupied by a cosmopolitan mix of people, many of whom are completely reliant on the service industry and tourist trade that drives the Paris economy, it was hard to imagine how they would survive a complete close down.
As I contemplated the days and weeks to come for the people within these concrete cells on the outer edge of the city, I was reminded of Camus’ great work, La Peste, the story of a plague that arrived, unannounced, and quickly broke all the norms of society, forcing the people into isolation and criminalising gatherings. Any lightness of spirit that I had managed to generate in the previous forty-eight hours was being replaced by a creeping darkness. A warning sent to us by Camus, through the pages of his book that, while physical distancing may help to stop the spread of viral plague, it can unleash a hidden and primeval human condition, a sort of psychological plague. One unintended consequence of social distancing, identified in La Peste, was that people lost the capacity to share love, experience empathy or experience pleasure. Personal internal terrors and fears were unchained, creating distrust, paranoia and selfishness.
As the sunlight gave way to twenty-three miles of darkness, I considered the challenge for us all in the coming weeks and months. To ensure that physical distancing does not become social and psychological distancing. To understand that lack of physical proximity does not have to mean absence of connection. Bearing these things in mind may just mean there can be light at the end of the tunnel.