“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. Continue reading