A street is empty next to Notre-Dame Cathedral. Picture: AP
A street is empty next to Notre-Dame Cathedral. Picture: AP

PICS: Eerie quiet settles over virus-shattered Paris

By James McAuley Time of article published Mar 16, 2020

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Paris - It was a surreal sight in the City of Lights: the Paris of dark cafes.

It's neither an overstatement nor a cliche to say that the cafes of the French capital are its beating heart: places to read the papers in morning, to sit with a friend in the afternoon or to sip a Bordeaux in the evening. A place to work, talk, think. It doesn't matter what you drink, or whether you drink at all. The cafe is chatter, chaos, community. And they never close - at least not until now.

Paris cafes remained open throughout virtually every historic challenge that has ever come their way: They never went dark during the Nazi occupation in the early 1940s or even after the terrorist attacks of November 2015, which targeted precisely the joie de vivre they represent. 

At the time, it became act of defiance to keep having your coffee en terrasse: This was Paris as the "moveable feast" of Ernest Hemingway's imagination, where the cafe is a place to "be alone [. . .] and be together." Parisians have never surrendered that stronghold.

People look at an empty terrasse in Paris. Picture: AP

But then came the coronavirus, an invisible enemy that's strengthened by precisely the kind of communal solidarity that has defeated the existential threats of the past. 

On Saturday, France's exasperated prime minister, Édouard Philippe, told the French public that all nonessential businesses, including cafes, would be shut at midnight until further notice. Social distancing in now the unofficial law of the land, and Sunday felt less like a new day and more like a new era.

That was the case across Europe, where borders continued to close in a region that has long prided itself on transcending them. On Sunday, Germany announced that it was imposing temporary controls on its borders with France, Switzerland, Denmark, Austria and Luxembourg, starting Monday. 

People walk outside a closed cafe. Picture: AP

Vatican City likewise announced that it was cancelling Holy Week services this year, an annual event that draws thousands of visitors from around the globe. This is - and will remain - the new normal in Europe in the age of coronavirus.

Sunday was a perfect spring day, the kind that heralds the end of the gloomy gray skies that descend on Paris for most of the autumn and winter and the beginning of sunshine. If the cafes were closed, people still flocked to the parks. They played football with their children and sat by the Seine, drinking from bottles among friends.

Hemingway's old house, at 74 Rue du Cardinal Lemoine, right in the heart of the Latin Quarter, normally bustles with students, tourists and passerby.

People stroll along the Seine river banks at sunset Sunday. Picture: AP

Two doors down is the Place de la Contrescarpe, a fixture of his memoir "A Moveable Feast," the book Parisians bought in droves after the November 2015 attacks, and which became a kind of battle cry at the time.

Today the Place de la Contrescarpe was quiet. The moveable feast had moved somewhere else. And in all likelihood it won't be back for quite some time.

The Washington Post

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