Friday, 17 July
Every July my husband David and I have the same exchange.
He says: “Summer is now here. Paris will calm down and empty out.”
And I reply: “No it won’t. Not until August. July is one big traffic jam.”
Unfortunately I am always right. The boulevard Saint-Germain below our living room window remains a stubborn clog of cars until the minority juilletistes return from holiday and the majority aoûtiens have reconvened on the beaches.
Except this year, when we did not even have the debate. Paris may be déconfiné, with shops re-opened and restaurants, after months of imposed closure, feeling entitled to spill their tables as far as they like across the sidewalks and into the street, but the usual nervy buzz of the city has toned down to a drone, sometimes even near silence.
The main difference, I thought, was the absence of tourists, who in normal times occupy the city in summer like locusts. Though the French borders have been opened to some countries since July 1st (the US, with its skyrocketing number of Covid-19 cases, is not among the chosen), visitors have returned in a trickle to eerily closed hotels.
It is amazing how spacious...
...the Tuileries Gardens can be when not bursting at the seams with human beings.
I have frequently had the odd feeling of being back in the early 1980s. With its increased breathing space Paris seems to have regained a certain balance and dignity. As long as I don't think about all the lost jobs in the tourist industry, I rejoice in the retro moment.
Of course signs abound that times have changed.
In those days both urban cyclists and joggers were rare birds, more objects of mockery, than mainstream. Electric scooters would have been the realm of science fiction and the idea of the automobile being demoted in the transport hierarchy unimaginable.
As would have been the sight of Parisiens blighting their look with an unseemly face mask, an accessory that will become mandatory in all enclosed spaces starting next week.
Sadly nature is revealing further changes. The horse chestnuts and linden trees are being suffocated, one by a bacteria, the other by parasites, making their leaves turn brown and dry long before autumn.
Others are succumbing to too much heat and too little rain.
It strikes me that there's more to Paris' odd mood this July than the paucity of tourists. They cannot, for example, be responsible for what is usually an August landscape...
Restaurant patrons may be blocking the paths of pedestrians on the outside but the inside tells a different story.
Clearly Parisiens have also stayed away, either having been laid off or continuing to work from home or–like David and me most of the time–opting for the countryside.
Underlying this year's July hush is deep angst, feelings of suspense and suspended animation. You can practically feel it under your feet on the street, sense it emanating from the Paris stone.
We are all–government officials, businesses, schools and the rest of us, even if only on a subliminal level–more than usually apprehensive of la rentrée in September. Along with fear of a second pandemic wave is dread of the day that the lost jobs and reduced economic activity really hit home. What this July feels like is the calm before a very big storm.