Paris loves you.
The pandemic has transformed us into little caterpillars. We hibernated. We cocooned. Waiting for the right time to break free and emerge.
Finally, my wife Pamela and I decided to tempt fate. We planned a summer trip to Provence. Our happy place in the South of France. We first jumped through the hoops of RT-PCR COVID tests. 72 hours prior to flying, they say. Even though we were both fully vaccinated, nobody seemed to care about that. Only masks and tests mattered. No doubt these rules will change again soon, as most of the world adapts, evolves, and builds immunity. Did you notice that very few people add the number 19 after the word COVID anymore? Time flies. These long initial winter months have turned into seasons, and seasons into a couple of years. 2020 is gone. It is now 2021.
On June 3rd, we travelled from Tampa, Florida to Newark, New Jersey, then boarded a plane for a 6 hours and 30 minute TAP flight to Lisbon. We got to experience Portuguese hospitality and kindness. Pamela and I were seated in different rows. A total stranger seated next to Pam asked the flight attendant to reunite us in an empty row further back. One should always fall asleep on the shoulder of someone who cares, especially on a transatlantic flight when cramped in economy class. Then there was the matter of our transit to Paris. Our layover in Lisbon was just one hour and five minutes. The airline had assured us that there was plenty of time to go through immigration, pass the security check (the third time is a charm) and arrive at our new gate. Alas, our plane left Newark one hour late.
Our stress level went up. We had hotel reservations and dinner plans with my niece and nephew for the evening. As a private pilot, I was taught that winds at high altitudes in the Northern hemisphere would likely be favorable to us, if going East. Note to oneself: when making weather predictions, use expressions like “probably” or “likely”. Deniability is a useful skill among meteorologists and other scientists. Supposedly. The wind gods proved me right. The crew made up some of the time. Then the flight attendant moved us to the first row of the economy class, ten minutes before landing, so that we could exit first.
What a dash run! Empty corridors helped. An airport customer service representative cleared the way for us. “Flight to Paris?” “Yes” “This way, this way.” We went through immigration in two minutes, thanks to our European Union passports. More empty corridors to security. More representatives eager to help. Another “Flight to Paris?” Q&A session. Next, the dreaded undressing ritual. Belt, shoes, watch, coat, computer, large electronics, liquids. A zest of radiation. A nod from the security guard. A quick sense of relief. Then liquids, large electronics, computer, coat, watch, shoes, belt, not necessarily in that order. One final shout out: “To your right. Straight all the way to gate A7.”
We stormed through the Lisbon airport in fifteen minutes. We felt like a bunch of volunteers were cheering our final sprint all the way to the gate, which was inconveniently located on the completely opposite side of the airport. All these people wanted us to win our race. Human compassion and altruism at its best. People were still boarding the plane when we showed up.
Paris. This city always finds a way to surprise me. This time, as we arrived at Orly airport, it was the signs. Paris Aéroport, which runs all the airports in Paris, had just launched a new advertising campaign. It was all over the arrival and luggage area. “Paris vous aime”. Paris loves you. The work of a marketing genius, no doubt. Everybody loves Paris. Now the city is loving you back. Unrequited love is painful. Here was a promise that better days were coming.
I find that taxis are the best way to get into Paris. Fixed price. 32 euros for a destination on the left bank of the Seine river. 37 euros for the right bank. The river dictates the fare. Don’t ask why. It is how it is. 25 minutes later, we walked into the cute little lobby of our three star hotel, at the foot of the Montparnasse tower. Hotel Waldorf. Clean room, hot shower, free wifi, and less than two hundred yards from cafés and restaurant terraces. It was Friday night and the streets were buzzing. The sidewalks and squares were, as usual, full of bicycles, scooters and motorcycles. The best way to zoom through the streets is on two wheels. One noticeable difference, this time. Umbrellas, tables and chairs had taken over most of the space. Cafés had encroached on pedestrian and parking territory. We met my niece, my nephew and his girlfriend for a nice family reunion. Dinner between 6:30 pm and 8:30 pm is early for Parisians. But I found out that they take curfew rules seriously. At 9 pm, everything and everyone turned back into a world of pumpkin and horses, with a few mice and lizards. I spotted a few straddlers, who wanted to prolong their break out. After all, it was the beginning of the summer. A lot of Parisian women wore dresses and sandals. Others looked chic with a just pair of jeans and a white T-shirt. June was bringing to Parisians the French open tennis tournament, the promise of sunny weekends with romantic walks in parcs, and the last minute frantic search into drawers to retrieve an old pair of sunglasses. A reminder that there used to be a time when we were carefree. We are heading back in that general direction.
The next morning demonstrated Paris love one more time. The hotel receptionist gave us directions, then dug into her purse to give us two metro tickets. Just because. The metro was fast, efficient (to be expected), and also clean and air conditioned (recent improvements). We emerged at Station Saint Michel, in the Latin quarter, just in front of a café. A sign that we needed to make a pit stop. The café was aptly named Café Saint Michel. Our Parisian waiter donned a uniform, an apron and a mask. Parisian waiters are always a difficult bunch to interact with. It depends on the mood of the day. We got lucky. After months of lock down and inactivity, the staff was eager to please. I asked if, even though it was lunch time, we could have some espressos, and if he still had croissants. His face expressed doubt, but he promised to check. His boss showed up quickly, very distinguished in his jacket and tie. No more croissants, sorry. I went into bargaining mode. “Would it be okay if I found a bakery nearby and brought back a couple of croissants for my wife?”. Chivalry is not dead. It is also highly valued in Paris. The café manager pointed in the direction of a side street and mentioned that yes, going to the bakery “Chez Paul” would be acceptable. The unspoken words were: “A definite breach of protocol, but for the lady, we will abide”.
After two espressos, we started to come alive again. A streak of understanding came across the face of our waiter, maybe even a slight smile under the mask, when I mentioned the brain fog that one experiences when under the duress of “décalage horaire”, the French word for jet lag. It somehow explained and excused our strange behavior. The Lavazza coffee induced two unoriginal but powerful realizations. One, coffee is a drug. In our case, a powerful remedy to jet lag. It is legal. Let’s take advantage of it. Two, sharing an espresso at a café terrace in Paris is one of these happy moments that make life special. It is a stress release exercise. A happy place experience. In these moments, j’aime Paris. And now Paris loves me back.