Paris Muddles Through a Bleak Winter Fretting Over the Future
It wouldn’t be an understatement to say that the famously lively French capital is shivering through one of its darkest winters in history.
PARIS–“Paris in the winter is for connoisseurs of melancholy,” wrote the American author Irwin Shaw. “…lovers soon to be parted, merchants on the edge of bankruptcy, poets caught between rhymes and remittance men caught between checks…”
“Winter, like unhappiness,” he added, “is more biting in Paris than elsewhere.”
Shaw’s bleak musings appear in Paris! Paris!—a compilation of his essays dedicated to the City of Light that hit bookstores in 1977—decades before a global pandemic would tear across the world and shut some of most storied capitals, Paris among them. Reading Shaw’s morose, anti-lover letter to a Parisian winter here in 2021 fills me with an odd mélange of recognition, empathy, and annoyance.
“The most hospitable of cities,” he wrote, “it is the loneliest when the doors are shut.” I nodded in solemn agreement, took a long quaff of Pomerol, and then rolled my eyes. Shaw’s rant was published before the doors were shut in the literal sense, before the restaurants and bars went dark, and before the city’s residents found themselves scrambling to get home before the start of a 6 p.m. curfew. Could he have withstood a pandemic-era Parisian winter?
Shaw is no longer around to answer that question, but it wouldn’t be an understatement to say that the famously lively French capital is shivering through one of its darkest winters in history. Restaurants, cafes, and theaters have been closed since Oct. 29 when the country’s second lockdown took effect. And forget about waiting out the winter gloom in the company of Mona Lisa or Monet’s poppies. All museums—from the iconic Louvre to Victor Hugo’s onetime apartment—have also been shut since late October.
Just a few days ago, I spotted an ad for the much-anticipated Henri Matisse exhibition hanging in a metro station. The show opened in October at the Centre Pompidou, only to close 10 days later when Paris went into lockdown again. It runs until the end of the month, but it’s doubtful museums will reopen before then. France24 reported earlier this month that because of the lockdown some exhibitions had gone unseen altogether, prompting museums to beg the government to relax some restrictions. In response, French Culture Minister Roselyne Bachelot promised that museums and monuments would be the first to reopen as soon as infection rates dropped. However, she is as yet unable to provide an exact date.
And no wonder. Although down from a daily peak of more than 60,000 in November, COVID-19 cases remain stubbornly high. An average of more than 18,000 new infections have been recorded each day for the week of Feb. 8, and health authorities have come under fire for a vaccine program that’s lagging well behind its European neighbors. Out of the country’s 67 million-strong population, some 2.3 million have received at least one vaccine dose. Less than 370,000 people have received both doses, while more than 1 million have received both jabs in Spain.
The sluggish vaccine rollout, concerns over a possible third lockdown, and the circulation in the Paris region of new, more contagious COVID-19 variants has everyone a bit on edge. Add to that protracted bouts of icy drizzle—Shaw referred to winter sun in Paris as “only a pale rumor”—and morning darkness that lingers well after 8 a.m., and it’s hard to fathom an end in sight to the “winter of our discontent” that has the city in its cold grasp.
While the pandemic has sucked the life out of many major cities, the quiet streets and darkened restaurant windows feel especially surreal in Paris, where, even in the dead of January, cafés are usually packed and stalwart tour groups brave the elements for a trip up Montmartre hill or a boat ride down the Seine.
On my most recent walk along the famed waterway, a glacial wind was blasting off the river and the bouquinistes’ signature green stalls were bolted shut. Brown-gray floodwaters spilled over the riverbanks from recent heavy rains, leaving them off-limits to joggers, cyclists or anyone simply in need of a scenic stroll after too many hours indoors. I passed the Musée D’Orsay, where Alfred Jacquemart’s 19th-century rhinoceros sculpture loomed over a deserted front courtyard. On the other side of the Seine the opulent Hôtel de Crillon was still shuttered until further notice. The world’s most visited city currently feels like a chilly echo of its former self.
“Indeed, without its terraces, its cafes, its museums, its theaters, its cabarets… Paris is not the Paris that we are used to,” Corinne Menegaux, the director of the Paris Convention and Visitors Bureau, told me in an email.
Also absent from the French capital are its millions of foreign visitors.
Menegaux said that some 12.6 million tourists visited the Paris region in 2020, compared to a record 38 million the previous year. According to recent figures, the country’s tourism revenues fell by 41 percent last year. The greater Paris region of Île-de-France was the most affected, with an annual loss of €23.1 billion ($28 billion).
The lack of out-of-towners has been devastating to the hotel industry, especially to ultra-luxe properties like the Crillon (known as “palaces”), for which 80 percent of clientele comprise wealthy visitors from the U.S., China, Russia, and the Middle East.
Worse still, the city won’t likely be welcoming far-flung travelers anytime soon. On Feb. 1 a ban on non-essential travel to and from non-EU countries took effect, leaving even more uncertainty as to when much-needed tourist dollars will flood the French capital again. Taking a cue from countries like Denmark and Israel, France’s tourism sector has called for either “vaccination passports” or special documents proving vaccinations and negative COVID-19 tests, which would reopen the country to inoculated travelers. However, France’s minister of state for tourism said this week that the debate was “too premature.”
Moreover, even if the government did get on board, there is still the issue of the country’s infamously slow bureaucracy.
As Liberation pointed out, “It took 10 years to reach an agreement on biometric passports. Can we really imagine a global vaccination passport by August?”
In the meantime, one way the tourism industry is making the most of the situation is by focusing on the local market and promoting creative ways for the French to discover (or rediscover) their capital city, Menegaux said. Last year, the Paris Convention and Visitors bureau launched a series of themed self-guided tours that allow residents to explore the city’s celebrated and lesser-known corners. Among the walks, is one dedicated to the hit Netflix show Lupin, which lists locations featured in the series, including the Louvre and the 19th-century Fontaine de l’Observatoire.
There are also live online tours in French that I stumbled on while scrolling through my Facebook feed one evening. Priced at just €4.49 ($5.45) and organized by Vivre Paris, they offer hour-long virtual visits to standard, top-10 attractions like the Champs Elysees and the Latin Quarter, as well more off-beat themes like the Faubourg Saint-Antoine arts district or the 16th Arrondissement’s Art Nouveau architecture. Curious, I signed up for a tour called, “The Witches of Paris,” which promised a lesson on the history of witches and sorcery in the capital.
I was less impressed with the tour itself than I was with the guide—a young woman swaddled in winter gear fit for a hike up Mount Blanc, who stoically gripped a red umbrella as snow and sleet fell throughout her entire presentation.
“Witch hunts were a scourge that touched all social classes,” she explained in an impressively perky voice, and I was reminded of one of my college lecturers had she morphed into an Alpine trekking badass inured to freezing temperatures.
Hotels are also targeting a local clientele. That is, the ones that are still open. Pascal Mousset, a Paris-based restaurateur and the president of the Ile de France branch of GNI, a hotel and restaurant employers’ union, told me nearly two out three hotels are closed. For those that remain open, occupancy rates hover somewhere between 20 and 25 percent even with a reduction in room rates. The situation is even more dire for five-star luxury properties. A recent article in Les Echos reports that occupancy rates at the city’s posh palaces is below 10 percent.
In the meantime, some high-end hotels are trying to lure affluent locals with romantic getaways. Properties such as the Hôtel Plaza Athénée and Le Meurice are offering “ultimate staycation” packages, while the Mandarin Oriental is running a Valentine’s Day promotion through the third week of February that includes a multi-course, in-room dinner by star chef Thierry Marx. Other lodgings are trying to reconfigure themselves into home-office alternatives to cramped apartment quarters. Large chains including Accor, Ascott and Best Western are offering up lobbies and rooms as alternative workspaces and a new online platform enables remote workers to book a room for a few hours at a reduced rate.
Although takeout and pickup services have been available at many restaurants since the first lockdown, it has done little to assuage the catastrophe currently facing the city’s restaurant industry. Mousset said that while takeout services may offer marginal help to struggling brasseries, they comprise just 10 or 15 percent of normal revenues. Some eateries have even stopped offering the service altogether because earnings were so slim that they ended up losing even more money.
Mousset explained that thanks to state aid, restaurants are surviving. The question is whether they can continue to do so after reopening.
“Today the businesses are holding on,” he said. “The difficulty is going to be in the six months or one year when we are going to reopen. Some are not going to have any funds left and are going to continue to lose money. We are afraid of many bankruptcies and the disappearance of many jobs.”
After my waterlogged stroll along the Seine, I took the metro across town to Montmartre where I paid a visit to my friend Guillaume who runs a small bookshop across the street from the staircase leading to the meringue-like Sacré Coeur basilica. Although many local businesses have been struggling, sales at Au Pied de la Lettre have been robust ever since the government gave the go-ahead for bookstores to reopen in late November.
“It’s because there really isn’t much else to do,” Guillaume explained, half-joking when I asked him why he thought business was thriving in spite of COVID’s toll on the local economy.
He did have a point. Even so, hunkering down in a cozy shop stocked with everything from the latest releases to coffee table books dedicated to French fashion and the history of chocolate is a good way to spend a frigid Paris afternoon, pandemic or not.
A recent Amazon backlash in France, which has included protests against the online retail giant near Paris and in other cities, may have also played a role. Critics have accused Amazon of destroying the environment and small businesses and have urged consumers to shop locally. Guillaume said that many people have also discovered that book prices at independent bookstores are virtually the same as those listed on the online megastore, prompting a return to brick-and-mortar outposts. A small silver lining, but a silver lining nonetheless.
I suspect that the in-person book buying experience may have something to do with it too. Cabin fever is real, especially when said cabin is a postage stamp-sized Parisian apartment. With a 12-hour curfew in effect and many more residents working from home, a jaunt to the local bookshop to peruse the pages and enjoy a chat with a convivial owner can serve as an antidote to snug quarters and hours of online meetings.
Long walks can also help alleviate for the COVID-era winter blues. Grabbing a hot chocolate and just wandering—whether through the city’s parks or its more Instagrammable neighborhoods—has become a popular pastime.
After leaving the bookstore, I met up with a friend for a hike up the hill toward Sacré Coeur. Several sidewalk kiosks were set up in front of the closed eateries, offering hot soup and drinks to go, and small groups of people mingled near the stands chatting and laughing. As we wound our way through the normally tourist-heavy Place du Tertre, I was surprised to see more clusters of Parisians sipping beers or coffees in the gray winter daylight. Two artists sat hunched over easels near the square, and despite the face masks and darkened cafe windows, the mood wasn’t too different from that of any normal, pre-pandemic Sunday.
“I wasn’t expecting to see so many people up here,” I remarked to my friend.
“There is so much paranoia about another lockdown that everyone is leaving their houses while they still can,” she replied.
We both burst out laughing, even though there is nothing humorous about the idea of yet another months-long confinement.
“Paris in the winter is made to be the background for small disasters.” Shaw wrote in his tongue-in-cheek denunciation of wintertime Paris. In this winter of 2021, the city, like many others, has become the background for a disaster on an epic scale. However, although Paris may be hibernating, it is not dead. And despite the collective anxiety, everyone I have spoken to is anticipating the eventual return of café terraces, and gallery openings, and snug jazz bars, and a hundred others pleasures we all took for granted a year ago.
As I write this, the Eiffel Tower is undergoing a facelift in preparation for the 2024 Olympics, the sun has made an appearance after weeks of monotonous gray, and small groups are gathering outside (instead of inside cafes). The winter dark feels darker this year, but we are coping as best as we can with long strolls, online workshops, paper cups filled with thick chocolat chaud, and fleeting visits with friends during daylight hours. These simple activities act as a balm against the boredom, the dreariness, and the uneasiness.
“Paris is not the Paris we are used to, but we are staying confident about the future,” Menegaux said. “Americans love Paris and we know they can’t wait to come back.”
She thinks the summer will see foreign tourists start to return to the city again, while global business travel may not resume until the fall. Mousset said that restaurants could start offering terrace service once more in April or May, but also doesn’t foresee business returning to normal until September when, he says, most of the population will have been vaccinated.
By the time we reached Sacré Coeur dusk was approaching, and a thin shawl of blue mist was draped over the city below. Couples lounged on the church steps seemingly oblivious to the February chill, and people stood along the lookout over the Square Louis Michel to take in the view one last time before heading home before curfew. Paris, while dormant, is still beautiful. And beauty can also be a balm during uncertain times.