A South African in Paris

2015-11-14 22:47
The deserted park on the Places des Vosges. Picture: Supplied

The deserted park on the Places des Vosges. Picture: Supplied

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The Paris I woke up to on Saturday morning was a very different city to the one I said goodnight to on Friday evening from my left bank hotel, a medieval building in sight of the Notre Dame cathedral. 

I arrived in Paris on Friday from Italy, planning to do some last-minute walking through my favourite city before the flight home last night. 

It’s autumn in Paris, the trees are golden, the air sharp and on Friday evening the city felt livelier than ever. 

The festive season activities have started, and walking through the crowds thronging the stalls of the Christmas village that has sprung up between the bottom of the Champs Elysées and the Louvre, who would have guessed that only two hours later Paris would be under siege, with public activities like this closed for the foreseeable future? 

I was paying for my dinner in a restaurant just off Boulevard St Michel, off to an early night, when the horror began. 

The first news I had of the atrocities was when I woke up at 2am South African time to frantic messages from a friend. It felt a bit unreal in the quiet of my room under the eaves. Then I heard the sirens, and knew it was very real indeed. 

Normally, I don’t go out before noon on a Saturday in Paris because things tend to only open after 10am here, but this morning I felt impelled to see that my favourite city in the world was still there. 

Outside my hotel, Paris was overcast and very, very quiet. Some things looked the same: an intrepid group of Korean tourists taking photos against the backdrop of Notre Dame, a dog walker, a waiter setting out chairs. 

But around the corner were armed police in full battle gear on the bridge. In front of the cathedral, soldiers in fatigues were unmissable. The police were everywhere. 

Restaurants and bars were open for breakfast, but returning to my hotel, it was clear that many shops would not open for business on Saturday. Notre Dame itself was still closed at 11am. I understand that, while the underground rail system was running, some stations were closed. Next door to my hotel is Shakespeare and Co, the famous English-language bookshop beloved of generations of bibliophiles the world over. 

This morning it was closed. The sign on the window read: “We will be closed until the situation becomes clearer. We hope to be open today.” 

Yesterday afternoon, the city was as subdued. 

Most of the shops and all of the public amenities, including the museums, were closed. Parisians who were out and about, buying groceries and sitting at the pavement cafés, had a grimly determined look about them. Tourists were pretty thin on the ground too. 

It’s so strange to walk past places that are normally open with long queues and to see them firmly shut. Even the little park in Places des Vosges was closed. On any day it’s normally full of playing children and relaxed adults. 

The weather was overcast with intermittent drizzle, adding to the gloom. 

In one little store that was open, the owner told me: “This is the start of something different. Everything has changed now.”

Read more on:    paris under attack

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