Paris was very excited on Wednesday night. France was playing Morocco, a former colony, in the semi-final of the World Cup and just about the entire city was watching, either at home or in bars and restaurants that had devoted themselves to the cause.
In La Comète on the Rue Faubourg-Montmartre, the waiter who served us avocado toast (I know, I know!) in the late afternoon was already anxious to be off. He had arranged to meet a group of his cronies in their home bar and wanted to be sure he got there in time to grab a seat with a clear view of the tv screen.
The owner of a shoe shop just up the street assured me that he would be open until eight that night only to start waving his hands in the air as if in the grip of some suddenly erupted fever. “Non, non, monsieur … désolé … pas ce soir – c’est le match!”
Outside O’Sullivan’s bar on the Grands Boulevards, the line to get in was at least a hundred deep, while on the door of nearby brasserie a note on the door warned that only those with reservations for dinner would be admitted in the run–up to the game.
As it happens, I was not bound by any of these restrictions. At the Hotel Opéra Drouot, just off the Faubourg-Montmartre, the night manager had laid out the comfy chairs in the lobby so that they all faced the television mounted on the wall above the piano. I and a gaggle of the other guests were thus well ensconced by the time the game kicked off. Unwisely perhaps. I had elected to buy a bottle of cheap champagne, on offre spéciale from the local Monop’, and was well into my third glass when France scored the first goal. The cheers from the lobby brought the manager rushing across.
“We ‘ave scored, yes?”
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“Yes,” I replied. “We ‘ave scored.” He watched the replay, punched the air and swaggered back to Reception.
And so it went on until Les Bleus wrapped up the match with a second goal, causing pandemonium to break out across the city.
My wife and I were in bed when midnight came round, but outside, along the Grands Boulevards and the Rue Lafayette, car horns filled the air with brass. For the Moroccan fans, it was a night of sorrow mixed with pride, but for the French, after three years of Covid and six of Emmanuel Macron, it was an occasion to let off steam. They always knew they would do it but it was a relief to prove it.
The morning after the night before was subdued. The papers – read in print form by almost no-one these days – were triumphant, as were the tv news bulletins but Paris itself was back to normal, just with the volume turned down.
Lunch on Thursday was a reunion with a couple of American friends who used to work for the International Herald Tribune (now the International New York Times) and have lived in Paris for the last 25 years. One of their daughters is an artist, now living in Berlin, the other is finishing her masters in – if I grasped it correctly – repurposing building materials for use in other fields. Our pals lived for a number of years in Maisons-Laffitte, a swanky suburb to the west of the capital but in retirement have moved to a condo in Ivry-sur-Seine, just outside the Périphérique on the city’s southern edge. At one point they were thinking of moving back to the States, to Tennessee, but a visit home during the latter days of the Trump presidency convinced them that France was the better bet.
They have an electric car but prefer to dip in and out of Paris on the Metro. There have been so many changes to the laws and regulations governing traffic in the city-proper that driving inside the ring-road has become a nightmare. Our waiter friend in La Comèt became extremely animated when we raised this issue with him. Yes, he said, there was less traffic these days, but with so many new one-way streets and pedestrianised areas and with drivers obliged to keep their speed to no faster than 30 kph, the only vehicles that dared any longer to venture out were delivery trucks, buses and taxis – almost all of them electric or hybrid. So what did he think of the Paris mayor, Anne Hidalgo, whose vision of turning the city green has if anything, accelerated since her dismal run in this year’s presidential elections? He scowled. “I don’t understand her. I don’t understand what she is doing.”
For pedestrians trying to cross formerly busy roads, the transformation is a blessing. Even the Étoile, circumscribing the Arc de Triomphe, is no longer the tenth circle of Hell. But for city dwellers trying to get on with their lives, going green has come with a price tag that they are as yet unwilling to pay. And so to Montparnasse, where our luxury two-deck TGV, known as a Ouigo, will be waiting to speed us back from Little Brittany – the Breton quarter of Paris – to actual Brittany, where cars still run on diesel and the big question is, when will out new front door be delivered? We will be sad to leave our favourite metropolis but glad to get back to normal life. Parp-parp! In Paris these days, Mr Toad would be arrested.
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