Scenes from a different life: Paris and London in the time of COVID-19
Back in late August, I became consumed with the desire to travel. Specifically, to spend Christmas in Paris and then maybe London. I wanted to meet up with my brother and his family, who live in Denmark, and to remember a world beyond my immediate neighborhood and Twitter feed. My husband and kids were in, and we booked tickets and bought travel insurance.
We couldn't have had worse timing. A few weeks before we left, Europe and England exploded with Omicron. My husband was torn up over whether we should still go. We did: a week in Paris, including Christmas and a couple days with my brother and his family; and a week in London, including New Year's Eve and a lot of fries. We were tested to get on the plane from San Francisco, tested to leave France, tested when we entered England, and tested to get on the plane back home to San Francisco. All negative, all required by law.* That's your spoiler alert.
The trip was fabulous. It was restorative and ... that first hug with my brother after so long ... well, I no longer take it for granted that I'll see him again, or have the opportunity to make these kinds of trips. My personal risk calculus is that we're so consumed with politicized COVID stress and fights here in the U.S.--to the point that there's not even a local or global consensus on our common goal (truly: what are we doing??)--that we're missing the waning opportunity to stop the end of U.S. democracy and to turn an apocalyptic climate crisis into something livable for our children. For me: now is the time to live. Now. (This is a long evolution of thought. If you're curious, you can read my pandemic journal here.)
The experience of traveling was shocking at times--in the healthiest way possible for those of us living in beloved deep blue state bubbles. I've compiled some observations below on life in COVID times in Paris and London, with the enormous caveat that this is pure anecdote and may be wildly wrong or too simple an understanding, particularly in Paris, since I don't speak more than the most basic French. Also, policies change every day right now, so this may already be outdated.
Overall: People in Paris were, to my foreign eyes, living fully despite COVID-19, and the city as a whole was undiminished.
The feeling I got in Paris can be encapsulated by a moment we had visiting the Louvre: While we were wandering around the packed Ancient Egypt exhibit trying to decide what to do next, the emergency alarm went off, telling everyone to evacuate the building as fast as possible. We dutifully entered the long stream of people marching to the exits and freezing cold day--until we noticed that there were lots of people going nowhere, or even going the opposite direction; in fact, the gate checkers at the wing entrances were still actively letting people in. It broke my brain. So, my husband stopped to talk to a security guard, who told him that he didn't really know what was going on and not to worry. He was truly unbothered.
Indeed, very few people left the building, as far as I could tell. So we went to the restaurant and ate lunch with excellent tiny ravioli. That was Paris.
Another story: When our (completely full) plane landed at Charles DeGaulle, we joined a bunch of other international flights on an out-of-the-way parking lot--and waited. We sat in the plane for a long time while the pilots tried to get in touch with someone inside to get stairs for the plane so we could exit, only the radio was broken. So the pilot had to find a number (off the Internet?) and text someone, and then ultimately resort to rolling down a window to beg for help (and maybe yelling)? Meanwhile, the flight team impressed upon us the importance of filling out some critical forms required by the French government; only, they didn't have enough of the forms.
We were unable to get a form.
Eventually, someone found some stairs and we were able to get off the plane, get the form and make our way by bus to the COVID vaccine and test checkpoint and customs, all of which went smoothly.
And no one ever collected the form.
If you are 12 and over, you needed a European Union health pass to get into most restaurants and museums in Paris. Not so much the boulangeries and casual cafes, though I suspect they're supposed to check. We showed our CDC vaccine cards at a pharmacy, paid a fee, and were able to get the passes. Most places scanned the QR codes on the forms whenever you went somewhere. There's also a digital version. Constantly showing our health passes wasn't a huge deal since we were used to it from home.
We stayed in the Marais, and it was the opposite of social distancing. Same for all the museums, cafes, restaurants, and streets in the central areas of the city. It was so crowded on the sidewalks that people were walking in the streets, constantly. The museums, likewise, were packed. Everywhere was packed. The sidewalks around the Opera House and Galeries Lafayette were a rush hour in Herald Square before Christmas break kind of packed; I was actively worried about losing my children in the press. And it was no different inside the mall. One of my kids got locked in a bathroom stall.
When my husband and I decided to make the trip despite omicron, we resigned ourselves to the likelihood that the city would feel a little joyless and hollowed out, maybe closed down. Ha. Cafes, restaurants, Christmas markets, trains, sidewalks, and bike lanes: all packed with people. (Also, the trains run every few minutes, and service didn't appear to be cut back anywhere.) The sheer amount of retail alive and well was also shocking, in the best way possible. It's upsetting to see a city so clearly thriving while San Francisco continues to feel hollowed out despite being faced with the same essential challenge.
There may have been fancy ventilation improvements at places, but I didn't see anything. People could open windows on the RER and the buses. Some restaurants and cafes kept their doors open, and there were lots of people eating in the slightly insulated outer parts of restaurants, but that was almost as likely to be because the inside was full, or the diners enjoyed the people watching; all tables and chairs in Paris face the sidewalk.
Masks were required for people ages 11+ indoors. Most people wore plain surgical masks or N95s with little fanfare. Some didn't, or not in any sort of effective way, and they got no comment or scolding looks as far as I could tell; the people most likely not to wear them or wear them symbolically were service workers, including at our hotel. Some people also wore masks outside, though it was hard to tell if that was because it was so cold or worries about the virus. More kids than I expected had them on, but far from all and never the very small kids. International travelers were the most likely to be sealed up behind N95s; any worries about the virus aside, we all had a practical interest in continuing to test negative so we could go home at the end of our trip.
Overall, for a fashion capital, it was interesting to see that Paris did not embrace the mask as an opportunity for a moment. There were no sequins or patterns or any sort of indication that people saw masks as anything but a temporary, utilitarian necessity. I didn't see more than one face visor.
I saw very little performative COVID-19 cleaning, though the city overall was quite clean minus the dog shit.
Parisians are able to stop at local pharmacies and take COVID-19 tests. We got a rapid test the morning we left at a pharmacy a block from our hotel. We ended up going to a fair number of pharmacies for various reasons, and there were almost always people on hand to get tested, but the lines were never that long. We also saw small testing tents set up on either side of the Champs D'Elysee and other places around the city.
Overall: Most Londoners seemed over it when it came to COVID-19, particularly service workers, and the city has clearly been dimmed by COVID-19 policies. That said, there's still plenty of life to enjoy.
We took the train to get to London. Eurostar canceled our original train, presumably thanks to the ban on travel out of France and the commensurate reduction in customers. To get on the train, there was an extra layer of document scrutiny in addition to ticket checks, customs for France, and customs for England. For our flight out of Heathrow airport, everyone entering the International terminal had to have a ticket. The rest of the setup was fairly normal except there were two police officers trying to manage a woman who was loudly upset about the mask mandate and maybe some other stuff. Our flight home was mostly full, but the airport in general was quiet. This might also have been because it was New Year's Day.
There was no vax passport to get into restaurants but we did have to show our CDC vax cards to get into maybe one indoor place. This did not apply to my nine-year-old.
There were lots of signs in public spaces reminding people to distance themselves, particularly on the train, and they were roundly ignored. The Tube varied from desolate to packed, which was likely mostly about the timing of our visit--we arrived on Boxing Day. (Once again, I appreciated that all transit was full service and had short headways, unlike MUNI at home.) The only practical impact of the distancing requirement for us was the limited capacity of the London Eye.
Similar to Paris, if there were any ventilation improvements anywhere, they weren't visible. The only thing I could see was that all the vents were open on the Underground. People ate indoors and outdoors, but mostly indoors.
People ages 12+ were required to wear masks in many public and private indoor spaces. I saw a lot of surgical masks and cloth masks (far more than in Paris), and some N95s. I also saw a lot of bare faces and symbolically masked people--and no one saying boo. Kids were very rarely masked, and never the younger elementary kids or preschoolers. Frankly, a lot of people seemed done with masking. Service workers, including people working at testing sites, were the most likely people to be mask-free or symbolically masked. (The one exception was the WB Harry Potter studio tour, where there were staff members in double masks.) Black men were the most likely to be totally mask-free on the Tube, fwiw. There were a lot of stern warnings everywhere about masking, but I never saw anyone give anyone a hard time or even a side-eye about the situation. Again, people seemed done.
I saw more performative COVID cleaning in London than in Paris. Memorably, I stood with a sizeable group of people at a cold and rainy bus stop while the driver used one wet wipe to clean all the poles on his bus for 10 minutes. I'm all for clean buses, but this value hierarchy was not one I shared in the moment.
The private industry for testing is alive and well in England. We used one in St. Pancras train station when we arrived, which turned out to be a (friendly) disaster; they sold us a service they no longer provided, etc, and it subsequently wasn't clear whether we'd be able to leave the mandatory hotel quarantine before it was time to go home. My husband got it sorted, we tested negative and we were free to roam. We also used a private testing center sort of near Heathrow Airport the morning of our scheduled flight home, which was better run but really not at all convenient in terms of location. Near is a relative term.
But you know, I'm not complaining. The airport testing service worked and we went home with no bumps beyond the ones in the air. We got to travel, and only for the amount of time we'd hoped to be away. A real gift these days, unfortunately. It's wonderful to be home now, too.
Here's to happy, incident-light travels in 2022, wherever you decide to go this year.
* Since I know some people will find this information critical to understanding the context of our experience, both my husband and I were fully vaxxed and boosted; my 12-year-old was fully vaxxed; and my nine-year-old had one vaccine shot when we left for this trip. When we were required to, my husband, my older kid, and I all wore N95s and my younger kid wore a cloth mask (my husband was unsuccessful in his attempt to coax her into an N95).