The French are hard to shake from their normally phlegmatic approach to sundry crises. Bertheil, the men’s clothing shop on the ground floor of my apartment building around the corner from the Musée d’Orsay, was featuring the final days of its deep-discount “braderie” sale of winter clothes, getting ready for the spring line.
The book seller across the Boulevard Saint-Germain was holding its Wednesday book signings, and the outdoor food market on the Boulevard Raspail was still filled with shoppers. The little Carrefour neighborhood grocery around the corner from my apartment was fully stocked. My son, Philip, and his French wife Sarah went to a movie Thursday evening.
From New York, Dr. Stuart Garay, my pulmonologist at NYU Langone Medical Center, had already e-mailed me, “barricade yourself like Les Misérables.”
So, after listening to President Trump, I didn’t wait for any of the elaboration that would follow, though I did wonder if his throwaway announcement of a travel ban at “midnight” meant 12:01 a.m. Friday morning or 11:59 p.m. Friday night. I decided that, rather than race for the airport in four hours to make a Thursday flight, I’d take a wild chance and re-book for Friday. I immediately called the American Airlines reservation 800-number and was told there’d be a 12- to 14-minute wait. I waited.
When it reached 26 minutes, I picked up my cell phone and called the French reservation number for American Airlines. By then it was well after 3 a.m., but within a minute I had an agent on the phone. After a bit of discussion, five minutes later, I had a seat on the Friday flight. The US number, after 45 minutes, was still asking me to hang on. I hung up since my free overseas calls can’t go beyond 59 minutes.
Friday morning, I was at Charles de Gaulle Airport at 6:30 am. There was not a bit of traffic, though usually at that hour there are huge jams for the drop-off lanes. Inside, at French passport control, four agents sat behind their windows. There was no queue. In fact, I was the lone individual passing passport and customs. A handful of passengers were at the security check, including an American family wearing face masks, the mother with a customized (OK!) mask made from the same elaborate fabric as her dress.
On arrival at JFK airport in New York, I experienced my first-ever no wait for a Global Entry kiosk. The immigration agent, wearing a white face mask, asked two questions: what countries had I visited in the past 14 days? (France) Did I have any symptoms? (No) Moreover, no one checked my temperature, which I knew was 98.6 degrees, since I’d checked it myself before leaving my Paris apartment.
The first real shock came as I walked out of customs. It was empty. Throngs lining both sides of the exit, waiting for loved ones? None. One lone chauffeur carrying a small sign for an arriving passenger. Not a soul anywhere. The same at the taxi stand outside Terminal Eight. A long line of yellow cabs. No riders. I’d called an Uber. I was the only one at the Uber pickup point. My driver was already there waiting for me.
So, he was taking the difficult if unprecedented measure of closing all French schools from nursery to university. “Everyone has his role to play,” he said firmly, excluding neither himself nor the French people, but adding a warning that was in such contrast to the words from Donald Trump.
So now, here I am, writing this from my isolated little cabin out in the woods of rural Pennsylvania, where I intend to wait it all out.