PARIS—For eight of the last 10 years, my husband and I have flown from New York to France for a five-day getaway in late November. Our plans were in place this year long before the Nov. 13 terror attacks in Paris, and we didn’t really consider changing them.
But my mother hoped we would. Talking to her before we left, we reassured her that we’d take every precaution.
“Well, I guess you know what you’re doing,” she finally said. Then she added, “Is your will up-to-date? And where do you keep it?”
Here are some impressions from our visit.
We finally land at Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris after our 5:55 p.m. flight from JFK was cancelled and we were re-booked on the 7:20 p.m. Given that we do this trip almost every Thanksgiving, we did notice that the JFK international gates seemed much quieter than usual. A 4:30 p.m. flight to Paris on our carrier was also cancelled. When all the passengers were re-booked with no trouble, we supposed that it was not done for security, but to consolidate travellers on lightly booked flights.
Otherwise, nothing seems out of the ordinary: Security at JFK seemed even lighter and friendlier than usual, and there is no obvious additional security at de Gaulle. We flew through passport control and customs and jumped right on to the TGV (high-speed train). The conductor just came through to check tickets and didn’t even ask for identification. Very low-key.
After arriving in Saint-Malo, Brittany, for a couple of days of relaxation, we take an invigorating walk. A stop for coffee yields the American equivalent of a dodo bird sighting: ashtrays on every cafe table.
The biggest question we get from friends and family is what we eat on Thanksgiving in France. This year, it was raw oysters from the Brittany coast and fresh cod in a tarragon butter sauce. And for dessert, there was cheese. Lots of cheese.
The Mont Saint-Michel monastery in Normandy is the third most-visited tourist attraction in France (after Paris and Versailles). Today it’s quiet. Our French guide says that while it typically quiets down after Nov. 11 (Armistice Day in Europe), it’s been unusually quiet because of the attacks. She says that typically there will still be busloads of Japanese or Korean tourists every day during the low season, but it’s been limited to two or three a day now, with very few other tourists aside from the usual French retirees. There have been 12 additional gendarmes brought to the Mont.
We do see one other American couple (a couple from Santa Barbara, California, on their honeymoon), and two Australian young men visiting a former French exchange student, but that’s about it.
No signs of concern or fear at all. It’s a great time to visit France, with no crowds. We head to Paris tomorrow, and I’ve already received a travel warning (I signed up for the U.S. State Department’s STEP alerts) about traffic closures and additional security in Paris due to the climate conference.
On our way to Paris from Saint-Malo, we stop in Rennes to change trains. It’s a university town with a large and popular Saturday market—exactly the kind of crowded place the daily State Department emails warn about. As a private chef, though, I can’t resist. The Place des Lices, surrounded by timber-framed houses, is packed solid, with throngs of Saturday shoppers haggling over vegetables, cheese, meat, fish, local cider, jams, honey and bread. It may be the best market we’ve ever seen in France (which means anywhere). We see one local police officer, but he’s nonchalantly in line at a lunch stand.
One downside to visiting France this time of year is the dearth of daylight. Our train rolls into Gare Montparnesse in Paris just after 4 p.m. and the City of Light is nearly dark. Though the station is bustling, we see just three armed and armoured gendarmes. It seems less fortified than a normal day at New York’s Grand Central terminal, where National Guard soldiers wearing bulletproof vests and carrying guns have been seen since 9-11.
Outside, the streets of Paris are teeming. But at our hotel and the restaurant where we dine, we hear of the many cancellations since Nov. 13. The French economy has been rocked. One report said some hotel occupancy rates are more than 30 per cent lower than a year ago.
We’re up and out at oh-so-dark early to beat any traffic to the airport (there is little). On the way north of Paris, the highway passes the stadium that was attacked. It looks … normal.
I’m reminded of our last walk along the Seine, when we stopped outside Notre-Dame Cathedral, standing solid, as it has for nearly 800 years, comforting, bathed in lights. How much turmoil have these stones seen?
A French saying comes to mind: Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose: The more things change, the more they remain the same.