Paris returns to cafe life with new normal

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Fear isn’t something 88-year-old Mathilde gives in to easily. Sitting on the terrace of her local bistro in Paris, hours after it reopened this week, she sipped a fizzy drink, as the morning sunshine drew perspiration from her glass.

“I’ve been waiting for this,” she said. “To be surrounded by people, not to be alone anymore!”

Mathilde had dressed for the occasion: a printed dress, perfectly styled hair.

Public life here has always demanded a little extra effort. For its cafes and restaurants that means new rules on seating, new cleaning procedures, hand sanitiser everywhere you look.

Many people have expressed relief that Paris’s bars and cafes are open again; their terraces full.

There was something about the emptiness of this city, in particular, during lockdown that felt especially poignant, says Joan Dejean, an author and historian of French culture, because the destiny of Paris was to be seen: “Paris was intentionally constructed for people in the streets, to be viewed, to be appreciated visually,” she told me.