PARIS — It happens every night, and yet it feels so strange each time.
All across the city, as the 9 p.m. curfew part of the pandemic restrictions approaches, chairs and tables at bars and cafes that usually remain open until small hours get stacked and stored.
Parisians used to lazy strolls on long summer nights head home. The sidewalks go quiet. The city slams shut as fast as a window.
At Roland Garros, where the French Open is holding one match each night for the first time, ominous announcements come through the loudspeakers beginning around 8:30 p.m.
“The gates will be closing in 15 minutes,” a prerecorded voice says in French, then English. The stands selling flutes of champagne, crepes and pains au chocolat begin to pack it in. A 10-minute warning follows, then a five-minute one, then finally, “Ladies and gentlemen, the gates are now closed.”
“It’s very frustrating,” Benoît Jaubert, a Parisian who comes to the tournament every year with his wife, Anne, said of the curfew and forced exit as he hustled toward the exit on Saturday.
Usually they remain on the grounds until night falls and the matches end. This year, even though Roger Federer was about to take the court, the Jauberts were on their way out. “We should be having the late matches and then a party,” he said.
The pandemic began turning cities into ghost towns nearly a year and a half ago. There is something especially strange about seeing this nightly routine in the so-called City of Light. This is a place famous for its 3 a.m. jazz sets, where the Lost Generation argued all night about the meaning of life in smoke-filled bars on the Left Bank.
For the handful of Americans here on business (if that’s what you can call a cushy sportswriting assignment to cover this elegant tournament), it has felt like drifting back in time a month or two. We left a country that had begun leaving behind masks and pandemic restrictions.
Calling it a night at 9 p.m. is about the most anti-Parisian occurrence, especially this time of year, when twilight does not arrive until after 10 p.m. and the last thing anyone wants to do as the sun drifts down is go home.
The curfew is no joke though. If you somehow forget to eat and do not have much in the fridge at home, you are out of luck. There are no late-night steak frites to be had. All the kitchens, grocers and ice cream parlors are, unnaturally, locked.
Listen to Thibaud Pre. He runs an Italian restaurant on the Canal Saint-Martin in the northeast part of the city. It’s where the youngish folks hang out. Think of the northern neighborhoods of Brooklyn, like Williamsburg and Bushwick, or the eastern part of London.
On Friday evening, just before 8, the cool kids and the older adults who wanted to be like them were drinking on the edge of the canals and in Acqua e Farina, Pre’s restaurant, and all of the other bars and restaurants in the neighborhood.
An hour later, they were mostly gone, scurrying home or rushing to the Metro, where, just after 9 p.m., security officials could begin asking for the pass required to be out and about after curfew.
As he stacked the tables and collected payments from the few customers who lingered until the final minutes, Pre said on a usual late spring Friday at 9 p.m. there would be 50 people waiting for a table. He would keep the restaurant open until 2 a.m. and bring in roughly five times as much money as he is right now. Without generous government aid, his business most likely would not have survived.
He said his customers had gotten used to the routine after so many months, showing up earlier, filling their stomachs until the regulations say they can’t stay any longer, then morphing into citizens of one of those places like Switzerland where the sidewalks thin long before they should.
“For how much longer it goes like this, we don’t know,” Pre said.
It has been so long, and so strange, that Pre does not want to bank on the current plan to push the curfew back two hours on Wednesday, which seems more civilized by Parisian standards, but only slightly.
In July, the curfew could go away completely, and the sidewalks by the Seine could be alive all night once more, though the nightclubs are supposed to stay closed.
Someday perhaps, maybe even by the next French Open, if that great night owl of French tennis, Yannick Noah, has any say on the matter, those 3 a.m. jazz sets and the real Paris just might return.