After a two-year gap, I’m back in France for a vacation that covers 28 days.  I arrived Paris a week ago (Oct 19, ‘21) Tuesday on a Boeing 787-10 out of Newark.  The flight was less than half-full.  The flow of passengers is a one-way street now given a nonsensical policy of non-reciprocity on international travel by the US government.  We Americans can go to Europe but the Biden administration has been slow to allow Euros into the US. For what?  The virus and vax numbers are no better in America than the places we’ve been barring entry from. 

That’ll finally change November 9 after shrieks for a sane approach from the US travel and entertainment industry – not to mention governments abroad who are letting Americans into their countries (vax required for “non-essential” – or fun entry).

I stayed six nights at an Ibis property in the 13th arrondissement.  The hotel appeared to be a converted apartment building as it was the lone lodging spot on a residential street near the Corvisart 6 line metro stop.  It was 90 euros a night, in a good location.  The room was pint-sized.  A normal sized human must wedge oneself into the tiny bathroom/shower space.  A small breakfast buffet was offered from 6 to 10 AM and included the fresh squeezed OJ which Ibis is famous for.

The only small drama going into the trip was the effort to obtain a “pass sanitaire” from the French government before arrival.  The health pass is a QR code (printed – or compatible with the app “TousAntiCovid”). It is required for entry into bars, restaurants, performance venues, museums and soccer matches.  All the things I planned to do hinged on getting the pass sanitaire.  Unlike the U-S where every state or city is doing their own thing on vax status as a condition for participation in daily activities, France has a streamlined, country-wide approach.  You want in on something fun, you must have the pass sanitaire.  Most crucial to me even beyond its necessity for enjoying Paris was domestic air and long-haul train travel requires the pass sanitaire.  Displaying an American CDC card doesn’t cut it over here – so a specially created office inside the Office of the Ministere de l’Europe et des Affaires Etrangeres in Nantes was set up to convert foreign vaccination proof into the pass sanitaire.  A few months before I left, the web site of the special office handling conversions urged applicants to wait until just a few days before arriving given a large backlog.  I waited until a week before my departure and waited anxiously for a response.  On the night before I left, I still didn’t have it.  Nothing.  So, I started looking at Reddit forums to see if others were having the same problem.  I came across a Paris food tour website aimed at US tourists which was incredibly informative about the subject.  What ultimately yielded a positive outcome was a Reddit post suggesting one apply exactly at 9 AM local time in France.  Using a different email address from the one attached to my first application, I got up in the middle of the night in New York and sent a second effort precisely at 3 AM.  A couple minutes later, Voila, the QR was sent – and I was good to go.  That quirky trick on timing would suggest a bot handles the applications but who knows.  The afternoon of my arrival, my original application was approved – about nine days after I sent it in.  

Pretty much everywhere I’ve gone, the pass is checked.  At the bar, at the restaurant, at the museum, even the outdoor ligue 2 soccer match on Saturday between Paris Football Club and Toulouse Football Club (an exciting 2-2 draw).  It was checked twice when I flew from Orly to Toulouse on Monday (Oct 25 ‘21).  I actually feel an extra layer of protection and confidence being inside places where I know those around me are vaccinated.  Big street protests against the pass have faded in recent weeks with polls now showing at least two-thirds in favor of the requirement now.  Unvaxxed aren’t completely excluded.  A negative test converts into a three-day pass and proof of virus recovery works as well.  I’ve asked as many people as possible why one would oppose the pass.  Privacy and overreach by government are cited as reasons, neither of which to me are more compelling than the effort to snuff the spread.   

People wear masks with greater diligence on the Paris Metro than the NYC subway by far.  Just by eye, I’d say it’s 99-percent compliance on the Paris trains and buses vs. a gradually shrinking 80-percent in New York.  

The only health hurdle for me on this trip is the test I’ll be required to take inside 48 hours of arrival in the UK in the middle of next month and inside 72 hours pre-departure to the states.  I’ve timed my return so that I can use the same test result to comply with both requirements.  But obviously, I’ll need a negative result and will feel some nervousness about that test given the massive hassle a breakthrough positive would mean for a timely return home.  

But when you’re on a month-long vacation coming out of what we all came through, you try not to worry too much about that.  

Now in Toulouse for two weeks, I’m staying in an apartment in a large building rented via Airbnb in the city center.  My first night was a near disaster.  I went out to get groceries and returned to insert the key in the door locks of two apartments that were not mine.  I blame darkness in the hallway and the fact the apartment number does not correspond with the floor number.  Many of the apartments (including mine) do not have posted numbers.  In a panic as I looked for the correct room, I remembered a well-worn “Bienvenue” floor mat and used that feature to finally find the right place.  

Two clear-cut dining wins so far are worth mentioning.  First, the cauliflower soup at Le Bar a Soupes in Paris last Friday.  Wow, it was tasty.  And yesterday, with Jacques and Elisa, the swordfish (Basque style) at Rocher de la Vierge in Toulouse.  It was incredible.  Pink in the middle, super fresh with flavor to savor. 

I’ve had just one rainy day out of nine so far.  A big storm off the ocean dumped buckets overnight last Wednesday into much of the day Thursday while I was watching the jumpers at Auteuil.  

The Othoniel exhibit at Petit Palais was incredible.  I was able to see Seb, Marie and Julien who weathered the pandemic and had stories to tell.  

One needs to look both ways with even greater caution now in Paris given the bicycle revolution ramped up with smarts during the pandemic by that city’s great socialist mayor.

Matching a pattern I’ve seen in NYC, the streets and trains in Paris were noticeably crowded and filled with energy on the weekend but kinda slow on the weekdays.  This would fit the idea some are still working from home and bust it out when Saturday/Sunday comes around. 

Checking the Long Island Rail Road web site to obtain train times to Belmont Park in advance of my visit to see the races Sunday, I learned the LIRR isn’t running service to the track for the entire 2021 fall meet.

No problem, I said to myself.  I left early.  I jumped on the F to Jamaica, got off at Parsons Blvd. and took the Q110 bus which runs down bustling Jamaica Avenue before veering onto Hempstead Avenue.  It takes a long time – about an hour and 45 – but it saves the steep LIRR fare and offers the scenery and excitement that is downtown Jamaica.   

The Q110 route terminates on race track property making its final stop just across from where the LIRR trains would normally let out.  Just me and an old, broken down horseplayer got off the bus.  I was in a hurry to get in to see the first race so I raced across the pedestrian bridge only to find all of the doors on the west side of the grandstand locked.  On both the first and second level, there was no way in.  No signage, no personnel.  

A large opening on the apron granted access but there was no admission barrier – nor did it appear to be a formal entrance – but I walked through it not seeing any other way in.   

What happened next was textbook NYRA customer relations.  A stocky NYRA “Peace Officer” lumbered over to me out of nowhere and gruffly asked me what I was doing.

“I’m here to see the races,” I said.  

“You can’t come in this way.  You can’t sneak your way in here!” he said with a mean streak and a thick local accent.  

“Just tell me where to go, will ‘ya,” I said, aggravated by his accusatory tone.  “I’m not trying to do anything other than go to the races.  The bus dropped me off in the usual spot and I’m trying to enter in the usual spot.”    

“You gotta get outta here,” he said.  “You gotta enter via the clubhouse side.”  

“How do I do that?” I said.  “Everything is fenced off!”  

“Figure it out,” he said.   

Construction of the new hockey arena on track grounds has produced fencing all around the facility with no signage offering guidance to the loyal patrons who want to see horses run.  The NYRA web site offers no heads up to public transit users on how to enter the track.  A map of the grounds posted on the NYRA web site currently includes an illustration that would suggest the West entrance is not sealed off.  

Normal paths to the clubhouse were cut off from the bus drop-off point so I walked along the road that is a turn-off from the Cross Island and made a left onto Hempstead Turnpike.  Sidewalk continuity is spotty with more fencing and construction barrels forcing pedestrians onto either the shoulder of the Turnpike or the Turnpike itself.  It’s incredibly dangerous.  An accident waiting to happen, not to mention an insult to the sport’s older, mobility-limited fans given the track’s clear ability to accommodate people via entrances on the west side of the facility.  

Pedestrians have no good way in via the Turnpike other than a hole in the fence where track customers park their cars.  Google Maps suggests entering via gate 5 but that would force those on foot to share the street with cars.  

Once inside the track (admission is five bucks), the new arena again reminds you quickly that it owns the day – not the brilliant and very special race track that’s been in existence for 116 years.  

The primary reason everybody calls Belmont Park “Beautiful Belmont Park” is because of its barkyard area adjoining the paddock.  It’s a space that families and large groups of buddies have congregated in on race days for a long time.  That is ruined at the moment with max encroachment from a facility emblazoned with the name of a Swiss bank.  The noise, the dust, the construction equipment and supplies staged in the backyard don’t coalesce with the presence of horse saddling in what once was one of the prettiest and most tranquil of spots to see and feel that majestic activity in the entire world. 

I guess race fans must wait and see what it all looks like after the arena is done. What’s known and what’s permanent makes it clear to me that the backyard is ruined.  

A new train station dubbed “Elmont” will be a ten minute walk from the arena/track and is located directly on the Hempstead branch as a new station.  The railroad is saying the eastbound platform will be functional in time for the first Islanders home game on the Saturday before Thanksgiving.  It’ll be another year before fans going back to Manhattan can board at that station on the way home – so the plan is to run trains on a spur from the track’s old station to Jamaica in the meantime.  The bottom line on trains is that what’s good for hockey fans will be good for horse racing fans via the better, more reliable service on the Hempstead branch.  

My beef (before actually seeing it and confirming my fear on Sunday) was that the state and NYRA and the people who should be protecting the rare and historically significant Belmont Park let the track’s best part get ruined by an arena project that could have found better patches of land elsewhere.  Why not on the track’s vast backside expanse?  Anywhere.  Anywhere but a chunk of real estate that represents a truly unique parcel of sporting heaven to generations of fans who will now quit on the tradition of bringing a lawn chair and a cooler to sit alongside the participants in a 9 or 10 race card.  The sight of that arena and the space it gobbled up is gonna make a lot of people sick.  

Echo Zulu won the 74th running of the Frizette, a grade 1, $400-grand race for two-year-old fillies in a romp.  The daughter of the great Gun Runner is undefeated and will next run in the Breeders’ Cup  on the first weekend of November pending continuing good health.  Notable from Sunday’s win was the call of NYRA track announcer John Imbriale who mispronounced the filly’s name in her previous two races at Saratoga.  Somebody must have said something, because this time Imbriale called her Echo Zulu (ZOO-LEW) instead of Echo (ZOO-LOW).  

The Giants, Jets and Yankees games (all thrillers) were on monitors in the indoor area just above the apron where a large group of boisterous regular patrons huddle – and routinely make both New York tracks a fun place to be.  The buzz and excitement created by these fans over the course of a racing day more than offset the repellent NYRA routinely applies via the shoddy communication and services offered at both Belmont and Aqueduct.