I’m sitting in the most authentic French restaurant in town. I heard it is up for sale and realizing I hadn’t been here for around a year decided to pop in after a meeting nearby. I peruse the menu. It is reminiscent of the winter 2015/16 “no gas” menus in that it is a shadow of its former self. I had wanted the wonderful, light and tasty crepes but they are not on the menu. I opt for another French classic.
Situated in Babar Mahal Revisited Chez Caroline has been running under the watchful eye of its owner since 1997. But now it seems it’s time to go. Fortunately its sale includes the staff and menus so we must hope this restaurant, situated in the quaint setting of a recreated Rana palace, will continue to serve classic French food. I also hoped to enjoy the ambiance of the setting today but of the only two other guests, one is constantly on his phone giving advice to one caller after another which runs on a loop of “No beds available. Self-isolate. Take vitamins.” This is not the experience I was looking for.
I wander round the complex. If you don’t know, it is a recreation of the original Baber Mahal, the remaining parts situated just up the street a little, built in 1910 by Maharaja Chandra Shumsher Jung Bahdur Rana. It is the usual white plastered building in the Neoclassical or Baroque European architecture style. Babar Mahal Revisited was build decades later in the 1990s by the grandson of Chandra Shumsher as a tribute to these old Rana palaces. As far as I am aware, the only original parts of the palace within this complex are the then cowsheds and guards houses.
Back in the present—I already know of one shop up for sale as well as a lovely boutique hotel. The shops are open today but aside from the ubiquitous photo shoot, with model, camera-man and hangers on, it seems I’m the only visitor. One shop-keeper feels over the past couple of weeks business has picked up. Knowing the unique and expensive objet d’art sold in most of the shops, I feel this might be remaining expats who are planning trips home and are buying Christmas gifts. Shopping sprees which won’t sustain long.
I’ve heard many shops in Thamel are also closed and/or up for sale. We all had high hopes at the beginning of the Nepal lockdown that the autumn tourist season would go ahead, saving the jobs of thousands in the tourism industry. Reality has now hit. With both rising Covid-19 cases in Nepal and no relief (or plans) in sight and the second wave hitting Europe, our hopes for this season are dashed. And finally we are beginning to see the big picture… tourism might not revive for between two to five years. Depending on who you read. And even if trekkers do arrive in Nepal, many savvy local communities are closing up their lodges and teahouses quoting the risk is not worth the monetary gain in this rapidly shrinking trekking season.
But today, although disappointed I can’t get crepes, and that the bread basket only contains baguette, not the usual variety of breads, and somewhat annoyed the gentleman at the end of the courtyard is a constant reminder of the present reality, I am grateful that I can still enjoy a rare treat and that I am not forced to sit at Khula Manch to receive food. Or worse, unable to receive free food since it is now deemed, after seven months, ‘undignified and unhygienic’. As I sit in this French restaurant a famous phrase attributed to Marie-Antoinette comes to mind: “Let them eat cake.” And we all know what happened to her.