Sunday, June 2, 2013

culture générale américaine

With the weather warming up in Paris, I took to the streets on Saturday last week to resuscitate one of my earliest operations: 50 First States.

"Culture générale" is one of those French terms that I instantly took a liking to when I discovered it.  It turns out that the French like it too.  The words translate roughly to "general knowledge" in English.  So someone having "une excellente culture générale" can be considered a person who is very cultivated.

Operation 50 First States has me wandering one of the 20 arrondissements (districts) of Paris and testing the culture générale of my fellow Parisians ‒ and the omnipresent tourists.  But I am not being too general here; I am talking about American general knowledge.  Specifically, I ask the passers-by so fortunate to cross my path if they come from the capital of one of the 50 American States.  In English.

Hence the name of the operation.

In the past two years, I covered Arrondissements 1 through 8, with different challenges almost each time out.  Saturday was therefore about the 9th arrondissement, with a new target of passers-by: groups of men and women, especially couples.  Through the 50 questions, I alternated between asking the man and the woman in the group.  Ladies first, of course.

While testing the culture générale of others, I made sure to develop mine by (re)discovering important landmarks in the arrondissement during my stroll.  Below are 10 of such landmarks that I passed through:

Palais Garnier (Opéra)


Galeries Lafayette


Grands Boulevards

Musée Grévin

Passage Jouffroy

Folies Bergère

Note: Place Blanche and Place Pigalle, landmarks 9 and 10, were visited but not photographed.  It is worth discovering them at night (as opposed to daytime), when their red lights are up.

In certain respects, I surpassed myself on this challenge compared to the previous ones.  For one thing, once I got out of the Opéra metro station, I just went off, approaching almost every couple or group that I crossed.  I must have gotten through 20 of them within 20 minutes.  When I got a break to reflect on what I was doing, I could not believe it; I had managed to step out of my usual self to become someone else.  What I had feared doing ‒ because of what people in the vicinity would think of me ‒ all of a sudden became seriously effortless.

As far as reactions, I got a good deal of rejections, as some people who were not interested in paying me any attention.  I wondered if they grouped me with the women who try to persuade tourists to sign some obscure form, especially since I had in my hand a clipboard with sheets of paper (one showing a map of the arrondissement and another listing the 50 states and capitals).  Several people admitted that they were French or that they were from Paris, which pretty much ended the interaction.  Some took the time to understand what I was asking and simply replied "No".  A few of the people figured that it was some kind of a joke, smiled, and continued on their way.  I even tried to help matters by smiling to hint at the ludicrousness of the situation.  It's fascinating how contagious smiles can be.

By far the most surprising reaction came from a lady (with some guy) that I approached just in front of Galeries Lafayette, in the midst of a bustling scene ‒ as always.  After saying "Hi", I popped the question ‒ "Are you from Saint-Paul?" ‒ and only completed it once she had crossed me.  She however seemed to stop in her tracks as if she was deciding whether to pay me attention or keep on her way.  I took advantage of this moment of hesitation to repeat my question and we ended up closing the space separating us, as if us investing in the moment was worth it.  The lady revealed, in perfect English, that she was from the Saint Paul area, in Minnesota. I was pleasantly surprised.  I mean, what a coincidence!  Confused, she asks the natural question: "What, why, are you doing this?"  And I go: "I am just bored".  It was then her turn to be surprised.  "No kidding!  That's interesting.", she says.  Within a few seconds after that, the interaction was over.  It was definitely a high moment for me.

Another remarkable encounter occurred at Place Pigalle, on the very last capital and state, Cheyenne, Wyoming.  I spotted about a dozen young student-looking people hanging out together at Place Pigalle.  A great way to finish the operation, right?  So I went over and found a guy standing at one end of the group.  I had to speak up and put myself in his line of vision for him to notice me as he was chatting loudly with two guys.  As expected, he replies that he's not from Cheyenne, but we had a brief, lively conversation, encouraged by the disappearance of two other guys.  When he asked me what I was up to, I just told him that I was trying to creative.  Then he tells me ‒ for some reason ‒ that he's half-Polish.  In the meantime, I noticed his lips were remarkably red and asked him if that was lipstick.  He replied yes, saying that one of the girls ‒ whom he pointed to ‒ put it on him.  "Oh, she kissed you?", I asked.  "No, she just put it on me.  You know, it's red, like we are in the red light district and everything, so it all fits in."


After that, my mission was accomplished.  I was relieved. Despite the quick start, it took me two hours to complete the operation.  But the timing was great ‒ the sun was out the whole time, and I avoided the rain that would come a half-hour later.

My feet weary at the end of it all, I still found my way on foot back to the metro at Opéra, my starting point.

I will leave you with a few "news photos" taken during my stroll.

Figurines of Psy in various Gangnam Style poses

Slogan on the sidewalk
("We want work, not gay marriage")

PepsiCo promoting a new beverage

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