Friday, August 16, 2013

bring on the crowd

On July 14th, a.k.a. Bastille Day, a.k.a. France's National Day, I set out to run Operation 50 First States in the 11th arrondissement of Paris.   Besides trying to make the operation a once-a-month affair after taking on the 9th in May and the 10th in June, I was savoring the opportunity to celebrate Bastille Day in my own way, passing through Place de la Bastille, the site where the former Bastille prison was stormed on July 14th 1789.  Talk about a marriage of my history with France's history!

I planned to get things started at Place de la Nation, a square located between the 11th and the 12th.  Since I had already challenged myself with approaching individuals, couples, and groups, each category at least a hundred of times, I had felt the need to make matters more interesting.  Besides, I was at the halfway in covering Paris, with 10 arrondissements down and 10 more to go.  Could there have been a better time to change the rules of the game?

Change was desired, but which one would be the best to make the game meaningful yet exciting, to me and potentially to the people that I would be meeting?  Certainly not that of making the questions any less ridiculous nor that of asking them in French.  I had looked within and remembered that even though I had succeeded in asking people the 50 questions, I had often felt uncomfortable if there were many people around in close proximity, to the point of sometimes shying away from the target.  Crowded, popular places were often the most challenging.  Not only did I worry about rejection coming from the target for my unusual behavior, I feared judgment coming from the people around the target and myself.  It was just a thing of discomfort.  Yet it had to be the basis for the change that I desired.

So I had decided to ask the same questions to the same categories of people, but making sure each time that there were people around to potentially witness the event.

Now let's go back to D-Day.  Bastille Day fell on a Sunday and Place de la Nation, one of Paris' largest squares, was pretty devoid of people in the morning.  Besides, most people, including myself, were distracted by the national air force's planes whizzing through the sky to celebrate the day.  Let's not forget my objective: 10 sites to visit and 50 people to ask, each one in front of an audience.  I had time to think about it ‒ the streets being practically deserted, I did not have much to do ‒ and the whole thing just seemed less and less feasible that day.  So I conceded defeat, and instead joined in with those watching the planes fly by.

Once I got back home, I sought ways to restructure the operation.  One major change was to divide the 50 states into lots of 10 and devote a run of the operation to a single lot, nothing more.  10 being much more manageable than 50, the new operation would deter me from rushing to get through to the finish line.  In other words, I could take my time more with 10.  In addition, the restructuring also seemed like a shift from quantity towards quality, which I appreciated.  As far as sites, I divided the selection by 5 also, thus making it the requirement to visit 2 sites during each run.  I would pick off from where I left off and celebrate only when I had covered the 5 lots by blogging about the adventure.

To kick off the revamped Operation 50 First States ‒ which could be called Operation 5 * 10 States ‒ I returned to Place de la Nation, which I had chosen along with Rue de Charonne to be my 2 sites.  On the Saturday in August that I was kicking things off, targets were easy to find.  However, audiences were not, partly because I was not sure how much of a crowd was sufficient.  I eventually ended up settling on a minimum of four people in the vicinity, excluding the target and myself.  It would have been difficult to find a larger audience for each question.  Still however, I went around and around the Place de la Nation, hoping to find a crowd.  It was like struggling to give life to a newborn!

The birth was ultimately successful, and I made my way towards Rue de Charonne after counting 2 targets.  On Boulevard de Charonne, there was an open-air market with people around.  After feeling apprehension about being in a crowd and debating whether it was ethical to do what I had planned to do, I went on with it, walking up the long corridor of the market and approaching people.  And since it was easy to find enough people to form the audience, I did not need to count.  As far as choosing the target, I contented myself with interrupting those with seemingly nothing else to do but walk, ignoring those in queues.  It was surprising that what I had feared doing was turning out to be rather effortless.  I must have been in a zone.

I got out of the market having asked 4 people, but I still had not reached 10.  What I had reached though was Rue de Charonne.  So I took it, with the plan to end up near the Bastille neighborhood.  Almost instantly, I saw a covered bus stop where about ten people were waiting and standing for the most part.  Opportunity!  It was the turn to ask a woman, so I scanned the bus stop.  I found a few middle-aged women before my eyes landed on a young woman, who was quite pretty.  Tending to shy almost always from the pretty girls, it became clear to me that it was her that I needed to approach.  And without hesitation, I went up to her, doing my best to remain focused, and said: "Hi.  Are you from Tallahassee?"  She didn't seem to understand, and didn't say anything.  But I clearly had her attention.  At the same instant, I had the impression that the eyes of several people were on me ‒ something that I actually confirmed by sight ‒, and I instantly got nervous.  But I managed to ask the young woman the question again, doing my best to be clearer.  She replied "I do not understand", at which point I let out a faint smile and vanished.  I couldn't believe what I had just done.  I had managed to enter a dense crowd of unfamiliar people, on the street, drawing the attention of many of them while asking the prettiest among them a ridiculous and apparently incomprehensible question.

It was as if something fundamental in my psyche had gotten unlocked.  My mind began to race, as I let myself imagine how much fun playing with crowds was going to be.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

why i love paris (1)

One Sunday morning in April, I saw this ensemble play while I was on my way to Marché d'Aligre, an open-air market in Paris.  I recognized the song but was not a huge fan.  Yet stumbling upon the performance reminded me just why I loved Paris.

I recently bought "21", the album that contains the song covered above.  And more than two years later, I have arrived at the party.  And it appears that it's over.  Okay.

Anyways, big ups to Adele and her people.  The album is magnificent.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

in defense of the conservative

All creative people need something to rebel against, it's what gives their lives excitement, and it's creative people who make the clients' lives exciting.

‒ Paul Arden

One Friday evening last December, I went to Le Basile, a café in the 7th arrondissement of Paris, to run Operation Bar Games.  I had already covered arrondissements 1 through 6, so the 7th was up next.  I had my concerns about finding enough friendly bars in this part of Paris, one filled with embassies and government office buildings and considered to be the abode of many wealthy people.  Yet I was to be undeterred.

Le Basile is known as the hangout for students of Sciences Po, the most elite of political science schools in France, located just across the street.  I had been to the café several Fridays in the past and literally gotten lost in discussions on political science matters that I never knew existed.

So that evening, after getting my glass of cranberry juice at the counter, I headed towards the back of the room in order to meet whoever I saw that fit the bill, political science student or not.  I found a table of four by the wall facing the street, went over and started my routine upon arrival:

Me: Hi!
Table of Four (surprised): Hi.
Me (extending glass): Cheers!
Table of Four (still surprised, some willing, others reluctant): Cheers.
Me: So, are you guys left-siders?
Table of Four (confused): A what?
Me: A left-sider.
Table of Four (still confused): What's that?
Me: A left-sider is someone who believes that he can change the world.
Table of Four (smiling yet skeptic): Ah.

Soon after, the conversation takes a more typical turn, similar to one that foreigners in Paris meeting for the first time might have: "Where are you from?", "How long have you been in Paris?", "What are you doing in Paris?"  In the midst of all the chatter, a member of the table suggests that they all go out for a cigarette break.  And I am invited to come along.  How I love it when a random group of people in Paris accept me as one of their own.

So we all went outside the café and continued talking.  A girl from the group then tells me, "I don't think that you will have much success finding the kind of people that you are looking for here, as this part of the city is very conservative."

And I'm thinking: "And that's a bad thing?"

I think that it can be more meaningful to try changing the world in a place considered to be very conservative than not.  Why?  Because the opportunities for action are abundant in such a place.  They will keep someone totally dedicated to the task of changing the world motivated, pushing him to become better at what he does.  He may end up realizing his quest, or he may eventually fall short.  Regardless of the outcome, the experience will nonetheless be worthwhile because of his commitment to doing something great.

It's like working as a street cleaner.  How fulfilling would it be for a person truly dedicated to the task of street cleaning to go to streets that were already clean?  How much experience, how much fulfillment can he gain from cleaning what is already clean?  I bet you not much.  Perhaps he dislikes working in the dirtiest of streets, but for a devoted street cleaner to feel useful, he needs dirty streets.

And for a devoted world-changer ‒ or left-sider ‒ to feel useful, he needs conservative situations.  All the time?  Probably not.  But much of the time?  Oh yes.

Besides, it's exciting work.  Who wouldn't enjoy trying to change the world in a place where doing so is believed to be impossible, or where doing so is not given much thought, if at all?

Conservative places exist for a reason.  So let us try to see the benefit in them.

Friday, August 2, 2013


A brave person ... is the one who dares to face with courage the things that others spend their whole lives running from.

M.Farouk Radwan

Last week, while parading the Billboard website to find out how the latest releases were faring on the charts, I discovered Sara Bareilles.  Her album, The Blessed Unrest, debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard 200.  An article spotlighting this singer-songwriter gave me the itch to find out more.  Without a doubt, this was partly because of  "Brave", the album's lead single.

Now what's better than the music video?  The lyric video!

The music video is wonderful.  The acting ‒ or lack thereof ‒ is great.  But for me though, it's all about the music.  Sara's singing is on point, and I love the way that her voice meshes with the instrumental, whose sounds follow each other pleasantly.  But to be honest, I really prefer the lyric video.  The words just take everything to a deeper level.

Some lyrics that spoke to me:

You can be the outcast / Or be the backlash of somebody's lack of love / Or you can start speaking up

Don't run / Stop holding your tongue 

Maybe there's a way out of the cage where you live / Maybe one of these days you can let the light in 

And since your history of silence / Won't do you any good / Did you think it would?

And then there's the chorus:

Say what you want to say / And let the words fall out / Honestly / I want to see you be brave

A true delight.