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.

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