Saturday, August 23, 2014

operation rescue

If there was an operation that I was struggling with greatly, it would have to be Bar Games.

I mentioned Bar Games previously in an article but I have not really presented it.  Well, let me take the opportunity to give you an introduction.

Just like Operation 50 First States, Bar Games has me going through the arrondissements of Paris from the 1st to the 20th.  But unlike 50 First States, which takes place on the street, Bar Games takes place as you guessed it in a bar.  Or in just about any nightlife venue with a counter and patrons who can have drinks there.  The general idea is to create unusual (if not fun) situations with people in a bar, and to up the ante on my antics each time I move up an arrondissement.  From the 1st to the 7th, which is the last completed arrondissement at the time of writing, I have done things like saying simply "Hi!" to random people, inviting them to a toast with "Cheers!", and asking them "So are you guys left-siders?".  Oh yes, the interactions happen in English.  And what results is sometimes surprising, usually in a good way.

An arrondissement is completed once I have carried out the operation in the above manner in five different bars within that arrondissement.

My struggles with the operation have been recent.  It was not about completing the operation, but simply about launching it in a given bar.  These difficulties started in the 7th.  Perhaps it was due to the small number of eligible bars in an arrondissement filled with embassies, government buildings and posh residences.  Or perhaps it was the result of a lack of resolve on my part.  Whatever the reasons may be, I had a hard time.  What should not have taken more than two months (to get through five bars) took six.  So when I finally completed the arrondissement, I felt more relieved than joyful.

Ladurée Champs-Elysées

As bad as it was in the 7th, things were even worse in the 8th.  I could not get past the first bar!  As I had a rule of starting an arrondissement by going to the bars that I had visited before, I had to first make it past the bar of the Ladurée site on the Champs-Elysées, which I had been to on two occasions in the past with friends.  Actually, it was the only bar that I remembered in the 8th, so I really had to get through it in order to move on.  But I couldn't.  I stopped by on at least five different nights and everytime except once, I could not muster the courage to leave my seat to approach the other few patrons around.  The one time that I did manage to do that, the response from the people at the first table was "Well, I am happy that you are a left-sider.  I am here with my friends and we are just trying to enjoy our evening together."  Yet given the body language and the voice tone of the girl who delivered those words, what she seemed to be really communicating was "You could not bother us any more than you are bothering us now."  I was crushed, and without a bounce-back strategy prepared, I abandoned the idea of going to the other tables and returned to my seat, believing that I had done something wrong and feeling more ashamed than discouraged.  I quietly finished my drink, paid the bill, and exited the bar.  In short, a failed operation (again).

Sure, all this was my own interpretation of the events.  It was like as if I was looking for real proof from the patrons or the staff of the bar that I was doing something wrong by running the operation there.  Why?  Well, the bar looked posh, compared to any of the ones I had been to in the seven past arrondissements.  And posh places tend to elicit a certain kind of behavior from the people who spend time in them.  Say the kind where people stay at their table and where there is no mingling with people at other tables.  Of course, there is no rule stating that this is the behavior to adopt in such establishments.  But most people behave like this, in places beyond posh bars for that matter, so this is considered normal or at least socially acceptable behavior.  While being guilty of acting in a very similar fashion in bars, I thought that it was a crippling habit, since the operation that I wanted to carry out clearly required something different.  As a result, each time that I went out, I experienced a conflict between my fear (of what people would think) and my desire (to do something unusual), and ended up giving into the former.

After the stress of too many failures, I decided to get out of this conflict by taking a step back.  A step back, almost literally, since I was envisioning a return to the bars of the 7th, the previous arrondissement.  Clearly, I was not ready to take on the challenge of those in the 8th, so why not go build confidence doing something less difficult, something which I had done before anyway, and after that retake the step forward?  The idea sounded too good.

Too bad that it did not work out too well when I tried it out.  When I went out to the 7th, I found out that the first bar was no longer there.  Or perhaps it was being renovated.  In any case, I saw no one and no entrance.  I had put all my eggs into one basket ... er, I mean bar, and I had to accept trying out the other bars if I wanted to take my idea seriously.  The warrior in me decided to continue.  But without a total resolve after the bad news of the first bar.  Ultimately, upon catching sight of the crowd in the second bar from outside, I lost all focus, gave up on the operation, and started figuring out my way home.

Strike two.

I was fed up.  Though still the warrior, I came up with an even bolder idea than the previous one.  Going back to the Ladurée bar in a do-or-die situation and burying the operation for good if I did not complete it there.  In essence, it was like a win-or-go-home event, as some American sport commentators would say.  It seemed like the necessary thing to do, and it was dirt simple.  Do I care enough about my beloved operation to keep it alive, or am I satisfied with imagining solutions (to my problems) that I will never implement?  That was the question.  And hesitating to respond was giving me too much stress.  I deemed a resolution necessary, so that I could move on.  It's not like I absolutely needed to do Operation Bar Games.  After all, I could suffer.

But since I did not want to suffer, I decided to carry out my new idea the day after my return to the 7th bombed.  Besides, I needed to achieve my quota of operations completed during the week, and time was of the essence.

D-Day.  I was pumped about the task that I was going to accomplish and naturally a little anxious as well.  The do-or-die aspect was extremely motivating.  I was just going to enter the bar and do what I set out to do: approach the patrons, regardless of whether they were young or not, with a family or not.  I would leave them alone only if their reactions showed that they were not open to my visit.  And if the members of the staff were displeased with it, then they should better let me know.

I arrived around 9:10pm.  I spotted a group of four young people seated at a table beside the entrance, and a young couple and a baby in stroller on the right side of the U-shaped counter.  I passed the couple on my way to my usual spot.  I was a little sweaty and decided to chill for a moment, in spite of these opportunities ready to seize.  "I'll use the time to prepare myself mentally for the task", I told myself, while hoping at the same time that this decision was not the sign of a loss of focus, however small.

I ordered my usual glass of cranberry juice.  Actually, I did not have to ask for it.  The server at the bar knew that it was what I had always got during my previous visits and suggested it.  She gave it to me with a strawberry hanging on the rim of the glass, which was a new touch.  I sipped away while reading the book "Dieu voyage toujours incognito" by Laurent Gounelle (English edition: "The Man Who Risked It All") that I had brought out from my shoulder bag.  All the while, I kept my mind regularly on the clock, knowing that the real reason I was there was not to read a book, as exciting as it was.

I decided to jump into action at 9:30.  I was just going to do it, that is, get up off my seat and start approaching the group of four, whether it was considered wrong or not, whether I was still sweating from anxiety or not.  Beforehand, two Asian girls had arrived and had taken seats at the left side of the bar counter.  It was certainly good news, since I needed people to be able to get the job done.  But they had ordered to eat, so I was not going to bother them for a toast, at least for the moment.  "Shit, I'm playing it safe again", I told myself, critically.

So 9:30 arrived, my nerves were tingling madly, and in almost robotic motion, I got down from my seat, took my glass in hand, and started walking towards the group of four by the entrance.  And when I could, I was thinking, "I hope that they [the male and female servers] won't think this is weird and won't end up kicking me out."  Clearly, I had some issues with taking the risk of making mistakes ... mistakes in public.

Eventually, I reached my destination and delivered the magic words, accompanied by the appropriate gestures.  "Hi!"  "Cheers!"  "Are you guys left-siders?"  The two guys in the group seemed cautious and kept mum, whereas the two girls with them were quite responsive.  One of them was especially cheerful, which put me quickly at ease.  In fact, she did not only reply my question by telling me that she was right-handed (or left-handed, I forget which), she also started a new conversation by asking me what I thought about French President François Hollande.  That was a first.  Moments later, I said goodbye to them and left to head back to my seat, elated about having broken the ice.  Then I just had to do that four more times.

For some reason or the other, I was not sure whether to approach the young couple next.  I passed them again without talking to them.  Well, you snooze, you lose: minutes later, they packed up and left the bar.

While a part of me lamented the loss, another part eagerly awaited an opportunity for Approach #2.

Shortly afterwards, a French family of four walk into the bar and take seats at the left side of the counter, beside the Asian girls and directly across from me.  There was the man, his wife, and their two adolescent children, a boy and girl.  Hmmn, going over to a French family to ask them if they were left-siders.  How unusual.  As a result, I was hesitant.  Besides, they too were going to eat, like their Asian neighbors.  I decided to return to my book, keeping an eye on them to find out if they had finished eating and if all that they had left were drinks.  And then, a middle-aged French couple arrived and took seats on my side of the counter, three or four seats away from me, where the previous couple and baby had been earlier.  This was wonderful.  "I will not falter, like I did with my previous neighbors", I said, trying to convince myself.

I decided to make my next move around 10:10.  I had guessed that the Asian girls would have finished eating by then.  I was still hesitant about the French family beside them.  The French couple beside me were likely targets as they were having drinks.  Soon enough, the clock struck 10:10.  I got up and started walking towards the other side of the counter, passing by the couple.  I did not stop until I was behind the girls, drawing their attention.  I delivered my lines and raised my glass, but their comprehension of my words and gestures did not seem to inspire them to do more than say "Hi" in return and smile when I said "Cheers!"  Without great surprise, they did not give the impression of having understood my English when I asked if they were left-siders.  So I left, but not without smiling back.  Two down, three to go.  I was feeling high and brave enough to go over to the French family just nearby before I noticed that they were talking with the server at the bar.  It felt uncomfortable waiting behind the two Asian girls for their conversation to end.  My feelings of euphoria had quickly disappeared.  So I turned around and walked towards my seat, stopping before the French couple.  My interaction with them was pretty quick; they used the "I-don't-speak-English" card, at the same not appearing offended about my visit.  But I was not disappointed at all.  On the contrary:  I just scored another approach, with two more to go.  And I was thinking to myself, "I can do this!  I can really do this!"

Back at my seat, the family of four had ordered dessert.  I decided to wait before heading over and picked up my book again while I continued sipping the cranberry juice out of my glass.  Once they had finished dessert (and could certainly order nothing more), I wanted to make my move.  Except that I was now out of juice!  So I gave in to the idea of ordering another glass.  But that it was not the female server who was around, but the male server, who handed me my drink without a strawberry.  Great.  Despite the disappointment, I did not waste time in redirecting my attention to the family.  The father was about to ask for the bill.  "No!  Wait!", I shouted, without a voice.  It was then or never if I was going to make my move.  Well, I did not budge, believing that it was no longer any use to go over there, even if their drinks were still on the table.  So I just watched them leave as I began to regret the several opportunities lost to approach them.  I mean, it was not like I absolutely wanted to have a conversation with them.  I just wanted to ask them my questions.  Why would I not allow myself to do what I want?

I carried on this session of self-criticism for a long while, especially since no new patrons were coming in.  The place looked dead.  In truth, with the exception of Valentine's Day, the bar was usually devoid of people on each night that I had come.  Sure, it was relegated to the back of the building, beyond the restaurant which was facing the Champs-Elysees, and behind the shop near at the entrance that was very popular with tourists.  Some curious people slipped into the bar, but only to look around, take pictures, and then leave.  And in my mind I was telling them, "No, stay!  Have a drink!  Wait a while!"

I kept dwelling on those missed opportunities.  If only I had done this, if only I had done that, this operation would have been done, and I would have been a happy man.  I am almost there, just two more approaches.  This operation cannot die.  What will I do?  I mean, I'm still in the fight.  I don't want to give up, but nobody's coming in anymore.  Time's running out.  I think they are going to close the bar soon.  Oh no!  Now I feel really bad after all that hesitation towards earlier opportunities.

After thirty minutes of suffering during which I tried to avoid the pain by concentrating on my book, a group of four entered the bar and took seats by the entrance.  "Yes!", I said to myself, joyful.  They looked like a family a man, a woman and two teenage girls and they seemed American.  They placed their order, which included drinks and desserts.  I decided to wait a while before moving in.  During this time, I saw a young couple enter the room, and it looked like they were going to stay.  "Yes!  This is it.  You got this", I told myself.  They settled into seats at the counter, with their backs to the entrance and within close proximity of the American family.  Soon enough, they were standing, taking pictures of the place.  Tourists!

At 11:10, I felt that it was time to end this drama once and for all.  So, without as much resistance as before, I got up and went towards the table where the American family was seated.  The man had just gone out of the bar, which left me alone with the woman and the two girls.  I arrived and delivered my opening, which had a rather lukewarm reception.  The girls looked hardly interested, and did not engage much in the conversation.  I was practically speaking with the lady, who was more welcoming, though not that much.  "Well, it was nice meeting you," she said, smiling.  I wished them a good stay in Paris and wasted little time in heading over to the young couple a few steps away.

It was the fifth and hence the last visit of the operation, and probably be the longest and the most comfortable.  The best for last, perhaps.  Anyway, I met Zach and Katrina we even had proper introductions , who said that they were from the left coast (to mean the west coast) of the United States.  Los Angeles to be more precise.  Zach told me that they were in Europe for two weeks, spending the first in Paris and then the second in Brussels with a quick trip to Bruges.  Having visited Bruges on two occasions, I suggested places to visit, notably the Chocolate Museum and Fry Museum.  They were both curious about what left-siders were and I explained the concept to them.  I doubt that I succeeded in retaining their interest.  Note to self:  I need to improve my communication skills on a subject this important.

Five minutes later, I was back at my seat, overjoyed.  I could not believe that I had actually completed the operation.  After all those attempts made and all those glasses of cranberry juice drank.  I was free to move on.  I was in a great mood.  I was even in a greater mood given that I had came close to not finishing, as the server informed a group of three men upon their arrival that the bar was already closed.  Imagine.  If I had not taken the chances that I did take, I would probably not have been able to complete the operation and it would have died.

But no, it gets to stay alive.

My satisfaction reached a high.  I began to open up more to the two servers.  I learned from the girl that the bar would close for the summer in about two weeks what luck that I came that night and that she was going afterwards on vacation to Greece for two weeks.  Later on, when she was absent and the guy was around, I asked him what his vacation plans were.  Los Angeles.  "Really?", I asked.  "That customer at the end of the counter is from Los Angeles, you have got to talk to him", I added, pointing to the spot where Zach was.  "Oh, I was there last year, so I know my way around," he replied.  He said he really liked the city.

At 11:30, almost two and a half hours after my arrival in the bar, I took off, having settled my two drinks.  There was still some cranberry juice in the last glass.  I could not take it anymore, my mouth was not having it.  As I approached the exit, I passed by the family of four and said goodbye again to Zach and Katrina.  A minute later, I had poured myself out onto the Champs-Elysées.  The avenue was lit up and buzzing as usual.  I joined the crowd of passers-by, my spirits high and my conscience calm, as I enjoyed knowing that Operation Bar Games got to live again.

Maybe if the bar often looked like this, the operation would have been done with earlier?

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