Tuesday, March 31, 2015

"do you have a joke?"

Before 2pm on Saturday, February 28, 2015, I showed up at Gare de Lyon, one of the six major railway stations in Paris.  I had no train to catch and I had not come to pick up someone.  I had no ticket on hand and I was not going to purchase one.  I was not even getting something to eat, and I had no need for the restroom.  No, I was only there to run Operation Insecurity.

Operation Insecurity is nothing more than a spin-off of Operation Les Jolies Filles, which was also targeted at pretty women.  In all honesty, it is exactly the same thing as Operation Les Jolies Filles.  I had just changed its name to remind myself why I was running it: to overcome my feelings of insecurity towards doing unusual things in public.  And to help me were the pretty women to be found all over Paris, whether they knew it or not.

Once I stepped into in Hall 1 of the train station,  I began looking for a target.  Walking the length of the hall, in the area that separated the platforms from the dispersed travelers, I kept my eyes open, scanning the crowd.  To calm my nerves and keep away the dissuasive thoughts, I repeated a quote from the mythologist Joseph Campbell that I had remembered only after failing the same operation in the same place five hours before: "Find a place inside where there's joy, and the joy will burn out the pain."  It was a quote that I believed in, given the numerous successes that I had had when running challenging operations in the past.

I got through the hall without a single approach.  That's not to say that there were no pretty women around, on the contrary.  I just did not make out any clear-cut opportunity or, when I did, I did not muster the courage to do anything about it, telling myself that I did not know what to say to the girl, even though I had allowed myself to say anything that came to mind.  All the while, moments came and went as quickly as the number of people that were moving all over the place.  Not to be discouraged, I kept on moving myself, armed with words of wisdom from Joseph Campbell.

I made my way into the Galerie des fresques, which linked Hall 1 to Hall 2.  Soon enough, I spotted a woman in a very colorful outfit walking towards me, alone.  As the gap between us got closer, I quickly looked around and verified that there were people nearby : some were standing by on her left, others walking behind her, and several walking behind me.  Perfect.  As I crossed paths with the woman, I got her attention by saying hello, in English.

"So how was vacation?", I asked.


"You know, the school vacation period just ended."

"Yes ..."

"And it lasted two weeks."

"Yes ..."

"So how did it go?"

The woman kept silent for a short moment before continuing.

"I don't quite understand.  Do you speak German?"

"German?", I asked in return, surprised.

"Yes, German."

"No, I don't.  Are you German?"

"No, but I speak it."

"But you do speak French?"

"Yes", she replied.

I was intrigued as to why she had asked me if I spoke German instead of asking me if I spoke French.  We were in France, after all.  Or did I miss something?  In any case, I was not going to switch to French for the sake of convenience, so the interaction swiftly ended and we parted ways right after.

I kept on walking until I reached Hall 2.  Upon entering, I found myself on one end of the floor.  I went straight towards the platforms to be in the middle of the action while walking towards the other end of the floor.  Of course, I was still keeping a lookout.  And my efforts were about to pay off when, somewhere along the middle of the floor, I noticed two women standing together, facing the trains.  One was looked like she was in her late 20s or early 30s.  The other was perhaps her mother, as she looked much older.  Without hesitation, I jumped into action.  It was what I wanted after all.  Action.

"Hello", I said, looking more at the younger woman, who was closer to me.


"Are you waiting for your train?"


"Oh, you are waiting for someone then?"


Silence.  All the while, I could pick up a certain discomfort on their part (or was it on my part rather?).  The younger woman was giving me one-word answers, though I took some responsibility for this, having coming up with such simple questions in the first place.  The other woman had turned her head away and remained quiet.  As for me, I had run out of things to say, and it seemed that the best thing to do at that point was to end the conversation.

"Well, have a good day", I said, smiling.

"Thanks", said the younger woman, with a faint smile.  The other woman kept her silence, though she gave a hint of a smile.

I completed my tour of Hall 2 and left, going through the Galerie des fresques again to return to Hall 1.  Having initiated a conversation on two separate occasions inside the same building, I had completed the operation that I had failed only five hours before.  But I did not feel satisfied with this victory.  In fact, I felt like I had not given an acceptable effort, notably with the two women that I met in Hall 2.  The interaction with them had been simply too brief, and the questions that I asked them did not require more than "Yes" or "No" answers.  Also, I had been taken aback by their relatively distant reaction.  "I mean, why can't some people just lighten up sometimes?", I complained to myself, almost impulsively.  And at that instant, my mind got to racing to thinking what I could do foster light-hearted interactions with strangers (in this case, with pretty women).  Then an idea emerged and stood over everything else in my consciousness.  I liked it and decided to give it a go.

I was already back in Hall 1, which seemed more crowded than before.  But I was undeterred.  In fact, I was more determined than ever, Joseph Campbell's words still by my side.  I walked below the main departure board suspended in the middle of the hall, among the dozens of travelers who had their eyes fixed on it.  Nearby, I saw three girls standing in a small circle, talking.  Given the mass of people around them, it was an excellent opportunity for me to feature my insecurity.  So I chose to go capture it.

"Hello", I said.


"Do you have a joke?"

"Er ... what?"

"Do you have a joke?"

"A joke?"

"Yes.  A joke.  Do you have one?"

The girls looked amused.  I guessed that they also felt perplexed.  But they were game, and started conferring quietly among themselves.  It took place quite quickly, and I could not record everything that was going on.  However, I remember being pleasantly surprised by the success that I was having in pulling off this stunt.  Some silence had crept in, so naturally, I made sure to pick up the dialogue.

"Okay, I'm waiting for a joke!", I stated, with a hand gesture meant to convey my impatience.

"Do you speak French?", one of the girls asked me.

"Yes, I do.  But not today."

She seemed to take that well.

"What about a bad joke?", another girl asked.

"Well, a bad joke is still a joke", I conceded.

"All right, I am going say it, it's in French."

I moved in closer to listen.  I found it a bit odd yet humorous that I was going to have to understand a joke in French even though everyone was aware that I had chosen to not speak a word of French.

"Qu'est-ce qui est jaune et attend?"  (In English: "What is yellow and wait?")

"'Jaune', OK, I got that. 'Attend'?  Like from the verb 'attendre'?"


I thought about it for a while, trying to come up with an answer.  I asked for a clue, but I don't think that my request registered with the girls.  Helpless, I did not spend much time before giving up.

"Jaune-attend!", one of them said.

"Jaune-attend?  Wha ... oh!  Jonathan?  The name Jonathan?"


"Wait ... Jonathan ... pronounced in what language?  French?  English?"

I cannot remember their reply.  But the joke ‒ or rather the riddle ‒ was more or less understood.  I just assumed that the French pronounced the name Jonathan differently compared to native English speakers.  "Jaune-attend", I repeated.  "Hmmn."

"Not bad at all, not bad", I added.

The girls were all smiles.

"Do you mind if I use it?", I asked them.

"Not at all", one girl replied, giggling with the others.

I decided to end the interaction.  I had the feeling that I no longer had anything plausible to say.  My mind was blank actually.  I felt that I had already redeemed myself after the disappointment of the previous encounter.  Pleased about this last experience, I wished the girls "bon voyage" before leaving them, even though I did not know whether they were going to take a train or if they were simply waiting for someone to arrive.

Alone once again and feeling liberated more than anything, I headed for the bus stop outside the train station, amusing myself with ideas to take things further with this operation.

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