Sunday, July 27, 2008

This'll Be the Last Time (I think I said that last time...)

This is my last big, touristy, holy-shit-I-can't-find-a-bathroom of an event for this season. In fact, I hope not to have to set foot on the Champs-Élysées again for the rest of the year.

Fat chance, considering I live right by it, but a guy can always dream, right?

After another week of overwork and apartment-hunting, we figured we'd be good little newcomers-to-France and get up really early this morning, pack ourselves a picnic, stake out a spot on the Champs-Élysées, and wait at least five hours to catch a glimpse of Carlos Sastre and others triumphantly blow by on their bicycles, wrapping up the 2008 Tour de France. I read that the crowds would be three or four times bigger than on Bastille Day. That the weather would be hotter and more humid. That the tourists are estimated to be an order of magnitude more obnoxious. (Something about an Aussie rider doing really well... I kid!)

So as we went to bed last night, Alannah asked, "Is your alarm set?"

"Fuck it," I declared. "Let's just wake up when we wake up and play it by ear. We'll go with the flow. And if we don't catch the Tour, there's always next year."

I think Alannah silently thanked god for finally knocking some sense into me. I don't want to tell her that I was just exhausted.

It was just past noon when I finally woke up.

"Heh. Guess we won't be hanging out with the early birds on the Champs," I said. "Want a cocktail?"

And thus started my day-drinking.

I flipped on the TV. "You know," I said, tipping back my drink. "They say if you're actually interested in the race, it's better to watch it on TV - where you can see."

My brain surrendered to the thought of just sitting around and drinking all day. I made another drink.

Eventually, perhaps after I got a buzz going, we decided it'd be worthwhile to venture down to try and catch the Tour in person. After all, it's just down the street. And if there's one thing I love about big events with lots of tourists, it's that I can roll in a t-shirt, shorts and sneakers - without being judged as a tourist who goes to big events.

The other cool things about these things is that - unlike the supposedly liberated San Francisco - drinking in public is totally legal in Paris. So we stopped to pick up beers.

The thing that blows about these things is that you just sit around and wait. And all the booze in the world doesn't make it any quicker. Despite the fact that we arrived many hours after everyone else (yet still managed to get a sweet spot, not far from the turn-around at the Arc de Triomphe) we still had to wait, and wait, and wait for any sort of action.

You knew something was about to happen when the crowd would start to get increasingly louder from the east end of the Avenue, with motorcycles and support cars zipping by. And then, as the excitement of the announcer's voice crescendoes over the loudspeakers, so does the crowd. If you're hearing impaired, you can tell this moment from everyone going apeshit to train their cameras on the approaching peleton.

This is because the only way to actually see anything is to grab it as a photo/video and watch it later when you can zoom in, freeze-frame, retouch or whatnot. Actually trying to witness anything live will require you to focus in like a laser for the 15 or so seconds of glory as the cyclists rush by at around 53km/h.

In fact, without a good SLR with a fast shutter, you won't even be able to make the cyclists out as anything but a blur.

Even at a good 1/320th of a second, these little bastards move too fast. It took me a few laps (which seem like an eternity of waiting in between) before I could fire off an acceptable shot.

The other problem is that - say you grab a good shot - trying to spot the yellow jersey is like playing Where's Waldo? Yellow is the official color of the tour, so everyone wearing a 10€ yellow shirt/cap/souvenir rain poncho in the background makes it tough to pick out the leader.

So it wasn't until well after the peleton had gone by that I reviewed my pictures and said, "Oh, hey! I managed to get Carlos Sastre!" Honestly, I didn't know who or what I was shooting.

The polka-dot jersey (worn the best climber of the field) is slightly easier to spot, if only because it's even more obnoxious than the yellow jersey.

Eventually, I gave up on trying to figure out which rider was which, which team they rode on, which country they rode for - and appreciated the big blur of color that would mind-bogglingly whiz by every so often. And wouldn't you know it, it was after I'd just given up to go with the flow that I spotted Sastre as he rode by in front of us.

Sated, we got out of the crowd a few laps before the end, hoofing it down to the Concorde end of the Champs-Élysées in time for the award ceremony. Thankfully, they put up a giant video screen for you to watch it, since the tiny stage is damn near impossible to see. Whether that's because the stage is barely higher than street-level, or because I was writhing around doing the pee-pee dance after a half day of drinking and standing around is yet to be determined.

The ceremony itself is rather understated. As the winners are handed a bouquet, they're flanked by two extremely hot girls. Besides the fact that you get to see these amazing specimens of the female form, you can also marvel in the extremely French way that their dresses are coordinated with the cyclists' jerseys. Leader's yellow jersey? Yellow sundresses. Climber's red polka dot jersey? White A-line dresses with a polka dot sash. Speedster's green jersey? Guess...

In the end, it was seeing those pretty girls in the coordinated dresses that got me smiling. There was a certain understated kitschiness to it (if such a thing can exist, the French are on top of it), going along with the understated announcing, and the understated speech by the winner - the Spaniard Carlos Sastre - who spoke softly and gently after a grueling 22 days that concluded with a sprint up and down the Champs-Élysées. There was no pumping techno music, no heads of corporations handing out giant novelty-size checks (although corporate sponsorship is the one thing that fuels the Tour more than performance-enhancing drugs), nor any sort of over-the-top craziness you'd normally expect at the conclusion of a major sporting event.

Maybe it's because it's cycling, but the crowd was - for the most part - polite and civilized. Drunk as hell, perhaps, but well behaved. Even the Aussies. And surprisingly, for as much beer as was being consumed, there was no pissing on the sidewalks. (Though I believe I slowly wet myself drop by drop over the course of the day. It was so humid, I can't tell.) Overall, it was the most surprisingly pleasant mass sporting event I've ever attended.

We've started to take these things for granted.

Late last night and then this morning, we blew off the race, figuring we could just walk down the street if we want to watch it, and that it happens every year. Then we go, we think, "Yeah, this is pretty cool," and then the bipolarity kicks in.

"Holy shit! We just saw the ending of the Tour de France!"

Then we think, "Yeah, but I could've done without the big crowds, not being able to pee, or the potential heat stroke." And we walk home and get an ice cream bar on the way, capping off another languid Sunday, thinking "Ok, I guess that was better than staying at home."

And this is representative, I think, of living in Paris. Alannah and I often go for late night walks after dinner. You walk along and think, "Oh, hey, it's that damn Arc de Triomphe again," or "Honey, do you want to cross the Pont des Arts or Pont Neuf tonight?" or "Maybe it'd be nice to walk near the Louvre." And once in a while, it just hits both of us. "I don't care how touristy it is - it's still beautiful!" or "It's so weird living by all these awesome monuments!" or "I just went to go buy bread... by the f***ing [FILL IN MONUMENT NAME]!"

So yes, watching the finale of the Tour de France in person was great. But at the same time, I really have no desire to put up with the masses of people, the tourist-oriented shops and kiosks, the overpriced everything, or the general lunacy of being one amongst several hundred thousand people packed into one street. And that's just the Champs-Élysées on a normal day.

Unfortunately, I'll probably have to do this every time we have visitors in late July. For those of you thinking about it, I've conveniently distilled a typical six-hour day of watching (or rather, waiting to watch) the Tour de France into six minutes.


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