Wednesday, June 16, 2010

nothing smooth about this segue, err I mean Segway

Chaos. Circus. Cluster. Take your pick. All perfect descriptors for giving a Segway tour to 29 Israeli men who want to hear nothing about history but instead perform Segway stunts.

Today two other guides and I took a group of Israelis who are visiting Paris as an incentive trip from their company on a Segway tour. There was supposed to be four guides, but one of my fellow rookie guides fell off his Segway this morning and broke his nose. (Poor guy). It was like herding cats. A few minutes in they told us they didn't want to hear any history and just want to ride. Pandemonium. I feel like I should get some sort of sexual harassment bonus for putting up, "Oh Stefani, your eyes are so blue." Or, singing "Stefani, Stefani, eyes like an ocean." They would not listen to a thing we said and I finally decided that I would just sit back, watch them crash and laugh at them. And oh they wrecked. We even had one manage to lose his Segway key in the Seine and has to pay 200 euros for it!

The worst part was that their company hired a three-person camera crew to film their entire trip. They kept wanting to stage these elaborate theatrical pass-bys. I was trying to hurry them along and was beginning to annoy myself as I repeated things like - keep moving, watch your wheels, let's roll forward, blah blah.blah. One of the crew snapped at me and said, "Darling, we heard you and you need not repeat yourself." I'll leave my retort out to prevent sounding like a meanie. We miraculously all made it back alive and could do nothing but laugh at the craziness we endured.

After work I went to our designated Fat Tire crepe stand. Though not on the menu, our crew always order what's called a  'change your life crepe'. And I assure you, it does change your life. It's chicken curry, cheese, loads of veggies, hot sauce and optional egg. May sound odd, but I assure you it's delicious. My other absolute favorite gooey deliciousness is the Nutella-banana crepe. It's all in the name and needs no more explanation. No matter how crazy a day, how full or empty the tip jar, ending a day with a crepe makes it a good one.

 View of Paris at dusk I took on one of my tours, sky was so vivid I had to bust out my own camera!

Monday, June 14, 2010

somtimes a bicycle is just a bicycle

I used to dream of being a bicycle tour guide. Now, I literally dream about being a bicycle tour guide. Almost every night I have a dream about giving a tour, though some are more like nightmares. It turns out that this is a common Fat Tire phenomenon that afflicts most of the guides. I need not any Freudian interpretation of my unconscious mind and I'm pretty sure the bicycles in my dreams actually do represent bicycles.

I'm getting in the groove of giving tours. Though the information on the stops flows from me like wine from a barrel, not much else is the same on every tour. Segway tours are fun because the groups are much smaller (like 8 Segway riders compared to 22 bikers) so you get to know the people on the tour and the group size is easier to manage. Only there is one major obstacle in Segway tours - poles. And by obstacle I don't mean some figurative hindrance that must be overcome with sheer determination. I literally mean obstacle, because someone rides straight into a pole on nearly every tour. During the training at the beginning of the tour I drone on about looking out for poles and poodles yet somehow, people run straight into them. I had a lady this week ride directly into a light-post then her Segway rolled into the street, leaving me dashing out to save it from a passing Smart car. Most crashes result in a bruised ego more than anything else, thanks to the invention of the helmet. Never a dull moment.

Bicycles riders are slightly less accident-prone, but these tours offer their own set of unique challenges. I can now very swiftly flip a bike over like a pro. Once I have my tools-in-hand and am adjusting nuts and bolts (just learned which is which this week) nothing about me seems like a pro. I've made several fixes on my tours but thankfully have not had a flat tire yet. (please take a moment to say a quick prayer right now that no one gets a flat tire on my tours). It's inevitable - it will happen, and it won't be pretty. And sometimes when you don't know how to fix something breaking it entirely is the only thing to do - like I did with the tire fender in this photo.

I had an extra-large group on a bike tour last week - 25 people that were all traveling together. Seriously, imagine trying to lead 25 people on quick turns through neighborhoods or crowded bus/bike lanes with stoplights every 50 meters. I lost two people on my tour. Yes, you read that right. I lost two people on my tour and never saw them again. It was between the shop and our first stop. I searched for them, my manager rode his bike all over searching for them. I felt terrible, nearly frantic. Only, it turns out they decided the streets are too scary and turned back without telling anyone and dropped their bikes at Fat Tire and hung out in the park until the tour returned. I have now added a bit to my pre-tour speech that says if you want to turn back, please let someone know!

I am still exhausted on most days. My one day off was yesterday and instead of exploring Paris I stayed home most of the day. Even when I was in college I wasn't getting home this consistently at 2am! After work a couple nights ago a group of us hung out on the Peace Monument, which is at the end of the Champs de Mars (the park at the base of the Eiffel Tower). The tower sparkles the first five minutes of the hour from 10pm - 1am, and at the 1am sparkle the orange back-lights are turned off and the tower just sparkles. I see it sparkle nearly every night but I try to take a moment and appreciate it, and being here to see this great monument glitter in the sky.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

It's been a hard day's night (bike), and I've been working like a dog!

Last night after work I went with some other guides to the roof of the 59 story Montparnasse Tower- the tallest skyscraper in Paris. We brought wine and salty goodies and watched the sunset behind the Eiffel Tower, which doesn't happen until after 10pm in the summer months. The view of Paris from Montparnasse is arguably the best because you can see over the entire city, including the Eiffel Tower. It's never crowded and picnic-friendly. There happen to be several firework shows in Paris last night so we stayed until after midnight and watched the skies light up with colorful confetti. I'm finding life in Paris suits me.

But this week wasn't all sparkles and snackies. I did my first night bike tour. My blood pressure has finally gone back to normal nearly 48 hours later. Who knew leading bike tours could be more stressful than selling software? It was Friday night - and the traffic was absolutely totally and completely nuts. Leading a pack of bikers down major streets may sound simple, but keeping the group safe and together is quite a balancing act. I'm constantly yelling back - stick together...or, dig deep and pedal faster! I told my group that all the buses and cars honking at us had no malicious intent but instead really just saying - welcome to France! And that one special finger they point at us as we block the road, well they're just saying Fat Tire Bike Tours is #1! I knew it was going to be a long five hours when just a few minutes into the ride I had a lady fall off her bike. Completely. Her English was only slightly better than my Mandarin so a language barrier only made things more convoluted.

In addition to having riders who couldn't actually ride, my tour was also plagued with two chains falling off, one tire rubbing that had to be fixed (actually Andrew, a veteran guide, came to my rescue for this mechanical operation) and a woman whose brakes did not work. An hour in to the ride and I was completely covered in grease and sweat. I switched bikes with the woman with the non-functioning brakes - which was complicated by the fact that I was also hauling eight bottles of wine, two heavy bike locks, cords, tools, first aid kit and several other items in two saddle bags on my bike. So going down a ramp with nothing but my toes to break was a wee bit daunting. The boats were off schedule so instead of catching a 10:30 boat we caught an 11pm, which means it was well after midnight before our final ride back to the shop. As I was handling out bikes after the boat ride I told everyone just to wait with their bikes...blah blah...and then we'd get going. The same lady who fell off earlier got on her bike and just started pedaling, in the wrong direction. I mean really, was this happening? I was starting to wonder if she was a mean prank, like I was being hazed on my first night bike. She didn't make it very far, because she let her bungee cord dangle in the bike and get caught in the chain. I was going to just lock up her bike, give her mine and me run the last mile back to the office alongside the tour (that's a standard M.O. when things go wrong at the end of a tour). Luckily, I had two valiant men on my tour that were determined to dislodge the cord and did so successfully. About 12:30am we made it back to Fat Tire. Everyone had a great time, and everyone made it back in one piece so all things considered it was still a success.

I know things will get easier. The day bike and Segway tours are easy for me now. I have four night bikes in a row next week. Tuesday is my first "triple crown" which means I'm giving 3 tours totally 16 hours straight - no break. I'm confident that by next weekend night bike will become routine. This job is very physical. My legs are covered in bruises. And when I say covered, that's no exaggeration. I also have a lovely cut/bruise combination on my shin but it's not a battle scar from a tour. Nope, it's from tripping and falling flat on my face around midnight walking up the escalator at the metro station with a water bottle in one hand and my iPod in the other other. It was one of those 12+ hour work days and my legs rebelled. The bruises are a nice complement to my black mechanic hands. I'm definitely getting both tougher and dirtier with each passing day.

Today is my first day off work since arriving in Paris and I've been completely lazy. Walking from my bedroom to my kitchen is the farthest I've gone...and I'm loving it. I'm going to bed early tonight and will be geared up tomorrow for more adventures on my tours....and praying for no flat tires.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Conquering the streets of Paris on my bike

Some people are living a dream. I'm living a song. By Queen. And it goes like this...

Bicycle bicycle bicycle
I want to ride my bicycle bicycle bicycle

I want to ride my bicycle
I want to ride my bike
I want to ride my bicycle
I want to ride it where I like

Life has been absolutely crazy and exhausting since arriving to Paris just over a week ago. I think about what I knew about the city then, and that in just a few hours I'm giving my first solo tour to some unsuspecting tourists and it seems like I've been here for ages. Fat Tire gets us street-ready by going on 9 training tours and a logistical tour with just the Fat Tire team. Learning the French history of the stops on the tour was the easy part. The complication of this job is found in the details. On bike tours, I have a group of 23 tourists riding mindlessly behind me so I have to not only know the route through busy streets, but learn the timing of stoplights, where bus lanes collide with bike lanes, where we perform Advanced Traffic Maneuvers (ATMs) which are clearly a violation of many traffic laws! For Segway tours we stay mostly on the sidewalks, but have to know where are the ramps, where are the polls, where are the bumps - all things that have people flying off their Segways. Literally. I have already seen some gnarly Segway falls. I *think* I have it all down but will find out in a few hours.

This really may be the coolest job in the world. It pays somewhere just below poverty level, so it's a good thing it is an absolute blast! Most of the people who take Fat Tire tours are a lot of fun to talk to (although I'm giving a Segway tour to a non-English speaking group of Germans tomorrow, eek). An average work week is about 50 hours and a whole lot of miles. On the day tours we stop and eat in a cafe in the colorful Tulleries Garden outside the Lourve. At night we stop and have delicious ice cream and take an hour boat ride down the Seine where we drink wine and watch the Eiffel Tower sparkle. So I get paid to eat ice cream, drink wine, absorb a beautiful city and hear myself talk. Maybe I am living a dream!

I love my flat. It's in the 11th arrondissement which is on the right bank on the east side of town. When anyone asks me where I live and I tell them the 11th they say something like - ohhh, trendy. Except I've been working so much I have no idea where are the trendy stuff is - I do pass a McDonalds right down the street but I don't think that's it. When I haven't been working 16 hour days I've squeezed in some fun. I meandered through a street market and bought fresh fruit, cheese and perfectly baked baguettes (crispy on the outside, soft on the inside). Last week I joined guides at a picnic on the quay (pathway along the river Seine) and drank red wine and ate soft garlicy cheese that made me fall in love with France all over again. Last night eight of us went to a fondue restaurant in Montmarte. I think I have three pounds of cheesy bread stuck in my stomach at this very moment. Then we hiked up to Sacré-Coeur Basilica and sat on the steps soaking up the view over Paris rooftops at night. It was at that moment last night I had a 'wow' moment. I'm so blessed to have this opportunity to spend a few months in Paris making new friends and a wonderful (albeit exhausting) job where I get to share my love of travel and Paris with people every day.

It won't surprise anyone who knows me well that I've been here nine days and have yet to unpack my suitcase. So I'm going to make me a cafĂ© au lait I made with fresh grounds I picked up yesterday and get to unpacking.