Monday, September 20, 2010

I heart tourists.

Some people are bird watchers. Me, I am a tourist watcher. And I'm no amateur. After this summer I'm full-fledged professional. Of course, I was also thinking earlier this summer that since I get paid to ride a bike that I'm a professional athlete but that logic is likely a bit skewed. Birds are beautiful and graceful. Tourists are annoying and oblivious.

I've always been a people-person. Still am. But after this summer I'm completely jaded against tourists. Especially the American species of tourists. It may sound harsh, but if you spent every day navigating the streets, sidewalks and bike lanes of Paris weaving between tourists and herding 25 people behind you, you too would feel the same way. Bike lanes are painted to be obvious. Two small lanes with a picture of a person on a bicycle every 15 feet or so painted on the lane. The person on the bike picture even indicates which way the bike lane goes to remove any complication for our friends from Commonwealth countries that may forget to ride on the right. Only I spend much of every day yelling at people walking in the bike lane and pointing to the pictogram. "Bike lane, no pietons! Velo Velo! Watch out! Move.You're walking in a bike lane!" I probably say it in my sleep now. I can definitely say it in several languages. And my favorite is the people who not only walk in the bike lane, but come to a stop in the lane perhaps to look at a map or pick their wedgie that rides high under their fanny pack. Whatever the reason, it makes me nuts. The people who I yell at actually have the nerve to yell back or muster up a dirty look and flash it my way. I'm really yelling for their safety! I'm the one on the bike - I could clearly mow them over and have my flock of 25 sheep behind me do the same thing. There was a girl walking in a well-marked narrow bike lane near Place de la Concorde, literally right next to a foot path. She had her iPod in and was choosing whether to play Beyonce or Brittany so she didn't hear me yelling. I didn't have much room and I literally hit her with my handle bar. Not on purpose, I'm not that hateful. But she left me no choice. I won't comment on the record if it felt just a little bit satisfying to ram her.

The American species is the easiest to spot. Men with their khaki shorts, white tube socks, white tennies and baseball cap make them an easy mark. I've seen people walk around with cameras so large around their necks they can probably see into the future with their giant lenses. I wonder if they really know how to frame a shot or extend a shutter speed to accommodate the darkness of night. No one can fill up the width of a broad sidewalk like a group of American tourists. We tend to spread out so much that three people can fill an entire 12 foot path. We meander completely obvious to two-way foot traffic, and give a startled little jump, sometimes even a yelp, when 25 bikers or 8 Segway riders come zooming past. It's the stopping with no warning that is the ultimate bane of my existence. Common sense says if you want to stop, move to the side. It's like being a tourist completely sucks the sagacity out of people. I can be guilty of it too; I am by no means a perfect tourist.

The loudness with which Americans tend to talk is also a big clue, especially in restaurants. Ordering food is a sign of origin, because in France no one is interested in holding the butter, putting the dressing on the side or making your latte with soy milk. It's not that the French are rude and want to be unaccommodating; it's just not the culture of the French to come into a restaurant and go all "When Harry Met Sally" on the servers.

On tour I get asked a lot of questions. I warn my groups I'll try my best to answer their questions and if I don't know I'll just make something up! The best questions are the ones that are really, really stupid. Yes, Notre Dame is open on Sundays as it is a church after all. No, Napoleon was not in the Italian Army. No, the Texas flag is not the Confederate Dixie flag. No, we do not have adult training wheels for our bikes and if you're asking that you should not come out on tour. Yes, I do live here...what do you think I commute here from the US every day? No, I do not speak French. Yes, I still do manage to survive in Paris. The one question I absolutely love and am asked at least once a day is if I just graduated from college. It helps me live in denial about the wiry gray hairs I see in the mornings as I pull my hair into a pony tail.

Little kids tend to want to ride up front with me. And even though their bikes have bells that they incessantly ring I enjoy having them up front. I generally ride up front alone and the kids keep up with me and pepper me with questions the entire tour. They absolutely crack me up. I had an adorable nine-year-old boy that was super smart and a great rider. The ENTIRE tour he would say, "Miss Stefani, can I ask you a question?" And then out would come the most hilarious question about Napoleon or French hot dogs. My favorite question he asked was, "you said that over 500 people have fallen to their death off the Eiffel Tower. Out of those 500 people, what percent do you think jumped, what percent got pushed and what percent accidentally fell over?" I said, "Well little man, I'm afraid that they all chose to jump." To which he simply replied with innocent wonderment, "wow." I hope I didn't give him nightmares.

I poke fun at tourists and I stand by my reasons but have not turned into a misanthrope. Truthfully, I'm just glad to see Americans traveling. According to the US State Department, only 22% of Americans even have a passport! It's shameful. So when my rubber bicycle tire meets the road, I applaud them for coming to Paris. For some people coming on a bike tour is a big stretch. For many it's been years since they were last on a bike, and riding down St. Germain Blvd. into the heart of Latin Quarter with taxis and buses honking and weaving through our lane is intimidating to some riders. I applaud those who push themselves beyond the comfort zone of familiarity. So for saving their pennies, getting out off their sofas and crossing the pond to Europe I think tourists really are a good thing. Everyone should be a tourist...just watch out for the bike lane.


  1. Very fun post, I love to people watch as well and Americans are always easy to spot!

  2. you nailed that right on the head...on all counts!