I spent four long years being forced to study French at school. Unfortunately, the only tangible result of this experience has been a lifelong loathing of the French language and culture. I still can't speak a coherent sentence in French, I have never wanted to go to France, and I say a contemptuous "Non!" to any form of French cuisine.
In particular, I have never wanted to climb the Eiffel Tower. Any description of a visit to the tower is always filled with horror stories about the length of the queues. The thought of waiting for hours in the company of other blank-faced tourists -- just for a brief high-altitude glimpse of Parisian grime -- fills me with revulsion. In my opinion, few other things would be such a stupendous waste of my time.
But yesterday, as I emerged from the Champs de Mars Metro station, and saw the Eiffel Tower stretching skywards, I was forced to re-evaluate my prejudices. It is undeniably one of the greatest engineering structures of the world. Visiting Paris and not climbing the Eiffel Tower is like going to Niagara and not seeing the waterfall. Or like going to Cairo and not seeing the pyramids. Or -- to put it in a New Zealand context -- like visiting Christchurch and not having bottles hurled at you by a car-load of shiftless teenagers.
After a few brief moments of indecision, I joined the other blank-faced tourists in the queues to climb the tower.
I chose the option of ascending the first half of the tower via the stairs instead of the lifts. This was clearly the least-favoured choice, and thus had the advantage of the shortest waiting time. Unfortunately, it became apparent that many of my fellow tourists had not fully understood the nature of the queue they had joined. Americans would reel back in disbelief as they discovered that they had been waiting 45 minutes for a mode of transport that was culturally unacceptable. One rather large lady burst into tears when she found out that there was no lift. She towed her suitcase to a rubbish bin and slumped across it, as if to declare that she was rubbish and should be taken away for disposal.
I briefly contemplated going to comfort her, but that would have meant losing my place in line. Even by this early stage the climb had taken on the spirit of the ascent of Everest. By unspoken agreement the group had decided that the weak should be left behind to die.
The ticketing system for the stairs worked in the following manner. Four officials were lined up about two metres apart. Firstly, an harassed-looking woman would take the money and issue a ticket. Then the customer would be directed to a second woman who would tear off the ticket stub. Another official would inspect the ticket to see that the stub had been removed. And a fourth official would explain that he didn't need to see the ticket, and would irritably wave the customer through the entranceway.
As the minutes ticked slowly by I reflected on the differences between the various nationalities waiting in line. I wondered which nation would be the first to complain about the inefficiency of the ticketing system. Hooray for the Southern Hemisphere -- it was Australia! A Pauline Hanson look-alike approached the first official, held out her money and snarled loudly: "You know, if that guy doing nothing would just start issuing tickets, then this queue would go twice as fast."
"Au suivant! Next!" shouted the guy doing nothing -- thus revealing that his job was to deal with trouble-makers.
Having passed through the ticketing system, and having shed ourselves of the Americans and other non-stair-climbing nations (who had despondently gone off to queue another hour for the lifts), the ascent up the first half of the tower was remarkably swift. The group had been trimmed down to a hard core of Germans, Australians, New Zealanders, and various Scandinavians who all seemed to be called either Olaf or Freya. We proceeded up the stairs in an orderly Australasian-Teutonic-Scandinavian manner, stepping politely over the occasional weeping teenager who had only just realized that their parents were lying when they'd said that escalier was the French word for 'elevator'.
But the happy smiles on the faces of the Olafs and Freyas became suddenly inverted as we reached the end of the stairs. The only way to ascend to the very top of the tower was via a lift -- and that meant joining the non-stair-climbing nations in a queue that spiralled several times around the entire circumference of the tower.
It was here that Italy revealed its superior cultural techniques for dealing with queues. As the rest of us meekly joined the end of the line, the Italians simply climbed over the queuing barricades and took the most direct route to the lift. As they pushed past each waiting person -- impervious to the laser-like stares being directed at them -- they blithely intoned: "Mi scusi. Mi scusi. Mi scusi."
Two young Italian men vaulted in front of me, and proceeded to drag their grandmother under the barricade while their sisters pushed from the other side. The grandmother's dress became entangled in the steelwork thus giving the crowd a view of her immense Victorian bloomers. An appalled French official tried to remonstrate: "Madame! Madame! C'est indigne!" The grandchildren immediately started shouting at the official, waving their arms, and shrieking out a stream of machine-gun Italian: "Dove-Quando-Perche-Che-Cosa-Chi-Io-Non-Penso-Si-No-Questo-Dipende-Mi-E-Indifferente!!!" Meanwhile the remainder of the family had disentangled the grandmother's dress, and were trying to push her under the next barricade.
By the time the Italians had worked their way through the crowd, ongoing entertainment was being provided by two young American women, who I mentally dubbed Muffy and Buffy. Muffy and Buffy were obviously unaware that many continental Europeans can also speak English.
Muffy: [loudly] My thong is like totally up my butt-crack.
Buffy: Hey, do you think Chad really loves me? Or is he just like using me for sex.
The crowd's innocent enjoyment of the conversation evaporated when Muffy and Buffy changed subject.
Muffy: Hey, this is totally like B.O. central here.
Buffy: Yeah, I mean why can't somebody like tell the Europeans that they need to use deodorant.
Muffy: Or just like have a wash sometimes.
Buffy: Yeah, the guy in front of me smells like he's taken like a humongous dump in his pants.
Guy in front of Buffy: [turning round] Actually, I can speak English.
Buffy: [loud embarrassed whisper to Muffy] Hey, I think the guy in front of me can speak English.
When we finally reached the lift, I discovered that it was even worse than queuing. The lift operator jammed us in as if he were running a fish-canning factory. My head was rotated sideways against the wall by another tourist's rucksack. Paris dropped away below me at an oblique angle.
The top of the Eiffel tower was just as crowded. Naturally the Italians had managed to centrifuge themselves to the viewing windows. I caught an occasional glimpse of Paris through their shoulders. It looked dirty and far away.
Back at ground-level again, it occurred to me that I had made major strides in facing up to my Francophobia. The only thing necessary to fully confront my fears was to spend a fortune at a Parisian restaurant on a meal that I didn't like. Unable to face the prospect of cream-laden French food, I wondered if a basic vegetarian option might be a possibility. At a suitable establishment, I drew upon the full extent of my linguistic resources: "Avez-vous des repas vegetariens?"
The response was unequivocal: "Pah! Vegetarien? Mais Oui!". It was clear that only an idiot would think that a Parisian restaurant couldn't cope with something as simple as vegetarian food.
It was one of those MasterCard evenings. Transport to the restaurant via Metro: NZ$2.20. A couple of beers beforehand: NZ$30.00. The look on my face when I was presented with a bill of NZ$130 for a scoop of mashed potatoes, a few boiled zucchini pieces, and a handful of lettuce leaves: Priceless.