Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Profiles in Transit: Patience at la Tour Eiffel

The people who sit in the information booth at the Eiffel Tower must have one of the most exhausting jobs on the planet. People storm the booth in droves, asking questions in broken French and a myriad of languages from around the world, the answers to most of which they could find by simply reading the signs posted around the plaza at the base of the monument. Or by turning to the right page in one of their six dozen guidebooks.

The Eiffel Tower was one of my first stops in Paris on my first trip there with my parents. I was 15, and had recently finished third-year French as a freshman in high school, so my mom sent me to ask her question. I formulated it carefully in my head as I walked toward the information booth, and was encouraged when the man in the booth smiled at me as I stepped up to the window. "Bonjour," I said, pleased when his smile widened a bit and he responded in kind.

I don't remember what the question was, but I asked it and he answered - slowly, but without being too obvious that he was taking extra care with his enunciation. I said "Merci!" and sauntered back to my parents with the answer, proud of myself for understanding it. My mom remembered another question she wanted to ask and sent me back...then remembered a third question when I came back with the answer to that one. I was embarrassed to be back at the information booth's window again so quickly, but since the man inside was still smiling when I arrived for the third time, I fumbled my way through the last question - the trickiest, making use of some of the complex grammar I had just learned - and the man patiently waited for me to finish, then repeated his answer twice when I wasn't certain I understood after the first time. I thanked him again and joined my parents to make the climb to the top.

I never got the name of the man who was working in the information booth that day, and I have only a vague memory of his face - maybe early 30s, on the pale side, brown hair and a medium build - but, 10 years later, I still think of him often. Whenever someone complains about how rude Parisians are, how they never let you finish a sentence in French without interrupting to tell you to continue in English, how they're insufferable when it comes to helping English speakers, I remember this man. At one of the most popular attractions in Paris, he was patient enough to let me stumble through my limited French not once, but three times. As busy as he was on a tourist-filled June morning, he was careful to speak slowly enough for me to understand every word. His kindness, his patience and his smile are what I've come to expect when traveling through France, and I have yet to meet with anything less. And when I see struggling tourists in a city where I feel at home, I try to offer them assistance with the same attitude that man showed me: patience, and a smile.

No comments: