Wednesday, July 01, 2009

A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again

Being spontaneous usually turns out great. You do something, you have more fun than expected, and everything turns out fine.

But sometimes being spontaneous means standing in line for over 8 hours with strangers.

My first weekend in Paris, I went to the French Open. I wasn't going to drop $700 or so to see the men's final, so instead I bought grounds' passes to watch the boys' and girl's finals and a seniors' match with Pat Cash. It was fun and cheap. After those matches were done, you could head for Court 1 and watch the regular finals on a big TV with the ballboys and other assorted guests. The men's final was a blast -- literally everyone was rooting for Federer to take the one slam he's been missing, and the crowd absolutely erupted when he won. It was a big party.

So of course I thought, why not go to Wimbledon? It's easy -- take the Chunnel train, queue for one of the famous grounds' passes, and watch some good tennis while slurping up your strawberries, cream, and Pimm's.

My first shot at Wimbledon got cancelled due to a weird, still-indeterminate fever that had me shivering in bed most of one night, and then completely disappeared as quickly as it came. So I bought the earliest train ticket for the next morning and headed off into the unknown. Stake It UK!

Getting to the All-England Club was pretty simple -- train to St. Pancras, tube to Wimbledon, shuttle bus to the grounds. I had been told to arrive a few hours before the grounds opened to be assured of one of the 6,000 tickets. So arriving at 9:15am when the grounds opened at noon seemed like a pretty good bet.

Not! Sadly, I arrived on the busiest day in Wimbledon history. (A Friday no less -- don't you people have jobs?) I was #9921 or something, meaning that I could only get into the grounds after nearly 4,000 people left voluntarily. Managing the queue is an amazing affair -- thousands of people are literally plopped onto the ground in a nearby park. There are bathrooms and two burger stands. You're just supposed to make a day of it.

Smart people had blankets and chairs to keep themselves comfortable. My area was full of people who were in denial of their fate -- maybe we would still be let into the grounds on time? Maybe it will start raining, and people will leave in droves? But after four hours laying about in the park, still nearly a mile away from the gates, you realize you are in for the long haul.

About 1pm we were moved into the main queue, even as hundreds of people are still arriving after us. This proved to be an opportunity mainly to stand instead of sitting. On the way, we got to see the line of tents for people who were already queued up for Saturday. It's like a Soviet bread line, without any bread at the end of it.

At this point, people start clinging to the hope that once the Federer match is over, people will pour out of the grounds. Except, of course, Federer has trouble, and drops a set. And then the theory falls apart entirely, because we spend the hour after his match not moving a single inch. The weather, which looked dicey early in the day, turns stunningly warm and beautiful.

Some people are on their own, and aren't much for talking in line, as if they are in the grocery store for 5 minutes. But by now even the quiet people give in and start talking to their neighbors. There's an American family in pastel polos who spend the entire time talking about marketing. There are two English cougars who let their boyfriends take the two real tickets, and are now developing various options for murdering them. There's a group of Australian college students who drop out of the line at 3pm, which led to much discussion, with everyone agreeing that theirs was the craziest of all choices.

(I didn't mention the sunk cost fallacy, which I couldn't stop thinking about -- but what else was I going to do anyway? My alternatives had little value.)

I had fun talking to a couple of other Australians. Australians are huge world travelers, absolutely ubiquitous no matter where you go -- France, South Africa, Macau, Egypt, wherever. If you see people who look like Americans, they're probably Australian, especially if they're backpacking. Anyway, Bart & Julie & I shared travel stories and Starbursts. I think Bart had a crush on Julie, but after 6 hours in line, there was no way I was just handing over a good conversationalist, no matter how pretty she was.

I did eventually get onto the grounds, around 5:30. It was like being released from purgatory, only to enter another purgatory. Because once you're inside, the grounds are incredibly crowded, and seeing anything requires -- more queues. And you have no idea where you're going. I was a combination of thrilled and absolutely furious. I get to be at Wimbledon, but then I just have to stand around in more lines? Or watch the matches on TV on Henman Hill?

I figured out a solution -- you need to queue up for an outside court, or try to get tickets for a main court at the charity booth near Henman Hill. The charity booth sells the tickets of people who leave the grounds for 5 quid. Earlier in the day, the booth queue was insane, and not moving -- so it's better to just stick to an outside court, even if it means waiting 30 minutes to see Dudi Sela or something. I myself waited for a seat at Francesca Schiavone v. Marion Bartoli, only to see Bartoli get crushed 6-1 in the final set.

By then, the charity queue was moving, and I got Centre Court seats for Djokovic v. Mardy Fish. The charity seats are random, and mine were abysmal -- all the way at the top, and to the side of the court, which I hate. Of course, as soon as I arrived Djokovic polished off that match. So I flew out of the court, back up Henman Hill, and got another charity ticket for Court 2, Andreas Seppi v. Igor Andreev. This time my seats were awesome -- fourth row, nearly centered on the back line. Andreev was up two sets, but Seppi was making a comeback just as I arrived, and I got to watch about 1 1/2 sets of some really good tennis.

All in all, I'm glad I went -- Wimbledon is an iconic event. But God as my witness, I'll never queue again.


At 7:49 PM, Anonymous Kris said...

This is spectacular - and belongs in some hipster travel book as a "beware" story. In terms of sunk cost fallacy and having no better options, it's true. You don't even have a tv in Paris, so you'd have spent the day in Parisian queues to get into a cafe/bar with a television. :)


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