Thursday, November 5, 2009

The Glorious Guided Tour


The concept of the guided tour is simple—tell a throng of tourists the same thing at the same time and make more money. You’ve seen them: the groups of teenagers halfheartedly following a fusty old fart with a red umbrella, a gaggle of Japanese geriatrics huddling around a woman with a microphone . . . and a red umbrella, the herd of trendy tourists on bikes.

In Rome last year, my parents were generous enough to treat our entire group to a guided tour of The Vatican, the Catacombs, 200 piddly meters of the Appian Way, and a few other sites where first-century Christians wrote “I was martyred here” on the walls. The six-hour tour for six people cost them the price of a laptop. So, first of all, Mom and Dad, thank you.

Our group was divided into two subgroups: English/Spanish speakers and German speakers. Since the English/Spanish group was so large and the German group comprised only three bubbly women from Berlin, whom I’d already been jawing with on the bus, I went with the giggly Germans. Lucky me. My tour guide was articulate, funny, and informative.

My parents, my nephew and his wife, on the other hand, had the misfortune of a “bilingual” guide whose first language was definitely Spanish. His second language was most certainly Italian; his third probably French. His twelfth or fourteenth language was a muttered approximation of a language close to, but not quite, English.

Have you heard? These mass-tourism cattle drives have gone high-tech. When you get on the bus, the guide gives you a contraption with a little rubber tube that’s meant to carry the sound from the contraption to your ear. I’m pretty sure Alexander Graham Bell used a similar device (if not exactly the same one). You’ve strung two cups together with a string before, so you know what I’m talking about.

In my intimate German group, we didn’t even need the technology, but life in my parents’ group, as I soon learned when I accompanied my father up the Appian Way, was hard. The guide stayed so far in front of the group—he obviously had someplace to be—that the only way to hear him was through the little rubber tube. And no amount of fiddling with the knobs on the contraption made the man’s voice louder, less mumbly or more English.

“This thing is crap,” my father said, catching up to the guide.

A student in Rome just trying to “earn” an easy euro, the guide was unimpressed by, or perhaps didn’t understand, my father’s criticism. His bad. My father likes to get what he pays for.

“And you’re not much better,” Dad said. “You need to slow down, stay with us and speak clearly. We’re paying you. And if I can’t understand you, I’ll ask for my money back.”

Oh, goodness. I enjoyed that bit of drama. Their guide was truly awful—and I don’t mean full of awe. He had the personality of sandstone and the voice of a (Spanish) coma patient. The last thing he wanted to do was give tours of these boring old archaeological sites in boring old Rome to these boring old tourists.

But as awful as this tour was, it wasn’t the worst tour I’ve ever had (I was, after all, with the German group. Servus, Helga and Uli! Loved the pictures of your grandchildren on facebook, Sieglinde!). I’d put this tour at number three on my “Top three awfullest tours” list. Second place next time: Jerusalem and the Via della Rosa.

I must be off,
Christopher