I did some tour-guiding three summers ago when I was pregnant with Léonie in my belly. It was in a coach, along the perillous, twisty-turny road that follows the twisty-turny Ardèche river and its famous and gorgeous gorges. You can read about that here. I was covering for another guide who had asked me to step in when she was busy guiding elsewhere. I wasn’t sure about it to begin with but she was convinced I’d be fine, and even good at it. So I tried, it worked out well for me and I really enjoyed the whole experience. Even the twisty-turny roads, as they were beautiful and every now and then I’d spot a wild goat with crazy horns munching on a bush.
Last year I began tour-guiding for Viviers tourist office. They phoned me up out of the blue and asked me if I would be interested in playing a ghost. I said no. Not on your nelly. The idea of dressing up as a phantom and “scaring” tourists felt like the equivalent of playing Santa in Tesco’s, or one of Mickey’s nephews at Disneyland. The tourist office persuaded me to at least go and see the actor already doing the job, so one freezing December evening I bundled myself up in a duvet and went along to watch him doing his ghosty stuff in very tight tights (him, not me). He was funny and he made the job look like a laugh, so I told the tourist office I’d give it a go. I got free reign to create my own mad, medieval ghost, mistress to a certain notorious Noel Albert who had lived (and loved) in Viviers the 16th century. My audience was made up of groups of Australian tourists whose luxury cruise boat was moored at Viviers port. It was fun performing the scenes, but there was a lot of hanging about in cold courtyards, waiting for the groups to arrive, and running through the cobbled streets in a medieval dress at 11 p.m. trying to avoid Viviers’ teenagers. One sweltering August evening I had to clean up cat poo and sick before the tourists arrived in that particular courtyard. And the whole thing was a bit cheesy. I felt like a character in ‘Allo ‘Allo, mostly because I was speaking English with a heavy French accent, but partly because my text could well have been written by the same screenwriters (ahem… I wrote my text). But the tourists laughed loudly and I got good feedback. However, the whole solo thing was getting me down (the actor playing Noel Albert and I never performed on the same evening, so our two characters never met), so I was relieved when the tourist office announced that I wouldn’t be ghosting this year as that particular boat has changed its itinerary, or something like that. I celebrated the end of my ghost career with champagne that evening.
The other thing the tourist office asked me to do last year was actual tour guiding. Once again, I said no. I had no interest in medieval or Renaissance history, or architecture, or religion, and the walking tour through Viviers is basically all of those things. But once again, they persuaded me to have a go, so I spent 6 weeks reading up about Viviers as if I was studying for my finals, swotting and cramming and wandering about the town on my own, talking to myself and imagining what I would say to 30 Americans. As I worked I realised I had actually become interested and even passionate about the history and architecture of Viviers. When you can link the past to a building or a feature or a tree for example, it becomes real all of a sudden. I also followed a few different guides to get an idea of what to do, but in fact I learned more about what not to do. For example, panting heavily into your microphone whilst climbing the steep slope to the cathedral is not a good idea; your headphone-equipped tourists get your heavy breathing right in their ears and after five minutes of this they will be ready to kill you. The same goes for chewing gum noisily whilst wearing your microphone headset. I also didn’t like those who talked about “The French” as if the French were an inferior species. But I did follow a couple of really good guides too, that made me start to look forward to my first walking tour.
It went well. Really well. And it kept going really well. I enjoyed the job, I felt good about myself because I knew I was doing a good job, I was using my English and my skills as an actress and storyteller, and as an added bonus, I was pocketing fantastic tips which paid for all our shopping throughout the spring and summer. I hit it off with the tourists and was invited to visit a few of them in New York, Toronto and Edinburgh, and I became good friends with a lot of the other tour guides. But… there were a few of the tour guides who were very unwelcoming and hostile towards me from Day 1, and this only got worse throughout the season. I even received a couple of angry emails, one of which ended with “Good Riddance.”
Except, I’m not gone. I’m still here. Ha ha. And I begin this season’s tour-guiding on Saturday. I’ve been swotting up and I’m looking forward to starting again. On Saturday I’m with a bunch of friendly guides, which always makes the whole experience just lovely, as there are no killer looks or backs turned on me or curses muttered or clay effigies of me spiked with rusty pins and trampled underfoot. The downside is, it’s going to rain. A walking tour of a medieval town in the rain with umbrellas up and blocking all the Renaissance buildings and gothic spires and view across the valley is always a bit frustrating. But given the choice between a rainy day with friendly colleagues and a sunny day with a group of griping, frustrated battle-axes, and I know which configuration I’d choose every time.
Some readers may have guessed that my blog has already been found and read by the aforementioned begrudging harpies. Or maybe you yourself are one of them, reading this with eyes wide open and feeling (hopefully) slightly sick as your stomach turns. If that is the case, just remember that I invited all of you to sit down with a cup of coffee and discuss what went wrong last season. No-one took me up on my offer. There was either total silence, a refusal to meet or a jolly “good riddance”. I did all I could to open up a dialogue and try to understand each other better, but nobody was interested. So here we go, for another season of pointless dark looks and hostility. I shall be countering this by totally ignoring it all and getting on with my job. And actually, I can’t wait to start.
Roll on tourists, I’ll be waiting for you on the quayside. I’m the one grinning and imitating all of your accents.