Reflections of a tour guide
Corona virus has stopped all travel, and as a tour guide, I rely on travellers for my work. Not being able to go outside the confines of my apartment, and having nowhere to escape, my thoughts went to travel.
After 20 years of working in the Tuscan region on various forms of private tours, I see my role as a professional tour guide, that of creating a bridge between cultures. I unveil to my clients, who usually come from a different cultural background, facets of the history and culture of Florence and the people that shaped it through time. I see the differences, but also recognize what makes us similar.
Thanks to my father’s work at the UN and my mother’s passion and curiosity, I travelled extensively from a very early age to my late teens, 1969-1983. I lived in beautiful countries, encountered different cultures, learned new languages, and befriended a wide variety of people.
Throughout our travels as a family, we were welcomed into all sorts of homes, shared meals, helped one another. We were shot at and risked our lives on more than one occasion. We have seen extreme poverty, hunger and hardship, but have also encountered great resilience, strength and faith.
We lived in different countries for 2-3 years at a time starting with Brazil then Haiti. At every opportunity and with every savings my parents had, we explored the country and whenever possible, went beyond. While living in Guatemala in the mid- 70’s, we crossed over to Honduras, El Salvador, Costa Rica and then on to Mexico and the U.S. After Central America, my dad’s next post was Asia, the Philippines and then on to South America, Chile.
We usually travelled around by car and camped or stayed in hostels or humble lodgings. I remember always being captured by what I saw as I looked out of the window wondering…. what might be behind that hill or that curve; what was happening in that village, in that home; how people lived, their history and their stories; what they did; how they worked, what they built and created; what they ate, where they went…
As an adult, whilst travelling, I still find myself with my nose stuck to the window… looking, watching, observing… taking in differences, contradictions, beauty, variety, colors…. always in awe of the beauty of nature and the actions of people.
Although my father is no longer with us to share in new adventures, my mother still remains as curious today as she was at the height of her youth. She still longs to travel, as do I. So every year in March, we take each other somewhere for her birthday. This year we were meant to go to Sicily, but coronavirus interrupted our plans.
And as we ponder what the future holds for us and all travellers, I realize just how rich my childhood has been and how lucky I am.
Everyday is never the same, even if I might be doing the same things. What makes it different? The people I’m taking around… their questions, their observations, their curiosities.
I may be repeating gestures, walking on the same roads, but I know whilst I go towards an arranged meeting point, whether that be at their hotel, the train station or one of the main squares in Florence such as Piazza della Repubblica or Piazza Signoria, that my day is going to be different.
It takes me about a couple of hours to get my act together in the morning… I first need to have my coffee while I read the newspaper to keep me abreast with what’s going on with the rest of the world. This is, after all, what will be considered history in the future, which some other guide, 50 years hence, may end up talking about on his/her tour!
Although I would have already checked my messages/emails before going to bed the night before, I go through them again quickly to make sure I have all the information I need for my tours for the day: meeting point, client’s names, nr. of pax, any children, which tour, how long, if any museums are included, reservation numbers and entry times, etc… I also need to check the weather to know if I would need to bring an umbrella if there’s a chance of rain; in summer, how high the temperature is and if I would need to perk myself up with a bottle of water with vitamin and mineral supplements in it; or in winter, figure out how many layers of pullovers I need to wear. The only thing constant are my pair of tennis shoes😊! They allow me to walk somewhat comfortably on the challenging streets of Florence which are more pot-holed than cobbled…☹ Forget the stilettos (although it is still beyond my comprehension how some Italian women can walk around in them without seriously breaking their ankles)! I check my watch, step out of my house and straight into my office. The streets of Florence.
As I walk to work, I usually encounter one of my gypsy friends, Maria (not her real name), who usually gives me an update on how her kids are doing in school and what the gossip is in their community. She warns me of pickpockets and tells me to remind my guests to keep their bags shut and close to their body. I say good morning to the street vendor, the migrant selling bracelets, the old priest on his way to his parish. I pass by the street artist recreating a Leonardo da Vinci on the road, and if I have time, stop by the local bar for a cup of cappuccino and a brioche, a typical Italian breakfast, and maybe have a quick chat with a colleague.
For today, I have a 3-hour tour of the Uffizi Gallery and as I meet my clients at the lobby of their hotel and introduce myself, I learn that one of them is an art historian and the other, a geneticist. I knew this day was going to be interesting but I didn’t realize just how much! We walk towards the museum, slowly getting to know each other along the way, and I leave them briefly in line as I get their tickets. There’s a long queue waiting in the group line and I thank the heavens for the small number of persons on the individual line where I left them. I quickly go to the ticket booth and give the reservation number for my clients and get our tickets. There’s the same familiar face behind the counter so there was no need for me to show my badge, which I always have hanging around my neck anyway. I join my clients and greet one of the custodians I know who have been working there for as long as I can remember and give him a warm hug. It turns out the family in front of us on the line did not have their tickets yet so my friend lets us enter ahead of them. As we go through security, there’s chaos as the metal alarm goes off, people confused not knowing where to go, a long umbrella getting temporarily confiscated, a man with a big backpack being told to check his bag in at the deposit area… just another normal day in the museum.
We, on the other hand, get through without much incident as we climb the long flight of stairs. I begin to speak about the various statues and paintings, starting off in the Byzantine room and working my way up to the Masters of the Renaissance, Lippi, Botticelli, Masaccio… Of course, the art historian was asking me about the less known paintings which kept me on my toes, but even more fascinating were the conversations we had with the geneticist. Somehow certain topics we discussed during the tour and some details on paintings had some intrinsic and unknown (except to her) genetic “past information” which blew our minds! The 3-hour tour ended up to be a 4.5 hour tour as we got lost in time and our curiosities, both theirs and mine. These were one of those moments when I really didn’t feel like I was at work but on a private museum visit myself as well. After thousands of times of maybe seeing the same painting, I began to see it with fresh eyes again and find new meaning in it, thanks to my clients.
And so, when asked one of the most common questions I get from clients which is, “Don’t you get bored?” I say no. Because I mostly do private tours, every person I take has a different perspective, point of view, sees a different detail, asks a different question. We end up enlightening each other and hopefully when we do part ways after 3 hours or so, we have enriched each other’s lives. This is, after all, what each encounter should be, no matter how brief it may be.