In the beginning … everything was cash, tickets and texts.
Larry was in with all the concierges on Via Veneto. This winding boulevard sweeps down from the Porta Pinciana (one of the entrances in the 3rd century Aurelian Walls) to the Piazza Barberini below with its splashing Bernini fountain and gleaming white Barberini palace. The street became the symbol of Italy’s Dolce Vita, immortalized by Federico Fellini’s film of the same name and attracting stars like Audrey Hepburn and Anita Ekberg. Now it boasts Rome’s big, swanky hotels and perhaps the city’s widest sidewalks in a neighborhood where everyone takes taxis and private cars.
Over that summer I passed through swishing glass doors into the air conditioned hush of marble and crystal as I became familiar with the Eden, the Splendide Royale, the Grand Hotel Palace and with flower arrangements that were larger than me. The environment of cool and ostentatious luxury was the exact opposite of everything I’d experienced in my Roman life. Even if I’d just run up the Veneto hill and was covered in sweat, my socks peeking out of the rips in my converse, I’d straighten my back and affect a gentle head nod as I imagined Audrey must have done with a low, dusky “buongiorno” that I’m sure fooled nobody into thinking I belonged there.
We’d be sent into these shining, golden foyers to collect our guests who, the evening before had probably gone to the concierge asking, “What should we do tomorrow?” Larry would get a call. He’d arrange fares, tickets, whether they wanted a guide with driver or just a transfer or if a taxi would do just fine. Meet at the hotel or near the venue? How many people? Somewhere between 9pm and 10pm at night we (the guides) would be informed where we would be going and what we’d be doing the next day by text message. If you didn’t hear anything, you didn’t work.
9am Colo. 2 pax. SMITH. Forum meeting point. Collect €300.
2pm Vatican Meet at Regina Baglioni. YANG. 4 pax + driver Riccardo. Don’t collect.
On my very first tour my palms were sweating too much to pull out the book of “Before and After” pictures I wanted to show them. Seven years later, I almost never go to the Forum without this same book despite the fact that the cover has ripped off and the pictures are fading. On that first day it served only as a talisman as I didn’t want to alarm them with my shaking. I had launched into a tale of gladiators and slavery, trying to remember to make occasional eye contact (but not in a creepy way) when the husband gently interrupted me, “So sorry, I have a question.”
Oh my gosh, I thought. It’s the moment of truth. The first big test. Will I know the answer? Ok… hit me.
“That tree over there… what’s it called?” I had no idea. As the weeks progressed, I started to realize that a lot of the job was learning how to eloquently answer things I had absolutely no clue about. The trick was to learn what things you were supposed to know and give a reasonably intelligent answer and what things it would be cool if you knew but it was ok that you didn’t.
I found that while I could explain what seemed like every single stone in the Forum, lo and behold, people didn’t usually care about that. You just never knew what they did want to know about, so you had to be prepared for everything. Chronology of the Roman emperors. Building materials and techniques. When was glass invented? Life span of a peasant? What did people eat? What was the deal with Cleopatra? Did they really kill people for fun?
Sometimes questions seemed to come out of nowhere:
Walking up to the Trevi Fountain deciding what to bring up first, Italian cinema or Baroque Architecture: “What are Italy’s largest imports and exports and what are average work weeks like?” (Ummmm.)
Talking about the Sistine Chapel: “How does the Byzantine Empire fit into all this? When did that happen?”
Walking through the Forum: “What was happening in China during this time period? Just as a comparison.” (Very interesting question… no idea.)
This is where Anita Ekberg walked into the fountain? Who?
What I hear all the time is, “I’m sorry I’m so ignorant on this subject” to which my response is: Why are you supposed to know about this? You know about banking or medicine or mechanics or graphic design. You know about raising kids and changing the oil in your car or the stock market and about 8 million things I don’t know anything about.
The job of a private tour guide is usually not to give a lecture but to understand the level and expectations of the people in front of you and to try and deliver what they want to the best of your ability. You have to know history and art but you also have to know psychology and customer service.
You’ve got your tickets in advance, you’ve found the clients and there’s one more person than you expected because “Our friend Bob decided to tag along,” (Oh Hi Bob!) so you figure out how to get another ticket last minute, you’ve made a good impression, you’re in the Forum re-enacting Marc Antony’s eulogy for Caesar and pointing out where the current Mayor’s office window is. You get into a conversation about how democratic systems fail. You start talking about their kids. You tell them where to eat dinner that night and make a reservation for them because they just said they haven’t had good Italian food and it’s a tragedy that must be solved immediately. Then you’re in the middle of a story about emperor Nero – was he a psychopath or an artist? (same thing?) – then you’re talking about the Christians and persecution and how spirituality can be conveyed by architecture. You check out that view of the Circus Maximus and even though you’ve seen it a thousand times you’re still stunned by how beautiful that view is and how every time you look into that empty valley you see the grandstands and the crowds and you really feel history settling over you like a dust that you feel a part of but also outside of. Oh yes, that building over there is from the Fascist era. Then you’re maneuvering the lines of the Colosseum (this was before they had security and there were no timed entrances) and you’re looking at the arena floor from above talking about entertainment and violence and socialization. Have humans changed over time or is it only by chance that we don’t enjoy these things anymore? Don’t we still, in a way? The taxi stand is over there by the orange building.
Then it’s over and they’re gone never to be seen again and you hope you’ll get good feedback via the concierge – Larry chain of communication. You’ll only ever hear about it if they were unhappy.