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Confessions of a French Tour Guide
Some embarassing yet funny moments remembered
This is a continuation of my story of how my 6 weeks in Paris turned into 6 years! Please see my first hub which tells about my arrival in country and my 3 years of study. I was now an officially licensed National Guide of France, with a shiny new badge bearing my name and title. I was hired by an outfit called Paris City Tours which was an affiliate of the UK-based Paris Travel Service. The tourists were mainly from the UK but local English speakers would also join the tours. I primarily gave day and night time tours of Paris, day trips to Versailles, Fontainebleau and Barbizon. Here follow some stories that definitely livened up my guiding career:
I remember very clearly my very first tour to Versailles. I was nervous and sweaty and wanted nothing more than to run away and curl up in a ball! Wisely, they started me out in February before the season had really kicked off so I could find my footing. For some reason they sent a double-decker bus for my 7 tourists which seemed a little like overkill. During the 25-minute drive out to the château, I was to give a history of the palace and the kings who lived there. No problem in front of the mirror at home but here, in front of real people? I picked up the microphone and knew that there was no going back. I tapped on the mic softly and heard a small hollow echo come back at me. It was now or never time. I don't remember much about the journey after that, but I'll take that as a sign that all went well!
Once at the château, I lead my group around to the tour group entrance. I knew my way around more or less and had studied the château inside and out but each time I came here I was taken aback by the enormous dimensions and sheer number of rooms. We started off at the upper level of the Chapel where I gave a small introductory talk. Then we moved into the Venus Room, which takes its name from the ceiling painting of Venus Subjugating the Gods and Powers, by Houasse. I noted the main points of interest in the room, including the statue of the young Louis XIV, by Jean Warin, depicting him clothed in classical military costume, complete with shield emblazoned with the head of a Gorgon. Moving to the adjoining room I faced my audience of 7, keeping my back to the room. 7 sets of eyes looked at me expectantly. I described what they could see in the room, from the Veronese painting of The Pilgrims of Emmaus hanging on one wall to the David playing the Harp by Domenichino over the fireplace, the matching state portraits of Louis XV and his wife Maria Leczinska by Van Loo, not forgetting the incredible detail up in the crown molding. I was really hitting my stride now and even started to relax a little and enjoy myself! At the end of my speech, I became a aware of the puzzled looks on the faces of my group and after taking a quick peek behind me, before moving into the next room, realized with horror, that I had just described the room that we were about to go into! Inwardly gasping, I muttered something about moving right along and had about 7 seconds to formulate a plan B. Once in the Mars Drawing Room, that I had just described in great detail down to the little helmet carvings all around the top of the room, I grasped at something I could talk about with some authority, so I focused the group's attention on the wonderful carpets (thank god the floors were not bare!) and then hustled them with as much dignity as I could muster, into the next room. Luckily, nobody asked any questions and to this day, I'll never know if they noticed my gaffe!
My next story also took place at Versailles. I was well into my season by now and had a large group of about 40 English speaking visitors. It was high summer and the château was heaving with tourists. These were the days before they introduced the "timed entrance" which was designed to alleviate the bottleneck of groups going through the château. With so many groups all trying to fit into the rooms at a time, the drill was to keep your group moving at a slow shuffle even while talking! If you tried to stop for more than 15 seconds or so, you found yourself being heaved along by the force of the sheer volume of humanity behind you! I did stop for a moment in one room and screamed my speech at my poor beleaguered group, who were being slowly assimilated into the Italian group behind us and the German one in front. At least you got value for money, a trilingual tour! At one point, the Italian guide turned to me and said "Madam, you are very loud!" I remember feeling quite shocked as I've always thought of myself as a fairly reserved and quiet person! Is this what I had been reduced to? Screaming inside a château? My group rallied to my side and one person retorted, "Well if you weren't so loud yourself, she wouldn't have to scream to be heard above you!" Uh-oh, this could easily get out of hand. I turned to move my group down the room to get away from the indignant Italian and heard my name being bellowed above the noise. "Pam-e-laaaa! Dites-leur de bouger!" *(Pamela, tell them to move down!). I looked all around, over the heads of the crowd and at the very end of the room at the doorway, saw the wrinkled brow of my Itineraries teacher! All at once, it came to me, I was now her colleague, no longer her pupil. I basked in the warm glow of that thought for a split second before immediately doing as I was told and shuffled my group forward!
This story took place during one of my 3-hour city tours of Paris. Normally, I would just have English speakers on my bus but for this particular tour, I was told by my manager that they were putting a small group of French people on my bus that day. This meant having to do the tour in double time in order to get through my narration in both languages as we drove along. I did just fine until it came to explaining about the large canvas over the facade of the L'Académie française. Not a problem in English but I just couldn't come up with the word for "canvas" in French. (Remember the book of 'idiocies' of my art history teacher? Well I was about to add another gem to her book.) My thought process went: "covers," "blankets," "bedding," so I told the French group that the large "duvet" on the building was in order to hide the restoration work going on behind. My driver gave me a weird look and guffawed. I heard a titter or two at the back where the French were sitting. Good one Pam. But that wasn't the worst of it. I managed to top that one later on. Near the Jardin de Luxembourg, there is a wall riddled with bullet holes. I explained in English that this was caused by gun fire that took place during the Allies' liberation of Paris. Once again I couldn't think of the word for bullet holes in French. So I broke it down to bullet (balle) and hole (trou) which put together sounds like this: "Regardez les trous de balles sur the mur!" This was met with howls of laughter in the back and my driver nearly spitting his teeth out the front window. Apparently, I had just said "Look at the a** holes on the wall!" Exit Pam through a hole in the floor!
Please see my related hub about when I took 5 of my Dallas/Forth Worth based American Airlines colleagues on a whirlwind tour of Paris in "Paris or Bust!"