When I gave my first tour seven years ago, it was of the Roman Forum and Colosseum… a two hour “highlights” tour for which I had studied excessively for the previous six months. I listened to podcasts, I read books, I triangulated information and I went on tours with other guides repeatedly until I felt ready. I was ready to create a grand narrative, sweeping from the foundation of the city on Palatine hill (remember that word, it comes back later) to the development of the Roman Republic to the slow decay of democracy and the emergence of an empire. I had names. I had dates. I had anecdotes. I was ready to crush my poor first clients with information.
The first question I was asked, right in the middle of what I hoped was an eloquent description of the conflict of Marius and Sulla was:
“Sorry but… what are those trees over there?”
I had no idea.
It was the beginning of my education to what the job of a guide is. On any given day you are a historical lecturer, art historian, psychologist, comedian, negotiator, botanist (apparently), babysitter and witness to one of the world’s great phenomenons: The American family on vacation. Some people want to know every detail of every rock in the Roman Forum or who painted that fresco in the far right corner of the room we saw twenty minutes ago. Some people want to casually stroll through the sights in ten minutes and go get a glass of wine. They’re battling jet lag, cranky kids and occasionally each other. They are in Italy for a million reasons: to relax, to learn something, to be awed and amazed, maybe just because their friends went and they want to take some great pictures. As the tour guide of small private tour groups, you have to be ready to adapt to any of these scenarios.
The answer, by the way, is Pinus Pinea otherwise known as umbrella pine or the Italian stone pine.
“What type of tree is that” remains one of the most frequently asked questions and one which I can now answer. And that too, is the job of the tour guide.
Below are quotes I’ve collected over the years of tourists that I hope will give a humorous insight into some of the things we encounter while on the job. If you’ve heard any great one liners, please leave them in the comments below!
Overheard students on a bus:
Student 1: I loved the Palestine Hill.
Student 2: Yeah, that was really cool. The tour was so informative.
Student 1: I didn’t get how it was connected to Israel though.
Student 2: Yeah, me neither.
Maybe after seeing the Colosseum, we could visit Pisa this afternoon?
*This is really common. I think people assume everything is a lot closer than it is.
Them: So wait, I thought the Parthenon was in Greece.
Me: It is! This is the Pantheon. Very common to mix those two up.
Them: So we’re not going to see the Parthenon today.
Me: Well, no… as you said yourself: It’s a temple in Greece.
Them: So it’s too far to get to?
Woman on a tour from the cruise ship: Where are we?
Me: Gave street name.
Woman: No, like the city.
Understanding your audience
Me and a couple. Man from LA, woman not speaking, only smiling.
Me: So, how did you two meet?
Me: Oh cool, so like a dating app.
Man: Kind of. She’s from Russia.
Me (addressing woman): Wow, long distance relationships are tough.
Man: She doesn’t speak English.
Me (totally not getting it): Oh so you must speak Russian! How did you learn that?
Man: No, I don’t really speak it actually. This is the first time we are meeting!
Me (getting it): Oh! How … fun?
Woman: Points to €500 necklace in shop window. Smiles at man.
Me: Let’s start the tour of the Roman Forum.
Woman: Where is the car?
Me: There is no car, it’s a tour of the Roman Forum.
Woman: We were promised a car.
Me: It’s not possible to drive there so I don’t think they promised a car.
Woman: Fine, well when we go in, I need to find a Vodafone store.
Me: Actually, it’s an archeological ruin. There are no stores.
Woman (now completely exasperated): Fine! Let’s just go in and find a caffe to sit in and have coffee.
Me: There’s no caffe’s either. It’s literally a bunch of rocks.
Woman: This is ridiculous!
Me and a family as 10 year old dissolves into meltdown:
Mom: Sorry about Timmy.
Me: I understand, traveling can be hard for kids.
Mom: Yeah and we arrived on the plane from the states this morning and he didn’t sleep at all.
Me: Ooh, that has to be rough on him.
Mom: Also he didn’t eat since we left Texas about 24 hours ago.
Me: What? Wow, maybe we should cut the tour short if he’s not feeling well?
Mom: Yes, and these days he’s also refusing to take his ADD meds as well.
Me: !!! Maybe we should get some… gelato?
Mom: We’ve been trying that all day to make him eat something but –
Timmy: I HATE GELATO! WHY IS EVERYONE TRYING TO MAKE ME EAT IT? WHY!
Vatican tour with an Indian family my first year touring.
We’ve gone through the whole museum, we’ve talked about the story of Genesis on the Sistine Chapel, we’ve spent hours together. They are all smiling and very polite but not so interactive so I’m just doing my thing. We leave the Sistine Chapel. After more silence the husband turns to me like he has something he can’t hold in anymore:
Husband: So I have a question. In the scene of God and Adam… What is the difference?
Me: Between what exactly?
Husband: Between God and Adam? They aren’t the same?
Wife: Yes and I have a question too. What about the difference between Jesus and God? Because… you say they believe there is one god but it seems like there are two.
Husband: Actually there are three because there is this trinity. Who is the third God?
Wife: But wait, is Jesus a God or a man?
Me (Kicking myself for not realizing sooner that they are Hindu and have no background in the Christian religion): Well… it’s complicated.
Not understanding the past or in some cases the concept of “other countries“
Me (after describing the fall of the Roman Republic in the first century BC for about thirty minutes): This temple, built by Emperor Augustus, was finished in the year 2.
Woman: What! People were ALIVE then?
Guest: Where is the seventeenth chapel? Or Where are the first fifteen chapels?
Guest: So is Michelangelo still producing art?
After discussing the Pantheon, Colossuem and construction of Roman Aqueducts, we stop in front of a wall of tufa blocks stacked one on top of another. You know… a wall.
Man: How did they know how to do this?
Me: How to do what exactly?
Man: Build this wall!
Me: Well this wall actually dates to around the same time as all the other (implied: more impressive) things we’ve seen.
Man: But how did they know?
Man: I mean how did they know if you put one block on another it will make a wall?
Me: I don’t understand what you don’t understand.
Woman: It’s just so frustrating that we can’t use dollars here, I don’t understand it.
Me: Well, here they use euros, not dollars
Woman: it’s so inconvenient, why don’t they make the switch already?
Woman: Why do they park this way?
Me: Yes, it’s kind of crazy but there are very few parking garages in Rome and the city just wasn’t built for this many people… or cars for that matter.
Woman: I mean, can someone teach them how to park?
Me: I think they know how to park, it’s just a little more disorganized than Americans are used to.
Woman: I’m sure they could find someone to help them because this parking is just impossible. There must be someone who can explain it.
Group tour of the Roman Forum with one Jewish couple and one Christian couple:
Man: So they were pagan.
Me: yes, they didn’t believe in Christianity.
Man: It’s amazing they could even make a society with no morals.
Me: Well they had their own kind of morals, they just weren’t derived from the Bible.
Man (knowing look): Without the teachings of Christ, those aren’t real morals though.
Jewish Couple: ……
Me: There can still be a civilization without Christianity. Think about … all of world history.
Man (still incredulous): I just can’t believe society worked at all and didn’t fall apart.
Me: Well… I guess it eventually did?
Man: That explains it.
Man telling me everything he knows throughout the tour. I was trying to interject so I wasn’t totally wasting his money but it seemed clear eventually that he was more interested in telling me HIS knowledge. I tried to engage in conversation and debate but he didn’t want to do that. Just facts. From him.
Finally he said: You know I can recommend some great videos on this stuff if you’d like to know more about the history of Rome.
Me: Thanks! Well our time is up, that’s €200.
When guests decide to hate you and let you know it. I’m sorry to say but this is always and only ever women. (Men may hate me but they keep it to themselves.)
With a couple. I stop in front of a monument and start a little introduction. As I’m speaking the woman moves further away.
Woman shouting to husband: This is ridiculous, I can’t hear her at all!
I move closer and she turns away.
Me: Well, let’s go inside.
Woman to husband: She refuses to speak to me. I can’t hear anything.
Note: Women pointedly standing away from the group and then complaining to their husband that they can’t hear has happened many times. Please enlighten me.
Tour with two older couples. An hour into the tour.
Woman (interrupting story about Julius Caesar): What about this rock? What is THIS stone called?
Me: Ancient Rome is primarily constructed of tufa, travertine, bricks and marble but this one doesn’t look like any of those. I’m not sure what type it is.
Woman: Ha found something you didn’t know!
Me: I don’t know everything.
Woman: Ha! (Triumphant) I guess I could be a guide too, then!
By the end of this full day tour she was on a rant about how everyone from “my generation” was lazy and a piece of shit (her words!) while her husband repeatedly told her to stop. After a pause she graciously added: “Not you, Lauren.”
Me: Thank you.
Morning group: Trump is finally speaking some truth in our country.
Afternoon group: Trump is destroying our country.
Me to both: Look at this painting!
Man speaking to me: This me-too movement is a bunch of bullshit, don’t you think?
Man: So what do Italians think of American politics?
Me (taking the most neutral response possible): There are some who agree and like many policies and others who disagree with some policies.
Man: Do they have ANY IDEA how much the United States has helped thousands of people on this planet throughout history??
Me (realizing nothing is acceptable besides total adoration of the homeland): I’m sure they know all about those great things!
Man: Unbelievable. Some people.
Me: I know, right?
With couple in City Center after man has frequently looked at other women’s breasts making comments like: Those are nice ones. His wife appears completely unfazed by this and happy. I’m confused.
Me: What kind of work do you do?
Man: I’m the best goddamn plastic surgeon in the Northern Hemisphere. Breasts are my specialty.
Wife (Smiling): He did mine, see? They’re incredible!
Very old couple from New York.
Man: I used to not understand the gays.
Me (panicking, oh god where is this going): Gay people?
Man: Right! But then I met them and they are just GREAT! Now my wife makes them pesto every Christmas.
Me: I love pesto!
After waiting 5 minutes past the meeting time, I notice a couple sitting farther down the road. They are reading a guidebook so I think probably they aren’t the people I want to meet for the tour. But nobody else is in sight. I go over to them to ask and it turns out they are my people! All, good ready to go and then…
Me: I’m so sorry I didn’t see you earlier, since you were sitting a little farther away from the meeting point I assumed you were waiting for a different tour.
Woman: Did you think it wasn’t us because we’re Indian?
Me (inside): Ahhhhhh
Woman (conspiratorial): You know the real reason the Pope resigned?
Me: Oh please tell me.
Woman: He saw a vision of the devil telling him the apocalypse was coming. It should happen next year.
Me: Good to know.
Teenagers suffering jet lag, probably hating their parents:
Parents: They just studied Greek and Roman mythology so they’ll know all about this!
Me: Do you remember who the goddess of love is?
Me: Don’t worry, it’s Venus! Now, what about the god of war… any idea who that was?
Me: Literally any other name would have been a good guess.
Tour in the Vatican with a family. Teenage boy bored out of his mind, staring at the floor and not interacting for an hour. I gave up on him.
Me: Now we are going into the hall of the busts
Teenage boy (eyes practically bugging out of his head): Hall of the what???
Me: This is the tomb of Queen Margarita. What is her name associated with?
Mom: Shush, honey.
With family: husband, wife and two kids.
Me (talking about some artist): Well, he wasn’t faithful to his wife, he had lots of affairs.
Kid: Sounds like you dad!
Me: The Medici family was very rich. How do you think they got so rich?
5 year old: They were bankers!
Me: Wow yes (parents looking surprised so he wasn’t prepped before hand).
5 Year old: I have a question.
5 Year old: Were they good bankers or were they the kind that steal all your money?
Guest contributions from other guides I know
Since it’s prohibited to speak in the Sistien Chapel, when you tour the Vatican you usually talk about the Chapel with pictures toward the beginning. This story comes courtesy of Tiffany, who has a blog you can read here!
Guide: Now that we’ve talked about the Sistine Chapel we will see the rest of the museums and then end at the Chapel.
Woman: So we are going to the Chapel now?
Guide: No, it’s the very last thing we see.
Group walks into next room that has four statues and a guard booth.
Woman: Is this is the Sistine Chapel?
Guide: No. The chapel is at the end. We have to see the rest of the museums first. Remember the pictures we just looked at? That’s the Sistine Chapel.
Woman: Oh, ok.
Group walks into the Pinecone courtyard.
Woman: Is THIS the Sistine Chapel?
Guide (looking up at the blue sky over head): No. It is not.
Guide: And once Rome was burned to the ground, Emperor Nero built a second massive palace for himself.
Guide: He was very rich.
Kid: So he built a palace? That’s stupid. He should have bought Nintendo.
Ten minutes into the tour.
Guide: The Colosseum was constructed in the first century
Guest: Can you please stop talking?
Entering the Roman Forum: Just one thing: Can we just skip the history part here?
Woman: Nobody will take my money here, it’s the strangest thing.
Guide: You mean, they want credit cards? That seems strange. Usually people want cash.
Woman: Yes we are paying with cash and nobody will take it.
Woman: I mean I brought all these dollars and nobody will take them, it’s ridiculous.
Guide: Dollars? But here they use euros.
Woman: Well it’s not like I have any of those, what do they expect me to do?
Guide: And beyond this 16th century street you can see the ruins of the Portico d’Ottavia from the first century.
Guest: Oh what a shame. Why did they put this old ruin right in the middle of this nice neighborhood?
Guide (acknowledging that there are some things you can’t explain to people if they don’t already get it): A shame, indeed.