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.
At the end of every month I’d ask Larry if he wanted to settle up. I was recording every client, every ticket, every time I collected, every time I didn’t, setting aside what I was owed from what I had to return to Larry in envelopes of cash tucked into my bookshelf. But he always just texted back: Let’s do it next month.
Shall we compare accounts anyway?
Lauren… don’t worry about it.
Oh right, I thought, don’t be the crass American bringing up money all the time. You’re “amici” after all and to imply that you were working for money (radical concept!) was so…so… oh let’s just not, shall we.
Before every tour I hated myself for having thought I could do this job. I furiously scrolled through dates and names on my phone trying to memorize last details – having always been a study nerd I relied on the accruement of information as if it were a shield against the deep insecurity I felt speaking in front of people… or even TO people for that matter.
My introverted tendencies were screaming at me to run and hide but the more tours I did something was happening that reminded me of the cross country racing I did all through high school and university. You train and you prepare and the big race comes and you’re nervous and you feel you’re not ready but you’re on the starting line and you only have two choices: give it your best shot or turn around and dash off into the hills, never to be seen again. Not really a choice.
The problem is actually getting yourself to the starting line and not giving up beforehand during the training. But when you do one step at a time you distract yourself from the fear of “doing that thing” until suddenly it’s in front of you and you know you just have to hold your breath and leap.
I had three things helping me get to the starting line: First, I loved studying the history and putting together the puzzle pieces of characters, art techniques, social movements and architectural terms. Second, I definitely didn’t love the idea of making almost no money doing the job I didn’t want to be doing anyway (English teaching). Thirdly: I needed this job for the usual things you need jobs for: Rent. Food. That kinda stuff. After three years in Italy I had no savings whatsoever, all my student loans on hold and the knowledge that come June I’d have no income… again. Could I talk in front of people in an entertaining way? No time to think about that, just get back to studying the Papacy.
Then I’d be there on the starting line, standing in front of a couple and they’d be staring at me and I’d have to just do something, anything, knowing there was no turning back or room for self doubt. It’s becomes a kind of meditation. I relax when I’m guiding because I literally can’t think about anything else. From making sure that Grandma doesn’t faint from heatstroke, to entertaining the kids with before and after pictures of the Roman Forum to telling the teenager where to shop to explaining the difference between Renaissance and Baroque architecture, your personal fears simply don’t have room to muck around with your confidence. And when you say goodbye at the end of a tour, the feeling of triumph is complete, of knowing that I just did one of the hardest things for me to do. For me! There are harder things. There are always harder things. But for me… this was hard.
For the first time in Rome, I felt I was really learning the city itself and its layers through time. I was becoming familiar to people in caffes who greeted me when I entered like I was a long lost friend. Amicizia! I was meeting people from around the world who would say, thank you so much for making our afternoon special. It was incredibly stressful and totally magnificent. I felt I was growing exponentially and I got to talk about incredible historical moments every day.
There was just one thing that was starting to worry me. The looks. Walking through the looming arches of the Colosseum or in front of the Spanish steps I noticed odd looks thrown my way by other guides. The ones that had the license, hanging proudly from their necks. They weren’t looks so much as they were glares. One shook her head. Another muttered something under her breath as she passed me.
One day, about an hour into what was becoming a really fun tour of the city center with a small group, we were standing in the Piazza di Pietra in front of the Temple of Hadrian looking at how the pitted marble columns of an ancient temple had been enveloped by a more modern buildings, someone asked me, “How old is this temple again?”
“It’s from the middle of the second century,” I responded, taking a breath to go on.
“Excuse me,” said an unfamiliar voice to my left. We all turned, slightly startled at the proximity of the voice that appeared to belong to a lank haired woman in a long brown coat. The piazza was empty so where she’d materialized from was anyone’s guess. “It’s actually from the year 145,” she said, positively reeking with condescension.
I started to respond with, “Doesn’t that seem like the middle of the second century?” but she cut me off.
“You would know that,” she said, seething, “if you were a REAL guide.” She then turned to the little group and told them they shouldn’t pay me because I didn’t have the license.
All I could think to do was chirp, “Let’s go to the Pantheon!” and we escaped (I think the clients were more creeped out than I was) while she hissed, “I’m calling the police.”
I realized I had to get serious about taking this exam before I was “disappeared” by vengeful competitors but the more questions I asked of the other guides who worked for Larry, the more hopeless the situation looked.
This is what I gathered: There are no regular exams. They come around once in a blue moon. It’s all in Italian, naturally, and nobody passes. People fail by one point or two points. Sometimes even half a point. The questions are about obscure things that can often be answered in multiple ways so they can decide who passes or not. Only Italians pass. No, anyone can pass if you’re good enough! It’s fair but very hard. No, it’s completely corrupt and people pay for the answers. You can get one if you have an art history degree. No that was true in the past, they don’t do that anymore. The last one was a few years ago and there’s no news about a future one.
Ok… great. About as clear as the Tiber river during the age of Julius Caesar when it was basically an open sewer.
I had already crossed the starting line so it was time to adapt. I learned not to look like a guide which was difficult since you want to convey authority but not to be obvious to those who have it out for you. No pointing. Stand beside people and tell them verbally, look to the left of the window over there. Small groups, under 6 if possible.
I waited for news of an exam but that whole summer there was none.
I made it to the end of the summer. The tours were dwindling and the English lessons were coming back in. Barely time for a breather between one job and the other but finally, for the first time, I had enough money saved from the summer to cover the rent of the following month.
And finally I had my accounting meeting with Larry to settle up an entire summers worth of tours.
I sat down with him in the hotel restaurant off of Piazza Navona. There were white tablecloths and he knew everyone in the place. It was nice. Refined. Amicizia. He put on his glasses to indicate we would begin.
“You had a good summer? You enjoyed working for me?” He spoke in a low, soft voice that simultaneously created a shroud of intimacy around your table and an inferiority complex as you had to lean in to hear him. It was a voice that said, you come to me, I don’t go to you.
We opened our notebooks and found that, che sorpresa!, many of those pesky little numbers simply didn’t match.
The problem was in the tickets. Sometimes clients were meant to pay me a tour price and a ticket price. Sometimes the ticket fees were included in the tour price. Sometimes they paid for the tour with the concierge but paid me for the tickets. Sometimes they paid the concierge for everything.
There were all these tours I apparently was supposed to collect ticket money for, but I hadn’t. “I’m afraid you owe me more than you thought,” he said. It was hundreds more euros. It was more than rent.
“I don’t see how that can be possible.” I said, starting to panic.
“That was your mistake.” He placed his glasses on his ledger and leaned back in his chair.
I hesitated. I wanted to say sorry sorry sorry, I ruined everything. I did it all wrong. What can we do? Can you forgive me? But looking at him across that white tablecloth, I felt exhausted. I’d quite simply been through too much bullshit. I saw the darker sides of the whole country staring at me through his beady little eyes demanding always more, always another unpleasant little surprise, and I couldn’t be the person that said sorry for something I knew wasn’t my fault. After all, if you’ve seen The Dolce Vita you’ll know there’s nothing sweet about it. I didn’t remember what the messages said but I knew I wasn’t stupid enough to make a mistake over and over again if the wording had been clear. I was a lit major. One thing I CAN do is read. I took a deep breath and I broke the most important rule and crushed our amicizia charade. “Let’s check the messages,” I said.
“We can check them but Lauren, honestly,” his lips curled as if he was explaining something to a child, “No other guides have ever made this mistake before. Maybe it’s just your first summer working for me and you were confused and unfortunately you have to pay for that.” Papà will forgive you…if you pay.
“Let’s check them.”
“We can if you want.” He didn’t move. The smile was gone. I could tell this was my last chance to back down. If we checked the messages, whatever they said wouldn’t matter, I’d be absolutely out.
My hands shook as they had on that first tour but I picked up my phone and scrolled to the messages about the days in question, holding the screen so we could both see it if we leaned in, holding my breath. In one message after the next, it was clear who had made the mistake. And it wasn’t me.
“I’m not paying,” I said.
His scowl was complete. “Then I guess this meeting is over.”
I gathered my accounting pages. He started whispering to one of the waiters. Secrets between amici. I no longer existed. I walked outside of that cool, white room onto the cobblestone street, into the heat of Piazza Navona, and burst into tears. I’d lost the job.
But I’d won.