Friday, April 6, 2007

Bonjour, Bonjour

Bonjour, Bonjour

So I'm in France now.

Here's how that happened:

At the end of last summer I was doing the thing that I do at the end of every summer (trying to figure out my life) when my sister and her boyfriend mentioned a company called Thrilling Adventures to me. Thrilling Adventures does bike tours around the world, and they need Italian speakers. A friend of mine is leading trips, Spencer said. You should do that too, Kate said.

I thought about it.

I guess that I like bike riding, but it had been years since my last real (read: not drunken and not to 7-11) bike ride. I'd probably have to wear spandex. I'd have to go back into customer service, which can really, really suck. I'd have to put off my vague ideals that I "am an artist and must make art" for another year at least.

But someone was going to pay me to live in Italy, and maybe then travel the world.



One month ago I finally applied, through the most intense hiring process that I've ever been a part of. I wrote two essays. I got letters of reference. I sent in a resume and driving record. They called me for a half an hour phone interview. They called me again and invited me to a hiring day (read: 8 hour interview where I have to give speeches to roomfuls of people, problem solve "troublesome guests" in a role-play at a smooth wooden table with executives frowning and scribbling madly in notebooks at my each and every response, demonstrate my skill in the Italian language, and fix a flat tire).

Then they hired me! They told me that I needed to be in France in three weeks, and bought me a ticket. I purchased spandex. I tried to call my Italian friends to brush up my now-bad Italian, but they being Italian never called me back.

I finished work in Nevada City and took a train to San Francisco, where I met up with Lily and Adam (and Karen and Sarah) and swore to myself that I was under no terms going to get wasted the night before my really, really long flight.

I promptly got wasted.

We took pictures of piles of people on couches for hours, then went to a party and loudly congratulated the birthday boy on his 21st birthday (it turned out to be his 28th) but then drank his beer anyway then ran to a bar then back to the house and someone announced that it was now a pantless party and food was eaten but pants were not worn and I fell asleep on a couch.

After three or four hours of sleep, delicious sandwiches were eaten and Lily and Adam drove me to the airport as I stared out the window in a hungover daze as SFO rose into view and it suddenly and roaringly occurred to me that I was leaving the country to begin an insane job in a crazy, foreign culture and I wasn't going to know anybody and start all over again and it was probably going to be great but I was scared of everything at the same time and I grabbed my bags and hugged Lily and Adam and walked through revolving doors and well I guess I was done with the States for a long time ready or not.

The flight was insane. I slumped in a chair in SFO and fought my hangover for two hours and got on the plane right next to a girl who was going to be a Thrilling Adventures guide, too. We talked for a while and I tried to sleep but it was the most turbulent flight that I've ever been on and I was too busy deciding that was going to tragically die to put any time aside for sleep but then we landed in Chicago and met another Thrilling Adventures hiree and we sat in this airport for four hours and then the plane was delayed so we sat for a little while longer then took off and flew for a few hours and then the German pilot came on over the intercom and I caught the words "liver failure" and "Canada" and "emergency landing" and then we started descending in altitude…

It actually ended up not being that exciting (some dude was having liver issues and needed to go to a hospital and so we landed on an airfield in northern Canada and there was snow and there we sat for three hours) and we took off again and flew to Frankfurt, where we promptly missed our flight to Marseilles (due to the three hours on a Canadian Airfield) and therefore were also going to miss the last train of the night from Marseilles to Pernes (where the Thrilling Adventures headquarters, ie where we were going to sleep, is). We got a new flight that was leaving in 5 hours, I spent a few hours trying to find someone (on the phone) who could drive to Marseilles (a 1.5 hour drive) and pick us up….and everything worked out. We made it into Pernes at 2am after some 30 hours of travel and passed out.

All the other people in my apartment were long asleep when I got there, so I just slept on the couch and woke up to realize that I was sharing the apartment with a whole bunch of Italian guys. I was cued into this by the shouts of "Vaffanculo" (Go fuck yourself in the ass) and "Che cazzo fai" (what the fuck are you doing) that were floating through the walls.

It turns out that I'm only one of two American guys here at this training. 1,000 people applied for jobs at Thrilling Adventures worldwide, and they'll hire about 90 of those, so I realized how close I probably came to not getting this job.

The training is frightening. It turns out that Thrilling Adventures is the number one active travel organization in the world, and that their big selling point are their "exemplary" guides.

In essence, they want us to be superhuman. We take groups of up to 25 Americans on these bike tours of say, Tuscany (I'll probably be working all over Italy, though) that weave through town after town. We make sure that everything is always perfect.

During the trip, there are two guides. They are both always, always doing something. For example, during the morning, one of the guides rides with the guests and the other one does van support. The bike rider sweeps the groups, making "sparkling conversation" and checking up on everybody. The van person needs to drive past the group at certain intervals so that everybody feels supported and watched over, then drives ahead with enough time to maybe prepare an amazing picnic lunch, with wines and cheeses and the whole shebang. During this whole period, they're maybe pulling over at times to confirm reservations or specific eating requirements, picking up hurt guests, etc. I'm half tempted to go on and on here; the sheer amount of problems that we're being trained to solve (three weeks of 8 hour days training) are pretty stressful, because I'm not sure that I'm as competent as they want me to be. But shit, who is?

Bikes are racked a certain way, guests are spoken to in a certain way, each problem is dealt with in a certain way. We're being trained in bike mechanics, cooking, European driving (IE driving a twelve seat van with a trailer backwards through a narrow, winding street in Portugal), public speaking, problem solving (your whole group just arrived where the bus was supposed to pick them up and the bus never showed, etc), accident management, CPR and first aid, and much, much more.

I was also wrong when I thought that I'd be camping a lot this summer. Thrilling Adventures does camp a lot, but not in Italy. We stay in 4 and 5 star hotels and eat at Michelin-starred restaurants every night. That's pretty cool.

I'll be working for two weeks straight, then getting one week off, all summer. Pay isn't great, but the lifestyle is. Thrilling Adventures guides in like 40 countries around the world, and more experienced guides tell me that if you're a good guide, you can guide anywhere (two weeks in Peru, then a month in New Zealand, then a trip down the great wall of china, then backpacking in Alaska, then river rafting in Bali, etc), and a lot of them really have been everywhere.

You can really only get year round work if you speak Spanish (a lot of the southern hemisphere countries are Spanish speaking). I was talking to a guide who told me that a lot of guides who want to pick up language skills work just the main season during their first summer (April to October), then move to central or south America for the winter to learn Spanish (I guess you can save enough money from April to October to not really have to work that much over the winter).

I think I'm going to request to stick to Europe for most of this summer, and then when the main season ends (October), move back to the states for a while, (probably San Diego) then maybe move to south America to learn Spanish over the winter. Anyone want a winter roommate in Buenos Aires?

Like I said, training is…intense. Despite the fact that we've already been hired, we're still being evaluated all the time (for a reason that I'm still figuring out) to see if we're really the caliber of person to be a Thrilling Adventures person. They occasionally will fly you home after training if they think that you're not up to snuff. It's kind of stressful. Yesterday was sort of hard, as I temporarily had a "Robin day" at the worst possible time.

I was supposed to do my European driving school yesterday. After a segment of public speaking training, we were headed out to the vans. "Do I need anything?" I asked Leslie, my mentor. "Oh, just your drivers' licensee, she said."

Fuck. I had left it at the leader housing (a half an hour drive away).

Ok, problem solve, I thought. That'll make me look good.

"Hey, do you think that Emyr (the other driving student) could drive to the leader housing for practice, then I'll drive back from there?" I asked.

"Oh, we're driving on another route today," she said.

Fuck. Well… "I…err…leftmylicenceattheleaderhouseI'mreallysorrydoyouthinkwecould changetheroutealittlesoicouldgetit?"

Keep in mind that this is an extra hour round trip that we're talking about here.

She hesitated, and then agreed. After all, I really did need to get my driving practice in.

Emyr drove on the way out, and I sat in a worried cloud. Man, was this making me look bad. This was not making me look like a very capable leader. Shit, what if they flew me home? Allright, just get the licensee and drive really fucking well, look good. Allright….I….


One minute away from the leader housing, I realized something.

I didn't have the keys to my apartment.

They were back at the office.

"Ummm…so do you guys want the next piece of tragic information now"?

They both just looked at me.

"I don't have the keys to my apartment."

Leslie sighed.

"Well, maybe we can get keys from reception."

I brightened up.

"Oh, yeah," I said with as much confidence that my cloud of gloom would allow, "I'll run and do that right now."

I lept from the car with what I thought to be grace and confidence, perhaps like a male Ballerina going hunting, and ran to the front desk…which was closed. For lunch. For five hours.

Sigh. France.

I then ran around the back and vaguely attempted to scale a wall to climb in the second story balcony, but gave up after a small group of French children wandered out to watch the gangly white man trying to leap up a wall.

I went back to the van.

"Got the license?" Leslie asked.

"Uh….no…." I said.

"Oh." Leslie said, coldly. "I guess Emyr can drive back, too, then."

We started the half hour drive back to Thrilling Adventures.

At some point in the drive, Leslie asked me if she could throw my backpack in the back of the van, because it was in the way. I said sure.

"Do you have any valuables in there?" She asked. I barely descended from the cloud of gloom to answer her.

"Uh…no…you can chuck it," I said.

She flung it into the air, some 6 feet above the hard surface of the back of the van, as I realized something.

Oh, yeah, I did have something valuable in my bag.

My brand-new laptop computer.


I didn't say anything out loud; I had demonstrated myself to be enough of a disaster already. But fuck was I bummed for the rest of the drive.

As it turns out, the laptop was ok, and I'm going to do my driving a little later today, so hopefully they'll still keep me on as a guide. I am sort of a joke among the new guides, though, as that story spread like wildfire within hours. It's my day off after my driving practice, and I think I'm going to borrow a bike (we have amazing bikes) and explore some nearby hilltop towns in the afternoon.

And yes, I will be wearing spandex.

But I might leave my computer behind this time.