Essays & Images on Cities, Travel and Contemporary Culture. A web journal of James A. Clapp, Ph.D., an UrbisMedia Ltd. Production

Vol.86.7: Capo di Gruppo: A Memoire of a “Pack” Leader

My group, mingled with that of another tour professor in Florence © 1987, UrbisMedia

My group, mingled with that of another tour professor in Florence © 1987, UrbisMedia

Phissssssssssscht! The tour coach’s front door popped open like an airlock in a Star Wars spaceship. An assault of superheated exterior air immediately scorched my sinuses. Egypt air! Air that had been respirated for centuries, for millennia! Pharaohs had breathed this air! Cleopatra, too. For a few moments I had this timeless, cosmic connection across the eons that might have been an out-of-body experience, or a symptom of the onset of dehydration.

As the escorting professor for a group of American teachers on an educational tour I was awarded the coveted seat by the front door of the coach.* After all, I had jobs to do––collect passports, or money for excursions, or pass out tickets, even drinks, and to be near the public address microphone so I could give my little “lecturettes.” I could also be the first off the bus and, for a brief spell, joined in spirit with Imhotep, Herodotus, Belzoni, Napoleon, Howard Carter and anyone else lured here by the magic of Egypt’s edgy “time travel.”

This was my job as a tour leader, a cappo di gruppo, as they referred to me in Italy, which sounded to me as just a little bit mafioso when I first heard it. (Anyway, I discovered that sometimes you have to be a little bit mafioso to get by as a cappo di gruppo in the package tour racket). Not everyone is cut out to be a cappo di gruppo, and I’m still not sure what permutation of characteristics are most apt for the job. There is no particular degree or training for it, although it helps to have studied what you are putatively “expert” enough in to be a tour escorting “professor.” One might be possessed of one of its useful personality traits—patience, tolerance, good humor—but too much, or too little, of any might be sufficient for disqualification. I think you might have to be at least a little bit camp counselor, dilettante intellectual, travel agent, mother superior, feral cat herder, con man, and of course, mafioso. It also helps to be a good  toilet finder.

As a tour professor I was required to provide some “educational” information to my charges, often in the tour coaches or trains on the way to historical sites, but also peripatetic and stand-up lectures at various locations. These latter lectures sometimes brought the unwelcome disgruntled attention of “official” or national tour guides in various places. On more than one occasion, while delivering one of my lectures on the street or at an historical site, I would be interrupted by a local tour guide, brandishing a badge or license on a lanyard, informing me that I was not allowed to continue with my lecture. I would usually take them aside, inform them that I was from a country in which freedom of speech and assembly were constitutionally protected by law and, since all of my audience were Americans, we were in effect the equivalent of a “diplomatic immunity” community in situ. This was of course, complete bullshit (did I also say it helped to be a bit of a bullshitter?), but it usually worked and, if it didn’t, I was usually larger and more intimidating.

Actually, I frequently admired and respected local tour guides who, in fact, knew a great deal more about the history of their country than I, although some tended to, at times, bowdlerize and edit out negative facts (the way I am sure overly patriotic American guides do here), sometimes eliciting snickers and guffaws (a Spanish guide seemed surprised to learn there had once been an Inquisition in his country). But most were well-educated and often specialists in such things as art and architecture from whom I stole material for my own lectures at a later time.** I can admit now that there were occasions, especially one I was asked questions about subjects on which I was inadequately informed, that I just made stuff up or, would conjure “facts” with false attributions by saying that “I’ve read some accounts that say that…” and just see if I could get away with it. I can confess all of these deceptions and malfeasance is now that I am no longer in “the business” of being a tour escort professor.

But I have learned as a professor that, failing omniscience, the best thing to do is to control the discourse and guide it to your areas of competence. This I would do by preparing my lecturettes around what I referred to as “things off the beaten tourist path.” I would, for example, choose idiosyncratic locations and events that were interesting to me and I could make sound interesting.  Cemeteries were a favorite of mine, if not necessarily my “students.” Two favorites were Highgate in London and Pere Lachaise in Paris, where we could visit the likes of Karl Marx in the former and Oscar Wilde in the latter. They could visit the changing of the guard at Bucking Palace, or the Eiffel Tour on their own as there wasn’t much I could add to what was in any guidebook. For the same reasons my Rome tour began at a little known church near Piazza del Popolo that has a Caravaggio in a side chapel that few people seem to know about, proceeded to the first of several  talking statues,” then on to a dank little cell that once held St. Peter, with a stop at the oldest café in Rome that once made cappuccino for Keats and Shelley. Not that we didn’t see the Spanish Steps, the Forum, the Pantheon, Campodoglio or the Coliseum along the way; I just looked for what was often overlooked, but was just as interesting. This saved me from having to learn a lot of historical information about Kings and battles and important dates that are usually the stuff of conventional historical information.

A capo di gruppo also learns that there is a wealth of handy excellent resources available. For example, what works better when, departing the hotel on an early morning walk to try to relieve the pain from a sprained lower back in London many years I encountered a few of my students who asked if they could join me. Off we went, and I led them past various sites—Trafalgar Square, Whitehall, and Parliament Square and Westminster Abby. When we were crossing Westminster Bridge the light was brightening from down river to the East and beginning to glint off the water and buildings, so we stopped to take it in. I decided to take a chance to recite some verse I felt fit the moment. And so, I intoned (in my terrible English accent):

Earth has not anything to show more fair: 
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by 
A sight so touching in its majesty: 
This City now doth like a garment wear 
The beauty of the morning; silent, bare, 
Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie 
Open unto the fields, and to the sky; 
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.

It was so apt, and the students so impressed that I had to confess that the lines belonged not to me, but to no less that William Wordsworth, from his “Composed upon Westminster Bridge,” in 1802 (Hey, at least I managed to memorize them). Wordsworth probably would have made a damned good capo di gruppo.

© 2013, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 12.5.2013)

* Although I was always interested in foreign travel I didn’t set out to be a tour leader. How that came to pass is recounted in the preface of my book, The Stranger is Me: Travels and Self Discoveries (Trafford, 2007)
**See, e.g.  That Angel Could Fly”