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Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Long-legged Blonds

What no snails? Gary Lee Kraut filtring absinthe during a recent lunch
Photo: WritersClearinghouse News Service/Richard Carreño
In Praise of Tour Guides
By Richard Carreño
[WritersClearinghouse News Service]
On my first trip to Europe, to London as a teen-ager in the early-60s, my father had arranged for our family to be guided about the city, my first experience with a touring service. We settled comfortably in a big car, shepherded by stoic 'right-you-are,-guv'ner' type driver in the buttoned-up standard uniform of that period and our guide, long-legged blond in a micro-mini. (Also standard issue. Remember Swingin' London?)
Sitting in the back seat, trying to ignore my younger sister, Roberta, I had the best view of London possible. Her legs.
In the fifty-odd years since, I haven't had much use for guided tours (long-legged blonds are another story); rather, navigating my way around the world under my own steam. Strictly do it yourself, you see. Some notable exceptions have involved visits to Saudi Arabia, Ukraine, and Israel.
Recently, I've changed my mind. About guided tours, that is.

First, slowly, when I became acquainted with what are seemingly known as 'Big Bus' tours, involving double-decker behemoths that always bring to mind, fondly, those old RouteMasters in London and, way back in the day, those the Fifth Avenue doubles in New York. In the recent past, I've 'Big Bus-ed' in Dublin, Rome, Munich, and in the States, in Chicago, and even in my hometown, Philadelphia. (Unlike my other favourable Big Bus experiences, the Philly tour was mostly humbug. No, sorry, Ben Franklin did not invent the cheese steak sandwich).

In Berlin late last year, I underwent a completely different change of heart. Enough of guidebooks, travelogues, travel memoirs, and the like. Enough of do it yourself! Time to bring in the cavalry!

Step forward my first private guide. And what a delight he was. My partner and I decided on a tour of Mitte, the former government neighbourhood in what had been once East Berlin. Our guide was Irish, with, surprise, surprise, a gift of gab. More important, he unravelled Berlin's 20th century conundrum to tailor our specific interests -- a blend of Statsi and Nazi.

And I'm happy to say our recent tour in Paris, one of many return engagements to the Marais, also involved a brilliant reprise. This, in one the most historic neighbourhoods, once, long ago, a Jewish quarter. The tour was part memory lane. Part breaking news. All thanks to Gary Lee Kraut, a fifty-five-year-old native of South Jersey and twenty-five year resident of Paris. According to my reckoning, twenty-five years in, sort of makes him a bona fide Parisian.

I've known Gary for almost ten years, without ever actually meeting him. He's been in and out of Philadelphia many times. But with no luck catching up with him. He's a Facebook friend and, more important, a mutual friend of Danièle Thomas Easton, a PJ contributor who several years ago also served as French consul in Philadelphia.

I knew I would be good hands, and so I was.

Gary brings to his Paris tours (they come in private versions like ours and group tours) a quality that I believe sets him apart from the legions of other Paris guides; his almost unique depth of knowledge, enhanced by a fused understanding of Parisian/French history and contemporary events. Much of this can be found in the numerous guidebooks he's penned and on FranceRevisted.com, a terrific visitor-oriented website (in English) that he edits.

Most important, Gary isn't stuck in a groove. There's a food and wine tour. Sure, there's the de rigeur Hemingway/Fitzgerald nostalgia trip. But Gary emphasizes what many guides do not: the changing landscape of Paris. It might look pretty much the same (even to a frequent visitor and a former resident, like myself), but Paris is also a living landscape. (Nowadays there isn't a yé-yé to be found.) To be sure, Gary also even has latest insider dope on François Hollande and his evolving love-life.

Contact Gary at FranceRevisited, or directly via FranceRevisited@aol.com.

I can't wait until for my next guide. Venice and Zurich are two upcoming trips. A long-legged blond, maybe?