I never jay-walk anymore. Well, sometimes, I do, but not without a serious pang of tour-guide guilt. If I have a group of forty people behind me, I wait for the red man to change to green, even if all of my passengers have already crossed and are waiting for me. I shutter to think what would happen a passenger were struck by a vehicle.
This ethic was drilled into my brain in a Mid-April meeting. Twenty-six of us trainees are sitting in a cold coach parked outside a Berlin hostel. What me and the other two dozen training tour guides thought was going to be another dry talk on legal EU driving hours or hostel check-in procedures has quickly spiraled into something unexpected. We’re undergoing a Scared Straight-style lecture on the importance of safety on the coach.
“Picture it guys,” our trainer says. “A tyre pops, causing the coach to sway. The coach needs to avoid another car, so it overcorrects. The coach begins barrel-rolling down the freeway. Glass is shattering, flying through the air. Bodies are flying out of the coach onto the pavement. Sparks everywhere. You’ve broken your foot and the coach is on fire. Do you really want to be unsure of if you’ve instructed your passengers on where the fire extinguisher is that day?”
Our trainer goes on to tell us, in vivid detail, a few of the incidents that have happened in the past few years to the company. Luckily, none of them are so extreme, but various injuries and near-death experiences are described with such detail that they jar us into realizing the responsibility we have as tour guides as we lead tourists through Europe. There are constant reminders: Just this month another tour company faced a lot of questions following the death of one of their clients on tour.
This summer I’ve learned that being a tour guide is different than being a person. Decisions made, even when off-duty, need to be made considering the effect they’ll have on my tour. When I told one of my bosses the other day that I was planning on going to an indoor skiing facility in Spain, his only response was “For the love of god, don’t break your leg.”
All these thoughts were far from my mind one hot afternoon in Tuscany last August.
The sun is high in the Tuscan sky as we make our way toward the Florence exit. Traffic is surprisingly light for an August afternoon in the midst of the peak season. Our coach is a few hundred meters behind a pack of cars. The heat reflected off the pavement gives the cars an out-of-focus appearance. Suddenly, one of the cars starts wobbling. The heat blur makes it hard to tell what’s happened, he’s either fishtailing or second-guessing himself (I’m aware of his gender for reasons that will become clear in a moment). After five seconds of wobbling between lanes, the car, traveling at 100kms/hour (60mph) swerves at a forty-five degree angle. Its tires dig into the pavement as the car goes airborne, flipping on its roof. Quickly approaching from behind are me, my driver and 51 passengers. We simultaneously gasp in horror as we watch the car rotate on its roof as it crosses all three lanes of traffic, debris flying left and right.
“Slow down, slow down, slow down,” I quietly instruct my driver, trying impossibly to make myself useful. Now we’re 50 meters from the wreck, quickly decelerating as another driver has pulled his car to the shoulder and runs out of his car, frantically throwing his arm in the air to oncoming cars in a gesture that communicates across all languages. “Stop! Stop!”
But we can’t stop. My driver and I never discussed it, but I’m sure we were both thinking of that same safety talk at the beginning of the season. Fifty-three people at the scene of an automobile accident on a busy motorway? Not going to happen. Instead of stopping, we drive slowly past the car just after it’s stopped. A very panicked-looking man emerges, pulling himself by his hands and knees from the upside-down car’s passenger window and immediately standing up. I can’t imagine he stayed standing for too long, but I’ll never know, since we kept driving by. John, the individual, absolutely would have stopped to help. John, the tour guide could not.