That morning at Gatwick airport in London is etched in my memory forever.
A tour director at the time, I’m waiting for my new group from Gatineau, QC, Canada, mixed with another group from a nearby high school. For once, I’ll be leading an educational tour in French in England and Scotland, as opposed to in English, my default.
I’m hugely looking forward to it.
Quebec French is its own form of awesome. Melodious, with an accent that automatically sounds like kindness to me, and phrases often impenetrable to the average European ear.
This tour, I feel, is going to mutually enriching.
As far back as I can remember, I’ve always felt at home with Canadians, and especially the Québécois. Perhaps it’s because I’m made up of French and English and Canada feels like a natural and logical habitat to me as both are official languages.
With a large cup of tea in one hand and my tour company welcome sign in the other, I’m watching the arrivals board like a hawk. I feel good, awake, switched on, ready to wow my new charges. I’ve even remembered to put my name badge on for immediate visual identification. The group leaders and I have already corresponded by email so they know what to look for.
My long reddish hair is the beacon.
Setting foot into a new country when you’re young and have just flown across the Atlantic for the first time is always a magical moment. Or at least it’s my job to make it so, engage everybody, and, most importantly, keep them awake for the day.
And safe while they get their bearings.
Suddenly, a larger-than-life smile homes in on me and knocks me off my feet with its sheer force.
This, right here, is pure unadulterated delight and educator pride.
The smile belongs to Frank, one of the teachers, and is immediately echoed by those of his two colleagues, Seb and Inji. And those from the two educators from the second school, Patricia and James.
Frank takes the lead, we chat, and I take everyone to the bus before grabbing the mic, introducing our driver then myself. After the usual safety speech, I give them a warm welcome to England and we drive to our hotel, taking in some London sights along the way.
The day happens, dinner happens, and then it is time to debrief and go over the next day’s activities with the educators before going to bed. We’ve all been up for far longer than is advisable and are a bit wobbly.
As we say good night, Frank hands me a small black device. It is a Zune player, at the time Microsoft’s take on the iPod. “Here, you can borrow it for the night and listen to that singer I was telling you about earlier, and anything else you like.”
Frank and I have been carrying on an intense conversation since the morning, fueled by shared educational goals and mutual curiosity.
Back then, a young singer called Ariane Moffatt has been taking Quebec by storm for a while and Frank’s ears are smitten. I’ve never heard of her but I expressed interest, hence this unexpected kindness with the media player.
I’ve led many a tour before with many a group but his gesture is a first. I’m dying to call it a day but instead find myself stretching in my room listening to music, spellbound.
To this day, “Fracture du crâne” is the closest thing I have to a personal anthem, the one song I choose above all others to define how I see life. (The gist: an open mind isn’t head trauma.)
It’s a good night, short on sleep but heavy on excellent music. I’m not even tired the next day, I feel energized, a rare thing in this job.
And so the tour proceeds throughout England, ending up in Edinburgh.
Everyone is having a brilliant time, the kids are loving every minute. The educators bring history to life without it ever feeling like a lesson, and enjoy respect and admiration from their students. Those kids are both inspired and inspiring in their candor and endless appetite for knowledge. We’ve all become the best of friends in no time.
This is what we call a dream group, the best case scenario for a tour director when your job reverts to pure passion despite the punishing hours and pace. When there’s some downtime and the kids are out exploring by themselves or after the day is done, the educators and I meet up over a cup of tea or a hot chocolate.
We put the world to rights, share stories, and laugh so hard it hurts. Frank’s colleague, Seb, is a born storyteller who also mimes everything as he tells it, and he’s the very definition of hilarious. It’s easy to see why the kids love him.
Educators from the two schools swap work tips, and Frank and I are still talking each other’s ear off about everything under the sun. His wife is expecting their third child, he’s anxious about upcoming education reforms.
And he finds my peripatetic life both fascinating and deeply unsettling.
We’re all a similar age, and Frank feels like the brother I never had. We’re very open with each other, why or how I don’t know. We’ve been comfortable chatting from the get go.
“The way you said hello,” he eventually tells me, “you had that shy Princess Diana look and it was very touching.”
The day this tour ends, the next American group is already waiting for me at the hotel back in London for a month-long trip around Europe, one of the longest I’ve ever led.
The night before, the Quebec kids and their teachers surprise me with a Shakespeare book featuring quotes and kitten pictures called How do i love thee kitty? They all signed it, adding a personal message, so many messages that they ran out of space. From “Thanks for everything, I adore you” (Steph, a student) to “A guide is someone who shows others the way. This is clearly what you’re on this planet for because your personality has lit our path” (Frank), those are heartfelt words of appreciation.
I’m so proud of those kids I could burst.
I’ve moved countless times since then, across oceans and continents, and wherever I go, the book goes with me. I was recently asked what my most prized possession was, and came up empty-handed because I failed to connect the dots and don’t own much.
But I do have one thing that means a lot to me: this book is it.
At the airport, a strange phenomenon takes place, something that remains an isolated occurrence to this day. After check-in, we say goodbye before I escort everyone to the gate where I leave them. Kids start crying as they give me a hug, and soon they’re all crying, and so am I. The educators are doing better apart from Frank, who is struggling to hold it together.
We hug and promise to keep in touch, I watch their flight take off, suddenly crushed by tiredness.
Also, their departure feels like a punch in the stomach.
I don’t have time to rest or dillydally, I must immediately run to another gate and get on another plane, making my way to the next group who’s been under the care of a colleague for the day.
But I feel so depleted I’ve no idea how I’m still standing.
Muscle memory kicks and on I go, an oasis of cheer in the face of what is a very difficult tour with a bully for a group leader.
For a month, I fight that man every single day as he keeps trying to prevent me from doing my job, wanting to take my place. To be clear, this is something he’s neither qualified nor authorized to do and I don’t let him. I don’t even give him an inch.
Instead, I remain politely assertive and firm, professional until the end, focussing on the only people who matter here, that is to say the students. They paid for this trip, the educators travel for free. The group leader keeps boasting about all the free stuff the travel company gives him every year, which is quite distasteful.
He wants me to understand he’s a VIP but when I look at him, I just see a bully who calls his female students stupid bitches and keeps grounding them. Every single day is a nightmare, and at night I decompress by listening to the music Frank introduced me to and swapping the odd email with him. He’s unfailingly warm and just as funny in print as he is in person.
Some colleagues I meet at random in Amsterdam and in Italy try and intervene and go on to provide support until the end of the tour as my situation is abnormal.
Tour directors stick together, it doesn’t matter if the person holding your hand by remote is someone you’ve never met before. This is the every essence of what we do and of who we are, always ready to help.
I then learn the tour director the group leader requested and had traveled with many times before turned down the job, which I subsequently inherited. I have a reputation for relishing challenges and handling whatever others don’t want to do, the difficult cases. This colleague, too, tries to talk me through it but I quickly get the impression nothing I do will ever be good enough for the bully — because I’m a woman.
And I’m right, but the students are enjoying themselves so that’s all I care about.
For a while, Frank and I go on writing to each other and then lose touch.
Months later, he tells me about the difficulties of implementing those new educational guidelines he dreaded so much and the toll it took on him. The new baby has arrived, colleagues and students are doing fine, and Ariane Moffatt still rocks our respective worlds.
The instant closeness we had doesn’t survive the distance or our crazy schedules but Frank’s whirlwind presence in my life has forever altered the way I approach tour directing and being a human in the world.
I dig even deeper to share my culture and knowledge with passengers, be they students or adults. In a little over a week, Frank forever made me a more responsive, more confident tour director; this improvement is permanent and irreversible.
Put plainly, we fell into friendship at first sight the way people fall in love, but ours was a purely platonic relationship. It proved so life-altering that I’m writing this a decade after our tour, now leading a completely different life.
And suddenly wondering whether I should go back to tour directing for a while. Frank’s teachings still resonate, informing my thinking every day.
You don’t have to know someone for a long time or even deeply to make an impact on their lives. This impact can happen far sooner and far more quickly than reason can explain.
I’m a French-American writer, journalist, and editor living out of a suitcase in transit between North America and Europe. To continue the conversation, follow the bird. For email and everything else, deets in bio.