I don’t know when exactly, but at some point, I began following random tour groups. And my path followed the same trajectory as any toilet paper eater on TLC’s My Strange Addiction -- it started by accident.
I was lost and alone in a strange city, and I saw a crowd of people shuffling slowly in front of me. A sea of yellow ponchos -- Asian tourists, Midwesterners, who knows -- somehow I found myself stuck in the middle and for a few brief minutes, before ducking down a side street and back into my normal life, I learned something about the neighborhood. Like, fun stuff. Who was buried where, when the houses were designed, facts about architects (!!), it was all interesting information. And sure, I continued on with my day, but I couldn't help but wonder -- where was the group going?
You could say I was predisposed to following groups of people around cities, actually. A bit of a loner in school, I got picked last in sports and never really found the right clique. Perhaps factors that make me idealize large masses of people. Who knows. Maybe my mother’s excessive poking on school field trips to get me to pay attention resulted in some repressed Freudian urge to please/listen to ALL guided tours, always. Whatever the reason, the progression from accidently getting lost in a sea of tourists to being the fifth member of a private tour for four retirees in Madrid’s royal palace, was a very swift downward spiral.
One of the first questions I get asked when I tell people I shamelessly follow groups is always, “But if they are private groups, don’t they kick you out?" Good question, but the answer is no. Never. Really, I have never been kicked out of a group no matter how out of place I've looked. High school group from Texas visiting New York's Metropolitan Museum? I learned about each and every Egyptian sarcophagus right along with 'em. Cadre of senior citizens sporting hearing aids and canes? I enjoyed a lovely two-hour tour (GREAT tour guide, btw) and wasn't asked a single question. Except the occasional, “What did she say?”
Here's the deal: anonymity is key. If they know who you are, your name, age, profession, things get embarrassing real fast. But if I’m just one intrigued listener standing a little behind the group, looking angelic and wide-eyed at the tapestries, busts, or whatever object of interest is being photographed and described, I keep a low profile and no one seems to care. (Also worth noting: I am a woman and I’m about 5’2.” Keeping a low profile has never been much of a problem. This may have more to do with it than I realize. Maybe.)
What's troubled me over the years, though, is the fact that I am well, kind of, sort of, stealing. You see, I obviously don’t pay for these tours and some of these guides charge A LOT per hour. It’s different when we are talking about a large tour group off a bus with their Canon PowerShots and museum-distributed headphones. There I am just “one of the crowd.” But, when you start getting into the private groups, the five-to-10-person range, as I have done, that’s when things get hard to justify. Then you're dealing with well-trained guides and the tourists who hired them did so to keep things intimate.
But like any good addict, I can justify my behavior. You see, I figure, if they wanted me gone they'd kick me out. I’ve started to believe that they must want me there, as I tend to nod my head in continual interest, and stay generally well behaved. Also, I’m always laughing -- a pun never gets past me. So, in this way, I almost provide a service to the tour guide, encouraging him constantly to keep up the humor. Right? Laughter is contagious and sometimes one of the group will see me laughing and follow my lead. This gets the energy flowing in the tour, and helps the guide hit his/her stride. I'm doing them a service! Okay, at least that's what I tell myself.
When the tour is over, I leave. I don’t tip. I just disappear. (Stop judging me.)
It’s a problem. I admit it. Luckily, it hasn't intruded on my day-to-day life; it’s just how I get my kicks in my free time (although it really starts to itch whenever I enter a museum). However, I would be lying if I said that when I spot a large group in Birkenstocks led by a man in a flamboyant hat I have never had the urge to jump in on my lunch break. Where are they going next? What fun anecdotes are they learning? My toes begin to tingle. But really, I’ve got it under control, though the comfortable walking shoes I just purchased may tell another story...