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Culture Thu Jul 24 2014
By Marianne Goss
I don't know when I first heard someone say that the best part of travel is meeting people from other places, but I've heard it repeated enough that it must be a widely held opinion. I think of it often as a Chicago Greeter, meeting and spending time with people from all over. I'm getting the best part of travel without leaving home.
I've given tours to travelers from all over the United States and far away — Brazil, Germany, Canada, Switzerland, France, the Netherlands, the UK, Canada, Australia, Spain, Belgium, India, Israel, Singapore, Japan — I'd need to get out a map to recall more countries. "Tours" is probably too precise a word for what we Chicago Greeters do. We aren't required to follow a script or point out anything in particular, and we don't take out groups of strangers who arrive for a tour whose topic and time are posted on a website. Get-togethers with our guests, as we call the travelers, are more informal and personal. We take out people who are traveling together — a family, a couple, friends — or even a single person. They all know each other, and the greeter gets to know them. We take them to the places in Chicago we know and love best, impart some insider knowledge and talk about anything else they're interested in chatting with a Chicagoan about.
Chicago Greeter, a program of Chicago's nonprofit marketing agency Choose Chicago, offers visitors free tours with local volunteers. Visitors sign up at chicagogreeter.com for one of 25 neighborhood or 40 special-interest tours. Chicago-area residents may accompany their out-of-town guests on tours, and occasionally the program opens tours to local residents.
I volunteered to be a greeter six years ago because I wanted to get to know Chicago in more depth. What's kept me volunteering is getting to know the tourists. Greeters choose visits based on availability and expertise, but those aren't my only criteria. I confess to looking for foreign travelers when I sign up for tours so that I can have cross-cultural experiences. With 60 percent of our guests coming from abroad, it's an easy desire to fulfill.
Often feeling embarrassed about a foreigner's knowledge of US politics when I couldn't identify his or her head of state, I resolved earlier this year to do research about a prospective guest's home. I've since talked with a visitor from Switzerland about food processing in the EU, with a couple from Sao Paolo about the sizable number of Jews (including his father) who settled there after fleeing Nazi Germany, and with an Australian about the country's cost of living. A young university lecturer from Germany explained how his job is full-time and permanent, unlike that of untenured university lecturers in the US. He goes to work in an 18th-century palace — what American professor could claim that? After he returned home, he remembered his promise to send me photos of the palace and of his house with its "typically German" steeply sloped roof.
Whenever I have a chance to volunteer for a guest from the UK, I do, getting difference without a language barrier. I've had conversations about "Downton Abbey" with more Brits than I can remember. One British couple invited me to get together with them again before they left. Over a Vietnamese meal on Argyle Street, we talked at length about their daughter's experience of the college application process. Since I'm employed at a university and often work on recruitment publications, I was curious to hear about British students' applying through a clearinghouse instead of directly to schools.
Even when there isn't much conversation, I like to think some cross-cultural bonding happens. I recall a man from Montreal whose spoken English was virtually nonexistent. I pointed to things as I took him around and hoped he understood a bit. Why he didn't ask for a French-speaking greeter, I didn't know, but I found out later: He sent a note thanking me for allowing him to practice his English, which was better in writing.
Of course, I take out a lot of Americans, too. I can testify that we're not homogeneous. The three young women who were taking a year off post-college to travel without an itinerary had a different comfort level than the small-town woman who was afraid to ride the el alone back downtown after our tour. The young man who asked where to find transgender bars presumably had different interests from the elderly man and woman who called themselves "a happily married couple."
Sometimes I'll be as strategic in choosing American guests as those from abroad. I'll jump on an opportunity to escort New Yorkers. Maybe suffering from a second-city complex, I hope to get them to admit that the skyscraper was born in Chicago. When I saw that a couple of Bostonians had requested a tour two weeks before I was going to be in Boston, I grabbed that visit. Before we parted in Millennium Park, I pumped the pair for tips about restaurants and places to see. The area they recommended around a T stop turned out to be a highlight of my time in the Boston area.
Many people have offered me tours should I visit their home turfs, and I wish I'd been organized about saving their contact information. But realistically, I know I won't be traveling to most of the places our guests come from, and thanks to the Chicago Greeter Program, it feels less important that I should. I've had wonderful experiences of places I've never been through meeting their citizens who come to me.
Marianne Goss lives in the South Loop and works as a publications editor in the Department of University Relations at Northwestern University. She is a former reporter at the Herald-News in Joliet, her hometown. Besides Chicago Greeter, she is a volunteer usher at the Goodman and Steppenwolf theaters.