IT STARTED in New York, but now France is catching on to a new trend, The Global Greeter Network, that sees devoted locals giving visitors a guided tour, says Carolyn Reynier
From Athens to Adelaide, Moscow to Madrid, Zurich to Zagreb, if you want to really get the feel of a city, ask a greeter to show you around. The Global Greeter Network has grown all over the world in response to a need for a return to real and authentic relations between human beings in this virtual age.
France has taken enthusiastically to the concept – with greeters from Mulhouse to Marseille, Rennes to Aisne. The latest city in the process of joining the network is Nice. The city tourist office’s Joanna Garcia says demand to become a greeter has been good; once everything is set up, the role of the tourist office is limited to putting visitors and greeters in touch via its website.
The idea first saw light of day in New York in 1992 following the “friendly exchanges” that founder Lynn Brooks had with people she met. Passionate about her city, Lynn “wanted the world to know New York City as she did: a great big small town with diverse neighbourhoods, mom-and-pop stores, fun places to dine, and friendly residents who go out of their way to help an out-of-towner feel welcome”.
The concept is simple. Greeters are enthusiastic people who love their city and volunteer to show visitors around in small groups of up to six people, free of charge. They are not professional guides; they simply choose to share with others their own favourite city haunts, as and when they have time to do so.
Nantes, the first city to join the network in France in 2007, was created as an association by Sylvie Huron, its first president. She was looking for ways to actively involve citizens in local tourism, explains current president Mathias Mary, and contacted Lynn Brooks, who explained the general principle.
Mathias, who joined in 2010, says today Nantes has 50 voluntary greeters. “We have a Serbo-Croat, an Italian, a Dane, people who have lived abroad, people who work, like Isabelle, who is a teacher and gives English lessons…”.
The Global Greeters Network charter prohibits discrimination of visitors and the same applies to the volunteers, he continues. “The only joining criteria for volunteers are to love their town, the place where they are, and to want to share things.”
Volunteer Birgitta Hillingsø was born in Paris to a Danish father and French mother and moved to Nantes in 2008. Following the opening of her Scandinavian café, madam Blå, in November 2009, she met Sylvie and became a greeter. Birgitta loves to show visitors Trentemoult in the south of Nantes on the other side of the river, where there is an old fishing port with pretty painted houses. “more or less all the houses are painted with flowers… yes it’s lovely.”
Lyon joined the network in 2009 and now has 70 greeters. “It’s working very well,” says Julie Masson at the Tourist office, “there’s a real passion for this level of tourism, discovering a little bit of the city with the inhabitants.”
The Lyon greeters, ranging in age from 19 to 75, are Lyonnais by either birth or adoption and know the interesting little places to go to, and can recount anecdotes about the city and lifestyle. They speak nine languages between them.
Visitors are delighted to meet a Lyonnais who can speak their language – and the greeters are thrilled to have the occasion to speak it, she says. Valérie Heitz has been a Lyon greeter for three years. She has lived here for 15 years and loves Lyon.
“There are areas that I now know well and it was a chance for me to share with people passing through, to show them the places I love.”
Valérie, who speaks English and German, has already welcomed tourists from Australia, Taiwan, Singapore and Germany. The greeters receive requests by email via the website and accept or not depending on their availability. They are then put in direct contact with the visitors and arrange a meeting place, “often Place Bellecour because it’s easy to find”.
Valérie has her own circuit, which lasts a couple of hours but is flexible, “above all it’s a balade”. They stroll through the Vieux Lyon then along the quaysides of the Saône and up to the Croix-rousse, where the Lyon silk industry started. She likes to stop off for a drink during the walk and visitors often take this opportunity to ask her for good places to eat and shop.
When she first read about the greeters in the press, the idea immediately appealed. She has travelled in the past, enjoys meeting and sharing experiences with new people, so this was a way to exchange with visitors while helping them discover her city. “often when we part company, voilà, they’ve seen Lyon in a different light.”
Tours only signed up in may last year and already has 25 greeters. Most are French, one is Irish and one Polish, says Virginie Rivain at the tourist office. They have been surprised at how quickly they managed to form their greeter team and also at the number of walk requests received, not just from the outset but also during the winter.
“We are currently doing at least five walks a week,” says Mrs Rivain. One of the 25 is Nicolas Broux. His family are from the region and he has lived in the city since 2002. One of the founding principles is that each greeter chooses his own itinerary, so Nicolas has favourite areas that he visits systematically with his groups. Then it depends on requests and the weather, he says.
Nicolas is a sea-going steward and so travels a lot. He has not had the chance to use his English yet, but to date has done four walks – for Belgians, a group of French-speaking female Colombian students, a retired couple from the Vendée and a visitor from Nantes.
If you meet the criteria, perhaps you, too, will become a greeter. In the meantime, whether you are toddling off to Tarn, beetling over to Burgundy or popping into Paris, you will find friendly faces waiting to share their special places with you. “The concept is based on a meeting, an exchange, there is a human dimension which people look for more and more, says Valérie Heitz.