My Kickstarter now over, I was back in Paris leading a group, 29 strong, of 17 and 18 year olds and five of their teachers. They came from Hull’s School in Zurich. I had been hired as their “docent” and itinerary advisor. My mandate: to provide context to what they would be seeing on their three-day whirlwind Paris tour and, of course, to turn them on to History.

The group’s lead teacher and I had been working since October 2014 to prepare the perfect program: lunch at a famed Paris bistro; a cruise on the River Seine; dinner at the Eiffel Tower; picnic in the Palais Royal gardens followed by a performance at the Comédie Française; a treasure hunt in the temple of impressionism, the Musée d'Orsay; and a guided tour through the vast Versailles gardens, with mini history lessons throughout.

But right away, the students had a lesson for ME: They did not want a guide. They were not really interested in learning about history. They wanted free time. And they wanted to shop.

"Can we skip Versailles and go to Galleries Lafayette?"

"We just finished school. We’re on vacation now."

This was going to be a challenge. Because if my many years in the classroom taught me anything, it’s this: You can’t turn kids on to history by force. To accomplish what I had been hired to do, it was up to me to pivot, and quickly.

We went ahead with the day-one river cruise, but instead of grouping everyone together for an ongoing commentary of the wonders along the waterfront, as planned, I let them sit where they wanted and I wandered from clutch to cluster, feeding them each a single story or two instead. Sometimes the best learning happens in nuggets rather than large portions.

Before my eyes, I observed as a few students fell head over heels in love with one of the most beautiful cities in the world, like me.

That night, over a picnic dinner at the Palais Royal – one of those hiding-in-plain-sight sorts of places typically overlooked by tourists – I regaled those who wished to listen with stories of how Louis XVI's cousin, Louis-Philippe-Joseph d’Orléans, transformed the former palace grounds into the world's first public shopping mall. I explained why it is considered the birthplace of the French Revolution. I did not insist on the attention of those who weren’t interested. I invited those who were to help me search for Wallace Fountains and Arago medallions. A few onlookers couldn’t help themselves. They joined the hunt without context, then demanded to know more.

But it was at Versailles on day-two where it all came together. On arrival at the Chateau, the group happily followed me past the hours-long serpentine queue of people waiting to shuffle, shoulder to shoulder, through the palace complex on one of the hottest days of one of the hottest years on record. In the cool comfort of the shaded gardens, I recounted the story of Louis XIV’s reign in bite-sized pieces, showing them where he wintered his thousands of citrus trees, where he took visiting dignitaries to dance, and where he reminded his detractors that if they even so much as hinted at opposing him, he would do as Zeus did to the giant, Enceladus: bury them.

About half the kids were with me from the get-go. By the time we hit the Ballroom Grove, I had them all. When I finished with Enceladus, our last treasure on the tour, the group erupted into applause. Twice.

I love the thrill of instilling in others my passion for the past, especially among those who think history is boring. The moment these kids erupted into applause – twice – I knew I’d succeeded. They were hooked. And we still had a day left!

Our last morning began at the Musée d’Orsay. I gave them a very brief overview of the early days of the impressionistic movement. Nothing too long-winded. I merely set the context, explaining the various circumstances that kicked it off. Then, I sent them away in self-designated groups of 3-4 to search for a particular artist or school that, taken together, trace the history of impressionism. I told them not to stop there, but to observe the works around them as well, to use that one prompt as a lens through which to view the rest. I gave them each a specific question to answer.

When we reconvened, everyone had something to say in response to their prompt. It was a beautiful thing. In less than two hours, we traveled back in time to the Salon des Refusés, then on to the Salon des Independants, then to the scandal of the Fauves. And we did so in a meaningful way. They taught each other. They taught their teachers. They taught me.

Our time together ended at the top of the Arc de Triomphe where everyone seemed to agree that it was the perfect place to say “a bientot” to Paris.

In they end, they got their cake and they ate it too; that is, they got to shop and they learned a little history. They shopped amongst history. And they knew it.

“I’m definitely coming back here one day,” one of the students said to me in parting.

“Thank you so much for your insider knowledge of this great city. We could never have done as much without your help,” said one of the teachers.

Perhaps not all the students were turned on to history in those three days. Sometimes learning takes longer, or takes place later. But most of them were. I know because I saw it in their faces. There is nothing more rewarding for a teacher than to see light bulbs turning on. And I saw quite a few brighten during this visit.

That’s why mine the best job in the world.

Now, by taking my historic tales, and those of others, into the digital space, I hope to provide many more light bulb moments than I can by working only face-to-face. School and family groups, even individuals, will soon be able to experience our Time Traveler Tours with or without me.

But there is no replacement for these personal light-bulb popping moments.

Private tours also make a great way to beta-test new story ideas. This group didn’t know it, but they were made privy to a bit of my current manuscript, The Legend of the Plant Hunters. I even read an excerpt from the story and judging from their applause – x2 – I have very high hopes that it will be received as well as was Beware Madame la Guillotine.

The next time you plan to be Paris or Florence, think of Time Traveler Tours for your private group tour. Our Value Add: we understand the needs and expectations of ‘tweens and teens.
And we're always ready to pivot.

Happy summer holidays and safe travels all!