Greeters programs expand around the globe
It was a startling sight: Abraham Lincoln, about 40 feet tall, cordially discussing a piece of paper with a contemporary fellow, nearly as tall and wearing a cable-knit sweater, outside the building that houses the Chicago Tribune.
“Who is he talking to? And why?” I asked Bill, my eloquent Chicago Greeters guide, as we stared up at the giant sculptures.
It was the first time I’d stumped Bill all morning. For the past two hours, he’d been taking me on an erudite, compelling tour of the Loop (a downtown district) of Chicago, past important works of public art, through labyrinthine underground tunnels of governmental agencies and into office-building lobbies that just happened to have dazzling mosaics by Louis Comfort Tiffany. Along the way, I’d been regaled with stories about the great Chicago fire; early battles between explorers and Native Americans; and why certain areas of the city are dangerous, while others one can wander through with few worries.
And the tour was absolutely free — just as it would have been in Tel Aviv, Israel; Marseille, France; Manila, Philippines; Zurich, Switzerland; Kolkata, India; and also Shanghai, Buenos Aires, Moscow, Tokyo and scores of other cities around the globe.
The Chicago Greeters are part of a growing network of organizations dedicated to promoting cultural understanding. If you go to the Global Greeters Network (http://globalgreetersnetwork.info), a hub for this movement, you’ll find that there are greeters programs currently in 132 destinations — even in places as far-flung as Togo (which has four cities participating). What they all have in common is their price (free) and their ground rules: tours never accommodate more than six people and are always led by volunteers.
Interestingly, these volunteers will try to shape the tour to the visitor’s special interests, when they can — a wonderful perk. That meant that when I went to Jamaica and did the “People to People” program (different name, same concept) I was invited into a local’s home, where I, an avid home cook, learned to make the national dishes of that country.
In New York City, my home, I took a tour of an area of the Bronx that I didn’t know, with a Big Apple Greeter who had me ducking in and out of bodegas, churches, shops dedicated to Catholic icons and community centers. I felt like I’d discovered a new nation, just a few subway stops from where I live.
And Bill from Chicago had recently created, at the request of a 20-something Chinese traveller, a tour that goes to Chicago film locations, only from movies filmed in the last decade.
I’m not sure if Bill felt the need to give more info to that tourist after the afternoon’s outing, but he did with me. A day after we had our delightful walk, he emailed me an article about the statues. They were meant to show Abraham Lincoln explaining the Gettysburg Address to an average Joe (who held it in his hand), and its meaning for today’s society.
Well, I’ll be darned. Thanks, Bill.
Pauline Frommer is the Editorial Director for the Frommer Travel Guides and Frommers.com. She co-hosts the radio program “The Travel Show” with her father, Arthur Frommer and is the author of the best-selling “Frommer’s EasyGuide to New York City.”
A reflection of visitors to Chicago’s Cloud Gate public sculpture, part of the Greeters tour.