The single greatest occupational hazard of being a tour guide in Rome is definitely sunburn. Fortunately that is easily handled by applying sunscreen. The second greatest, and in many ways more nefarious occupational hazard is being caught by the police. It’s a strange job: in many ways akin to being a cool, approachable, history professor. In other ways, especially in the eyes of the polizia it’s more akin to being a drug dealer.

To explain: to be a tour guide (technically) requires a license. To get this license it’s not really what you know, it’s more who you know. The word nepotism comes from the Italian word for nephew and is based on the practice maybe not invented here, but certainly perfected here, of helping out your friends and relatives whenever you can hook them up. Your authority equals their career advancement . I’ve heard lots of stories how this applies in the process for becoming a licensed tour guide. Though to be fair, most of this hearsay has come from unlicensed tour guides.

Nonetheless, the way to become a tour guide, if you’re not Italian, don’t speak Italian, and don’t have Italian connezione is to just, well, do it. Like I did.

However this can invite the ire of licensed tour guides, who, in a shocking display of unprofessional behaviour have been known to interrupt their own tours to interrupt unlicensed tours. Creating an awkward and unpleasant situation for everybody. This is a patently stupid and infantile thing to do.

However the rampant unregulated illegal tour guiding industry has engendered the creation of a special vice squad dedicated to watching and following illegal guides and trying to catch them giving free tours. It’s all quite juvenile because if somebody wants to come on a free tour and tip you that’s not really anyone elses business but the people involved. Ayone can give me 5 bucks, just like I can give them 5 bucks if I want to. Right? Even the untaxable income arguments fall apart in light of how much “black work” is carried out here in Italy.

Anyway, 2 days ago one of our Vatican tours was busted by an Italian police officer posing as an undercover tour guide. He had with him 2 municipale and a freckle-faced Australian national who works as tour guide spy.

It’s unbelievable.

Anyway he came over and in a loud and beligerent manner made our guide give everybody their money back (in order to embarass us) and threatened to fine all of the tourists 2000 euros. I would say this is bad PR for all concerned. In addition our guide got a 2000 euro fine of her own and was threatened with deportation. We’ll see what happens. This event has serious repercussions for our guide (who unfortunately was in the position of collecting money that day. The day before it was me). And it points to a larger problem:
the problem really for me is: what the fuck is the problem with giving free tours and then getting people to come on tours of say, the Vatican. Licensed guides say it takes away their business, but really, all of these people on the free tours were on their way to St. Peter’s alone, without a tour guide just going to wander around. These people never were, and never were going to be, their clients. And as for the not paying taxes or lack of regulation arguments or any of those arguments I say: Really? Really? C’mon, give me a break. There are gypsies on street corners, in train cars, and in the metro, and guys selling knock-off sunglasses and handbags all over town as well as car thieves and pickpockets all over town and you have a squad dedicated to cracking down on people giving free tours of the church. Really? Seriously? You’re joking right?

Sadly, no. They’re not joking. And I will continue this cat and mouse game, and my Roman studies, but keep one eye on the cops, and the other firmly on the Want Ads.