…like herding cats

I was thrust into the role of tour guide this past weekend when chaperoning a group of 30 swimmers and parents to Athens for the 7th ACS Swim Gala at ACS Athens. It’s the kind of trip that is more challenging because we generally get around on public transportation and stay in hotels. Such an unstructured itinerary makes it more demanding on the trip leaders – similar, perhaps, to the challenges that Week Without Walls organizers face. I’m therefore sharing a few of the lessons I learned in the hope that others can learn from my experiences.

  • Regardless of the time that you tell your group to meet, everyone will be assembled 15 minutes later than that time. This is a certainty as immutable as the gravitational constant and the laws of thermodynamics.
  • The number of seats in a restaurant bears little relevance to its ability to serve that many customers. When you’re choosing a place to eat, look at the number of waiters and the availability of a set menu as a proxy for its ability to deal with a sudden influx of two dozen diners- otherwise, be prepared to wait. Sacrifice quality for speed and convenience.
  • Always talk to the head waiter and let him know how to divide the bill (by table works well) and to give the check well in advance of the meal’s conclusion. Also remind your group how much to tip.
  • My visit to the land of democracy has injured my faith in that noble concept. Ruling by decree is much more efficient, and since you’ll never make everyone happy it’s better to be effective than loved. Once plans are set, the group will accept them.
  • Be aware when taking public transportation, and use a count off system to ensure group integrity before and after each train ride. These two things prevented us from becoming separated and, most importantly, from falling victim to Romanian pickpockets like last year.
  • You can trust the kids until you can’t. Our students never wandered off, left the hotel unaccompanied, and generally behaved like angels. The one exception was when one of them up and left one of our groups while they were at a cafe and disappeared for 10 minutes. It turned out that he had just left and found his other friends- but it made us have the faintest fear that he had been kidnapped by human traffickers or become lost in the back streets of the Plaka. It just goes to show that you can plan and plan and supervise and chaperone… But things can, and will, still go wrong.
  • The iPad is an indispensable travel tool. I bought a micro SIM with 2gb of data from Vodafone for €20 and thus walked around the streets of Athens with GPS mapping and Wikipedia and FourSquare access. It was invaluable for finding restaurants and getting from one sight to another. It’s also a lot cheaper than paying a hotel for wifi access. Next time I might even invest in a mifi router and a heftier data package so that the whole group can use it on the go-all the kids have smartphones (I could have used my Google Nexus One running CyanogenMod for this purpose, but I’m not sure how robust its tethering capability is when connecting multiple clients).
  • We bought week passes for the metro even though we weren’t staying that long. This prevented us from having to buy tickets for every trip… Time is money.
  • LEARN TO ASK FOR HELP. This is a lesson that I still haven’t taken to heart; my experiences this year in various areas of my professional and personal lives have brought out a cynic who believes that if you want something done right, you have to do it yourself. I still find that I can do things better than many other people. Nonetheless, one’s sanity is sometimes more important than the quality of the product, and asking involved parents to help create an itinerary, for example, is also a good way to relieve the burden of doing so oneself while giving them a stake in the endeavor. Looking back at the past few months, I find that I am much more pleasant and effective as a coach and teacher if I can invest myself in the daily interactions with my kids rather than the lesson or workout that I’ve planned. I wish I would have practiced this more.

2 thoughts on “…like herding cats”

    1. FourSquare might have been the most useful tool I had – you can read reviews on TripAdvisor and in guidebooks all you want, but the crowdsourced data on FourSquare is much more comprehensive, and you can see what’s trending and popular really easily. Helped me find a decent cafe in the warren of streets that is the Athens Plaka.

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