Spin the Globe: Volunteer Greeters Offer Visitors a Warm Welcome

Greeter Patrick in the Calanques

Patrick Leurent shows up at our pension in Marseille wearing flip-flops, shorts and a black V-neck sweater over a polo shirt. I look down at his feet, thinking about how I made room in my carry-on for bulky hiking shoes especially for the day we have planned together. We're going for a hike in the Calanques, a series of jagged cliffs and miniature fjords just south if Marseille, to be followed by what Patrick has promised will be a "cheap but delcious'' lunch in the oldest part of the city.

No worries about the footwear, Patrick assures me. He biked in to meet us and stashed shoes in his backpack. He looks at his watch, and motions for my husband, Tom, and me to follow him to the closest subway stop. It's standing room only during rush-hour as the cars fill with early-morning commute. Resurfacing to street level a few minutes later, we run for a bus that in 20 minutes takes us from the city to the countryside. We begin our walk in a park surrounded by pine trees and lined with rocky paths leading to cliff side viewpoints overlooking the blue waters of the Mediteranian

Though we have known each other for only a few hours, Patrick feels like the kind of plugged-in friend every traveler hopes to meet up with in a strange city. We connected with Patrick through The Marseille Provence Greeters, part of the International Global Greeters Network, an organization offering travelers the chance to get to know a city from a native's point of view. "I'm not a guide,'' Patrick repeats several times while we're together. Rather, volunteer greeters act more like neighbors or new friends, taking visitors behind the scenes either on foot or public transportation to discover favorite neighborhoods, cafes and historical sites. We each pay for our own bus and subway tickets. Other than that, there's no charge.

Setting up our time together was easy. I filled out an online form with Marseille Greeters several weeks before our trip, and received an immediate response that my request was received, followed by a confirmation setting the date, time and the name and contact information of our greeter, Patrick, 60, an enthusiastic promoter of Marseille where he's lived for the past 10 years. I sent Patrick an e-mail, and heard back the next day with his suggestions.

Flip flops, as it turns out, are his footwear of choice. He starts wearing them in spring and keeps them on through fall, with few exceptions. The hiking shoes never leave his backpack during our two hours of walking and climbing. When our walk is finished, we return to the city on the bus, subway and tram, then wend or way through the narrow streets of Le Panier, a gentrifying hilltop neighborhood overlooking Marseille's old port.

It"s possible to eat well in Marseille for $10 or $100. With Patrick, we dive into a 8.5 euro ($11.50) meal, including wine, at the tiny Le Panier Gourmand, entered by turning into an alley next to a sandwich shop, and ringing a buzzer. It's a voilĂ  moment when one of the young owners starts filling our table with platters of seafood salad, antipasti, a chicken and tortilla pie and carafes of chilled, white wine. After lunch, Patrick introduces us to a local potter, and walks with us past a few historical sites before jumping back on his bike and peddling home.

Other Greeter groups

My first experience with Big Apple Greeters in New York City a few years ago hooked me on the Greeter program. Wandering around Manhattan on our own, we saw the city most visitors see. Then we met Bernie Young, a volunteer for Big Apple. Bernie met us at our hotel for a few hours of off-the-beaten path exploring. We chatted over coffee, then got on a bus for walk a stroll through various parts of the Bronx. We explored City Island, New York's "Nantucket," noted for its fish restaurants, then Arthur Avenue.

Lunch was at a rowdy Italian restaurant called Dominick's, where we ate family-style at long tables. We ended the afternoon knowing a bit more about New York than we would have found out on our own. Best of all, we made a new friend.

All the Global Greeter programs work a little differently, but the basics are the same. Greeters accept no money. Donations to the organizations are accepted, and can be made online. Tours generally last anywhere from two to four hours, but can be longer or shorter, depending on everyone's time. We spent nearly the whole day with Patrick in Marseille.

Here's a few more examples:

-Houston Greeters will organize activities such as golf, biking or an outing to an Astros game. Another possibility is to arrange a stroll focused on a particular interest, such as the city's Hindu temples or African-American history.
-Chicago Greeters help visitors explore 25 diverse neighborhoods, or 40 special interests including art and architecture, food, local history, gay Chicago and ethnic Chicago. Two hundred volunteers help organizes walks through Ukrainian Village on the Near North Side and Andersonville, home to Scandinavian restaurants and shops, Middle Eastern bakeries and a thrivingHispanic district. Guides will also organize tours around themes such as fashion, film or public art. Visitors without the time schedule and pre-register can take advantage of hour-long guided walks of of downtown, and seasonally, Millennium Park and Magnificent Mile, are perfect for the visitor with more flexible travel dates, someone whose schedule. Walks leave on the half hour beginning at 10am , last walk at 3pm Friday, Saturday and Sundays.
-Guides in Lyon organize walks around themes such as shopping, markets and sports.
-In Paris, English-speaking volunteers for Parisien d'un Jour lead visitors through hidden corners of Paris, often ending with a lively discussion on a cafe terrace.
-Amsterdam's Mee in Mokum is staffed mostly by retirees. It's not officially part of the Global Greeter Network, but it's one of the oldest international greeter programs. Mokum is Amsterdam's nickname. Visitors choose from several 2.5 to three-hour walking tours that cover the historical city center, the Jewish Jordaan neighborhood or the harbor. Cost is 7.5 euros per person.

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