THE BLOG
05/23/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Toilet Tour

This past summer, one of the tour companies in Estonia allowed me the pleasure of guiding American cruise passengers. The company knew I hadn't passed any of the guide exams, but they still gave me the job. On my first day of work I realized why.

"Where's the bathroom?" two American women cried in unison. The bus had just cleared the cruise pier and we weren't two minutes into our tour. The women were close to seventy and had undoubtedly raised kids who'd pestered them with the same question. So I gave them the parental answer: "Didn't you go before you left the boat?" They had. But they needed to go again.

"Is everything here uphill?" another asked when we parked near Pikk Hermann tower and slogged up Toompea. "I don't like uphill." Some were grossly overweight and I found it hard to believe they'd read the brochure which makes it abundantly clear they'd have to walk several kilometers over uneven surfaces and climb a number of steps.

On Toompea, a bunch of them disappeared into a bathroom and suddenly my group had shrunk. The tour company doesn't have a lot of rules, but a couple of them are cardinal: Keep the group happy, and return to the boat with the same number of tourists you started with.

"Why are we standing around?" a man demanded. I told him I wasn't allowed to leave anyone behind. We would have to wait for them to return from the toilet.

"But that's not fair to the rest of us!"

I admitted he was right.

"Hey," a woman squared up to me in front of the group. "You have to tell us what to do. Order us around."

"How old are you?" I asked.

"Sixty-eight," she replied.

"I'm forty-three," I said. "I'm not old enough to be your mother." She dropped her hands from her hips. I had scored a direct hit. I turned from her and informed the group that I was here to talk about Estonia's fascinating history, and if they wanted to listen they were welcome. But if they wanted to spend their time touring Tallinn's toilets, I wasn't going to wrestle them to prevent it. "If you want to leave, you can easily find your boat. Walk to the sea and look for the biggest object in the water."

During the lunch break, I talked to a veteran Estonian guide who told me many guides won't work with Americans because they behave like children. "I know it's not easy," he said. "But you really do have to boss them around. It's what they want."

After lunch, I took the guide's advice and things improved. My new take-no-prisoners attitude worked wonders. The tourists filed right in, listened carefully, and won my genuine respect by posing intelligent questions. I think they appreciated me for moving things along, but also for not trying to pretend that the 1980 Olympic Sailing Center is one of the Seven Wonders of the World. Instead, I pointed to the decaying hotel nearby and quoted P.J. O'Rourke on Soviet construction ("Commies love concrete, they just don't know the recipe"). I told the story of how the clever Estonians used the Olympics to get Moscow's money to fix up the Old Town. I explained the situation with post-Soviet pensions as we stood before Nevsky Cathedral's begging babushkas (the tourists gave them coins), and I didn't try to deny that most souvenirs are crap ("You're right, Mrs. Finkelstein. Your granddaughter could make a far better painting."). In the medieval Old Town Square, where you couldn't beat the juxtaposition, I described the Soviet housing district of Lasnamäe and why someone would have preferred to give up a regal home in the Old Town in exchange for a two-room flat with hot water and a flush toilet.

But despite my perceived success (the tourists tipped well), I didn't have the job long. Perhaps word got back to headquarters that I wasn't telling the right stories. Perhaps I wasn't subservient enough. But I thought the group appreciated it when I handed a woman an empty Coke bottle after she demanded the entire group return to the ship just so she could pee in a friendly toilet.

I didn't mind losing the job. I'm not cut out for guiding. A good guide combines the patience of a kindergarten teacher with the discipline of a drill sergeant. He can stick to the program but deftly deflect questions about Estonia's AIDS -- or suicide rate from an astonishingly well-read tourist. For better or worse, I don't fit that description. Even my mother once told me I wasn't cut out for diplomacy: One day, buster, your mouth is going to get you in a lot of trouble.

But I'm glad I tried the job. I acquired new skills. I'm now able to force-march forty American octogenarians up a hill they don't want to climb. I mastered a tone of voice that makes a battalion snap to attention. And I learned Tallinn geography as only the elite few know it: I can tell you the precise longitude and latitude of every public and private toilet in the Old Town. And who wouldn't find that useful?