William and Marie Altman have been leading various France tours for Rick Steves longer than anyone else. They've had a hand (make it four) in shaping our entire France program. For this interview, William did the typing as Marie whispered softly in his ear. At least that's what he told us...
Can you tell us how you met? How did you both end up leading tours for your careers?
Marie and I met when we were both young and beautiful (now we are just beautiful!) students in Paris, through mutual friends.
I first started to study Philosophy at University then switched to Musicology, up to the master level. Those studies included Art history as well. That's what gave me later my equivalence for my local guiding license. I also taught Classical Guitar for 10 years in music conservatories. Marie studied theater, and languages as well.
Then Marie and I worked for three years on different hotel barges, and that's how we really got involved in the tourism business (one of the barges, the Papillon, is featured in Rick's TV show on Burgundy).
Then came our first daughter. We could no longer work on hotel barges, because it requires you to be gone for six months, non-stop.
So we decided to start our own touring company. That's when we met Steve Smith, and at the same time got involved with Rick Steves, starting the company's very first France tours with Steve (who is now Rick's Manager of Guide Services).
What are the main challenges for a couple when both work as guides?
It was challenging when our two daughters were young. Nowadays, with both of our daughters at the University in Paris, it is much more easy. The most challenging thing for us now is organizing everything for our cat and two dogs!
You have an apartment in Paris and a home in rural Burgundy. This sounds perfect! Is it difficult to manage two homes with so much travel?
No it is not difficult, Marie goes to Paris every week and I take care of the house in Burgundy. Our daughters live together in the Paris apartment — so it is no longer our place — but they do let us use it from time to time (or sleep on the floor now!).
William, you have guided France tours for Rick Steves for almost 20 years. What were those early tours like?
I enjoyed very much those early tours I did, driving and assisting with Steve. We were both discovering and experimenting with a lot of new places. Taking care of the groups was a lot of fun, and we did laugh a lot. The same with the early tours I did with Serge, and Mary Carlson. In those days nothing was completely set up, so we could experiment and try something different on each tour.
This is how Marie got involved with the groups, as she could take them on special walking tours and wine tastings as they passed through Burgundy — and still get home on time to have dinner with the kids.
One of the most memorable tours for me was the one I did with Dave Hoerlein: Paris to Naples, and I was driving! Even though I have never really been a professional bus driver, when we ended the tour I attempted to drive the Amalfi Coast road with a big bus — and in those days the traffic ran both directions at the same time. That's what ended my bus driver's career!
You and Marie are so closely identified with France tours. Have you done others?
Rick Steves' Basque Country of Spain & France tour is especially interesting because, within just one week, you get to experience two different cultures and ways of life — Spanish and French. Even though they share their Basque heritage, each side of the border still has its own style and flavor.
With our own company we have led a lot of small group tours outside of France, including Spain, Portugal, Italy, Holland, Germany and Switzerland.
And finally, which one of you is the better guide?
Actually, our daughters promise to be better guides than either of us. We are starting a new dynasty!