Native Minnesotan Chris Coleman has been a big part of Rick Steves' tours through France since 1998. Let's get to know Chris a little better…
What surprises you most when our tour members travel with you through France?
I am often surprised at people's concern that the French will be rude, and that it's one of their main motivations for joining the "safety" of a group tour. Then, after a few days in France, on every tour I invariably hear comments and stories from tour members about how kind and helpful the French are during their travels — totally dispelling the myth! I love to see travelers getting comfortable and relaxing in a foreign culture once they realize that people are very similar everywhere in the world.
How did you get involved with Rick Steves Europe as a guide?
In the '90s I moved from Minnesota to Seattle for a change of pace, and I already knew I wanted to work for Rick Steves in some capacity. I'd already had experience studying in France (twice!) and living with a French host family, in addition to creating itineraries and running tour operations for a French tour company. After dropping off my resume, I left a voicemail in French for the right person in the company — Francophile Steve Smith — which won me a phone call! That was back in 1998. I was hired into Rick's Tour Operations department to learn how things work behind the scenes, and then was trained on how to lead tours in the Rick Steves style. I have since moved back to Minnesota, where I truly enjoy my unusual schedule and double life of mom and yoga instructor while at home — and tour guide while in France!
Can you share some of your favorite "wow" moments from touring?
Some places I never tire of seeing again and again, like the French Alps on the 14-day Best of Eastern France tour or Mont St-Michel on the 11-day Paris & the Heart of France tour. These places have their own kind of magic. Recently I was at Mont St-Michel with a group at the highest tide of the year — we were completely surrounded by water on the island. Another big "wow" is whenever we get to experience "transhumance" — shepherds moving animals from summer to fall pastures or vice versa. Witnessing a herd of sheep or cows on parade with their bells ringing through an Alpine town is always a magical experience. My biggest-ever "wow" moment on tour was a few days after September 11, 2001. While stopping in a small town in the Alps, we were invited by the restaurant owner to join the town for a ceremony by the mayor to honor the victims. We held hands with the French townspeople during a moment of silence in front of the town hall. They were especially moved to have Americans in their midst at that moment. It was an important healing moment for us all.
Sounds like experiences mean a lot more than sightseeing.
Yes, and traveling with others is especially enriching. What feeds my spirit is being with people who love learning and are open to pushing their personal boundaries, no matter how small. Being open to things like new foods, new words, and new ideas. Experiencing the world through all of one's senses! I get a thrill watching people's reactions trying to grasp the building techniques of a spectacular man-made structure — like the 2,000-year-old Roman Pont du Gard in the south of France — as they are standing on that very spot. I love my job!
Would you say you are on a mission?
At one point after university, I had wanted to work for the UN and help make the world a better place with more peace than war. I still carry those ideals with me today. I believe that the more people travel, learn about others, and make people to people connections — this is actually doing the work of the UN on the ground level. It's all about human connections. This is what keeps me motivated. I love this quote from the late Anthony Bourdain: "Travel changes you. As you move through this life and this world you change things slightly, you leave marks behind, however small. And in return, life — and travel — leaves marks on you."
Here's what Chris won't tell you…but her tour members will:
"Our guide Chris was the best! She is very knowledgeable regarding French history and culture. She gave a thorough overview and explanation before, during, and after visiting each destination. She made the experience more personal because she shared many of her own experiences during the time she lived in France. (She also was a guardian angel for me on more than one occasion…always there if you needed her.) And most importantly, she arranged some fabulous happy hours!"
— Deborah in Miller Place, NY