Guide at a Glance
Paris, Ile-de-France, France
Art Walk, Heritage-History Tour, Sightseeing, Walking Tour
The Pioneers of the Left Bank
Get to Know Paris Tour Guide Kévi Donat
Thank you for taking the time to chat with us about your life as a tour guide in France’s capital, Kevi. First up: How did you discover your love for guiding?
It was a coincidence: I was unemployed, and a friend said, “If you know Paris and speak English, come and work with us!” I thought guiding was going to be a temporary job, but I enjoyed the trade so much, it became a full-time deal, and I’m hoping it becomes my lifelong career. Before becoming a guide, I had never been on a guided tour, but the profession came easily to me. I model my style of guiding off how I like to travel: I have never been interested in touristy things, so, to keep things natural, I don’t use a microphone, and I don’t guide with a herd; I’m not a fan of tours that have 30 people partaking. I want my tours to look more like a discussion with friends through the streets of the most beautiful city in the World!
I see that you were set to become the director of a nursing home after graduating with Political Science and Public Health degrees. How did you make the transition to becoming a tour guide? Do your degrees help your guiding profession in any way?
I chose to study Political Science because I love hot topics, and I struggled to pick just one area of interest. At university, however, I quickly learned that I was not cut out for a 9-to-5-in-an-office job. And the prospect of business meetings just didn’t excite me either. I wanted to be outside, sharing knowledge, and showing people real beauty. My education helped me a ton with guiding: It developed my general knowledge, and improved my public speaking skills, so I am glad I completed my degree, even if I am not using Political Science directly for work.
Is guiding in Paris your destiny, or do you think you’ll ever guide in Martinique, or anywhere else for that matter?
That is a tough question. I chose Paris because the city inspires me: It is very international, albeit hectic, and sometimes a bit overwhelming. The bottom line is that Paris is a fantastic place, and I have many friends here. Although I was born in Martinique, I consider myself Parisian because, as Sacha Guitry said, “Being Parisian it is not being born in Paris, it is being reborn there!” Nevertheless, I envisage organizing tours in Martinique in the future because there is great potential there. When? Not sure: ask me again in a few years!
What has been the biggest highlight of founding Black Paris Walks, and what inspired this focus?
The most important step was finding two coherent itineraries: one on the Left Bank that focuses on the “Pioneers” (intellectuals, artists, musicians, politicians, etc.), and another on the Right Bank that focuses on contemporary topics like diversity in France and immigration, as well as the evolution of Paris (i.e., gentrification and globalization). Designing a tour is very personal, and I must say that my tours are a reflection of myself: I only talk about things that interest me, mainly because I want to avoid saying, “Look at this stuff, it’s boring; let’s go somewhere else!” That said, boring never happens in Paris because, from anecdotes to history (past and present), there is always something to talk about, explain, or debate.
What does a typical day look like for you?
First thing I do after waking is…look at my smartphone! I answer emails, and then do some community management for social networks. On these networks, I share everything and anything that looks exciting and thought-provoking, and I also like them because they help me keep up-to-date with what is new and hot, which, in turn, makes my tours that much better. Since I am a freelancer, I have to do everything myself, and though freelancing gives me a lot of freedom, it also gives me a lot of pressure; I can never blame anyone but myself! Once my online work is done, I lead one of my tours, but if I don’t do that, I guide for agencies that have organized team building activities for big companies. Every day is different!
What is the best part of your job?
The best part of being a freelance tour guide is that no day is the same as the last. In fact, when a tour is going well, I feel like I am not even working! The nature of the work is intense because, during tours, everything has to be under control, but I keep calm by always asking my guests if everything is all right. Sure, informing people about places and history is challenging, but the biggest challenge of all is keeping people interested. My guests’ passion definitely helps to create a great tour experience. Another challenge that I actually put upon myself is feeling the need to compensate for the occasional rude, stereotypically Parisian Parisians. Since 99% of people visiting Paris are nice and excited to be here, I always want to make sure Paris’s bad eggs don’t spoil their appreciation of the city.
What is the best tour you have ever lead, and why?
It’s difficult to choose only one tour, but usually my favorite tours are with foreign students because they love to compare and contrast France and their home countries, especially in regards to diversity, education, and cultural traditions. Most of all, I love it when people discover something they did not expect.
Have you ever had a bad guided trip?
My first tour alone with a group was terrible: I didn’t feel legitimate at all. I was petrified, and wanted to finish the tour as fast as possible. Tip: You can’t afford being shy when you are a guide! Luckily, my miserable experience was short-lived; soon after, I understood that guiding was a job I could enjoy a lot!
What’s the most bizarre experience you’ve ever had on a guided tour? Ever had any odd requests from clients?
Once I did a tour of Notre-Dame with an Indian international salesman. He was a very cool dude, and we talked a lot about food. In passing, I told him that I loved spices, and, to my surprise, a few weeks later 30 pounds of spices turned up on my doorstep! I remember being curious as to why the chap wanted my address, but then it all made sense (and it especially made sense considering he was working for a company exporting spices to Europe). I guess his version of a tip was giving me enough spices for two lifetimes!
Since we all know that no job is perfect, would you mind sharing some of the downfalls of being a tour guide in Paris?
Paris is a very touristic city, and, unfortunately, some places have been damaged by the tourism, and by “damaged” I mean they became somewhat artificial. In turn, sometimes I feel guilty working in the tourist industry; more than anything, I want Paris to maintain her original charm. The other downfall (but advantage too, sometimes) is having to work when nobody else is, like on weekends and holidays: It makes you feel out of sync! Oh, and I hate it when people book a tour and don’t show up.
As an experienced guide, can you think of any tips people should know before going on a guided tour?
First, it depends if you know the city or not: If it is your first time in a place, you have to hit the main attractions (in Paris, that’s the Notre-Dame, Sacré-Coeur, or the Eiffel Tower), but if you’ve been to the place before (or stay for a week or more), try out thematic tours that take you off the beaten track. Also, you need to accept that you’ll feel a bit disoriented in a “new world,” and try to embrace that there may not be a Starbucks or souvenir shop at every corner! Lastly, and especially for small tour groups, don’t hesitate to ask questions: guides don’t have every answer, but questions establish a personal relationship with them, and they make the tour less formal. Remember: there is no such thing as a stupid question, and since guides already know where they are going and what they are going to say, questions help make the experience special.
What does it take to be a good tour guide?
Patience, and, since guests come from all walks of life from all over the world, a non-judgemental outlook. The best guides also know about other cultures so that they can respect boundaries, or simply put the information they are giving their guests in perspective using stories, characters, or places pertinent to their backgrounds. For example, if you do walking tours in English, it’s not just about speaking the language, it’s about knowing some of the British or American pop culture too; this way, you can “gel” more easily. And if your audience is young, you can’t talk about Louis XIV, or 1960’s black and white French movies, without giving some context and references they can understand. Being culturally-aware is key!
What’s your favorite thing about Paris?
Food in Paris is great because, from Breton crêpes to Alsacian sauerkraut, it incorporates every single regional cuisine out there, and since I love southwestern cuisine (duck, foie gras, and all that good stuff), my stomach and I are very happy here. In fact, contrary to what people think (especially as most out-of-towners assume Parisians only eat onion soup, crêpes, baguettes, and snails), burgers are pretty good in this city! Believe it or not, almost always, new restaurants in hip neighborhoods are either American diners, bagel places, or vegan joints. Fortunately, ethnic food is also celebrated: Parisians love Middle Eastern and Vietnamese food. Globalization is everywhere!
Food aside, I love the fact that so many smart, talented, and path-breaking people have lived here: To name just a few, Freud, Hemingway, Picasso, and James Joyce have stayed in my neighborhood! From American Presidents to Russian authors, everybody has someone they admire who has lived in Paris, and that’s what makes this city so special.
Last, but not least, since everybody comes to Paris one day, I like that I’m bound to see all my long-lost connections.
If you could travel anywhere in the world, where would you go and why?
Everywhere! But if I had a free ticket right now, I’d probably go to Zanzibar. I did a group presentation about Zanzibar with two friends when I was in college, and we always said we would go together. It looks beautiful, unique and fascinating. I just hope it’s not too touristic!
I grew up in France and in Martinique (French West Indies) in a multicultural environment. After completing a Graduate of Political Sciences and Public Health Management, I was set to become a director of a nursing home, but it wasn’t really my thing. Two years ago a friend of mine suggested that I become a bi-lingual tour guide, and it was a revelation! Originally I thought it would be temporary job, but I have since made a career out of it. I am passionate about political history and urban culture, and I founded Black Paris Walks to offer an alternative and authentic vision of the city.