March 1, 2012 | Dutch

NYC & Company

I begin volunteering at an Official NYC Information Center.

I have been feeling I need more language practice, so I decided it would be a good idea to volunteer at one of the tourist information centers I’ve noticed around New York City.

For Help with Helicopters, Bagels, Broadway Shows, and Whatever Your Visiting Heart Desires

For Help with Helicopters, Bagels, Broadway Shows, and Whatever Your Visiting Heart Desires

I am referring to various Official NYC Information Centers run by NYC & Company, the city’s marketing, tourism, and partnership organization. According to their website, NYC & Company’s mission is to “maximize travel and tourism opportunities throughout the five boroughs, build economic prosperity and spread the dynamic image of New York City around the world.”

After some e-mail exchanges and a meeting with the director of these centers, all was arranged, and yesterday I went in for my first volunteer shift, at the center at 7th Avenue and 53rd. This place is newly done up and very cool-looking. 

Adding to my delight: the dress code is black. Couldn’t be better! Ninety percent of my wardrobe is black.

People outside of New York often don’t appreciate how many shades of black there really are. I wore three different shades of black to my shift. Four if you count my shoes.

Tourists flow into these centers, which can be found around the city in one form or another. At the one where I am volunteering, visitors can get maps, guides to attractions, discounted tickets to things like Top of the Rock (which I have never done, by the way), and other deals and coupons.

The center also sells city-pass options from various vendors where you pay a fixed rate to go to multiple attractions within a certain amount of time. If you are an energetic tourist who consumes museums and attractions for breakfast, you can end up getting a pretty spectacular deal with one of those things. 

In addition, you can buy tickets for helicopter, boat, and Gray Line bus tours. And they claim to have the “only aboveground MetroCard machine.” Hmm. I think they need to add “that is not affiliated with a transportation center,” because I have bought MetroCards above ground at Grand Central and also at the 72nd Street 2/3 station.

Still, I have to concede, their machine is cool-looking and seems amusingly out of place, installed as it is on the clean, spare wall of a chic information center rather than in a dirty subway station, flanked by blobs of shoe-ironed gum.

Me Trying to Look Informative

Me Trying to Look Informative

My dream was, tourists would flow prolifically into the center with questions they had no idea how to ask in English. And that they would absolutely require to have answered in something other than English. I desperately need more steady practice in Spanish, French, German, and Italian. They’re not getting used enough.

Indeed, tourists began coming in right after I arrived. Mostly Europeans. There were some from other parts of the world—Brazil, and I think Japan—but mostly they were from Europe. 

What I learned immediately is that French schoolchildren are on vacation. For that reason, the overwhelming majority of tourists were from France.

I was told the demographics of the visitors goes in waves, based on factors such as this one. 

So, because French schoolchildren are not at the moment going to class in France, on the other side of the Atlantic I got to practice my French. For sure it is rusty, something I was more self-conscious about than usual because there was a fluent NYC & Company employee working there throughout my shift.

Self-consciousness has no place in language learning. (I keep telling myself that…) In any case, things came out of my mouth and got understood. I will continue to aspire to greater elegance.

And a bigger vocabulary.

One of my favorite sets of tourists was a mother-daughter pair who were visiting for I think a week. They kept starting to leave and then coming back to ask me more questions.

In French. I was honored. That meant that speaking to me could not have been too tiresome. They were charming and friendly, and I felt very happy to be there.

During my four-hour shift I also spoke Spanish, but definitely more French. No German, no Italian.

One of the challenges for a volunteer there is that you have to be knowledgeable about the city. I am reasonably knowledgeable, in my own special way, but I am bad with touristy types of things.

For example, if someone asks me what corner a particular restaurant or attraction is on, I have trouble providing a correct answer. Although I have many times witnessed New Yorkers giving incorrect answers in the subway stations and on the streets of the city, I generally have as a criterion for my answers that they should be correct.

The problem is, I don’t notice things like street numbers or really most physical landmarks. I just walk wherever I’m going on hazy instinct, and while I notice people’s faces, the rest of my environment tends to blur in my memory.

So I will have to learn and relearn many things about New York City in order to be more helpful; otherwise, I will end up saying, in various languages, over and over again, “That person over there can help you.”

By the way, this gig is basically useless for Dutch, since people from Holland tend to speak such fabulous English that it would be just plain illogical and counterproductive to communicate in anything else. When I was in Holland two Thanksgivings ago, people working in shops and restaurants would start speaking in English the second they saw me.

I guess my Americanness shows from afar.

Comments (1)

Jared Romey • Posted on Mon, March 05, 2012 - 9:37 pm EST

Great idea for how to practice your languages.  Must be fun to have the chance to switch around in languages throughout the day.

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