How I became a Tourist Guide in Vienna
Many people think a guide is a guide, but there are subtle differences. In Japan, we distinguish between “tour conductors” or “tour leaders” (who accompany their groups from/to Japan), “transfer guides” (whose job is limited mainly to meeting groups and seeing them off) and “tourist guides” or “guide interpreters” (who are examined to guide and interpret for foreign visitors). The latter category of guides comes close to what is called a “licensed guide” here in Austria, i.e. a tourist guide who has passed a state examination and has been awarded this professional title.
The German word for the profession, Fremdenführer, may sound a little bit strange and translates literally into “guide for strangers.” The community of Japanese guides in Vienna consists mainly of people of Japanese descendance, although some of them have adopted Austrian citizenship. While a few of them have been staying more than 20 years in Austria, the average has been living here for more than 10 years.
European tourist guides are regionally specialized, so it’s a good idea to speak of them as “local guides.” They are trained to provide you with exhaustive and in-depth information on all sights, events, and other points of interest that are essential for your journey or worth knowing.
The state examination for guides in Austria is slightly different according to the Bundesland (county) where you take it. The city of Vienna has set up a course for guides that lasts two years and has four classes every week. It is mandatory for those who want to take the state examination here. The examination itself consists of a written exam, an oral exam, and a practical test where the candidate has to show his or her proficiency during a simulated guided tour. Candidates who fail during the written or oral exam will not be admitted to the final test.
The knowledge required for these exams is in fact so comprehensive that the greater part of candidates fail. First of all, fluency in German is a must. A profound knowledge of the political and legal system of Austria, of geography, places of special interest, flora and fauna, and of history is required. History includes such “orthodox” topics as political and canonical history, but also architecture, literature, history of sciences, and of course, musical history, with due respect to Vienna’s reputation for being the “capital of music.” The questions are asked by specialists of the respective subjects and can be really tough. You’re considered lucky when you can walk out, climb on the bus, pick up the micro and proof your rhetorics during the simulated guided tour, which is, of course, not to be announced beforehand. In many cases, there is also a walking part of this practical exam, such as explaining exhibits in museums or galleries, or the interior of the Imperial Palace, or of a church.
Once you’ve passed through all these hardships and succeeded in the examination, you have the right to apply for an official guide license, and to establish your “trade” as a licensed Austrian guide.
Guides for languages other than German must also take a test in these languages, in order to obtain proof for their qualification. Thus, a Japanese guide must take a Japanese language test. This test also includes questions about Japanese history, especially where it has points in common or contacts with Viennese history. Finally, when the “clouds clear away,” you have become a licensed Japanese guide! According to an examiner—who should know better than he?—this examination is the most difficult of its type in all of Europe.
An Austrian guide is normally restricted to exercising his profession within the country’s borders. Although countries like Hungary or Czecho-Slovakia have once been parts of the same Empire and thus share a common past with Austria, they have set up their own courses for guides and expect you to pass their local examinations. Exceptions are made, though. Unfortunately, despite the immense knowledge acquired during his training, a guide in Vienna has only rarely the chance to do more than the average half-day tour of Vienna or of the Vienna Woods; only occasionally, he may embark on a trip to the Danube valley, or to Salzburg, or Budapest. This is at least the case for Japanese guides, as I can say from my own experience.
There are many excellent Japanese guides in town who have been successful in their business for five or ten years or more. All of them are people who are fond of Vienna, many of them being real “old Vienna hands,” and I think I can say that all without exception are friendly folks and full of ambition. Being a guide means that I have to meet and accompany people almost every day, and it’s a special reward for me when I feel that I can be of help. Otherwise, the life of a guide is pretty tough and does not make you a millionaire (well, there are times when I doubt whether I can really live from the job). But isn’t it that I do this job mainly because I want to live here in Vienna?
The original text of this story can be found in wien-jp.com, the biggest and most up-to-date Japanese webpage about Vienna. His homepage keeps what it promises: you can find there all kinds of travel information from and about Vienna, especially targeted at individual travelers and group tourists from Japan.
T. Takasaki is a licensed Vienna Guide and will be more than pleased to show Japanese-speaking visitors around Vienna.