Years ago I visited the Roman baths in Bath, England and upon entering was presented with a large, awkward piece of plastic that looked like a quasi-futuristic telephone in a bad sci-fi movie.
“You’re all set.” The aloof, but still unfailingly polite in the way only the British can be, woman told me.
I puzzled over what in the world this thing was until I realized that it was talking to me. I pressed the thing to my ear and realized that the soothing voice was going to give me the tour of the baths. We all quickly realized that these “acoustiguides” gave a person entirely too much information resulting in the lot of us standing around awkwardly trying to find a point on the wall to stare at while not being underfoot of the other tourists. We rejected the idea of acoustiguides and wandered around with absolutely no idea what we were looking at.
My parents came to stay with me recently, and I was charged with the overwhelming task of finding ten days’ worth of family-friendly entertainment for them. I decided that touring the Newport Mansions was a good way to eat up an afternoon. We started at “The Breakers”, the Vanderbilt family’s summer home. It was big, and I didn’t see Anderson Cooper anywhere.
Then we went to Marble House. We walked in and the smiling lady ripped my ticket, then another woman hung a heavy, black, piece of electronic equipment around my neck.
“100 should get you started.”
I had been acoustiguided.
I quickly rallied, and once we were in the first room of the “tour”, a room that looked like Versailles, only much smaller, but with the same amount of stuff, I grabbed my mother, “You don’t want to listen to these things do you? These things are terrible. Let’s just walk through without them.”
She glanced over at my father, now fully absorbed in staring at an ornate fireplace that was hemorrhaging gold cherubs, “I think your father likes it.”
I tapped him on the shoulder, and he spun around with a dazed look on his face. After awkwardly fumbling for the pause button, he finally said, “what?”
“Do you really want to use these things, or should we just go through without them and read the placards?”
“No, this is really interesting. I want to do this.”
I glanced back at mom, who just shrugged. “Okay, but don’t listen to the extra stuff at all, just the basics.”
H acquiesced and then struggled to turn the acoustiguide back on. Finally, I reached over and the play/pause button for him.
Admittedly, this acoustiguided tour was much better than the one at Bath. I learned that whatshername Vanderbilt had chosen an Italian marble because it has golden tones in it and looks warmer. Frankly, if warmth is a concern, I’d say don’t build a house out of marble—but it’s too late for that. The dining room chairs were huge, and completely plated in gold, which made them so heavy, that the Vanderbilts couldn’t move them themselves, and the room was decorated with “scenes from the hunt” i.e. wild boars and stags, all in gold, and all completely creepy. There is nothing more disgustingly fascinating to me than extreme wealth.
Honestly, the one thing I can really appreciate about the acoustiguided tour, is once my tour of a room is over, moving to the back and just watching everyone else. The silence is almost eerie, and it’s like watching someone rock out to music only they can hear. Certain rooms had very ornate ceilings so I’d stand back and watch people’s heads swivel around and pause on significant decorations.
My newfound acceptance of acoustiguides was tested when we got upstairs. We saw the separate bedrooms that Mr. and Mrs. Vanderbilt occupied, heard an actress read from Mrs. Vanderbilt’s memoires addressing her divorce, and wandered into the trophy room bursting with sailing memorabilia. Mom and I wandered into the daughter, Consuelo’s room, taking in the austerity, and in my case, wondering why the hell this woman named her daughter Consuelo.
After leaving poor Consuelo’s room, we waited for Wayne to meet up with us. He didn’t show up. I ducked back into Consuelo’s room, but he wasn’t there. Finally we noticed that he was still in the trophy room, staring gape-mouthed at a giant painting.
“You’re doing extracurricular listening.” I accused.
He turned toward me looking sheepish, which quickly turned to indignation. He fumbled again for the pause button on his acoustiguide, finally, again, just letting me do it.
“Wayne, we agreed that we were going to stick with the basic tour.”
He pointed at the painting, “But, this is really an interesting story.”
“But we’re standing in a stairwell waiting for you.”
“Oh.” he said as if this had not occurred to him, “I’ll hurry then.”
I don’t know what I’ll do next time I encounter an acoustiguide. My biggest gripe with them is that it just seems so much like cheating. Either give me a guided tour, or give me placards that I can read myself.